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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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Saving a piece of history

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?

Kaministiquia Bridge, July 2010.

Kaministiquia Bridge, July 2010.

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…

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in History, Miscellaneous, Railway, Writing

 

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