A Short History of the Pontiac Pacific Junction Railway
Episode 1: From Aylmer to Waltham
The idea of connecting the growing cities of Montreal and Ottawa with the emerging transcontinental railway network, using a route along the north shore of the Ottawa River, was first proposed by the Montreal Northern Colonization Railway (MNCR) in the early 1870s. In 1873, the company’s Chief Engineer, Charles Legge, produced a detailed report that highlighted both the feasibility and the benefits of running a train from the anticipated western terminus of the MNCR in Aylmer to the northern end of L’Isle-aux-Allumettes opposite the town of Pembroke, Ontario. From there the rails would cross the Ottawa River and follow its Ontario shoreline to Mattawa from where it would then connect to the Pacific Railway near Lake Nipissing. The report noted several advantages to a route that stayed, to the greatest extent possible, in Quebec, including generous provincial track subsidies and the growing population of the Pontiac region. Unfortunately, Legge’s recommendations were not realized by the MNCR which instead spent most of the 1870s connecting the cities of Montreal and Hull.
Railway promoters in the Pontiac, undeterred by the failure of the MNCR to reach their region, sought to organize a new company and, in May 1880, The Pontiac Pacific Junction Railway Company Act (PPJR) was passed, granting its directors permission to construct a single or dual-track railway from a point on the MNCR, by then renamed the QMO&O (Quebec Montreal Ottawa and Occidental Railway), near either Hull or Aylmer to “such point in the County of Pontiac as may be found most suitable for crossing the Ottawa River” and from there onward to Pembroke. The railway sought to realize the MNCR’s original vision to connect the larger markets of Central Canada with the West using a route through Quebec, and that vision resulted in the name “Pontiac Pacific Junction” or PPJ, often (dis)affectionately known as the Push, Pull and Jerk or the Push, Pull, Jump and Run, That said, like in so many other places around the country, local farmers and businesses were eager to have the railway built so that they could ship their products to the growing cities and markets across the continent. There was particularly strong interest in having a railway to ship the vast timber harvests from the Black River and Coulonge River valleys to markets in the northeastern United States.
As evidence of this interest, on July 26, 1881, the Pontiac County Council voted unanimously to provide the PPJ with a subsidy of $100,000 to assist with the construction of the railway through the region. There were, however, significant concerns regarding the legality of the debentures signed by the county warden at the time and local officials attempted to have the subsidies annulled. Arguments surrounding this case caused significant divisions within the local community and it ultimately took the Supreme Court of Canada to decide that the county was indeed bound by the debt and would need to pay the PPJ Railway for its efforts. This affair was so traumatic that decades afterwards the economic impact of being forced to pay the subsidies was still considered by some to be among the greatest disasters to ever befall the region.
Legal difficulties aside, construction of a standard gauge route using 56 pound steel rails began in the summer of 1882 and, by January 1883, fifteen miles (24 kilometres) of roadway had been graded westwards from Aylmer, and four miles (6.4 kilometres) of track had been laid. That same month, the railway’s general contractor, C.N. Armstrong of Montreal, ambitiously put out a call for tenders to construct a rail bridge across the Ottawa River located at La Passe, Ontario, just downstream from Fort Coulonge. Progress, however, stalled for the remainder of 1883 as the company paused to deal with its legal challenges, secure track subsidies, make adjustments to its proposed alignment and establish clearer specifications for the construction of the roadway.
In July, 1884 the railway published a document providing potential contractors with clear instructions on a wide variety of matters relating to the construction of the line such as the grading of the roadway, the type of fencing required along its route, the type of railway ties and spikes to be used, and the requirement to install of a telegraph line along the right of way. Of particular interest, these directions stipulated that stations were to be built every seven miles (11.3 kilometres) and that the buildings “shall in all respects be equal to that at St. Martins on the heretofore Quebec Montreal Ottawa and Occidental Railway.” The contractors were also given specific instructions to use high quality ballast amounting to 2,000 cubic yards per mile and to purchase only steel rails “of the best quality of English or American manufacture.” In order to ensure speed and efficiency on the track, builders were also directed to ensure that the grade of the roadbed should, at no point, exceed one per cent and that no curve along the route should have a radius of more than 1,433 feet.
