Friday, 27 July 2012


By the late John Todd, Canadian Rail No. 309, October 1977
The Canadian Railroad History Association

Reprinted from the Nipigon Historical Museum Welcome Newspaper, June 1982

If you pick up a modern map of the remote territory north of the most northerly portion of Lake Superior in eastern Canada, you will find several geographical features all having the same name. There is (was) Nipigon Provincial Park, then Lake nipigon, followed by the Nipigon River and, last but not least , the town of Nipigon, located on a sheltered Bay on the north shore of lake Superior at the mouth of the Nipigon River, mile 63.3 on the Nipigon S/D of CP Rail. The town of Nipigon has a very important claim to fame in Canadian history: it played an important role in the building of all three Canadian trans-continental railways.

In the spring of 1871, Sanford Fleming, Chief Engineer of government surveys for the proposed Pacific Railway, sent a party of surveyors to the Nipigon region. Mr. J.C. Johnson, engineer in charge of the party, had instructions to locate a practical route for a railway running east to west from a point about 20 miles north of Lake Nipigon, which would have easy grades and light engineering works. At the time, a location along the high, rocky northern shore of Lake Superior was not considered feasible.

Mr. Johnson's party came up to the mouth of the Nipigon River by side-wheel steamboat from Collingwood on Nottawasaga Bay, an indentation off Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. A camp was set up at the Hudson's Bay Company post, where the party spent a few days waiting for the supply boats, which were Ottawa River lumberman's batteaux, 40 or 50 feet long. Soon after these batteaux arrived, the party set out up the Nipigon River for about 30 miles. The batteaux had to be dragged over the portages which by-passed the many rapids in the river. On reaching Lake Nipigon's South Bay, a sailing boat was engaged to take the party of 38 men and a dog up the lake to the north end, a distance of about 60 miles.

From a point north of the Lake , the surveyors set about running a location eastward, to meet with another line being run westward by H.W.D. Armstrong's party, the latter having made their way up the Pic River from Lake Superior, near the location of today's Heron Bay.

An inefficient Commissariat in the government's offices in Ottawa failed to follow up with the necessary supplies and dwindling rations forced Johnson's party to turn back in October. The 110 mile return trip was made in four days, with only wild rose hips and swamp water for sustenance. Coming down the Ombabika River into Lake Nipigon, the surveyors met a motley crowd of Indian canoeists, with whom they traded scarlet shirts for whitefish, which they needed worse than the shirts. After much haggling, birch-bark canoes were secured and the trip down the river to the supply base on Ombabika Bay of Lake Nipigon continued.

When they reached the base, the party expected to find provisions. They found hundreds of barrels of sugar, but little else. One engineer, J.H. E. Secretan, and an Indian decided to continue the return journey by canoe, but the Lake was so rough that they had to paddle south hugging the shoreline to Flat Rock Portage Depot on South Bay, a two-day journey. Here ample provisions were available.

The remaining members of the Johnson survey team came down Lake Nipigon on the down-bound government Commissariat boats. Henry Armstrong's men were also forced to return to Lake Superior via the Pic River, as they, too, had exhausted their supplies.

During the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the region in 1883-1885, Nipigon, town-site, river and Lake, were important links in the supply route to the railway location. Contractor's equipment, construction material and supplies for the gangs were unloaded at Nipigon and at other points on Nipigon Bay, the shoreline of which was closely followed by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Various chroniclers subsequently gave credit for the completion of this difficult stretch of railway to various people. W.C. (later Sir William) Van Horne was probably most famous as the chief "expediter" for the construction and railway historians and others have acknowledged his remarkable accomplishment. On the other hand, there are those who contend that, without the final subsidy made available to the railway in the critical period of early 1885 by Canada's federal government, it could not have been completed. Therefore, these historians credit Sir John A. MacDonald, Prime Minister of Canada in that year, as being responsible for the completion of Canada's first railway from Montreal to Port Moody, British Columbia.

Scarcely a year after the turn of the century, the occupation of Western Canada was in full swing. Sir Wilfred Laurier, leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister at the time, was not unaware of this situation; he was, however, more acutely conscious of the fact that in that year Manitoba would for the first time harvest 50 million bushels of wheat and there was but one railway to transport it to either the Lakehead or the Pacific Coast. Sir Wilfred, it is said, was motivated by economic necessity, political inducements and personal vanity to consider most seriously a second trans-continental railway, to run north of the Canadian Pacific from Quebec to a port on the Strait of Georgia north of Vancouver. The new railway would also act as a development line, opening up vast areas to settlement, thus assuring Sir Wilfred of a permanent place in the history of the development of the country.

While the concept may have been valid, it took lengthy negotiations and a few years before an agreement was reached with the then powerful Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada, which had been selected to operate the new railway. It was finally agreed that the Government of Canada would build the eastern section of the National Trans-continental Railway, from Moncton, New Brunswick, via Quebec to Winnipeg, a little more than 1,800 miles. The Government  would upon completion, lease the line to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway for 50 years at an annual rental of 3% on the cost of construction. This turned out to be a bad bargain for the parent company, the GTR.

The western portion, from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, on an inlet off Chatham Sound, was to be constructed by Grand Trunk Railway Company and was to be completed by December 1, 1908. It was to be built to standards equivalent to the GTR mainline between Montreal and Toronto. The Canadian Government would guarantee cost of construction and interest to a maximum of 75% of the construction bonds issued by the GTP, such bonds to be limited to $13,000 per mile on the prairies and $30,000 per mile on the mountain section.

continued next post : the Nipigon part

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