Let's describe the route as seen by the TNVR locomotive engineer. We'll join him at the Thurso Car Shop where we find the road power waiting on the Shop Track. The yard crew started work at seven o'clock and have been busy collecting empty log cars for our train with #10. We have a big train today and all three road locomotives are included in this morning's lash up. There's some muttering from the yard crew about having to use #10 which is only pressed into service when nothing else is available. The 70 ton road locomotives are set up to run long hood forward but are normally run with the cab leading in order to keep the cab ahead of the exhaust. Technically the trains are run with the lead locomotive running backwards all the time. This doesn't cause any problems although the engineer runs the locomotive from the left hand side of the train. It may cause some confusion to the uninitiated, however, because when the Thurso engineer says "reculez" (back up) he may want the train to go forward. Similarly when he says "avancez" (go ahead) this may mean to back the train.
Today, #7 is the leading engine with #11 following elephant style and #12 bringing up the rear with the cab facing back for the return trip. These units all have fancy four digit numbers stencilled on the cab sides to satisfy the accountants but to the railway they are just 7, 11 and 12. #7 was bought new while the other two came second hand from the Canadian National Prince Edward Island operation. The only external difference between them is in the placing of the bells, the CN units having the bell above the hood while the Thurso locomotive has its bell under the running board on the right hand side.
Promptly on time, our engineer, Jean-Louis Blais, arrives on his battered bicycle which he props up against the support for the sand hopper in the Car Shop. There is some dispute over who actually owns the Car Shop and today the resident swallows resent the human intervention into their nesting habitat. With birds circling around his head the engineer makes a dash for his locomotive, puts his lunch bucket on the running board and swings into the cab. The locomotive is best described as well used. There are no frills and everything is very functional. The body work carries a number of scars and the "racing stripes" do not coincide because the louvred engine compartment doors have been replaced incorrectly. A huge cable is slung along the running board while wooden blocking and steel bars are out ready for instant use.
Three Caterpillar engines burst into life with a lot of black smoke. Our brakeman, Yves Boivin, joins us, and blows down the air reservoirs. Before leaving there is a conference with the rest of the Thurso crew so that everybody knows exactly what is being done today.
Rounding the curve from the shop, we reach the yard throat, open the gates for Galipeau Street and back into the siding for the first part of our train. This siding is so steep that the cars are left chained to the rails. We ease up enough to release the chain and then double across the road to pick up the rest of the train that #10 has assembled for us. We have 45 cars today - a full house.
There is a ridge of high ground skirting the northern boundary of the mill complex. Many houses have been built here because of the excellent view across the Ottawa River valley. Gaetan Lafleur, the Railway Superintendent, lives here, not only for the view towards the Ontario shore, but also so that he can keep an eye on his railway. His house is easily distinguished by the radio tower on the roof. Not much can be done on the railway without Gaetan either seeing or hearing about it! He knows we are on board today and climbs up as we leave the yard to point out some of the more interesting features of the line. His comments are shown in bold print.
"The return in April was a happy event. The exact date was never known for certain. Some winters the railway would not run and it took time to reopen it depending upon snow conditions. Word would spread like wildfire and the families would come to meet the train. Sometimes the wife would have a young baby born since the man left for the bush. In spite of the occasion they were very orderly and there was very little drunkenness.
"Many had farms in the area and there was only just time for seeding and harvest before they had to return to the bush for the winter.
"In later years the woodsmen would be brought home for the Christmas holiday. Around 1950 the arrangement was changed to bring the men out on Saturday morning and take them back on Sunday evening. This was much better for the men but the Company could not guarantee that it would have enough men in the bush because many would decide to miss a week or so. There are now fewer men working in the bush and they drive in from their homes every day."
With whistle blasting, we cross Galipeau Street and attack the grade with #10 clanking away at the rear. Running eastwards at first, a curve to the north east marks a short respite in the climb. But there's little time to admire the beautiful, expansive views, across the Ottawa valley because a slip here would be very difficult to recover from. A second, more severe, curve points the flat front of the locomotive due north and we have crested the grade. With a sigh of relief, Jean-Louis can turn off the sand and relax in anticipation of the pleasant valley of the Ruisseau Blanche. Yves lights his pipe, wipes his generous moustache and stretches out as far as it is possible to stretch in the cab of a 70 ton locomotive.
