MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 7 - North Bay's Railroads

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Peter Chandler about North Bay's railroad history. Chandler talks about his childhood experience in North Bay as well as the evolution of North Bay's various railroads. Handley and Chandler discuss the impact that the Ontario Northland Railway had on urban development in Northern Ontario and assess the original route of the ONR tracks across the face of North Bay's escarpment. 

Peter Handley:
Hi there, good day! We welcome you to North Bay’s Heritage Diary. Listen up we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people, and our stories. This time we open the door of our shared past and take a look at railroad history the MHC has long recognized our railroad history with glass plaques for the ONR building, CPR and CNR stations and Heritage Site Plaques at the CPR Yards and on the Waterfront. Today, we’re going to talk railroads with Peter Chandler who isn’t a railroader but has a lifelong love of railroad.

Peter Chandler:
I grew up down in the Regina/Laurier Avenue area and of course going up to what we now call the Laurier Woods. We used to call it First and Second Meadow, but it was our playground and the trains of course going north on the ONR were always of interest.

Peter Handley:
Okay, that’s the far end of the city and it wasn't developrd. Why did you call them the meadow?

Peter Chandler:
There was, where Franklin Street is now, going past Stradwick’s down in there that was Crogan’s Farm and out across the end of Laurier Avenue there was meadows there and there was old farm fences that we used to find and resurrect and play army and it was our playground and of course it was always the advent of the train going up the tracks.

Peter Handley:
Well the trains at that time were steam right?

Peter Chandler:
Well there was steam, yeah. They used to double head coming out of the ONR going north because of the hill at Trout Lake. They would cut off one steam locomotive and run it back down to the ONR re so it was it was quite a thing to stand up on the rock and watch the steam engines going out.

Peter Handley:
I suppose at that time you wanted you wanted to be an engineer or something? Did you?

Peter Chandler:
There were, I think, a lot of fellows around the neighborhood that you know alluded to that. It was it was an interesting thing and you see these beasts pounding up the rails and stuff and then of course as you get older you venture into other things, but a lot of the neighbors were railroaders out there they lived up in that area because they were close to the railroads for going to work. Nobody drove hardly ever. In the winter time, cars got put in the garage in the fall and stayed there and your old fellows all walked to work.

Peter Handley:
What time are we talking.

Peter Chandler:
Late 40s, early 50s.

Peter Handley:
Not long ago.

Peter Chandler:
No, time flies when you're having fun.

Peter Handley:
Okay, what did you go into?

Peter Chandler:
I went into the civil engineering field. I wasn't an engineer though, I started out as a draftsman with the Department of Highways after high school and then I worked for a couple of consulting engineering firms and then I came to the city for the last twenty two years that I worked.

Peter Handley:
But you always kept your level of rail.

Peter Chandler:
Yeah, well, I've had model trains since I was fifteen or sixteen years old so.

Peter Handley:
Okay, that can that can be a demanding hobby can’t it?

Peter Chandler:
It can. It's a hobby that you have to be able to say okay this is where I want to go with it, but we generally don't start out that way you're collecting and collecting and the next thing you know you've got this pile of stuff, but it gets interesting.

Peter Handley:
You know there's this huge display at Pinewood?

Peter Chandler:
Yeah, I did the track plan for that in 1974.

Peter Handley:
Did you?

Peter Chandler:
Yeah, with John Kennedy. At that time the Model Railway Club was approached by John Kennedy and it's been well it'll be forty-four years this June that it's been in operation down there. We maintain it so two groups of the Model Railway Club here - some go down on Monday nights and there's another group of the club that go down on Friday nights. We do track cleaning and maintenance and stuff to keep it all.

Peter Handley:
And what about your own collection? You mentioned you're into collecting yourself have you got a display something like that in your basement?

Peter Chandler:
Well mine's much smaller but I do have a fifteen by sixteen foot room that's been sort of the outlook when we go looking for a new house – there has to be a train room.

Peter Handley:
Now, you're wearing your Canadian Pacific hat. You specialized with C. P. rolling stock?

Peter Chandler:
Yeah, basically CP and all related rail so they do own what was the TH&B or the Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo and the Soo Line in the states, so I do collect some of those as well as the CPR one and I have a few CNR and ONR ones just because of growing up in North Bay and having been so close to those railways you know when I was younger.

Peter Handley:
When we talked about when you were young, you talked about some sort of a tower in the far end of the city?

