From one steel town to another, a Hamilton-area songwriter has penned a song in tribute to the Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train.
The Lost Angelos were formed about two years ago in Waterdown, Ontario — just outside Hamilton — writing and performing ‘classic Canadian rock and roll’ in the style of The Band and The Sheepdogs.
But it was a trip in the dying months of the ACR that inspired band member Ryan Gaynor to write a song about the ill-fated train.
Black Bear (The Algoma Central Song) recounts Gaynor’s March Break 2015 trip from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst on the ACR passenger train.
CN ceased operating the train a few weeks later, and the ACR has been idle since July 15 last year.
“I picture that as the quintessential Canadian experience — going up in the woods on this train ,” said Gaynor, adding, “It’s like taking a step back into the 1950s. It was literally like going back in time for that train ride.”
Snow had fallen the night before his tour of the line.
“The ride from Sault Ste. Marie to the canyon was breathtaking. Pine trees were covered in snow, it was unlike anything I had ever seen,” said Gaynor.
A self-proclaimed train geek, Gaynor made the tour of the line with like-minded rail fans — none of which were his band mates.
Between the Agawa Canyon and Hearst, Gaynor said the small group practically had the train to themselves.
“To pretty much have a private train — that’s pretty bad ass. Not a lot of people get to experience that,” said Gaynor.
“It was such a fun experience, I just wanted to put it to music,” he said.
Gaynor plays drums and sings backup vocals in the young band — with no member older than 20.
Nik Hirst plays keyboard and sings lead vocals, Luke Krznaric plays bass while Max Boyko plays lead guitar.
Gaynor said his band mates weren’t sure what to think when he presented the words to a song called Black Bear — a nickname for the ACR passenger train — but Hirst wrote music for the lyrics and they soon added it to their set list.
At the beginning of the song, Gaynor’s drums evoke the sound of a train chugging along the tracks, accompanied by a catchy bass line followed by a classic rock-style organ.
The opening lyrics take a somewhat pessimistic — or perhaps realistic — view on the state of passenger rail in Canada.
“The year is 2020 and the rails have turned to rust / Memories of fast trains have vanished in the dust”
When he was on the train, Gaynor listened closely to the concerns of locals who relied on it to reach camps and lodges and included many nods in his lyrics that most southern Ontario residents wouldn’t catch.
“I always wanted to write a song that people in a certain area could relate to, I thought this was an honest way to go about that,” he said.
In the song, Gaynor tries to make a statement about the need for rail in Northern Ontario, but the frustration felt by those who rely on it because the decisions about its fate are made in southern Ontario or Ottawa.
“What I was trying to get at — a lot of the decisions come from Southern Ontario. I had quite a few conversations with northerners on the train about how they feel a disconnect between Toronto, Ottawa and Northern Ontario,” said Gaynor.
A recent decision to spend $3-billion to build a single subway station in Scarborough underlines his point, while the ACR was shut down, in part, by Ottawa’s decision to cancel a $2.2-million subsidy.
“I feel like money is wasted in the big cities, then you have these significant communities in Northern Ontario that are sadly ignored,” said Gaynor.
The Lost Angelos join artists like Stompin’ Tom Connors and famed Canadian composer Louis Applebaum in writing songs about the ACR.
Gaynor’s band posted a video to their YouTube channel (embedded above), which cuts between a recent live performance of the song with footage Gaynor shot while on the trip.
Now that the train is out of service, Gaynor’s chorus takes on a nostalgic air.
“Gotta get back to the tracks of the black bear / Gotta get back to that northern air’