"My father's house caused a problem one day. It was built in such a position that it obstructed the view of the yard for southbound trains. One day I was shunting in the yard and the train was coming in. The first thing we knew, we saw the engines coming around the curve. Bang! They weren't coming too fast, maybe ten miles an hour, but the tool box changed from one colour to another. Later on my father's house was taken down, but not to improve the view."
Back on the main line, there are two dirt roads to whistle for before we cross highway 317. The familiar rule 14L whistle echoes across the valley. The Thurso engineers are familiar with the universal signal although they are hardly likely to know it by that name. After crossing highway 317 at mile 3 there is a pleasant roller coaster stretch along the base of a cliff on the western side. The throttle is kept open here to keep the train stretched out and to get a run up to the next highway crossing at mile 5. The road runs parallel to the railway before gradually moving further to the east and we must watch out for fallen rocks in this area because in July 1975 there was a rock slide at mile 3.5. Luckily it took place at 18:00 on a Sunday evening when no trains were running but 1000 feet of roadbed dropped between fifteen and thirty five feet into the ravine on the east side. This was likely caused by work that was being done on the adjacent road at the time but we keep a sharp watch out in any case.
The Department of Natural Resources has attached a number of nesting boxes to the right of way fence posts to encourage the swallows to breed. This has been successful and the new tenants hardly take any notice of the passing trains. However, it hasn't reduced the swallow population at the Thurso Car Shop!
Mile 4 marks the site of the TNVR graveyard for it is here that can be found the last mortal remains of many a railway car that grew too old or too infirm to be of any further use. This is quite a private area because the railway likes to conduct its last rites alone, but one can find the inevitable discarded refrigerator along with the more exotic remains of Hart cars that were used to build the line.
The valley is becoming quite narrow as the train disappears into a pleasant copse, crosses a stream, passes an artificial lake in a wooded garden and turns north east. The Caterpillar engines are given another couple of notches for the climb to the second crossing with highway 317. There are some difficult curves here and southbound engineers must beware of slack action which has been known to pop a car completely out of a train in this area. From the crossing there are some splendid views of the train as it appears to be coming out of a tunnel of trees. This is even more intriguing in winter when the locomotives, with shining headlights, are moving out of a white snow cave. This is one of several magic places on the line.
Still climbing, the train turns north again to follow the road out of this valley. The first siding, at mile 5, with the switch facing south, is used by southbound trains that must double the grade to the summit at mile 6. With a final glimpse of the valley with its many ruminating cows and rustic buildings, the train crests the grade and makes its way through woodland turning eastwards.
The locomotives are given a rest as the train gathers speed down into the valley of the Rivière Ste-Sixte. A bump from the train tells us that the slack has been taken up. To arrest the log racks Jean-Louis makes a five pound brake reduction but kicks off the independent brake. There is now the prospect of the pleasant stretch as far as Ripon. This is literally seat of the pants railroading as a slight tug from the rear, felt through the pants, indicates that the K triple brake valves are checking our progress. If you feel the tug through your back you know that you have been too hard on the old cars. The line is some way from the road in this area but long distance views can be had from the dirt road that follows the other side of the valley. It is here in winter that the engineer unwittingly performs a second piece of magic for the observer. The white hills and grey sky show up the black train as the engineer silently draws a thin black horizontal line across the winter landscape.
We cross highway 317 for the last time and a second road crossing marks the closest that we will come to Ripon. A second MOW siding with portable points is just north of the crossing at mile 15.6. The line begins to climb with tree covered hills all around us. This part is readily viewed from the road and the backdrop of colours in the fall is almost enough to hurt one's eyes. Turning from northwest to northeast the locomotives are opened flat out as we climb through a colourful rock cut. Power is quickly cut back as we drop down into a small, wild, valley but we soon have to climb up the northbound ruling grade at mile 17. This up and down section can cause train handling problems, particularly on the southbound runs, because the train can be on several different grades at the same time.
