Return to the Lounge Car

The Algoma Central


By Speeder

By Mark Springer

Mark & Deby Springer <>
All photos copyright 1995 by the Author.
Scanning by Ribbon Rail Productions

NOTE: Click on the word Photo while reading the story to see the corresponding image.

Several years ago I was able to "convince" my new bride to buy a second, closed cab motor car so we could ride on the Algoma Central in the northlands of Canada. The car, a closed cab MT-14 was purchased shortly after that but we were never able to make the trip, until this year. (Photo) Going with us where Jim McKeel and his rider Dave Caldwell.

We left Wichita, KS on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon to spend the night in Topeka where we had to pick up Dave. While in Topeka we were able to see Dave's large collection of Santa Fe memorabilia, a definite treat. Unfortunately we couldn't stay long as we had to travel about 1300 miles over the next 2 days. Luckily we had no problems and arrived in Sault Ste Marie on a nice, but definitely cooler Friday afternoon. Crossing the border was simple even with the motor cars. At the border we acquired a certificate of temporary exportation for each car. This paper would be needed to get our cars back into the USA without being charged duty.

At the motel we found there were already 15-20 cars that had arrived before us. Most were from the midwest, mainly Ohio, Indiana and some from the east coast. Only one Canadian came on this ride and it was his very first outing in his Fairmont powered M-9. We found that we had brought motorcars the farthest distance of anyone on the trip. At the motel we met up with Hank Brown. Many of you may remember him for organizing one of our very first rides on the SEK railroad about 3 years ago. We quickly signed our waivers, got a bite to eat and hit the sack. The next morning would come quickly and we would travel over 180 miles before it was over.

The next morning was cold, in the 40's where we had been used to 70-80's. Arriving at the depot we were greeted by a big black bear. (Photo) Fortunately it was on the sign on top of the Algoma Central Depot as the railroad is known as "The Route of the Black Bear". Several of the passenger cars carry out this theme including bear tracks painted on the side of the cars.

Unloading the cars, we placed them at the west end of the depot. (Photo) We weren't allowed to put them on the tracks until number 3, the northbound tourist train, left at 8 AM. Algoma Central does a booming business carrying tourists from Sault Ste Marie to the Canyon. The Canyon is located 114 miles north on a part of the railroad accessable only by rail. The train lays over about 2 hours while the passengers eat in the park or hike on one of several different trails. In the fall the foliage is reported as being gorgeous. The railroad also runs a winter time snow train on weekends.

Immediately after number 3 left we began setting on. Thirty minutes later we were rolling, since number 1, the main passenger train, was set to leave the Soo at 9:40. We set a quick pace for 2 miles, until a car broke down in the middle of the Steelton yard. In light of the distance we had to travel that day a no fix rule was in effect: if you break down take a tow and try to fix it when we make a scheduled stop. Since we would be dodging not only passenger trains, but freights and work trains as well, this rule had to be followed closely. After crossing several roads in town, we were finally out in the country and rolling.

Within the first several miles we became very impressed with the Algoma Central's immaculately maintained roadbed. The ties and rail were smooth with no hunting and no bad joints. We were able to keep up a good pace.

Shortly we were passing through small towns named Odena, Goulais, Wabos, Achigan, Mashkode, and Mekatina as the country became rougher and rougher. With only 61 grade crossings on the entire 320 mile system (all listed in the employee timetable) we were able to run long distances without stopping. The scenery became more beautiful with each mile. (Photo) The first 60-80 miles are very hilly with many curves and flange lubricators. (Photo) The latter would cause your car to slide and wiggle for a short period after passing them. Later the area became flatter with lake upon lake first on the right and then the left. (Photo).

As we progressed northward it became apparent that train number 1 was behind schedule. As we passed several stations with 20-50 people would be waiting to board. However unlike on AMTRAK where they have only to deal with luggage, these people were outfitted with camping gear, canoes, and ATV vehicles. Due to the Labor Day weekend the city folks were heading north for a long weekend of camping, canoeing, fishing and hunting. At Frater we met southbound number 2. (Photo) (Photo)

From there we continued north and crossed over one of the biggest bridges on the railroad at Montreal Falls. (Photo) Built on a curve the bridge is 130 feet tall and 1550 feet long. At it's base is a dam which generates electricity for Sault Ste Marie and much of the surrounding area.

