Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bedell Ontario, Part II: Prescott Sub passes into history

A return trip to Bedell, Ontario proved to be quite sobering this past weekend. I had read that the Canadian Pacific has contracted a company to scrap the remainder of their North Prescott Spur in Kemptville. I decided to visit to see if this was the case. It turns out that this stretch of the old Bytown & Prescott Railway (CP's old Prescott Sub) is indeed being scrapped. Considering this line was the first to reach in Ottawa in 1854, I thought it was worth my time to take some shots and dig into the history a little more. I felt fortunate to get a few final photos, but there's always the underlying sadness to see history being taken away.

My first trip was to an old feed mill and grain elevator on Van Buren Street in Kemptville, which appeared to be one of the last rail-served businesses on this old line. I walked down the line from the Van Buren crossing, to see if there was a better vantage point to shoot the grain elevator. The overgrowth to the left, as you can see below, ensured that this elevator would remain mostly hidden.

Interesting fact: Kemptville owes some of its early prosperity to the fact that it was chosen to be a railway town, set up by the old Bytown & Prescott as a station stop.

When I arrived at Bedell, along the CP Winchester Sub, I found the old signal tower that stood next to the turnout for the North Prescott Spur, had been removed (below). Given the condition of these towers, I doubt they will have much use to CP.
This was the scene just two weeks ago, when the remains of the old signal tower still stood sentry over the abandoned spur (below). 

I also saw a stack of old rail trackside, waiting to be carted away to other parts of the Canadian Pacific network that are busier than this lonely old rural Ontario spur. A little way from this pile, another pile sat in the weeds, which included the rubber seals used for level crossings.

This was a little disappointing to me. The old Bedell marker had been taken down and left in the weeds. I turned it over to grab a quick shot of the sign. I was a little perplexed why the sign would be taken down. I suppose it's because this area along the main line will not be used for anything moving forward, but I thought the sign was a nice touch and reminder of busier times.

You will recall that just a few weeks ago, the sign was still standing in an area with wildflowers.

I made sure to return to the old feed mill to get a shot of the elevator, but this was as close as I could get from the parking lot of the shuttered facility. You can also see the storage huts for road salt and sand behind the fences. I have read that CP once serviced this road maintenance facility as well another on the South Prescott Spur.


Closer to the main line, many of the rails that had been pulled from the North Prescott Spur were labelled and ready for shipment. I'm not sure whether CP is sending a local to load these onto cars. It would be nice to shoot that.

As I noted in my previous post about this spot, Bedell was once an important stopover on the CP main line, where steam locomotives were once serviced and where an interlocking tower, rail yard and station were located. The area had an interlocking crossing between the main line and the old CP Prescott Sub at one point, but this was replaced by a diamond. The spot fell into disuse in the 1960s onward, when CP began to direct its freight traffic from Smiths Falls. The old Prescott Sub was officially abandoned in 1997, with the majority of the line torn up in1999 between Leitrim Road in southern Ottawa and Kemptville. The remnants of the remaining line, the North Prescott Spur, was officially abandoned in 2012. Now, Bedell and the Prescott Sub are pretty much historic footnotes.

And, yes, I did get some time to shoot actual railroading in action along the main line. I struck out this past weekend, since there were no freights hustling by when I was there, but my previous visit two weeks earlier resulted in a great encounter with a westbound manifest freight, with a number of interesting pieces of rolling stock. I will end my initial series on Bedell Ontario with that meeting next week. Here's a small teaser below. Can you make out what type of cars are immediately behind the lead units?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bedell Ontario Part I: The Ottawa Connection

Just south of Kemptville, Ont., you will find milepost 103.4 on Canadian Pacific's Winchester Subdivision. The area is better known as Bedell, a rural spot with a few homes along CP's mainline between Smiths Falls and Montreal. The area was once a busy spot along the CP main line, with an interlocking tower, station and other facilities. I visited this area recently to shoot some mainline railway action. I am going to make this a regular stop in my travels, since my collection of CP images is sadly lacking. The first trip yielded far more than expected, including a reminder of Ottawa's railway past.

When I arrived, I quickly found a gravel parking lot, which appeared to be the site of former railway structures. There were an array of rolling stock debris, tie plates and other railway material in the weeds. I found the railway's marker in some overgrowth, including a surprising number of wildflowers, including these black eyed susans above.

I sat trackside on a brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon, enjoying the gentle sounds of the summer, including the buzzing and clicking of insects and the chirping of birds. It is a very peaceful spot to shoot, tucked away from Kemptville along a sparsely used rural road.

When I arrived, I made sure to take shots of the mainline, which is double tracked, although as you can see from this shot looking east, there are remnants of old tracks on either side of the main line. These lines were once part of a larger rail yard. One line appears to be in the process of being dismantled (left) while the other line ends in a pile of gravel, but appears to be in some sort of operating condition.

