Up the Gatineau! Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 24.

Stations of the Gatineau Valley Railway

Bruce Ballantyne

The rigours of travel in the nineteenth century, with poor or even nonexistent roads, dictated the very slow pace at which a traveller could complete the miles he or she needed to go. Distances of approximately three to five miles were all that these rugged souls could achieve either on foot or with horse and wagon before a stop was needed to rest the horse or the body.

The proof of this still exists in areas across Canada, and the Gatineau Valley is no exception. Consider the distances between some of the communities and villages up the Gatineau: Chelsea to Kirk's Ferry, about 3 miles; Kirk's Ferry to Cascades, 5 miles; Cascades to Farm Point, 2 miles; Farm Point to Wakefield, 3 miles; and so on...

With the building of the railway to Maniwaki between 1890 and 1903, some of these communities were no longer required as stopping points and their survival depended on other economic needs. Initially, however, they were important enough for the railway to build complete stations, with waiting rooms, agents' offices and freight sections. To economize, the company used the same architectural design, sometimes with minor alterations, depending on the need.

In the larger villages such as Chelsea, Wakefield, Low, Venosta, Kazabazua and Gracefield, the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway (O&GVR) built one-and-a-half storey structures with steep gabled roofs. These stations could accommodate the agents' living quarters, but the design did not provide for a freight section. Instead, for this purpose the company built a substantial separate building that stood directly beside the main building along the tracks. Two of these freight sheds survive: one next to the Venosta station, still located on the right-of-way, and the other moved from the Low station to a site next to the St-Jean store on Highway 105 in Low.

Blue Sea station
Blue Sea station and enclosed water tower. Photo: National Archives of Canada PA110877.

Other communities were provided with something less substantial which in most cases did not include an agent. These stations would have a caretaker who opened and closed the station when required and looked after heating. Still others were provided with flag stations.

When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) leased the O&GVR in 1903 (by then the O&GVR was known as the Ottawa Northern and Western), it continued to use the stations that had been built by the O&GVR. Time takes its toll, however, and several stations had to be replaced for a variety of reasons. When this happened, the CPR used its standard designs, making minor alterations when needed to suit local conditions. Gracefield's station burned in 1926 and was replaced by a CPR-designed building that survived into the mid-1960s. Wakefield station was demolished in 1929 to provide more room for freight trackage across from Orme's Bakery (where the turntable is now). The station that now houses a restaurant was built to replace it.

Other villages that eventually had CPR-designed stations included Cascades, Blue Sea, Messines (originally called Burbidge) and Maniwaki. The Cascades building has now been relocated behind a farmhouse on the Cross Loop Road and can be seen from Highway 105. It was probably a replacement for a smaller building and may have been built to provide more space for an agent who had a second duty of maintaining the railway water tower that the CPR built across the tracks. The Blue Sea, Messines and Maniwaki stations were built after the CPR leased the line and finally completed construction between Gracefield and Maniwaki. The first passenger train to Maniwaki arrived in February 1904.

A particular feature of passenger train operations on a branch line was the company's policy of permitting stops just about anywhere for patrons to board or get off. From this came the introduction of flag stations, buildings that provided nothing more than shelter (unheated) from the elements. These did not have a regularly scheduled stop, but did permit passengers to request a stop closer to their final destination. All they had to do was flag the train down or ask the conductor to stop the train there to let them off. Flags were provided in the stations, but often disappeared. Travellers then had to resort to using something they were carrying or had in their baggage or just waving frantically, hoping the engineer would understand that they wanted to get on.

I can recall our family stopping the train at Ellard Station (near Blue Sea Lake) in the mid-1950s and having to find something in our visitor's luggage to use as a flag. Our efforts worked, but the engineer did not get the train stopped until it had passed the little station. The conductor then signalled him to back up until the last car was in front of us.

Ellard flag station
Ellard flag station. Photo: Bruce Ballentyne.

The Gatineau Valley railway had many flag stations along its route and a variety of designs were used. For example, Tenaga originally had an unusual building that looked more like a guard house. For many years beside it stood a water spout fed by a nearby spring. In a pinch, an engine crew could fill the locomotive tender with enough water to see them to the next tank which would provide sufficient flow to complete the fill-up. This is likely why Tenaga got its name: "tanaja" is Spanish for water jug-a rather poetic synonym for a very utilitarian contraption! Kirk's Ferry had a larger flag station, which looked much like a wooden country cabin with a hip roof and small windows on either side of the centrally-located door. It had other amenities: a small stove and benches around the perimeter of the walls. When the railway tracks were re-sited to higher ground because of the hydroelectric developments on the Gatineau River in 1926, it was simply moved, and a separate freight shed was added.

The CPR also used its own designs when replacing or adding new flag stations. The most frequently used structure consisted of a small room with a verandah. It was of a size that could be conveniently placed on a railway flatcar and moved to the chosen site, and then moved again as passenger demands changed. A few of them survive behind houses and barns, and are now used mainly as storage buildings. One flag station was placed along the Gatineau railway for a very particular reason. In 1917, the new Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Devonshire, purchased property on Blue Sea Lake to build a summer cottage. Naturally, travel to his new cottage was by special train, and the CPR constructed a flag station specifically to serve him on the shore of Blue Sea Lake where the line bordered it. He called his cottage Lismore House and the station was therefore called "New Lismore." It survived long after the Duke returned to England, and was used by cottagers in the summer. Four other stations near Blue Sea over a very short distance were also for summer cottagers' convenience.

With the abandonment of passenger service in January 1963, most of the Gatineau railway stations were no longer required. Some were torn down or sold, but a few of the larger ones remained in service until the mid-1960s for the agents to handle orders for freight and express services. The CPR then introduced a centralized customer service in Ottawa and most of the few remaining stations were soon torn down. Only the stations at Wakefield and Venosta survived along the right-of-way because of their continued use until the line north of Wakefield was abandoned in 1986: Wakefield as a restaurant and Venosta as a private residence for the section foreman.

The Gatineau railway eased the rigours of travel and also provided the valley with some interesting station designs. The method of travel has come full circle, albeit with much greater speed, as roads have replaced the railway. Nonetheless, part of the Gatineau railway survives, giving us a picture of what it was once like to travel up the valley by train. The few remaining stations add to this and provide a hint of how important the railway was to the local economy and the small communities it served. These buildings, listed below, can be found in all sorts of locations and with little difficulty since they are located near public roads.

Surviving Gatineau Valley Stations

Station Present Location Directions
Cascades Farm Point West off rte.105, on Cross Loop Road, on south side among first group of buildings.
Farm Point Farm Point East side of rte. 105, at ch. St-Clément, on north side behind first house.
Wakefield Wakefield On Main Street.
Lordsvale Farrellton West off rte.105, on Plunkett Road across from the back of the church.
Brennan Brennan's Hill West off rte.105, at 55 ch. McDonald (on Brennan farm).
Venosta Venosta West off rte.105, on ch. Station, about 100 ft. at end of road.
Perras 2-3 km north ofAylwin West off rte.105 on ch. Marks. Follow west 2.8 km, then take north bend for 3.2 further km on this road.
Clemow Castor Lake West off rte.105 on Blue Sea Lake Road at Gracefield, then 3.6 km. to rue du Lac Paquin, then 4 km. to the Gracefield Camp. The station is in a clearing before the camp buildings.
Orlo Blue Sea Village 15 rue Principale.
Ellard Blue Sea Village 11 rue Principale.

Volume 24 table of content.

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