Intercolonial: The railroad that was almost a jewel in the Crown

AMHERST, N.S.
I’m keen on the railroad, I tell people who ask, because of its role in building Canada, especially here, where Confederation could not have happened without this track being laid.

But it’s more than national pride. It’s a matter of personal history and more than 40 years of stories that touch rail to one degree or another.

I think of riding the train cross-country as an eight-year-old, with a new doll with a plastic head and plush pink body. She had a cord on the back — pull it and her head moved and body wriggled like a real baby.

As older teenagers, Melani and I boxed up our bicycles and took the overnight train to Moncton — the Hub City that is the end of the line and as far as you can go by rail if your destination is Prince Edward Island.

As a 24-year-old, this time with a real baby, four-month-old Trevor, and a deep desire to show him to spread-out family, and introduce him to the most beautiful land I know. Half a year later, he would learn to walk on a train, headed home from the Maritimes again on the Ocean, which was named here as a line on the Intercolonial Railway.

amherst nova scotia rail

Amherst, long a shipbuilding centre and home to four fathers of Confederation, was not built by the railroad, as many Canadian towns were. Yet it owes much of its growth to that technology.

Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7
Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7

The Intercolonial Railway was dreamed up around 1840. It would be a road linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — isolated by land, sea, and  a sliver of Maine — with the Province of Canada, then just Quebec and Ontario. Such a road would take a northern route, smoothing the transport of military supplies in case relations heated with the Americans again, as they had in 1812, and respecting the United States Act during the U.S. Civil War.

In theory it was a genius plan. But it was also a rich plan, and who on earth could pay for it? The four regions started laying track separately and hopefully, waiting for a solution to materialize.

That solution was Confederation itself, with the building of the Intercolonial Railway being inscribed as condition of the union of this eastern half of what is now Canada. It thus became the first major Crown corporation and the biggest infrastructure and transport project of its time.

amherst rail switch

There is debate over the reasons the Intercolonial wiggled and wound its way through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Was it to bring the railroad to logging communities and more effectively avoid the United States and their just-ended Civil War, or was it a sign of corruption, and the towns’ foresight in wanting track through their blooming towns?

Whether politically motivated or through the intelligent design of chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, a wooden train station was built in Amherst to accommodate the opening of the grand project, which boasted the best quality construction with raised rail beds and iron bridges. It was 1,100 kilometres long when it was deemed ready to roll in the mid-1870s.

The Canadian Guide Book in 1891 gushed, “It is a government road, admirably built and equipped, and most moderate in its charges. It runs through some of the best fishing and shooting districts of the continent and some very beautiful landscapes.”

Amherst was a boom town with the world at its feet. It replaced its little wooden train station with the lovely red sandstone building that stands today, a glory of local supplies and craftsmanship.

All good things come with a price, and for Amherst that marker was called in 1910, when its beautiful station was still fresh stone. The nation experienced a downturn, and of course those are always felt more heavily in the Maritimes. Nine years later, workers called a general strike over worsening conditions and in solidarity with the great strike in Winnipeg at that time.

amherst nova scotia mural

The Intercolonial, which in its prime had swallowed the Grand Trunk Railway, was in turn swallowed by the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were eventually turned over to passenger service Via Rail, which uses them to this day.

But the station is shuttered. Its whitewashed beams show signs of dirt as they must have when steam trains were the most heavily seen traffic. It’s a stop on the route inland, but there is no glory here except in the whisper of ghosts and the imaginings of a train whistle heralding prosperity, so very very long ago.

amherst train station inside
Further reading:
North America Railways Hall of Fame
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Historical map of the Intercolonial Railway

A walk in the park: Amherst Shore Provincial Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

AMHERST SHORE, N.S.
Probably the water doesn’t always smell like sewage. And maybe it wasn’t sewage after all. Maybe the sheet of oil that made brown bubbles on the surface of the otherwise clear water was caused by all the speedboats taking advantage of a perfect summer day.

If I sound grouchy, it’s because all I wanted was to swim in the warm, warm ocean waters that flow through the Northumberland Strait.

Our sweet little cottage is three kilometres west, but the long, flat, slippery rocks there make it nearly impossible to get out far enough to swim. Beatons Bluff is smack between two provincial parks: Tidnish Dock, which we visited briefly two years ago, and Amherst Shore.

amherst shore provincial park2

Split in two by the Sunrise Trail, the inland half of Amherst Shore park is reserved for camping — No Picnicking! it declares at the entrance — and the beach is a 10-minute walk away, through a wide rocky rail through the woods.

