Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part I)

I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos in the late 1990s when I began my post-secondary education in Ottawa at Carleton University in September 1996. In retrospect, it would have been a fun time to take shots. That's because every one of my trips home to see family at that time meant spending the better part of a day on the train. It was a time when you could still buy your student-discounted ticket at a Travelcuts travel agency on campus and the ticket you got might still have the red carbon copy. That quickly changed to those thick cardstock paper, one-fold tickets with the perforated lines to separate each leg of your journey. For me, taking the train regularly over those four years (1996-2000) was an eye opener, as someone who had seen almost no part of Ontario beyond Toronto for the first 18 years of his life. So, let's take a journey down memory lane and across the province back in the glory days of the late 90s.

A quick note about the equipment. As far as I can recall, every one of the trains I took were pretty much the same consist. I don't recall ever riding behind a P42. It was always an F40PH-2. The cars were almost exclusively LRC coaches. I don't recall riding in an old silver HEP car once during my university years. I don't know if that's a coincidence, but I'm almost positive of these facts. 


It's important to mention this off the top. In all my time taking the train in university, there was no Fallowfield Station. The train would roar through Barrhaven in Ottawa's south end and throttle up for the short leg to Smiths Falls. That meant all trips started at Ottawa's train station on Tremblay Road. Despite the fact that Ottawa doesn't have an historic train station as in Toronto, the east end station in Ottawa is a fascinating building, which is an award-winning architectural work from the 1960s. Given what many buildings of a similar vintage look like in Ottawa, the central train station is downright beautiful. Its main hall, with an endless wall of windows facing the tracks, is a bright, welcoming space. The circular ticket office in the middle of the hall is a creative way to create separate areas. The underground tunnel from the outside platforms is quite beautiful as well, especially the circular ramp to take you back up to the main station. The Via Panorama Lounge is well appointed as well, although I have only been there once. That was when I accompanied my friend, a person with a disability, who was accommodated in the Business Class (formerly Via1) car. All in all, the building hasn't changed much since I frequented it in my university years. The biggest change might be that there is no Harvey's at the station anymore. The food options are not great. Also, the rail yard is much smaller and the old Governor General's cars are no longer there. A small complaint.

Smiths Falls

Heading southwest, the first stop was (and is) always Smiths Falls, which had a classic railway town feel the moment you eased into the old platform at the former Canadian Pacific station on the edge of the CP yard. Of course, in those days, that old building still functioned as the Via station, which has since changed. The new Via station is more of an enlarged kiosk on Union Street, on the edge of the town.

The old station is now a centre for the arts and seems to be well used. Depending on which way I was travelling, Smiths Falls was either the stop where I was getting restless or the stop where I would be settling in with a book, magazine or my walkman (yes, I still listened to cassette tapes then). It was a town I didn't know much about until I learned of its history. It was the longtime home of the Hershey's chocolate factory and was once a very busy division point on the CPR, the dividing point between the Brockville, Winchester and Belleville subdivisions. It still is, but the Brockville Sub is now exclusively Via controlled while the Winchester and Belleville subs continue on as the eastern leg of the CP system to Montreal (and now beyond, once again). But the activity here is not what it was in the 1990s.


Brockville is another town that I must confess that I still don't know a lot about, other than it is still sees plenty of rail action each day, as the CN and CP eastern main lines converge here. There's plenty of history in Brockville, including its famous old railway tunnel, not to mention its name, which pays tribute to Sir Isaac Brock. Brock was a British military leader who many credit with preventing a successful American invasion of the Canadian colonies in the War of 1812. The red coat that he was shot and killed in on the Queenston Heights in the Niagara Region can be found at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A gruesome relic, but a fascinating story.


This town was probably the most surprising stop in my early years taking the train to and from Ottawa. I didn't know the town existed, to be honest, and was absolutely shocked when I saw its railway station for the first time. I wondered what kind of one-horse town Gananoque was. I didn't understand at the time that the town's train station was actually not in the town at all, but in a rural area named Cheeseborough to the north. This station remains a vital link where Gananoque is connected to the main line. A short branch line south into the town itself served Gananoque as a passenger link until 1962 and as a freight spur until 1995, when the last freight service ended and the rails were pulled up. However, the first time my train stopped there and I looked around the station area through the window, it was hard to comprehend how a station could be placed in the middle of nowhere. That's what it appeared like to me, anyway. You can read about the town, its famous engine the Susan Push (below), and its heritage in this post, where I explored some of the town's railway history.


