By Train Up The Gatineau
The Fabulous Story of Trains in the Gatineau Valley
by John E. Trent
The Canadian Context: For more than a century, railways were a fundamental part of the life-blood of the Gatineau region. Steam trains have been running in Canada for almost two hundred years. Railways are said to be the ties that bind the country. Certainly, they served to open the country for development. They are a major part of our history – including in the Outaouais where they started working on a railway in 1870.
Just to put our region in context, let us recall that the first railway was reputed to have run in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1830 but was only for freight. The first real railway, open to the public, started in 1836 and ran for 25 kilometers between the towns of La Prairie and Saint-Jean in Quebec. It had the grandiose name of ‘the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad’. Many more short lines were built in the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario in the 1850s and 60s.
Railways became political bargaining chips. The Maritimes made building an Intercolonial Railway linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Quebec and Ontario a condition of Confederation. It was started in 1867 right after Confederation and ran until 1918. Similarly, British Columbia demanded that a railway linking Montreal to Vancouver be completed within ten years of the federal pact. This gigantic construction project, a miracle of its time, was started in 1872 and completed in 1886 by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. It was the longest – and most costly – railway in the world. By 1990, CP had bought or built rail lines connecting Montreal to Saint John’s New Brunswick making it the first truly transcontinental railway company and giving it access to an ice-free port.
Some years earlier in 1853, the Grand Trunk between Montreal and Portland Maine (an ice-free port) had become the first train to cross the Canadian-American frontier. In 1919, the Canadian government combined the Intercolonial, the Canadian Northern, the National Transcontinental and the Grand Trunk Pacific to form the Canadian National or CN so that Canada had two transcontinental railways. By the 1980s, the CN was the longest railway system in North America, controlling more than 50,000 kilometers of track in Canada and the United States.
By train up the Gatineau
Going back millennia, the native peoples were the first to use the rivers and lakes of the Outaouais as highways. The pioneers of West Quebec followed their path with their first turn-pike following the Gatineau River from the town of Hull (now incorporated in the city of Gatineau) to Wakefield. By all accounts, the stage coach up the Gatineau was a most unpleasant adventure. The rutted clay road was not only painful but difficult. It took a full day to traverse the 32 kilometers from Hull to Wakefield – a trip now easily covered in less than half an hour. As it was said at the time, “the road was without parallel for its wretchedness…”.
Here, as a little aside, we can see how sometimes the past can project itself into the future. Jean Piggott, who became the Chair of National Capital Commission and a supporter of the tourist train, was very proud that her family had been the owners of this infamous stage coach. She related how they established post houses every two hours so they could change the teams of horses. These staging posts became the stops of the eventual train on the way to Wakefield. Today they are still the main side roads and communities along highway 105 such as Chelsea, Tenaga, Gleneagle, Kirk’s Ferry, Cascades and Farm Point. Beyond Wakefield the stops became more spaced out but still became the villages and train stops we know today – Alcove, Farellton, Low, Gracefield , (see map and list of stations)
But to go back to our story, it seems that this painful and lengthy stage coach ride more than anything motivated a group of Gatineau businessmen (including Alonzo Wright, E.B Eddy and John MacLaren, etc.) – prime movers in the Outaouais) to band together to seek a charter for a railway from Ottawa to Maniwaki to be called the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway Company. We must admire their foresight and determination to struggle for 30 years to get the train to Maniwaki (remember it took just seven years for the CP to span the continent). As we shall see shortly, history was to repeat itself 120 years later when it took seven years to get the Wakefield tourist steam train on the tracks for a 30 kilometer run when, in the same period, it took the Europeans just three years to get a new version of the famous Orient Express up and running across the European continent. More on this a little later …
A series of articles in the Ottawa Citizen of April 1871 gives us more information on what was driving the founders of the Gatineau Valley Railway. They really were dreams of glory. Gatineau would become the hinterland of the Ottawa economy providing fire wood, timber, minerals, arable land, water power, food products and eventually manufacturing. Rather than draining resources away from the capital, the Gatineau railway would bring them in. In the Gatineau, land for development would be surveyed and sub-divided on both sides of the river for a hundred miles. Transportation would be eased rather than the “wretched roads”. The railway would open markets and lower costs. It would be a pathway to Quebec colonization and to timber and new sawmills. ”Never was a claim for government aid better founded” … “than this excellent scheme”.
