Flashback: How ‘Save the Train’ gathered steam two decades ago

NVN Editor’s note: These articles were written by yours truly and published in the now-defunct Iroquois Chieftain in 1999 and 2000. They show the genesis of the local — and successful — initiative to ‘Save the Train’ west of Upper Canada Village at the turn of the millennium. Their republication here is timely in light of the latest push by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission to again dump the train — highlighting history’s propensity for repetition.  While the writer can no longer pinpoint the exact dates of publication — only the general month/season and year — the articles are arranged in chronological order to show the development of the campaign that ‘saved the train’  in South Dundas at the time. The writer has taken the liberty to correct a couple of spelling errors that made it into the original print editions; the titles on the latter articles here may not be exactly as they appeared in the paper, but the content is the same.

Iroquois Chieftain, autumn 1999 

All aboard for Trenton, UCV Train slated to move up rails

by Nelson Zandbergen 
Chieftain Staff Reporter

It’s the end of the line for the old locomotive parked beside County Road 2, west of Upper Canada Village — at least for this part of the province.

Barring any last minute hitches, the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, which owns the locomotive and its two attached cars, will give the train away under an agreement in principle that was reached with the Prince Edward County Railway Preservation Society early this year.

The Society plans to restore the train and put it to work shuttling tourists on a four-and-a-half mile stretch between Trenton and Prince Edward County in a project worth an estimated $1.5 million.
In return for giving away ‘free to a good home’ what it considers to be a white elephant, the Commission gets assurances the old train will once again come hissing to life in full chugga-chuggin’ glory.

Mike Paradis, general manager at the Commission, said the decision to get rid of the train came about because it is “financially not doable” for the Commission to spruce up the rotting train where it sits. As early as 1988, he added, a consultant told the Commission that the train required $200,000 in repairs to properly continue its existence as a stationary display on the outskirts of Crysler Park.

Paradis is working on finalizing the agreement and is down to the last few details. The ten Commission members have already granted permission for the move by approving it in principle and won’t be holding another vote on the matter, he added, unless the other party were to pull out unexpectedly. “There’s no reason to think that would happen,” he stated, predicting the move to Trenton will occur.

Commission members are slated to hold an in-camera meeting in Kingston this week, and Paradis said he expects the issue will be discussed.

Contacted in Gananoque, Commission Chairman Gordon Brown noted that the call for public proposals in 1996 didn’t generate any local interest in this area. But proposals were received from the successful Trenton group, and another group in Toronto. However, Brown added, “Nothing’s been finalized.”

He described the present condition of the train as “falling apart.”

It was a remark echoed by fellow commissioner Les Cruickshank, who noted the old steamer is shedding rivets all over the short stretch of track on which it rests. “The cost of repair would be astronomical to keep it half reasonably authentic,” he said.

When the train is gone, the Commission, which markets itself as Parks of the St. Lawrence these days, plans to move the old Aultsville train station from the former display to somewhere near the entrance of Upper Canada Village.

Paradis said the train “never was representative” of the 1860s time period that the Village is shooting for. The locomotive itself, which the general manager said was never part of the old ‘mocassin’ line locally, was built in 1910 and originally operated in the Hamilton area. Behind it, the passenger coach and the baggage and refrigeration car date to 1901 and 1920, respectively, having last clattered over the rails in Montreal and in the Niagara district.

The Canadian National Railway donated the equipment to the Commission in stages between 1958 and 1968.

The Commission is exercising its “best stewardship” by granting the train to the Trenton group, Paradis said. Not all, however, agree with that.

At the last meeting of South Dundas Council, Mayor Johnny Whitteker said he hoped the Commission might delay shipping the train west for a year, to give local people more chance to fundraise a fix-up of the train where it sits. He also suggested the United Counties might be persuaded to take over responsibility for Upper Canada Road, in return for the Commission holding on to the train. Maintaining the road is currently a Commission expense.

In Mariatown, a retired former supervisor of restoration and maintenance at Upper Canada Village condemned the impending move. “I think it’s a part of our roots,” Glen Cunningham declared.

Cunningham, who held the position at the Village before retiring 15 years ago, said the train site ranks as one of the few obvious pieces of heritage visible from the county road.

“Driving east from Brockville, I see the Blue Church, the (Battle of the Windmill) lighthouse, the train, and that’s all I see until the Quebec border.”

He said the train is important because it rests on the last remaining chunk of the Grand Trunk Railway line. The other 40 miles were lost during the Seaway construction,

“That train was an orphan,” he said, claiming the parks and historic branches at the Commission could never really decide whose responsibility it was. Cunningham said he installed new jackets and roofs on the train during his tenure, and got criticized for it.

