PEI·First Person

First Person: On loss, a road trip and the bygone days of P.E.I.'s railway

Dann Alexander reflects on a visit to the Elmira Railway Museum with his brother, David, on what would be their last road trip together. David died of cancer a few months later. He was 43.

Dann Alexander recounts a visit to the Elmira Railway Museum with his brother in the last year of his life

Dann Alexander, in a photo taken by his late brother David, at the ticket booth in the old train station. (Submitted by Dann Alexander)

This First Person article is the experience of Dann Alexander, a writer and author based in Dartmouth. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

As a youth visiting Prince Edward Island almost every summer, I was enchanted with the railroad in front of property belonging to my grandmother's family. 

I was young enough to remember seeing tracks, and also young enough to have never seen a train on those tracks. It is equally fascinating now to see some 75 per cent of the old P.E.I. Railway tracks become part of the Trans-Canada Trail.

My brother and I grew up with a fascination of trains. We both were fortunate to have journeyed several thousand kilometres across the country and back on the rails. David was a virtual encyclopedia of many different things. Railway history was just one of hundreds of things he could easily educate you on. 

The drive

The model railway, writes Dann Alexander, is one of the finest examples he's ever seen. (Submitted by Dann Alexander)

In what would be the last year of his life, we made plans to finally visit the railway museum in Elmira as part of a day trip. The pandemic delayed things a bit but along with our mom, we were able to get over in September 2020 for what would be our last road trip. 

We stopped when we needed to for nourishment and refreshment, to catch the sights and sounds of an eastern Island morning. The Souris ferry was in and loading for the Magdalen Islands. David took several photos and talked about wanting to go over on that journey. 

At East Point Lighthouse, we met a friendly hungry fox who was a bit too comfortable with humans. We both wished we could have talked him into avoiding people permanently.

The museum

A CNR caboose at the Elmira Railway Museum. (Submitted by Dann Alexander)

When we arrived at the museum in Elmira, we were amazed at how much history was still preserved of the railroad days gone by. The photos and artifacts within the old train station are a passport back to a different era of the province and the country. 

We went over the photos of the ferries that once were part of CN Marine and Marine Atlantic. David made a point to visit the original Abegweit ferry when he was in Chicago several years back, where the ship now serves as a clubhouse for the Columbia Yacht Club.

The model railway displays in the museum remain one of the finest examples I've ever seen. In that room, you can see footage of the railway in operation from those bygone days along with various souvenirs that would be the envy of any rail fan. 

Our final road trip

We walked up the tracks beside the museum into the woods to take in more of the clean crisp morning air. David had to stop at some point due to exhaustion but he encouraged me to keep going. He walked back, taking pictures along the way. Before leaving, David spent a few dollars on some collectible items from the museum that have since been donated to charity.

We spent several days afterwards discussing ways we hoped to see the Island railway history continue to be preserved. Correspondence to Canadian National Railway proved successful, and we were left confident that the Elmira museum would have long-term funding so as to educate future generations on this historic chapter of transportation history.

David passed away from cancer a few months after that road trip. He was 43.

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