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.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

2023: The Year of Different

I remember not so long ago that my fellow blogger Eric Gagnon dubbed 2015 the Year of the Mundane, as he felt that we railway shutterbugs would be well served to start paying better attention to the small details trackside (the treasures, as it were, Eric?). In that spirit, I am hereby challenging all my fellow rail enthusiasts to get out there and find something different in 2023. I haven't really realized it until now, but I have been taking every opportunity in the last six months to get a rail shot that is different. I have been exploring new areas of the city and trying to get shots with new sightlines, just for the sake of finding new ways to capture railway action.

So, let's make 2023 the Year of Different.

For me, it's partly a necessity. I have not been far afield from Ottawa lately, which means my choices are pretty slim. It's either Via Rail in the west end of the city (Nepean, in my case) or a weekly crapshoot to try and catch up with CN 589 when it makes its way to Arnprior. I wish I could catch it on one of its runs to or from Coteau in the east end, but that's going to require a fair bit of planning one weekend and some help from my fellow railfans here in the city.

So, if my choices are Via Rail or the Arnprior Turn, then my challenge will be to find new ways of shooting the same trains. To be honest, I've grown a bit tired of the Arnprior Turn. I realize it's the only game in town for most of us, but I find that it tends to dominate our energies in this area at times, to the detriment of other trains, sightlines, areas, discussions and topics of concern.

A good example of this desire for different is the recent shots I have taken near Federal Junction. This is an area of the city with some fascinating rail history. It's where the Beachburg Sub meets the Smiths Falls Sub. In the area of the Colonnade Business Park, there are a number of dormant and partially buried old tracks that once served this industrial park. You don't need to venture far into the rear parking lots of businesses to see these tracks. Given that I am in this area every week, I am now regularly getting shots of Via's evening westbound Train 59. Last week was no different as I climbed onto the Hunt Club Road overpass and took this shot from the north sidewalk. 

This was my favourite shot of the all HEP consist, with a familiar F40PH-2 on point. That business to the right is the HLS Linens facility at the end of Gurdwara Road. You can also just make out the signal tower peaking out from around the bend in the tracks. Given the strong sunlight at 6 p.m. when the train goes by, I had to make sure I was on the sunny side of the train to get the best shot. I had to crop the image a fair bit to remove the wires from the image, which tend to frustrate my efforts at this location. I did keep the hydro towers visible in the shot, however, as it gives the image context.

This past weekend, as my family was recovering from a housewide outbreak of COVID, I found myself going a bit stir crazy, so I ventured out to take some train pictures in the fresh air, since our Mothers Day plans were essentially grounded. I went to Fallowfield Station and saw a typical corridor train approaching and sighed. An F40 and four LRC cars. I wondered whether I needed another set of shots of this train. I actually barely stayed at the station once the train arrived, since I couldn't think of anything creative to do. But then I had an idea.

Just down the road from the station is a recently constructed flyover on Greenbank Road, which replaced a level crossing in 2016. I have been wanting to shoot a train on that bridge since it became operational, but I have never been in a position where I could. So I left the station as the westbound took on passengers and set up at a vantage point on Greenbank Road to get a shot of the train crossing the flyover. Again, given the sun, I had to make sure I was on the sunny side of the bridge and at a vantage point free of major obstructions. With about a minute to spare, I set up and the train arrived.

I wasn't completely happy with this shot, but I think it turned out reasonably well. The sunlight was surprisingly tricky and the trees behind the bridge tended to darken the image a bit. I did want to be far enough away that I could shoot the train from a level perspective or somewhere close to level. I decided not to zoom in, because without the road in the picture, the shot would have lost some of its context. I wanted a shot of a train as part of the cityscape. That's a big priority for me right now. I want to shoot trains in the context of their surroundings, rather than isolating them in a shot where you have no idea where they are.

This shot when the train is a little further along turned out a bit better, simply because the light was more favourable a second later. It's amazing how quickly the natural backlighting can change in a series of shots. 

Even when I was at the station, I tried to incorporate a few elements into my shot, to make it a bit more interesting. This shot below incorporates the safety fencing at the end of the parking lot. It's nothing special, but it's something different to look at anyway.