The beach is about 100 metres long at high tide, tucked into a shallow bay created by treed, 40-foot bluffs. High tide made the beach seem smaller and more private, and we played in the sand and relaxed in beach chairs and wandered waist-deep into the clear water.

Trevor, who is 20 and can in theory wander about without my panicking, walked the shoreline and reported back that the water on the other side of the bluffs was wild and choppy and that ours was comparatively peaceful.

That it was. We traced the paths of butterflies and dragonflies and watched in awe as seabirds danced in formation over the waves. We built sandcastles with uncooperative red sand and decorated them with shells. We waded waist-deep into the water and, eventually, got used to the smell.

two wheelsWe give Amherst Shore Provincial Park two stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five. The path to the beach is wide and, though rocky, smooth enough to use a stroller to shuttle all the things one needs at the beach. We didn’t have time to wander the trails, but they appear to be wide mown grass and rocky earth. And even if it isn’t the best park in the world, it is a byproduct of the best ocean in the world, and it’s an honour to spend a few hours sitting quietly near it.

amherst shore provincial park

The puzzling house on Beatons Bluff

BEATONS BLUFF

When I was a little girl, my Barbies’ Dreamhouse was made of shoeboxes and toilet-paper rolls held together with Scotch tape.

On the edge of Nova Scotia, our little Airbnb, which slopes toward Northumberland Strait, is a dreamhouse like that: one shoebox taped to another, added to a cereal box as soon as the Cheerios were done and the prize claimed. We spent our first day imagining how this cottage began, made up as it is of three unique little boxes, and whether it’s finished.

What’s clear is that it’s a house inside a house. The door to the kid’s room used to be an entry from outside. It still has the porch light, and there are tall narrow windows on either side. If that room and the kitchen beside it represent the 1970s, then the long dining room with painted floors, fat woodstove, and faded flyswatters are the ’80s, and the polished living room and master suite, with its right angles and cleanly caulked windows, are the 1990s.

amherst shore nova scotia beach stairs

Once we realized it was a Barbie construct — none of the pieces being original to the other — we tried to stop figuring out how the cottage came to be (though I dreamed about it) and started thinking about it like a puzzle.

If you glance at the puzzle, laminated and framed and hanging about like a regular piece of art, you’re just fine, but it’s unnerving for a moment when you realize it’s full of cracks and curves and patterns that are hard to appreciate when you weren’t part of the assembling.

We have nothing but respect for the industriousness of the architect. We’re spending a week in their dreamhouse, surrounded by hay fields and ocean and rosebushes and wandering each shoebox and cereal box with delight and wonder. 

The door to the kids' room clearly used to be an outside entry.
The door to the kids’ room clearly used to be an outside entry.

Five hundred and forty kilometres, and a lifetime

TORONTO
There are 540 kilometres between my office and my aunt’s house.

Last week, my office was full of meetings, big ideas and little frustrations, posturing and punning. My aunt’s house was empty.

I didn’t leave the office in a hurry, because I thought I had more time. I thought I could drive to the city, have some dinner and get some rest before going to the hospital. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the time I had, especially for those last few hours spent mostly driving and reflecting.

ginny 1971I could tell you stories about my aunt, like that time she leaned over her crutches and said, “Look how you’re growing! If you get taller than me, I won’t be able to talk to you” and I prayed I’d stop growing right then. Or how our little shih tzu Chen would sit at her feet on her electric wheelchair with his underbite exposed and his hair blowing in the wind and she’d laugh that laugh. Or how I knew she was okay with my distaste of the phone and was always, always eager to open my letters and emails. I would find — later, going through her things with my cousin and not crying — that she kept every photo I had ever sent. Some of them were framed.

I had all those hours to tell those stories to myself, and laugh, and think about what I’d say when I got to the hospital. My cousin called when I was about an hour outside the city and I told her my plans.

“There isn’t going to be a tomorrow,” she told me. “Come now, but get here safely.”

Those two phrases kept running over and over in my head as I navigated the 401: There isn’t going to be a tomorrow. Get here safely.

There isn’t going to be a tomorrow.

Get here safely.

There were all these things I had wanted to say and all the things I’d practiced saying, but when I saw her there, a shadow of my most precious aunt, I smiled and said, “I’ve just come to say hello,” because there was no way in the world I was going to say goodbye.