These dreams had to satisfy the train’s backers for the next 30 years before the first passenger train finally rolled into Maniwaki in 1904. As Bruce Ballantyne laid it out in his article in the Bytown Railway Associations review, the Branchline, in May 1966 and his intrepid research on the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railroad in the Ottawa Citizen from 1871 to 1880 , the self-proclaimed railroaders diddled for 11 years before the first sod was turned near the Aylmer road tollgate in 1882. But this was only a false start. It wasn’t until 1890 that real construction got started under Chief Engineer W. Dale Harris. It was plagued by collapsing embankments and culverts due to clay south of Wakefield. Finally, the first passenger service to Wakefield started in 1892 (100 years before the inaugural run of the Tourist Train).
The rail line slowly crept up through Kazabazua to Gracefield but did not go much further until the railway was leased to the Canadian Pacific for 99 years in 1902. Then things moved ahead and the first passenger train reached Maniwaki in 1904. In the meantime, the railway had changed its name from Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railroad Company to become the Ottawa Northern and Western to take in the Pontiac line. Although it took 20 years to reach Maniwaki our railwaymen never stopped dreaming. Their charter was amended twice to go to James Bay and also Lake Temiscaminque!
There were both freight and passenger operations on this very active line. Still according to Bruce Ballantyne, for most of the early decades of the 1900s there were two trains a day each way, except Sundays. Freight service to Maniwaki was offered on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, returning to Ottawa the following day. In the 1920s, service was expanded to include additional passenger service for commuters and even ski trains. In some periods there were tourist trains. But during the depression passenger service was trimmed considerably and in the latter part of the 1950s trains included gas electrics and finally Budd “Dayliners”. In 1963 the Board of Transport Commissioners of Canada gave CP permission to discontinue its passenger service on the Maniwaki line.
Two historical footnotes. In 1895 the Ottawa and Gatineau was called upon to carry troops to Low to “keep the peace” during what was known as the “Low Rebellion” when poor citizens refused to pay newly levied taxes. From 1916 to 1921 the CP provided special trains during the summer for the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire, to travel to his summer house on Blue Sea Lake.
The citizens of the Gatineau had to be truly grateful to the farsighted determination of these pioneer businessmen whose inspiration led to the development and the relative traveling comfort up the valley for more than a century. Their sprit was captured in an article in the Globe and Mail by Alberta Energy Minister, Ken Hughes, who wrote, “The myth is that we are so wealthy that we can afford to ignore our natural strengths. We can reap the rewards of being a first-world country without the hard work that got us here. Tax income will arrive on a magic ship full of rainbows and unicorns. Let’s remember what got us here. People saw opportunities; they took a crack at trying to exploit those opportunities. They created businesses, hired people. They moved with speed. They learned that opportunities aren’t there forever.”
The period of time between the end of the freight service on the Maniwaki line in 1976 and the start of the Wakefield Tourist Train in 1992 we shall call the “interregnum” (or interval if you prefer). It was full of activity guided by the Bytown Railway Society (BRS), the National Capital Commission (NCC) and the Museum of Science and Technology (MST). In 1971 the Bytown Railway Society ran a 5-car, diesel-powered excursion train from Ottawa to Maniwaki. The BRS was shrewd enough to give free tickets to the General Manager of the NCC and he became sold on the excursion as a regular project. For 1973 and the next five years, the steam engine, ex-CPR 1057, and cars leased from the Ontario Rail group in Toronto, were used.
But during this period the Museum was having its CPR 1201 steam engine modernized in Toronto. In 1975 it was converted from coal to oil to reduce the hazard of brush fires. In 1976 it returned to Ottawa under its own power. In the meantime, the Museum acquired the ex CP turntable from Kingston and had it installed in Wakefield where the NCC developed a park around it. So all was set for the continued two days a week summer excursions to Wakefield until 1985. The 1201 which became a staple of the Wakefield line and the subject of a song by the CBC star, Wayne Rostad, was a remarkable artifact. Like all the other 62 locomotives of this class it was meant to be cut up for scrap. But always the 1201 was saved by the fact it was the last locomotive to be produced by the CP’s famed Angus shops in Montreal. It still exists in the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.
One more historical footnote. The Wakefield excursion was so popular during the summer months that when the Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Canada in 1977 the Museum attached the Governor General’s rail cars from its exhibition to the 1201 for a royal visit up the Gatineau to Wakefield!
