Tuesday, May 30, 2023

History and Impressions of Gananoque

My first impression of Gananoque was not good. It might have been 1996 or 1997 when I was on a Via Rail corridor train, when it pulled into Gananoque station. I remember being intrigued by the town's name, as it was unknown to me, a relative newcomer to Eastern Ontario at the time. I remember looking around and wondering, "Where the hell am I?" as the station's immediate surroundings suggested One Horse Town. It wasn't until years later that I learned that Gananoque's train station is actually several kilometres north of the actual town, separated not only by geography but also by Highway 401. Look on any map and it's situated in what is known as Cheeseborough.

Last summer, I learned about much of the the town's railway story, as my family visited the town to see a play at the 1000 Islands Playhouse, nestled on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Gananoque has a lively theatre scene and bustling downtown all catering to a tourist crowd. The town is situated in an ideal spot, as it is a launch point for people wanting to tour the 1000 Islands along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Geographically, it draws equally from two large cities, Ottawa and Toronto, judging by the license plates I noticed on the day I visited. That's in addition to the many others cities that feed the town's tourist trade, including Kingston, Cornwall, Belleville and other fairly close cities in Eastern and Central Ontario.

Sadly, I was not able to make it out to Cheeseborough to do some railfanning while my family was in town. However, I was happy to see the town's railway history celebrated in the downtown, as a very strange looking switcher is nestled in Sculpture Park, with nearby signage telling visitors about the story of the Thousand Islands Railway. 

The park is easily accessible via King Street, where the road crosses the Gananoque River. In peak tourist season, you would be well advised to find a parking spot on a nearby residential street and leave it there. This town gets awfully busy in the summer.

Known as Engine 500 or the "Susan Push," this 35-tonne locomotive was built by General Motors in Oshawa in 1931 with a gasoline powered engine. The original engine was replaced by a 250-horsepower diesel engine in 1935. This unit replaced steam locomotives on the Thousand Islands Railway, which was simply a small feeder line connecting the riverside town to the CN main line in Cheeseborough. This oddball unit made its last run on local rails in 1960 when it was moved to Cardinal and then Brockville for work as an industrial switcher. The locomotive was retired in 1966 and donated back to Gananoque for use as a historic display. As you can see, local historians have done an excellent job keeping this quirky engine in good shape.

As I have mentioned in regards to the towns of Petrolia and Oil Springs in Southwestern Ontario, Gananoque was served by a short connection to the main line. The Thousand Islands Railway was opened for business in 1884, and it was eventually used as an 8-km connection to the then-Grand Trunk Railway, to ensure Gananoque was not left behind from the progress that rails brought. The feeder railway, which was taken over by CN in 1958, saw small passenger service in the form of connecting trains, to the station north of town until 1962. 

The images you see were the best I could do, given the outdoor lighting and the shiny plastic covering, which made for terrible glare on the day I visited the outdoor historic display. But you can still see Engine 500 towing a solitary clerestory roof heavyweight passenger car into the town's downtown station. The date is not given, but it appears that the 1950s is a good guess, judging by the cars in the photo. 

After local freight service was ended in 1995, the rails were pulled up and the town lost its connection to the main line north of town. Of course, Via Rail still serves the Gananoque Station with regular service, although newcomers to Eastern Ontario will be well advised not to judge the town by its station's surroundings.

As for what's left of the line, there is a clear line-of-sight from the park where you can see the old right-of-way. I can't say whether it's easy to spot elsewhere, as I did not venture too far from the park. I did like the stonework mimicking tracks, which was a nice touch.

The outdoor historic display gives you other details about the Thousand Islands Railway's importance to the local economy, especially when it was used to haul materials to the town's port on the St. Lawrence River and its connection to the main line, where goods could be shipped anywhere or imported from anywhere. It should also be noted that the Grand Trunk's president Charles Melville Hays promoted the town as a tourists destination. The railways have clearly been good to this town, judging by the obvious vestiges of affluence that you can see in the architecture of old homes, churches, the town's massive clock tower near its downtown.

One other detail to note. The Thousand Islands Railway sported an interesting and somewhat familiar logo. The slanted wafer logo is reminiscent of the Grand Trunk, Canadian National and Newfoundland Railway's wafer logos of yore.

I was quite impressed with Gananoque on my first real visit to the town last summer. Our family greatly enjoyed the 1000 Islands Playhouse's rendition of the Music Man, a play that begins with a scene on a train where the dialogue is written almost to mimic the clickety-clack sound of an old train on jointed rails. That scene, which opens the story, was told with such rhythmic dialogue and subtle physical movement by the actors, you would be hard-pressed to think they weren't swaying on a train. It was extremely well done.

I also was fascinated by the fact that you could bring your boat up to the playhouse's docks and park it there while taking in the show. What a way to go.

Gananoque is blessed with natural beauty but it's clear to me that the town also has a rich trove of civic minded citizens who do a good job ensuring that its history is celebrated properly. I am happy for these efforts, because it allowed me to learn a little bit about a tiny railway I didn't even know existed until last summer.


Eric said...

Hi Michael,

Gananoque has long intrigued me but I never railfanned there. So, playing catch-up years later, I did some digging into the TIR/CN Gan Spur history:


Thanks for sharing your thoughts and visit. It would be an awesome shortline to model!

Michael said...

I agree, Eric. From what I saw on the historic plaques downtown, it sounds like it would have been a cool operation to watch, especially downtown. Thanks for your comment.