Ontario’s History from a train seat: my last nostalgic trip on the fabled northlander – by Ron Brown (Toronto Star – August 29, 2012)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Ron Brown is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer and author of several books including “The Top 115 Unusual Things to See in Ontario” recently featured on the Star’s “Summer Reading” page.

When the province’s Minister of Northern Development, Rick Bartolucci, shocked northeastern Ontario with the news that he was cancelling the fabled Northlander train, as a travel writer I realized that I needed to embark on one last ride. For the Northlander is to Ontario what VIA Rail’s popular Canadian is to the country. Both offer an unobstructed cross section of the geography and the history of our land.

And so it was on a sunny day in late August day that I lined up at Union Station’s Gate 19 to board a legend. That the line extended the entire length of the departure room gave lie to Premier McGuinty’s assertion that the Northlander is poorly used. Ahead of me were two senior ladies en route to Cochrane, the end of the line, who would never consider a cramped 12 hour bus ride, Mr. McGuinty’s alternative. Behind me stood two Mennonite couples, their religion eschewing the car.

Gliding out of the station’s dark train shed, the history and geography lessons begin. We pass Toronto’s rapidly changing inner industrial area, the revitalized Distillery District followed by the West Don Lands reclamation project.

The scenery dramatically changes as the Northlander races through the forested slopes of the Don Valley and then re-emerges to another reality, the condos and the big box malls of the outer GTA. A welcome announcement from the snack car says that breakfast is now served. Unlike on a bus, meals are available in a comfortable dining car.

Beyond the sprawl the scenery becomes the rolling hills of the contentious Oak Ridge moraine. Then the waves of Lake Simcoe seem to wash the wheels as the train dashes along the lake’s eastern shore.

At Washago, the train not only pauses at an historical railway junction, complete with water tower, coal chute and railway station, but also begins its tortuous winding route through the unrelenting granite rocks of the Canadian Shield, the oldest rock on the face of the earth. Near the popular Muskoka resort town of Gravenhurst, hardy tracklayers etched their names onto a trackside rock face in 1873.

Heritage stations at Gravenhurst and Huntsville, restored by the municipalities to accommodate Northlander passengers, bring out yet more travellers and by now the train’s four coaches are nearly full, again dispelling the premier’s contention of light usage. In fact ridership has increased 16 per cent over the past three years.

As we near North Bay, the Northlander is racing beside the newly opened Highway 11 where the cost of a single extravagant interchange would more than cover the Northlander’s deficit. Rail is clearly not the only form of travel that the government “subsidizes.”

North Bay, with its new rail/bus station, is home to 500 ONR workers who will suffer job losses should the McGuinty government manage to sell off the railway.

After a crew change the train then enters the forests of northeastern Ontario, an area little known to most Ontarians, winding past swamps, forested rock knobs and railside ghost towns like Tomiko and Redwater. Suddenly the view through the window opens onto the islands and waters of one of Ontario’s most spectacular lakes, Lake Temagami. Fittingly it is also home to the town’s stone station, the rail line’s most attractive. Built in 1908 to lure tourists to the steamers and resorts of the lake, it has been lovingly restored thanks to a relocated Toronto couple, Clare and Richard Smirden, and is an attraction in its own right.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto star website: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/1248420–ontario-s-history-from-a-train-seat-my-last-nostalgic-trip-on-the-fabled-northlander