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August 17, 2001

More about Brentís early days on the CNR

logging dam  
An open control dam on the Petawawa River near Brent.(Flo Bucknell photo)

The very early days of Brent on the CNR "Algonquin Route" were looked at last week. The 1920s and up to the Depression years were active with the Brent Lumber Company and the Gilles Lumber Company pushing the population up to close to 300. There were also as many as 60 railway staff taking room and board during their turnaround time at this division point. A town restaurant was established and run by Alphonse Normand for several years, followed by George Mateo. George provided a full -course steak dinner for fifty cents. Mr. Normand had a punch card for twenty-one meals for seven dollars. He worked on the railway, and after retirement ran the fire tower for several years.

In a recent conversation with Frances Normand (Shaw), one of Alphonse's seven daughters, she reminisced about the first school at Brent-a CNR passenger coach adapted as a classroom in 1928. It lasted until 1966, when the usual twenty-five to thirty-five students had dropped to four. Frances' daughter Claudia, and Claudia's husband Ron, have done considerable research on Brent and have collected numerous photographs, some of which are shown here.
 

Railroad school car

The Brent school car, students, and teacher at Brent in the 1920s. (Claudia (Normand) Newman photo)

Almost everyone from Brent that I have talked to has very positive memories of Brent, but there were some tragedies of note. The Brent Lumber Company is on record for some serious logging deaths. Nine workers going to camp in a pointer boat failed to notice the sluce gate open on one of the dams on the Petawawa River, and were swept to their deaths. They are remembered in a cemetery at Brent where they were buried with a cross and a logging chain enclosure. (The old Gilles Alligator sat on the shore near the cemetery for years, until it was taken to the Algonquin Park Logger's Museum near Whitney, where it was refurbished.)

Sandy Geegan, who later ran the first Brent store, was a camp cook when six of his friends were drowned in an upset pointer and buried in the mill yard. (Jerry McGaughey later ran the Brent store for years. It is now a satellite of the Algonquin Outfitters run by Jake Pigeon, and where a wide variety of supplies are available.) Jim MacPherson, who lives in Castle Arms II in North Bay, recently told me the story of his father, a river drive foreman who was killed during a dynamite blast used to break up a log jam on the Petawawa River in 1930.

Many families (the Balls, Waldriffs, Bucknells, Lavignes, Rotars, Petroffs, Depenciers, etc.) spent decades at Brent, and many still have cottages there today among the twenty or so that still remain on leased land. They have positive memories of the school, the dances, fishing, swimming, hunting and berry picking, and many who left when the train and the road (in winter) were shut down would have continued to live there to this day.
 

Four of the seven Normand daughters-Madeleine, Eva, Matilda and Margaret-in front of their father's restaurant at Brent in the 1920s. All married, had children, and are now deceased.

 

Adam Pitz, one of the real Brent characters whose family came from Romania and worked on the railway, died in Brent in 1996 after sixty-six years there. The eccentric bachelor lived in primitive conditions, drinking a lot and playing his fiddle. On one occasion he fiddled himself off the porch at a party and broke his leg. When he got to the hospital in Mattawa the nurses-besides being highly entertained by him-discovered that he hadn't washed in years and that his pockets were full of wads of money.

Park Rangers (Hughes, Stringer, Grant, Robinson, etc.) were an important part of Brent life. Their office/home was just east of Brent and remains today as a rental unit for park visitors. My son and I used it yesterday and the day before for a photo exhibit, talk, and book signing for our new book on Brent My Childhood in the Bush.

In the late 1970s a modern bunkhouse remained with two CNR men (Len and Lawrence Sawchuck) the only CNR staff and four women who came in by snowmobile to assist. As mentioned above, several families hung on when the mail, express and passenger service was cancelled, and later when the road was closed in winter. Postmaster Mike Mandryk and others got the local MP to get the mail service restored temporarily, and train crews brought in food for the people isolated there during the winter. The rails were pulled up in 1996, the year Adam Pitz died and the year the leases were to run out on the cottage sites (later extended to 2017).

In terms of the future of Brent, the Algonquin Park Master Plan (1999) has designated a fourteen and nine hectare Developmental Zone on either side of the Brent town site. There is also a designated Historical Zone (the cemetery) and a Nature Reserve Zone on the point. There is also a possibility that the abandoned rail line could be acquired by the park and developed as a trail, if ecological concerns can be resolved. As an Access Point, Brent can be assured of a future for a long time to come.

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