Excerpt From Call of the Northland: Riding the Train That Nearly Toppled a Government – by Thomas Blampied

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Historian, author and photographer Thomas Blampied has been interested in railways for as long as he can remember. Growing up east of Toronto, he spent summer evenings sitting trackside with his father watching streamlined VIA trains race past and long freight trains rumble by. From these early railway experiences grew a lifelong passion for railways and rail travel which has manifested itself through model railroading, photography, writing, railway preservation and the academic study of railway history. This is his fourth book about railways in Ontario. He has studied in both Canada and the United Kingdom and currently resides in Southern Ontario.

Chapter 4: The North

The next station was one I had been looking forward to for many years – Cobalt. Legend has it that the town’s silver bonanza was set off by one Fred La Rose, a blacksmith, who threw a hammer to scare away a fox. According to the tale, when his hammer missed the animal and hit the ground, it uncovered a vein of silver. While this story might be true, the credit for the first silver find goes to J.H. McKinley and Ernest Darragh, who were scouting for suitable timber for railway ties.

Their claim predated La Rose’s by a month and, besides, La Rose incorrectly identified his silver vein as copper. The approach to “Silver City,” renowned for its steep and winding streets, is truly special as the line carves a long, sweeping curve around the lakeshore before passing the station. We were one minute late at 4:21 but, with nobody there, we rolled right by the large station and on past the preserved mine buildings. This is what I had wanted to see for so long. Some of the most iconic shots of the ONR over the years have been taken from the road bridge overlooking this spot – with the mine to the left and the railway snaking around an “s” curve to the right.

It is a special spot, befitting for Ontario’s “Most Historic Town” as voted by TVO’s now-defunct current affairs show Studio 2. In fact, the town was once so important that, over a hundred years ago, the Cobalt Silver Kings were one of the first professional hockey teams in Canada, playing in the inaugural season of the National Hockey Association in 1909-10.

On January 5, 1910, the Silver Kings lost 7-6 to a new Francophone team called the Montreal Canadiens. It was the first professional game the Habs ever played. Of all the places on the route of the Northlander, this is the one I would have most wanted to stop at and spend a few days wandering around, had I had the leisure to do so.

All along the route, the one constant sign of civilization, other than the train itself, is the endless line of utility poles – some upright, some floating flat in the water. They were originally installed to carry the railway’s telegraph wires, vital in the safe spacing of rail traffic to avoid two trains hitting each other. Telegrams would be sent from station to station, updating the progress of trains and allowing signals to be adjusted accordingly. In later years, telephone wires were added.

Today, most railway communication is either by radio or through buried cables. In some places, the utility poles were broken, with insulators hanging on the wires but no longer attached to a pole. I do not know if these wires are still in use, but they remain a reassuring sight as someone in the past put them there – a sort of modernized inukshuk. At roughly mile 107, the town of Haileybury, we passed an old ONR caboose in the classic red and grey paint scheme of “Ontario’s Development Road,” as the slogan on the side proclaimed. It seemed an ironic thing to say now, especially as the provincial government felt the railway was a lost cause.

Next to the caboose, a tugboat, the MV Beauchene, also formed part of the town’s museum display. It was a strange sight to see the marooned vessel and certainly a welcome change from all the trees. With so many of them in the area, the streams are tinted a beautiful amber colour thanks to the tannin in the leaves, but it still does become monotonous after a while to see so much forest.

Haileybury was where the people whose wealth was made from Cobalt’s mines chose to live. While the mines closed long ago, Haileybury still boasts some very grand mansions as a reminder that the north once drove much of Ontario’s economy. Leslie Macfarlane (one of the many “Franklin W. Dixons” to write the Hardy Boys mysteries) grew up in the town. The local hockey team, the Haileybury Hockey Club (nicknamed the “Comets”) also played in the inaugural season of the National Hockey Association, finishing just behind their Cobalt rivals, but far ahead of the Canadiens, who finished dead last.

Despite their January 1910 win against Cobalt, the Canadiens’ rich legacy of hockey domination would take time to develop.