Peter Chandler:
There was, where the CNR and ONR tracks cross down in the east end of the city, if you go in off John Street where the CNR railway was torn down in that way there was a tower, an interlock tower, because in the early days before they had computerized systems and what not for the signals they had long rods that ran along the side of the railway tracks to operate the semaphores or the big arms would swing up and down to give their trains of signals to go or stop or whatever. It was manned by someone who would sit up there and they would have all the train schedules and everything coming through on a telegraph key to them and they would they would do is large levers there that they would call and usually verse would flip through bell crank some stuff to pull these rods and that to make the arms move on the signals and whatnot. So, there was always somebody there and the one fellow that always stuck out in our minds down there was a fellow by the name of Mr. Moon who live on Metcalfe Street off Laurier Avenue so he wasn't too far from work but he would always have cookies and if you went by, we’d go up in the tower and watch trains with him and he'd always have cookies for us when we were kids. He would always tell us you know that you shouldn’t be on the tracks but you know come and have some cookies with me.

Peter Handley:
So there was a double barreled attraction?

Peter Chandler:
It was, yeah.

Peter Handley:
What do you remember the Golf Street crossing?

Peter Chandler:
That long wait going to the beach. You know you could be lined up waiting to Fisher Street. Now, the railways were told that they weren't supposed to block the crossing for more than a few minutes, but like everything else you know you push the limit when you're working and trying to get things done. You had both the ONR and the CPR across there because the ONR tracks at one time went right down to where the CPR station was.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Peter Chandler:
And there was an interchange that was where the interchanged you know freight cars coming from the CPR to the ONR and vice versa so.

Peter Handley:
Well the main delay would be because …

Peter Chandler:
They were switching and making up trains and breaking out other cars and stuff like that.

Peter Handley:
Because there was a big tower there?

Peter Chandler:
There was a tower there. The Gateman’s Tower was there it was right at the CPR tracks but he did control the wigwags at that time there were on the ONR tracks as well.

Peter Handley:
So there was a set of tracks on the Oak Street side and then there was a gap and the tower was in the middle.

Peter Chandler:
It was, yeah. It was in between but closer to the CPR's line.

Peter Handley:
And which was the CPR line?

Peter Chandler:
Closer to Lake.

Peter Handley:
Okay. I know that because we lived in Ferris and I mean. Going back and forth and it used to seem that it was always in the in our what we would call the rush hour.

Peter Chandler:
Yeah.

Peter Handley:
Around noon hour and supper time.

Peter Chandler:
Or if you had an appointment you were guaranteed to be late.

Peter Handley:
How did you feel when they eventually got rid of that down here?

Peter Chandler:
I wasn't here in town from 1965 to 1973. I was in southern Ontario working and I came back in the over pass was already in place because it took place somewhere around 1967-68 something like that.

Peter Handley:
Yeah.

Peter Chandler:
Something that we always kind of looked forward to was going down and seeing the trees all along Memorial Park down there with the plaques on them. It was something that you lost; it was, you know, familiarity that was gone.

Peter Handley:
There's been books written that Stephen deWilderness, Albert Tucker, Bob Surtees about the ONR history. The histories I can think of about railroading here about were about the ONR. So the ONR is our railroad in a sense, isn’t it?

Peter Chandler:
It is. You know because of their head office being here and you know their main repair shops and everything else and it was the origin for the push North to open the north and the northeastern part of the province, so you know the ONR became a very important piece of industry here in North Bay. It has contributed immensely to the development here and still does in a different way.

Peter Handley:
When you were young did you listen to stories from railroaders? Was that part of your interests?

Peter Chandler:
Yeah. I was fortunate in that both my grandparents were railroaders. My grandfather on my father's side, he told stories of you know working for the railway and working for CPR. My grandfather on my mother's side worked for the CPR and most of the relatives on that side of the family either worked for CPR or the ONR in North Bay, so there was always lots of real world stories or things that you know that went on and of course they always told us some of the better stories that kids could hear. They didn't tell us a lot of the other ones that are probably not very kid friendly.

Peter Handley:
Yeah, do you remember any of them?

Peter Chandler:
Not too many of them. The only one that I can remember wasn't even my family. This was the next door neighbor, Mr. Raycraft, he worked for the ONR and he took me down to the ONR shops and to the roundhouse. There had been a wreck on the ONR and they had brought the the steam locomotive into the shops to be rebuilt and he took me down to see it and you know he said, “this is the sort of thing that can happen with trains.” He said, “they are big, they are heavy and when they have a wreck they do an awful lot of damage.”

Peter Handley:
So the ONR had a roundhouse?

Peter Chandler:
They had a big roundhouse.

Peter Handley:
And the CPR had a roundhouse?

