Full Steam Ahead

March 1, 2007 by James Careless

PHOTOS: HCW STEAM TRAIN

PHOTOS: HCW STEAM TRAIN

Clockwise from top left: The HCW Steam Train chugs towards Wakefield, Que.; tour guide Maxime Fortin greets passengers; locomotive No. 909 steams along the Gatineau River.

Imagine a perfect day trip on a real train–on a train pulled by a working steam engine. One with old coach seats swaying back and forth; the relentless sharp percussion of the wheels serving as soundtrack to the vistas streaming past the old-fashioned big windows. In short, a train like you see in the movies–and remember from your childhood.

Until recently, I thought such things were nothing more than the stuff of memory. But then my family and I took a ride on the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train. From early May through to late October each year, the HCW regularly hauls up to nine 1900s-era passenger cars from the station in Gatineau, Que., to Wakefield, 32 kilometres away.

Chugging along at a leisurely 24 kilometres an hour, the train climbs the Gatineau Hills, hugging the incredibly beautiful shore of the Gatineau River and rolling past fields, forests and lakes.

I have to admit I was a bit wary of taking the trip, mainly because I feared being disappointed. After all, I was someone who had grown up with the unforgettable experience of riding the rails from Toronto to Vancouver, and back again. How many times had I been awoken at 5 a.m. just so our family could be sure of getting seats in the dome car during the trip through the Rockies?

I have a real love for the long-gone days of stiff white linen tablecloths and heavy silverware in the dining car. I remember sleeping in the tiny two-person compartments with the old fold-down beds and impossibly small sinks; and my fear of falling through the toilet when I hit the handle and it opened onto the tracks below.

When I was a teenager I travelled across the country on my own. This was a gift from my parents who knew how much I enjoyed train travel. I remember standing in the vestibule between passenger cars, watching the Rockies flow by through an open window. You weren’t supposed to stand there, of course, and the conductor would shoo you back to your seat if he found you there.

When the conductor was nowhere to be seen, I could carefully unlock the top half of the big side door in the vestibule and then lock it into place against the end wall. With the upper door out of the way, a space of at least four feet by four feet was opened up to the land going by. From there, you didn’t just see the forested landscape; you could smell it and hear it along with the sound of the train. If you were particularly bold, you could even put your hands on the sill and stick your head out the side of the train. The whole country unfurled all around you, as the engine and passenger cars curled around the track ahead…and behind.

Eventually, the conductor would come by again and you’d have to return to your seat where you’d quietly wait for another opportunity to return to the vestibule.

With so many fine memories, one can probably understand why I feared disappointment on the HCW. But to my surprise, I wasn’t disappointed–not at all. Granted, I couldn’t go stand in the vestibule; there was too much staff aboard for that. But the happy playing of a fiddler-and-guitar duo, the wonderful countryside flying by and the astonished comments from my teenaged children all added up to a wonderful journey that just sped by.

Add to this happiness the quaintness of the village of Wakefield, and the awe-inspiring rotation of a 100-year-old engine on a hand-powered railroad turntable. I got to revisit a magic that I thought was lost, and best of all I got to share it with my family. And I have yet to take one of the HCW’s sunset dinner trains, featuring a four-course, in-car meal complete with white linen and china, and prepared by a local gourmet chef.

The HCW’s heritage, meanwhile, is tied to Canada, Sweden and the former USSR. There is even a Cold War connection.

First, the Canadian part of the story: In the 19th century, railroads were the equivalent of the dot-com boom. Everybody wanted to build railways, because they saw them as natural money-makers. A lot of people wanted railways to run through their towns because they understood that towns with railroad access were destined to prosper, while towns without were doomed to slow decline. So prevalent was this belief, in fact, that canny railroad entrepreneurs used it to attract concessions from towns along their proposed routes.

The Gatineau area, located across the river from Ottawa, was not immune to railway fever. By October 1891 the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway succeeded in laying track from the Canadian Pacific Railway in Hull (now called Gatineau) to the village of Wakefield. Freight and passenger service began the next year on Feb. 15. Meanwhile, the O&GVR continued building track until it reached Maniwaki, Que., in 1904.

Local railway historian Bruce Ballantyne said the O&GVR changed names and hands many times. “In 1902, Canadian Pacific leased the line under a 999-year lease. From the early 1900s through to the 1950s, it was a busy line running freight trains for logs and other goods, plus passenger trains to the various towns and resort communities…. But then the car and truck started to take over, and CP began to cut back its schedule in the late 1950s. By the time the passenger service ended on Jan. 27, 1963, the old steam engines had been replaced by self-propelled Budd diesel cars which CP called Dayliners. From there, freight traffic dropped off until CP applied to abandon the route.”

The originally named Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway came to the end of the line on Jan. 1, 1986. “CP was told by the Canadian Transportation Agency that they had to keep it open until Dec. 31, 1985,” Ballantyne noted. “So they did. But on New Year’s Day 1986, they started tearing up the tracks north of Wakefield.”

Fortunately, the Town of Chelsea recognized the value of the track, and it knew that the Canada Science and Technology Museum had been running steam excursions for tourists since 1974. In fact, the engine that hauled those trains, ex-CPR No. 1201, is now stored at the museum in Ottawa. So, the municipality convinced CPR to turn ownership of the remaining track over to it, in hopes of keeping the tourist trains running.

Meanwhile, an old railway turntable–used for rotating engines so that they could switch from one track to another–was hauled in by train from the now-demolished CPR roundhouse in Kingston, Ont. “The turntable rides on a central turning mount, on which the engine is balanced for turning,” explains Ballantyne. Imagine that the locomotive has been placed on a giant Lazy Susan, and so turning the engine is as easy as rotating this giant plate. In fact, the railway workers do this by hand, although once the plate gets turning it is hard to stop.

