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Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Historical Crusader

So this evening I did something I’ve never done before; I made a deputation before a municipal council. Talk about being a little nervous!

If you’re wondering what this is all about and what I spoke in regards to, you might remember this post from last July. The Harstone Bridge is the last remaining bridge on the railway and one of the two remaining structures on the entire line (the other is the Silver Mountain Station). It was constructed in 1922 and has been used for road traffic for some time following the closure of the railway in 1938. Unfortunately after 92 years the bridge has some serious structural issues that need to be addressed. The Municipality of Oliver-Paipoonge is considering whether to repair or replace the bridge; obviously I spoke out in favour of repairing the historic structure. This is what I said:

Good evening Madame Mayor and members of council. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to tonight about future of the Harstone Bridge.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a resident of Oliver-Paipoonge, but I do have a vested interest in its cultural heritage. For the past twenty years I have been actively researching the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway, which many people know today as the “Pee Dee” Railway. This railway was an important part of the industrial, economic and cultural development of not only Oliver-Paipoonge, but of the entire Thunder Bay area for almost 50 years.

It has been a long time since trains rattled along the banks of the Kaministiquia River, passed over the bridge at Stanley and made their way into the Whitefish Valley and beyond. Since the line closed and the rails were removed in 1938, time and nature has taken has taken its toll on the physical remains of the line. Most of the bridges and buildings that once dotted the line have now vanished. Here in Oliver-Paipoonge many people have witnessed this happen in their lifetimes; the station at Stanley, the rails to the brick plant and the station at Rosslyn. Today all that remains of the Pee Dee besides the cuts and embankments of the right of way is the Harstone Bridge and the Silver Mountain Station.

So it is with this in mind that I come before you and ask that you do all you can to help save the Harstone Bridge. Not only have I spent half of my life researching this railway, but I have worked very determinedly to raise people’s awareness of line. By profession I am a history teacher; I spend my days educating our youth about the past, about how our lives today are shaped by events long ago. History for many people can be a very abstract concept; how does one relate to events that happened a long time ago in a different era?

Throughout my past sixteen years in the classroom I have consistently told my students it is through touching history, experiencing it firsthand that we really understand and know what it means to us. How can we do that if there is no history to touch? Structures like the Harstone Bridge are our gateway to the past, a view into bygone times. Not that this bridge is on the same historical scale, but think of the some of the great historical structures around the world that we value. Do we let them fall apart or replace them simply because they are old, or do we cherish them as an important part of our cultural identity? The Harstone Bridge is only 92 years old, but in a young country that has not yet reached its 150th birthday, it represents a significant part of our history.

The age of this bridge, and the fact that it has withstood the ravages of time and weather up to this point very little maintenance are a testament to care and effort that was put into its construction. Its architectural style can no longer be found in our modern bridges and its open design allows one to see and appreciate the beauty of the Kaministiquia Valley. It has taken on an iconic status in the area and it would be very difficult to see anything else spanning the banks of the river.

This bridge also presents a unique opportunity to the municipality in marketing and tourism. History does sell! Properly advertised, people will come to see the bridge for its history and style…maybe some plaques or interpretative information would help. A drive along the former line from Rosslyn to the bridge alongside the picturesque Kaministiquia River may interest people curious to see some of the backroads of the area.

I know that there are always financial considerations to keep in mind with these matters, but what price do we put on our past? Once history is gone, it cannot be replaced. I would hope that you would keep all of these things in mind when you make a decision on the fate of the bridge.

Following my presentation, I delivered to council more than 530 signatures of people asking that the bridge be saved. They seemed genuinely impressed with the results of the petition and asked a number of questions regarding the history of the bridge. Council is supposed to make a decision on the fate on the bridge based on the engineer’s report on June 9th. Let’s hope that they consider the petition and the historical significance of the bridge. On my way home I purposely took the scenic route and stopped by the bridge to take some photos.

Looking westward across the bridge, May 2014.

Looking westward across the bridge, May 2014.

The view from the bridge, May 2014.

The view from the bridge, May 2014.

Looking eastward across the bridge, May 2014.

Looking eastward across the bridge, May 2014.

The southern side of the bridge, May 2014.

The southern side of the bridge, May 2014.

The southern side of the bridge, May 2014.

The southern side of the bridge, May 2014.

I will post any news regarding the fate of the bridge as it becomes available. I’ll be back with a regular post next week, including the details of my first hike of the year. Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2014 in History, Railway, Writing

 

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It was a really long walk!

Have you ever wondered how far you’ve walked in your lifetime? Too bad we don’t come with built-in pedometers. We’ve all probably walked a lot during our lifetimes, but is it always with a purpose? I know I’ve walked a lot in my forty years, and I can honestly say that there has been a lot of purpose in my steps. Yes, I’m referring to my many walks along the railway; I wish I had a pedometer for that as well. Ninety-two miles of railway were built and I’ve covered a lot of those sections many times over. I wouldn’t even begin to guess how many miles I’ve done over the years. There was one time in the last twenty years that I knew exactly how much of the railway I covered, but that’s a story for later.

