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Extra Credit I “The Beginning”

Extra Credit is new video series that examines topics related to history in the Thunder Bay District and exploring that history.

This first episode in the series details how I became interested in local history more than 30 years ago and how that journey has led to the videos that you see on my channel today. If you have suggestions or ideas for future episodes, leave them in the comment section. Enjoy!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2021 in History, Railway, Video

 

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The Tale of Two Tunnels…

The Tale of Two Tunnels…

No, this isn’t about London or Paris, and definitely not about the French Revolution; it’s a little closer to home. Likewise, I’m certainly no Charles Dickens or anything close to it. I fancy myself more like Hemingway haha! This story however, does have a historical flare to it, I guess like everything I write about. It is a bit of an adventure and deals with new discoveries, at least on my part. I doubt there will be a TV adaptation…I know, it would make for a “great” story.

Hey kids, it’s summertime! Well, I guess summer started a few weeks ago, but as this is my first post since that time, I do need to point it out. It has been a over month already since my last post and I can’t believe that much time has passed by; summer is flying by! I am doing my best to make the most of it considering the craziness of this time and the uncertainty of what the future brings. I don’t even want to think about what fall in the classroom is going to look like.

Thankfully, Mother Nature has been mostly cooperative. While we’ve seen some unsettled weather in the last week, it has mostly been great. Fairly dry and very warm; in fact, we had some extremely warm weather a few weeks ago where the temperatures were over 30 Celsius. It’s still been warm, but we’ve had showers and thunderstorms thrown into to mix since then that make things a little more interesting. Hopefully, these warm days continue for the rest of the month and into August. We’ve been spending most of our time out at camp where we can relax a bit more and cool off in the lake.

Camp sunrise, July 2020.

Camp sunset, July 2020.

In addition to relaxing (and working a lot) at camp, I’ve been going on hiking trips as often as I can. Two were on the Grand Trunk, and one on the Canadian Northern, though with all the time spent at camp, there will be more Canadian Northern hikes in the future. It’s been great to get out, though the bugs have made things a little more challenging that usual. However, it’s all been offset by the amazing discoveries and scenery I’ve been able to take in.

My first hike after the last post took on part of the Grand Trunk Pacific between Ellis and Flett Stations. I was one of the longer hikes I’ve attempted, but well worth it. My journey started on Finmark/Flett Road, just east of Flett Station and it took my about 8km east to Ellis Road and back. There were some remarkable sights, including a number of huge rock cuts and a very unusual concrete culvert over Strawberry Creek. The only downside was the bugs; I was absolutely eaten alive by deer flies, particularly on my head through the holes in my bike helmet. A small price to pay for the experience, I guess.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

The next trip was less vigorous, but certainly strenuous given the temperatures that day. We departed for camp on a one hour and twenty-minute ride to the northeast to Macdiarmid, Ontario, on the former Canadian Northern line. I had never been to this spot before, and in fact had only been up the stretch of road it is located on once (Highway 11). Our goal (the boys came with me that day) was to explore something that I had been looking forward to seeing for quite some time, which was the railway tunnel known as the Madiarmid or Jumbo’s Cove Tunnel. It is one of the few railway tunnels in the area, and I believe the longest at over 1000 feet.

After a very picturesque drive along the Nipigon River and Orient Bay of Lake Nipigon, we arrived at our destination, which was a dirt access road a few hundred metres from the tunnel. We walked in from the highway and could see the tunnel right away to the north. Soon we were at the entrance and proceeded through its length toward the northern portal. Other than its length, this tunnel is unique as it is partially lined with concrete at intervals inside its cavernous expanse. From what I could see, with reinforcing steel jutting from the complete sections of concrete, the entire length was supposed to be lined but was never completed. It does give it a rather interesting appearance. Railway ties still sit in their place throughout the length of the tunnel.

Macdiarmid Tunnel, June 2020.

Macdiarmid Tunnel, June 2020.

Macdiarmid Tunnel, June 2020.

Macdiarmid Tunnel, June 2020.

Macdiarmid Tunnel, June 2020.

After completing our exploration of the tunnel, we headed south for about 700 metres to where the grade crossed over the Postagoni River on a high bridge. This structure, built in 1924 to replace a previous wood trestle, is 285 feet long and 45 feet high. The temperature was starting to climb quickly, so we didn’t dwell too long, but we spent enough time to check out both ends of the bridge as well as the area next to the river. The views from the bridge (which was rather interesting walking across…much like the bridge in the previous post) of Lake Nipigon and Orient Bay were spectacular. It must have been quite interesting from the train!

Postagoni River Bridge, June 2020.

 

Postagoni River Bridge, June 2020.

Postagoni River Bridge, June 2020.

Postagoni River Bridge, June 2020.

