Return to the Lounge Car

Algoma Central At 60 Below or


Are We Crazy Or What?

By Daniel S. Dawdy

My wife, Amy, and I like to do things a little backwards. This past summer (1993 as this story is a year old, however, the summer of 1994, we went to Phoenix so we are still mixed up!) we vacationed in New Orleans, LA. Now, in the dead of winter, we were off to Canada to ride the Algoma Central Railroads's essential services train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario. Essential services meaning it receives subsidies from the Provincial Government to continue operations. This is not to be confused with the Agawa Canyon Tour Train which is also operated by the Algoma Central. We have traveled that train in both summer and fall. It is a beautiful one day trip, but this was to be a 9 hour trip to Hearst in record cold temperatures with some of the last regular steam heated passenger equipment left in North America.

We made the 9 hour drive from our home in Lisle, IL., to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on December 23rd. We decided to buy our tickets upon arrival instead of waiting until the next morning. The winter schedule for Northbound train #1 is Friday, Saturday and Monday only. Southbound train #2 is Saturday, Sunday and Monday only. No need to buy tickets early, as the train is not heavily used, although those who do use it, need it. Fares are $99.00 round trip in Canadian funds. The agent reminded us that there was no diner on the train and to be sure to pack a sack lunch of some sort. (The Agawa Canyon Tour Train does run with two diners and the food is fresh and very reasonable.) The rest of the afternoon was spent buying warmer clothes as the weather was getting cooler than I had expected. Also, since many American banks charge a surcharge to exchange currency, we waited until getting to Canada before exchanging our money for Canadian travelers checks.

The train departs the Sault at 9:00 AM with boarding at 8:45 AM. The ticket office opens at 8:00AM. You are allowed 150 pounds of checked baggage per ticket which barely covered my wife's idea of what we needed for a three day stay in the middle of nowhere. Christmas Eve Day we left our hotel looking for a donut shop to furnish both breakfast and lunch. After passing a few, "Not enough cars in the lot, can't be good", and some, "I never heard of that chain.", we were back downtown five blocks from the station without any food. We got lucky. At 342 Queen Street East, there is a place called Super Submarine & Donuts. It opens at 7:00AM and will make sub sandwiches at that hour. We explained that we were taking the train so they double wrapped everything and we were off.

I parked the car at the station. I was not sure about the security, but the station is next to a large mall and parking from shoppers sometimes fills the station parking. I figured it was as safe as anywhere else and parked next to the front door of the station. I dropped off the baggage which was tagged and loaded for me. You can carry on as much as you like but if they are going to load and unload for me, so be it. The train backed down from the Steelton Yards which are about 2 miles north of the depot. (The track dead ends at the station.) The early morning sun reflecting off the cloud of steam coming out of the rear car made me remember all the trains my dad and I used to ride before the days of Amtrak. The Varsity out of Janesville, WI, the Hiawatha between Milwaukee and La Crosse, WI, the Zephyr from La Crosse to the Twin Cities. The Broadway Limited, Silver Meteor, The City of Miami and the El Capitan. It was at about this moment in my solace reflection of the past that a quick slap on my shoulder brought me back to the here and now. "It might be more productive", my wife said, "if you start taking pictures and stop staring into the cloud of steam". This was as good as time as any to check out the train! (Photo)

GP38-2 #205 was on the point with help from GP7 #170. Two baggage cars, an ex VIA steam generator and two coaches made up train #1. Upon boarding, I immediately made a beeline for the rear of the last coach and set up shop... camera case was open and cameras were ready, scanner was on and working, notebook, tripod, maps and route guide were laid out for easy access. After thinking for a moment I realized I was missing wife. I walked up to the first coach, and invited her back to sit with me.

When picking up your tickets, you are given a guide book which lets you read about what is coming up and which side of the train it will be on. There are mile markers every mile all the way to Hearst to make this an easy task. Having ridden as far as the canyon many times before, I knew the shots I wanted, but the guide was a help farther North. We pulled out about 5 minutes late and I was outside on the last car with my motor driven camera blazing. I don't want to give a complete blow by blow of every scene we passed since I can't begin to describe the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, but I will describe the highlights of the trip from a rail adventurer's point of view.

