Thurso and Nation Valley Railway

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Thurso, Québec in December 1982. Six thirty a.m. It's very cold - minus 30 degrees. All that can be heard is the squeaking of the snow underfoot - almost deafening in the still, pre-dawn air.

 Inside the Car Shop there are two tracks. Along the north track are three General Electric 70 ton locomotives that loom large in the semi darkness. Walking down the south track we pass #10, a GE 50 ton locomotive with side rods. It leans silently to the right, as it has since time immemorial, and sports the scars of many battles but seems to have won most of them. Everywhere the locomotive shows signs of the inventiveness and adaptation that have served to breathe life into this short line, such as its home made pilot - truly the art of a master welder.

 We pass an ancient log car, the snow melting from its deep frozen frame. It is thawing out ready to be worked on this morning. Two arch bar trucks, a K triple brake valve and truss rods might place this car in a museum but it is a workaday car ideally suited for logging operations. It is little more than a frame that has been strengthened with pieces of 60 pound rail, all dating from the early 1880s. There is a semicircular piece of steel welded above each air brake angle cock to protect them from errant logs. The frame is tired, yet the skill of the Thurso welders will soon have it back on the road to continue its countless daily journeys to the log loading sidings.

The third vehicle, the object of our search, is a dumpy wooden former Canadian Pacific Superintendent's car with the number 27 painted on the side.  We start stowing our supplies aboard - we are only going for the day yet anyone would think we had enough for a week!

Ten minutes to seven and there's nobody from the railway around. Gaetan Lafleur, the Superintendent, told us to be ready to move by seven o'clock. Everything is quiet. Have they forgotten?

Five to seven. A heavy wooden door creaks open and Renald Seguin, the locomotive engineer, wheels his ancient bike inside (yes, even though it is winter). A little friendly banter in French but no time to lose as there's work to be done! Then all hell breaks loose as two Caterpillar engines start up with a roar. Two of the 70 ton locomotives come to life. With a blast of cold air as the door is opened the road power disappears into the cloud of steam created when warm shop air is mixed with minus 30 degree air outside.

The south track doors open and a gentle nudge on car 27 indicates that we have made contact with the road power for the day. We leave the building at five past seven. As we do, we light the two stoves in the car. The air inside is warm, but the searing cold will soon penetrate the wooden car unless we get some heat quickly.

A radio crackles into life as the brakeman gives back-up instructions to the engineer and a second nudge indicates that we have coupled to the rest of the train. With a hiss the air is cut into our car and the gauge above the old Canadian Pacific Superintendent's desk quickly climbs to 70 pounds per square inch.

Two blasts from the head end and #7 and #12 set off. The yard switch is passed at twelve minutes past seven - very impressive for a railway that was sleeping fifteen minutes ago. The crossing bell rings loudly as we traverse the road at the mill gate. People hardly give us a second glance, shrunken as they are into their heavy winter clothing. Ice particles suspended in the air create a light fog.

The first mile or so is spent on the back platform, listening to the quiet creaking of the car against protesting rail joints. The sun is just coming up in a cloudless sky. The cold air hurts the lungs and ice forms on the hairs in the nostrils every time one inhales. One feels very self conscious of the long johns under one's pants. As we climb slowly out of the Ottawa valley there is a magnificent panorama of this majestic river. The Thurso mill complex, the reason for the railway, looms out of the human habitation fog. But one can have too much of a good thing and we soon retreat to the warmth of the  galley where the air is now laced with the aroma of bacon and fresh coffee.

The climb from Thurso is the most severe part of the northbound trip and we are down to a walking pace by the time we crest the grade at mile one. The next few miles are through a pocket of farming country in a pleasant, almost forgotten valley. The open, snow covered fields are punctuated by farmsteads, each one with a column of smoke rising vertically in the motionless air.

Sitting in the lounge of car 27 we can look ahead to see the locomotives framed in the rail stakes that are used to secure the logs on the return trip. A headlight is shining back towards us because Thurso locomotives run with headlights on at both ends. As the interior of the car warms up, the windows frost up and we find another use for a credit card - to scrape frost off the windows. A resolution is passed to make some storm windows to avoid this problem in the future.

The line is like a roller coaster and the low cars hug the contours.  Over the high fill that was originally a trestle. Over the bridge that was originally a locomotive turntable. Past the hut that started out as a Marion log loader. Nothing on this line is what it seems and little has been bought new. Some of the log flats entered service as boxcars.

The farms give way to cottage country at Lac Viceroi. We are in the woods by Singer where there's just time to catch a glimpse of the old boxcar body used for storage. The country becomes wilder and the line follows a narrow valley to reach a high lake. A short rock cut marks the summit of the line at mile 33. We cross the falls of the Iroquois River, with its winter wonderland display of icicles and frost on the overhanging branches and quickly gather speed.

