“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me”: The Battle River Railway

The landscape of the Battle River region is a combination of trees, marsh and long stretches of rolling hills. A unique intersection of the south-eastern grasslands and the Rockies in central Alberta, the region has fostered a variety of industries — with energy, manufacturing, and agriculture at the top. 

With just 2% of the Alberta population the region is a picture of prairie resilience, having exceeded expectations for such a small population. We believe this excellence stems from a rugged attitude and strong work ethic. The Battle River Railway Co-operative is a perfect illustration of these traits.

The community that bought a railroad

When CN threatened to close the short line railway between Camrose and Alliance Alberta, farmers worried. They didn’t want to have to drive their grain further to get it to a rail car to ship it to market.

Luckily, CN had to put the line up for sale before closing it — and locals saw an opportunity. Ken Eshpeter, a local farmer, gathered producers together to discuss options. They decided to raise money by selling shares to attempt to save the railroad. $5 million later the group purchased the line and created a New Generation co-op called The Battle River Railway.

The purpose of the BRR is to run cars of locally produced crops to market using the rail line. Thanks to this co-op, locals created a spin-off organization that promotes tourism. Friends of the Battle River Railway takes people on train excursions up and down the line to see the local sights and learn some history.

We caught a ride on one of these themed excursions and were treated to not only an entertaining ride, but also a delicious supper in the town of Heisler! These excursions rely on volunteers (other than the conductor) and run monthly. You can learn more about the Friends of the Battle River Railway in my previous blog post

Golfing in Forestburg

Following our day of riding the rails, Tanner and I spent the day learning more about the business that makes the rails possible and what drove people to save it. The Battle River Railway head office is a short drive from where we were staying in Camrose in the small town of Forestburg – population of 875 or so. 

First stop was the golf course. To raise money, the co-op was hosting a golf tournament and we were scheduled to meet up with Bob Ponto, a BRR member and local farmer. We had wanted to meet a farmer member of the co-op to ask about the impact it has — it just so happened that the “BRR Farmers Golf Tournament” was going on when we arrived, which brought out people from around the community.

As we pulled in, it was immediately clear that BRR is an important part of Forestburg and the surrounding area. The place was hopping.

As we walked up to the clubhouse, which – with decidedly authentic rural efficiency —doubles as a curling rink. Bustling with farmers, a few of the volunteers we’d met on the excursion the day before, and BRR staff, the clubhouse was filling up as more and more people finished up their round of golf.

We then caught up with Bob, who spoke to how the railway makes for shorter trucking routes. By shortening how far he transports grain, he told us the BRR helps his business in several ways. He said this not only saves him time, but also a lot of money on things like fuel and repairs.

I got the impression that Bob believes in what the railway can do for the area, and the potential it has. He also likes seeing and hearing his investment in action.

“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me,” Bob remarked.

After wrapping up the interview we got a taste of truly heartwarming rural hospitality. The woman working behind the counterat the course had saved us each a piece of Skor cake from lunch. The cake was delicious and we left smiling — remarking about how much kindness we had run into during our travels.

Before meeting up with Matt Enright, General Manager of the BRR, we had some time to cruise around Forestburg. Among our stops were the LRT Cafe, the town’s highway-side diner. The coffee was great and it had all the trappings of a small-town diner — including some great smells coming out of the kitchen.

During our time in Forestburg we stopped by their town sign, which also has some informative plaques on the area’s history.
Having some fun near the Forestburg sign.
Forestburg is also home to the BRR’s station, where some of their excursions begin.

Behind the scenes of the BRR

Next we met up withMatt Enright,theGeneral Manager of the BRR, who gave us more insight into the business side of the rails. He talked not only about how the co-op gives locals a chance to invest locally — but also why preserving rural infrastructure is important:

Our last stop in Forestburg was a memorable one for me. We were driving back to Edmonton to prepare for hitting Sangudo the next day and were looking for a bite to eat. That’s when I stumbled upon the Social Butterfly. 