Algoma Steel appears first on the left about 1 mile out of the station. They own their own motive power and I caught SW8 #50 shunting cars in the yards. Steelton Yards are to the right. This is where the Algoma's main shops and engine facilities are housed. Because of the holidays and since the canyon train was not operating 'till January, the yards were full of power and passenger cars. One shot of interest was the shell of GP7 #102 sitting on a flatcar. Don't know what she hit but the high nose was totally pushed in. (Photo) (Checking with Gordon Webster after the trip, I found out that #102 was in a washout about mile 111 back in October.) The "big hook" and snow plows are also here. Just past the yards, we picked up speed and I was forced in as the snow from the roofs was blowing back into the vestibule area. Ten miles later the blowing snow was gone and I was again out and looking. The temperature was about -25C so I could only stay out in short 10 minute lengths. The scanner told me of our first stop in Searchmont, 32 miles out. Six people and lots of baggage to Hearst. About this time, I got the bright idea to place our pop cans outside on the vestibule to keep them cool. More on that later.

About 62 miles out, we stopped to let off two people at Trout Lake. There was a "skidoo" there to meet them. (As I learned the vernacular, any snowmobile - regardless of make is called a skidoo. You don't go snowmobiling you go skidooing.) This train will stop at any mile post to let off passengers. All you have to do is tell the conductor ahead of time. The train will also stop to pick up people at any mile post. As far as picking up, there is a list of preferred pickup points where the track is fairly straight and the engineer can see ahead. Skidoos will also be loaded and unloaded at most places, provided there is enough room for the ramp to fit out of the baggage car. If you are interested, a skidoo will run $51.00 Canadian from the Sault to anywhere past Hawk Junction, and about $10.00 less before Hawk Junction. Small cabins, shacks and some nice homes dot the landscape. For most in this area, the train is the only way to get to them. We made another stop at Spruce Lake, 71 miles out, and two more passengers left us.

The Algoma Central is mostly dark, meaning there are no mainline signals other than those protecting the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific crossings. Orders come from the dispatcher and the train via radio as we proceed along the route. I had a small tape recorder and recorded many of these transmissions. Below is one such transmission which gave train #1 clearance between Eton, mile 120, and Hawk Junction, mile 165. Capitol letters are used to show the person spelling out a word. (Hear)

"Item 1 clearance number five hundred eighteen, number five, one, eight, December twenty forth, two four, nineteen ninety three, one nine nine three, to number one, ONE, engine 205, two, naught, five. Proceed from North cautionary limit sign Eton to one hundred sixty three point five, one six three point five sign Hawk Junction." At this point, the engineer would repeat the entire message just as above. When he finished, the conductor would also repeat back the full message. Needless to say, a scanner is necessary if you want to know what's going on. You will also hear guys who have worked together for many years and there is just as much comraderie over the radio as there is good natured kidding. (Hear)

At mile 92, we cross over the Montreal river on a 1550 foot long 130 foot high curved trestle. Below, there is a power damn which supplies electricity to Sault Ste. Marie. (Photo) The view while crossing is awesome. (I hate that word but there is no other way to describe some of the views.) The best view is to the left of the train. At mile 102, we start the 500 foot descent over 12 miles to the floor of Agawa Canyon. About mile 105 off to the left there is a spectacular view of Lake Superior almost 8 miles off. The Agawa River is also to the left some 500 feet below. As you approach the floor of the canyon, waterfalls are everywhere. (Photo) Having been this far before, I can tell you that in the Summer they are great, in the Fall they are beautiful, but now in the Winter, frozen in place with the sun shimmering off the ice, well they are AWESOME. We cross the Agawa River a few times so you get a good view from both sides of the train. Passing Eton at mile 120, I thought it would be a good time to break out the subs for lunch since Hawk Junction was 45 miles away. Remember the pop I placed outside to "cool off"? Well, that was a while ago and Amy's Mountain Dew was drinkable, my Diet Pepsi was frozen solid.

Hawk Junction is the only scheduled stop between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. The crew radioed ahead to see if the local convenience store was open, which it was. They let us know so anyone who wanted could run across the street and get food, pop, beer or cigarettes. Oh yes, smoking...the coaches were ex VIA cars with no smoking signs posted. However, the Algoma has no such policy on this train. (The tour train does have no smoking cars.) Our trainman put it best, "Smoking in Canada is not a habit, it's a luxury", meaning that cigarettes are very expensive. (No American brands that I could see were available in Ontario.) My only suggestion if you don't like smoke is to sit near the bathrooms as the air returns are located near the opposite end of the car thus pulling the smoke towards them. At least this was the case in our coach. The air flow was good so we were not bothered that much. We only started with 9 other passengers in our car and were about to lose 6 of them.

