Monthly Archives: July 2016

Rice Lake’s Sunken Railway

July 26, 2016

On March 6, 1834 the Cobourg Rail Road Company was chartered to build a railway from Cobourg to Peterborough crossing Rice Lake.  This was one of the first two Railroad charters issued in Canada and it came just a few years after the first railroads were built in the UK.  In the summer of 1996 I set out to investigate the remains of the railway.
The concept had begun in 1831 when several businessmen from Cobourg contracted the Provincial Land Surveyor, F. P. Rubidge, to survey possible routes for a railway from Cobourg to Rice Lake.  The following year a map showing a proposed route following several valleys ran to the community of Sully (Harwood).  Money didn’t show up but the Rebellion of 1837 did and the plan got forgotten until 1846.  This is when Samuel Gore revived the idea as the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company.  Gore intended to bring lumber and other natural resources to the Cobourg harbour for shipping, thus creating a thriving port community.  His plank road didn’t survive past the first couple of winters but pictures of a similar plank road called The Gore and Vaughan Plank Road were published in a previous article.
In 1852 a new plan was chartered for the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway.  The official sod turning for construction was performed by the wife of the Cobourg mayor on Feb. 7, 1853.  During that first year farmers along the way contributed wood from the forests and labour from their horse teams. The old plank road bed was used but in 1854 a labour shortage was caused by the Crimean War and labour rates rose to $1.00 for a 12 hour day.  German labour was brought in and tragically, 14 of them perished that year to cholera.  When completed at the end of 1854 the trestle was nearly 5 kilometers long making it the longest railway bridge in North America at the time.  The archive photo below shows the trestle set on piles that had been driven into the lake bed.  Each truss was 24 meters long and it took 33 of them to make the crossing.  In the deepest part of the lake a 36 metre swing bridge was installed to allow navigation from one end of the lake to the other.
The view below from Google Earth shows Harwood and the railway causeway reaching out into the lake.  Starting in 1855 John Fowler took over as chief engineer and he began to fill in the cribs below the trusses in an effort to secure them from the winter’s damage.  The trestle from Harwood to Tic Island was filled in and this can still be seen from aerial photography.  The railway manager, D’Arcy Boulton continually defended the railway claiming that Samuel Zimmerman hadn’t properly completed the line when he turned it over and started work on a rival line out of Port Hope.  Boulton suggested that a half a million cubic yards of fill could be dumped into the remaining open cribs and that would solve the trestle problem permanently.  The cover photo shows the causeway as it stretches away from shore as it appeared in 1996.  It is one of four pictures from that trip that have been scanned and added to this article.
The first train from Cobourg to Peterborough ran the 45.8 kilometer track for free on December 29, 1854 to show off the new railway. Celebrations were a little premature as ice damaged the trestle just three days later on January 1, 1855 and the line was shut down until it could be repaired in the spring.  The seventeen truss sections that ran south between the draw bridge and Tic Island were shoved hard enough that the span on the abutment on the island was displaced by four feet.  Ice damaged the bridge again in the winters of 1856-57, 1859-60 and fatally damaged it in 1860-61.  Parts of the trestle collapsed and some claim that a rival railway had removed some of the bolts from the truss sections.  The trestle was permanently closed and the railway from Hiawatha to Peterborough abandoned.  The archive photo below shows damage to the trestle following the shifting of the ice.  Notice how the rail is twisted near the person standing on the bridge.
 Finally I had reached the end of the causeway and found a couple of fishermen trying their luck.  The causeway stretches off toward Tic Island which is hidden by the cluster of trees that have found a home on the rocks.
Harwood 3
The line was sold in 1866 to the Marmora Iron Works for $100,000 but the citizens of Cobourg had invested ten times that much in the railway.  The company planned to bring iron from a mine on Crowe Lake to Trent Bridge at the northern end of Rice Lake by rail.  From there a barge would move the ore to Harwood for shipping on the old railway to Cobourg.  The venture went well until 1873 when the economy went bad and the iron market collapsed.  This led to the closure of the mine and by 1877 the company was again bankrupt.  Parts of the rail line were absorbed into the Grant Trunk Railway in 1893.  The picture below shows the rail end in Harwood at Rice Lake around 1865 with a barge tied up at dockside.
Harwood 1865
Hiking to the end of the causeway involves a lot of climbing over tree roots and around rocks.  The picture below shows the width of the causeway as it stretches from the shoreline.  The water level in Rice Lake was raised by about eight feet in the 1920’s when the Trent Severn Waterway was constructed.  The rail berm I was hiking on was originally built 4 feet above the high water mark.
Harwood 2
In 1996 it was possible to make your way a considerable distance from the shore along the old causeway.  This picture is taken from the end looking back to the shore.
Harwood 4
It’s now been 156 years since a train made the crossing but the remains of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway still have their story to tell.
Google Maps link: Harwood