The next valley is wilder, more spectacular and quite bleak. A snow storm in December 1928 caused a problem at mile 18.7 when #2 became stuck in a snowdrift for fifteen hours. Apart from digging the steam engine out by hand, some effort had to be diverted to shovelling snow into the tender to avoid having the locomotive run out of water.
At the bottom of the dip we run across a high fill which was originally the seventy foot high Jasmin Trestle. By 1939 it had deteriorated to such an extent that the railway decided to build a culvert and fill in the trestle with gravel. This was an enormous task, bearing in mind that the line was still being extended northwards at that time, but it was completed in the short period of 43 days. The work was carried on for 15 to 18 hours a day with the TNVR's 24 ballast cars. A total of 89,000 cubic yards of gravel were moved to complete the fill up to the level of the ties. For a six day week the steam shovel operator, Park Smith, who loaded the cars, was paid the princely sum of $25.00!
Turning northwest there is a quick glimpse of the sawmill that provided the ties for the railway for a number of years. There was a siding here on the east side. We pass a ballast loading siding which provided the fill for the Jasmin Trestle. This siding is used to double southbound trains over the grades between mile 20.5 and 20.0 and between mile 22.5 and 22.0. Skirting the west side of Lac Viceroi (mile 20.7), we then pass the Montpellier Golf Course at mile 22.3 and turn northeast.
The next landmark is the bridge over the Rivière Laroche at mile 24.5 which started life as a Canadian Pacific turntable which was installed about 1952. Before this time there was a small wooden trestle, the supports for which can still be seen. At that time Gaetan Lafleur was a brakeman.
'We'll go and get the loaded train and we'll see on the way back'.
"So we stopped on the way back and my father said:
'Gee, now I'm gonna take a big decision'.
"He told Smith:
'We'll go on the other side and you open the throttle a notch or two then jump off. We'll let the train take itself over. But don't forget one thing guys. If something happens we don't know anything about it'.
"We did as he said and the train passed over that weak bridge. After this the line was closed until a turntable could be brought down from Montréal and lifted into place on two wooden platforms".
"It seems hard to believe that, at one time, Singer was a busy little place. There were 14 homes, a camp, a post office, a general store and a school. The cross was erected many years ago by Henri Faubert who ran the general store."
The second narrow valley since Singer brings us to the summit of the line at mile 30.5. A pole in a damp sombre cut, marking 875 feet above sea level, indicates the end of the climb from an elevation of below 200 feet at Thurso. The sun rarely penetrates this place. From here it is mostly downhill to the end of the line. Mile 32 marks the junction of the abandoned Lac Iroquois branch. Rounding a curve we come across the switch for Iroquois siding, mile 33, which is used to stand cars that have been doubled up the hill from mile 35. On the west side of the siding can be seen the Iroquois River with its beaver dam.
|"One time when we were spraying weedkiller with the poison tank we
ran out of air. We had the caboose, #4 and the tank ahead of #4. The air
was going down so slowly that the engineer didn't feel it because it was
hooked up to the train line to make pressure in the poison tank. When they
got here they found they had no more air. So the engineer he went from his
seat to the caboose to put on the handbrake. They made it around the curve
at the bottom at around 60 mph they told me but I don't believe they could
have gone that fast. One of them jumped when the engineer yelled:|
'No more air'
"My father, he was on the front of the tank and he stayed where he
was. It is unbelievable that they made it round the curve at the bottom
with no brake at all. They finally stopped past the old wye almost into Duhamel.
I am sure Park Smith managed to talk his way out of that one as well. Maybe
my father was too scared to do anything about it."
Checking that we have plenty of air, we ease over the top and on to the grade.
As we cross the Iroquois River Falls, the train nudges us to remind us that it is still there and that the slack has been taken up. The falls are beautiful in the dead of winter when the spray coats the trees and turns them into a white forest that sparkles in the sun. Just below the bridge at mile 34 there can be seen the remains of an old ballast car, partly buried in the embankment.
"#6 was at the other side of the hole so I yelled to the crew to move because this was a runaway. So I dropped off just before we got to the hole. The first two ballast cars ran over but the third tipped over and fell right into the hole so we left it right there. The other two had slowed up sufficiently that they did not cause any problems for #6."