One final example. As I was waiting for the westbound to show, I noticed a farmer in his field on the other side of the tracks. Given the wind was whipping up the dry soil, I thought it would make for an interesting shot while I was waiting.

So here's my challenge to you. Get out there and find something different. It could be different angle, a different spot to shoot or a different trackside element. Let's expand our horizons and make things a bit more interesting.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Railway Reads: Trains of Newfoundland has heart and the goods

Over Christmas, I was able to do a little railway reading, which is not a common thing for me. I don’t read a lot of railway books and the ones I do are usually focused on the big picture and not necessarily the technical details. But a tip of the hat to Steve Boyko at traingeek.ca for alerting me to the book, Trains of Newfoundland, by Kenneth Pieroway.

The book is not a definitive history of the Newfoundland Railway by any means, but it is a stunning time capsule of the rugged railway’s last half century of operations. Through a surprisingly diverse collection of colour images and well-informed captions, it tells you the railway’s story from its takeover by CN after the province’s entry into Confederation in 1949 to its disbanding in 1988, after the Trans-Canada highway made the railway largely obsolete in the eyes of decision-makers. I’m sure many people would argue this point, but that’s the impression I get in reading about CN/Terra Transport’s final days in 1988.

The first thing that surprised me about this book is how many different types of railway images the author has collected. I really appreciated the photos that paid as much attention to the surrounding scenery and details around the right-of-way. There are some poignant shots, like the image of a station agent in Hollyrood about to hand off train orders to a conductor on a passing train. You don’t see much of the train in the image, but the photo is quite powerful nonetheless. You will also see images of old cars that were converted to hunting cabins, trains peeking out from behind buildings, shots taken from vestibules on numerous mixed trains and shots of people on small town station platforms.

Of course, there are many shots of NF210 and NF110 locomotives, as well as a few G8s. All of CN’s paint schemes are represented in these images, from the original green and gold to the wet noodle to the sergeant stripes to the Terra Transport dueling arrows. There are even a few shots of the final few Mikado steam engines that were in use in the mid-1950s before being replaced by diesels. The book is broken up into subdivisions, which take you from St. John’s all the way to Port Aux Basques.

As I mentioned, this book will not give you a history of the railway, but the captions for each photo are impressive, as they impart a lot of information for those who might not know a lot about the railway. I will confess that I knew precious little about this railway, other than it was a narrow-gauge road that meandered through the province. After reading this book, I have a much better idea of the railway’s operations and its unique operating practices and features.

When you see the geography that this railway traversed, it gives you a great deal of respect for what the people who ran the trains had to do just to keep the wheels moving. I was shocked at the dips, grades and curves of this line, which are plainly obvious in many images. It’s not the typical right-of-way alignment you will see on the mainland. It's also rare to see train photographs where the grade of the railway is so obviously noticeable in the image. This is not your typical mainland railway book.

There are even a few vignettes in the book, one from the author in the introduction and one from a former CN employee. The book is all colour and very reasonably priced for a photo book of this quality. You can order through Flanker Press, which is based in St. John’s. The book is listed on Indigo, but it appears to be unavailable through this outlet at this time. Those looking for a more complete history of the railway should check out Pieroway’s other books about the railway. They aren't hard to find online.

If you are a railfan like me that is not looking for something comprehensive, this book will be a fascinating read and one that you will return to just to check out the many, many details in the images. It is a high quality and surprisingly detailed coffee table book, with a lot of heart. I have made my way through it twice already and I am still learning more about this unique operation. A pity I will never get to see it in person.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Highlights amid the lowlights

I am so glad April is over. It was an absolutely awful month for me, to be honest. It started with an ice storm that knocked out our power and caused large damage to the trees on our property. That required a great deal of effort just to get things cleaned up. Later in the month, my union went on strike for the first time in 30 years, which left me somewhat stuck. I was ambivalent about a strike, since I have my own ideas about a fair collective agreement and they don't necessarily align completely with my union or my employer. But a strike was the decided course of action and I felt compelled to support my union, as it was looking out for my best interests. It's been an exhausting few weeks of constant walking, a few close calls with angry motorists, some pushing and shoving (nothing involving me) and general upheaval at my house. (Ed. note - The strike is now mercifully over)

This required a lot of sacrifices in our family, but life rolled on, so there were some things that continued on as normal, like my daughters' evening dance classes, which take place near the Federal rail junction in the Colonnade Business Park. Since I usually have time while they are in class (no parents are allowed in the dance studio), I headed to a spot near the junction, where I can take a shot of the evening Via Train 59, which usually passes by Federal around 6 p.m. 

