The Science of a Lost Art

19 October 2022

There are a number of skills that were once commonplace but are now practiced by very few. Sailing a tall ship is one of them. Firing a steam locomotive is another. When we were open, I’d show people around the Countess of Dufferin’s cab and I’d talk about the science and the art of firing a steamer.

I was just a teenager in 1974 when I spent a day in the cab of the Prairie Dog Central courtesy of Paul Newsome and the late Neil Pow. Neil pulled the throttle, Engine Number 3 hissed and put her weight into the train. The first blast of exhaust steam shot out the stack and the resulting chuff felt like a thump in the chest. She started chuffing at a slow walking pace and the coaches followed along.

Paul opened the firebox door for a few seconds and every time Number 3 chuffed a block of flame would leap out of the coal bed. At that moment I knew Number 3 was alive and I was watching her heart beat. What I learned over the next few hours was how Paul fed both the fire and the boiler to provide the steam Neil needed to keep the train moving. I learned both the science and the art of firing.

Firing 101 starts with a boiler, a container filled with water. The firebox sits at one end and the smokebox, with the stack, at the other. They’re connected through a series of tubes that carry the hot gases from the fire through the boiler to the smoke box. The gases heat the surrounding water to make the steam. The steam, also a hot gas, develops pressure and it’s this pressurized steam that Neil fed into the cylinders to push the pistons that drive the wheels and ultimately move the train.

As Neil used the steam it was up to Paul to make more and this requires three pieces of information: the state of the fire, the water level in the boiler and the steam pressure. As Neil fed more steam into the cylinders the water level dropped.

“Gord,” Paul said. “Put your hand on this lever, this is the injector and it forces water into the boiler and that brings the level back up where we want it.”

Paul pulled the injector from the top and I felt the water rushing through the pipe from the tender at the back and into the boiler.

“It should click at the bottom.” he told me and it did. We watched as the level climbed up the water glass over the firebox door. There was a small tap under the lever for adjusting the spray as the water entered the boiler. On a big mainline steamer the injector would be on all the time and the fireman would adjust the spray to keep the water level constant.

As we fed in the cold water we watched the pressure gauge and saw the pressure drop. Basic physics, a drop in temperature means a drop in pressure. Since we need that pressure to keep the train moving we had to bring the temperature back up. Time to feed the beast.

“Open up that door and throw some coal onto that fire.” Paul said. “Right side, left side, back and front. Keep it banked at the sides and thin in middle. Bang the scoop on the opening to spread the coal as you shovel it in. Look for dark spots, that’s where your old coal is spent.”

I opened the firebox door and was greeted with a wall of flame. Number 3 was hauling and she was hungry. I could see a few dark spots on the coal bed where the spent fuel yielded no fire.

BANG! Right side. BANG! Left side, front and back. I covered the few dark spots and when I closed the door Paul pointed at the smoke plume. It wasn’t the thick black smoke you see in the tourist pictures but a thin grey haze. I’d accidentally outdone myself. I fired her light so the Virginia bituminous instantly caught fire and burned very clean and very hot.

“Nice work.” Paul told me and then he pointed at the pressure gauge. It was climbing back up again. Number 3 was, once again, under full steam.

I was talking to Paul a little while ago and I mentioned that day I spent as an apprentice fireman. He laughed and told me how a good fireman anticipates what the engine needs and is ready to feed it. It depends on the grade of the line, the quality of the fuel and the work you have to get from that engine. I learned how to feed an engine that day and that’s the science. Experience teaches you when to feed the engine and how much. That’s the art.

It’s September! It’s Mega Train!

6 September 2022

It’s September and that means the Mega Train Hobby Show and Sale is on and slated for September 24th and 25th at Red River Exhibition Place, 3977 Portage Avenue. Susan Dorge, secretary at the Winnipeg Railway Museum and one of the major Mega Train organizers wrote our guest blog this time. Take it away Susan.

Thank you, Winnipeg Railway Museum, for being a sponsor of Manitoba Mega Train Hobby Show and Sale. Without local support, we could not in turn give back to our community.

“Mega Train” started as a train show over 10 years ago at the Canlan IcePlex (the old Highlander) on Ellice Ave. The Winnipeg Model Railroad Club (WMRC) and VecTor Garden trains came together to offer a fun weekend of riding an in-door train, seeing different layouts, and an opportunity to purchase some train items. It soon became clear that this venue was too small and that there was an opportunity to expand and include other hobbies.

