Thursday, January 10, 2019

Updated: A Most Unlikely Survivor: The Renfrew Subdivision

Note: This post is meant to focus on the more recent history of the Renfrew Sub under CN control and not its early years as part of the Canadian Atlantic Railway all the way to Depot Harbour. - Michael

Since 1894, Ottawa has been connected to neighbouring Renfrew County via a rail line that was and is still known as the Renfrew Subdivision. Although its viability as a freight line has long since passed, the rail line continues to persist and may one day become an important piece of Ottawa’s rail future.

As it stands today, the Renfrew Subdivision extends from the end of the Beachburg Subdivision, at a point that was once known as Nepean Junction. From this point, the tracks travel roughly 43 kilometres west to the Nylene Canada plant at the edge of Arnprior. You’d be forgiven to think that this rail line is part of the Canadian National system, but it’s really not. The rails are owned by Nylene Canada while the actual land where the rails are laid is owned by the City of Ottawa. CN still delivers a weekly load of caprolactum to Nylene Canada, no doubt under contract, since the rail line itself is technically known as the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.

Before Nepean Junction was scrapped, this is where the Renfrew Spur branched off from the Beachburg Sub (2014)

You might wonder why this rail line has lasted so long, when most other secondary lines in and around Ottawa have been removed. The answer is Nylene Canada. This plant took the steps to buy this rail line because the management of the plant felt there was no other practical way to move caprolactum from Texas to Arnprior other than by rail. So, while CN still operates over the line, it’s only as a contractor. CN first filed to abandon the Renfrew Subdivision in 1987.

Due to its six-figure losses on the line, CN was given permission to abandon the line in December 1988. Shortly after, Nylene Canada predecessor BASF took steps to buy the rails while the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton purchased the land, with an eye to future transit uses.

In 1987, CN moved a total of 96 cars on the line, 95 of which went to Nylene (BASF), one to a customer in Carp, while a single car was shipped out from BASF. The railway reported a loss of $328,730 on the line for 1986. During the abandonment proceedings, CN was discussing the possibility of BASF being served via its old diamond connection with the old CP Chalk River Subdivision through Arnprior. Those talks didn’t amount to much and now, both lines are gone through Arnprior proper.

It’s interesting to look through documents from the abandonment proceedings at the time, since the Teamsters Union suggested that CN had two other customers on the line that were looking for better service, Sullivan’s Lumber (now a Rona outlet) in Arnprior and Carp Flour Mills in Carp. I doubt that three customers would make this line profitable, but it’s always interesting to see how differently these small rail lines are viewed, depending on your point-of-view.

When the Ottawa Central Railway took over freight operations in Ottawa in 1998, it inherited this line and ran weekly service out to Nylene Canada, sometimes on Thursdays and sometimes on Sundays. When CN bought out OCR in 2008, it resumed weekly operations to Nylene Canada, mostly on Wednesdays.

CN 589 westbound near Corkstown Road, just east of the beginning of the Renfrew Spur (2017)

While the demise of this line as a going concern for CN is not all that uncommon in the years post deregulation, the line’s history and possible redemption as a future commuter line make its story worth exploring.

The rail line was completed in 1894 as the Ottawa, Arnprior and Renfrew Railway, one of many lines that dotted the Ottawa Valley at the time that railways relied on timber, natural resources and early small-scale industry to serve the valley. Three years before service started through Renfrew, the line was merged into the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway. In 1899, the line was merged into the Canada Atlantic Railway, which in turn officially became part of the Grand Trunk in 1914. The GTR was then combined with other struggling railways to form the Canadian National Railway in 1920.

What many people might not realize is that the Renfrew Sub once stretched from central Ottawa to Whitney, a distance of 145 miles or 233 kilometres. Going further back, it was once a key part of John Rudolphus  Booth's empire that linked his timber holdings in the Algonquin Park area to Depot Harbour. The Ottawa portion of the line originally began by branching off from the Alexandria Subdivision just southeast of the old Alexandria alignment when that line proceeded up the Rideau Canal to the old Union Station downtown.

A vintage CN system map, which shows the former Renfrew Subdivision extending beyond the town of Renfrew. At one point, the rails went all the way to Whitney. These days, the line barely makes its way into Renfrew County

The Renfrew Sub generally ran east-west along what is now the Queensway. Even before most of the railway lines in central Ottawa were taken up in the 1960s, the Renfrew Sub between Deep Cut (its junction with Alexandria) and Chaudière Junction (its connection with the CP Ellwood Sub where the Queensway now stands) was taken up. CN operated its last train on this old right-of-way in 1952 and the rails were pulled the following year.