Continuing on our trip we went north to Canyon where we were to eat lunch. Coming around the curve however we were suddenly greeted with a big Algoma Central Engine right in front of us. (Photo) Fortunately it was number 3, now number 4 waiting for us to enter the siding. After we cleared it began it's return trip so it's trainload of tourists could return to Sault Ste Marie.

Finally at the Canyon, number 1 was able to run around us. (Photo) Before the train ran around us we noted that there were many people lining the tracks watching us go by. Only later did I realize that they thought we were the late passenger train lured to the tracks by one of the lead motorcars which was equipped with a diesel locomotive horn. After lunch we continued northward.

At Hawk Junction we met a southbound freight waiting in the yard for us to clear. This was the first yard and service facilities since we left the Soo. Located here were a small engine house, maintenance of way buildings, and other shop buildings. In the yard were several cabooses which Algoma Central still uses everyday. The railroad is run primarily by EMD GP-9's, GP-38-2's and SD-40's. The GP-9's do much of the general freight work with the GP-38-2 being used more on the passenger trains. The SD-40's apparently were purchased to help move heavy iron ore and steel trains.

Located at the midpoint of the railroad Hawk Junction is where the important Michipicoten branch heads west. This branch was home to several ore mining area's and still serves a scintering mill which processes raw ore into a semi-purified form. Also located on the branch is the port of Michipicoten. After a brief rest we headed east to the town of Wawa where the scintering mill is located. After a few miles the country became more barren and open than it had been. According to the railroaders this change is due to acid rain caused by the scintering mill. Now with more stringent pollution controls the emissions are less but the damage remains.

At Wawa we turned the cars off, chained them to the track and boarded school buses for the short ride to our motel. Not a bad first day covering 180 miles in 11 hours.

After a good nights sleep at the Wawa Motor Inn we were ready for another day on the "Tracks of the Black Bear". The Canadian Goose is very prominent here as shown by the giant sized goose on top of our motel. This area caters to winter time activities of snow mobiling, cross country skiing, and of course hunting. The town itself was named after the word the Indians used to describe the honking of the geese.

After a quick breakfast we were back at the tracks about 7 AM checking our cars over before our departure at 8 AM. In what was to become a daily routine, 1 person from each car would load themselves onto one of the 2 hyrails (Photo) for the trip into town and that much needed commodity, gasoline. During this trip we found that our Onan cars were able to achieve between 30 and 35 miles to the gallon. Even so I felt better having 2 five gallon gas cans with me.

After returning from our gas run we fired up the car and let it warm up (with us inside). The temperature was again in the low 40's, quite a shock to our midwestern thermostat still set on the 70-80's. The enclosed car and its fully functional heater helped my wife to realize how wise she had been to allow me to buy this car to go on this trip. We did have some fairly hardy folks on the trip including 2 young fellows with a motorcycle powered car which was completely open, no roof, and no windshield. I am certain they had a better view but I was happy with our "comfort cab" motorcar.

Promptly at 8 AM we were leaving and heading west to the small port of Michipicoten. Just outside of town we turned our cars and backed down the 4.5% grade into the port. (Photo) This town was once a bustling port town with most of the goods needed for the surrounding are being brought here from ships off of Lake Superior. However as roads penetrated this region, the port began to lose it's importance. At one time there were 2 docks, one for general merchandise and one for the important iron ore traffic. Now only the iron ore traffic remains. (Photo) (Photo)

After a brief photo session with our cars on the dock we retraced our steps up the steep grade and on our way to Wawa and Hawk Junction. At Hawk we turned our cars to restart our northern trek. Today we noticed less railroad traffic without us having to dodge the morning passenger trains as we had had to do the previous morning.