Cache Lake Trestle – Algonquin Park

Sunday July 17, 2016

John Rudolphus Booth was born on April 5, 1827 in the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada (Quebec).  He left the family farm at the age of 21 to take a job as a carpenter on the Vermont Central Railroad.  Booth moved to Ottawa in 1852 where he started a machine shop.  When it was lost in a fire he decided to try his hand at making shingles.  The business was a success and soon he could afford to lease, and later buy, a small saw mill at Chaudiere Falls in Ottawa.  J.R. was able to win the contract to supply the wood for the parliament buildings that were being constructed in Ottawa following Queen Victoria’s selection of the site in 1858. This gave the business a major boost and by 1892 his lumber mill operations were the largest of their kind in the world.

The pictures in this story were taken in May 1998 on a camping trip to Algonquin Park with my youngest brother.  The picture below shows the Cache Lake trestle in the distance.  The trestle is above the water line for the first half of the span on the east end but the section on the west (right hand side) is concealed.  We determined to visit both ends of the trestle by canoe.

Cache 2

In 1867 Booth purchased the lumber rights for 250 square miles of pine forest on the Madawaska River in what is now Algonquin Park.  Over the next few decades he increased his holdings to over 7,000 square miles of forest.  He increased his mill capacity by running 13 band saws and by 1891 he was consuming two million logs per year.  Some of his lumber holdings were so remote that it took two years for the logs to reach the mill.  Booth began to experiment with barges to move logs and then decided to employ railways to bring his resources to his mill in Ottawa.  The picture below is from the western abutment of the trestle as seen from the canoe.

Cache 7

In 1888 Booth chartered a series of railways which in 1893 were amalgamated into the Ottawa Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway (OA&PS).  Construction began in July 1892 with forty crews at work.  Two years later there were 1,100 men working on building the OA&PS.  By the end of 1895 the line extended for 168 miles west from Ottawa and had reached Cache Lake.  In the spring of 1896 work began on driving pilings into Cache Lake for the trestles that would cross two bays.  The first freight train from Parry Sound to Ottawa ran on October 9, 1896.  Things were unstable from the beginning and the Cache Lake trestle shifted on Nov. 11, 1898 causing a delay to the mail train.  We took our canoe in close to the trestle as we crossed the lake but when we pushed ourselves away the paddles sank deep into the rotten wood.  We landed the canoe along the eastern berm where we could safely tie off and get to the top.  The picture below shows the old rail bed as it approaches the start of the trestle.
Cache 4
The line was sold to the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1905 who expanded services with a tourist hotel.  The GTR was absorbed by the Federal Government into the Canadian National Railway (CNR) in 1923 when the  Great Depression caused it to go bankrupt.  In 1933 a flood caused trestle work at Cache Lake to be undermined and the crossing  was determined to be unsafe, and the trestle was abandoned.  Traffic continued on both ends of the line but by the end of the 1940’s only a small number of passenger trains serviced Algonquin Park.  The western end closed in 1952 and the eastern one in 1959.  J.R. Booth continued to run his business empire almost until his death in 1925 at the age of 98.  The picture below shows the trestle as it looked 18 years ago.  The cover photo is from the water’s edge.