The Saga of the Wakefield Tourist Steam Train
This section is going to be a little bit difficult to write. My regular job as a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Ottawa trained us to think in the third person – no I’s and me’s. The idea was to be as objective and impersonal as possible, that is to say to base our observations on established facts. The problem is that it is a fact that the ideas for the tourist train came right from my own little noggin. Over the seven years form 1985 to 1992 my role for the train was to provide ideas, energy and leadership. A lot of people thought it was because I was a train buff. Not so. By 1992 when the train actually started, we didn’t even have a Canadian train in the area that could do the job. Thanks to a new management at the Museum of Science and Technology the magnificent 1201 engine had been taken off its active life on the tracks and hidden away under lock and key in the Museum. So my real motivation was that I thought the Maniwaki line should be used to promote tourism in the Outaouais. In my early, early career in business, I had once thought of going into the tourist business. In the 1950’s and 1960’s (before pre-Covid’s over-touristing) tourism looked like a business of the future, welding the world together and spreading international knowledge, a business with all sorts of entry-points and career trajectories.
By the beginning of the 1970s we had moved to Chelsea and our home was 100 meters from the rail line beside the Gatineau River at Kirk’s Ferry. We even saw the Queen go by on one of the Bytown Railway’s twice weekly summer excursions. And then in 1984 the Canadian Pacific Railway Company made an application to the Canadian Transport Commission to abandon the ‘Maniwaki Subdivision’ and tear up the rail line. The company thought it was no longer profitable. When the CP laid out its rail line across the country it then proceeded to build ‘branch lines’ into the interior to bring freight and passengers to the mainline. But as highways and airlines became more and more competitive the railways decided to let their branch lines go. The Maniwaki line was a victim of this kind of thinking which completely ignored local realities.
I was literally ‘steaming’. How could the CP think of abandoning this working railway with its highly successful summer excursions? Here another coincidence clicked into place. When I joined the University, professors had four obligations: teaching, research, administration and community service. As part of my community service, I was at the time the President of Outaouais Alliance, an anglophone rights association. The position complimented my research on nationalism and French-English relations in Canada. It also meant I had a fairly high profile in the region. So, I proceeded to convince my colleagues in the Association that a tourist train project complimented its objectives.
We had in hand a workable rail line with a good reputation for an interesting excursion that brought tourists to the region. The main problems were that the CP was letting the line decline and the excursions only ran two days a week during two months in the summer. It was not commercially viable. But with declining forestry and agriculture and very little in the way of industry or technology the Outaouais clearly needed another field of economic development. Tourism was the answer, I thought.
A successful tourism industry requires attractions. The train would become a tourist icon that would hoist the Outaouais on to the international scene with visibility and uniqueness. It would draw tourists out of Ottawa into our hinterland and keep them there for at least one night to spend on hotels, shops and meals. Of the four million tourists who came to Ottawa in 1990 fewer than 15 per cent crossed the river – mainly to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull. In 2009 I wrote an article in Le Droit that brought all these ideas together. My research had shown that in Canada tourism generated a million jobs and some $75 billions in economic activity. It is an excellent source of local, national and international jobs at all levels and for all age groups, both fulltime and part time. In the Outaouais alone it provided 7,000 jobs. The 36 % of visitors who came from outside Quebec spent a 100 million dollars a year in our region. By 2007, thanks to the train and the Canadian Museum of Civilization and other attractions, the Outaouais was drawing in 3.1 million tourists a year, placing it in the 5th rank of Quebec’s 21 regions.
These were the sort of arguments and hopes that got Outaouais Alliance (today the Regional Association of West Quebeckers) to jump on board. Planning and research went on for a year. Moreover, the train project was an opportunity for the Association to demonstrate that it was more than a minority group screaming for its language rights. It would take its place as a major player in the economic development of the region. To prove that it had its’ heart in the right place, Outaouais Alliance adopted as its slogan, “A healthy English-speaking Community in a secure French-speaking Community, A Strong Quebec in a United Canada”.