Again more of the beautiful scenery that Canada and the Algoma Central Railway are noted for was seen. (Photo)This section of track however was flatter with fewer hills and curves then the previous day. During this day we began to notice the old track workers section houses (Photo) located about every 20 miles. Most of these buildings had been sold by the railroad to individuals interested in hunting, fishing or just getting away for a few days. We also noted several folks out on boats and canoes on some very secluded lakes.

After 30 miles we came to the town of Franz. Some of you may have read about this important junction in the January 1992 issue of Trains Magazine. This town was formed when the Algoma Central crossed the East-West mainline of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. While waiting for permission to cross the diamonds we noted an Algoma Central train switching the interchange tracks to the west. Unfortunately with no traffic on the CP for us to watch we restarted our northward journey.

Fifteen miles later we pulled into the siding at Hilda for a quick bite to eat and to let the freight that we had seen at Franz pass by on its trip to the north. (Photo) After it passed we backed out of the siding to continue our journey.

Passing through the towns of Mosher, Dana and Langdon we soon came to the other important junction to on the Algoma, Oba. This is where Canadian National's East-West mainline crosses. As we entered town we found a CN work train in the yard and 2 geeps were switching. Also in the yard was a southbound Algoma Central freight waiting (the same one that had passed us at Hilda) for us to clear so it could restart is's southward journey.

As we waited we noted a motor car shed on the CN track. As we wandered through town we saw, gasp, a working motorcar heading east with a small work crew on board. A boarded up station was also noted here. Apparently closed about 2 years before, the depot had been stripped by locals of all useful items including paneling. (Photo) The cost of shipping to this remote area is so expensive that many locals strip any abandoned building for useful items for their hideaways. Unfortunately, closed railroad depots fit in this category.

This section of the railroad also had 2 floating railroad bridges. When they built from Franz to Oba the builders came to 2 large lakes. Rather than build around them they chose to take the track straight across on 2 long pile bridges. However, when the railroad tried to find firm footing for the bridges there was none available. To conquer the lakes pilings were driven 60 feet down into its boggy bottom. This works very well but reportedly the bridges require a lot of maintenance. This was born out by the bridge crew present and working on one of the bridges. Apparently the work crews don't get to go to town very much as they had their own portable satellite dish with antenna wire running into one of the work cars. Quite a contrast with the old passenger equipement.

From Oba north the ground began to become more prairie like and long stretches of straight track began to become the norm. When this area was first settled farming was attempted but due to the short growing season was not successful. Dairy farming was successful and continues to this day.

At Hearst we came to the end of the Algoma Central. As we entered town we were greeted by a sawmill with a pile of logs taller than a 5 story building and covering many acres. A large gantry type crane was used to move the logs from the holding area to the sawmill for rough cutting. We then pulled into the siding in front of the modern metal building which had recently replaced the old 3 story large brick depot. (Photo). As some of you may know, Hearst was where the original mainline for the CNR made it's east-west journey. This line was recently sold to the Ontario Northland railroad which is now helping to serve this part of Canada.

Hearst, located almost to the 50th north parallel, has mainly French Canadians as residents. As we ate supper and bought gasoline (fortunately only 100 feet from the track) we sometimes found it difficult to communicate with the locals who weren't used to a Kansas drawl (they preferred French which none of us were fluent in). This was also the largest town we had been in since leaving Sault Saint Marie with a population of almost 5,000. Our motel was conveniently located next to the depot.

The following day was again cool but sunny. The daily passenger train had arrived the previous evening and was now busily making preparations for leaving. All of Algoma Central's passenger trains still use steam heat on all their equipment. Since none of the diesel's carry steam generators all trains carry steam generator cars. Most of which were made from old steam engine tenders. I know Amtrak wouldn't return to steam heat but there is nothing like a passenger train with steam heat, and it's many leaks in the cold. (Photo) After the train left all 49 of us lined up on the Ontario Northland Geep in the yard for a group picture. We didn't turn our cars in Hearst preferring to back them down to the wye where we had entered town. The Algoma Central bills this wye as the largest wye in the world. The reason? With the length of the railroad being 294 miles a train of this length could be turned using the Ontario Northlands mainline as its other 2 turning legs.