A week later I was back at it, this time on the complete opposite end of the district on the GTP. This “hike and bike” as I call them was going to be tough, as it was going to a 10km trip each way. The boys were going to come along again on this trip, and I was bracing myself for a bevy of complaints about how far and how boring it was. I won’t ever tell them, but their complaints make the journey a little more entertaining.

So the plan was to pick up from the last hike at Finmark/Flett Road and push northwest, past the station at Flett to a bridge crossing just east of Griff Station. There was a thunderstorm the night before, so the air was hot and very humid that morning. After a short ride, we arrived at the first point of interest, which was another tunnel. The Flett Tunnel is a very popular hiking spot and probably the most visited abandoned railway location in the area. Unlike the Macdiarmid Tunnel, I had been to this one before, back in 1996…if I remember correctly. I might be hazy on the exact year, but I recall the tunnel well and remember ice still in the tunnel months after it had disappeared from the ground. It’s just over 600 feet long and has a much more rough appearance, with no concrete on the inside.

Flett Tunnel, July 2020.

Flett Tunnel, July 2020.

Flett Tunnel, July 2020.

Flett Tunnel, July 2020.

Flett Tunnel (west portal), 1909.

Past the tunnel, there are numerous large rock cuts that made the journey very interesting. In one spot, I was expecting to see (hopefully) another concrete culvert. What I found was something far more unique. Very strangely, the railway engineers re-routed a creek and blasted a culvert out of solid rock, the likes of which I have never seen.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

The railway grade in this area is in rough shape, as it was used a logging road for many years. There were many large puddles in some of the rock cuts, which made our journey a bit challenging at times. It even ended our ride short of the planned destination, as several large puddles about 500 metres from the bridge were unnavigable by bike, so I had to walk the last bit. I was hoping this bridge over the Oskondaga River was another concrete structure like the one over Strawberry Creek, but it was something different, a bridge I had never seen before. Turns out it is a Ballasted Through Plate Girder span bridge. Who knew!

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, July 2020.

My last bit of railway news relates to those North Lake Station documents I bought off ebay. One of my goals was to have them properly preserved and accessible at the Thunder Bay Museum. After reaching out to the museum, I was able to arrange to present them to Curator Michael DeJong. There they will form the first part of a historical fond of my research files, which will eventually all find their way to the museum. I don’t often feel that I do a ton of things right, but this one gives me warm and fuzzy feelings!

Document transfer, June 2020.

Anyway, it’s time to move along. I already have new hikes to write about and even more on the drawing board. I’ll be back soon enough with all the latest info. until then…

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2020 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Man, that bridge was sketchy!

Man, that bridge was sketchy!

Have you ever done something you thought was a good idea at the time and then regretted it immediately? How about days later, when you watched it on video? Yes, no, maybe? I think we’ve all been there, whether in that exact scenario or not. So, you’re probably wondering what I got myself into now, right? Well, I do have a story to tell you. And I won’t say that it was a good idea or that I “regretted” the situation…more like I found it unsettling afterwards. I never get to the point, so you know to keep reading!

Hey kids, it’s almost summer! Time continues to fly by at an unbelievable pace. My last post was two weeks ago and seems like yesterday; we’re already midway through June. Craziness! What that all means is that the school year is almost over. Didn’t this whole pandemic just start the other day? How does 3 months fly by so fast being stuck at home? In any case, the next few weeks are going to be busy marking and preparing reports for the end of the year. And after that, it’s “vacation” time, whatever that will look like.

So, in my last post I commented on how at least the weather had been good and how Mother Nature was trying to cut us some slack. Funny how a few weeks can change things quick. Now, let me temper this by saying it hasn’t been terrible, just not what it should be. Inconsistent would be the correct word. I mean we have had days that it was 30 Celsius and one day where it felt like 2. Places northwest of the city got snow for god sakes…in June!  I seriously want to punch climate change deniers in the face. Not literally, as this is a family-friendly blog.

Okay, so I’m back sooner than usual as I have a lot to report on the railway front. As I have mentioned several times recently, I have a long list of hikes that I want to complete while I have the opportunity. I have done a lot in the past few months, but there are many more left to go. I’ve been able to get out twice since my last post.

The first hike took me somewhere I’ve been and haven’t been. Confused? Well, this spot is a hub of activity and I’ve seen some stuff and not others. The area I am speaking about is near Sistonen’s Corners, which is about 35km northwest of the city. Here, three railway lines passed close by, two of which are still active: Canadian Pacific (active), Canadian Northern (later CN-active) and Grand Trunk Pacific (later CN-inactive). My particular interest was parts of the former GTP line.

My first exploration of the day involved a 1 kilometre section of the GTP that was part of the 26 miles of line that was opened in 1908 and abandoned in 1924. I had been by this section several times, but never actually walked it. It starts at milepost 166 of the GTP and goes east until it becomes part of Forbes Road. It was a very beautiful section to walk, almost picture perfect. There were many cuts and even some ties still in their place. Gives a real sense of what it used to be like travelling this railway as it made it’s way alongside the Matawin River.

