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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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December already?

Remember when you were a kid and time seemed to drag? Summer vacation used to last forever and it would take an eternity to get to Christmas; now you blink and it’s gone! That’s how I feel right now. The past three months have been a blur…that probably has more to do with the fact it has been the busiest fall of my life (work, football, kids activities) than anything else. I just remarked to my Grade 11’s that there is only three weeks until Christmas and a few more when we get back; then the semester is done-wow! It gets faster and faster every year. Is it because I’m getting older and older? Second semester always goes by more quickly, especially since the days get longer and the weather gets nicer. This year I’ll also be in Europe for 8 days, so I’m sure that will help expedite things.

Speaking of Europe, I am in the process of organizing the first parent meeting for the trip. I can’t believe that the trip is in about 120 days; April seems so far away, but it will fly by! There is so much planning to do, and unfortunately I am doing it by myself. I do have the benefit of working with teachers our sister school who are travelling with along with us, but since this is my first experience in this type of activity, I am a bit intimidated by the whole process. Oh well, it is a learning curve right now, but I guess I’ll know exactly what to expect when Vimy 2017 rolls around!

On the football front, I’ve almost finished putting together the football highlight video. Well, I should clarify; I’ve pretty much chosen the clips that I want to use for the video, which is about 80% of the job. It does take some time to sort through eight games worth of tape and pick what I’d like to use. Now all I have to is plunk the clips in some sort of order and add some music. I should have it ready to go for next week’s coaches wrap-up.

With that almost out-of-the-way, I can start working on the article. Surprisingly I feel somewhat calm about the whole thing (although part of me is completely petrified). Even though I’ve come up with a rough outline of where I want to go with it, I still need to work out the finer details. I think part of my difficulty might stem from the fact that this article will be written for a non-Canadian publication. There is a certain bit of Canadiana and northern nuances that go along with this railway that our friends south of the border may not understand. Trying to explain that in the limited space of the article might be a bit of an issue, but I guess that will hopefully work itself out.

On the research front, I’ve spent some of my spare time looking up a hodgepodge of things, from newspaper articles to Minnesota individuals. Yesterday I started off looking up Kristian Kortgaard and then somehow ended up on Matthew Walsh. On the positive side, I think I’ve tracked down a photo of Walsh. That would mean I’ve collected photographs of all the promoters of the Paulson Mine and the PAD&W of Minnesota. Now to get my butt in gear and start banging off some book chapters; I think the best place to start (after I write the article) is with silver mining. This is one of the few sections where I think I’ve completed all the necessary research. Should be an interesting Christmas break with the writing and some home renos on tap…I’m sure they will find their way into my musings.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Miscellaneous, Research, Writing

 

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Christmas Trees, Grey Cup, Football Highlights and Pierre Berton

So I spent a very interesting Sunday. After cleaning up some of the snow that fell on Saturday, it was that time of the year to put up the Christmas decorations. Needless to say my boys Ethan and Noah were ecstatic, probably more so about the approach of the season that about the tree(s) coming out. Had I had more time, I would have done my part which is to put up the lights outside. Unfortunately some of my talents were needed inside and I also had plans for later in the day.

The last Sunday in November is traditionally a football day here in Canada as it is playing of the Grey Cup. For those of you outside Canada, football here means the gridiron (not soccer) and the Grey Cup is the Superbowl of the Canadian Football League. This year was the 99th installment of this great tradition and since 1992 my good friend Dave (yes, another Dave; there are three of us!) has hosted a Grey Cup party. Unfortunately my Eskimos were not in the big game, but it is a good excuse to get together with the guys (btw, BC beat Winnipeg 34-23).

Speaking of football, much of my time over the last few days has been devoted to putting together a highlight video of our past season. I use this video for recruiting in the off-season and for promoting our program. I know the kids also love to watch the video; keep an eye out for it in the next week or so on YouTube.

My railway work over the past few days has consisted of a mixed bag of things. In preparation for writing the article, I pulled some material from my files regarding the need for railways in Canada and how it became part of our national identity. I also busted out my copy of Pierre Berton’s The National Dream as it had some great stuff about Canada’s enchantment with railways.

I’ve also spent some time doing a little light research on the net. It is very interesting how you can find yourself bouncing around from subject to subject as you get ideas or some other sort of inspiration. I found myself on Saturday night looking up some material on John Paulson; I was able to find a few good tidbits. First, Paulson was involved in another railway project before his Paulson Mine days called the Lake Superior, Willmar and Dakota Railway (I have no idea if it was ever built). My other interesting development was stumbling upon a website for the Eagle Lake Lutheran Church, where Paulson’s brother Ole was pastor for 11 years. The site talks about how many parishioners moved to the Willmar area from Carver County after the Civil War.