It’s interesting to note that the 80-foot strip that CN owned where the Renfrew Sub operated had to be expanded by 100 feet when the land was sold off to what is now the National Capital Commission. That meant having to negotiate with landowners in order to have the proper amount of space to build an expressway. That would never happen today.

Even while its downtown portion was being pulled, the sub hosted daily freight service in the 1950s between Ottawa and Renfrew. By the mid-1960s, the frequency had dwindled to three freights a week. By 1974, service was reduced to an as-needed basis. In 1983, tracks between Whitney and Renfrew were pulled up.

One of the few spots in the city where you can actually see the old remnants of this line is through the old Nepean Equestrian Park, now known as Wesley Clover Park. Just west of Moodie Drive, right off of Corkstown Road, you will see a recreation path running arrow straight toward the Beachburg Subdivision and the old Nepean Junction. The trail is known as the Watts Creek Pathway. That is one of the few visible portions of the old Renfrew Sub.

The decision to sever the downtown portion of the Renfrew Sub was an easy one. The line essentially paralleled the much busier Beachburg Subdivision through central Ottawa. Whereas the Beachburg Sub was an essential component of CN’s northern transcontinental line, the Renfrew Sub was already seeing its traffic wane, with a number of industries fleeing Ottawa’s central areas, as the beautification efforts began transforming the face of the city.

Looking at old railway maps, it’s fascinating to see how CN and CP operated in decades past, when carload operations were the norm, which often ensured the vitality of these small rail lines. Of course, now that CN and CP are focused on economies of scale, this approach to business is long gone. But the Renfrew Sub through downtown Ottawa at one time counted a fair number of small-scale industrial customers along its right-of-way.

Fellow blogger Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure pointed out an old photo of downtown Ottawa, where a gravel dock is clearly visible along the Rideau Canal on the opposite bank near the old Union Station. I have seen that photo before, but his message was a good reminder of why there were once so many rail lines dotting the landscape through the central part of the city.


Kevin from Windsor said...

Fascinating post. I want to add a few facts and observations. The Renfrew subdivision at one time extended all the way to Parry Sound. Actually, to a place called Depot Harbour. The line was retracted to Parry Sound after Depot Harbour was destroyed by a storm. The O,A&PS was part of J.R. Booth's lumber empire and was built to get his product to market via the Great Lakes. I've got a book on the O,A&PS and I'll make another post once I find it with the title and author. Booth Street in Ottawa? Same guy. His lumber built much of Ottawa back in the day. Remnants of the O,A&PS still stand, namely the skeleton of the Madawaska roundhouse and a preserved train station and water tower in Barry's Bay. The National Museum of Science and Technology ran steam excursions on the line from Ottawa to Barry's Bay in the late 70s and early 80s using their Canadian Pacific locomotive 1201. This was the same locomotive that provided the original excursions to Wakefield before they switched to a European steam locomotive, and before the service was suspended due to washouts. Barry's Bay had multiple sidings and a wye that were operational until the tracks were pulled up. I have photos of a CN way freight visiting Barry's Bay in summer 1977. They hauled a tank car up to Barry's Bay sandwiched between a boxcar and a flat car with stakes. Plus a caboose. They dropped the tank car on a siding near the old water tower, wyed the train and returned with the rest of the cars to Ottawa. No idea what was in the tank car, nor what industry would have used it. There were no factories nearby. Propane or maybe heating oil would be my best guess.

Kevin from Windsor said...

The book I referenced in my earlier comment is titled 'Over the Hills to Georgian Bay - The Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway'. The author is Niall Mackay. It was published by Stoddart (A Boston Mills Press Book) in 1981. Most of the stations on the line were the same, matching the one that still stands in Barry's Bay. Killaloe, Wilno, Barry's Bay, Madawaska, Whitney and Joe Lake (in Algonquin Park), and probably a few other villages, all had matching stations.

Kevin from Windsor said...

I enjoyed this post so much that I'm reading it for the 3rd time today. Having spent 15 summers near Barry's Bay, the old O,A&PS line has always fascinated me. I don't mean to nitpick, but for the sake of geographic accuracy, I wanted to point out one error in fact. Whitney is not in Renfrew County. Whitney, as well as Madawaska, are both part of the Nipissing District.

Keith Boardman said...

Fortunately, at least beyond Arnprior, a large portion of the old Renfrew Sub is still accessible as a trail. I have been snowmobiling on it for years, and last year started from Golden Lake and went west. I believe CN turned the right of way over to surrounding land owners almost immediately once the rails were lifted, and unfortunately a few of them blocked it off and it's now heavily overgrown. Great ride though, and it was fun thinking about what used to be!

AJ said...

Great post Michael!
I have a personal connection to the line from the far reaches up in the valley so some digging on this line was one of the blogs I have been waiting for!