We are now on  The Hill. The descent is exciting, exhilarating, hair-raising or scary depending upon your disposition but engineer Sequin has the train well under control. Rounding Horseshoe Curve we skirt the frozen Lac de la Ferme and soon arrive in Duhamel. We break out of the woods at Lac Gagnon and quickly reach the end of the run. 

Mile 46 is not a very inspiring name but neither is its location. It consists of a siding in a large clearing where the logs are loaded. Here the train locomotives will exchange empty cars for loads, with the assistance of tiny GE 25 ton locomotive #6 whose days at Thurso are already numbered. When the overhaul of GE 70 ton #13 is completed, #6 will be sent off to the USA, never to return.

#6 shows a few tricks. It comes up behind us to move into a siding. The switch is lined against it but the loco splits the switch with gay abandon, the handle having been left up for just such a move. As the small engine passes, the engineer jumps off and throws the switch. It seems that we are set for a rear end collision because there is nobody in the cab but the engine stops and then backs itself up to where the engineer is waiting for it. Anyone would think that they do this every day!

"That's the first time," exclaims Phil, "that I have seen a locomotive pop wheelies!"

Click here to return to TNVR locomotives #6.

 Everybody is out to take pictures and we quickly find out that the snow is deeper than it looks, and that, although sunny, it is still very cold. Cameras are kept inside parkas to keep them from freezing up. Because of slack action the respite at Mile 46 is the only practical time to cook and eat a meal.

The entree consists of a choice of:

  • Steak au poivre
  • Steak sesame
  • Steak au porto
  • Biftek TNVR
This means that the chef has peppercorns, sesame seed and port with which to practice his culinary skills. Biftek TNVR is a combination of all three and reflects the essential feature of the TNVR - the ability to exercise ingenuity. The customers are happy, until a heavy hand on the locomotive brake some sixty cars away gives us a good shot and many finish up with "Steak au carpet"!

By eleven o'clock the train has been made up for the return to Thurso. The logs loom precariously over the diminutive car 27 as we gently take off and make our way to Horseshoe Curve where we are to triple The Hill. The front portion is hauled to the top and placed in Iroquois siding. While waiting at the bottom, we have the perfect opportunity to take pictures. The snow is crisp and unsullied while the air is still and cold. The only sound that can be heard is the lonesome cry of the chickadee - "chickadee-dee-dee". We stand silently looking at Car 27, this little piece of history that we have preserved, until the very quiet of the place drives us back into the familiar comfort and jocular warmth of the car.

The move up the hill is accomplished in three parts and it is some time before we are on our way again. At Singer we can hear Gaetan Lafleur calling the train over the radio. It comes to a halt right by the crossing where he is standing by his hyrail truck. 

 "If you get out I'll back up the train so that you can get some pictures."

Our own private run past! Something we would never ask on our own because it would interrupt the running of the trains. The lighting is good and we are able to record the road locomotives complete with Christmas trees placed in the handrails ready to grace some Thurso homes. Gaetan returns to Thurso with us, his only reward being a piece of blueberry pie.

This has been an ordinary trip over this extraordinary railway. We arrive back in Thurso as it is getting dark. #10 is waiting and, with side rods flashing, it quickly moves car 27 back to the Car Shop. As we unload the last of our supplies, the two road locomotives return to the warmth of the shop to await the call for duty at seven tomorrow morning.

February and March are the most difficult months because of the snow conditions that must be fought and conquered. Spring comes late in this part of Canada, and the snow can lie in pockets well into May. The run-off creates annual challenges in the form of soft track - a difficulty even with the light Thurso locomotives.  Summer brings its own problems in the form of black flies and mosquitoes! Trains run at night in order to allow time during the day for track maintenance. It may be hot outside, but under the trees it is cool. The air is scented with the aroma of cedar and pine. A cheeky squirrel may scold you from a secure branch while a chipmunk rustles the leaves in a frantic dash for cover. Mice live under the ties. Beaver work busily in the quiet streams, observed for the most part only by the trout. Moose tracks abound along the sandy right of way while deer are frequent trackside visitors.

Autumn is a showy time of year.  The bright red maples receive all the attention, yet they can be appreciated more when contrasted with the yellow of the poplar and the green of the pine and cedar.  The raucous call of the blue jay defies the coming winter while the leaves wait quietly for the snow to fall.

For sixty seasons the railway disturbed the tranquillity of the north woods with the sounds of logs moving to the Thurso mill. It was the last logging railway in eastern Canada but now the woods are silent and the rails have been removed. Nature has a way of quickly covering over the scars man makes and quickly erases traces of our efforts. I hope this will serve as a tangible reminder of a railway that succumbed to economics. It took a special breed of men to battle the economic and climatic odds to railroad logs into the silicon chip world of the 1980s. This essay is dedicated to those people and to a way of life that is now gone for ever.

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