“It ended up nobody looked after it for 15 years.”

He also pointed out that Upper Canada Village used to represent a variety of times, going back to the 1780’s, and he doesn’t like the now exclusive focus on the 1860s, which the train can’t fit into. “I think we’ve lost an awful lot.”

In Trenton, one of the project’s backers said Monday that the Prince Edward County Railway Preservation Society expects to be picking up the train this year. Garret Debryn, head of the Trenval Business Development Corporation, said the Society plans to have at least the cars running on a new section of track between Carrying Place, Ontario, and Trenton by next year. The cars will make their first runs behind a spare diesel engine while retired railway workers and boiler specialists, spend up to two years putting their expertise to work on the dilapidated 1910 model engine.

“We have a very good worthwhile project here,” Debryn said, adding the final completion date of the project depends on how much millennium grant funding can be secured.

Land has been secured from the municipality of Quinte West, and the group is ready to begin laying track.

On the overall effect on Ontario’s tourism, Debryn commented: “The train will have a greater lasting effect than it does now.”

Iroquois Chieftain, November 1999

Train deal derailed 

by Nelson Zandbergen
Chieftain Staff Reporter

A plan by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission to give its old train to a group in Prince Edward County has been derailed.

The SLPC learned last week that the Prince Edward County Railway Preservation Society, which planned to restore the train and put it on four-and-a-half mile tourist run between Trenton and the county, will not be able to secure enough money from the federal government’s millennium fund, on which the outcome of the project rode.

This latest hitch apparently does not affect the SLPC’s resolve to divest itself of any expenses associated with the train, which has fallen into disrepair. But, according to SLPC Chairman Gordon Brown, it will likely give local groups another chance to make their own adoption proposals for the train.

“We’ve had some people indicate they don’t want to see it leave,” Brown said, adding they now have the opportunity to be “part of the solution.

“If there is a desire to keep the train in the area, we’re going to have to hear from local groups. That was always the original intent.”

The last public call for proposals occurred in 1996 and culminated in this year’s deal with the group in Prince Edward County. No interest was expressed by local residents at the time, Brown pointed out.

A few years earlier, however, Morrisburg Council seriously looked at accepting the train and placing it in front of the old High School. But that idea fell through.

Mayor Johnny Whitteker has suggested the United Counties could take over Upper Canada Road, which is currently maintained by the SLPC. In return, the SLPC would make some repairs to the locomotive and two train cars sitting beside the old Aultsville station, just west of Upper Canada Village, and promise to keep them there.

“No comment,” chuckled the chairman to that one.

The train issue will be discussed at the SLPC’s next meeting, Nov. 24.  Proposals have also been received from groups in Smith’s Falls and Toronto, and it is expected the SLPC will take another look at those as well.

The commission feels it has no choice but to get the old landmark off its books. As early as 1988, it was told by a consultant that the train required $200,000 in repairs, money the commission didn’t spend then, and can’t spare today.

The CNR donated the train to the SLPC in the late 50s and 60s, so the commission is motivated to do something more responsible than send the works to the scrapyard.

“We don’t want to see this train fall apart … and the commission has limited resources,” Brown explained.

Iroquois Chieftain, June 2000

Save the Train Committee to make announcement

by Nelson Zandbergen
Chieftain Staff Reporter

The Save the Train Committee plans to hold a press conference at the old locomotive east of Morrisburg this Friday.

The anticipated good news may involve some resolution to the insurance difficulties that have prevented volunteers from starting restoration work on the old train, just off County Road 2, near Upper Canada Marina.

Trying to find the proper insurance for volunteer workers has vexed the committee, with a frustrated Glenn Cunningham calling it another “pebble on the track” in a recent report to South Dundas Council.

Cunningham said he had somebody with connections to CN who was willing to donate railroad ties, but that work couldn’t begin until the insurance issue was resolved.

He called The Chieftain later. “I went to see an insurance man and he laughed. He felt like I do; it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“I really want to save the train. That is my objective.”

Kirsten Gardner, a committee member and South Dundas Township’s millennium coordinator, said the group has been busy recruiting volunteers to make the experience “like a barn-raising atmosphere.”

The group estimates that $30,000 will make the train fit for visitors again and is working with the blessing of the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

The SLPC had originally decided to get rid of the deteriorating train, but decided to work with Save the Train after a deal with a Trenton-based group fell through.

Iroquois Chieftain, June 2000

Volunteers required for train restoration

Public support to be gauged at info session tomorrow

by Nelson Zandbergen
Chieftain Staff Reporter

Saving the old locomotive west of Upper Canada Village now rides on the willingness of volunteers to come forward and donate their time to a planned restoration project.