In it’s 4th year, Mega Train took a chance, booked the Red River Ex Building and branched out to include other hobbies as well as other layouts and displays from outside of Manitoba. LEGO’s (largest display in Manitoba), remote control boats, military miniatures, plastic modelers all joined in. Entries from Saskatchewan and Alberta joined in. CN, CP and Prairie Dog Central joined in. Families got together and created different layouts or displays for the event. Toss in face painting and balloon art and we moved from a train show to a great, affordable family event.

It takes a lot of organizing and manpower to pull together something of this size, over 35000 square feet of “fun,” and it takes a community to support it. This year we have 16 different layouts and over 10 displays! So… the more the merrier and, since the Winnipeg Railway Museum has supported Mega Train, we hope that you will come out to the Red River Ex Building and say hello. We’ll be there so come visit our table and support the Museum.

Invite all you know to this MEGA TRAIN and please share this message!

Winnipeg’s Important Steam Locomotives

24 August 2022

We have a guest blog this week. My brother Graham was a summer student in our museum just after it opened. In fact, he may have been the first full time interpretive guide the museum had. He’s been back and forth between Winnipeg and Minneapolis where he was an interpretive naturalist for both the Sea Life Mall of America Aquarium and the Como Park Zoo and conservatory. He brings a lot of experience in interpretation. He also took the picture. Take it away Graham.

On April 25 1960, Canadian National Railways engine number 6043 finished her final run from The Pas, Manitoba. This was to be the last scheduled run under steam in Canada. As she dropped her fire for the last time, the steam chapter of the Canadian railway story closed. Although she did run one last time on an excursion from Winnipeg to Brandon for the Manitoba Travel and Convention Association, on June 22, 1961, she has since been sitting in permanent stasis in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park as a window to a time when there was more romance associated with rail transport.

Since then she’s suffered at the hands of vandals and Winnipeg’s extreme weather. I remember as a boy, there was a set of steel steps up to the cab making it more easily accessible to visitors. After too much abuse of the privilege, the cab was locked and a chain link fence was erected around it making it inaccessible to the public.

While working as groundskeeper at the park, I’ve been inside the enclosure to cut grass now and then and I’ve been able to look inside. There’s not much left in the cab. Throttle, brake levers and all the valves, gauges, and fittings are gone. Only the Johnson bar remains. I think some components were salvaged and may be in storage at the Winnipeg Railway Museum, but she’s a skin and bones visage of her former self.

No one would deny she could use a makeover. The boiler jackets were removed many years ago, but are too badly corroded to put back on. The good news is there is enough left to make templates for new ones. The blueprints still exist, and new parts can be fashioned. We could dress her up as a better ambassador for Winnipeg’s transport heritage.

Easy? No. Expensive? Yes. Possible? Absolutely. Great things can be accomplished with dedication and funding.

Things We Sometimes Take For Granted

28 July 2022

My job sometimes takes me on the road and this time it was a field crop demonstration close to Roblin, Manitoba. On the way home I stopped at Inglis and took a tour of Prairie Giants, a row of five beautifully preserved wooden grain elevators at the end of an abandoned railway line. Just like the railway, the grain elevator was a simple and very effective way to solve a problem.

My great grandfather homesteaded close to Minto, Manitoba. At harvest, when he threshed his grain, he would put it in burlap sacks and take it by wagon, to a flat warehouse. That’s where they’d pile the sacks and, when the train arrived sometime later, they’d load them onto a boxcar.

The problem is the grain. It’s not a dead cargo like coal or potash. It’s a seed, a living, breathing thing in a state of suspended animation that will wake up and sprout if it gets warm and moist. This is what happened up against the wall in a warehouse under a pile of burlap sacks. Sprouting, and sometimes mold infections, ruined the grain quality.

The grain elevator solved the problem. A farmer drove his wagon into the collection house where the grain was dumped out the back and into a sump below the floor. A series of belt scoops lifted the grain and dropped it down a sorting pipe into one of several bins used for storing different types and different grades of grain.

When an order came in, the elevator operator would move a boxcar into place and fill up a delivery hopper in the elevator with grain from one of the storage bins. The grain was weighed and dropped back into the sump where it was lifted to another delivery pipe that filled the boxcar. The beauty of the elevator was that the first grain into the bin was also the first grain into the boxcar so it was a straight line delivery from the farmer’s wagon to the customer at the other end of the railway line. Bulk handling was the way to go. There was no need for the burlap sacks and the grain was kept cool and dry.

The elevator operator graded the grain, paid the farmer, kept all records and loaded the cars. This made him as important as any of the other town professionals. Like the doctor, the lawyer and the teacher, it was an important social position.