The temperature had been dropping steadily since we left and when we arrived at Hawk Junction, it was about -30C. (Photo) There is an engine terminal and equipment servicing terminal located here. (Photo) This is also the only spur line the ACR has and it runs some 26 miles East to Lake Superior. The Michipicoten subdivision, as it's called, provides freight service to ore and coal mines and a petroleum distributor at Michipicoten Harbor. You will have plenty of time to photograph the area before leaving. All facilities, such as the enginehouse, sanding tower, fueling racks and bunkcars are on the right. Leaving Hawk Junction, we traveled about 1/4 mile and stopped for a Southbound freight loaded with wood pulp.

Our next stop was in Franz where we crossed the Canadian Pacific's transcontinental line. We were put in the hole for another Southbound Algoma freight. (Photo) Backing up to retake the main, we were held up another 10 minutes for the CP dispatcher to give us the light. The scenery from here North is not as spectacular as the first leg of the trip prior to Hawk Junction. It is mostly flat without all the lakes we were accustomed to seeing. At mile 245, we crossed the Canadian National's transcontinental line. The Algoma transfers much steel to the CN here from the Algoma Steel Mill back in the Sault. At this point it was getting too dark and cold to do much more picture taking. The outside temperature was now about -40C. Just a quick note to those of you who trying to convert this back to fahrenheit, at -40, centigrade and fahrenheit are equal.

The train carries a five man crew. Two in the engine, a baggageman, conductor and trainman. Talking with the crew about the Wisconsin Central, I was greeted with mixed stories. According to most of the people I talked to, the Wisconsin Central take over is a done deal. The date I heard most often was July, 1994. It will be some sort of partnership with the Provincial Government. There was talk of the loss of a few hundred jobs on the Algoma with 125, including most of our crew, being offered early retirement. Full time ticket agents in the Sault would be replaced with part time college students. I got the feeling, the only one happy about this was the Government. Please don't take these comments as gospel as they are admittedly hearsay. I also talked to a passenger who off loads rail cars of lumber in the Sault. He works for Dubreuil Lumber which has a very large mill in Dubreuiville which is located about mile 184. (Photo) He was worried about his job as the rumor is that the WC would not off load lumber in the Sault, but run it straight down into the States. Only time will tell. Everyone I talked with seemed proud of the Algoma Central. There was much loyalty. The equipment is clean and the motive power and passenger cars are very well kept. No peeling paint on these units. Many times during the trip, the trainman and conductor would ask us how the heat was holding up. If the car got too cool and could not be adjusted, they would stop the train and from outside the last car open the steam valve to "clean out" the pipes. Now that's service!

We arrived in Hearst just after 6:00PM. The train is wyed and then backed into the small station. The station serves as not only the Algoma passenger station, but also as an office for the crews of the Ontario Northland which now owns the line between Hearst and East to Cochrane. (ex CN) The temperature was now -45C. A van was there to meet us from the hotel. It's a must this time of year to have reservations, not because the hotels are filled, but to have them meet the train! Hearst is a town of about 6000 people. Most speak French and are bilingual. (That was good, as my four years of high school Latin was and still is worthless in this situation.)

Checking in, my first question was where to eat. The restaurant in our hotel, as well as the few others were closed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Luckily, the hotel operator knew we would be there and had a list of eating places in town which would be open. Our choice that night was one - the bus station. Asking the location we were told it was "across town". Now to my wife who works in Chicago, "across town" means get a taxi. The taxi office was next to the hotel and away we went. After the $5.00 cab ride (with tip) to the bus station which, by the way, was two blocks, we decided that across town has a much shorter meaning up here and decided to walk back. The food you ask? It's a bus depot for crying out loud. In all fairness, the burgers were good and greasy, the fries crisp and the tea was hot. What else could you ask for on Christmas Eve in this cold 300 miles from nowhere? Walking back to the hotel we learned something. It's very difficult to breathe this temperature. You need a scarf to breathe through although, that presents it's own problems as you will learn later.

Christmas Day and still -45C. Our hotel room never got above 15C (60F) so we asked the girl at the desk about switching rooms. After contacting the owner, she brought up a portable heater saying we had one of the nicer rooms and the other rooms may not be any better. The heater worked fine so it was no big deal. We had plenty of hot water and it was a nice room complete with satellite television. At 9:00AM we ventured outside wrapped up about as tight as we could. We did come somewhat prepared. We had long underwear, woolen socks, boots, heavy gloves and coat with scarfs and hats. I am told that flesh will freeze in seconds at that temperature and I was in no mood to find out.

