Train collection open for a day

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For the first time in nearly 40 years, a collection of railway cars, equipment and buildings will open to the public this weekend.

Champion Park, located along Highway 2 near 338 Avenue, was started in 1979 by Gerald Knowlton in honour of his father, Ted Knowlton, who had been a station agent in the town of Standard, Alta. for 42 years.

Knowlton announced last fall he was donating Champion Park to the MD of Foothills and the Town of Okotoks, and it became official in December 2016.

“This will be the first open house ever, because it has been privately owned and operated for so many years,” said Janette Messer, Okotoks community programs and events manager.

The park has remained closed to the public since then, and will open only for one day on Aug. 5 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a sneak-peek at what Champion Park has to offer, she said.

Visitors will be able to board a passenger train car and mail train carriage, walk through the train station that was moved to the property from Champion, Alta., and take a look through a section house.

“The section house was where people lived who were in charge of making sure the lines were in good working order,” said Messer.

There will also be games and activities set up in the park, and a hotdog lunch, all for free.

Due to parking restrictions there is no vehicle access to the park, she said. Buses will depart from the Okotoks Recreation Centre between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., and people must pre-register to get a free ticket to ride.

The first bus has already filled up, so Messer recommends registering as soon as possible.

She said she’s not surprised at the response to the open house, because people have driven past Champion Park so many times over the years and are curious about the trains.

“It’s kind of neat, just the history of the park,” said Messer. “We’ve actually had people from distances get in contact to find out about it, because everyone is intrigued about this little Champion Park at the side of the highway and what it’s all about and how it came about.”

It will be the only chance to see the park before next year – it won’t officially open until 2018.

Susan Laurin, Okotoks community services director, said the Town and the MD will be working collectively to come up with a plan for the park’s future.

“We’ll determine in 2018 what types of programming will happen there,” said Laurin. “It will be a gradual increase over the next five to 10 years before the park is at full-scale.”

Part of the delay is cost, she said. There are also safety standards to consider, because what is acceptable for a private collection on private property differs from a public venue, she said.

“We need to make sure everything is safe for everybody,” said Laurin.

A comprehensive study will be done in 2018 to identify four or five options for Champion Park, she said. It would outline the implications for ideas like expanding the track and running trains, placing the trains under museum status, or keeping it as a programming and educational park only,

“There’s a whole bunch of ideas, and there’s a whole slough of different options on how the park can be operated,” said Laurin.

Because the train cars are full-sized they are subject to the railway act, which imposes more safety guidelines, she said.

Once both councils make decisions on the direction for the park, programming can be planned and an opening date selected, she said. For now, an open house to celebrate Heritage Day weekend will have to suffice until Champion Park open fully to the public, she said.

“It’s an amazing facility,” said Laurin. “It’s an amazing, generous donation and I encourage everyone to go take a look.

“It’s really an amazing opportunity and it’s in a beautiful setting.”

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