Video of the former Grand Trunk Pacific Railway-Lake Superior Branch at Kaministiqua, ON. Features the all-concrete bridge over the Strawberry Creek built in 1919 and abandoned 1924.
Video of the former Grand Trunk Pacific Railway-Lake Superior Branch at Kaministiqua, ON. Features the all-concrete bridge over the Strawberry Creek built in 1919 and abandoned 1924.
Video of the former Grand Trunk Pacific Railway-Lake Superior Branch at Kaministiquia, ON. Features the remains of the water tank at Dona Station and the piers of the bridge over the Kaministiquia River.
This week’s episode of our YouTube tour of the G&LS covers the section of line south of the International Boundary (MP 0.62). Here the railroad crosses a small creek on a crib bridge. Remains of the corduroyed grade, the bridge piles and cribs and even a hand brake are visible.
Oh, did you come here looking for leg workout information? Ya, well you’re in the wrong place my friend. But you mentioned shredding your legs didn’t you? Yes I did, but you didn’t think I was being figurative did you? I was being quite literal; when I say shredding your legs, I mean precisely that. Say what Dave? Yup, I mean beat the crap of them until you can’t lift them, abuse them until you’re cramping up in agony shredding. Why the hell would anyone do that you ask? Well, you’ll need to keep reading to find out.
So here we are at the end of November; where did the month go? That means we’re less than a month away from Christmas…craziness! Before I know it ole’ St. Nick will be coming down the chimney with his bag full of gifts. Unfortunately there is still a ton of things that need to get done before that day, particularly with work. I still haven’t caught up on all my marking from football season and I know it will take a big push to ensure I don’t have too much to take home over the break.
Now speaking of Christmas, I think this year we’ll have a white one for sure. Last year it was in serious doubt, only saved by a few dumps within days of the big event. Our weather has once again been very bizarre. The first half of November was gorgeous, with temperatures many times in the double digits. It was so good, I decided to go on a hike along the railway in the middle of the month. The temperature reached 16C and I was soaked in sweat by the time I was done. Just ridiculous for November! However, it was not to last. That hike was on Sunday and by Friday we were on the receiving end of a winter storm. The temperature dropped in the next few days and it was -17C with the wind. Oh Mother Nature, you are a cruel mistress!
Well since I mentioned it, I guess I should talk a little about my recent hike along the railway. My railway work has been on the back burner lately, so I was really itching the do something. The weather was fantastic, and the fall had been fairly dry, so I thought why not give it a shot. I have a few areas that I’ve wanted to re-hike in the fall, when the leaves are down and it is much easier to see things. I picked the area around Hillside, which is located between Nolalu and Silver Mountain. Here the railway winds its way along the Beaver (Dam) Creek, crossing it 12 times. Because it’s not easy to get to, there are many remains of the bridges to be found.
My first visit to this area occurred back in that inaugural year of my research on the railway in 1994; I was absolutely stunned by all the remains of the bridges I found. Without Google and any decent maps, I had no idea that the railway had crossed the Beaver Creek 12 times in this 4km section. In some spots, there were just cut-off pilings left, while in one in particular, all the bridge lacked was the decking. I went back to this area in 1995 and then again in 2010. I really wanted to record what was left of those bridges in HD video.
The railway stop at Hillside (milepost 36) was located west of Nolalu, where the railway left the Whitefish River and then travelled along the Beaver or Beaver Dam Creek towards Silver Mountain. In my previous hikes, I had not been able to locate the grade between Highway 588 and the first bridge. With all the leaves down, I picked it up very quickly. South of the road it passes through a nice, but very grown in cutting which lasts almost right to the first crossing.
When I arrived at the first bridge, I was a little shocked at the damage that had been done to the grade by recent floods. In 2011, 2012 and 2015 the area was hit by some pretty heavy rainfalls, which had washed away sections of the grade and left piles of debris near the bridge sites. You could also see that the water had damaged some of the bridge remains. Despite this, the low water allowed me to get a close examination of the piles.
