Wednesday, 3 June 2015




Portage la Prairie is steeped in railway tradition. My hometown in Manitoba became the point of origin for the Western Division of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1881. It’s the only location in Canada where the tracks of the CPR and the Canadian National Railway cross. And Portage’s original 1893 CPR station was designated one of Canada’s Historic Places in 1992. Considering the significance railway history has in my city, it’s fitting that it’s such an integral part of the Fort la Reine Museum.

There are three railway cars located on the grounds of the museum, including a caboose and a superintendents’ railcar. While these first two railcars are interesting on their own, it’s the third car’s object story that steals the blog today. This particular railcar has developed a patina over the years, but its weather-worn exterior belies an astonishing national and local history – this car is the Rideau, the private business car of Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the renowned General Manager of the CPR.

Van Horne railcar on display
The Rideau as it appears on display at the museum. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.
Tracey Turner, Executive Director-Curator of the Fort la Reine Museum, became quite enamoured with the Rideau after learning its peculiar history. “It’s the most fascinating object in our collection. It’s an incredibly historic artefact from the standpoint of being a Canadian and how it represents a major milestone in Canadian History,” says Tracey.

The story of the Rideau begins in August 1882 when the CPR delivered the newly constructed railcar to Van Horne in Winnipeg. As a travelling parlour of power, the Rideau served Van Horne as his personal home and office on the rails. During the summers of 1883 and 1884 Van Horne used the car for his frequent inspection trips over the Western Division of the CPR. Van Horne also ferried founding fathers (including Sir John A. Macdonald) and prospective investors aboard the Rideau during junkets meant to cajole funding for completion of the CPR.

Image of chairs with luggage and fur coats.
Visiting the Rideau is the equivalent of stepping into a time capsule. A view of the sumptuous lounge portion of the car. Photo courtesy of Jessica Maxwell.
The construction of a transcontinental railway was a grand vision – the National Dream – for Van Horne and his contemporaries. “It’s a really romantic period of Canada that you connect with when you step into the car. It represents a time of great elegance and of great opportunity in terms of what Canada could become as a result of the railway,” says Tracey. The Rideau was the place where history unfolded.

A wooden sign with the word "Lillooet"
The "Van Horne Car" was renamed several times, and in 1916, the railcar was known as Lillooet. Remarkably, the original signboard still remains in the car. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maxwell.
The Rideau was reserved for Van Horne’s personal use until mid-1885. The “Van Horne Car” went on to serve various CPR Company officials on Western lines until its retirement in 1956. After being sold, the Rideau then disappeared for the next 20 years.

The Rideau reappears in 1976. A lineman with Manitoba Hydro was working in a rural area north of Portage la Prairie when he happened to notice an unusual “building” in a shady grove. News of the strange discovery soon reached management at the Fort la Reine Museum. The “building”, which was being used as a hunting lodge, was eventually identified as the Rideau. Donation of the railcar to the Fort la Reine Museum soon followed, and in 1977, the Rideau went on permanent display.

A hunting lodge with car parked in front.
How the Rideau looked when the railcar was re-discovered in 1976. Photo courtesy of Canadian Rail Magazine.
The story of the Rideau is not yet over. While there has been some damage by external elements, the railcar is, generally speaking, in decent shape. Given the historical significance of the Rideau, however, it is imperative that it be conserved and restored.

Since 2012 Tracey has been working to raise funds to get the interior and exterior of the Rideau restored to its original opulence. Tracey would ultimately like the museum to construct an enclosure for the railcar to allow for visitation and interpretation.

“I think that the Rideau is probably the most important artefact in our collection here at the Fort la Reine Museum,” says Tracey. “It definitely deserves all the attention we can give it in terms of our efforts to preserve and present the car to the public.”

A decorative clerestory window
An example of the decorative clerestory windows. The pattern depicts a stylized locomotive wheel and CPR script. Photo courtesy of Jessica Maxwell.
Part III of this miniseries will be posted to Musings on June 24th.

1 comment:

  1. What an awesome story!!! I love local history, especially when it involves mysteries and re-discoveries like this! So cool.