The history of rail in Squamish is as long as the many tracks that a crisscross the district.
Squamish is synonymous with the province’s rail history thanks to the presence of one of Canada’s foremost railway heritage museums.
The West Coast Railway Heritage Park is operated by the association that bears the same name and began in 1961.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the association was looking for a permanent place to create a destination museum. By that time, the City of Vancouver had grown to such an extent that the railway hub was at the heart of the city, making it financially inaccessible unless the museum was to be on a small footprint.
“You could put a railway museum on a one-acre site,” says Craig McDowall, president of the association. “But you couldn’t move anything around. It would be a static display.”
The association’s search coincided with the enthusiasm of Squamish to accommodate a new museum that could help put the town even more securely on the tourism map.
“Squamish was very interested in allowing us to come into the area and set the park up because they realized that eventually, it would be a tourist attraction,” he says. The 12-acre site was ideal and hooked right into the rail network. The cavernous buildings – remnants of Squamish history as a railway hub – allow the association to store most of their most cherished artifacts indoors.
The park mimics an early 20th-century railway town and includes several historic buildings, a train station, mini- rail, and the CN Roundhouse and Conference Centre. Among the park’s collections – the second largest of its kind in Canada – are 90 railway artifacts the centerpiece of which are several vintage locomotives. The most famous among these is the Royal Hudson, which from 1975 to 2000 plied the North Vancouver to Whistler route for tourists and locals alike. When the boiler needed rebuilding – a job that could have cost up to $2 million – the government shut down the service.
The forward-thinking Squamish planners were correct in their assessment of the museum as a tourist draw, McDowall says. Special events, including a Thomas the Tank Engine extravaganza and the winter-themed Polar Express train ride, are among the busiest in the Squamish tourism sector’s annual calendar.
Outside of these special attractions, the heritage park and conference centre is a magnet for school tours and travellers, as well as a destination venue for parties, weddings, meetings, and events.
McDowall acknowledges that the park faces a challenge in appealing to successive generations. Older audiences often have a nostalgic connection with trains, while most children and young adults do not.
The wild popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine is connecting a new generation to the love of locomotives, says McDowall, and constant innovations are in the works to keep first-time visitors and regular attendees captivated by the park’s offerings.
Recently added attractions include summer drive-in movies and turning one rail coach into an escape room. The park has also recently started its own catering arm, creating revenue for the association beyond event rentals.
Other new initiatives are in the works. McDowall says it’s important that repeat visitors experience something new every time – and the staff
is brainstorming to ensure something fresh is always on offer.