CAUTION BEWARE OF BEAVERS
We negotiate an avenue of tall trees, cross the road twice and come to Duhamel, the only settlement that we see on the entire journey. The old two track enginehouse on the west side has been leased to the volunteer fire department while a fuel tank from a 70 ton locomotive is used for fuel storage on the east side. The Duhamel arena, with its colourful advertisements, one of them being for James MacLaren, is on the right. This is the closest we get to the village proper which was once the headquarters of the woodland operation.
We arrive at mile 46, a depressing clearing of dry, but well churned, mud. A call on the radio confirms that #13 is expecting us and so we set off on the last leg in search of #13 and the loads. At mile 48 we enter the Parc Papineau-Labelle, a provincial park. Some 1.5 miles further on, a small, innoffensive stream crosses the railway from our left and joins the main river.
"The logging road that goes off to the left generally follows the right of way of the branch to Lac du Sourd. This had a wicked down grade for loaded trains just before they reached the main line. All of the crews were afraid of it. They had to come to a complete stop and fully charge the air line before creeping on to the grade. Everyone was pleased when that line was torn up."
A switch marks the wye at the end of the line and soon we can see Lac Fascinant. Gaetan takes us around the wye before going into the log loading siding where #13 is hidden in the middle of the loads. The two crews proceed to extricate #13 from the loads and to reinsert it into the empties. Each time he passes us the foreman, Donnio Filion, gives us a huge grin from the cab of the locomotive that sounds like a truck. One wonders whether placing a truck engine in a locomotive has created severe psychological disorders that cause it to shun its brethren by hiding itself in a string of cars.
By prearrangement Jacques has driven up to take us back to Thurso so that we can get some roadside views of the train. It's now 1 o'clock and the sun will be shining on the front of the train on the way back. We set off and Jacques has immediately to hit the brakes to avoid a cute little bear cub which is wandering on the road. We roll up the windows because wherever cute little cubs are to be found, not so cute large mother bears are always close at hand.
The train can be followed easily from the highway as far as Duhamel but from there we have to make a detour round the east side of Lac Simon to get to Singer. We know there is time to do this because the train will double the hill to mile 33 and there is also work to be done at Singer. From Singer the train is running flat out to get a run at the hill beyond the golf course. We go along the paved highway through Montpellier and catch the train at the small rock cut near mile 17 and then we can play tag to mile 10.4. They are making track speed although the throttle has been closed for several miles.
From here we decide to go directly to the top of the grade at mile 6 where we can park by the side of the road and watch the train from the hard shoulder. It is a long time before we hear three Caterpillar engines fighting for every inch of the way. They are set back to idle as they crest the grade and just before the train appears at a walking pace around the curve.
The train is gathering speed as we make a roll by inspection at the crossing at mile 5 and then there is an excellent opportunity for pacing from the highway. This is an attractive setting with the train below the cliff and we can enjoy the spectacle of locomotives that are almost forty years old, helping to settle the insatiable appetite of a paper mill, pulling truss rod cars equipped with K triple brake valves. There is smoke coming from a couple of cars but it is only brakeshoe smoke - nothing to worry about.
After the crossing at mile 3 we go ahead to catch one last glimpse of the train half way down the hill into Thurso, on the outskirts of town. The old cars have completed another days work to bring another load to the mill. As we look down the track, through the gate and into the yard the train comes to a stop wreathed in brakeshoe smoke. #10 quickly comes into the scene through the smoke and the cars are readied for unloading.
We go back to the Car Shop to see the units being brought back to the Shop track. As the three road locomotives come around the curve two have already been shut down to conserve fuel. The lead locomotive is also shut down as it passes the switch and the consist drifts quietly to a halt. The crew are quickly on the ground and the engineer repatriates his bicycle from the swallows. Calm returns to the scene as the 70 ton locomotives are left to the diving ministrations of the swallows. As the sun sets behind the paper mill we make our way off the property happy in the knowledge that the TNVR is now safely put away, ready to bring another load of logs tomorrow.