The interesting thing about Booth's line is that it was never fuly realized due to a storm (as Kevin mentioned) damaging a bridge across a lake on the west end of Algonquin. It was deemed too expensive to repair from what I understand so it never was fixed. That and Depot Harbour's trouble sank Booth's company. There was a swanky railway hotel in The Park as well built back in the day which had train excursions running to it until it was torn down back in the 60's (if I recall correctly?) and the tracks were pulled.

Kevin was very correct in Barry's Bay having multiple sidings (my great uncle purchased a significant chunk of these sidings back in the 80's). It was a jumping off point for supplies as well as a pickup point for returning cars full of timber. The line between Whitney and Barry's Bay is particularly interesting as there was several small spurs and sidings where the train would stop at a small encampment. These would be starting points for men to walk to the lumber camps for work. The line is from what I understand almost fully used for snowmobiling/hiking with some exceptions where it was purchased for private use (I have a friend who owns a stretch towards Whitney and uses it for access to his property as well as for logging operations). Some of the old bridges (Madawaska for example) are still standing and spectacular. There are also other randoms like old grist mills and the like which are just off the tracks, so travelling on it could be a fun ride (outside of the scenery!). Frankly there is a ton of answers up there waiting to be found.

Barrys Bay still has a lot of the infastruction including the station, the Balmoral Hotel (great example of a small town railway hotel), the mentioned water town (which has been restored) and the mentioned boxcar (which is in the middle of being restored). Can't say what the tank car was used for as you were correct in that the town has no other industries which would use it, however my guess is that it was either to be used at Madawaska Doors in Barrys Bay, or transported by truck to Murray Brothers Lumber Co. in Madawaska for use there. I might ask around and see if any of my family knows about or remembers it.

Also you mentioned Wesley Clover park and if I recall, this section crosses Carling up past Moodie right around where that driving range is. My understanding is that this rail bridge being super narrow is also quite old and for a long time was the most narrow section of highway on the Ontario highway system (when Carling used to be Highway 7).

Interestingly enough I also have a heads up news to offer concerning the mentioned CP Chalk River Subdivision - apparently the line is opened up (for the most part, outside of some sections around Renfrew) for snowmobiling. From what i understand, this is the first time this has been open ever legally (definitely since the tracks were pulled).

Eric said...

Definitely fascinating post, Michael! Thanks for the tip of the hat re: loose car railroading in downtowns. Same here in Kingston, which I'm modelling in HO. Long lists of customers receiving minimal number of cars per switch!

Interestingly, the Kingston & Pembroke with its lofty-sounding title (all they left out was &Pacific!) never reached Pembroke, only getting as far as...Renfrew! The K&P then became CP and we still have their downtown station standing.

My Dad was pretty fascinated with the Booth operations in Algonquin Park and he photographed at least one interpretive trail walk we went on to show remaining RR traces, while we were camping there as kids.

Interesting to learn more about the current Nylene operation, too!
Thanks for sharing,

Michael said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I didn't want to get into the Booth history too much, since I have talked about that in the past. I wanted to focus on the latter-day Renfrew Sub history, since it has been a CN concern. I have another history-focused post coming up, so stay tuned, as it were, for that!

Robert said...

Fascinating reading. Thanks for all of this.

I come from a long line of railroaders going back to my Great Grandfather, who was a boilermaker and worked out of the Madawaska round house sometime in the early 1900s. My great uncles worked for the railroad. My grandfather was a railroad engineer out of Ottawa and my father was a conductor on the freight trains where he frequently travelled on the old OAPS line and later on, through the top of Algonquin Park. As a kid we used to take the old OAPS line to Killaloe Station to visit my grandmother who lived nearby. Even I worked for the railroad, albeit for a summer job on the railway section gang out of Walkley Yard.

All of which is to say that the railroad in general and the OAPS line in particular, figures very prominently in my family history. And the older I get, the more I desire to learn more about its fast-fading history.

Anyhow, a couple of years ago, on a crisp fall day, me and a buddy were meandering our way west towards Arnprior, taking the back roads all the way and which crosses, several times, what I was certain was an abandoned rail line. Me and a buddy stopped near the tracks and I saw what I thought was a train light in the distance coming from Arnprior direction. Had to blink twice, thinking I was seeing a ghost train but sure enough, it was the real deal and I was both shocked but pleased to know that at least this portion of the old line will survive for a bit longer.

It was after I discovered your site that I learned the whys and wherefores of this ghost train that pretty much made my day. You also confirmed my supposition that this was, in fact, part of the OAPS line, which made me even happier at my "discovery". I took a few photos for posterity.

Thanks so much for the time and energy you put into this site. It has been a real boon to me.

Michael said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Robert. This blog is a labour of love, as railways run very deep in my family as well.