Thursday, January 21, 2016

Gone but not forgotten: The Forest Subdivision

Some cities bury old rail lines and their rail history. I won't write about how this came back to haunt Ottawa. Instead, I want to focus on a historic rail line, long gone, which is celebrated in southwestern Ontario.

The old Canadian National Forest Subdivision has an interesting history. At one point, it was the Grand Trunk Railway's main line between Point Edward (Sarnia) and Toronto. The line was opened for business in 1859 before standard gauge was adopted among North American railways. The rails were 5 feet, 6 inches apart (1.67 metres), before being changed to the standard 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches (1.435 metres) in 1872.

The rail line initially ran down what is now Cathcart Boulevard in the city and crossed through the lakefront park, Canatara Park, before ending at a terminal in Point Edward where the Bluewater Bridge now stands. The right-of-way between Blackwell, via Cathcart Boulevard, and Point Edward, saw scheduled service until 1967. That stretch is now unrecognizable. However, the old right-of-way that branched off south at Blackwell that connected to the Strathroy Subdivision has been maintained as a multi-use trail.

The image below is a small monument to Sarnia's railway heritage. A small railway platform sits near what was once the Blackwell flag stop. This flag stop served passengers until passenger service was discontinued by CNR in 1952. This area is located in north Sarnia. You will notice that the platform has some actual rails incorporated into it. Nice touch.

Also, a bench made with old railway iron. Again, a clever nod to the area's railway past. I'd love to know how they bent those old rails for this use.

The old line has more recently been known as the Howard Watson Nature Trail. It seems to be an incredibly popular trail for people to use. The trail itself runs between Sarnia and Camlachie, a small village north of the city. The photo below (all shots in this post are courtesy of my brother Marc) shows the old right of way, which parallels Lakeshore Road in Bright's Grove. You can make out an old railway bridge straight ahead.

Here's another shot. The bridge crosses Perch Creek, also a flag stop on the old Grand Trunk line in earlier times. As you can see, the trail is well maintained.

Another shot from the woods.

And another shot from below. I'm not sure what the "Pig Roasters" graffiti is about, but I have an idea that it's likely a shot at local police. Not terribly clever. Given the tricky lighting beneath this bridge, I did a fair bit of touching up to make sure all elements of were visible. That explains the sepia tones you might notice.

As I was reading about this line, I discovered a number of interesting tidbits.

1. The Grand Trunk built a connection between its line and what is now the Strathroy Subdivision at Blackwell in 1882 (top photo). This was done when the Grand Trunk absorbed the Great Western Railway, which originally operated what is now the Strathroy Sub.

2. The connection also cleared the way for the GTR to divert its traffic to the St. Clair River Tunnel, in south Sarnia, in 1891. Before the tunnel was built, the Grand Trunk ferried 1,000 cars a day across the St. Clair River, by two ferries.

3. The line once served as a major transportation route for sugar beets, which were loaded onto freight cars in the north end of the city.

4. The GTR's old terminal in Point Edward once served as a the second busiest immigration hub for people wanting to settle in the American West. This hub was second only to Ellis Island for the number of people it processed.

CN took control of this old GTR line in 1923 when the Grand Trunk was folded into the Canadian National Railways crown corporation. As mentioned, passenger service on this line was scrapped in 1952. The CN Forest Subdivision in the Sarnia area was abandoned in 1981, with other segments following in the late 1980s.

When it was last fully operational, the subdivision began at Sarnia Yard and ventured east where it served the following towns:

Forest (47.5)

This shot, from the Lambton County Archives, shows the former Forest train station, now the town's library.

Thedford (38.7)
Parkhill (30.0)
Ailsa Craig (22.3)
Lucan (15.2)
Granton (9.3)
St. Mary's (Junction with former CN Thorndale Subdivision)

This was the makeup of this subdivision until 1981, when the section between Sarnia and Forest was abandoned. In 1985, the section between Forest and Parkhill was abandoned. In 1988, the line was completely abandoned.

As mentioned, a part of the line in Sarnia has served as an official trail since 1986. There is a portion that crosses under Highway 402, which is being eyed as a right-of-way for a road. Those who love this trail are opposed to the idea, but suggestions have been made where the road would be built with a dedicated right-of-way for the trail. I'm sure this is not a great option for those who love this trail, but it seems inevitable that a strategic right-of-way will surely give way to development.


Grant said...

Hi Michael,

Sorry for the offtopic comment but I wanted to get in touch with you regarding the CPR Prince of Wales bridge in downtown Ottawa and I couldn't find your email address here.

There was some noise on twitter this morning about the bridge (which has stood since 1880) being demolished starting in as little as two weeks. (JLeiper is a city councillor)

Just thought you'd like to know. Thanks for the great posts!
(please feel free to delete this comment as unrelated and/or to contact me via email)

Grant said...

Please disregard my last comment. It is the transitway bridge OVER the tracks at Bayview station which is being demolished. Thanks again for sharing your writing and photos!

Michael said...

It's okay Grant. Thanks for commenting and keeping an eye out for railway happenings in Ottawa.

Anonymous said...

Please note that the Forest train station shown in the photo was torn down in the 1970s. The present Forest Public Library was built in the 1980s to replicate the look of the old station.

Paul Mueller said...

There is a beautiful 3 span bridge east of Thedford that crosses the Ausable River. It has a iron bow section in the middle that the top has to be 50-60 feet from the water. Only way to it is by the river as both right aways on the west and east approaches have been blocked. It is a damn shame to see this beautiful bridge sit and rot with no attention being given to it. If only the Sarnia- St. Marys corridor would have been turned into a nature trail?