GTP Grade, May 2020.

GTP Grade, May 2020.

GTP Grade, May 2020.

When Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern were merged to form Canadian National in the early 1920s, CN had some decisions to make in terms of its lines. In this case, they had two lines running in the same direction from Thunder Bay to this point. So, they decided to abandon 26 miles of the old GTP line, and had all westward trains use the Canadian Northern line to this point, which became known as Conmee Junction. The tracks to that point were doubled, and a new bridge built across the Matawin River. Some traffic would continue west on the Canadian Northern line, now known as the CN-Kashabowie Subdivision. The other would veer off the northwest, cross the new bridge and proceed to Sioux Lookout on the GTP line, which was now the Graham Subdivision. The Graham line stayed in operation until 1994 when was it was abandoned by CN.

I had been over the Matawin River bridge once before, shortly after the line was abandoned, around 1996. Fast forward 24 years and I found myself crossing the river again on that bridge. Let me preface this with the fact that I’m not good with heights, and walking across railway bridges isn’t easy as there’s not a solid deck, but rather large timbers spaced about 10 inches apart; it makes for an awkward walk. Plus, this bridge has been abandoned for 26 years, so the walkways on the sides are all rotten, so you need to walk down the middle of the bridge.

Anyway, ignoring the fact that I was 40 feet above the river, I walked across the 630-foot bridge to the other side. It didn’t really phase me at the time, maybe because I was so focused on taking pictures and video. The only time I really felt any fear was on my way back, video camera in hand and recording away, when one of those big bridge timbers wiggled a bit when I stepped on it. Talk about a disconcerting feeling! You are totally wrapped up in what you’re doing, one eye on the video camera and one eye on where your feet are going, when all of a sudden, your foot doesn’t plant properly. Now, it’s not like I was going to fall to my death or anything as the space between the timbers isn’t big enough to slip through. However, it does give you quite the mini heart attack! Other than that, maybe it was the adrenaline, I was fine, until I watched the video back. There were spots that made me feel nauseous and gave me a bit of vertigo. Maybe because I could see how high I was and that there were no railings. So weird!

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

Matawin River Bridge, May 2020.

After shooting some pictures and video of the sides of the bridge, I turned my attention to the railway grade from the bridge back to where we had come in from, a road known as Sunshine Crossroads. The starting point is rather interesting, as it features unique junction. Here, the line from the bridge joins the old GTP lines and as you look east, you can see two grades; the newer one built by CN in 1924 and the original 1908 one built by GTP. From this point, it’s about 2.3km to Sunshine Crossroads, which I covered, as I have been doing recently, on my bike. It’s a nice area, but it has been wrecked in my opinion by logging that is going on alongside the grade. It’s kind of a shame. Anyway, you can watch the videos here.

GTP/CN Grade, May 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, May 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, May 2020.

A week or so later I was back to the same spot, this time pushing myself further westward along the railway. I typically like to do my hike n’ bikes (as I call them) backwards, that is start at my destination, go backwards to the starting point and then forwards again to the destination. This allows me to do all the hard work on the backward portion, such as taking pictures and logging GPS data. This then allows me to just focus on doing the video on the return leg.

So, on this hike, I began my journey at milepost 161.3, where the grade crosses Ellis Road. I would then work my way to milepost 164.5, where I left off on the previous hike at Sunshine Crossroads. This section of the GTP is a fairly easy stretch, and also passes by one of the stations known as Ellis at milepost 162.2. My journey did begin on a sour note though, as I realized, halfway through my drive to the area, that I forgot my hiking vest at home. I therefore had to improvise how I would carry my gear, which did make it a bit inconvenient. I managed though!

The hike went smoothly, though it did take longer than I expected. I found what I believed to be the location of Ellis Station, complete with the remains of the water tower. The only real shock I got was when I located another concrete culvert. I never really thought I’d find one so far west, my thinking that they were only built closer to Thunder Bay. This one was within a few hundred metres of the turnaround point at the Sunshine Crossroads, atop a very high embankment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an embankment that high, as it was some 55 to 60 feet above the creek. I saw the creek and immediately my hopes went up and I quickly charged down the slope to investigate. From a distance I could make out the form of the concrete opening and instantly became giddy. The south side was okay, though I could not approach it closely as the water was very deep. The north side was a complete disaster; successive floods had pushed piles of debris in front of the opening and had exposed some twenty feet of the culvert by eroding the grade above it. It is beginning to come apart and crumble, but I guess it has been maintained in 26 years and was built in 1917. It’s to be expected.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

GTP/CN Grade, June 2020.

This discovery has made me excited for future hikes along this line, and I’ve already started pinpointing creeks and streams via Google Earth to load into my GPS. Hopefully this will facilitate me in locating more of these concrete structures when I get to those locations.