As I walked around the site, I came across this separated turnout, which I knew from research was the old CP Prescott Sub, the line that once linked Ottawa to the CP main line here. This line ran north along the same path as Highway 416. Of course, most of the Prescott Sub is long gone. The remnants of the south end of the sub have been reduced to about two miles of trackage that still extends into Kemptville. You can see below the sign that reads "circuit end." This stretch of track was renamed the North Prescott Spur and served industry in Kemptville until the line was formally abandoned in July of 2012. The other remnant of the Prescott Subdivision, known as the South Prescott Spur, is still operational since CP serves industry a few kilometres south of Bedell in the town of Oxford Station.
The North Prescott Spur turnout was a familiar scene to me, since it reminded me of the out-of-service Beachburg Sub north of Nepean Junction in Ottawa.
Doing a little research on this sub, I discovered that its roots date back to the 1850s, when the Bytown & Prescott Railway was created to shuttle logs from the Ottawa River down to Prescott on the St. Lawrence River. This line was the first to reach Ottawa in 1854 and, after undergoing name changes and a bankruptcy, was purchased by the Canadian Pacific in the 1880s. At that point, it became the Prescott Sub. In the image below, you can see the plows up sign and a crossing sign to the left, where the old spur crosses Bedell Road.
After shooting some mainline action at Bedell (stay tuned for this in the coming weeks), I followed the remnants of the North Prescott Spur into Kemptville, where I found much of the line still in place, although covered in weeds (shot below). The spur in this image leads to what was likely the last industry served by CP in the town. I saw a grain elevator (left) and a building for sale at the end of the turnout. I wasn't able to get close enough for a good photo, but have made a mental note to return here for more photos. You can also see the whistle sign to the left, since this industrial spur is very close to a level crossing.
I'm not sure why CP has left the rails in place in Kemptville, since the line has been abandoned for two years. I'm guessing the rail isn't terribly valuable, otherwise it would have been snapped up quickly, like CN did when it started dismantling the Beachburg Sub in Renfrew County.
I read that CP stopped assigning its Ottawa trains via Bedell in 1967, right around the time when the National Capital Commission began tearing up most rails in central Ottawa. CP monitored and assigned much of its traffic to and from Ottawa through Smiths Falls. The Prescott Sub continued to operate via the St. Lawrence and Hudson railway, until 1997. At that point, the last customers in Ottawa dried up, which forced CP's subsidiary to pull up stakes in the capital. The rail between Kemptville and Ottawa was pulled up in 1999. 
It should be noted that the northernmost stretch of the Prescott Sub is still in place in Ottawa, as part of it is still used for the O-Train service. A stretch south of the O-Train Greenboro Station terminus is still occasionally used by CN to send cars to the National Research Council facilities on Lester Road, near the Ottawa airport. There is another stretch of the old Prescott Sub that is not in use, which ends at Leitrim Road, on the periphery of the airport lands, right next to a golf course.
This stretch of the old sub is now being seriously considered as the route of a possible southern extension of the O-Train into Ottawa's growing southern subdivisions including Riverside South and Barrhaven. The route beyond Leitrim Road is still in place and is used as a 20-kilometre recreational trail extending to Osgoode.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

A station with a story: Petrolia's GTR station

The Grand Trunk's legacy lives on in a few scattered communities around Canada, but nowhere is the grandeur of the railway better reflected than in Petrolia, Ontario, a beautiful Victorian oil town in southwestern Ontario, east of Sarnia. The town's central square faces the wonderfully preserved Grand Trunk Railway station, which has long served as the town's central library. I passed by this station a number of times when I was younger but never really knew much about it until I dug into its history last year. The results were surprising.

Above: Petrolia's central library, formerly a Grand Trunk terminal, is a town centrepiece. This shot was taken Dec. 22, 2013.

The most remarkable feature of this building today is that it is virtually unchanged from its railway heyday, as you can see in this undated photo below. Note the muddy streets and the alternate town spelling. The town has long since changed its official spelling from Petrolea to Petrolia.
For those unfamiliar with its history, Petrolia's claim to fame is that is was the site of the first major commercial oil discovery in North America, although many in Pennsylvania have long since debated this fact. With the influx of oil riches, the town grew quickly. Its main street, the Petrolia Line, is lined with enormous Victorian mansions, which housed a number of oil company executives.
The rail station was built in 1903, although rail service to Petrolia predated this station. The rail lines hosted oil trains and passenger service, since roads between the town and Sarnia were often unreliable "plank" roads (corduroy road) as they were called locally. It's interesting that passenger rail was seen as such a vital service, since Petrolia is not more than a 15-minute drive from Sarnia, but in the late 1890s, when a town was built in a middle of a marshy swamp, roads were at the mercy of the elements.
The town had one small problem. The station was built on the east-west main street, but there was no room for an east-west track due to the development along the street. The solution was a strange one. The railway built a track that ran north-south from the GTR main line between London and Sarnia. That meant that trains would reach a dead end at the station, meaning the station was actually a terminal (see image below from the Lambton County Archives).
Here's another shot below of the back of the station in 1909 during the Old Boys Reunion (Lambton County Archives). As was the case in many small towns at the time, the train station was a focal point for town gatherings, since it was such an important gathering place for travellers. The tower behind the station is Victoria Hall, home of the town's civic offices and the famous Victoria Playhouse arts centre. The building still houses town offices and the theatre.
But, the usefulness of a terminal in a town so close to a major centre like Sarnia diminished. The Grand Trunk was purchased by the Canadian National and the station was closed in 1927, meaning the station's railway use lasted only 24 years. Luckily, Petrolia has always been conscious of its heritage, which led to the station being preserved, thanks to efforts of people like Robert Nicol (see below).
I made sure to get some shots of this building late last year. The shot below is the rear of the station where the trains reached the end of the line.
Even an old baggage cart has been preserved by local officials, although the CN noodle logo is a little out of place in this context, but that's nitpicking.
It's interesting to note that, at one time, Petrolia had another railway station, which belonged to the Michigan Central Railway's St. Clair Branch. That station was not preserved, as far as I know. Information about the MCR station is hard to come by, but I know that the Petrolia trackage was a spur off the St. Clair Branch, much like the Grand Trunk line was a spur off what is now known as the Strathroy Subdivision. Today, there are no tracks in Petrolia, although the only reminder of its railway past remains faithfully preserved.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Catching up with Grand Trunk, 1992