Part diner part thrift/antique store, the Social Butterfly was an interesting spot with a wide range of unique and unusual things for sale – but what grabbed me most was the corn chowder on the menu. I love corn chowder as it’s what my mom used to make me for my birthday each year. I perused the shelves — which had finds like golf balls sold in egg cartons to a variety of dated decorations — as we waited for our bowls of corn chowder to arrive. 

As we finished our bowls of soup there was only one thing left to do — hit the road. Next stop: Sangudo, AB!

Making new friends on the Battle River Railway

When Tanner and I hopped in the car to head to Alberta, we didn’t know we were also heading back in time. 

Our trip took us to Forestburg to check out The Battle River Railway co-operative, which is owned by farmers to move their grain to market. First, though, we got to check out the railway co-op’s very fun spin-off tourism business: Friends of the Battle River Railway. This organization uses the rails to take tourists on excursions to explore nearby towns, events and history. 

As we drove from Saskatchewan to Alberta, passing fields of wheat and canola, we played a game I loved as a kid: basically, being the one to spot the most horses. As we neared our destination, I got more excited about the train trip that was in store.

(We lost track of who won the horses game – but it was probably me).  

I had never been on a themed train ride, and I was looking forward to getting a new perspective on the countryside — especially from the open-air car I had heard about. The excursion we’d signed up for was the “Heisler Historic Run”, which promised a vintage hotel, some historic sights and “small town hospitality at its finest”.

As we approached the train, we were greeted by lovely BRR volunteers wearing full period attire. They welcomed us to the trip, served us drinks onboard and really set the atmosphere of the journey. We felt like we’d stepped back into the era where people relied on trains to cross the prairies. 

The volunteer crew for our excursion poses with Jack in front of the passenger car.

The crew was kind enough to allow us to explore all areas of the train. The conductor even let us into the cab. I felt like I was on a school trip to the Western Development Museum. Unlike the museum trains, getting to see one that was fully functional was a unique experience.

The view from the cab of the train.

As expected, the open-air car was a highlight for me. The only thing standing between you and the countryside is some chest high walls — allowing you to breathe in the fresh rural Alberta air.

And what a beautiful countryside it was. Having grown up in a small town I’m used to watching fields whiz by on the highway. At the slower pace of a train however, I found you take in a bit more. From early canola fields to watching a deer hop a fence there was a lot I would have missed otherwise. 

Once the train pulled into the town of Heisler we were treated to a tour that lead to St. Martin Roman Catholic Church. Muriel, one of the tour guides, told us that before the church was built around 1920, worshipers held services in the local restaurant. She said that when the church was built, people had to rent their space in the pews for their families to attend services – and where you sat in the church became a status symbol.

She then joked about how churches almost have to pay people to attend today. 

Muriel’s stories were a great illustration of small-town life in the past. She talked about the old convenience store, and the old ways of life — like how she used to deliver groceries to residents using a wagon during the warm months and a sled in the winter.

Whenever Muriel would mention someone’s name in one of her stories, she’d ask the group: “Is anyone a relative?” Every single time, someone raised their hand. 

I always enjoy these opportunities to listen and discover more about a place.

Next up was a delicious perogy and sausage supper in the Heisler Hotel. The food was amazing — even though my travel partner Tanner doesn’t like sour cream on his perogies. (A heresy of the highest order in my opinion!)

All jokes aside, the food was straight out of someone’s grandma’s kitchen. After supper we had some spare time, so we went to visit Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Tanner and Jack in front of Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Small towns and their affinity for making big statues of small things is a great way to find what they’re proud of. For Heisler, their pride rests in their baseball teams. They’ve adopted “A Community of Champions” as their slogan and back this claim up by hanging billboards covered in baseball championships — all facing the highway for a passerby to see.

Then it was time for us to leave Heisler and we took another scenic ride back to where we’d started. We spotted some wildlife along the way — a few more horses. 

After the trip we had the chance to speak with Ken Eshpeter, who played an important role in creating both the Battle River Railway as well as the “Friends.” Dressed in his conductor’s uniform, Ken told us about the most important part of the BRR’s formation: the purchasing of the railway.

Ken was both friendly and knowledgeable — two characteristics he makes great use of as a host for the excursions. Thank you, Ken for the great chats about prairie life, and thanks to everyone involved with the excursions for being so hospitable!