Heydey of rail in New Brunswick captured at Hillsborough museum

·3 min read
The New Brunswick Railway Museum opened in 1983 and has seen more foot traffic in the past couple of years. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)
The New Brunswick Railway Museum opened in 1983 and has seen more foot traffic in the past couple of years. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)

The New Brunswick Railway Museum in Hillsborough is chugging along into its 40th year of operation.

At the peak of the railway boom in New Brunswick, the province had more than 400 train stations, said Steve Milburn, the museum's managing director.

"New Brunswick being a rural area, the rail was huge," he said. "Communities sprang up all along the railway."

According to the museum's website, New Brunswick at times had more miles of railway per area and population than any other location in North America.

WATCH | Ride the rails on a velocipede

Milburn said the museum is working to preserve this legacy with a number of priceless artifacts.

Visitors are able to interact with a variety of full-size railway cars, including a caboose, coaches and locomotives, as well as numerous smaller artifacts that are housed in museum buildings.

"We have passenger coaches that were air conditioned with large ice cubes, which is always kind of interesting to some people," he said. "We also have a double-ended snowplow, which is the only one left in Canada."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Most of these artifacts were donated when the museum first opened.

Milburn said the museum has been fortunate to be on the receiving end of four donated velocipedes.

The railroad cars have three wheels which run on rails. They are powered by a sitting operator, who pushes and pulls a seesaw-like beam.

Velocipedes were mostly used for the maintenance of rails, according to Milburn.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

"Most people know what a pump car is. A pump car is bigger and you pump it. These are like bicycles. And they're smaller, more nimble, and they're easier for people to use to do track inspections."

Velocipedes were used for about 100 years until 1970.

"Ours are mostly original, with a little bit of spit polishing," he said.

Powered by summer students 

Milburn said the museum heavily depends on its summer students.

"We've been very fortunate," he said. "We've had some great students here, and I think we provide a pretty good working environment. We don't have a really hard time finding students."

This is Belva Adams's second summer working at the museum. She calls it a "hidden gem," and said she enjoys working in her community and talking with visitors.

When it comes to Adams's favourite artifact, without hesitation she said it's a 110-year-old steam engine locomotive.

"I think it's beautiful," said Adams, who starts Grade 11 in the fall. "It's the only steam engine we have, and they're just an amazing part of history and it's almost a lost art because not many people can work on them anymore."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Adams said it's important for New Brunswickers to know about the history of rail.

"So many people come to the museum saying they had a family member who worked on the rails, and I think it's important for younger generations to know about that too because it was such a big part of so many people's lives," she said.

Hillsborough gypsum mine

Milburn said the museum opened in 1983 shortly after the Hillsborough gypsum quarry shut down.

"This was a gypsum mining town," he said. "When the gypsum mines closed … the purpose of the railroad coming to Hillsborough kind of ended with that."

He said the museum was created by former rail employees and train enthusiasts.

"It was a popular idea and we had a lot of people really looking forward to helping us. Donations were not difficult to come by. Now, some of the stuff is getting very popular by collectors and so forth."

The museum is exclusively open during the summer, from the end of June until September.

Milburn said the museum has seen more foot traffic the past couple of years.

"In the first year of the pandemic, we were up about 45 per cent over 2019," he said. "And then we were up about another 25 per cent last year."

The museum is a charitable organization that Milburn said receives some government funding but otherwise relies on admission fees, donations and fundraisers.

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