We walked a block to the station I took a few shots of an idling Ontario Northland GP38- 2 #1806 with an attached caboose #109. (Photo) You could see the exhaust coming from the twin stacks of the caboose as I am sure the heat was on full. This power would idle away the next few days because of the long holiday. Now I had something in my eye. Looking back at Amy I saw what was happening. Breathing through the scarf, the moisture in your breath would freeze almost on contact with anything, including the scarf. Her hat, scarf, hair and eyebrows were white with frost - after only 10 minutes. Heading back, we found a small cafe which was open. We must have been quite a sight walking in with cameras and all frosted up like snowmen. (That's snowpeople for the "PC" crowd.) The lady who ran the cafe said she would only be open until noon, so, not knowing what if anything would be open that night, we loaded up. A couple of truckers were in and telling us of their problems. They were traveling on Highway 17 approaching Hearst and their truck froze up. It seems that #2 diesel fuel starts to gel at these temperatures. Also, his heater could not keep the cab warm. I am sure there are additives one can mix with the fuel but no one was expecting this cold blast.

Looking back at my cameras, I realized I may have another problem. Both black bodies were white with a heavy coating of frost. Having been in the retail camera business a few years ago, I knew what not to do. Don't warm the camera up quickly. If you use a hair dryer the frost will thaw and run down and into the body. By just letting the camera and lens sit in room temperature, the frost should evaporate as it melts. Once the frost is gone, you can wipe off any excess moisture. The inside of the camera should be fine as long as you don't try to reload or change lenses in the cold. I use a Canon motor driven A1 with a Canon 35-70 zoom and a Canon F1 with Tamron 85-205 zoom. The problem with newer cameras, including my A1, is they depend on the 6 volt battery for their life. No battery means no shots, not even manually. That's why I also travel with the F1 which is totally mechanical. If it's meter battery goes out, I can still shoot, relying on my experience to set up the exposure. If you travel and shoot in cold climates with a fully electronic camera, always carry an extra battery and keep it in a pocket next to your body. This type of cold will drop the output of camera batteries just like a car battery. All in all, the cameras worked well through everything I asked them to do, however the aperture in the Tamron lens froze up after only 5 minutes in the cold. Talking with another couple who were on the train with us, his autofocusing Nikon 8008 died. He claims the batteries were fine as he could still get his readings but the autofocus motor was sluggish and then gave up the ghost. What's the moral here? Expect Murphy's law to enter in with whatever equipment you bring and throw in a cheepie throw away camera, just in case.

Nothing was open in Hearst that day. No cars were on the streets. I now realized we were one of two staying at our hotel. The hotel, by the way, had electrical cords hanging from the balconies so you could plug in you vehicle. Block heaters are a must as without one, you will never get a car going up here. The rest of the day was spent looking around the town in 15 minute spurts and watching Marry Poppins on TV in French. Yes, many of the stations were broadcasting in French. We did have a good selection of stations but we are not much on TV, so we played Empire Builder which we brought with us.

Christmas night, family, friends, presents, good food and drink. NOT! It was 6:00PM and I was ready to shoot night pictures of the train with all that glorious steam! The train was just backing in as we set up to shoot the Ontario Northland power idling in the yard. Next we moved closer to the station and shot some more. Moving to the head of the train, I set up another time exposure and this time "painted" the engines with a strobe. (Photo) The temperature this night was the coldest it would get at -50C which, as I later figured out, was -58F. No wind, just dead cold. After 25 minutes we had to get in out of the cold and, once again, found ourselves at the bus depot for dinner. That's OK I thought, because tomorrow things will again open up and we can do things in town.

Waking up to TV news on the 26th, I quickly learned something about Canada. They have an extra holiday I forgot about called Boxing Day. Although I got several variations on what Boxing Day means, one thing is for sure, stores do not open. Not only do they not open, it is against the law for some to open. Some department stores in Toronto were fined $50,000 according to TV news for opening on Boxing Day. We broke out the Empire Builder game again. The small cafe did open for breakfast and the innkeeper gave me a list of the better restaurants which would open after noon. We also found a small grocery store open so we bought bread and meat for the trip back the following day. (Our room did have a small refrigerator.) Surprisingly, the prices were not that bad. About what you would pay at a Seven- Eleven here in the States. Cans of pop were the exception as they were going for a buck a hit.

This has nothing to do with the story but, since it is my story, you will just have to read it. I am originally from Wisconsin. I was, am and always will be a Green Bay Packer fan. (That's a professional football team for those of you tuning in from other countries.) Living now near Chicago, I can no longer see the Sunday afternoon games as the Chicago Bears are on; or if not playing, TV, because of the language of the contract with the Bears, will still not carry the Packer games. Back in the room and channel surfing I made a great discovery. Canadian TV picks up from the CBS feed of football games. Guess what I got to watch on Boxing Day afternoon in the middle of Canada? (The Packers also won the game!!!) We had dinner at a very nice restaurant which I would recommend highly. The place is called Cezar's and it is truly fine dining but you don't have to dress up. The menu and wine selection were good. Liquor is high, so we stuck with Canadian beers.