Perhaps most importantly for the communities of Western Quebec, during this time the railway also agreed upon a major alteration to its proposed route. Rather than crossing the Ottawa River at La Passe, as had been previously expected, it was instead decided to keep the route on the north shore of the river all of the way to L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, as had first been suggested by Legge in 1873. There the company would construct an iron bridge that would be “equal in quality to the Chaudière Bridge over the Ottawa” before proceeding on to Pembroke where the proposed station would be “equal in size to that at Thurso.”
With clearly established guidelines, work on the railway re-started in the summer of 1884 and about 200 men set about laying down the 48 miles (77 kilometres) of steel rails that had already been delivered to the company. Unfortunately, the railway and the local population soon came into conflict due to disagreements about the value of the land upon which the line was being constructed. In a story widely reported across North America, in late July, 1884, farmers protesting the construction of the railway approximately 6 miles (10 kilometres) northwest of Aylmer forcibly stopped PPJR work crews, necessitating the deployment of a company of soldiers from Ottawa and Carleton Rifles to maintain the peace. While the crowd was eventually dispersed, it appears that not all were satisfied with the outcome for only a month later $500 worth of railway ties belonging to the PPJR were burned in a suspicious fire. This, alas, seemed to be a perennial problem for the PPJR and, in 1887, farmers in Litchfield once again threatened to tear up the railway tracks and wreck the trains “unless prompt settlement is made by the company for right of way, wood contracts and other transactions in which they feel themselves unjustly treated.”
Notwithstanding these problems, progress on the line continued and by the end of 1884, 21 miles (34 kilometres) of track had been completed, linking Aylmer and Quyon, with stations located at Breckenridge Farm and at Eardley. According to a contemporary account of the time, the route just after Breckenridge “…passes one of the richest farming districts in the Ottawa Valley. The land is as level as the prairie, and the farmers are all wealthy and have well stocked farms.” One such farm, owned by Hector MacLean, was highlighted as being 2,000 acres in size and worth a princely sum of $100,000. Passenger service along the route began on December 9, 1884, likely using a 4x4x0 60-foot Hinkley locomotive that had been purchased by the PPJR in 1882. Work continued throughout 1885 and the railway reached Shawville, 36.8 miles (59.2 kilometres) west of its starting point in March, 1886. By November of that year it had reached as far as Fort Coulonge, 50.3 miles (81 kilometres) from Aylmer, and by February, 1887, the line finally reached what would become its western terminus in Waltham, 70.60 miles (113.6 kilometres) from Aylmer. There the company constructed both a roundhouse and a wye junction for turning the engines around for their return trip to the city. The last stretch of track between Fort Coulonge and Waltham was, however, not inspected by government engineers or put into service until August 22, 1894 at which point the Minister of Railways and Canals recommended payment of $16,192 in outstanding subsidies and rail operations began along the full length of the PPJR. At its peak a workforce of almost 1,600 men laboured along this route, many of them experienced Italian-Americans railway workers from New England.
By the time the steel reached Waltham, the company’s rolling stock consisted of four locomotives, as well as three passenger cars, one baggage car, five box cars, 20 hopper and dumping cars and 35 platform cars. In an early account of the line from a Montreal newspaper, the railway’s equipment was very favourably described as follows: “To begin with it might be in order to say something of the equipment of the road, which, I have no hesitation of saying, is one of the finest of the kind in the Dominion. It was made as per order of Mr. H.J. Beemer, by the Cobourg Car Works, who must have thought of every little modern convenience that the travelling public require. It consists of a first class, second class and smoking car combined, and baggage, express and mail car combined is fitted out with air brakes etc. The engine is a flood from Rhode Island Engine Company with all the latest improvements.” Another account of the time also noted that the new passenger cars were of the highest quality and had been “beautifully finished inside in cherry and plush.”
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