Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Historic Transportation Adventure On The Hull-chelsea-wakefield Steam Train

Transportation is an integral experience of any trip, and when you get a chance to experience a unique mode of transportation it's even better. Even though today we didn't have the best weather, I drove from Ottawa over the bridge to Hull (now officially part of the Municipality of Gatineau), and not far from the famous Casino duLac-Leamy is the train station for the Hull-Chelsea Wakefield Steam Train. This tourist train runs on the former Gatineau Railway Line, built between 1890 and 1903 by the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway whose purpose was to connect downtown Ottawa with the Quebec town of Maniwaki in order to facilitate lumber transports. Due to a shortage of funds the entire railway line was never fully completed and passenger service through the Gatineau Valley ceased operation in 1963.

Today the 64 km stretch covered by the Hull-Chelsea Wakefield Steam Train winds its way through a scenic landscape wedged in between the Gatineau Hills and the Gatineau River. The idea for this tourist train was conceived by a private and public consortium in 1992, and in 1994 a local businessman, Mr. Jean Gauthier, bought the tourist train, restructured the enterprise and turned it into a successful tourism venture that has since won a variety of prizes and awards, including several Grand Prizes awarded by Quebec Tourism.

The Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train consists of an authentic steam engine of Swedish origin, built in 1907. Sweden used to have an entire fleet of steam engines which they phased out in the 1950s when the country’s railroad system became electrified. They did not scrap the old steam engines, but put them into storage. Due to the threat of the Cold War, they feared that their electricity production capacity might be attacked by invaders, and the old locomotives were hidden in shelters, just in case they were needed to provide an alternate source of transportation.

By 1990 the threat of the Cold War had subsided and the Swedish government decided to sell its 200 steam locomotives, one of which (the “909”) was picked up by the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield project along with a 1962 General Motors diesel locomotive. Each engine is capable of about 1000 horsepowers and when there are more than 8 coaches attached, usually both locomotives are in service.

The nine coaches themselves were also built in Sweden during the 1940s. The Quebec coach holds a snack bar while the Club Riviera is the luxury car. The seven other coaches feature comfortable seating and there is limited wheel chair capacity in the Wakefield coach. The Riviera car was refurbished and upgraded a few years ago and features a great room and 3 private rooms. It is often used for private and corporate events.

My ride was going to be in the luxury Club Riviera coach, and as I settled into a comfortable armchair, I sat back and thought of the grand old times of train travel. Our tour guide and attendant Maxime welcomed us through her wireless microphone in both official languages and our trip had begun. We started rolling slowly through the north end of Hull and soon Maxime jokingly pointed out a “car museum” on our right hand side. Turned out it was a junkyard, I guess “museum” is another, definitely more upbeat way of looking at it.

Our trusty steam train pulled us slowly northwards and we moved into a forested area with the Gatineau River on the right and the forest on the left. Hundreds of trilliums were blooming in the woods and occasionally we heard the whistling of the steam engine. Soon after our departure, Maxime brought an assortment of baked goods, coffee and orange juice to each table. She explained that the Gatineau River is 400 km long and has its origin in Northern Quebec. On the right hand side she pointed out the Chelsea Hydroelectric Dam which was built in 1927 and ended up creating enormous floods. Maxime explained that due to the dam the river is now 75 to 80 feet deep.

In Tenaga, a native word for “water tank”, trains used to fill up their water tanks while in Kirk's Ferry, Thomas Kirk, an American businessman had created a horse-drawn ferry in the 1850s with horses walking on both sides of the river, pulling the boats across the river with a pulley system. Once the dam was built, this became too dangerous and the ferry operation stopped.

Maxime also explained that the train today is propelled by heating oil, not coal. This was one of the safety requirements imposed by the Canadian government when they issued the permit for the tourist train. Heating oil is not only less expensive than coal, it is also less polluting. We chugged by the Morrison Quarry, a now abandoned gravel pit featuring a variety of run-down, yet almost picturesque industrial equipment. On the other side of the quarry is actually the highest bungee jumping tower in Canada.

Two young musicians, one with a guitar and one with a fiddle, came into our railway car and played some folk music which the crowd greatly appreciated. Every outing on the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train features an element of live entertainment. In addition to daytime excursions, the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train also offers evening excursions featuring a 4-course dinner.

After an hour and a half we finally arrived in the quaint town of Wakefield, location of many restaurants, tea rooms and souvenir shops. The big spectacle was yet to come: the operation of the manual turntable! Once the train reaches its final destination the 93 ton steam locomotive needs to be turned around for the drive back to its original location. The engineers slowly drive the train onto a swiveling circular platform. Then the musicians get to manually push the platform using lever arms and this turns the locomotive around in the opposite direction. This is one of only two manual turntables left in North America.

A lunch at the Trois Erables Bed and Breakfast was included in the Riviera Club package, however, I had already made plans earlier to explore one of the most historic properties in town: the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa, a historic gristmill just a 10 minute walk outside of downtown Wakefield.

Following my discovery of the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa it was time to get back on the train at 1:30. There are several sound signals using the steam whistle to announce the departure of the train back to Hull and there are 2 departure points inside the town of Wakefield. People were coming back on the train, somewhat soaked from the rainy weather, and quite a few of them had obviously been to some of the crafts shops or chocolate stores around Wakefield.

It was time for our leisurely hour and a half ride back to Hull, and the mood in the car was noticeably quieter. The chairs in the Riviera Car are so comfortable that a few passengers took a little nap, myself included. The rhythmic chugging of the train is an extremely relaxing experience and made me doze off a couple of times on the way back.

Once we had reached our final destination, I experienced a real treat: the two engineers, Vic and Nikolas, invited me into the cab of the steam locomotive for a few minutes just before they were going to turn around the train around for the dinner excursion at the railway yard. I had missed my turn to climb aboard the engine in Wakefield, but now I got to catch up and see this mechanical beauty up close.

Vic himself is a retired RCMP officer who has found the perfect part-time job. Nikolas, a recent immigrant from Croatia who is very experienced with steam engines, works on refurbishing and maintaining the locomotives during the winter time and drives them in the summer. Both of these gentlemen visibly love their job, they enjoy working with this close to 100 year old steam engine and take good care of it to make sure it has many more years of life left.

The Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train is a great example of how a historic travel experience has been revived and become a major local tourist attraction. It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day.

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