The time had arrived for Outaouais Alliance to present its project to the public to attract allies for the Wakefield train. On September 14, 1984 it held a first meeting to form a committee of citizens of the region to convince the Canadian Transport Commission not to agree to the Canadian Pacific’s demand to abandon the railway. Raymonde Cahill, and Harry Gow from Transport 2000 as well as the mayor of Maniwaki joined the Gatineau Valley Railway Committee from the beginning. Following the meeting, we took the media to inspect a section of the rail line at Tenaga to show its bad condition and encourage the CP to do better. Thus, was begun a love affair between the local media and the Wakefield steam train. For the next thirty years the local media -- lead by Le Droit and Radio Canada with the enthusiastic support of Fred and Lily Ryan of the West Quebec Post and Nicki Mantell of the Low Down to Hull and Back News and even the intrepid Nicole Thibodeau, editor of L’Envol , would be interested in the train and generally very supportive. With the Committee launched, the seven sometimes lean and sometimes fat years of organization for the protection of the rail line and the creation of the Wakefield steam train were underway. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. One by one the different parts of the picture had to be assembled until we finally had a completed project. That is how we will now approach it. Remember even if I try to present it in a little over seven pages, in real time it took some seven years.
Partners, Friends and Allies
The first goal was to put together a coherent force of allies that could not be ignored and that had the capacity to act and raise funds. It was composed of organizations and leading individuals. Our first task was to solidify relations with the organizations which had been operating the Wakefield excursions of the 1201: the Canadian Capital Commission and the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology. Both were keen to continue their collaboration. This little group rapidly morphed into what became known as the Transition Committee to signal that the train’s larger objective was to act as motor of tourist development for the Outaouais and, more largely, the entire national capital region. Included in the Transition Committee along with train, the Museum and the NCC were the Outaouais Development Corporation (Société d’aménagement de l’Outaouais, SAO), the Regional Community of the Outaouais (CUO combining Hull and rural municipalities), the Secretariat for Consultation of the Outaouais (CRD), the Tourist Association of the Outaouais and the municipalities of Hull, Hull West (later Chelsea) and La Pêche.
A sign of the determination and dynamism of the Transition Committee was that it met once a week at breakfast time for two years. It held public consultations resulting in 1,500 donors and a petition with 7,000 names to the Canadian Transport Commission. Time was of the essence because the CTC had given the end of 1985 as the date it required proof of a viable plan for the Wakefield train. The Committee (including reports from the Montreal consulting firms, Perrin-Lomax and Transurb), put together exhaustive research reports on the prospective contributions of the train to tourism and to community development, environmental protection and security. The funders, including investors, banks and governments required ‘proof’ of financial viability and eventual profitability. To satisfy the demands for data of the three levels of government a pile of documentation reaching a foot in height was eventually produced. This work took a lot of consultation, dialogue and diplomacy. Once in a while it also took outbursts of rage and indignation of the Chairman. That was just on the inside. On the outside was the immense effort in communication through pamphlets, newspaper articles and radio and TV shows.
Not only organizations but individuals played key roles in the train project. The champions included Jean Piggott (President of the CCN), Yves Ducharme (Hull Councillor and future Mayor), Hervé Leblanc (Mayor of Lapêche), and Michel Légère (Mayor of Hull). The work horses who actually did the work of getting the train on the rails were the Committee’s director, the urban specialist Gilles Ruest and its Secretary, Bertrand Bilodeau. In the background was Judy Grant, Mayor of Hull-West, who had to be wary of her Council. But as she said at the time, “I would rather have one or two trains a day chugging by my kitchen window than a continuous herd of garbage throwing bicyclists and four wheelers.” This clearly expressed the debate pro and con going on among the rail-side community dwellers.
The major break-through came in the summer of 1986 as the result of a night-long negotiation and several bottles of scotch shared by our representative, Guy Dancause, vice-president of Perrin Lomax, and the president of Canadian Pacific. The CP wanted desperately to get rid of their money-loosing line so they could afford to be generous. If we would agree to give up the line from Wakefield to Maniwaki (the town had already left the Train Committee), CP would give us the railway from Hull to Wakefield and also give our Committee the results from selling off the rails and the ties on the Maniwaki end of the line – a gift of some $250,000 which helped to keep our Committee afloat for the next five years. The question then became who would own the Wakefield Railway. After some discussions, the three municipalities through which the railway ran – Hull, Chelsea and La Pêche – were convinced to accept the ‘free’ gift from CP in exchange for tax deductible receipts. The three municipalities agree to set up a joint council to be the legal recipient and owner of the railway on behalf of the municipalities. It was baptised the Committee of Tourist Development Hull-Chelsea La Pêche (CDTHCL by its French acronym). Trent became its Chairman and Rosario Dutrisac (Director of the Hull Branch of the Caisse Populaire) its Secretary-Treasurer. Its three directors were Yves Ducharme of Hull, Larry Dufour (Chelsea) and Michel Landerville (La Pêche). The Council took over the planning and negotiations for setting up the tourist train.
