In 1911, a young boy named Emory R. Elkington carried buckets of water to construction workers building a wooden trestle on the Montreal River. Stumbling through the trees, he wondered to himself “What do they want to put a railway here for? There’s nothing but bush.”
A little more than a decade earlier, Francis H. Clergue envisioned Sault Ste. Marie as the industrial empire of Northern Ontario. With the largely uncharted hinterlands stretching beyond the city, he believed a railroad connecting to the Canadian Pacific Railway in Hearst was elemental for gathering and transferring lumber and pulpwood across the region.
In 1887, a prospector named Ben Boyer discovered a 300-foot wide vein of high grade hematite iron ore located over 200 km north of the Sault.
“I was on top of what seemed to be a mountain. Across the lake was a swath of brownish red that ran from the water’s edge to the top of the cliff…I had found a vein 300 feet wide, and 100 feet high from the water’s edge.”
Clergue purchased the ore deposit in 1898, creating the Helen Mine, named after his sister. His steamships could travel from the Sault to Michipicoten Harbour on Lake Superior, just twelve kilometers away from the mine, but the lake was frozen over for several months every winter. The only road from the Helen Mine curved north another fifty kilometers to the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Clergue’s dreams of building a railroad accelerated, and on August 11, 1899, the Algoma Central Railway Company was founded.
The company’s first locomotive, named Number One, was a secondhand engine from the United States. It was purchased for just $2,800.
Construction began immediately on two separate railroads. Clergue’s priority was connecting Michipicoten Harbour to Helen Mine, while the main line headed north out of Sault Ste. Marie. All the railway materials, from tracks to locomotives and freight cars, were transported across Lake Superior using two steam vessels, the Manitou and the Caribou.
Building the railway was a tremendous construction challenge. With no airplanes for reconnaissance or photography, no track-laying machines, and no modern grading equipment, most of the work was done by hand.
Finding routes through the dense forests, rugged hills, deep ravines, and flowing rivers of the Canadian Shield was a nightmare. John Holdsworth, who planted the first stake in the Algoma Central Railway, explained to the Sault Star, “Lots of times we thought we had found our way through, and run up against a mountain or a bad ravine that had to be circumvented before we could go on. That meant we had to go back to the beginning and find a new way through the hills.”
“The streams gave the best guide… You couldn’t go any distance without running into deer, moose, bear, or caribou, and the fishing was great. It was no trick at all to stop at any stream along the right of way and get enough fish for a good meal.”
The winter months proved to be even more difficult, as track layers dug through upwards of ten feet of snow, and slept in tents threatened by blizzards and temperatures that dropped below -50 degrees Celsius.
Progress was slow at the best of times. The construction of large wooden trestles, made from timber shipped from British Columbia, supported the railway when crossing rivers, ravines, and other natural obstacles. However, every spring heavy water runoff was disastrous, washing out many bridges and trestles. Furthermore, due to the remote location of the rails, work could only be completed at the end of the line or “end of steel”. As a result, bridges and trestles could only be built one at a time.
Travelling through the Agawa Canyon seemed nearly impossible, as workers laid five miles of track that dropped 500 feet in height from the hills to the canyon floor.
This five-mile stretch through the Agawa Canyon, where the track drops 500 feet from the hills to the canyon floor, was an engineering feat in itself.
By the end of 1900, more than 60,000 tons of iron ore was hauled from Helen Mine by three locomotives. To Clergue, the possibilities for the Algoma Central Railway were endless. He pictured a railroad that transported fresh fish from the arctic all the way down to the United States, and another track leading up to Hudson Bay.
On May 23, 1901, the Algoma Central Railway Company was renamed as the Algoma Central and Hudson Bay Railway Company. The running joke among Algoma citizens was that the initials AC & HBR really stood for “All Curves and High Bridges Railway”. Resembling a logging road more than a railway, the longest straight stretch measured just eight miles in length.
When the local industry crashed in 1903, with 90 km of track laid north of the Sault, production was halted for several years. By 1911, the railway had crossed the Montreal River and the line was completed through to Hawk Junction. On Oct. 13, 1914, the first passenger train departed for Hearst from Sault Ste. Marie.
In 1952, the railway became the first in Canada to replace all steam locomotives with modernized diesel engines.
Renamed as The Algoma Central Railway in 1965, the track now reaches more than 325 miles, connecting with the Canadian Pacific Railway and other major lines in the country. Even today, most of the surrounding landscape remains untouched by industrialization, with trains carrying passengers to Agawa Canyon, and hunters and fishers to other uncharted territories found only by rail.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.