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

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


March 23, 2001

CNR’s Algonquin Route

Steam shovel working on rail line through Algonquin Park- Richard Anderson Photo

For over eighty years, from (1915-1995), the Canadian National  Railway ran from Ottawa to Capreol through the north side of  Algonquin Park and was a major influence on the way of life in the  areas it traversed. The line was abandoned in the mid-1990s and  the rails were pulled up, leaving little but memories.

There are many stories of work, play, joy and sorrow at the now  vanished stops along the route. The route is of particular interest  to me because the line bisected the Township of Chisholm, where I  live. The Alderdale, Wasing and Fossmill stops were all within the  township. Other evocative place names are found as the line  progresses eastward into the park--Kilrush, Coristine, Kiosk,  Ascalon, Odenback, Daventry, Brent, Acanthus, Radiant,  Traverse, Brawny, Archay, Kathmore and Dahlia. It would be  difficult to capture the history of all of these locations; some did not  develop into communities at all, while others flourished for various  reasons. Kiosk, Brent, and Archay remain as access points and  campgrounds in the park.

Over the next few weeks, I will write about a sampling of these  locations, starting next week with Alderdale and Wasing and  followed by Fossmill, before entering the park to look at Kiosk and  Brent.

At the turn of the last century, as Canada was being settled  and before the era of automobiles and highways, railways were  built wherever there was a need or a chance for someone to make  money. The Canadian Pacific Railway drove its last spike in 1885,  finishing a railway that was nestled close to the U.S. border, to  establish Canada's presence coast to coast. 

The CPR did not  serve the vast area to the north, so entrepreneurs soon began to  plan for another line. In the 1890s, William MacKenzie and Donald  Mann began to build a railway system in the prairies. They had a  lot of friends, a lot of imagination, and a lot of nerve. Their various  lines began to come together as a potential transcontinental railway.

McKenzie and Mann lacked a line from Ottawa to Sudbury to  complete the transcontinental route. Trains had to take the  circuitous route from Ottawa to Toronto and then on to Sudbury. In  1912 they began work on a more direct line from Ottawa to  Sudbury. The route cut through the north side of the Park. 

The late Stanley Anderson, writing in a Chisholm history book,  provides details of the impact of the railway on the township. He  states that most people, working hard just to survive, were oblivious  to the railway until crews began pounding survey stakes in various  locations throughout the township. The positive and negative  aspects of the initiative were soon in evidence. Farmers made  money as jobs became available, and rights of way were  purchased. Food and accommodation were in demand. People  began to see the easy access to markets where bartering-- commonplace in Powassan--would no longer be required. There  would be easy access to medical, legal and social needs in North  Bay.

Work crew moving barn to new foundation in Chisholm Township.-Chisholm Woman's Institute Photo

On the negative side, some of the farms were split by the line  and fences and underpasses were needed. Over the years fires,  train wrecks, and collisions with animals and vehicles became  commonplace. On one occasion the township Reeve, Art  Conrad--along with three members of his family--was killed by a  transcontinental train.

At first the survey crews headed west towards the south side of  Lake Nipissing, crossing the Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to  North Bay. To everyone's surprise, the line was shifted sharply  north, and ran twenty km through the heart of Chisholm and on to  North Bay. There was a buzz of negotiation and activity as the  grading started. One man sat with a shotgun on the right of way  until he got what he wanted.

There were several big contractors who subcontracted sections  of the line. There was very little heavy equipment, so hundreds of  men were required. A group of Swedes stayed in tents one winter  and cut a 16-foot wide section through solid granite. Eventually,  Spaniards, Italians and Finns arrived with their wheelbarrows and pickaxes to  work from sunrise to sunset, living and working in rough conditions.   

Eventually, as the basic railbed was completed, the rails were  laid and huge steam-powered scoop shovels appeared to add fill  and widen key areas. A narrow gauge rail line was temporarily laid  beside the main line, and a dinky engine hauled away the fill to  where it was needed. Several houses and barns were relocated.  Many Chisholm men got work as teamsters, hauling tons of bolts,  cement, timber, coal, tools, and even dynamite for miles along the  route.

By 1916 the line, called the Canadian Northern, was done and  trains began to pass twice a day each way. An additional local  train traveled up and down regularly, stopping everywhere it was  flagged and at various stations. The arrival of the train, with its  passengers, mail, Eaton's packages, etc., always created a stir.  

Over time, some of the locations mentioned above grew, and some  faded, as economics prevailed. It should be noted that the  Canadian Northern went bankrupt in 1918 and was taken over by  the federal government and in 1923 it became a part of the  Canadian National Railway.

By the mid-1990s the CNR was deeply in debt and looking to  cuts its losses. The Algonquin Route was closed and the rails  pulled up, ending a remarkable era in local history. One citation stated:  "November 23rd, 1915 to November 24h, 1995 -- after eighty years  plus a day, the work was done in every way."

Rails being pulled up on Alderdale trestle

Efforts have been made to have sections of the rail bed become  a part of the burgeoning trail system in the province. The CNR is  apparently turning over large sections of the line between North  Bay and Sudbury this month. Different groups will work to develop  a co-ordinated four-season recreation trail with an eye on economic  development for that region.   

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