At a press confernce at the train site on Friday, members of the Save the Train Committee confirmed that South Dundas Township had agreed to extend municipal insurance coverage to the site during restorations — ending a last bit of red tape that had prevented the local group from starting work on the project.

The St. Lawrence Parks Commission, which owns the deteriorating train, required the committee to come up with liability insurance before volunteers could get busy on Commission property.
Now all they need are the volunteers.

Work would begin by the middle of July, and anyone willing to pick up a hammer or paint brush for any amount of time — even just an afternoon — would be appreciated, said Kirsten Gardner, a committee member and South Dundas Township’s millennium projects coordinator.  “My challenge would especially be to the youth in this community.”

A public information session will be held this Thursday, June 29th, at the site of the old Grand Trunk train and station, accessible via the County Road 2 entrance to Upper Canada Marina. Starting at 7 p.m., potential volunteers will have a walkabout of the old train and Aultsville station, and an overview of what the committee wants to do.

“It’ll be a case if only five people show up, we’ll know how interested the community is,” said Gardner.

Fellow committee member Glen Cunningham, a retired St. Lawrence Parks Commission supervisor, agreed with that sentiment. Asked by a reporter if an indication of weak public support this Thursday could spell an end for the project, he responded, “That’s exactly right.”

But Cunningham was optimistic.

“We’ve got the support of the business community. We do have people who are committed. CN has offered to put in new railway ties, and that would be a big load off.”

The work includes fixing up the train’s exterior and the replacement of a rotting boardwalk, at an estimated value of about $30,000. It is hoped that donations of labour, services and materials will cover all costs.
The committee itself “doesn’t have a cent,” Cunningham said. Plans are in the works to send a letter requesting support to every business in Stormon, Dundas and Glengarry.
“I believe that if we’re up against it, there would be money available.”

He threw out a personal challenge to the Commission employees who worked for him before his  retirement more than 20 years ago to get on board as volunteers.
Solidly behind the endeavour is the St. Lawrence Parks Commission itself, according to Manager Mike Paradis. “I’m really pleased that this is coming together, that there will be real progress over the summer.”

Paradis noted that the Commission has committed to rebuild the chimney on the train station — which otherwise appears to be in remarkably good condition — and will provide in-kind services, such as the use of a dumptruck and backhoe. Demolition waste from the boardwalk repairs can go into the Commission’s disposal site at no cost.

“I think we’re prepared to go the whole nine yards with this. We’re up and running now.”

Paradis was reluctant to speculate on what would happen if the committee ultimately can’t get its plans off the ground, suggesting the Commission would have to look at all its options again. “I don’t think today is the time to talk about that.”

Twice in the past several years, the Commission has come close to ridding itself of the decrepit train.  The most recent was last fall when a Prince Edward County-based group missed a deadline to remove the locomotive and its two cars. Alarmed at the near loss, local history buffs, tourism promoters and local politicians began a lobbying effort.  The Save the Train Committee was born. It persuaded the Commission that there was a local solution to the train problem.

The change of heart comes with a renewed sense of what the train really stands for. While a consultant had told the Commission in the 1980s that the train needed $200,000 in repairs to do it proper justice, the Save the Train Committee simply wishes to spruce up and make safe what it views as a monument to the Grand Trunk Railway itself.

The Grand Trunk is gradually slipping out of the community’s collective memory, Cunningham suggested.  “People ask us, ‘How did this train get here?’” he said with a tone of disbelief.

In fact, the 1910 model locomotive and its attached cars are parked on the very tracks they had used to get to their present location, when they were donated in the late 50s and early 60s to the Commission. Even the Aultsville station was brought to the site on a flat car using the same Grand Trunk spur line, Cunningham said.

Today, all that remains locally of the Grand Trunk tracks are the few hundred yards sitting beneath the old train. Cunningham pointed out that those tracks are an important part of the area’s heritage because they allowed places like Morrisburg and Iroquois to develop and grow prior to the building of canal systems on the St. Lawrence.

What will the Commission do with the site once it has been fixed up?

Paradis said the “next step” of the project could be to organize Save the Train volunteers into a “Friends of the Train” organization — similar to volunteer groups that work in partnership with the Commission at the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm Visitor’s Centre. “Right now, we don’t have any firm plans on that.”

In such a scenario, volunteers might staff the wonderfully original train station, with its old-time ticket booth, dark hues of wood, benches and telegraph machines. The station and train site have not been open to the public for many years.

Fixing up the exterior of the train, replacing windows, as well as replacing railway ties and the boardwalk, are the priorities for this summer. Eventual plans include fixing up the interior. Volunteers might also turn some of their attention to the exterior of the station this year, Gardner said.

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