Max McCulloch has a difficult time with the question, “Why are you so passionate about trains?”
“God only knows,” he says, laughing. “That’s impossible to explain.”
Then he gets serious and thinks about it some more.
“That’s kind of like asking, ‘Why did you fall in love with your wife?’” he says.
McCulloch, from Holly Springs, Miss., is the president of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. He was in Nelson on the weekend as part of a joint conference between his organization and the Canadian Pacific Railway Historical Society.
More than 200 train enthusiasts from across the continent spent the weekend in workshops, field trips, meetings, and social events, culminating in a visit to Touchstones Museum on Monday for the official opening of Back on Track, an exhibition about the history of trains in the Kootenays. The exhibit is open until Feb. 5, 2023.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with trains,” said Richard McQuade of Hamilton. “I do model trains, as well as photography of railroads and historical research on them, too. I did a book some years ago about Canadian passenger cars.”
Bill Sharpe of Toronto said he’s loved trains since the age of four.
“When I was about seven years old, I became a model railroader. But I’m fascinated with anything that is large, mechanical, industrial, as long as it’s used for peaceful purposes,” he said.
“People get caught in the romance of trains,” said Dave Love of Kelowna, “whether it’s the clicking and clacking of the wheels, the trains going by, the scenery that they travelled through. There are many ways to hook into it.”
The Touchstones exhibition features artifacts, photographs, maps, and other documents from museums, archives, and individuals around the region and beyond. A highlight of the exhibit is a working model train from the 1950s, which spans a nine-by-five foot table.
The exhibit emphasizes the pivotal importance of trains in the history and economy of the area and also acknowledges, in a posted statement, that “railway workers worked long, dangerous hours with crude equipment and little regard for safety standards,” and that Indigenous communities were displaced and marginalized.
The museum’s archivist J.P. Stienne, who curated the exhibit over the past four years, said the exhibit, and Nelsons’ hosting of the conference, was warmly received by the conference participants.
“There were a lot of happy people in the room,” he said.