Peter Chandler:
The CPR had a roundhouse. Now let's see, they have yard down off the end of Worthington Street down where the scrap metal people are. There's a yard down there now it was an interchange yard with the ONR. Before the CNR came to North Bay, the ONR operated out of a building that was on the east end of the existing CPR station and passenger trains would go out of there. Freights would go out from down where they are now, but passenger trains would go from there. When the CNR came through and built the station at Fraser Street that's when the ONR switched and I guess it was probably because they were two government railways at the time. But anyway, you'll hear people talk about the ‘Y’ which is down at the end of McIntyre and Worthington Street - that's what it is it's basically a ‘Y’ in the tracks and that's where the passenger trains for the ONR would go out through the ‘Y’ along the front of where the old storehouse was.

Peter Handley:
And somebody had a huge ice house did they not?

Peter Chandler:
The CPR had a great big ice house and the fellows from up around Nipigon used to come down and cut ice out on the lake next to Highway 17 just past Stockfish on the north side.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Peter Chandler:
Used to go out there and they come down you know late January/early February they come down and they cut ice there and transport it down and fill the ice house here for the refrigerator cars. That's what they used the ice for and once of course the railways got into mechanical refrigeration in the cars and they didn't need the ice anymore so the ice hut got torn down.

Peter Handley:
We’ve lost a lot haven’t we?

Peter Chandler:
We have. But in the in the context of things, railways are progressive in their nature, so old things get pushed aside you know once of the new stuff comes along.

Peter Handley:
The whole said the city is covered. I mean your CNR tracks are away from the waterfront and our ONR and CPR tracks are along the waterfront so we’re sort of bracketed by them.

Peter Chandler:
Yeah. What happened was, and you'll read it in some of the books and if you go down to the Lavase if you know where the old Laporte’s Nursery was, all along the side of the Lavase River down by Nipissing Junction there are old piers there for what was the Canadian Northern Railway which became part of the CNR but they actually were coming up that way and they hoped to come across the waterfront when they got this far as Judge Avenue which is the old city limits, the CPR said “oh, that's my property you're not crossing there.” So, that's when you ended up with Nipissing Junction and they did the switch – they’d come through Callander and paralleled the old Highway 11, which is Pinewood Park Drive now, and then they swung out and went out to the alignment that and what I hope so that brings them through the middle part of the old city. So that's kind of the thing, but you can see the old abutments for the railway bridge they're still there on the side of the Lavase River.

Peter Handley:
Yeah, the Heritage Committee was asked to examine Nipissing Junction and we went and I remember seeing those and hearing the story. That’s a few years ago now, but it’s a fascinating story because you're right they’re still there in the middle of nowhere almost. Have you ever thought of writing anything?

Peter Chandler:
I mean, I guess maybe I should have written stuff down as it's come to mind. Seeing some of Jeff Fournier’s pictures online in the last little while and you know the memories come back. You know you go along with the flow of what's going in the city and stuff and you don't think too much of it then all of a sudden this flashback comes to you and you go: “oh yeah, I remember that.”

Peter Handley:
What about the waterfront? What do you think about the waterfront today as opposed to when you were a kid?

Peter Chandler:
When I was a kid, we used to go with my father down to the government dock to go fishing. Well you didn’t walk back up to the top by Lakeview Builders, you sneaked through across the CPR Yards, the west yards and down to the tracks. You were warned that south of the government docks was ‘Hobo Alley’ so you didn’t go down further than the government docks. The waterfront that has been developed is a great use of land as far as I’m concerned. It has made a part of the city that was really a collection of junk and stuff and wasn’t very nice looking, a place that is quite attractive and the public can use it and its cleaned everything up down in that area and I think it’s great to see something done like that.

Peter Handley:
Were the stockyards before your time?

Peter Chandler:
Stockyards? Both the ONR and CPR had stockyards. The CPR’s were sort of down in that area where the raw metals building is. The ONR’s stockyards were at the end of Worthington Street but going out more toward the CNR tracks. There was a small stockyard in there and again, that was a place where animals could be taken off the trains, watered, fed stuff like that. It was a means of getting meat to the big processors in Southern Ontario or if there was cattle coming in that people wanted for local farms, that’s where they would bring them in from.

Peter Handley:
Can you imagine North Bay without the railroads?

Peter Chandler:
I don’t think North Bay would be here without railroads – that’s my opinion. I think the railroads played such a significant part for the city here and we have sort of seen the railroads compacting their whole operations like the CPR who leased their line out to a company out of the states to look after. We are here because of the railroad. I don’t see that we would be a city of this size at this time without the railroad.

Peter Handley:
Is there anything that you want to talk about that I haven’t pushed you into?