The Operator of the Train
As a question of principle, it was decided after long debate that the lands of the train would be held in the public domain and the business would be operated by the private sector. While ensuring that the public kept control of this major enterprise, private leadership would be used to overcome the spotty, money-losing government run trains of the past decade. In practice this meant that municipal governments would control the lands on which the train ran but a private company to run the train business would have to be found. It was thought, at first, that the ideal person to run the train was a local entrepreneur. Andy Tommy, in addition to being a partner in the highly successful Tommy and Lefebvre sports stores was also the owner of the Edelweiss Valley ski centre and golf course just east of Wakefield. He was ready to invest some $4 million, find Canadian rolling stock and build a new hotel in Wakefield. He was dynamic. Unfortunately for complex reasons he had to let drop his offer. The CDTHCL then turned to a well-known Hull businessman, Marc Grondin, ably seconded by Gilles Ruest, to set up the steam train company “Choo-Choo” which initiated the operation of the Wakefield tourist steam train in 1992 and 1993.
Their first task was to find a steam train. The Canadian sources were all dried up. The magnificent and still viable 1201 was retired from the rails by museum management. Then, all of a sudden, our eyes espied a curious little article in the newspapers. The Swedes had a large number of historic steam trains for sale. Grondin and Ruest flew to Sweden and arranged to have shipped to Canada a train consisting of a 1907 steam engine, a diesel back-up, 9 railway cars dating from the 1940s, 2 service cars and sundry equipment. After a hazardous crossing with five storms the ‘little train’ arrived by freighter in the Montreal harbour on the 17th of June 1992. Grondin claimed he paid $500,000 for the train equipment and another $650,000 for transport, customs, taxes and insurance.
The Swedes sent along an experienced engineer to show the Canadians how it worked. The locomotive weighed 93 tonnes and carried 3,700 gallons of water and 2,000 gallons of oil. It produced 700 horse power. The maximum speed of the Swedish locomotive 909 was 90 kilometers an hour but on the Wakefield run the maximum was held to 40 km/h with the usual speed being about 15 km/h.
The story behind the Swedish trains was that at the beginning of the Second World War the Swedes prepared for a possible Russian or German attack by hiding for backup their 50 oil-fired locomotives and hundreds of rail cars across the country – for instance in old barns. They had already in operation a new electrified railway fleet. Meticulous people that they are, they ‘mothballed’ all the equipment in heavy-duty cellophane wrappers so that when they re-appeared in 1985, they were in pristine condition. When they arrived in Canada there was even an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom. They must have thought they were preparing us for the Coronavirus!
Choo-Choo started its first runs to Wakefield in the summer of 1992. To herald the start -up some 500 guests were invited to the inaugural run. Here is what the Toronto Star had to say:
“It was two hours late, the toilets didn’t work and the whistle blew out somewhere around Farm Point. No matter. For the hundreds of passengers aboard the Wakefield steam train last weekend, the train’s inaugural excursion along the banks of the Gatineau River in western Quebec was the glorious rebirth of a romantic legend. From the moment the iron lady chugged out of a replica, turn-of-the-century station in Hull Que., to her snail’s pace crawl into nearby Wakefield, the bygone age of steam came puffing back to life. Passengers -- many sporting engineers cap – stood in the aisles of the 1940s vintage railway cars, laughing and chatting noisily. Other sat back and soaked in the spectacular landscape as the train’s piercing whistle echoed through the Gatineau hills. For most it was the first time to find out what a Canadian steam train looked, sounded and smelled like”.
But the day was not over. For the TV cameras a fake robbery was staged at the entrance to Wakefield by a dozen of the town’s finest cowboy gunmen sweeping down the hill with a covered wagon to halt the Train. Chelsea’s mayor, Judy Grant, and Marcel Beaudry of the NCC were summarily “kidnapped” and a chest of golden toonies “stolen”. On the return journey the engine was slightly derailed by some of the train’s opponents. Not to be deterred or delayed, forty of the passengers led by Luke Jurgens, debarked to lend a hand (more chiefs than Indians). Branches and boards were found in the ditch and with the delicate nudging of the engineer, Lorne Blackburn, the locomotive crept back on the rails. To welcome the victorious passengers a sumptuous dinner had been laid on under tents at the Trent household beside the tracks in Kirks Ferry. Better late the never!