Cache 1

With the rail service discontinued, and an active campaign to remove man made structures from the park, the rail line was also cleaned up and left to naturalize.  More recently there is an attempt to make the former rail bed into a hiking trail.  Some sections in the park are being linked together but the abandoned trestle will require a new trail around Cache Lake.  The picture below shows a rail berm on Galeairy Lake with a concrete culvert .  Many of the trestles in the park were filled in to make them stable and it is likely that a wooden trestle still exists inside this berm.  If it had been economically possible a similar repair may have been made on Cache Lake.

Cache 5

Cache Lake contains some interesting remnants from the former days when steam engines sped across the trestle above it’s waters.  That history is slowly being broken up and carried away like the piece of trestle seen below in the outflow from the lake.

Cache 3

The GTR built the Highland Inn in 1908 as a four season tourist attraction for the park.  They built it near the park offices and provided service from the GTA as a means of boosting passenger traffic.  The Highland Inn was the first tourist hotel opened by the GTR and it was such a success that by 1913 a tent city was used for overflow.  The expansion that year was substantial including new wings on both ends and a 3 story central tower.  The new additions were not winterized like the original structure had been indicating that the anticipated winter usage had not materialized.  When the CNR took over in 1923 they continued to promote the hotel until the failure of the railway trestle a decade later combined with the depression to force them to close the Highland Inn.  It was operated by the Paget family from 1937 until 1956 when it was purchased from them by the Ontario Government.  A 1954 policy to return the park to a natural condition led to it being torn down in 1957 and burned.  The Highland Inn and Algonquin Park Station are seen in this archive photo.  All that remains is the train platform and a fire hydrant.  The footings for the water tower can also be located near the mature red oak forest that was planted in place of the inn.  The picture below is from the Toronto Public Library.  The park offices are on the left and the water tower is just on the right edge of the picture.  Algonquin Park Station is partially hidden behind the train as it pulls away from the inn.

Highland Inn 1910


Google Maps: Cache Lake

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Follow us at http://www.hikingthegta.comin Park Station. Highland inn is long gone and only the train platform and a fire hydrant remain. 

Warden Woods

Sunday June 26, 2016

Warden Woods features the Gus Harris Trail which was named after Scarborough’s fifth mayor.  There is street parking on Herron Avenue which commemorates the original land owner.  From here you can enter the park from the corner of St. Clair Avenue and Warden Avenue.

A major storm on August 19, 2005 was classified as a tornado remnant and caused significant damage in north Toronto.  Flood control planning traditionally considers the likely outcome of an event they refer to as “1 in 100 years”.  The storm on this day exceeded these estimates.  Taylor-Massey Creek was one of the creeks that suffered the most damage as a result of the increased water flow.  Manholes and sanitary sewers were exposed in the creek and bridges and pathways were damaged.  The city conducted emergency repairs but the long term health of the creek was in question for several reasons.

The Taylor Massey Project (TMP) had begun just two months earlier in response to invasive species in Warden Woods, pollution and a potential massive redevelopment on adjacent properties.  For several months the team collected inventories of plants and marked major ecological zones on a topographical map of the park.  They convinced the city that a formal assessment was required and this was contracted in 2006.  Eleven major vegetation communities were identified including some areas of mature forest.


The 1877 county atlas section below shows the major roads around Warden Woods outlined in red.  The section outlined in green is a rare section of forest that escaped the clear cut logging of early Ontario.  Taylor-Massey Creek is traced in blue where it passes through the park.  The park follows the creek west and takes on the name Byng Park when it enters the former property of Thomas Sheard (part of the original forest on the map).