Okay, so I’ve saved my best news for last. If you read my last post I mentioned that I had something exciting coming in the mail; well, as you can imagine, it arrived last Thursday. Canada Post actually teased me a bit. Closely eyeing the tracking, Thursday morning it displayed that the package was “Out for Delivery.” Then suddenly, the message changed and the delivery was pushed back a day…so disappointing. However, at 4 o’clock I received a notification it was back out for delivery, which was weird to have something delivered that late in the day. Lo and behold, it showed up at 6:30!

Now, you’re probably wondering what the heck I got. Well, let me give you the whole story. I never go on ebay and I have not bought much off of that site in recent years. One day I was searching for railway timetables and I ended up there. What prompted me to search “Canadian Northern Railway” I’ll never know, but maybe it was fate. Anyway, this was one of the listings that came up: “You are bidding on almost two pounds’ worth of Canadian Northern Railway station paperwork circa 1912-1921. This assortment was salvaged in 1961 from behind an abandoned railroad station located on the Canadian-Minnesota boarder, not far from Gunflint Lake. (The paperwork had apparently been thrown out the back door and allowed to become humus after the rails were taken up.) This assortment includes shipping orders, Royal Mail reports, telegraph message blanks, custom manifests, collection deposit receipts, circular letters sent out by the passenger department, etc. The condition of these documents ranges from fair to something akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, to the right person, they will be a treasure trove of historical railroad information from 100 years or so ago. We didn’t bother to count how many individual pieces are there, but it’s a lot. This assortment comes from a non-smoking household and will be shipped via USPS Retail Ground. It will undoubtedly be of interest to railroad museums and historians, authors, preservationists, and collectors of railroad paper. It’s been priced to sell so don’t let it get away from you because it slipped your mind to put in a bid. Our feedback rating speaks for itself so bid with confidence. Thanks for looking and GOOD LUCK BIDDING!”

After looking at the pictures, I was flabbergasted; it was unbelievable! It was an auction, but I knew I could not let this slip away. I immediately contacted the seller, told him my story and asked if I could make an offer on the item to buy it right away. He accepted and completed the transaction. It cost me a few bucks (the shipping was more than the papers) and my wife thought I was nuts, but you cannot put a price on this type of stuff (it was less than $100 Canadian). Afterwards, the seller contacted me and told me how he came to possess this paperwork. The story is just crazy and really makes me feel like I was destined to find this listing: “This paperwork was salvaged in the summer of 1961. We were on a Boy Scout canoe trip out of Gunflint Lake and happen to camp at the end of North Lake. Somehow, we stumbled upon the station which was then already hidden in the undergrowth. We discovered the paperwork in a heap behind the station. The top layers had probably already turned to humus, but we dug down and found some that was still reasonably intact. Without bothering to read through any of it, we scooped some of it up and packed it out with us. That was almost 60 years ago! After having it in storage for many years, I decided to list it on eBay. I’m DELIGHTED that you spotted it and that it will be going to someone who knows what it is and who can make some practical use of it.”

I was so excited to open the package and see what was inside. Turns out that about 60 to 65 percent of the material is useable historic documents, while the rest is just railway notices and forms. Some of the useable stuff is pure gold; there is one customs manifest of logs for the Pigeon River Lumber Company from 1908, while there are several customs reports of coal for the PRLC’s locomotives from 1906. There are many mail reports, as well as shipping forms for goods transported between Port Arthur and the various stations along the line. All told, the papers date from 1906 and 1922.

It took me several hours to separate the papers and photograph them all. Some are in good shape, while others, as the seller described, are like the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was a pile of dust and paper fragments left after I was done and certainly reinforced my belief that these documents now belong in a museum. I have reached out to the Thunder Bay Museum to have them take possession of them and see that they are properly preserved. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

North Lake Paperwork, June 2020.

Anyway, it’s time to move on. With school winding down I’ll have more time for hikes amongst other things, so I’ll be back before you know it with the latest news. Until then…

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Well, at least Mother Nature is sympathetic!

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” I think most people have heard that biblical quote, even if they are not particularly religious or Christian. I’m a practicing Catholic, but honestly, I had to look up where the quote came from, which by the way is in Book of Job if you care to know. Sorry, I’m not always up to speed to my Old Testament scripture. Anyway, the reason why I brought it up was that it encapsulates, at least for some of us, our current situation. I know, cryptic as always. I will get to the point if you read on.

Hey kids, it’s almost June! This whole pandemic has turned the calendar into a blur of dates. I generally know which day of the week it is, but I’m having a difficult time keeping track of the dates. This means we’re now two and half months into this COVID imposed quarantine, which has turned everyone’s lives upside down. I’m still teaching from home, and will continue to do so until the end of June as the province has announced that we will not be returning to the classroom until September at the earliest. It’s still a struggle, as these online lessons do not do the curriculum any justice, and the students have begun to shutdown. In a regular year this always happens, but the pandemic has made everything worse since they don’t have to actually be in a classroom. Hopefully I can make it through the next few weeks without losing my marbles!