The Gautier Family Leadership
After two years of ownership by Choo-Choo, the train company was out of money and forced into receivership. It had always been under-financed. This is when the heavens opened and sent in Jean Gauthier. Originally a friend and co-religionist of Gilles Ruest, he had decided to invest $600,000 in Choo-Choo. When it went into receivership, he decided to take it over. He and his family would go on to run the train company (now the Steam Train Hull-Chelsea-La Pêche) for the next 15 years. His wife, Jeannine would be the Accountant, their daughter, Louise, the Ticket Manager and their son-in-law, André Groulx, the company Director and Sales Manager.
Jean Gauthier was an extraordinary man and entrepreneur. He was a Franco-Ontarian thus giving the company a French face – very helpful in Quebec. By profession he was a general contractor and builder. The significance of this fact was that there was no machine that could intimidate him – not even a steam engine. He had built schools, commercial businesses, and churches in Eastern Ontario. Gauthier had also built the major hotel in Orleans, the Normandie, and was its owner for 25 years. Thus, he knew the tourist business. Most of all, he was a hands-on man. With his crews he cleaned and repaired the railway tracks and he installed dinner tables, air-conditioning, new toilets and handicap accessibility on all the cars. The only thing he was not able to fix was the water leakage in the engine. So, he harassed the Swedes until they finally told him their secret. Just put horse manure in the engine they told him and fire it up. It will be blown into all the cracks and fill them up. And it did.
Under the leadership of the Gautiers, the train went from a ridership of 25,000 in 1994 to 50,000 a year by 1997. All told, in high season they would have approximately 80 employees. All sorts of add-ons were considered. For instance, in 2000 a trial run was made to Montebello with the idea that the train might split its time servicing both Wakefield and Montebello. But local partisans of the Papineau train soon found it would not be that easy. They would have to find a station and turntable and financing. There was more. The trial trip had demonstrated that it was very long, rather boring and might risk running the Wakefield train into the ground. The Swedish locomotive 909 could be run down by the unaccustomed distances and speeds. Dreams of the Montebello run had to be abandoned.
Also, long before the ‘green wave’ the possibility of putting a bicycle and jogging path beside the rail line had been considered. But the insurance company quickly replied that that would require a fence the length of the rail way and policing. It too was a no-go.
But the Gautiers did add a highly successful dinner train on weekend evenings. Accompanied by musicians, guests were treated to four course cuisine and fine wines. In ten weeks they would serve some 12,000 meals. Heavens, people even got married on the steam train! And to top it all off, they made part of the Hollywood film called Grey Owl with Pierce Brosnan and directed by Richard Attenborough on the train. Another movie, the Cyclotrone, Québécois this time, was filmed on the train in 2015.
In April 2000, the Outaouais Tourist Association named Jean Gauthier the ‘personality of the year’. The Outaouais Chamber of Commerce made him the ’personality of the month’ in June 2001. The CDTHCL won the tourist enterprise of the year award in 1997. These were just three of the seven provincial and regional awards won by the train over the years.
Funding the steam train project
Although the steam train never cost the citizens of Chelsea a cent and although the steam train actually paid a small tax to its municipal owners and although the train not only paid its own way but also made a profit, it is still true that the public coffers had to contribute to getting this enterprise back on the rails. That’s how we do things in Canada – just think of the public funds sunk into the start up of the ‘private’ CP. And speaking of Canada, let’s think federalism. The biggest funding problem of the steam train came from federal-provincial relations. Both Quebec and the federal Government were asked to contribute to rebuilding the railway tracks. Ottawa said that the deal called on Quebec to look after its own tourism. Quebec said that because the rail line was in the National Capital region the federal government should pay half. The argument went on for months and months. Finally, after a great deal of arm-twisting, Quebec agreed to pay $1,4 million toward the repair of the rail line. The cost of the railway itself was estimated at $6 million, paid for by tax receipts from the municipalities. Hull-Gatineau contributed almost $ 2,100,000 dollars including future grants and exchanges of property. The CDTHCL was in for $300,000 including the money and equipment it had received from CP. The owners of the train invested approximately another million to obtain the train. In diverse agreements the National Capital Commission invested approximately $250,000. The municipality of La Pêche gave $50,000. Other sources put in another $400,000. Not only did the railway have to be fixed but investments had to be made in land, equipment, a garage and stations at both ends of the railway.