So it’s been a crazy couple of weeks since I last wrote. It’s to be expected though, as the approach of the end of the year always brings with it a plethora of things to do. Thank God it is nearing the end of June as I don’t think I could handle much more of this.

Well, what’s keeping you busy Dave? I guess the answer is what isn’t keeping me busy! School is very hectic as usual. I’m trying to keep up with the marking and we are going to be timetabling for next year very soon. Things are ramping up in football as well. A couple weekends ago the coaches from the University of Minnesota-Duluth were in town putting on their annual coaching clinic and camp. I spent the Friday night learning a few new things about coaching defense, while Saturday and Sunday were spent at the LU Hanger watching Ethan go through various drills. This week we met with our Grade 9’s and travelled to our feeder school, Pope John Paul II, to talk about our upcoming spring camp.

The weather is slowly warming, though as is typical in the spring around here, the temperatures can be all over the map…beautiful one day and freezing cold the next. We seem to be about three weeks behind where we should be in terms of the progress of the season. I’m desperately trying to catch up on things around the house that should have been done a while ago but that I couldn’t due to the weather (and we all know how much I love yard work!). A few weeks ago I trashed part of my backyard pulling the boat to the front yard; it’s going to be a treat trying to fix the damage once everything dries out.

This past weekend was a little bit longer due to Monday’s Victoria Day holiday. Traditionally this marks the beginning of the summer camping, fishing and hiking season, but it wasn’t the usual hub-bub due to the delayed spring conditions. I had been planning to go down to Gunflint to do some hiking, but I had to postpone. I’m going to try again this weekend…hopefully we get the +20C they are calling for! I’ll be hiking the railway along portions of the Centennial Trail with the intention of shooting some new video of the area (with my fancy new video camera). Fingers are crossed!

So if you recall I left off in my last post talking about my twenty year involvement with the railway. It was the summer of 1994 and I was in the midst of a great trek to explore a remote, neglected part of the railway along North and Gunflint Lakes. At the time the area was very inaccessible due to the lack of direct roads; the only real way to get in was via North Lake, which was an ordeal in itself. Fortuitously some family connections gave me a little bit of help in making this trip happen.

In those days one could not simply drive in to North Lake; due to some terrible road conditions, I had to walk the approximately 9km in from Addie Lake while carrying all my gear with me. You can do those things with a little more ease when you’re 20 years old! The next obstacle in my path was the famed Trestle Bay, which was spanned by a 1000 foot trestle from 1892 to 1909. It would take an hour plus ride by boat from the east end of North Lake to the narrows between Little Gunflint and Gunflint Lakes where I left my gear, and then another half hour back by boat to my drop off point at the western side of Trestle Bay. The searing late August heat made the 6km hike from Trestle Bay westward to my campsite at the eastern side of Gunflint Lake quite the ordeal, but I made it.

The next morning I was up bright and early as I had a daunting task ahead of me; I would be walking the remaining 12km of railway right to the Gunflint Narrows where the railway crossed into Minnesota. I had never seen this part of the railway and I was amazed at all the rock work that had been done along the shore of Gunflint Lake. Walking through Leeblain I saw the remains of the rock ovens for the first time; I was disappointed that I could not find the location of the Gunflint Cross which was approximately 1.5km west of the ghost town.

My original intention was to spend another day on Gunflint before I was picked up by boat, but after two straight days of walking and a big thunderstorm after day two, I was done. The question was how to get back? I formulated a pretty bold plan. I packed my gear and hiked the 6km eastward to Trestle Bay. When I arrived, I stripped down to swimming shorts, put my hiking boots and clothes in a garbage bag and proceeded to swim the 1000 foot expanse while fighting white-cap conditions and praying not to get impaled on an old trestle piling. The stupidity of youth! I made it across, got dressed and walked another 5km back to the east end of North Lake.

Rock cut, North Lake, August 1994.

Rock cut, North Lake, August 1994.

Rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

Rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

Rock oven, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

Rock oven, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

Rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

Rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 1994.

My North Lake hosts were shocked by my unexpected arrival and astonished by tale of how I got there. A short boat trip later I had retrieved my gear and was back on the trail toward Addie Lake and home. If you’ve been keeping track, the finally tally looked something like this: 9k+6k+24K+6k+5k+9k. I’m not sure about your math, but that equals nearly 60km in my calculator. I walked 60km in three days! This was either an incredible display of determination and fortitude, or just really stupid…I guess it depends on your perspective. Needless to say I’ve never done anything like that since, though I have contemplated a 60km journey along the Kekabekic Trail from Gunflint to Ely (I want to see the planned route of the railway between those two points). Maybe I’ll do it someday when the boys are older.

Anyway, I should get rolling. I’ll probably be back next week with more reflections of the past and some details from the weekend’s hike. Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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