The turntable was installed at the ‘new end of track’, just past the old Wakefield station, which has since been turned into a restaurant.

There were, of course, a few stops and starts in the attempt to get a commercial steam engine service launched. Things got serious in 1992 when the HCW’s engine and nine cars were purchased and brought over to Canada from Sweden (more on that later). Since 1994, the HCW railroad has been operated by the Gauthier family of the Ottawa suburb of Orleans. They have invested substantial funds in bringing the HCW line up to snuff, including building a new station/indoor engine garage in Gatineau.

The Swedish side of the story is what introduces us to the train’s origins and its Cold War connection. The steam engine and nine passenger cars that make up the HCW, plus a 1950s-era diesel engine that adds extra hauling power when needed, all came from Sweden. Built exactly 100 years ago, Swedish steam engine No. 909 was used regularly until 1945, when it was replaced by electric locomotives. But this wasn’t the end for No. 909. Rather than sending it to the scrap heap, the Swedish government put No. 909 and 200 other steam engines and their cars into storage.

Geographically, Sweden is a short distance from the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, this prompted real fears of invasion among the Swedes and their government. Guessing that an invading Soviet army would knock out the country’s electricity to stop it from moving troops by rail, Sweden decided to secretly hold onto its self-sufficient steam engines ‘just in case.’ Until 1990, the engines were kept hidden in strategic locations, ready to assist should the Cold War ever turn hot.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Cold War effectively ended. So the Swedish government put its steam engines and equipment on the market. As a result, steam engine No. 909, plus a diesel engine and nine 1940s-vintage passenger cars were purchased for $400,000 and then sent on the cargo ship Federal Man to Montreal.

“During the Atlantic crossing, the crew braved four storms,” noted HCW communication and marketing manager Sylvie Lapointe. “The engines and coaches arrived just in time for the inaugural trip on June 27, 1992.”

Today, added Lapointe, the HCW Steam Train averages more than 50,000 passengers a year. “2006 was our best year ever, with 53,700 passengers riding the train.”

No. 909 is driven by trained engineers such as Ches Banks. “Growing up, I always wanted to be an engineer and a Mountie,” Banks explained. “Well, after 34 years as a Mountie, I retired and then trained to be an engineer on steam engines.” It is his job to control the speed of No. 909, by using the engine’s working 1907 hand throttle and brakes. A fireman accompanies him to control the fire and amount of water in the engine’s boiler. It’s no mean feat. To generate enough steam to power No. 909′s two pistons that drive the engine’s eight wheels, the boiler must be pressurized up to 165 pounds per square inch to reach peak horsepower. “This is why you don’t ever want your boiler to run dry,” added Banks. “If it does, it could explode.”

According to Banks, the HCW railway trains its own firemen and engineers, so perhaps there is a future for me on the rails down the line. But in the present, all I care about is being able to see and hear a working steam engine, and to ride behind it through some of the prettiest country in Canada. That’s what I can do every summer and fall on the HCW, in authentic surroundings that are folksy without being phoney and nostalgic without being contrived.

Do The Locomotion

For more information on the HCW Steam Train you can visit the website www.steamtrain.ca, or you can call the company at 1-800-871-7246. During the 2006 season, return fare single tickets started at $39, with child fares (ages 2 to 12) starting at $19. It is worth pointing out that the steam engine seen in the film Grey Owl–starring Pierce Brosnan–was No. 909. Summer is a great time to take the trip, but those who wait until the fall get to enjoy the colours of the Gatineau Hills.

If Gatineau or Ottawa isn’t on your list of destinations, there are other steam excursion trains operating across Canada. We can’t list all of them, but here are some you may be interested in.

Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions runs steam excursions starting at Stettler, Alta., from May through to November, and the fun includes a make-believe holdup. “At some point during your excursion the train may be brought to a screeching halt,” explains the company’s website, www.absteamtrain.com. “Look out. It’s the dreaded outlaw Bolton Gang. They are known to frequent these parts and on occasion hold up the train.”

In British Columbia, the Kamloops Heritage Railway relies on its lovingly restored steam engine ex-CNR No. 2141 to pull a wide range of excursion trains, including dinner tours, a Halloween ghost train, and a special Christmas train. You can find out more by visiting www.kamrail.com or writing to info@kamrail.com or calling 250-374-2141. Also in British Columbia, the Kettle Valley Steam Railway operates two steam engines in the South Okanagan Valley. One of them is the ex-CPR No. 3716, which was seen in the Disney film The Journey of Natty Gann. You can learn more by visiting www.kettlevalleyrail.org or by calling 1-877-494-8424.

Northwest of Toronto, the South Simcoe Railway runs steam excursions from Tottenham to Beeton. These one-hour round trips are offered on certain days from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving. One nice touch: The SSR rents out its baggage cars for birthday parties and other social functions. The website is www.steamtrain.com. You can also phone 905-936-5815.

In Manitoba, the Prairie Dog Central Railway runs between Winnipeg’s Inkster Junction northwest to Warren. For those wanting something more than a boxcar, the PDCR rents out a restored caboose for parties, which it hitches to its trains. It is operated by the volunteer-run Vintage Locomotive Society, using the 1882 vintage ex-CPR engine No. 3, plus a vintage diesel engine. For more information visit www.pdcrailway.com or call 866-751-2348.

For information on more excursions in Canada, please visit www.rrsites.com/gtp/steam.htm

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