Short Rails And Other Tales

In its early days, The South Simcoe Heritage Railway had this sign posted at the north end of its short railroad located at 28 Mill Street, West in Tottenham Ontario:  “NOWHERE”.  Did this sign proclaim you are ‘Now Here’ or are you ‘No Where’, a sign worth pondering for sure.

This was the oldest steam powered heritage excursion railway operating in Ontario and ran the 2nd oldest steam powered locomotive in Canada.  When this photograph was taken, the rail only ran about half way to Beeton.  Today the railroad currently has four vintage locomotives of which two operate on steam power and operates the round trip (there and back) in vintage 1920’s coach cars from Tottenham north through the Beeton Creek Valley to the town of Beeton.  This not for profit corporation is run by volunteers doing everything from maintenance and repairs to conducting the trains, making its inaugural train trip June 20, 1992.  A major tourist attraction, the railway has been used as a backdrop for a number of years for movie and TV productions such as Murdock Mysteries and the Relic Hunter.

As a rail fan, I first discovered this amazing site while on a family vacation many years ago.  My wife and two sons I think were mildly impressed by the five mile excursion trip, but the Ranger enjoyed the trip so much he made a second solo trip while the family patiently waited at the station!  In its early days the railroad only ran about half way to Beeton, but that was far enough to experience looking out the coach window and getting smoke and coal embers in your eyes while listening to the conductors commentary explaining the history of the line.  If memory serves me right, the steam locomotive was the number 136, a 4-4-0 wheel arrangement and was coal powered (today oil?).  The next day we enjoyed a cruise on North America’s oldest operating steamship, the 130 year old RMS Segwun, an Ontario Tourism icon from the town of Gravenhurst.  This was only one of three steam ships in the world still carrying the status of a Royal Mail Ship.

Still on the subject of steam engines and family vacations, the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smith Falls Ontario is a great place to visit.  The museum, a National Historic Site is located in the former Canadian Northern Railroad (CNoR) station in the town.  This station was completed in 1914 as a first class rail station to compete with the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) station across town.  At this time this railroad was the shortest route between Montreal and Toronto.  In the early days the locals would gather at the station to obtain the local news via the telegraph wire.  Two years later the Canadian National Railway (CNR) took over the bankrupt Canadian Northern.  During WW1, the station was rented out to the military as a training hall. The station was used by the Canadian National until 1979 when loss of ridership forced its closure.  Facing demolition, a group of citizens created a Museum Association in 1983 and restoration began two years later to save the building.  The picture below

shows Mark the wannabe engineer at the controls of a giant steam engine (Mogul?) at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.  This and other steam engines have since been relocated to Expo, The Canadian Railway Museum in Quebec.

The highlight of this visit was the Ranger and sons Mark and David racing up and down a short stretch of rail on a handcar (pump trolley, pump car, jigger or velocipede).  Pumping the handle up and down moved the car forward or backwards at speed up to 15 miles an hour with a brake activated by a foot pedal.  Guess who controlled the brake pedal!  The hand car was normally used by railroad section gangs and were replaced in the early 1900’s by motorized Speeder cars.

Closer to home, I have a vivid memory of the Ranger and the boys (about 8 and 12 years old) in our 14 foot cedar strip canoe on the Ganaraska River at Corbett’s Pond above the fish ladder and dam in Port Hope.  History note:  the dam here was once called the old Choate Dam, Orr’s and Molson’s.  We were enjoying a great canoe outing when somehow it capsized!  Safety vests were not mandated in those days, or we had them but were not wearing them and we all went overboard!   I  was the first one out of the water and for about 30 seconds there was no sign of the boys (seemed like hours!) when the kids finally appeared, laughing their fool heads off!  Before our readers collectively cry out “parental abuse!” keep in mind we were heading upstream on the river away from the deep water near the dam.  The water here was at most knee deep.  I had canoed it as far north as the Dale Road, having to stand up to pole a lot of the way because it was so shallow.  However, the river was deep enough in places, I could strip to the underwear for a refreshing swim.

While looking over some old photographs recently I came across this vintage photo of the West Primary Public School in Port Hope (demolished in 1997) once located at the south side of Bruton Street west of Bramley Street.  Imagine my surprise when reading the students names of Room 1, 1930 and there was a picture of my late father-in-law, William Buddie Smith!  Bill at this time would have lived at the only house in the valley at Hill Street South sometimes known as ‘Skunk Hollow’.  He had five siblings:  Betty, Vern, Ted, Charlie and Oscar.  The latter two brothers were well known as the owners of Smith Brothers Taxi, located at the bottom of Walton and Mill Streets.  Bill was a mechanic and service manager for many local garages including Mel McMahon Chrysler, Port Hope, Thomas Pontiac in Cobourg and Cowan Pontiac in Bowmanville.  This old brick school was built in 1873 and since painted yellow, most recently served as a school for children with intellectual disabilities, a nursey school and later a dance school.

Another great memory was of the Ranger and Bushwhacker’s great adventure to the old abandoned north Ganaraska Forest Fire Tower.  On approaching it we both knew one of us had to climb to the cabin at the top of that imposing tower and it sure as heck wasn’t gonna be me!  I have a healthy respect for the effects gravitational forces have upon the human body and brittle bones.  I had to recount this true story to the Bushwhacker of my first visit to the top of the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls.  There was about a hundred people congregating at the south end of the tower enjoying the spectacular view of the Falls.  I was (subconsciously) standing on the north side trying to counterbalance the tower weight and maybe saving their lives, and no, not one of them even thanked me!  Okay, so the Bushwhacker took the challenge and climbed to the top of the tower, snapping a lot of great pictures the rest of us earthbound creatures would never have seen!  Note:  These 40 to 100 foot tall steel structures were all removed around 2013 when the Ontario Government (MNR) decided “they didn’t want any lawsuits on their hands in case careless citizens climbed the towers and were injured in the process”.  Do you suppose we were spotted by an MNR’s aerial surveillance plane now used for forest fire detection?

We heard sometime later the tower had been removed and we actually recognized it at its new home, the Port Hope Firefighters Museum on Mill Street South.  Unfortunately the museum was closed and demolished a few years ago because of the Port Hope Area Initiative cleanup and the tower cab is now in storage somewhere awaiting a new museum location.

This last picture was taken many years ago.  The McKibbon Street bridge ran from Molson Street to what is now Choate Road, parallel to the Fish Ladder and dam.  Very little information was found about it other than it was named for James McKibbon an early treasurer of the Port Hope-Rice Lake toll road.  The  bridge was removed some time after being deemed unsafe.  This toll gate was located at what is now County Road 28 north of Highway 401 and the toll keeper charged a penny to use the roads to Corbett’s Mill, Rose Glen Road or Ontario Street, these streets have now all been greatly realigned.

Regards,   Ranger.

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