So the one thing that has been helpful is the one thing I always gripe about…yup, the weather. It’s almost like Mother Nature feels sorry for us and has decided to cut us some slack with some warm temperatures and generally sunny days. After a cool start to the month, May has been fairly warm, with some hot days and mostly rain free. That lack of precipitation does have some drawbacks, mainly the imposing of a restricted fire zone because of the dry conditions. That sadly means no open fires in backyards or at camps. The good with the bad right? The Lord giveth…

Now speaking of camp, it is that time of the year. For anyone new, camp is the term we use here in northwestern Ontario to describe our cottage, cabin or lake property. My wife and I are lucky to have inherited her parents camp, which is really like a house, so we have another place to be during this time. Usually the Victoria Day long weekend (third weekend in May) is typically the start of camping season for most people around here and we were no exception. We’ve spent the last few weekends out there, which really helps break up the monotony of being at home all the time. We recently got internet at our place, which is only available in turtle-speed DSL, but it helps take some of the pressure off our cellular data. It also allows us to do some of our school work while we are there; as we move more into June, we might be working more from there than usual.

Camp sunset, May 2020.

Camp sunrise, May 2020.

As I mentioned in previous posts, all of this time at home and no activities for the kids has given me more time to get out and do many railway related hiking. I’ve pretty much shutdown all writing work on my book, but I did do a number of online presentations via YouTube during April and May. You can watch them here if you are interested.

Now, back to the hiking thing. In my last post I mentioned that I was going to do some exploring around North Lake Station for the first time in 9 years. I was very excited for the visit, as North Lake was the first place I encountered the railway. Unfortunately, I left there very disappointed for two reasons. The first, was the weather. I was actually hoping for more clouds than sun, since I would be filming in a very heavily treed area and the clouds help to even the light so you can see better. The second and more important let down, was what I found. The North Lake station was built in 1907 and abandoned in 1923. It was still standing in the 1970s but sadly time caught up to it and it fell into ruin. When I first saw the remains in 1990, the station wasn’t more than a pile of boards; however, the nearby coal bunker was decently preserved and still fairly full of coal. I was shocked by what I saw this time. The remains of the station are nearly gone, with only a small section of boards left, and the coal bunker has all but deteriorated. It such an inglorious end for such a beautiful area.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

North Lake Station, May 2020.

To boost my spirits, I’ve done a few other hikes. I was invited to visit a section of the Grand Trunk Pacific that lies on private property just west of the city. The owner, Howard, uses one part of the grade for his driveway and the other as a recreational trail. Both are kept so well-maintained they appear as though they would have back before this portion of the line was abandoned in 1924.

Grand Trunk Pacific, May 2020.

Grand Trunk Pacific, May 2020.

Since I’ve been at camp the last few weekends, I’ve taken the opportunity to explore more of the former Canadian Northern/CN-Kinghorn grade in the area. I’ve really embraced the whole bike and hike concept on this line (and others). A couple of months ago I bought a new bike and I’ve been putting it to good use. The bike lets me cover ground a lot quicker, and its ideal for areas where the railway grade is easily passable. I have quite a number of these explorations planned for the summer when I’m already in the area.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Kinghorn Sub-Division, May 2020.

Now I do have some exciting news to pass along. I mentioned how disappointed I was with my visit to North Lake, but I actually found something that made up for it and then some. I’m not going to give too many details other than I have something arriving in the mail in the next few weeks that is of great importance to my research on the railway. I’ll post all the details when it shows up.

Anyway, I need to be moving along. I have a hike scheduled for today along the Grand Trunk. It’s to a place I have not been to in along time. I’ll have pictures and info on all my explorations in my next post…and details about my “special” deilvery! Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2020 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Bad for life, great for history…

When life gives you lemons…you know the saying, right? And boy, we didn’t just get some lemons, we got a whole damn orchard! However, the reality is that in life, we can be consumed by our challenges, or adapt and make the best of them; I have chosen the latter. Somehow, I picture that being said by Christopher Lee playing Saruman in Lord of the Rings, you know, the White Wizard. My boys have been watching the trilogy and that popped into my head. But I digress.

Hey kids, it’s May! I can’t believe a month has flown by since my last post. This whole pandemic situation has caused me (and probably a whole lot of you too) to lose track of the days. It seems like those days and the weeks have just blurred together. On that note, I hope everyone is staying safe and making the best of the situation, as I am trying to do. It’s certainly a crazy time in the world and it has radically transformed all of our lives.

