Thursday, January 15, 2015

A hidden piece of Ottawa's railway history found

Back when I started this blog, I made sure I learned the history of the railway lines in my own back yard. I look back on the initial posts I wrote and I laugh. I have learned so much about the history in my own back yard since beginning The Beachburg Sub.

On New Year's Day, I decided to take some photos of the railway bridges around Bells Corners, just so I have them in my files in case I need them in the future. What started as a simple trip turned into a surprising railway archeology expedition.

My last stop was to get some photos of the old CP Carleton Place Subdivision, which was Milepost 9 on that sub (named Nepean on the CPR route map). The remnants of that sub have been used by CN in past years to store cars, but there have been no cars on that stub track in months. I took a couple of quick snaps of the rusty old stub, including the end of line. I guess railways use red octagons as well (below).

You will recall from my first post about this area that this is what is known as Bells Junction on the CN route map. This junction dates back to 1966 when the National Capital Commission pulled most rail lines from central Ottawa as part of a beautification scheme. Before CP branched off at this junction, the CPR's old line passed under the CN Beachburg Subdivision a little further west of this spot, close to where Moodie Drive dips below the CN rail bridge. In 1990, CP hosted the last run of Via's Canadian through the Carleton Place Sub and promptly abandoned the line afterward. The old roadbed was sold to the old regional municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, which converted the line into a recreation trail. Imagine how useful this line would be as a commuter line, especially where it passes though the growing west end communities of Stittsville and south Kanata.

A small reminder of more useful times for this stub (Spring 2013).

In between where the old CP track curves away from the CN line, there's an isolated and deep gulley (below), which is inaccessible in summer. I had to walk around the old stub track and cross over a frozen drainage ditch to get into this gulley. A small portion of Stillwater Creek had not yet frozen even though New Year's Day was bitterly cold in the city.

I knew that I was in the location where the old CP line crossed under the CN line. What I was searching for was some hint of the old CP railbed under the Beachburg Sub. This was what it looked like in 1965 (first shot below), before the CP line was ripped up, replaced by the CP turnout off Beachburg at what was known as Bells Junction. This shot and the following three are all from the Canada Science and Technology Museum collection, showing the old CP right-of-way.

Here's a shot of a CPR passenger train in 1945. How times have changed. There was no development at all.

Bells Corners has grown all the way to the edge of the CN tracks. Any traces of this old CP line in the Bells Corners core have been buried under by office buildings.

Here's a more recent shot of CPR train in 1965, a year before this section of the right-of-way became history.

Here's one final shot of a long CN passenger train heading west, approaching the old CP crossing in 1965. Getting shots of trains near this steep embankment are now much more difficult, given the development right up to this line and the extremely light schedule (one freight in each direction, each Wednesday).

So, back to my adventure. When I trudged my way into the gulley, my goal was to find a safe way to climb up the embankment and get a shot of the right-of-way from the edge of the woods near the track (so I was not trespassing). Through the trees, I saw something jutting up beside the tracks, which caught my attention. You can just make it out in the shot below.

Once I made my way up the embankment, I got another shot. If I was not mistaken, this is an old piece of the CN bridge over the old CP line. The graffiti on the old cement form shows I'm not the first person to find this spot.

Once I made my way up to the edge of the tracks, I took a quick shot. This perspective gives you an idea of the elevation of the line compared to the surroundings.

I took a quick shot across the tracks at an adjacent cement form. Looking either way, I couldn't make out any hint of the old CP right-of-way, so I didn't bother taking any shots. Checking out the area with Google Satellite images confirmed that I had found the old CP right-of-way, which is now a forested barrier between farm fields north of Bells Corners. With that help, I am sure that this was where the old bridge was located.

Here is the satellite image, which shows clearly where the CP line once was. The blue pin was where I was. The diagonal forested line (top right to bottom left) is the old CP line. The curving track is the old CP Carleton Place Sub. The straight line is CN's Beachburg Subdivision. You can see a spot where the brush gives way to heavy ballast. This was quite noticeable when I visited this spot. The heavy ballast is likely what was used to fill in the hole where the CP line passed beneath the CN line. Even now, decades later, very little grows between those rocks for some reason.

I should mention that getting to this spot was not easy. If you are so inclined, be sure to try in the winter. There is no way you will be able to make it through the brush in the summer. Also, stay off the tracks, even ones that are sparsely used like this one. It's private property after all and there's always a chance of a train, so be safe.


