[Home page] [Who is Past Forward ] [Contact Us] [Publications]

Past Forward is now on Facebook "LIKE" us to keep in touch


April 27, 2001

The Fossmill railway

The success of the Fassett Lumber Company Operation on the CNR at Fossmill depended on its logging railway.  A logging railway is much faster than sleigh hauling or river drives.  The railway easily handled hardwood, which previously was not harvested because of its weight.  

As the Fossmill sawmill was being built, a standard gauge railway was added from the CNR main line to the mill, with spurs throughout the lumber yard.  This rail line extended south, across the Chisholm Township boundary into Ballantyne Township in Algonquin Park.  

Laying the rail bed was rough work, much like that on the CNR but with not nearly as much manpower and equipment.  In the first couple of years, Fassett logged around Moose Lake (now Fassett Lake) a couple of kilometers into the park.  Over the next decade the line penetrated deeper into the park as logging progressed.  For a period the line cut east to Lake Manitou, to camps in that area.  This section of the line was later pulled up and used to extend the line south to its final destination on the north shore of Tea Lake twenty kilometres from Fossmill.

Barnhart log loader

Logging camps were built close to the railway where possible, but some of the usual five or six annual camps were at some distance from the railway, and sleighs were used to haul the logs to the railway.  Most of the camps were operated by experienced loggers on contract from Quebec.  They came early, built their camps, logged, and returned home at the end of the season.  Many local men were hired as lumberjacks or teamsters using their own farm teams.   Local logger, Joe Chayer, jobbed for Fassett in the early days, and had a camp near Moose Lake a kilometre into the park.  

Each camp was judiciously located near water and in a key spot for a network of log skidding roads.  Each camp had a cookhouse, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, office with van (store), etc.  Each camp was used for two or three years before being abandoned for a new cutting location.  At its peak, Fassett had as many as 400 men cutting in the park at various locations.  

The logs were cut and skidded to the various skidways (log piles) in the cutting area before Christmas, and hauled to the rail line by sleigh on frozen hauling roads from January to March.  The logging train, with upwards of twenty flat cars, and assisted by a powerful Barnhart steam log loader, loaded the cars for a daily run to the mill.

Fassett had two Shay locomotives, one of which usually stayed at the mill for work there.  Shay locomotives were powerful, slow, workhorses that could handle the rough railbeds and steep hills.  In spite of their power, the crew regularly had to break up the string of loaded log cars into sections on several difficult hills.  

Shay #54 with Barnhart loader on back at log dump-Photo from video

Piling lummber for air drying in Fossmill lumber yard.-Photo from video

Each Shay heading into the park had an engineer and fireman.  Engineer Allan Gleason, with his son Lester as fireman, were the main crew for years.  The train also had a conductor and brakeman, who rode in the caboose when they were not carrying out various jobs.

In berry-picking season the company dropped off interested Fossmill residents to pick berries, and picked them up later when the train was returning to the mill.  On one occasion, when the caboose was being shunted to provided a base for pickers, conductor Gordon Macdonald slipped and was killed.  His wife Myrtle, pregnant with their thirteenth child, was in the caboose that day and witnessed the tragic event.  

Sparks from the Shay caused numerous fires in the park, despite a spark arrestor on the stack.  On one occasion a fire burned 41 00 acres, including a bridge, 1000 logs, and a complete logging camp.  In one particularly dry period, Algonquin Park officials restricted the train to night work, so that any fires could be detected easier.  

When the Shay with its loaded flatcars arrived at the mill, the logs were dumped into a hot pond, ready to be hauled  up the jackladder to be sawn into lumber.  That water kept the logs clean and easy to cut.  Extra logs were stockpiled along the track near the mill for future use.  

Upwards of 100,000 ft of lumber were cut each day, six days a week, at peak periods.  This lumber was piled in the lumber yard for air drying prior to shipping on the CNR as required.  Men were trained for various jobs in the mill, including sorting and grading the lumber.  Lumber was stacked in the yard by one crew, and loaded by another crew.  The yard Shay had its own crew and moved boxcars on and off the CNR main siding.  

On one occasion, a large CNR engine entered the spur line into the mill to pick up some loaded boxcars, and could not get up the grade to get out.  The yard Shay got behind it and pushed it out onto the main line, much to the delight of the workers and residents watching.  

A description of the role of the CNR in the life of the people of Fossmill would not be complete without the story of the train wreck at Fossmill in 1934, three months before the fire that destroyed the mill.  The station agent saw the train coming out of the park and onto rails that were twisted because of the August heat.  

CNR train wreck in the heart of Fossmill in 1934. The sawmill is on right and the boarding house is on left.

He jumped out of the back window of the station and ran, as boxcars flew in every direction.  One woman was in the cold cellar of her house, as a rail crashed through her living room.  People stood well back, as a boxcar  loaded with dynamite was unloaded.  One transient was killed, and several others ran from the scene, not to be seen again.  

All in all, the CNR and the Fossmill Logging Railway were very much an integral part of life in Fossmill.

   Heritage Perspective Home Page


Past Forward Heritage Limited: 

330 Sumach St. #41, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3K7   Tel. (416)-925-8412


Copyright © Past Forward Heritage Limited