Everything is on track in Ogema, Saskatchewan. For a town of fewer than 500 people, they offer the province’s only full-sized tourist railway, and the best wood fired pizza and fresh-made pasta in the prairies. Ogema is also located about an hour’s drive from Regina, demanding investigation during my recent book tour to the region. Joining me are some blogger friends, enjoying the seatback massage in the Ford Explorer as we barrel south on Highway 6 under a sunny prairie sky.
Originally located at the end of a railway line, settlers wanted to name the town Omega, the Greek word for “end.” Unfortunately, another town had beaten them to it, so they went with Ogema instead, which is also Cree for Chief. The Chief Pizza Maker of the town is a young guy from Naples named Marco de Michele. While travelling in Costa Rica, he fell in love with a Canadian girl who happened to be from a small town called Ogema, Saskatchewan. After a stint in Turin, they decided to build a life and start their family in Tracey’s hometown. Being Italian, Marco decided to channel his passion for food into Solo Italia, purveyors of authentic Italian pizza, pasta, coffee, sausage, and sauces. He spent six months building the wood oven to Naples specification, perfecting the dough (thin and crusty), importing the cheese, obsessing with the ingredients. His goal wasn’t to make the best pizza in Ogema. It was to make the best pizza in the world.
“Mozzarella can taste like gum in North America,” he explains, walking us through his small kitchen churning out pasta for supermarkets and delis in Regina. We learn the difference between Marinara pizza and Margherita Pizza, and why pizzas should never be stuffed with too many toppings. Whatever he’s doing with his pizza and pasta is working, because people are driving to Ogema to taste it from all over Saskatchewan, and as far away as Montana. I tell Marco that he clearly succumbed to Canada’s less-known international trade strategy: Send beautiful girls abroad to lure ambitious young men back to our small towns to create thriving businesses. Satiated on linguini that was as good as anything I’ve eaten in Italy, it was off to catch the train.
Like the settlers of the prairies before them, the Ogema Agricultural Society Meeting had a dream: enhance the heritage experience of the community. Since Ogema’s birth was all about the railway, they sought to reconstruct a pioneer-rail excursion. Ogema’s original CPR station had long since given way to the forces of progress, so an identical station was found, purchased and transferred from the town of Simpson, SK. Volunteers cleaned it up, painted it, and restored it to its original glory. Now they needed a locomotive and passenger car. Operating as the non-profit Ogema Heritage Railway Society, the managed to secure a 1944 General Electric Diesel Locomotive from New Hampshire, which was transported by truck as it could not ride modern railway tracks. A 1922 Pullman 70-passenger Coach was found and brought to Ogema from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The train and passenger car were carefully restored, and nearly 15 years after that original dream, the Southern Prairie Railway opened for business.
Operating June to September, there are various tours that take passengers from Ogema into the prairies. The Heritage Train lets you visit an authentic grain silo from the 1920’s. The Robbery tour has enthusiastic re-enactors attacking the carriage, fleecing passengers of wealth (with all proceeds going to worthwhile charities). The Rum Runner takes you back to the days of prohibition, a dress-up affair dining on Solo Italia delights (although watch out for Bonnie and Clyde). There’s a package that takes you to a farmers market, and another offering a murder mystery, music concert, and fowl supper. Each round-trip package runs between 2.5-3.5 hours, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.
The season has yet to begin, but after a long winter the train is getting ready for summer and we were graciously invited along. “All Aboard!” yells the conductor, and we wave goodbye to costumed folks at the station, passing the Ogema water tower, and watching the rails disappear into the flat prairie horizon. We learn about the history of the train and the region, and I’m reminded why train travel is so much fun. I’ve travelled on the Trans-Siberia Railway, Via’s Canadian, the Tazara between Zambia and Dar es Salaam, the Eurail and Rocky Mountaineer. There’s a different rhythm when you travel on rails. Time slows down. But it never gets boring. Case in point: with an unusually dry spring, friction on the tracks spark a prairie fire. We stop the train, hop off and stomp on the grass, doing our part until the fire truck shows up and quickly extinguishes the flames. Helping to put out a fire while riding an authentic 1920’s passenger car on a private track in the prairies? Now that’s something to add to the Bucket List.