Many successful business people also have a keen interest in a hobby, offering relaxation from their difficult daily tasks.
Some find pleasure in collecting. For others, building landscapes for model trains is rewarding, but Gerald Knowlton prefers the full-scale rolling stock as an homage to the railways that helped build this country.
He has a fine model train set and wonderful railway memorabilia. But Knowlton likes full-scale, where he can climb aboard and relive his childhood in the station at Standard, which led to his development of Champion Park in Okotoks and his significant donation of a public art piece in the newly opened Memory Lane Park in Standard.
Formed and named as a hub for CP trains, Standard is a small farming community about 80 kilometres east of Calgary.
Knowlton grew up in the Standard railway station and moved to Calgary in 1960 after graduating from the University of Western Ontario. He began working for C.H. Noton but, by 1961, he had brought together some partners and purchased the firm, renaming it Knowlton Realty in 1962.
Over more than 30 years, he built his company from a one-office, $125,000-a-year operation to a five-office national firm handling more than $100 million worth of real estate every year.
He was responsible for transforming a collection of properties in Calgary’s downtown into the two towers that became home to Petro-Canada — now known as Suncor Energy Centre — and for creating a similar development that resulted in Bow Valley Square.
He says he was fortunate to be in the “right place at the right time,” but he was the visionary “right man” who took over the young company in 1965.
He sold the company in 1995 and established Congress Inc. in 2001 to oversee and enhance the Knowlton’s investments, but he also sought opportunities on behalf of a consortium of investors and remained involved in office and retail developments.
His successes enabled him to pursue his railway interests, and he set about developing the 54-acre Champion Park south of the city as an homage to CP and the former station agent at Standard, his father, Ted Knowlton, who served in that capacity for 42 years.
The old Standard station had been demolished, but Knowlton was able to transport a similar station from Champion, about 150 kilometres south of Calgary, that was built in 1911 and restored at Champion Park in 1980.
Gifted to the town of Okotoks and Foothills County in 2016, besides the fully equipped station the park features other period buildings including the section house, ice house, bunk house, outhouse and a number of huts and a tool shed.
Rolling stock includes the 60-foot-long Saskatchewan executive car, engine, boxcar, stock car and several cabooses.
CP had also donated a strip of land to the Village of Standard in 1923 to be developed as a park, but it wasn’t until 2015 that The Standard Community Facility Enhancement Society was formed to develop the space for the pleasure of its residents and to offer an interesting permanent display to attract visitors.
A sense of the historical role of Memory Lane meant the railway had to play a big part, and the society contacted the son of the former station agent to participate and support the venture.
Knowlton, who lived in the station until leaving for university, has been a driving force behind another full-scale exhibit that includes a public art installation of the station, platform and track, and a majestic caboose.
The Vanish Station design and construction is thanks to Knowlton’s grandson and Ted Knowlton’s great grandson, Vancouver-based architect Spencer Purdy, and structural engineer Patrick Wallain, whose company Exhibau creates and stages events worldwide for clients such as Nike, BMW and TED.
Before studying architecture at the University of Southern California, Purdy lived in the Calgary area and for three years in the station now at Champion Park. In his youth, he also spent time in Standard during visits with his grandfather and from both experiences learned of the importance of the station as a hub for the village; sending off shared goods from farm and ranch, sending off young folks in search of a future, and bringing in coveted products not available locally.
Standard Mayor Alan Larsen says he remembers excitedly waiting at the railway station for his first bike — ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue — to arrive on the train.
Purdy wanted the new station to be of its current era while still referencing and honouring the design of the original station. The newly erected Vanish Station is built in a series of panels printed with the original 1909 elevations arranged at a 45-degree angle. The alignment of the panels offers two ever-changing views allowing visitors to experience the station and beyond — what stood and what vanished in one installation.
While this was being planned and designed with input from the village, Knowlton searched throughout Western Canada for a suitable caboose to sit on tracks by the station platform. He found the perfect equipment in Leader, Sask., that he purchased, had shipped to Standard and had refurbished and repainted as not only true CP rolling stock but a facility that can be used as a meeting place for village events, surrounded by picnic area, benches, shelters and landscaping along the 1.1-kilometre pathway.
In honouring the CP and Ted Knowlton, the family and townsfolk have provided a commemorative display that will be enjoyed both by locals and tourists. The hope and intent of the project is that people of all generations will be encouraged to visit Standard to learn from the past and enjoy the present at modern Vanish Station.
Gerald Knowlton still has a passion for railroads and has enjoyed many train rides all over the world, but the CP is in his blood and he’s excited to show off his salute to its history in Alberta.