10 years since steam train’s last run
By Hunter Cresswell
It’s been a decade since the steam train last chugged up the rail line and locals still have mixed feelings about how over 100 years of Gatineau Hills rail history came to an end.
The train’s saga has been extensively covered in this newspaper, by regional and international media, and the local historical society. But June marked 10 years since the majestic engine with nine railcars last carried tourists to Wakefield.
What effect did it have on the village? Does Wakefield miss it?
The train put Wakefield on the map as an international tourist destination and arguably shaped the riverside village into what it is today. Though the village’s other landmarks – the historic Wakefield Mill and the covered bridge – drew and still draw people from throughout the National Capital Region, the steam train was something special.
The train brought joy and money to Wakefield and residents along the line. Locals came out of their homes to watch or wave at the train, and the train let hundreds of tourists off in Wakefield, which certainly helped local businesses.
La Forêt co-owner Michel-André Vallières played guitar, banjolin, harmonica, and sang on the train from 2002 to 2011.
“It seemed like it was time travel to the roaring 20s,” he said about the atmosphere on the evening train.
Vallières said that with the train gone, he misses the camaraderie between the musicians the most.
“I must have met 30 different musicians. Some of which I’m still friends with. It was a hub of musicians,” he said.
“It was the little train that could until the damn landslide came along,” said Neil Faulkner, a Wakefield resident and member of Friends of the Steam Train.
A freak rainstorm in late June 2011 washed out the tracks at Chelsea Creek. The landslide is the only obstacle between Chelsea’s community trail and a connection to Gatineau across the creek.
John Trent is a Chelsea resident who helped bring the tourist version of the steam train to Wakefield in the ‘90s. He explained that development uphill from the tracks in that section changed how the water ran down to the creek and eventually to the Gatineau River.
“It wasn’t just the storm, it was the fact that all the water ran off the paved driveways of large homes, down the hill, and washed out the tracks,” he said.
So ended the steam train’s long history in the Hills, first as a freight and commuter train, then as a tourist train.
But the storm didn’t end Trent and Faulkner’s efforts to bring it back.
The pair, along with other members of Friends of the Steam Train, worked to bring the engine and railcars north of the washout so it could run back and forth between Chelsea and Wakefield where the track was intact.
“For five years after the train stopped there was an immense effort to get the train back,” Trent explained.
But the group faced numerous challenges.
“Wakefield never fully got behind it,” Trent said of the revival efforts.
That’s in spite of the fact that the train brought an estimated 50,000 tourists and $10 million a year to the Gatineau Hills.
The Wakefield Chamber of Commerce and La Pêche council didn’t throw their weight behind the efforts, Trent said, and no big local investors were willing to open their wallets.
“We’re talking about an investment of five to six million dollars [to fix the track above Chelsea Creek, and make other repairs to the railway and train],” he said.
Three large investors from out of the area were interested but never came through. There was also a fight between who would get the train: the Gatineau Hills or the city of Gatineau.
“Both of them wanted the train and wouldn’t work together,” Trent said.
Another obstacle came in the form of Quebec City bureaucrats.
“We could not overcome the opposition from the engineers in Quebec City that think all of the Gatineau Hills were Leda clay [also known as quick clay, a soft form of clay] and that we’ll all get washed into the river when it rains,” Trent explained. He added that, according to engineers, the work to fix the tracks would be $10 million.
Salt was rubbed deeper into the wounds of train lovers when Chelsea decided to rip up the rails and ties to build its community trail.
“They could have been left as a foundation for the trail,” Faulkner said.
Today only shadows of the train are left. There are signs with historical information about the railway along the railway-turned-trail in Chelsea and Wakefield. The rails still run through Wakefield despite stretches being turned into a trail. People still flock to Parc de la Place Roquebrune-sur-Argens – also known as turntable park – to gawk at or take photos of the train turntable that has been there since 1974 when the NCC brought it from Kingston, ON. The only railway station left adjacent to the rail that the steam train passed during its heyday now houses Café Pot-au-Feu in Wakefield. Chelsea’s attempts to find a place for the Cascades railway station along the community trail have been unsuccessful so far and the station currently sits near Hendrick Farm in the centre village. The final known railcar sits alone in a field near a quarry in Edelweiss where passing drivers can glance at it and adventurous graffiti artists can hone their skills.
Despite the steam train’s untimely departure from the Gatineau Hills, people have had ideas of how to honour the local rail history. In 2018 a Cantley man bought nine railcars for $1,000, sold eight for scrap, and planned to turn the last one into a restaurant along Hwy 307 in Cantley. But two years later, that final rail car is still sitting in the field in Edelweiss. This year a Wakefield business owner pitched an idea to put a railcar on the turntable in Wakefield and transform it into a museum and a café, with the addition of historical information.
Trent wrote an exhaustive article in volume 47 of Gatineau Valley Historical Society’s annual book, “Up the Gatineau!” To read more about the train’s origin, find a copy of the book in local stores or the society’s website, gvhs.ca.
When asked what’s still left to be said about the train, Faulkner said, “We were lucky to have it.”
“It was a thing with a lot of parts and we could never get them all together,” Trent said about the revival efforts.