Monday, February 13, 2017

Almonte: A town proud of its rail heritage

This post is the first in a rail history series I intend to extend through 2017 as we celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.

It's been six years since Canadian Pacific trains have thundered through Almonte, Ontario, a picturesque town just southwest of Ottawa in Lanark County. The town, which is now known as a haven for tech entrepreneurs, has been a railway town since before Confederation. Having been settled in 1818, due to the Mississippi River rapids that powered several mills, Almonte was first served by the Brockville and Ottawa Railway. In 1864, the railway opened an extension between Almonte and Arnprior, which connected the Grand Trunk in Brockville with the timber concerns in the Ottawa Valley, all the way up to the Ottawa River at Sand Point.

Over the years, Almonte's numerous mills, many of them involved in textiles, were served by the B&O and its successors. That was because the B&O quickly ran into financial trouble when it extended its line to Arnprior. The Canada Central was given the rights to build rail further up the Ottawa Valley, which it did. By 1881, the Canada Central reached Mattawa, which would form an important part of the backbone for the Canadian Pacific transcontinental mainline. CP purchased the CCR in 1881, which essentially established railway service for Almonte for the next 120 plus years.

This shot, above, is one of the earliest photos I could find of the railway in Almonte. Amazingly, this scene would not change much over the next hundred plus years, as much of the town's 19th century buildings were preserved, This image, from Library and Archives Canada, is undated, but would likely date back to the early 1900s or the turn of the century. The only information listed on the photograph states that the train is passing a flour mill on the Mississippi River.

Unfortunately, Almonte's railway history is best known for a horrific crash that happened on Dec. 27, 1942. On that day, in bad weather, a troop train bringing soldiers from the Canadian West slammed into the back of a local, which was carrying passengers from various Ottawa Valley towns to Ottawa for the evening. The crash killed 30 people, all in the local. A number of factors were blamed for the crash, but the largest cause was that the railway had no official in Pakenham to stop the troop train, which was gaining on the local. If the troop train had been stopped for 20 minutes, the crash would have been prevented.

This shot, from the National Archives, shows the aftermath of the crash. There is a plaque near the site of the crash in Almonte, which honours the 39 people killed and remembers the bravery of local residents and soldiers in the troop train, who worked to help 150 people who were injured in the crash.

Almonte's rail history sadly no longer includes the old Canadian Pacific station. It's unfortunate that the station didn't get saved, given how much of the town's 1800s-era stone structures have been faithfully preserved.

However, you need only look at the rail bridge over the Mississippi River today to see what impact the railway had on this town.

This shot, above, is from the Canada Science and Technology Museum archives. I would say this shot is probably from the early to mid 1980s, given the prominence of the large multimark on two of the three units and the yellow reefer boxcar.

This shot, above, also gives you an idea of the importance of the rail line that went through Almonte. The Chalk River Subdivision was a strategic line for CP for years, as it gave the railway a connection between its northern main line in eastern Canada with its more southerly main line, which in Eastern Ontario is the Winchester Subdivision. Just like CN had with the Beachburg Subdivision, CP used the Chalk River Sub as its northern main line through the Ottawa Valley.

But, just like the Beachburg Sub, the Chalk River Sub was soon deemed too expensive to operate, since most of CP's traffic to Montreal was concentrated through its southern route through Toronto. This made the northern main line rails through the Ottawa Valley obsolete (see also the CP Prescott Subdivision).

In 1996, the Ottawa Valley Railway began operating on trackage between Sudbury and Smiths Falls after leasing the lines from CP. The arrangement meant that freight from the west still travelled over CP's northern route, as CP was a major source of carloads for OVR. That arrangement worked well for OVR until 2009, when CP stopped using this northern route for its eastbound freight, which cut the carloads for OVR from 4000 to 1000 (OVR, which is now a Genesee &Wyoming concern, continues to operate between Sudbury and Temiscaming, Quebec)

An interesting side note to this abandonment is that CFB Petawawa is no longer served by rail. At one point, the military base used both CP and CN (later the Ottawa Central) for delivery of some of its equipment. This made for some pretty interesting movements.

By the end of 2009, OVR's parent railway bailed out on operations in the Ottawa Valley and CP proceeded to start the process of abandoning the Chalk River Sub. Municipalities fought to save the line, none more so than Mississippi Mills, the municipality that includes Almonte. Those efforts failed, as is often the case, and all that is left of the Chalk River Sub now are memories and, in some spots, a recreational trail. This is what has been happening in Almonte, as efforts have been made to develop this section of the old rail line into a trail. Lanark County has leased the old rail line from CP and has recently begun the process to buy the old right-of-way. Meetings were held in January to update the public on how this trail will take shape.

1956 scene from Almonte's old railway station

On a personal note, I am happy to say that I was lucky enough to see trains roll through Almonte a few years ago. The sight of freights rumbling over the Mississippi River is one of the best moments you would have had as a railfan in Eastern Ontario.

Now, all you can do is relive the experience via YouTube. This is one of many railfanning videos you will find at the EasternOntarioTracks YouTube channel, which I highly recommend if you are looking for a nice variety of railway action in this part of the province.

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