It is said that the train company eventually was making a profit of $250,000 a year but the private company never published annual statements. It produced 10 full time jobs and 80 summer jobs. Ticket sales amounted to hundreds of thousands a year. But the real profits came in terms of tax returns and spin-offs in the tourist industries. These were estimated at $25 million in taxes over 15 years and $7 million annually in accommodation for tourists and meals and shopping. It was also the corner stone of Tourist packages in the region which collapsed after the closure of the train. Of course, the train also put Gatineau on the international tourist map because at the end some 70 per cent of the visitors were coming from outside the region.
The contributions of the Wakefield Tourist Train
In the period leading up to the train there were many arguments about what it would achieve. Some people said it would cost too much, that tourists would not be interested, and that it would be gone in a couple of years. But as it is said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So, we will let the media headlines speak for the Wakefield Tourist Steam Train.
Paul Gaboury, Le Droit, « Le petit train sort du tunnel », « If the little Swedish steam train had to cross the Atlantic by ship to find its new station in Hull, the promotors had to displace several mountains during seven years to achieve their ambitious project implicating a public-private partnership.” 27 June 20 1992.
The Ottawa Citizen, Sean Upton « From Dream to Steam: Wakefield train set to roll in June”, 26 Feb. 1992
The Low Down to Hull and Back News, David Ducharme, “Getting La Pêche on international tourist map”, 16 October 1995.
Le Droit, “Que de touristes! : L’Outaouais se dirige vers l’une des meilleures saisons touristiques de son histoire, 11 juillet 1998. « What a lot of tourists : The Outaouais heads toward one of the best tourist seasons in its history”
Le Droit, Yves Bergeras, « Un moteur touristique unique » : “A unique tourist driving force. With 140 runs this year and an annual clientele of more than 50,000 passengers coming from all over the world, the Steam Train Hull-Chelsea-La Pêche follows its own sweet way on its blissful rails, 8 Nov. 2003.
Le Droit, Charles Thériault, “L’Outaouais a fait du chemin en 20 ans”: The tourist industry has made a giant leap in 20 years. In 1981, the tourist industry in the Outaouais was limited to a few attractions, purveyers, and a network of tourist centres. L’Outouais came last in tourism in the major regions of Quebec. Today it is third. 19 May 2001.
Le Droit, «Le charme naturel de Wakefield»: With the steam train Wakefield has become one of the jewels of tourism in the Outaouais. 1 Oct. 1999.
Le Droit, Patrick Duquette, “The train saves the honour of the region”, 11 May 2002.
Le Droit, Genevieve Turcot, “The Outaouais wins six tourist prizes”, 17 May 2003.
The Ottawa Citizen, Michael Prentice, “Luxury on the Gatineau Express: Savour sunset, gourmet meal”. – “Why? It can be romantic... What was it like? Marvelous … How was the food? Excellent… Is it worth it? I think so… 14 August 2004.
Le Droit, Christine Moisan, «Petit train va loin : Le retour du train de Wakefield » -- “ Outmoded elegance of the turn of the century. Slowness of a journey without objective. All worries left at the station, the train carries us away along the river, revealing the splendor of our region. We have already forgotten the whole saga surrounding the return of the train to the rails. It is now a part of our tourist landscape, offering, from May to September, to tourists and to residents the opportunity to get out of town and see what nature has to offer. The dinner menus have joined that elegance of another era offering a good meal to those who want to go on the pleasure of a trip. It is a winning formula…” 10 May 2000
The year after the close of the train.
Jonathon Blouin, Le Droit, “The region has the lowest level of economic growth”, 28 March 2012.
Patrick Duquette, «Nostalgie ferroviaire», The former tourist glory of the Outaouais, which won numerous prizes and attracted thousands of visitors, is being dismantled in an industrial park in Hull… The Outaouais has not found another tourist icon that’s as strong since the train stopped its activities following the land slides in 2011, Le Droit, 16 May 2019.
(All translations by the author)
The decline and fall: Of course, it was not talked about very much but over the “train century” there were a very few derailments, land slides and accidents. One of the strangest was when Patrick Trent was the conductor of the train. One evening, a young lady coming out of a side street in Wakefield a bit too fast side swiped the train. The police were duly called. Not knowing what to do with a train, they asked who was in charge which was the conductor. They proceeded to ask him for his driver’s licence! The up shot was that several years later he found an increase in his automobile insurance – because of the train incident. He fought it, of course.