Peter Chandler:
Some of the things that came to mind, I was looking at some of the pictures on Jeff Fournier’s site and they were talking about some of the railway and stuff. When you look at it, you know, when I was a kid we had coal fireplaces. On a morning like this, my dad would have been up at 6:00 in the morning stoking up the fire and we’d all stay in bed as long as we could and then stand in front of the register in the bathroom when you were in the bathroom getting washed because it was cool in the mornings. But, you know, you had Sayer Fuels up on Copeland Street by the CNR tracks, you had Gordon and McCluskey Fuels down where the new Health Unit is. The Beer Store was at the corner of Fraser and Oak Street – I remember going there with my dad. There was a company called Regent Fuels on John Street. We used to go get pollywogs in the spring down there and we’d come home with a bottle and there’d be oil in the water and the pollywogs swimming around in it. But, you know, the railways are busy, they had freight sheds and stuff. The CNR had their big freight shed on Sherbrooke Street right where it comes up off of Second Avenue. There were lots of things that went on around here.

Peter Handley:
A lot of the old railroaders have passed on. Can you toss some names out there for us?

Peter Chandler:
Bud Thompson worked for the CPR and he was part of the original Model Railway Club. Actually, a lot of the old guys in the Railway Club in the late 50s and early 60s were full-time railroaders. We had a baggage car right with a model railroad in it. Harold Rutherford who was also in it. Most of the guys who belonged to the club at that time were railroaders for their livelihood. There was a lot of stuff, like railroad memorabilia like these lanterns which were coil oil fire and you had someone who was responsible for putting the coil oil in and putting the red lens or the green lens in. Now a lot of them have been switched to electric, but most now have a reflective element where the headlight of the locomotive hits them so the engineer and the firemen can see them. This stuff is out there for people who are collectors and sometimes you’ll see it in restaurants if they have a railway theme or something. We all kind of look for the stuff. I actually have a brass badge that belonged to my grandfather which says ‘T&NO #1 Trucker” – he was a freight trainer so they called him a trucker. These are things that you see them, even the insulators off the telegraph polls – I was in a flea market once down around Odessa looking at one and the fella said “are you interested in that, you’ll never see one of those again” because it was a T&NO Railway insulator and I said, “I’ve got two. One with the lettering in the top and another where it’s around the base” and he said “you wouldn’t want to sell them would you” and I said “no, I’m going to pass them on to my kids.”

Peter Handley:
Now, apropos of absolutely nothing, I’ve heard talk of this for years and years. The ONR Tennis Club was down around the Golf Street Crossing wasn’t it?

Peter Chandler:
It was. In between the CPR and ONR tracks on the north side of the Chippewa Creek.

Peter Handley:
It was visible from the roadway?

Peter Chandler:
Oh yeah, it was all fenced in and I think it was asphalt that was in there, an asphalt court.

Peter Handley:
I’m just thinking when you go down there now and there’s just the creek and the bush and pieces of asphalt lying around.

Peter Chandler:
I’m just thinking of something else that might be of interest. If someone were to look closely at some old city maps, the ONR originally went out toward Trout Lake and then swung back in where Giroux Street is and came across the face of the escarpment and headed north up through where the University and College grounds are. That was the original layout for the tracks, but they changed it and kept going east to Feronia. But you can actually still see the right of way on old legal plans.

Peter Handley:
I think Bob Wood was on Council when they discovered on Eloy’s Farm some plans for the railroad.

Peter Chandler:
Yes, there was. If you looked at the old Gormanville Road where it made the sharp corners at Monastery Road, there was a flat area up there that had been graded out where the railway would have gone and went across the escarpment and then made the big loop down around Giroux Street.

Peter Handley:
Was the route they eventually chose the better route or would it have been the original route across the escarpment?

Peter Chandler:
I think that was the better route to go, the way they went out through Feronia. I think this would have been another CNR divide if you look at how the city is developed today, especially along the escarpment to the north of the old city. You would have had railway tracks impeding development. One other story that I have for you is when we were younger, we were able to go up to the CNR station on Saturday morning, there was a mixed freight train that went out on the ONR and they would let us throw the canoe in the vestibule, in the back of the passenger car and they’d stop and let us get off and go fishing.

Peter Handley:
Really?

Peter Chandler:
Yep, that’s how easygoing railroaders were at the time.

Peter Handley:
Peter, thank you for joining us today.

Peter Chandler:
Oh thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Peter Handley:
We’ve been talking with Peter Chandler as part of this series Heritage Diary. We thank you for spending some time with us today. Our productions are put together not only to retell old tales but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn’t let it go unremarked or unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at peter.carello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Pete Handley speaking.