And we sat with her, a few of us representing her larger family, who were there in spirit. We told more stories, and we got a little boisterous, and it felt exactly the same as it did those times we sat in her apartment and squeezed as much of our lives into two or three hours as we could.

I thought I had more time. But in the end — at the very end — we had just enough.

The case of the missing dam and the great stick rescue

NEW RUSSIA, N.Y.
The backroads from Plattsburg to West Winfield follow a wide rocky creek called the Bouquet River that appears and vanishes and curls under low bridges and behind tall pines.

My friend Laurie and I had a very loose roadtrip schedule — 24 hours to do a five-hour drive — so we were open to spending some time closer to the water on one of the first hot days of spring.

“Let’s go there!” one of us said with the enthusiasm of a mom set free and desperate for adventure when we passed a sign for Thrall Dam. Except was the last and only Thrall Dam sign we would see. We watched for it, but maybe the whole dam thing was a hallucination. All we wanted was to get closer to the water, and we wanted it five minutes ago, and there was that river coiling just out of our reach like a housecat. We swerved into the first pullout we found and climbed down grass, dirt, and tree roots to get to the Bouquet.

00bouqet river new york waterfall
Upstream were pockets of calm and a picturesque bridge. Downstream, a glassy pool into which a young fisherman wearing khakis and flat sneakers was casting his line, a beagle-shaped dog at his side.

Yet there we were between the two, where the rocks were at their thickest and most uneven and the ice-clear water had to bubble and force its way to tumble loudly down a two-storey-high waterfall.

00bouqet river ny stick1Laurie had taken her sandals off at the top of the embarkment; I let my rubber soles slide over the moss till I found sure footing.

“There’s a walking stick in there,” Laurie said, pointing.

“Huh,” I replied. I had nearly fallen while standing still on a rock. I was mortified. Plus, I wasn’t sure where she was going with this whole walking stick business.

“Or it could be just a stick stick. Look at it.”

I squinted into the blurred brook. There was a good-size stick in there, indeed, that looked smooth and straight, with a slightly pointed tip and what could have been a thicker handhold.

“I’m going to get it,” she announced.

It was smack in the middle of the river, at the head of the waterfall, and so I said (as is my custom), “Don’t kill yourself.”

If she rolled her eyes at me, I didn’t see it, so busy was I staying soberly upright as I attempted to take pictures of the rushing river with my phone. She stepped into the glacial water and set one dainty foot on a large, slippery rock. I was paying attention now — I didn’t know how I’d get my friend from the bottom of the waterfall if she tumbled in.

“Be careful,” I said again, in my best mom voice.

She threw me a look made of humour, annoyance, and self-preservation and stepped back onto the rocky bank.

bouqet river new york rocks
The story should have ended there, but I felt bad. She clearly wanted that stick badly enough to risk a bloody head injury and hypothermia. Plus, you know, I really love it when rocks and water come together to make something beautiful. I kicked off my sandals — nearly falling on my own head again, and stepped ankle-deep into the water.

It was the kind of icy that forces a lump into your throat and sends chills up your sciatic nerve, along your spine, coming to rest somewhere at the base of your neck like a hunk of snow that gets in under your scarf and coat that you know is going to melt and run down your back and make you freeze from the inside out.

I scanned each rock just below the clear surface, planning a path to the stick that avoided stepping into a wild whirlpool between me and it. It wasn’t going to be possible. Doubled over, with each foot on slick stone and fingers castled over rocks that turned their faces to the sun, I did an awkward slippery dance in a half-circle toward our prize. It was almost in reach. One foot was in the vortex, pulling me with more strength that I’d imagined toward the waterfall and the fisherman, who had thrown in the towel and was climbing the embankment with his dog. He either ignored our girlish squeals or couldn’t hear them over the roar of the falls.

I was wibbly-wobbly, but the stick was just there. Laurie was yelling encouragement in the form of hilarious taunts.

I developed this very non-graceful method of sliding my foot down a sharp rock till it found the place where it met another rock, then lifting my other foot to a stone on the opposite side, sliding till I found a similar foothold, all the time bending nearly double to steady myself with other rocks. I spent a good minute in the vortex, trying to plot my next move.

Two stones later, I leaned — closer closer closer — no longer concerned with my numb ankles, or the jagged stone on the soles of my feet.