One hundred metres to the south past another cutting lies what was left of bridge two. These remains had not suffered the same washout damage as the previous bridge, leaving the crossing and piles in excellent shape. This was in great contrast with bridge three, located 250m to the southwest. All that remains of this crossing are a few small piles on the south side of the creek…definitely in the worst condition of the 12 bridges.
As I travelled the 120m from bridge 3 to bridge 4, I came across a neat piece of the railway that I had not seen before. The PAD&W made extensive use of wooden box culverts along the line, a few of which are still functioning. In this case, I came across a large hole that had opened in the middle of the right-of-way. It appears as though the water still flows through it reasonably well, and the western side looks like it is in decent shape.
Bridge four is another great set of remains, and it this case, the flooding on the creek help to remove debris and growth away from the piles. While they have deteriorated over time, these piles are much more visible than they have been in the past. Past this point, the grade winds it way 160m to the next crossing. Once again this section has suffered a lot from the changing course of the creek and there are a few badly eroded sections. From evidence found at the bridge sites, it must have been a problem back then too. There were spots where rocks had been dumped beside the abutments and at bends to prevent the water damaging the grade.
The benefits of visiting this area in the fall was quite evident at bridge five. I can remember a lot of the remains of the piles being obscured by brush and trees. This was not the case this time, with the all of the piles as well as some metal objects being totally visible in the creek. It is interesting to note that a few of the piles, but not all, have been cut off close to the waterline. I wonder why it was done and when?
Bridge six is actually visible from five, as the distance is a scant 40m through yet another cutting. The remains at six are again very good, although clogged with a bit of debris and the northern side has suffered some erosion. I can’t quite remember what this crossing once looked like, but I certainly remember something that I came across in great quantities there.
Back in 1994 I became acquainted with the Thorn Apple or Hawthorn tree and what an introduction it was. Sporting 1-3cm thorns, I learned to give them a wide berth, but that wasn’t always possible. They are literally the most painful things I’ve had to deal with in my explorations of the railway. How painful? Well, if 2010 is any indication, extremely painful. That year I had two run-ins with them. The first ironically occurred on my last hike at Hillside, when I didn’t duck enough and ended up with a 1/8” of thorn embedded in my head. Ouch! You think that’s bad, it gets much worse.
Weeks later while hiking at Silver Creek (east of Hymers), I somehow was gored by one in the lower calf. Not only was I only halfway through the hike, so I had to hobble back in excruciating pain, but it took weeks for the thorn to work its way out. Turns out I was carrying a ½” fragment and it was such a relief to have it out.
The distance to bridge seven was a bit longer at 190m, but it did pass through a very long and pretty cutting. Hiding beside the grade was a telegraph pole (that I last saw in 1994), which was resting against a barbed-wire clad fence post. What purpose a fence served in that area is unknown, but things were quite different back then. The crossing itself was in decent shape, though again suffering a bit from erosion.
Beyond this bridge is yet another nice cutting, again harbouring a telegraph pole. This one still had the cross member attached and at least one peg, but I could not find any wire or an insulator. Bridge eight was at one time one of the better-preserved remains in this area, but time has not been kind to it. On the northern side was a nice of piles (or bents) with the top beam still intact. They are all gone now, with just the stubs of the piles remaining. I have no doubt that the floods are mostly responsible for its demise; I can see debris accumulating against it and then finally giving way. Too bad.
The line again passed through a pretty cutting as it travels the scant 40m to bridge nine. The remains here appear to be in decent shape, but it’s clear that the creek has shifted its course substantially. Here you can see more stonework and a scattering of metal objects such as tie plates. South of this crossing, the grade is badly eroded in several spots as it travels the 270m to the next bridge, though I did find a very long strand of telegraph wire.
When I first saw bridge ten in 1994, I was in complete awe. This was the bridge I mentioned earlier that was almost completely preserved, just lacking the decking between the abutments. There appeared to be one central set of piles or bents and it was in excellent shape. The reason for its longevity would seem to be the fact that it was located not on the creek, but rather over a seasonal stream that flows down from the ridge above and empties into the creek.