So, since it’s May, school is still in session, and just like the world, has devolved into something none of us have ever seen before. At the time of my last post, we were just starting back up after a three-week shutdown. Well, it’s now been a month of this distance, emergency learning situation and many of us in the education world are still struggling to manage this new reality. It is very strange…I really miss “teaching” a lot of this material. Posting information, video links and a few assignments is not the same; the explanation, the discussion and the personal contact is what makes it come alive. However, it’s the best we can do right now and hopefully the kids are getting something out of it. Maybe some semblance of “normality” will return in the fall.

Thankfully, the weather right now has made things a little more bearable. It hasn’t always been super warm, but almost all of the snow is gone (it is May for God sakes) and it’s only going to get better. At the moment our temperatures are below normal as part of the dreaded “Polar Vortex” has settled over Ontario, bringing with it cooler temperatures (there were some snowflakes coming down yesterday). However, I’m happier that it’s been dry, which makes it easier to get out of the house…I can always put on a jacket. I’ve been trying to get as much fresh air as I can with walks, bike rides and hikes.

On the railway front, things have been rather busy. I did as much writing and research as I could on my book, so I turned my attention to other things, including this site. Have you ever explored some of the tabs at the top? There are more now, and all of them work! Many have sub-sections to them, particularly “Stations” under the “Line” tab. It has involved quite a bit work, but its finally becoming the hub of information I want it to be.

Since we were speaking of hikes earlier, it’s the one thing that I’ve been able to take some solace in. Here in Ontario we had been asked to restrict unnecessary travel, so I’ve been limiting myself to the local area, but there’s still lots to see. I’ve gone out to visit places I had not seen in years, or had been planning to get back to but had not had the time. I actually have a list (go figure, me with a list) that has 20 places I want to visit, and I’ve been able to cross off 4 so far.

So, where have I been? Well, I’ve been on six separate “hikes” this past month, ranging from a few hundred feet from the road to ones lasting several hours. As much as it can be strenuous and exhausting, I am in my happy place when I’m hiking an old railway line. Even if I’ve been there before, I still have the same giddy exhilaration of being in the outdoors and seeing all of these efforts that were done a long time ago. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

Alright, so I did one rather close to my house, and it involved a still functioning railway structure. If I was going to work, I would pass over a swing bridge on the Kaministiquia River twice a day. This bridge was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1907-1908 for their Lake Superior Branch, and via an agreement with the then City of Fort William, it also carries vehicular traffic. It’s less than a 20-minute bike ride from my house, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone…railway and exercise. I felt a little odd standing around taking pictures and video, but it was a nice trip.

GTP Swing bridge over the Kaministiquia River, date unknown. (G. Spence)

CN Swing bridge over the Kaministiquia River, April 2020.

Around that same time, I decided stop in Rosslyn while I was out on an errand. Here, just east of the village, could be found the last remaining rails of the PAD&W. Unfortunately, I was in for a big and depressing shock. When the line was abandoned in 1938 and the rails removed, 1.74 miles of track was left from Twin City Junction to the Rosslyn Brick Plant. In 1989, most of those rails were removed, except for a small 2000-foot section used as a spur. I last stopped there in 2012 to photograph and record those rails; to my dismay, at some point last year, most of those last rails were ripped out. What is left no longer connects to the CN mainline, so sadly, the last vestige of the PAD&W is now gone after 130 years. I know it was inevitable, but it does make me a bit sad.

Twin City Junction, April 2020.

Twin City Junction, April 2020.

Twin City Junction, April 2020.

Twin City Junction, April 2020.

Another one of my trips took me further west from Rosslyn to Stanley. It was one of the original stops on the PAD&W, but it took on more importance after 1899. That year, Canadian Northern began construction on their line to Winnipeg, and Stanley would become the junction for the two lines. It remained the junction until 1911, when a new line from Twin City to Kakabeka was opened, which bypassed Stanley. The section from Stanley to Kakabeka had bad grades, and it became known as “High Track.” Places like Stanley are interesting as they have reverted, instead of growing. It is really neat to compare old photos of the village and what it looks like today.

Stanley, circa 1900. (Duke Hunt Museum)

Stanley, April 2020.

Stanley, April 2020.

Stanley, April 2020.

Speaking of High Track, I had not been to that area in a long time, like mid-90s long time. There have been a few little, quick excursions, like I did in March, but I really want to trace the line as far as I could. It would give me an opportunity to gather GPS data and take video as well. It started off a little challenging, since I could not find the grade for a bit. A good chunk of the grade in this area has been over taken by gravel pit operations, so I had to spend some time looking around. It certainly is well defined at a spot known as “The Oaks,” which features a large stand of Bur Oaks which are not native to this area. Beyond there, it is fairly easy to follow. Eventually it gets into an area where there are several long embankments, one of which is well-preserved, and the others have suffered washout damage. Then it was on to spot that I remember well from my hike way back in the 90s; a stretch with ties still in their place. It’s really too bad this line was abandoned, as it goes through some very nice terrain alongside the Kaministiquia River. There is still another piece I’d like to follow, but that one will take me through what is likely private property, so that will have to wait.