Yesterday I found myself vainly trying to find information about the establishment of the customs house at Leeblain. At the same time this city was being abandoned (trains stopped running to Gunflint in 1903), the Pigeon River Lumber Company was starting its operations at the east end of Gunflint Lake. They built a short logging railroad called the Gunflint and Lake Superior and both US and Canadian governments established customs houses in the area. The office on the Canadian side became know as Leeblain (even though it was several miles away from the original location). It was opened in July 1903 and closed in April 1909 (it was moved to North Lake). Unfortunately I could only find a short excerpt on the net; I’ll need to try to get a copy of the Acts of Parliament for 1909.

There was one curious and unexpected revelation that came from my digging yesterday. I had heard stories that there was a gold exploration north of Leeblain during the 1890’s; I believe it was Justine Kerfoot who first told me about this. I found a report from the Ontario Bureau of Mines that mentions this small development. Maybe at some point I will have to try to locate this shaft, but given its location it might be quite the undertaking. I’ll be sure to write about the mine if I ever get there.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Writing

 

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Here I go…

So on Thursday I made a trip to the library to try to find a book related to the Paulson Mine. Through my communications with Clark in North Dakota, we were able to unravel a good part of the life of John Paulson. Apparently he had a brother, Ole, who wrote part of his life’s experiences in a book titled, “Memoirs: Reminiscences of a Pioneer Pastor in America, 1850-1885.” According to Clark there are some references to his brother John which I am really eager to read about. Our communications also helped us find two photos of Paulson; one from his Civil War days as a Private in the 9th Minnesota Infantry and another as an older man returning to Willmar, MN. Hopefully I can get the book!

Now that I have more time for railway matters, one of my goals is to resume posting videos from my archives. I’ve already uploaded 3 of these videos; Gunflint Railway, Gunflint Mines and the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. I still have a whole bunch of clips from my 1997 North-Gunflint Lake trip and 1998 field work to sort through. Makes for a great trip down memory lane! First however I have to edit the 2011 football highlight video, which will take a bit of time.

In the meantime I had a chance to put together an outline for the article I’m planning to write with Lee Johnson. I think the hardest part will be saying everything in 2500 words. Brevity isn’t always the easiest thing to adhere to when you’re writing about 12 years of railway history. In my planned book this will take up five chapters, but I only have eight pages to work with! I just have to remind myself that this is just an article and not the real thing. With any luck I’ll get a chance to start writing this week.

On another note, plans for our school’s Vimy Ridge trip are coming together. I will be leading a group of 6 students on an eight day trip to Europe over Easter in junction with our sister school St. Ignatius. I’m pretty pumped for this trip as we get to visit Paris, Dieppe, Juno Beach, the Somme, Ypres and of course Vimy Ridge on the 95th anniversary of the battle. These places are on my bucket list; I’m sure my wife is happy that I’ll be taking care of this now and not dragging her along when we retire! I will post more details as we get closer to our travel date.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2011 in Miscellaneous, Research, Writing

 

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Life after football

Well, now that football has ended for another year (albeit on a disappointing note; we lost 20-13 in the championship game) I will have more time to devote to research. I’d like to resume writing book chapters (with the material I have-there’s still a lot more to be researched), but I actually have a small side project that I will be working on.

Even though I’ve done all this research over the years, I have never had anything published; well, maybe that will change. I’ve been very fortunate to meet some great people over the last 17 years who share my passion for history and particularly the history of this area. Last March I approached Superior National Forest archeologist and fellow historian Lee Johnson about sharing research material. Lee had contacted me several years back when the US Forest Service decided to use the 2007 Ham Lake to create a new hiking trail along the old railway right of way in Minnesota (Centennial Trail) and we have kept in touch since. As part of our collaborative research, Lee proposed the idea of co-authoring an article about the railway and the Paulson Mine for the Minnesota History Magazine.

I immediately jumped on the idea, but truth be told I was (and still am) a little nervous. I’ve written a lot of papers, articles, etc. over my academic and teaching career, but I’ve never done anything of this magnitude. Fear of the unknown? However, I guess it’s like writing a big essay. Maybe because this is my first scholarly article I am a bit apprehensive, especially since I don’t really regard myself as an academic. I am extremely knowledgable about the subject, but I always think that this is the stuff that doesn’t fit my mold. I’m sure I’ll be fine, but since there is already a book out there about the railway, it’s like there is something hanging over my head.

So if I can find some time this week I’ll start working on the outline for this article. Lee and I will have to spend some time working out the fine details, since I’m only writing half of the article. Hopefully I can start writing before Christmas and with any luck this article will be out in the second half of 2012. Maybe this will lead to other opportunities; I’ve considered writing an article about Leeblain for the Thunder Bay Historical Society’s Papers  & Records. Maybe that’s next on the list!

On a related note, I had a few research highlights in the last few weeks. Working with a fine gentleman from North Dakota named Clark, I’ve received a few more tidbits about the life of John Paulson. I also received a response from the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum in Toronto (located at Casa Loma) regarding a request for a picture of A.B Lee Jr I sent in a letter for back in September. The scan was from a book (and I already had the pic) but the resolution was much better. Now I just have to track down photos of J.F. Eby and David Blain and I’ll have the entire Toronto Syndicate. Happy hunting to me!

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Research

 

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