[Ontario Northland Railway] ONR paved the way in Northern Ontario – ON THE ROCKS – by John R. Hunt (North Bay Nugget – March 27, 2012)


“This has to be in Toronto tomorrow,” my wife said. “Will you take it to the station for me?”

Only old timers will understand much of this column, but I want some younger folk to understand how much the ONR once meant to folk who lived in Northeastern Ontario.

I am still livid. On Friday when I heard that the ONTC was to be killed, it felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. What made it worse was that The Nugget had just published a short piece recalling how Tembec was built out of ruin.

Tembec became a great Canadian success story because management, the workers and the community joined together for a common purpose. Why not the ONTC or Air Canada and too many others?

I took the letter to Cobalt ONR station, which in its time was the biggest and most handsome of its kind. When the southbound train pulled in, I gave the letter to the man running the mail car. In those days, the Royal Mail had a travelling post office on every important train. The letter would be sorted, arrive in Toronto and be delivered the next day. Her Majesty the Queen was much more efficient than the present mob that takes several days to do the same job.

The ONR played a vital role in the entire community. The top floor in the station was occupied by the ONR’s long distance telephone service. To its credit, the ONR was one of the few Canadian railroads that understood the telephone’s potential.

When the ONR laid its tracks north, it brought with it the telephone lines. This established the ONR’s very long and profitable monopoly on long distance service. The major Canadian railroads could not see beyond the end of their noses and ignored the telephone in favour of protecting their then profitable, and now dead, telegraph business.

The ONR telephone operators were wonderful. If I heard of a disaster or scandal in Northwestern Quebec, I would ask them to find me anyone who could speak English. If it was in Ontario I asked them to find me any intelligent citizen and they never let me down.

It was in 1957 or thereabouts I first saw dirty politics influencing the ONR and hurting Cobalt. It was announced that the long-distance office was to be moved to New Liskeard.

The excuse was that the long-distance office had to be near the Northern Telephone exchange. An ONR employee told me the company paid $10,000 a mile for a special line carrying the long-distance connections from Cobalt to New Liskeard. Eventually, a drinking friend of an MPP told me Cobalt was being punished for supporting the CCF (now the NDP) in a provincial election. I believe both stories. Now all long-distance is handled at Timmins.

Oddly enough, a major problem with the ONR was that it developed a culture much like Queen’s Park. There, Northern Ontario is regarded as a strange place inhabited by ignorant savages who must be managed. The ONR’s head office felt much the same about its customers.

I was once in North Bay and decided to catch the late bus home, but could not find a single listing for the ONR bus service. I suddenly remembered the ONR buses ran out of the Gray Coach depot. I called it and got the information.

When I called the ONR brass to complain, I was told everyone knew the ONR worked out of the Gray Coach depot. I asked how someone from Timmins or Cobalt was supposed to know. They had never thought of it.

Cobalt has consistently suffered the political machinations within the ONR. When the present Cobalt post office was opened, then MP Ann Shipley showed me around and said it had been designed as the sorting centre for the area. She said she had always wanted to do something for Cobalt and it made excellent sense.

Sometime later, the ONR held a big meeting at Haileybury and announced a whole bunch of the changes to its timetable and that the passenger trains would no longer carry any express or freight.

Haileybury’s mayor, who was also the postmaster, asked what would happen to the mail cars? There was a dreadful silence. It seems that no one at the ONR had thought of it. The ONR lost the mail business and the sorting centre was built at New Liskeard.

Just two more memories. In 1953, I met the morning train. The platform was crowded when the train pulled in and a nice looking young woman stepped off. Eileen Armstrong worked at the drugstore. She spotted me and rushed through the crowd, and gave me a kiss and a hug to the enjoyment of the local gossips. She waved a ring in front of my eyes and told me we were engaged.

She had flown to England for the coronation and met my folks, who gave her a diamond ring that had belonged to my grandmother. We were both flat broke so we decided to get married.

About 25 years ago, my wife decided there was a real danger our two young grandsons might never know what it was like to ride a train. So she took them on a shopping trip to North Bay on the Northlander. They stuffed themselves coming and going in the excellent restaurant car.

The North has been betrayed, but thanks for the memories that even the politicians cannot destroy.

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