Warden (2)


Sand is a common feature in Scarborough and Warden Woods is no exception.  The area was once the bottom of a large river delta that has been exposed since the end of the last ice age.  Glacial Lake Iroquois cut the Scarborough Bluffs out of this sand bank around 12,000 years ago.  A much larger Taylor-Massey Creek drained a retreating glacier into this lake.  It cut through the sand and glacial till to form the ravine that shapes the park.  The sides of the creek continue to erode, especially during severe storm events.  The pump in the picture below is being used by a work crew to drain a section of the creek for restoration.


Erosion has been an issue in the creek for many years and when the areas surrounding the park were developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s the creek was given erosion control in the form of gabion baskets.  Gabion baskets are wire cages filled with rock, like the ones featured on Etobicoke Creek where a painted turtle had become trapped.  Gabion baskets have a limited life span before they need to be replaced.  The storm in 2005 and subsequent ones have caused may of these baskets to fail already.  Looking down stream from here the old gabion baskets have been removed and replaced with large limestone slabs known as armour stone.


Farther downstream the water has been diverted and the stream bed prepared for the placement of the armour stone.


Like most GTA parks, Warden Woods has several places where the locals gather to enjoy a cold one and relax.  In Warden Woods they each have a well contained fire pit and places for seating.  There is one close to St. Clair Avenue on the east side of the creek that has a strange winding set of stairs leading fifteen feet up into the air.  A small platform for sitting on is set near the top.  I’m not sure how safe this is so there are no pictures from up there.


There is also a sign at this party spot that asks the users to keep it tidy.  It appears to be working as the place is the cleanest outdoor drinking spot I have ever found in a park.  Usually these places are littered with broken glass and beer bottle caps.  At one of these party holes  there are two bags in the tree by the table.  One for those things that can be recycled and one for those that can’t.  It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a sign like this and the only really clean “outdoor patio” I’ve come across.


Taylor-Massey Creek is a third order tributary to the East Don River.  Stream classification was first proposed in 1952 by Arthur Newell Strahler who created 12 orders of streams.  A first order stream is the smallest and the world’s largest rivers are twelfth order.  When two first order streams combine they become a second order stream.  Two second order streams combine to make a third order stream.  If a two and three combine the two ends and the three remains a three.  Taylor-Massey Creek drains an area of 360 square kilometers and has two second order tributaries that feed into it.  As the area to the east of Warden Avenue has been developed for industrial use and later for housing it has had a lot of impervious surfaces that replaced former farmland or forest.  The waterways have been forced underground into concrete channels.  One of them enters into the creek from this unprotected opening.


The Taylor-Massey Project collected information on bird sightings in Warden Woods between 2004 and 2007.  Sixty-one different bird species were reported including the Blue Jay, one of which is featured in the picture below.  There are no lights on the trails in the park and this is considered to be a prime reason for the highly varied population of birds that nest here.


There are five bike trails in the park that give you the chance to get off the main path.  There is one bridge to allow you to cross to the other side.  It was built in 1975 and is featured in the cover photo.


This tree has blown over exposing the sand that it has been trying to grow on.


This section of the creek is eroding badly and likely will be the subject of ongoing work to preserve and restore the watershed.


It will be interesting to see what the creek looks like in five or ten years when the restoration is complete and the vegetation gets established again.


As the picture above shows, Taylor-Massey Creek is a beautiful place to explore.

Google Maps Link: Warden Woods

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Bronte Creek’s Haunted House

Saturday June 25, 2016

Bronte Creek Provincial Park covers almost 2000 acres of land or about 10 land grants.  Created in 1975 it sits along Bronte Creek between Burlington and Oakville.  The park includes the homestead of Henry Breckon who, some believe, still haunts the house he built in 1899.  Bronte Creek flows through the property and the cover photo shows a view of the shale embankment on the east side of the creek.