Prior to my university years, I had only been to Kingston one time. Over the years, I have made some visits and I really do love the city. It's an eclectic mix of historic charm, academia, Upper Canada Loyalist, blue collar ethos and innovation. The city's history, of course, is what underpins much of Kingston and its beautiful downtown and waterfront.

From a rail traveller's perspective, there isn't much to be gleaned when you stop at Kingston station. The Via Rail schedule here is packed, as Kingston sits arguably about half way between Toronto and Montreal and also hosts a number of corridor trains to and from Ottawa. I suppose my memories of Kingston in the 1990s are closely tied to my high school friend Chris, who went to Queen's University to study engineering. Chris and I often found ourselves on the same train between Sarnia and Ottawa, although rarely on the return trip west. Chris was (likely still is) a real card back in high school and university. He had a gregarious personality and didn't mind making fun of himself in a crowd if it meant drawing laughter.

My clearest memory of our rides together on the train happened when we somehow got onto the topic of Stompin' Tom Connors and his famous ditty, The Hockey Song. I'm not sure how it came about, but I remember Chris singing the entire song word-for-word on the train, just loud enough that the people around us could hear him, but not too loud that he would annoy them. I think he left a few people befuddled, to be honest. 

Chris made many a train trip a little more bearable, although I should point out that I had no problem sitting by myself, reading, writing or listening to my cassette tapes. I do recall that, in the days before everything was available online, my brother would sometimes tape a cassette's worth of my favourite radio morning show from back home, which I used to listen to over and over. 

I should also mention that Kingston to me is closely tied to nearby Ernestown, a railway ghost town if ever there was one! The old stone station still stands trackside and it was on my rides between Ottawa and Sarnia that I first saw that old abandoned station. Back in the days before everything was online (man, I'm sounding old now), the story of that station remained a mystery to me, which I think was part of its appeal. Later on, I was filled in on the Ernestown story by Trackside Treasure's Eric Gagnon, but back in the 1990s that old station was the stuff of my imagination. 

These rides featured many other memories and lessons for me, but these are the ones that stick out as part of the Eastern Ontario portion of my journeys. I'm grateful for that education.


Kevin from Windsor said...

What a great story! My commute to university was a 20 minute bus ride, followed by a brisk 10 minute walk, from my home in south Windsor to the University of Windsor campus. Then as now, public transit in Windsor was deplorable. So if you missed the bus, it was an hour wait for the next one. I took the train from Windsor to Ottawa once. June 1982. The LRC coaches were still rolling out and not in widespread use. Windsor to Toronto was either Budd coaches or perhaps a Tempo train. Toronto to Kingston was a Turbo train. I’d always wanted to ride one, and was happy to be able to do so, as they were withdrawn from service later that year. Kingston to Ottawa was a Via chartered bus ride. Very few trains ran between Ottawa and Toronto back then. We were scheduled to make some stops between Kingston and Ottawa, but it seems nobody was ticketed, so we drove straight to the station in Ottawa.

Eric said...

Great memories, Michael. Until we look back at what we remember, it's hard to believe how much the current scene has changed. And we don't always how 'good we had it' such as variety on the rails and the facilities we encountered along the way.

I just drove up Road 4 on Sunday and that plucky and non-preserved Ernestown station is still there!!

Thanks for sharing,

Steve Boyko said...

You had a nicer ride to university than I did! Mine was a Trius bus from Oromocto to Fredericton. It wasn't a bad bus, and I was able to snooze all the way so time flew quickly.

Eric May said...

I had a year of riding Budd RDC's Toronto to Peterborough just before the 1981 cuts. Too bad there are long gone.

Kevin from Windsor said...

That would make a great article. Maybe Michael would let you write a guest column. I’ve been fascinated by that line since I was a kid. But never got to ride it. Saw a Budd car in CP Rail livery driving home from Ottawa parked at Havelock Station one Sunday afternoon in the early 70s. There’s perpetual talk of restoring the line for GO Train service from the North Toronto CPR station at Scrivner Square, and of course overlaying it for high speed Montreal - Toronto service.

Michael said...

Thanks for all the comments, gentlemen. I agree with Kevin. I would love to hear stories about the old passenger service on CP's line up to Havelock. I have great memories of watching old CP SW1200s breezing through Peterborough in the early oughts. What do you say, Eric?

Eric said...

This Eric is all in favour of that, Michael, Kevin and Eric!