On Monday morning as we headed back to Sault Ste. Marie the temperature was up to - 45C. Train #2 leaves at 8:00AM. (That's one hour earlier that it leaves the Sault.) If you miss this one, you will spend a week in Hearst or take a cab back. The lady who opens the depot is paid both by the Algoma Central and Ontario Northland as she also does some work for them. Watching "Red", the baggage handler, load a skidoo into the first baggage car by way of a ramp that hangs from the door, I asked if they ever had an accident loading these things. He told me a story of a guy who just bought his first sled. Since it was brand new and about $6,000, he refused to let anybody touch it but himself. Red, knowing what might happen, opened the baggagecar door on the other side. Sure enough, the guy got halfway up the ramp and started slipping. Giving it a little too much gas, the track took hold and the sled shot through the baggagecar and out the other side. There was plenty of snow and man and machine were not hurt and no, he never thought about a law suit as his friends would have never let him live it down.

The train was of course idling all night and the steam generator was keeping the cars warm. The trainman blew out the steam from the rear car to clean the pipes and we were off. About 9:10AM, the train started to cool and we stopped to blow out the steam once again. At 9:15AM we broke a water pipe. There was water and steam shooting out of one of the bathrooms in our coach. We stopped and crew members tried to find the shut off valves. I went outside and could see the problem with the valves. Everything under the car was encased in ice. All they could do was let the water drain. (Photo) The first third of our coach was flooded, but that water drained out in time. At 9:35AM, we were underway again and the crew radioed ahead for a carman to meet the train in Hawk Junction. We still had a bad air leak and Pete, our conductor, was on the radio explaining the situation to the dispatcher. (Hear) About all the ACR could do was have a crew at Hawk ready to chip away the ice to get to the shut off valve. The scanner chatter was non stop as Pete was describing our problems with the dispatcher. I even had the recorder on when they starting singing. (Hear) More orders were given and repeated by both Pete and our engineer. There was a work extra heading North from Hawk which we were going to meet along the way. Just before Franz, I heard the CP dispatcher talking about holding up a freight. It was too cold to take many pictures out the back, but I took a chance and went out just before the diamond. Sure enough, there was a CP freight waiting for us to cross. (Photo) Imagine that, a passenger train has priority, what an idea!

There are two observations I want to point out. The new ties and all the new lineside poles are not creasulted like here in the states. I believe the wood is treated under pressure with some type of stain as it's all green. Also, many of the trackside signs are metal with the words in block letters cut out. That way, if the snow sticks to the metal sign, you can still read it. We slowed down again to check for a fox which the crew saw on the way up last night. They thought it might have been dead, and were going to pick it up and take it to a trapper who was now in Hawk, but it was gone when we passed. Now the engineer was calling into Hawk to have some alcohol ready as the bell on the lead unit froze up.

As we pulled into Hawk Junction, I could see a small army of men with crowbars and hammers waiting to greet up. As soon as we stopped, they went to work trying to "chisel" out the air cutoff valve. Another few workers were de-icing the bell and yet another was checking a sticking brake shoe. The small store was closed today, so no pop or food. The rest of the trip was uneventful. The scenery again was great but too cold to stand out back. We were less than 40 miles from Sault Ste. Marie when we made one more unexpected stop. Did we break down? Did we loose our air? Did we derail or hit a rock slide??? NO. Amy woke up from a nap and was "chilled". The trainman ordered the train stopped and he climbed down and once again blew out the steam pipe! Now I tell you all this not to embarrass my wife, although I did, but I want to emphasize the type of service we had. The people who work for the Algoma are all first class and take a tremendous amount of pride in their work. Everyone I talked with, from the conductor down to the carman and the guys chipping the ice off our coach, was nice and courteous and cared about their work. Listing in on the scanner will also tell you a lot about people. (Listen to the CNW here around Chicago and you'll here exactly what they think about their jobs! It sometimes makes me blush, and that takes a lot!) The Algoma is more like a big family. I fear this comraderie may be lost when the WC does arrive next summer and many of these people take early retirement.

We arrived in Sault Ste. Marie just before 5:00PM. The car did start (it was only -35C now) and we loaded up and said our goodbyes to the crew. The train pulled out and headed back to the yards as we drove to our hotel. This is a trip everyone should take. If you are not this adventurous, at least take the tour train. The people, crew and scenery are fantastic.