Here is another example of my exploits in the summer of 1992. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was a good time to shoot railway action. There were a number of things to see in the busy Sarnia Yard for a variety of reasons. But my encounter with a parked Grand Trunk ballast train was one of the better catches.

This train was parked at the east end of the yard, likely waiting clearance to proceed through the old St. Clair Tunnel, which was in its last months as a link below the St. Clair River to Michigan. In the 1990s, the Grand Trunk operated as its own operation across the river, although it was owned by CN. GT was one of the major rail carriers in Michigan, from Port Huron all the way down the Detroit and to points west. Today, the GT colours have largely disappeared, replaced by CN colours.

In the 1990s, it was rare for me to see GT motive power in Sarnia Yard, so these shots were a real coup for me. This train, pulled by SD40-2s 5936 and 6416, was silent. The two new units had not been started. The first unit was obviously recently repainted while its mate was recently cleaned. Compare the shot of 5936 below to a more recent shot. It's held up pretty well over the years.

As was my custom in the 1990s, I liked to get shots of the front of parked trains. I have to mention that this was an incredibly stupid idea, not to mention trespassing. I strongly advise that you not do this ever. All I can say in my defence was I was young and stupid. You can tell how much things have changed since the 1990s. This train had no crew in site and yet, the lead cab was left with doors open. Notice the string of hoppers to the right, with some of the old blue GT ribbed hoppers in the mix. Also, you will notice the absence of ditch lights.

And here's a shot of trailing unit 641. Check out a shot of 6416 from 1986, when it was clad in Detroit, Toledo and Ironton colours. The DT&I has an interesting history, including being part of the spectacular Penn Central collapse. The road was purchased by the GT in 1980, although the road's orange and black colours outlasted the DT&I for years. Here's a shot of 6416 in a transitional scheme before it took on full blue and red GT colours. Not long after I took my shot, the unit took on CN colours. It definitely had a colourful run in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here's a final shot of the train, complete with a long string of orange ballast cars in tow. I should mention one final story about my wanderings in Sarnia Yard around this time.

My run-in with CN personnel occurred right around this time. It may have happened on the day I caught up with this train. But I remember being in between tracks, taking photos when an engineer called out to me. He told me to walk to a switch and throw it for him, since he didn't want to get out of the cab. I remember doing what he said and being thanked for my effort. At the time, my brother was in a car, off to the side of the yard, waiting for me. He said he was pretty sure that I was getting in trouble for trespassing. It wasn't until that moment that I started to realize that what I was doing was not only wrong, but dangerous. I am lucky that the engineer that day was obviously being kind to a misguided railfan.

I can say that I no longer venture onto private property. I am happy that I wasn't arrested or hurt. It was a lesson learned without the consequences.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Update on Via Rail's work in Barrhaven

Over the course of June, all has been relatively quiet along Via Rail's stretch of track through Barrhaven, which is a good thing. The issues the railway has been dealing with have proven to be quite difficult but it's encouraging that there have been no reported issues at any of the level crossings in Barrhaven since late May.

As readers of this blog know, former Via Rail COO John Marginson has been in contact with me and has provided some clarity on the issues. John has informed me that Via plans to update the public on the situation in Ottawa soon. I am looking forward to hearing about what has been done. John has also committed to contacting me again when the railway next updates the public on the status of the work being done.

On an unrelated note, I recently paid a visit to the central station on Tremblay Road on a lunch break since work was incredibly slow. I took some photos with my old camera, which I keep with me at work just in case I feel the need to take photos on my walks around town. I noticed the old camera has a video function, so I decided to try it out. Here is my first attempt at video. It's nothing special and I had some definite issues. I don't know that I will be shooting much video with my old camera since its capabilities are limited. But this little clip is something on a slow summer day. It's nice to see the old silver and blue in corridor service in the summer.