A park was proposed for the area as early as 1956 but due to it’s small size at 79 acres it was rejected.  Another proposal for a larger park was also rejected but James Snow got his wish in 1971 when the park was established.  It has been modified several times since it opened including recently added camp sites.  There is an entrance fee for the park but plenty to do once you arrive.  Several parking lots exist, one near the disc golf course and another near the model plane flying field.  There is also parking in lot F which is near the haunted house.  The parking lot was empty except for several white tailed deer for which the park is known.


Emerald Ash Borer has caused the destruction of almost every ash tree in the GTA.  In the park the trees were cut down and now the stumps have been removed using a stump grinder.


Spruce Lane Farmhouse was built in 1899 and was home to Henry and Margaret Breckon.  Christine, Alice and Gordon were their children and they lived in the home until the 1950’s.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s the farm house was rented out to various tenants.  The house is said to be haunted and several paranormal investigators have spent time trying to determine if there is a presence in the house.  Henry Breckon died in 1931 and was laid out in the front parlour for days while a wake was held.  The door to the smoking room opens and closes on it’s own and there are reports of footsteps and children’s laughter in the house.  In the summer a ghost tour is held of the house for people who want to experience a haunting for themselves.


Most of the farm buildings remain on site and are part of an interactive experience designed to showcase a fruit farmer’s house from the turn of the last century.  The driving shed can be seen in this picture along with several of the outbuildings.


Henry Breckon’s farm is shown on the 1877 county atlas but the house at the end of the apple orchard (red arrow) is not the current brick house.  The earlier house may have been the original log house or perhaps a second house built a few years after the farm was started.



The farm is currently set up as a children’s farm.  There are pigs, sheep, rabbits and goats.  There are also chickens but when they started following me two by two I started looking around for The Ark.


Wind power was the traditional way to pump water for livestock.  The pump below the windmill was made by Beatty Brothers Ltd. of Fergus Ontario.  The company began in 1874 in the Temperance Hall and by 1879 expanded into a new building simply called the foundry.  It is the three story building that is now part of the Fergus market.  By 1925 they had become the largest exporter of barn and stable equipment in the British Empire.  Times changed and in 1960 they merged with another company and became GSW Ltd.


Originally there were three turtles sunning themselves on this submerged log in the farm pond behind the house.  The pond is so covered with algae that turtles even have the green plant on their heads.  These are likely painted turtles but it is hard to tell since they appear to be painted green.


The old tractor has received a fresh coat of paint and now sits in the yard waiting for one of it’s many photo ops.   Notice the solid steel rear wheels with the bolt on steel spikes for traction.


The park is a great place for bird watching.  There are several places where the park has provided bird houses for our little feathered friends.  The bird houses have street addresses and each one is numbered.  I guess it helps them find their own nests when they come home after sipping a little too much nectar.


Sumac trees will be one of the early signs of fall when their leaves turn bright red.  These flowers will form into fruit or drupes which will turn red in the staghorn sumac found in Ontario.  If the drupes were to remain white then the species is actually poison sumac which also has a broader leaf.  The poisonous plant is related to poison ivy and poison oak but is actually the most toxic of the three.  Swellings and open sores can last for a long time and be quite painful.


On the west side of the Breckon homestead was one that belonged to John Ezard at the time of the county atlas.  The silo below would not have existed until some time after 1900 when the use of precast concrete blocks became popular.  The silo remains but the barn and other outbuildings that likely accompanied it are all gone.


Milbert’s Tortoishell butterflies are seen from April until October and have three generations per year.  They like to flit around rapidly but also will sit still with their wings spread to pose for pictures.  They have distinctive bands on the wings as well as orange spots that look like eyes on the costa of the forewing.


Asparagus grows in a few places along the side of the road near Bronte Creek Provincial Park.  This one has gone to seed and several of the seed pods can be seen in the upper left of the plant.


Bronte Creek Provincial Park is quite large and most of the park remains to be explored at another time.

Google maps link: Bronte Creek Provincial Park

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