The Gatineau Train

by Austin Cross

This article was first published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 1945.

An Interpolated Geography Lesson

Now I know why I have lived so long. I had to ride the Gatineau train before I moved on to some other sphere, hot or heavenly. So you find me down at the depot with the Bertrand boys, trying to mill my way through the mob to catch the Gatineau local No. 535. Earlier, I had baffled Gerry Dewan at Leo Sauve's parlors when I came in and got a ticket, not for California, not for New Orleans, and not for Vancouver, but Burnet. My transaction flustered the usually imperturbable, case-hardened Mr. Dewan so much that he actually had to go and look up the fare. Then he wrote me an elaborate receipt for forty five cents (45c), and sat down to rest a minute before serving the next client.

Gatineau Train
Cartoon created by WO Edward Marsh Sellen

Down at the station there had been a little confusion, and the passengers had to be loaded in two phases. There were two classes of patron, roughly speaking, and when you speak of the Gatineau train, you speak roughly. There were what seemed like a thousand commuters, cinder-scarred veterans of the hour-long 21.4 mile trip tip to Wakefield, and there are 27 other forlorn souls going all the way to the end of the line at Maniwaki, and who were wandering bewilderedly through the coaches, looking for a place to put their wherewithal.

So there were priests and fresh-air pilgrims and shoppers and high school girls and brass-hats and one-stripe probationary second lieutenants and tired civil servants. There was also one illustrious graduate of Science '23, Vic Minnes. Queen's men always get places. As an Arts' 23 man, Queen's University, I suppose I should have given a Science man my seat, but' I didn't, on account of my age. Later, however, I went out to the back platform, after squatting from Ottawa to Ironside beside a man who had the window seat. He ignored the scenery, so absorbing did The Evening Citizen prove. Getting tired of trying to crane round his paper to see out, I sought the observation platform of car 2006, and there remained.

This- Gatineau train is really something. The people pile on, and finally the aisles are half full. Then old 2509 starts up like an antelope, leaps across the river, and stops at Hull. There we take on more cash customers, and the train with a snort of defiance, makes a quick spurt to try to make the big hill. Last Saturday, they tell me, she had to take a second run at it, after backing down again.

Only after the train leaves Hull do they even attempt to collect tickets. Then the brakeman came through calling, "Ironside tickets please." The catch is, that if you don't show your ticket, you might go by your station, since Ironside is a flag stop.

What impressed me most on this hilarious run was how quickly you slough off the city, and how quickly you pick up the country. As we began the long, sinuous crawl up the Chelsea Hill, I couldn't help noticing that for all you could tell, you might be 100 miles from Ottawa, and yet our town was just down the track four miles. Indeed, when I sat beside the open window, and stood on the open platform, I was transplanted to northern Ontario. Once more I was on one of the old harvester trains, with their long string of coaches, and their slow motion, huffing and puffing up the grade going into Cartier, or headed west from Nicholson, on the main line. When I saw those blackberry blossoms, when I glimpsed those rocks and felt that sway, I was carried back to the old days when I rode to Winnipeg the hard way, in a colonist car. This then, was the charm of the Gatineau, that you could shake off the torpor of mid-summer Ottawa, and lift up your eyes, via the CP.R., unto the hills, whence comes a little eventide salvation.

So the shuffling and the stumbling and the standing is all worth it, if at the end of. 30, 40. or 50 minutes, comes the dancing sunlight, the marvellous ozone, and the well-cooked dinner. As to the air, I can testify that it is good, for I fell asleep like a man drugged, after a couple of hours in those air-conditioned hills.

I thought we'd drop off a lot of people at Chelsea, but the debarking customers were few. The standees looked wistfully around, saw no vacancies, and kept standing.

Astounding too is the river life. I had always judged the Gatineau territory from the highway. (Remember this was my first trip, and although I had ridden the Simplon Orient Express to Turkey, the White Pass and Yukon in Alaska; and a brace of lines in Mexico, this was my first weekday run up the Gatineau.) So there were little spots like Tenaga and Glen Eagle, where dozens of people were met by dozens of women folk. Kirk's Ferry, I realized, would be a traffic center, but again I was not prepared for the bustle at Larrimac.

Now comes a ridiculous episode. I don't know my way up the Gatineau, and in the last car, apparently, the stations are not always announced. I know they made one false start once, then had to pull the cord to stop the train again to let off passengers who hadn't been told that it was their station. So when we were nearing Brunet, I had no real idea whether this was my station, or if the next one was. I asked one man. "Sorry old man, first trip myself," he replied.

I shouted at another passenger, already on the ground. "Hey, this Burnet?" I callioped. Deep in his Evening Citizen, he didn't even look up. Here I was. Should I get off, or not? Far ahead, around the bend, was a station. For all I could tell, this might be Kazabazua, it might be Calabogie, it might be Kakabonga. I took a chance, got off. I walked beside the tracks, past the coaches, as the train moved on. Was I or was I not in Burnet. At long last, I saw a face I knew, and realized I had arrived. This was Burnet, a full 14.5 miles from Ottawa. My big trip was over.