Murder, mystery, mayhem and history

Alberta Prairie Railway excursion | Don Donato Baby Face Brundizzi, Waldo and Crusher among murder suspects

STETTLER, Alta. — The undulating landscape is still more green than gold as we approach Stettler in September. We can’t see what’s beyond the neighbouring hills, which is an apt metaphor because we’re about to embark on an Alberta Prairie Railway Murder Mystery Excursion.

Part interactive theatre, part steam locomotive journey, part small town community enterprise, over the next six hours and 68 kilometres, I, my partner and 225 other passengers are in for a unique autumn ride with great blasts of steam, a good old-fashioned fall supper and gun shots.

Locomotive No. 41 leaves Stettler at 2:30 p.m. for Big Valley, an old time Western town within a town.

Gail Knudson, Big Valley mayor and one of the Alberta Prairie team, has brought a few late arrivals to the rail crossing near Urban Cottage, a rural bed and breakfast.

“It still gives me goose bumps. It’s a wonderful thing to have in rural Alberta. I mean, how many other places have this?” Knudson says as the steam whistle sounds.

The Mafia Murders mystery is already in progress when we board, but with a total of nine cars on the water-guzzling locomotive — around 400 litres for every kilometre travelled — the professional actors in the Prohibition-era drama repeat each light-hearted sketch from car to car, and we miss nothing.

White-suited godfather Don Donato Baby Face Brundizzi and his cohorts, including Waldo, The Sneak, Crusher, the bodyguard and Rita The Rose Scallopini cavort among us, threatening murder, swearing loyalty and wisecracking.

Ad-libbing and addressing passengers are all part of the fun as we slowly approach Big Valley, where we’ll continue to suspend our disbelief and board the yacht, Prohibition, enjoy a roast beef buffet at the Big Valley Community Hall and have time to tour the historic community, a booming rail centre in 1913.

Between deliberately over-the-top theatrical scenes, we enjoy refreshments and aim cameras at white-tailed deer and pump jacks, soaring hawks and historical sites like the Fenn General Store and the last of the coal mines.

We disembark in scenic Big Valley and gather in the massive hall. Mafia mayhem and forks unfurl.

“I’m a steam freak,” says traveller Neill Thompson of St. Albert, Alta. “This [theatrical performance] is just addition.”

A few folks have embraced the 1929 theme and dressed in flapper attire, including Calgarians Loretta and Dawn Gibbons and their mother, Gloria Breitenstein, who is celebrating her 70th birthday.

“We’re having a fantastic time and making it up as we go,” Loretta says. “I’d never been on a train in my life and I wanted to go on one for this milestone birthday.”

As a gun blasts and the theatrics wrap up, guests submit votes on who is the killer. Hilarious responses are read aloud and train souvenir prizes are given. Breitenstein wins best costume.

It’s time to explore the community. Commanding prime spot on the hilltop is the blue St. Edmund’s Anglican Church. Some tourists step into pioneer costumes for photos on Jimmy Jock Boardwalk, savour cinnamon buns at the bakery, browse through Big Valley Antiques or enjoy the museums and historic rail cars. Big Valley exhibits a big spirit of volunteerism, celebration and community pride.

Back on the train, we clang toward Stettler and learn more rail history and train trivia. I now know why the signal at crossings, two longs, a short and a long, is the same as the letter Q in Morse code and what Caesar’s forearm has to do with track width.

The Alberta Prairie passenger service staff is eager to answer questions and jokes abound, including this one: “This steam locomotive actually runs better backward than forward … it thinks it’s a politician.”

“It’s been awesome,” says Spruce Grove, Alta., resident Julie Keyser, 27, of her experience.

“This marriage of history and theatre … I’m always looking for unique things to do in Alberta.”

Edmontonians Steve and Denise Wowk agree that the excursion has met their expectations.

“The beauty of the old trains … you just don’t see that craftsmanship anymore and I really liked the warm, welcoming people,” Denise says.

Steve got to see the engine.

“The heat just hits you, and it’s loud … holy smokes,” he said.

Personally, it isn’t the hearty meal, the performances or the train that will stay with me, including the technical details, the history or the sensation of riding through clouds when steam’s released.

I will remember the couple snuggled together in a quarter-ton with a horse trailer waving to us from a rail crossing and the passionate young father, who said he loves living next to the track, and his little girl who never misses waving to passengers.

It was the families who stood at fence lines, cheerfully waving and wearing broad smiles as we chugged by.

It was Brent Bartley, who was sewing leather chaps at Barbwire Custom Hats in Big Valley and the volunteer at the landmark church on the hill, who told us it was painted robin’s egg blue because there happened to be a sale on paint.

It was the way the volunteers in Stettler and Big Valley worked together to show a train load of strangers 
a fine time on an autumn day in Alberta.

As for which character was responsible for murder, did I get it right? Yes, but it was just luck.