At our museum we have a wooden boxcar that received countless loads of grain over its life, perhaps even from one of the Inglis Prairie Giants. Its wooden slats are held in place by a steel skeleton that made for a safe container to carry loads of grain through long distance in harsh weather. It moved the grain from seller to buyer and ultimately to the consumer at the kitchen table.

Modern grain handling works in much the same way. A grain elevator is still a way of sorting and sending grain as efficiently as possible while a modern grain hopper car is a cylindrical tank, loaded from the top and emptied out the bottom into a waiting terminal elevator. It accomplishes much the same thing, keeping the grain cool and dry while providing that straight line delivery from a farm truck to the end customer whether that’s a milling company in North America or a ship waiting at the port.

The people of Inglis have done a marvelous job of preserving this stage in the history of grain handling and maintaining a memory of a central part of life in a prairie town. It starts with someone recognizing the disappearance of something that we take for granted and having the vision to preserve a reminder of its importance and to keep telling the stories of its value.

This is what museums like theirs, and like ours, are for.

A Message From our President

12 July 2022

Today we have a guest blog written by Gary Stempnick, our president. He’d like to tell you about our current state and what we would like to see over the next year or so.

Hello to all of you reading our blog. I hope you have taken a tour of our new website. I would like to bring you up to date on the trials and tribulations of the Winnipeg Railway Museum over the past couple of years.

We were advised in October of 2019 that we had to close at the end of the year because the west wall and the roof were going to be replaced.
We were told we would not be able to reopen here as there were too many other problems that needed fixing in order to meet the building codes. It was more money than Via had allotted for repairs at this time so it looked like we were going to have to move.

We began the search for another place to move our Historical Railway Museum and that was going to be a challenge. How do you move a steam engine, a diesel, 8 box cars, a huge snow plow, and many more items. See our website pictures for a brief idea.
We talked with the Red River Ex., but it was not a go. We talked to the Forks, but they were unable to find room. We tried a few other places and we were still looking when an idea came to us. What if we approached Via to let us stay if we could raise the funds to fix our portion of the building to meet the building codes as required?

After a discussion with Via we came to an agreement and we set up a fund raising account. We now have volunteers helping with the Process of getting us back to becoming what we always were- an actual historical railway museum.
You see we are not just a museum. We are a historical railway museum where we are trying to preserve the history of the railway and its importance in making Canada a complete country by joining the east and west with the rails, to move product both ways.

We are looking for support from the politicians, the public, Corporations such as the railways, grain companies, and other people who may use the rails. Via has started the ball rolling by giving us a new lease and paying for the quote for the firm that is chosen to give us a quote on the repairs. With everyone’s help we can open sooner rather than later.

By the way, we can always use more volunteers. If you have the time to spare and the skills to get us open again, you can help us do something important. We’d love to hear from you.

We have many items from the past as well as the present showing what the railway is all about and how it helped to build this beautiful country of ours.

So enjoy our website and check in with us to see how our progress is going.
Gary Stempnick


14 April 2022

Hello and welcome to the cyber version of the Winnipeg Railway Museum. If you can’t come to see us then here’s how we can come to see you.

We’ve had websites before but this is the first time we’ve had one designed by a professional web developer. We asked Kyle of Cyberprairie to come up with a site to showcase our collection over the web. That way we can keep telling you the stories we were telling you when we were open. This is what he came up with and we’re delighted with it.

We’re also very excited about reaching people all over the world. We’re hoping to open again sometime in the future and we’d love to have you visit us for real when we do. Perhaps we’ll start producing video sometime soon so we can show you what railways are about and why they’re so important.

I miss the museum and I miss showing people around the place. I miss hearing some of the stories they tell me. I spoke with a man who was there with his young son when they were looking at some of our track building machines. It turned out that he worked for a contracting company in Alberta who built and maintained railway track so he told me some really interesting things about track.

He told me about two ribbons of steel supporting thousands of tons of train moving at 100 kilometers an hour. He told me about those steel wheels and how the weight of a railway car rests on tiny contact points where the wheel sits on the rail. He told me about how much energy the rails, the ties, the ballast and the roadbed have to absorb as that train rolls past. I learned a lot about track in those few minutes and, what he told me about track turns up in what I say and write when I’m telling the stories a railway museum should tell.

We’ll keep telling those stores through this blog and over this website. Please tell us what you think and what you would like to hear from us. You can find our email address at the bottom of the page or you can contact us through our Facebook page as well. We have Twitter and Instagram too so we hoping to get those up and running as well.

Keep in touch and let us know what you think.