Ontario Northland: Through timber to tidewater – by John Thompson (Railway Age – December 28, 2017)


Some Railway Age readers will be surprised to learn that GO Transit, launched in 1967, was not the first venture of the Province of Ontario into the railway business; that event actually occurred some 60 years earlier. The honor actually belongs to the provincially owned Ontario Northland Railway, which links the city of North Bay, on Lake Nipissing, to Moosonee, on the salt waters of James Bay.

At that time, and until recent years, North Bay was on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) transcontinental (Montreal-Vancouver) main line. During the past decade, the trackage between a point just east of North Bay, to Smiths Falls (60 miles west of Montreal) was abandoned.

The territories served by the two provincial railways could hardly be more different: GO Transit is based in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and carries commuters in business attire through an area of subdivisions, apartment towers, industries and fertile farmland.

Its northern counterpart, by contrast, caters to casually dressed tourists, natives, hunters, fishermen and assorted Northerners. It traverses a sparsely populated region of rock, forests, lakes, rivers and muskeg.


The Ontario Northland Railway (known as the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway, T&NO, until 1946) had its beginnings in 1902, when construction began. It had been realized by the government that a railway was needed to exploit the timber and mineral wealth of Northern Ontario.

A somewhat comparable project, in the western province of British Columbia, was the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, also undertaken by the provincial government. It is now owned and operated by CN.

In Ontario, transportation was also needed to bring supplies and settlers to the Great Clay Belt, a region about 200 miles beyond North Bay that possessed fertile soil ideal for agriculture.

At this time, neither the CPR, nor the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (a CN predecessor) were interested in expanding into this region.

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