Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Nipigon Tramway, Conclusion

By the late Mr. John Todd from "Canadian Rail", No. 309, October 1977
The Canadian Railroad History Association
Re-printed in Nipigon Historical Museum Souvenir Edition newspaper June 1982

The Canadian Pacific built a siding, or more correctly, a spur from its main line to the warehouses alongside the narrow-gauge railway, where construction materials and supplies were interchanged. Rails for the National Trans-continental were also unloaded here for trans-shipment onto the narrow-gauge cars. In 1906 a large dredge was busily engaged in deepening the channel into Nipigon Bay, so that the larger lake freighters, laden with rails, could tie up alongside the wharf.

At each rail-water interface point on the narrow-gauge, loading ramps, each with three tracks, were built so that the loaded or empty cars could be run on and off the scows. Each of the three tracks on the scows held three cars, for a total of nine cars per scow.

Passengers were also transported on the tug boats. For the rail portion of each journey, passengers enjoyed the rocky ride over the portage railway in a closed-in car with longitudinal benches, the capacity of this vehicle not being known.

An alternate route to the construction site, via Windigo Bay on the northwest side of Lake Nipigon, involved traversing a formidably rough terrain and only light supplies were brought in to the NTR location over this route.

 "Ombabika" in the Ogibway language means " a high rock cliff rising up from the edge of the river".

When the winter freeze-up arrived, the tote-road from Nipigon again was used to transport the essential supplies north to the construction sites.

In 1906, at Nipigon, two old, rival fur-trading companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and Revillon Freres, were located side by side. Both firms were still engaging in competition for the furs of the local Indians and trappers. A little further up the town's main street these was a store operated by William McKirdy, an old Hudson's Bay man who competed successfully for local furs with his two powerful rivals.

Wholesale businesses established branches in Nipigon to supply contractors with groceries and hardware. A branch of the Bank of Ottawa was soon opened to transact the business offered by the contractors, among whom were Messrs. Chambers, McQuaig, McCaffrey and Russell. This company later built the rock breakwaters in the harbour at Port Arthur.

Many other business establishments were soon opened in the town, including hotels, restaurants, stores and a barber shop.  All of them, including the last one names, did a thriving business.

Government survey crews for the National Transcontinental project passed through Nipigon in the autumn of 1903. From there, they went by boat to the north end of Lake Nipigon, where they began running trial locations for the railway. The route finally selected was similar to that recommended by Sanford Fleming for the Pacific Railway nearly 35 years before.

An engineering headquarters was built at Nipigon in 1904 to service Division E civil engineers of the National Transcontinental Railway, which ran easterly from English River to today's town of Hearst. Mr. T.S. Armstrong was the chief engineer.

Messrs. O'Brien, Fowler and Macdougall Limited were awarded two contracts, amounting to 150 miles of railway immediately to the east of the point where the  GTP branch to Fort William left the main line. This point had been named Superior Junction, for the obvious reasons. E.F. and G.E. Faquier Limited were also awarded two contracts, one for the 75 - mile section eastward from Lake Nipigon to Grant and the other 100 miles westward from Abitibi Crossing, the crossing of the Abitibi River in the remote northeastern Ontario.

Transporting equipment and supplies into this remote region north of Lake Nipigon posed a big problem for the contractors. Winter tote-roads were built from various locations on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Teams of horses hauled supplies to the construction sites, usually about 100 miles to the north. Dog-teams also proved to be useful. In summer, the Nipigon water route provided the best means of transport. The problem of portaging the many rapids on the upper Nipigon River was resolved by building an 18 mile , three-foot gauge tramway. Its construction and operation was undertaken by the Nipigon Construction Company and was called the Nipigon Tramway.

At Nipigon on Lake Superior, a large wharf and warehouse were built underneath and upstream from the Canadian Pacific's high bridge over the river. All the supplies for the construction camps were loaded onto the narrow-gauge flat cars, which in turn were loaded onto a scow or primitive car-ferry for the three-hour trip up Lake Helen and the Nipigon River to Alexander Landing (or Alexander Point), a distance of 12 miles. The loaded cars were here run off the scow to the "main-line" of the narrow-gauge, and hauled 18 miles by a diminutive "donkey-engine" (0-4-0 saddle-tank) to South Bay at the South end of Lake Nipigon.

The loaded cars were stored here in warehouses, until the second part of the trip was begun. The cars were loaded again onto the primitive car-ferries for the 70-mile trip to the northern depot on Ombabika Bay. The cars were rolled off the scows to the second part of the "main-line" and hauled two miles further north to the construction site, now the town of Ferland on the Canadian National Railways' Caramat S/D/.

Two steam tugs were used to push the scows up the lake: they were the "Ombabika" and the "Pewabic", both built as lake fishing boats about 1901.  The steam tug "Nipigon" was used to push the scows on Lake Helen-Nipigon River run and a small tug alongside the scow helped to guide it through the fast-flowing, turbulent waters.

The return trip from Ombabika Bay, with empty cars on the car-float, was made at a much faster speed. On arrival at the southern terminal, the cars were hauled off the scow by horse power and taken to the warehouses, where they were reloaded as quickly as possible for another trip up the lake. Hay and oats for the horses, coal for the steam engines, track-building material, commissary's supplies and other associated items were rushed up the lake before freeze-up in the fall of 1908.

During the building of the Canadian Northern, headquarters were established at Nipigon by the surveyors; Foley Brothers, Welch and Stewart also had their headquarters there. The Nipigon River route and narrow - gauge tramway were again used to transport equipment and supplies to the construction sites along the Nipigon River and Orient Bay. As a consequence the town of Nipigon continued to prosper during this second period of railway building.

Contracts for the new railway were awarded to Foley Brothers, Welch and Stewart and construction started in the spring of 1911. Rapid progress was made, steel laying being started at Port Arther in June 1912.

The location chosen followed Nipigon Bay from a point just north of Red Rock to the town of Nipigon. Here, the Canadian Pacific right-of-way hugged the shoreline at the base of a high, rocky bluff and there was just no room for another right-of-way. To over-come this obstacle, the Canadian Northern built a retaining wall close to the Lake's shoreline and filled the space between it and the rocky shore with a huge amount of rock fill, dredged from the lake and brought in from other locations. At Nipigon , the new line crossed a lagoon on a causeway, which also required a very large amount of fill.

 On January 1, 1914, Sir William MacKenzie drove the last spike in this section at Little White Otter River, 254 miles east of Port Arthur. Ballasting was still incomplete and it was October before a freight service was started between Toronto and Port Arthur.


  1. Fauquire Brothers spelled their name the same was as the Village in the Cochrane District named for them. If in doubt check on google maps.

  2. Railway contractors Messrs. Chambers, McQuaig (McQuigge is the correct spelling), McCaffrey and Russell.