But it was a land slides that really put the Wakefield train out of business. In 2007 there was a near accident at Peter’s Point. Just after the train with hundreds of passengers went by, the under-burden gave way leaving a hole 25 feet high and 110 feet long. The company went to work and with the aid of contractors the train was back running in several days. But a year later there was another land slide that shut down the railway for the summer. Thanks to the efforts of Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and MP for the Pontiac riding, the Conservative government changed its economic development policy and agreed to share the estimated $6 million repair cost with Quebec and the municipalities. “The tourist attraction is of strategic importance for the Outaouais and the Pontiac regions…It has the potential to generate significant direct and indirect spinoffs… Cannon said”. The track was repaired and the train ran for three more years.
Then came the diluvian ‘once in a century’ rain fall of 2011 which wiped out a huge swath of the railway at Mile Hill. Once again, the Steam Train Company Hull, Chelsea La Pêche was forced to shut down. But this time, with no help in sight, the Gautiers put the train up for sale. By this time the municipal tourism council, the CDTHCL had been renamed the CCFO, the Company de Chemin de Fer de l’Outaouais. It finally found the funds to buy the train from the Gautiers so it would not leave the region.
Aided by the interest group, the Friends of the Steam Train, the CCFO for the next seven years twisted and turned in every direction possible but could find no way of saving ‘Le Petit Train’. An American purchaser was found but soon disappeared. Once again, Montebello tried to get the train, this time bringing along heavy weight politicians. But the same problems of distance and cost kept cropping up and the CCFO refused the offer from Papineau. A group in the Gaspésie thought of renting some of the rail carriages for the summer months, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. The CCFO also looked at what was called the ‘urban journey’ which would simply have followed Maloney boulevard (where there were already tracks) from the old Hull Station to Park Beauchamp. It died of boredom. The Wakefield brethren proposed a short run from the village to Morrison Quarry to simply use the steam engine and existing tracks along the river to attract a clientele. The CCFO wasn’t interested. A strong proposal was made to start the train in Chelsea to avoid the Mile Hill cave-in. But the CCFO shilly-shallied, hired ill-informed ‘consultants’ and never came to a decision. And here in lay part of the problem. The CCFO was run by people with little knowledge of trains and was deeply divided between those who wanted a Gatineau solution and those who wanted a Wakefield one. And then the steam train even started to lose its friends and supporters, such as the Editor of Le Droit.
During all this time, the Friends of the Steam Train tried to convince the public that the predictions of huge costs and insurmountable engineering problems on the Mile Hill were simply mythology. The tracks had been washed out from above, not below. During previous decades, big houses with large asphalt driveways had been built on the bluffs above the rail line. This was the source of the water that undermined the railway. In addition, it was the new young engineers in the Ministry of Transport that were convinced that the leda clay in the Chelsea area would eventually cause the whole municipality to slide into the Gatineau River. One wonder if they are now taught to be risk averse in university. They advised against any rebuilding of rail line up the hill (or anywhere else). But it was argued, the 909 Swedish locomotive weighed half as much as the former CP engines. The same could be said for the weight of the passenger cars. The train was not the problem. But by this no one was listening.
The second cause of the end of the train was the ‘Rails to Trails’ movement. It had taken over the environmentalist banner that used to belong to the train. A young activist lady, Tammy Scott, moved into the region and launched a petition for a multi-purpose trail to replace the rails in Chelsea. So, it would be one or the other. Tammy had read of the mud slides and the projected huge costs to repair the rail line. She wanted a trail that would connect the communities in Chelsea – which the train promoters had always claimed was a function of the train tracks. And despite the bicycle paths that now bordered the Highway 105 from Hull to Wakefield, she didn’t want her children to have to walk on the “busy and dangerous” roads.
Scott was motivated and energetic, something the train promoters now seemed to be lacking. She joined up with the many other ‘rails to trails’ promoters in Chelsea and they gained the ear of many members of the municipal Council including Mayor Caryl Green. A new party opposed her at the municipal election to stop the bicycle movement but Green won handily. Shortly after she cast the deciding vote for a motion to pull up the 20 kilometers of train track within Chelsea. This was duly done in 2017. It was the end of a century and a quarter of railways in the Gatineau. Within a couple of years, the once dramatic railway cars which had been left outside in Hull were reduced to junk and graffiti by local youths. It was sold for scrap for $1,000 in 2018. One car was retained as a diner by Alain Boucher for his Cantine Chez César in Cascades. The 909 locomotive is still in its garage waiting patiently to be shipped out to a ‘charming tourist facility’ called Dalton Park near the Blanche River and Templeton.
March 2021, Kirks Ferry