How a small town can reap free publicity

Chambers of Commerce invest big dollars promoting tourist interest in their communities without equaling the publicity Spy Hill, Sask. gained Christmas Day when 98 stranded Via Rail passengers unexpectedly descended on them in desperate need of warmth, food and especially washrooms.

Spy Hill is a prairie village near the Manitoba border with a population of 168, according to the last census. The school closed due to lack of students; now students are bused 33 km to Esterhazy. Until this event I could not have located either town on a Pool map. Since December 25, the town has been lauded with glowing praise coast to coast in Canada’s largest news outlets both TV and print.

The train had been on its way from Vancouver to Toronto when its inner workings stalled due to the -43°C temperature and wind chill. With only short notice from RCMP to the volunteer fire chief, the town and neighbouring farmers got busy organizing to receive surprise guests.

By the time passengers and train crew arrived at the village’s Lions’ Club hall a hot breakfast was shaping up. Train cooks helped whip up pancakes, along with coffee. For lunch, passengers were served hamburgers and salad. (Did anyone ask if food was gluten free?)

Locals showed up with toys for the ten or so kids.

Passengers’ most urgent need was washrooms after enduring some nine hours in coaches many of which were without heat, electricity or working bathroom facilities, according to a comment posted by a reader; they had had to make do with emergency measures such as a container or even the floor. Not the luxury trip they had paid for and been led to expect.

An influx of so many passengers at one time must have led to some lengthy bathroom lineups, especially for the male visitors.

My fiddle playing brother routinely “jams” in the same hall with a few fellow seniors, playing for dances and folks who come to listen to their music, rewarded with generous lunches.

“Good folk”, he says. “Kitchen on one side of the hall, works very well. But the bathrooms are small. Men’s washroom will accommodate two, three people at the most, with only one of each unit, — basin, urinal, toilet. Very tight. But everything works!”

Fire chief says the distance from the siding where the train sat to the hall is maybe 300 meters . Area trucks showed up to transport luggage. No passenger has reported even a single item going missing. An achievement when compared to the service of some major airlines.

Like so many small towns, Spy Hill has no train station and even if it had, this train was parked on a siding. If any of the passengers had been wheelchair bound how would they have exited the train? Via Rail has strict rules restricting workers manually lifting handicapped clientele. All were ambulatory.

Until Terrace city council, with pressure from a seniors’ committee, won a long fight with Via Rail and managed to get a portable wheelchair lift in 2015 it was impossible for anyone in a wheelchair or riding a mobility scooter to get on or off Via Rail except in Prince Rupert or Prince George. People in the middle such as Terrace or Smithers had to drive to one Prince or the other.

Small towns reap free renown, stepping up when needed. And we’re all better acquainted with southern Saskatchewan’s geography.

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