At the beginning of the strike, I headed to a spot off Antares Drive, where you can take a shot of the evening westbound as it crosses under Hunt Club Road. This train featured P42s in the fall when I last took pictures of it, when there was enough daylight. The train now seems to have some dedicated F40s as its power.

On April 17, 6436 was the featured power, with the Via wrap scheme. As per usual, this train usually sports a consist of old silver HEP cars, complete with the buffer cars. There really isn't much more to say about this meet. I had just completed my first day of picketing and was a little shell shocked by the entire experience. Being able to lean against a fence by myself was good therapy. I needed some time away from the recent madness. The final car was 8125. Since my vantage point was partially obscured by trackside brush, I couldn't get a good going away shot, but I thought the shot below was okay. I was hoping to see a more exotic buffer car, as I saw more recently at Ottawa Station, but this was fine.

A small piece of information about this car, courtesy of my friend Eric Gagnon at Trackside Treasure. When I looked at the car, I noticed its car number on the stainless steel plate was listed as 8125. However, you can also see a small lit-up sign in the window next to the coach's door. When I zoomed in on the photo, I noticed it read 2904. I wasn't sure why this number was different from the car number.

Eric explained that the number is a designation used by passenger railways to alert people to their car. So, if it reads 2904, it would be the fourth coach on Train 29. Although in this case, as it is a buffer car on Train 59, it's a meaningless designation. Eric said that these small analog number boards were used by CP for its passenger trains, which makes this coach an ex-CP HEP coach. You will notice if you have been on an LRC coach or a former CN stainless steel coach, these numbers are lit up inside the coach near the vestibule. Unlike the CP coaches, the numbers are digital. I learned something new. Thanks to Eric for this information.

This past week, I decided to return to the same spot, since I once again needed a break from the pressures of the strike, which has gone on a lot longer than anyone imagined. I know from my conversations on the picket line that many thought the strike would wrap up in less than a week. This was not the case, unfortunately. Once again, I caught up with the same train, in need of some railway therapy.

This time, it was F40 6407 doing the honours with a very similar consist in tow as the train made its way westbound to Fallowfield Station. I do like this spot a fair bit, if it's Via Rail you are looking to capture. I would imagine that this would be a good spot if something out of the ordinary came through town and I was looking to get a shot in a spot where others wouldn't think to set up. Call it a secret spot. Locals can pretty much figure out where it is, but I still won't say anything about its specifics.

This time, I tried to get a going-away shot but this was the best I could do, given the trackside growth. You can see it in this shot. Upon inspection of my photos, it appears this is the same consist that was used in my earlier shot. 

Also in the past week, our union advised me to head to Parliament Hill to gather for a large combined demonstration. There were about 10,000 people who turned out throughout the day, of which I was one. That meant I took the O-Train for the first time since before the pandemic started in early 2020. The trains were in reasonable condition, but I did notice the effects of the track defects were certainly making their impact known. As many locals know, the O-Trains on the Confederation Line have speed restrictions on curves, since there is debate about whether the track was installed correctly. I did notice that our train slowed down noticeably on a turn in the western portion of the downtown tunnel. This was the case in 2020, but the slowdown seemed much more pronounced this week. That's what it seemed like to me, anyway.

On my way back home from the downtown protest, I took a quick snap of the train that brought me back west. On this day, the trains were working normally, but I should note that the line was shut down yet again to allow crews to find the source of water leaks at Rideau Station in the downtown tunnel.

And so it goes in Ottawa.