Closer, till my fingertips like a lover brushed the sweaty tip and it was that gentle touch that renewed my resolve and with one more push forward and down my palm grasped it at the slippery base. Rather than recoiling at its wet and waxy flesh, I held it aloft and yelled something savage and triumphant as Laurie captured the moment digitally.

00new york stick
Aglow, I looked down to check my footing, only to discover one side of my tank top had been yanked down during my passionate dive.

“AH! My boob!” I yelled. “One more without the exposure!”

I posed, and though it didn’t document the exact moment of triumph, the photograph drips with the residue of my joy.

00new york bridge1

That dam stick set the tone for the rest of our journey, which saw Laurie conquer a giant tree stump, the threat of skinny dipping upriver, the crossing of a rickety, rotten bridge for no reason other than to cross it … but never a stop at the mysterious, missing Thrall Dam.

A walk in the park: Sentier Inter-Centre and Liberator Harry crash site

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.
The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.

ST. DONAT, Que.
We know for sure it was a Tuesday in 1943. What’s less clear is whether the plane went down in the morning, sometime in the early afternoon, or in the dark of night.

We know for sure the weather was terrible and that the good people of St. Donat heard a large plane fly low over their town. It was wartime and they might have been afraid to look outside, and those who weren’t afraid wouldn’t have known which way to look — sound is tricky in the mountains and muffled by heavy fog. Though reports were made, no one in authority appears to have paid them much mind. It was just a little village with a lot of loggers, after all, and there was important war stuff going on, like the loss of a giant Liberator B-24 somewhere near Mont-Joli.

The Liberator was a U.S.-built monster designed to take out U-boats. It became a popular part of the Allies’ arsenal, though some reports say pilots and crew didn’t love it — it was harder to fly than others of its class, and they felt there was a smaller chance of survival in the case of a crash.

Liberator Harry was a training vehicle that flew out of Gander early that October morning, headed for the darling town of Mont-Joli on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. On board was the pilot and 23 soldiers. The weather was terrible, though, as we’ve said, and the flight was diverted to Montreal, 550 kilometres southwest of their destination.

But they got lost in the fog and rain, and sometime — morning, afternoon, evening? — the giant plane roared low over St. Donat and hit the hard rock of la Montagne Noire.

liberator harry crash debris 6

As the 24 soldiers lay dead on the frozen mountaintop, confusion reigned below. It is clear from a report in the Montreal Gazette two days later that “the most intensive air search ever carried out in eastern Canada” was focused in the wrong place, in the river near Malbaie, 500 kilometres away.

“Every available plane of both the RCAF and the Royal Air Force Transport Command battled ‘diabolical’ flying conditions in a vain search of the missing Liberator.”

The Malbaie police chief told the Gazette travellers told him a big passenger plane had plunged into the river near his town. Dozens of reports came in saying the same thing, but it made no sense. The area had been well searched, and Transport Command figured the plane had crashed in the morning, not afternoon or evening. “A most thorough search of this area has been made and we have found nothing to indicate they are true.”


It would be more than two years till Liberator Harry and its men were found. June 26, 1946, search crews looking for another crash caught a glint on the mountainside and soon spotted Liberator Harry’s unique tail. The mission to the top of the mountain determined that the men had died on impact, and that the plane had caught fire. Only three of the soldiers have been identified.

It remains the greatest military aviation accident on Canadian soil.

A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn't had time to repaint it.
A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn’t had time to repaint it.

four wheels

Sentier Inter-Centre, the trail that leads to the crash site, gets four stroller wheels for story, on the understanding that this is a hike not well suited for younger kids who might not be able to walk uphill for six kilometres and absolutely not for people who need to bring their stroller with them.

We went in the middle of spring, but experienced three seasons on our way uphill. The lower two kilometres were an easy walk on wide trails covered in last fall’s leaves and woven through with green shoots. The middle two were a good combination of thick mud and some snow, forgiven because of the beautiful way the sunlight, unobstructed by leaves, glinted off golden birches and kept our backs warm even as our feet got colder. The last two kilometres were a serious slog through knee-deep snow, but well worth the time and effort, especially if you’ve packed food, water, and dry socks.

The crash site is in two sections about 100 feet apart, the second featuring a monument and interpretive plaques. We picnicked at the summit — 2,925 feet — overlooking a wing and landing gear in the sunlight and were not bothered by ghostly chills.

liberator harry crash debris 1