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Helpers: The history of Capreol lives in Eileen Thompson’s head

Her love of Capreol’s rich history led to her involvement with volunteer efforts that eventually led to the birth of the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum & Heritage Centre

When a staff member at the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum & Heritage Centre (NORMHC) learned the maker's plate for Engine 6077 was selling on the internet for more than $2,500, he called Capreol's foremost historian.

Could it be a fake?

Eileen Thompson explained that when Cody Cacciotti, who is now the museum board president, contacted her, they went to Prescott's Park to inspect the "Bullet-Nosed Betty" steam engine and discovered the maker's plate was indeed missing. It had been sawed off.

She was pretty sure the plate, which includes the model name and serial number, was in place when the engine arrived in Capreol in 1967.  She found a video featuring Engine 6077 that confirmed this.

What to do? The seller was in California. Thompson contacted the CN Police Service.

"Three days later, the maker's plate arrived by courier from California," said Thompson.

The seller had purchased the engine maker's plate at a yard sale. No police charges were involved. But who took it in the first place? When? How did it get out of Capreol? It remains a mystery.

Thompson's knowledge of local history often comes in handy. She has assisted numerous authors writing books and helped families identify people in old photographs. 

She has greeted many people at the railroad museum — folks with an interest in trains or with connections to Capreol come from all over the world — and answers questions about the town's history.

Thompson is amazed at the number of people who have contacted her for information about Capreol where she has lived since 1957.

She does not have email, but receives many phone calls and letters.

Her interest in local history, "has blossomed beyond my imagination," she said. "I never thought as many people would be interested."

After 40 years, Thompson, who will turn 85 in April, retired from the museum board of directors before Christmas. 

"I hated to leave but there should be some young people on board. But I am still around and will continue to volunteer," she said.

Originally from Trout Creek, she became an active volunteer in her adopted community with Trinity United Church and the Women's Institute, and later the Capreol Heritage Committee, which became NORMHC in 1993.  

Thompson is one of the many determined citizens who worked to establish the museum, which is housed in the former CN superintendent’s home at Prescott Park on Bloor Street. 

Her contributions extend even to helping to maintain the museum's gardens.

The hard-working creative NORMHC  board, which continues to develop inspiring ideas, was also responsible for transforming the former firehall and police station on Young Street into a heritage centre which showcases the town's social history. 

Visitors will be delighted by its large model railroad exhibit and a room dedicated to Capreol's sports heroes, including NHL-er Doug Mohns.

"I was always interested in history, and more so when I came here because they didn't seem to have things collected or written down," said Thompson, who raised three children, Marie, Austin and Douglas, in Capreol with her husband, Roy, a CN conductor. Roy died in 2012.

"I became involved with the heritage committee in the 1980s and that is why the name (of the museum which opened in 1998) includes heritage centre. I had already started a collection of photos, newspaper clippings, certificates, and anything pertaining to this town. 

"So that is how my contribution comes to 40 years. Of the original (heritage committee) members, I am the only one left."

One summer in the 1980s, Thompson put her collection of local history in a suitcase and manned a display at Prescott Park. She recorded 250 visitors.

Later, she set up displays in a caboose during the summer months. It was so popular Capreol's town council saw the need for a museum and its potential as a tourist attraction.

In 1993, Thompson contributed much of the material for the community's 75th anniversary book, published by the Capreol Library board.

"Now people call me asking if there are still copies around," she said.

Thousands of people came to Capreol's reunion, an event she worked on, but unfortunately spent most of it in the church basement visitor drop-in centre serving tea and coffee.

The tiny woman — she stands 4-11— is a good storyteller with an impressive memory and a head full of facts. Facts such as, "the bell at the St. Alban's Anglican Church that calls people to service on Sunday morning is a CN railroad bell from Leeside, Ont.," installed in 1927.

The spry grandmother of two is also well-known for making beautiful quilts and her colourful needlework. She teaches weekly classes at the museum.

Over the years, she has collected more than 2,000 fine bone china cups and saucers .She would like to see these tiny pieces of art displayed at the museum.

To honour Thompson's contribution to the community, CN donated $3,250 to the museum.

A member of the CN pensioners' association, she has a rail pass and travelled widely by train across Canada.

"Wherever I go I wear my Capreol shirt,” and is greeted by other railroaders, she said.

At one time four passenger trains stopped at the Capreol rail station daily. 

She remembers when a train would stop for service, "500 people would get out" and walk down the community's main street.

“Eileen is the epitome of hard work, volunteerism and community spirit,” said Cacciotti in a news release that announced her retirement from the museum board. 

“There is no Northern Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre without Eileen Thompson."

NORMHC is one of the largest visitor destinations in Northern Ontario and it has been recognized for its dedication to heritage preservation.

"It doesn't run because of me," said Thompson. "The board is a dedicated group and I like to work with all of them … the volunteers are fabulous here."

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Helpers is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.