Friday, June 14, 2024
Features

The Push, Pull and Jerk: A Short History of the Pontiac Pacific Junction Railway

Episode 2: The end of the line

by Shawn MacWha

Shortly after the Pontiac Pacific Junction Railway (PPJR) finished its connection to Waltham, the newly-created Pontiac and Renfrew Railway Company constructed a short 4 1/4 mile (6.8 kilometres) long spur from mile post 33.7 on PPJR near Wyman for the sole purpose of connecting to the Bristol Iron Mine near Lac des Chats on the Ottawa River. On this line, completed in late 1889, iron ore was shipped from the mine to the PPJR and then on to Aylmer where it was transferred to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) network for carriage to the steel furnaces of Pennsylvania. At its peak, the Pontiac and Renfrew was carrying an impressive 130 tons of ore a day to the PPJR.
With endpoints now in Aylmer and Waltham, the railway was finally faced with the need to cross the Ottawa River. At the Aylmer end of the line, the City of Ottawa, with its potential freight and passenger revenue, lay temptingly in sight across the river, while the western end of the line stopped in the small village of Waltham, well short of any potential connection to the transcontinental network.
In early 1887, survey work was done north of Waltham to find a suitable route across the Ottawa River or, barring that, to continue the line up the Quebec side of the river to Mattawa. At the time, it appeared that the railway favoured the western connection and, by the summer of 1887, stone had already been cut for bridge piers and was laid alongside the track near Quyon. Discussions were also underway at the other end of the line and, in May, 1893, the PPJR and the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway (OGVR) announced that they would work together to build a bridge across the Ottawa River at Nepean Point. Neither company was itself profitable enough to pay for the bridge and it was only through a joint effort the link could be built. After several years of negotiations, which included securing permission from the Minister of Militia and Defence to use the land on the Ontario side of the river, construction began, and on February 22, 1901, the Royal Alexandra Bridge linking the cities of Hull and Ottawa was completed.
Yet, for all of these efforts, the PPJR did not get to realize the benefits of its long sought-after bridge. On September 2, 1902, the PPJR and the OGVR merged, and together with their newly-constructed inter-provincial bridge, formed the Ottawa Northern and Western Railway (ONWR). Only two months later, on November 1, 1902, ONWR was itself leased by the CPR for a period of 999 years, changing the former PPRJ into the CPR’s Waltham subdivision. Between June 1901 and June 1902, its last year as an independent company, the PPJR operated two locomotives, two passenger cars, one baggage car, four box cars, 43 flat cars, a snow plough and a flanger (also known as a scraper). During that period the railway carried 37,137 passengers and 13,572 tons of freight, earning a respectable profit of $6,341 dollars.
For much of the 20th century the tracks of the former PPJR were run more or less profitably by the CPR, though there were changes, of course, over the years. In 1916, the disused Pontiac and Renfrew Railway tracks to the Bristol Mine, which had been inactive since the 1890s, were lifted and shipped over to Europe to help with the allied effort in World War I. Then, in 1956, the mine reopened and rails were once again laid down by the CPR on the old roadway to bring the ore out to feed the Stelco steel furnaces in Hamilton. Nevertheless, as with railways across the province, the advent of better cars, trucks and highways after World War II greatly diminished the viability of the line and, on September 30, 1959, scheduled passenger services were cut.
Over the following years the CPR did run a few special trains to Waltham for rail enthusiasts, such as one in 1966 that saw more than a hundred members of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association travel this route aboard two Canadian Pacific diesel dayliners, but never again would the trains routinely connect the people of the region. Freight, however, continued to run along the former PPJR rails until the end of May 1984, when operations west of Wyman ceased and the tracks were lifted. From 1984 until 1991, the CPR still ran trains to the old iron mine along what had once been the short Pontiac and Renfrew line in order to collect mine tailings for track ballast. These trains then followed the remaining stub of the CPR Waltham subdivision from Wyman down to Aylmer where it was then moved on to maintain roadways across North America. Those operations, too, finally ceased on March 29, 1991, and the CPR abandoned this last remaining section of track on the Waltham subdivision, bringing an end to rail operations on what had been the PPJR.
While the tracks and ties of the former PPJR have now all been lifted, a strong legacy of the railway remains. The roadbed from Wyman all of the way up to Waltham, a distance of 92 kilometres, has been converted into a fine rail trail with a paved and rock dust surface and 14 rest areas strung out along the pathway. Aptly named the Cycloparc PPJ, this route now offers walkers and cyclists from around the world the opportunity to explore the picturesque towns, farms, forests and wetlands of the Pontiac region. In Shawville, visitors can stop at The Pontiac Museum which is housed in the former PPJR station, and see many relics of the old line. Afterwards, they can wander downtown for an ice cream cone or a pastry from the town’s famous bakery.
In Ottawa, the Alexandra Bridge remained open to rail traffic until 1966 when the main passenger terminal was moved from Union Station in downtown to the Alta Vista neighbourhood in what was then the city’s eastern end. Now used as a roadway for cars, the bridge itself is nearing the end of its lifespan and the National Capital Commission is looking to dismantle and replace it starting in 2025. Thus, while the PPJ railway never fully realized its ambition of connecting Montreal to a path to the Pacific along the north shore of the Ottawa River, it did succeed in connecting the communities of Western Quebec to the broader world, an accomplishment that echoes down to this day.

Shawn MacWha, originally from Lachute, spends as much time as possible at his camp “up on the Picanoc” north of Otter lake. He has a keen interest in Quebec’s past and writes a weekly history column for the Townships Weekend newspaper in Sherbrooke.

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