High Track 1928 (GSC)

High Track, May 2020.

High Track, May 2020.

High Track, May 2020.

The last hike I did was actually two separate hikes in an area known as the “Moose’s Nose.” It’s rather interesting nickname for a section of railway, but the name certainly fits. It was formerly part of the GTP, which had very strict requirements regarding its grade. In order to negotiate the grade west of Thunder Bay, the engineers built several big sweeping loops which would allow the railway to climb and keep the grades in check. This area near Mapleward Road in modern Thunder Bay, acquired the nickname because of its appearance; it’s also referred to as the “Devil’s Elbow.” So the explorations I did were hikes n’ bikes, walking part of the grade and biking back. Besides its layout, the grade here goes through a very pretty area and also contains some neat structures, particularly a number of concrete culverts that were built in 1917. Unfortunately, only two of the original three remain, as one was removed and replaced with a steel culvert…sad.

Moose’s Nose 1925 (GSC)

Moose’s Nose, April 2020.

Moose’s Nose, April 2020.

Moose’s Nose, April 2020.

Moose’s Nose, May 2020.

Moose’s Nose, May 2020.

Moose’s Nose, May 2020.

Now remember I still have 16 other hikes on my list, and I’m hoping I can get to most of them before winter. If the weather holds, I’ll be back out tomorrow, heading down to one of my favourite places, North Lake. I was there several times in the fall, but on the west end of the lake. This visit will be centred around the station, and exploring a spot I have not been around since 2011. Next week is also the Victoria Day weekend here in Canada, so that’s means my weekends moving forward will be spent more often out at camp, so there will be further explorations of the CN grade to the east. So much history…so little time!

Anyway, it’s time to move along. I’ll probably be back in a few weeks with the latest updates and photos. I can’t wait to share what I’ve found on all these hikes. Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2020 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Hello burnout, my old friend!

Hello burnout, my old friend!

I’ve come to talk with you again? Well, it would appear so. I don’t know if I ever thought I could adapt the words to a Simon and Garfunkel song to this blog, but alas here we are. It’s rather appropriate given the current situation, however. There are definitely no sounds of silence here though.

Well, it’s been quite a while, but I’m back kids! I usually never intend to go this much time in between posts, but unfortunately life typically has something to say about that. When I last wrote, we weren’t even a month into the school year. Now, thanks to the rapid movement of time, we are midway through November. Craziness! It’s hard to believe that Christmas is just over 5 weeks away. It’s been a struggle to keep abreast of things at work during this time, which is one of the reasons I feel the way I do.

Speaking of struggling with life, football season is finally over. I know that doesn’t sound very positive, but it can be exhausting and stressful. Don’t get me wrong however, I love every moment of it. Coaching two teams puts a lot on your plate, but I was blessed to be able to work with two fantastic groups of kids. The icing on the cake was the results. Noah’s minor team, the Marauders, upset the number one team to capture the bantam championship. Our high school team, which Ethan was a member of, went undefeated and for the first time ever in our school’s history, won back-to-back championships. After all of that, I feel like I can finally breathe again!

TBMFA Bantam Champs, October 2019.

SSSAA Junior Football Champs, November 2019.

SSSAA Trophy, November 2019.

One of the biggest challenges the fall brought with it was the weather. Man, we had a crappy fall! It rained a lot, and then it got cold. I know I gripe constantly about it, but it was not pretty compared years past. If I thought it was bad with the rain, the temperature drop was worse. Our last week of high school practice was one of the worst I’ve ever experienced in 20 years of coaching, with wind chills pushing the mercury into the mid minus teen range. It was brutal! Made me regularly think of the line from the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m too old for this s@#t!”

So, with all of this going on, you’d think it was a quiet time for any railway work. However, the reality is quite to the contrary. Between my annual trip to Gunflint and a few other field trips, I was able to get out 4 times late September and October. Truth be told, it was a nice break from the grind and a stress reliever.

My boys had been asking if we were going to do any hunting this fall. I had not been hunting since 2016, which ironically was the last time I had been to one of my favourite railway locations, North Lake. So, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone…literally. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but it I appreciated the opportunity, nonetheless. I forgot how much I love the area, and I made a few new discoveries along the way, a telegraph pole and a steel rail. The best part was Ethan bagged his first two partridge (grouse), using my dad’s venerable 1952 Mossberg .410 shotgun, the same gun I learned to hunt with as well.

Telegraph pole, North Lake, ON October 2019.

Steel Rail, North Lake, ON September 2019.

A week later we were back in the bush, this time in a much different location. A friend had promised to show me around parts of the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) grade near Dona Station in Kaministiquia. The boys were with me and we started our day hiking the grade south of Highway 102 at and beyond the concrete bridge I explored back in early September. Afterwards, we met up with Perry who took us to the site of Dona Station (MP 168.6) on the banks of the Kaministiquia (Kam) River. There’s nothing left of the station, but the concrete base of the water tower is still there, several metres south of where the line crossed the river. At the crossing, three concrete piers are all that remain of the 350-foot bridge that once spanned Kam. This section was abandoned in 1924 when the line was re-routed following the merger between the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk systems.

