We’re no strangers to trains on our tracks, but it’s been a while since the iconic Royal Hudson rolled into town. At 29 metres long and four metres high, she’s a steam engine goliath who’s hard to miss.
She’s also a survivor, having had multiple owners and careers, and twice escaped the fate of being scrapped. So, as her 75th birthday approaches this weekend, the West Coast Railway Heritage Park is gearing up to celebrate.
As the first and only royal locomotive outside the UK, she owes her regal reputation to her predecessor – steam locomotive number 2850 – that pulled King George VI and Queen Elizabeth 5,189km from Quebec City to Vancouver in 1939 without incident, explains Trevor Mills, archivist at the heritage park.
The King (somewhat of a rail buff) was so impressed by her class that, says Mills, “When he got back to England he sent a decree to Canadian Pacific Railway stating that ‘we’d like to send you to have a royal decree’.”
Engine 2850 thus become known as the “Royal Hudson,” as did 64 others like her, some of which (including Squamish’s own Royal Hudson – engine 2860) were built after the event.
As some of the last steam locomotives to be built, when diesel power took over soon after, the majority were scrapped or salvaged for parts. Only four are preserved, of which our Royal Hudson is one.
Though she’s now comfortably retired, she once led the life of a workhorse.
In June 1940, she pulled transcontinental passenger trains between Revelstoke and Vancouver, but a derailment in 1956 left her needing repair. She was back in action by 1957 doing prairie service in Winnipeg, but was withdrawn to the scrap line in 1959, where she sat for five years.
The Vancouver Railway Museum Association rescued her in 1964, however without a home, she sat in storage for several more years in Vancouver’s Drake Street shops and faced being scrapped once more until private ownership in 1970.
She exchanged hands yet again in 1973 and become property of the Government of B.C., who was keen to give her a new lease of life pulling a tourist train between North Vancouver and Squamish.
“They went and got the Royal Hudson, and had a few old timers come and fix it up and make her road worthy again,” says Mills.
As she made her inaugural journey to Squamish on June 4, 1974 pulling carriages of tourists from the North Shore, Mills, who was just six years old at the time, was there to greet her. His dad, who worked on the Royal Hudson while she was in service, had insisted he be there.
“He said, ‘You’re going down there to see it,’ because with the politics of the day who knew how long she was going to run for,” he explains.
For Mills, the impact of seeing her steam into town that day was huge and he followed her career from that day on, all the way to the heritage park where he’s been for 25 years.
During her time as a tourist train, she’d run Wednesday to Saturday, May to October, he explains, dropping passengers off at noon and picking them up again at 2 p.m. to return to the city. According to figures, she brought 47,295 tourists to Squamish in 1974 alone.
But by 2001 her age was showing and she needed major repair work, says Mills. Tourist excursions were gradually phased out and word went out that she needed a new home. The Heritage Park’s bid was successful and she retired there peacefully.
Since her arrival, Heritage Park employees and volunteers have been discovering how much of an effect she’d had on people during her working life.
Jeanene Nelson, Heritage Park volunteer resources manager, discovered her own personal connection with the Hudson through her father, who’d worked for CP Rail for 38 years and helped restore her back to life after years on the scrap line.
“I remember as a little kid that dad was going to work on the Royal Hudson,” she says.
Though he now suffers from Alzheimer’s, explains Nelson, “As soon as he sees me he’ll say, ‘You’re my daughter, you live in Squamish and you work on the Royal Hudson’.”
It’s a proud moment for him, she explains.
There are also many locals with memories of her, explains Mills.
“I was in the cab during the Polar Express when we were showing people around, and every second person said, ‘I remember riding this one.’”
She may be getting on, but falling apart is not an option, and the Heritage Park is focusing keenly on her restoration. And though much has been done, more is needed, explains Nelson, who dreams of the day the Royal Hudson will pull passengers again.
Among their restoration challenges is knowledge, says Mills.
“You can’t plug a computer into her… it’s 1940’s technology and you have to keep to that,” and adds finding people with that knowledge who know how to run a steam engine is very difficult.
“Steam work locomotives are a dying art.”
Even just the seemingly simple things like re-profiling her 190 cm wheels prove exceptionally difficult, he explains.
“It’s a really huge job.”
Having taken the massive wheels off their frames, they’re sent away to one of only a handful of places in North America capable of the work needed.
“It could be months before you get your wheels back,” he says.
And though she was once capable of 160 kilometres, just getting her moving anywhere these days is a challenge, says Sebastian Lagors, guest services manager. Filling her up with 4,542 litres of water for the steam power takes nearly all day, he says. Plus, explains Mills, because she’s oil fired, she also needs 4,000 barrels of oil. It then takes a full day to get her going and five or six days to fully cool her down.
“It’s been 15 years and no one has seen it running,” says Lagors, “You can see the kids love trains but they just don’t know anything about steam trains… If we could bring her to life it would be amazing.”
That’s what they’re hoping to do, but restoration will take hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Nelson.
To help raise this money, the Heritage Park is celebrating her 75th birthday with two big events on Saturday, June 27.
“The daytime event will be a family event,” says Nelson, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., costing $28.60 for a family (two adults and up to four children). Visitors can ride the mini rail, the pump car and the speeder, plus try out the bouncy castle and climb right inside the Hudson’s cab.
The evening gala starts at 5:30 p.m. with a champagne reception, explains Lagors, followed by the grand arrival of the Royal Hudson, dinner, music and a silent auction. Tickets are $99 per person or $750 for a table of eight.
Tickets for the gala are available by calling 604-898-9336 and donations for the silent auction are welcome.
Additionally, volunteers for the Heritage Park are also encouraged to get in touch, says Nelson, explaining the Park couldn’t run without them.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” and explains that, right now, they’re also specifically looking for a young volunteer apprentice to learn about welding.
For details about volunteer opportunities and Heritage Park events, visit www.wrca.org.