Eric said...

A valiant effort to literally unearth some history in the Ottawa area, Michael! You're an intrepid explorer as well as blogger!
Thanks for sharing,

AJ said...

Interesting post. You weren't kidding when you said you had a large announcement. Same thing for getting there in the summer. I have pulled in off Stafford Rd West to go to the TD branch there and had checked out the cul-de-sac to look for a rail fanning site on Beachburg. Always saw the line with stored cars and the heavy brush. I just had no idea that the present alignment wasn't historically the only on. You definitely appear to have the right spot. If you expand the satellite image, you can still see the scaring where the line once crossed and went south towards where Moodie is. Same goes to the far north close to the 417 where it appears that the former bed has been long removed and is being used to separate fields. The remaining trees along that stretch seem a little too perfectly straight in line with each other to be a coincidence.
I just wonder if you checked out the ground within forested area to the north if you could pick up remnants of the rail bed within the trees? There has to be ballast or something you'd think. I assume the best place to start would be the triangle shaped forest about 1000ft north of the CN line where there is a clear different in the tree canopy size and probably hasn't be bothered by any farming.

And I agree, this line would be awesome into Kanata/Stittsville these days for commuters. I vividly remember one of the last CP freights to roll through Stittsville after I had moved there in 90/91 before they ripped the tracks up. For Stittsville, having stops along Abbott alone would be a huge difference, much less what they could do (still could although that'll change in the next couple of years) at Terry Fox or Eagleson.

Michael said...

Great post Michael! It's funny, I've been to this spot many times and never thought of it being a past right of way, I always figured it was just a large natural change in elevation. Thanks for enlightening us on the past, much appreciated.

Michael said...

I will be returning to this site and hope to have more to share in the weeks to come, AJ. Thanks everyone for your comments.

Bryan said...

Great post. I grew up in Bells Corners and sometimes hung around here, and never had any idea about this former ROW or track. I know this exact spot; I remember all of the ballast. I must say I did not hang around this area much as a kid though; I remember the gully (and abandonned sawmill) as being a bit of a dumping ground behind the trailer park and it didn't feel like the safest place.

After this overpass was removed the only access to the line was via CN, so CP freights would take CN trackage to Bells Corners then branch off and head towards Carleton Place? All of this time, I had assumed it was CN trackage. I don't ever remember freight traffic on this line, but do remember VIA running Budd cars once upon a time.

Michael said...

Thanks for the comments, Bryan. You are correct. That old CP line led to Carleton Place. According to some readers, there was some freight movement on that sub until the early 1990s. I didn't know there was a saw mill near the trailer park. I will be sure to check out the area to see if there's anything there worth photographing.

Keith said...

If you look closely from the 417 eastbound after you've gone under the bridge at Moodie Drive, you can see the tree line and former right of way fairly clearly.

Up until the late 90's, there was still evidence of the signals from the Carleton Place sub where it crossed Moodie. The concrete supports were there for quite a while, and if my memory serves me correctly, the signal towers were still there too, minus the actual signals and gates.

Michael said...

Keith -- I vaguely recall that old equipment near Moodie Drive when I made the occasional trip to Bells Corners. I will be sure to look for the old right-of-way the next time I am eastbound on the Queensway at that point.

Unknown said...

I love investigating old railway ruins too. I recommend checking out the 'geoottawa' site if you haven't already, you can see aerial photos going back to 1958 in a google-maps interface, switching back/forth, even blending different years together of any location in the greater area -

This particular location, you can see the bridge very clearly at the location you found (I agree that finding it in person, doing your own detective work is way more fun than on a computer, but this is a handy tool to confirm your findings).

Unknown said...

Do you have anything on the M&O railway ottawa to montreal and also on the Grand truck/CNOr rockland sub

Michael said...

I haven't done any research on either sub yet, but I can look into them and see if there's anything worthwhile of sharing. I have focused mainly on Ottawa's west end, since that is where I live. Thanks for stopping by.

Jason S said...

This, this I like. Many a time have I explored this area and never knew there was anything of historical significance around.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. It asys in the article that the former right of way is buried under office buildings and such. It seems to me it's all there. Certainly is (walkable) from west of Moodie to where it turns into the bikeable trailway, and most of the east portion is the parking track.

Michael said...

I'm talking about the old CP right-of-way that went directly beneath the CN Beachburg Sub, not the altered alignment of the Carleton Place Sub that began at Bells Junction.