We were soon retracing our steps southward through Oba, over the floating bridges, to Franz and then Hawk Junction. At Hawk we had another treat being taken around the wye that encompasses the yard. Once turned we continued back to Wawa and our motel with the large goose on top.

The next day we turned our cars and were fortunate to become one of the lead cars. We hoped for a fast ride on the good Algoma track. However, we were initially frustrated as we headed first west to Hawk and then south by frequent stops to get permission to pass several work crews. This included meeting a rail grinding train at Hawk Junction and 2 tie gangs working feverishly to replace as many ties as possible before the long winter was to return. Apparently 2 types of ties were used on the Algoma. The first is the traditional creosote treated tie, the other is pressure treated much like our CCA lumber. Reportedly bugs and the cold weather lead to a short life for ties on the railroad. Since the CCA treatment is cheaper many ties using this treatment are placed each year.

As we continued to head south we began to realize the importance this rail line had in opening up this northern Canadian area. Many people are dependent on this railroad for service much like in the United States 30 or 40 years ago. But, as in the US times do change and the Algoma Central as we came to know it will soon be changing. Much of the wood transported on the railroad is being shifted to trucks as the usable woods continue to move farther and farther from the railroad tracks. (Photo) With these changes the railroad began to lose money and is scheduled to cease operations on December 31,1993.

While we were in Canada, however, representatives from the Wisconsin Central Railroad were negotiating the sale of the line. This was not without some controversy as they planned to lay-off between 1/2 to 2/3 of the Algoma's current employee's. This is a shock to many of the railroaders who take such obvious pride and great care of their railroad. (Photo) On no ride have we seen such a clean, immaculate right of way. All the old ties were piled in neat piles along the right of way. Rail likewise was also piled on cement pillars to keep them above the snow line. At the Canyon the grass was manicured like a golf course and there was no trash present. (Photo) The superintendent of the line, who drove one of the hyrails, (Photo) took great pride in the rarity of derailments. One thing we all knew was that a special railroad would soon be closing. Hopefully, a successful railroad can come from it's ashes allowing future generation's of motor car enthusiasts access to one of the hidden areas of North America.

The trip you have just read about was one of the highlights of over 4 years of operating our motorcars. Until this ride we had not strayed too far from our home state of Kansas. While our motorcar riding is a relatively new hobby, I have been a life long railfan.
I grew up in Bloomington, IL with GM&O Alco RS-2's, E-units and F-units. As I grew up (and GM&O became a boring ICG) I moved to Kansas where I became acquainted with the Santa Fe Railroad and the hobby of motorcaring. While in Kansas I met a lovely lady who thought that trains were "interesting". Fortunately for me she was a closet railfan and now loves to join me for speeder rides and to ride trains. The steam engine is her favorite but one thing she has not learned to like is those newfangled "diesels". This disdain for modernity also reaches into her preference for our older Rock Island motorcar which is powered by a large, water cooled one lung engine with 2 large flywheels. She even likes to hand crank it to get it going!

I would also like to make a couple of other comments about our hobby. We are always being asked "What do you do if you meet a train?" or "Do you have to know when the trains run?"
I always stress that Railroads and Railroading can be dangerous. Our hobby requires "Safety First" at all times. Our cars are no match for a full size locomotive. We always have permission to ride before setting on the track. Some rides take several months to organize and we come together as a group. To ride without permission is both dangerous and highly illegal. It is through a history of safe operations that allowed us to have the opportunity to ride the Algoma Central Railroad.

If you are interested in learning more about our hobby there is a group that you can join. They are:

Narcoa (North American Railcar Operators Association)
c/o Joel Williams
Box 82
Greendell, NJ 07839
Check out the Narcoa Home Page Today!
Newsletter: "The Setoff", issued 6 times per year.
Dues: $20 per year.
Narcoa also has many local chapters which deal with smaller geographical area's. Narcoa also has an insurance policy available that is required for most motorcar meets. Newsletter contains notices of future rides.

If you have any questions or comments about this story please send them to

Mark & Deby Springer <>