Water Tank, Dona Station, ON October 2019.

Bridge piers on the Kaministiquia, Dona Station, ON October 2019.

Later that day we explored more of the line further west near Ellis and Flett stations. The highlight was a quick visit to the bridge over the Mattawin River that lies between Dona and Ellis. This bridge was part of the new line that was opened in 1924 and abandoned in 1994. I had not been there since 1997ish, but I plan to revisit this spot next year when I have more time to look around.

Mattawin River Bridge, Conmee, ON October 2019.

Mattawin River Bridge, Conmee, ON October 2019.

CN-GTP Junction, Conmee, ON October 2019.

Usually one of the highlights of the fall for me is our boys’ weekend at Gunflint, which we’ve been doing since 2013. I was a bit concerned in the days leading into the weekend as the weather was not expected to be great (ironically it was fantastic during the week). I really look forward to the down time and the opportunity to spend some time with the boys, so we went ahead with it anyway.

It rained on Thursday night and early Friday morning, which caused me to delay our departure by a few hours. After stopping for supplies in Grand Marais, we arrived at the lodge by 11am. By that time it has stopped raining, but the weather was not particularly nice. I was supposed to do a little presentation at the lodge at 5:30, so I decided that we should at least try and do a few things before then.

The boat ride across the lake was rather chilly, but not terrible. Our destination was the site of the corduroy trestle and rock cut of the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad near Bridal Falls. It was a bit damp, but otherwise okay. I managed to shoot some video of the grade, but we had to head back before I could take some photos of the falls. I figured we’d be back the next day anyway. The presentation at the lodge was well attended and gave me a chance to catch up with some old acquaintances.

Unfortunately, mother nature decided to spoil my party on Saturday. I awoke to a dusting of snow on the ground and some flurries in the morning; not to be dissuaded by this feeble attempt at an early winter, I figured we would still be able to get some work done that day. My hopes were dashed however after a rather chilly boat ride, for there was quite a bit of snow accumulation at the east end of the lake, so much so there was no point in trying to do anything. Sadly, the boat ride back was even worse, as the wind and snow had picked up considerably.

Gunflint Lake, October 2019.

After a wasted day on Saturday, I was really holding out hope for Sunday. The big event of the weekend was that I was supposed to meet USFS archaeologist Greg Heide for a visit to Camp 8 so we could begin documenting that site. The weather let me down again, however. After hearing about significant snowfall east of Gunflint (mid-Gunflint Trail was reporting 12”), I decided to do a little reconnaissance, a recce (pronounced rekke) in Canadian military parlance, of the area on Saturday before we went to dinner. What a disaster! The area was covered in a thick blanket of snow which clearly would not melt before the next morning. After several years of trying to get an archaeologist into Camp 8, I had to regrettably contact Greg and call the visit off.

So now that the primary purpose of my visit had been crushed by the weather, I had to figure out what to do on Sunday. I reasoned that it was snowy to the east, so we could take a walk along the PAD&W grade to the west. It had been 5 years since I had hiked this portion of the railway, so it would be great to reacquaint myself. Well, I had again underestimated the snow. Clearly the lake near the lodge had moderate the weather there, so there was a lot more snow than I anticipated. It was snowy and sloppy along the trail, soaking parts of our clothing. But, as the saying goes, a crappy day in the bush is better than a good day at work!

Paulson Mine, October 2019.

Centennial Trail, October 2019.

Rock cut, Round Lake, MN October 2019.

Rock cut, Round Lake, MN October 2019.

Following the postponement of the visit to Camp 8, Greg and I stayed in touch. With temperatures returning to normal, we hoped to do a one-day trip the next Sunday. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we had to cancel again. The question now was what to do that day, which promised to be a good one. I figured let’s kill two birds with one stone…again!

Ethan and I headed out early on a crisp and sunny morning to North Lake. The birds were definitely out that day, and we bagged our limit. Compared to the previous weekend, it was an amazing day in the bush. It was warm, with little wind that made the lake almost like glass. It certainly reminded me how much I love that area and love being in the outdoors. Made me think a lot about doing the same thing with my dad when I was Ethan’s age…I hope he treasurers the memories like I do.

Rock cut, North Lake, ON October 2019.

A boy and his dog, North Lake, ON October 2019.

Rock cut, North Lake, ON October 2019.

Trestle Bay, North Lake, ON October 2019.

Anyway, it’s time to move along. As things start to return to normal, I’ll be back into the book writing mode soon enough as I want to try to finish most of this book during the winter. I will be back before Christmas with the latest news and info. Until then…

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2019 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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