Sadly, bridge ten’s days are numbered. In the past 22 years, both diagonal cross members on the central piles have fallen off and the top beam is badly rotted. The northern abutment has been completely engulfed a large tree, while the southern one is hanging on. I’m glad that I’ve been to document it on several occasions and hopefully it will serve as a great historical record of the railway.
Bridge eleven and twelve are almost equaled spaced apart by nice cuttings, sitting 110m and 120m from the previous bridge respectively. Both are in good shape, though somewhat clogged with debris from the creek. Maybe due to the more remote location, the grade and bridges here have had less human interference over the year (it’s hard to believe that it’s 78 years since it last saw a train).
As I worked my way back, I could feel my legs beginning to tighten up. By that evening, I was in total agony. It had been a while since my last hike, so I was not in the shape I should have been. My hamstrings and adductors were cramping something fierce, to the point where I could not straighten them and were causing my legs to spasm. No pain, no gain right? In any case, you can view the 2010 footage from Hillside here, as well as the six-part 2016 footage here.
So now that hiking is done for the year, I can turn my attention back to research. My plan in the near future is to start writing parts of my planned book on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. I am very nervous, since my forte is decidedly research rather than writing. I guess we all have to face our fears and take the plunge at some point, so here’s hoping that it goes reasonably well.
Anyway, I need to move along. As usual there is a million things to get done. I’ll be back soon enough with the latest updates and dumb commentary. Until then…
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.
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…
So I’m breaking with my usual tradition of Tuesday night posts, but this is a special edition of my blog. I wasn’t going to write until next week since I just came back from vacation, but I was spurred to write because of something happening related to the railway.
The Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway officially began operations in June of 1893 and the last passenger train rolled over the tracks of the Canadian National Railways-North Lake Subdivision (as it was called at the time) in March 1938. It has been 75 years since the Iron Horse rolled through the Lakehead, along the banks of the Kaministiquia River and into the Whitefish Valley to Mackies (and beyond). Very few substantial pieces of the railway are left after all these years; only the bridge over the Kaministiquia between Stanley and Harstone and the Silver Mountain Station remain.
In the spring it was brought to my attention that plans were afoot to replace the bridge with a new structure. The current bridge is not the original 1889-1890 Howe Truss bridge (it was swept away by ice in 1893), but a 1922 concrete and steel replacement built by CN. That makes it 91 years old! Time and the elements have taken their toll however, and the structure does have some deficiencies. After making some inquiries, I was assured that it would be repaired, not replaced.
Things quickly changed this week however. I was told that the Municipality of Oliver-Paipoonge was again weighing the costs of replacement versus repair. As I understand the situation (to the best of my knowledge), replacing the bridge will cost upwards of $5 million dollars; repairing it will be half that amount. Obviously the trade-off is that repair work on the structure will again be required in 20 or so years.
In this day and age, fiscal prudence is of the utmost importance. Obviously spending the money now and replacing the bridge makes the most financial sense. However, as I outlined in a letter to the Municipal council, what price do we put on our cultural and historical landmarks? This bridge, and by extension the railway, represent an important link to our collective history; the railway was the main reason why many of the places southwest of Thunder Bay now exist.
Over the past 75 years, far too many traces of this railway have disappeared, overtaken by time and progress. Is this bridge to be the latest victim? As a history teacher and historian, I know that nothing is ever infinite. However I think we owe it to those intrepid railway builders and early pioneers and to our children, to do everything in our power to preserve pieces of history such as this. As is often said, without our history, who are we?
I have started an online petition, asking that the Mayor and Council of Oliver-Paipoonge make every effort to save the bridge and preserve this important piece of history. After reading this post, I would ask that you give serious consideration to signing the petition. Once history has been erased, we cannot get it back. https://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/municipality-of-oliver-paipoonge-save-the-harstone-pd-railway-bridge
I’ll be back next week with my usual Tuesday blog. Until then…