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Algoma Central Railway

by Wayne V. Brittain and R. L. Kennedy
All photographs by Wayne Brittain unless otherwise credited.

Number 2 with engine 161 southbound on the Montreal River bridge, September 1963.


Algoma Central has a long history dating back to the late 19th Century. It was one of a small number of independent railways in Canada, a miniature version of the Canadian Pacific Railway and its empire. Throughout its life the ACR has been closely tied to steel production and logging, a strange combination. It was a mini-empire in that it too owned vast land holdings and engaged in shipping and the development of a wilderness much like that of Canadian Pacific. It once owned 1,600,000 acres with mineral and timber rights, including a provincial land grant of 7,400 acres per mile of railway.

It all began in 1890 when local interests obtained a charter for the Sault Ste Marie & Hudson's Bay Ry, to build from Sault Ste Marie to the CPR between Dalton and Ridout, and on to James Bay. Nothing happened. In 1899 it was renamed Ontario and Hudson's Bay and Western Railways. Still, nothing happened. Eventually, in 1911, its cash and land subsidies were turned over to the AC&HB.

Things began to happen in 1894 when Francis H. Clergue came to Sault Ste. Marie ("The Soo") to fix the financial affairs of the local power company (Ontario and Sault Ste.Marie Power Co.) owned by American investors in Philadelphia. Consolidated Lake Superior Corporation also owned iron ore laden land near Wawa to the north of The Soo. In May 1901 Clergue created the Algoma Iron, Nickel and Steel Company of Canada, (later, Algoma Steel Corp.) to smelt that ore. It produced the first steel and first rails rolled in Canada. In addition Consolidated Lake Superior Corp. operated not only lake vessels, but also ocean going steamships and passenger boats as well, totaling 16 vessels. Some of these ships took iron ore to Lake Erie ports in the USA and brought back coal for the Bessemer blast furnace, ideal utilization.

He also set about creating a railway to further develop Northern Ontario. The Algoma Central Railway was incorporated August 11, 1899 under a Dominion charter to build from Sault Ste. Marie to a connection with the Canadian Pacific Railway and to Michipicoten Harbour where access to the iron ore could be had. A reserve of 30 million tons was eventually identified. Helen mine, one of two on the branch, and the largest iron ore producer in Canada, operated from July 1900 to 1918, then it was closed when the high quality hematite ore (53% iron content) was mined out. Magpie mine which sintered lower grade siderite ore closed three years later in March 1921, after which ore was brought in from the Mesabi Iron Range in the US. Magpie's nine-mile spur was finally dismantled in 1925. Mining resumed at Helen Mine in 1937 when a newly developed sintering process at a Wawa plant turned the low-grade siderite ore (35% iron) into pellets of 51% iron making it economically worth transporting. A new ore dock was built at Michipicoten Harbour with shipments commencing at the beginning of the 1939 navigation season.

It would also tap into logging in the vast area to the north. In 1896, Sault Ste. Marie Pulp and Paper Co. another Consolidated Lake Superior company, built a large pulp mill in the Soo to use that timber. It later became Abitibi Paper Co.

The name was soon changed (May 23, 1901) to Algoma Central & Hudson Bay Railway in anticipation of its extension to Moose Factory on Hudson Bay. In common with many hopeful early railways (often named " and Pacific") it never reached its namesake. In fact it had only gotten 56 miles north from the Soo when the financial collapse of the parent company occurred in 1903. There was however a disconnected 20-mile long line from Michipicoten Harbour to two iron ore mines opened in August 1900, but 114 miles lay in between. This rugged branch included a 2.7% grade and was laid with 65lb. rail, as was all of the ACR. At this time there were 7,000 employees of the various Consolidated Lake Superior companies.

Reorganization by its English investors included the sale of the Power and Pulp companies to concentrate on the Steel Works and the railway. Construction resumed northward and for the first time the Montreal River (Mile 92) was bridged with a spectacular curved steel structure in 1911. Built by the Canadian Bridge Company, it is 1550 feet long, and 130 feet high. Many more bridges were required in the miles ahead. At Hawk Junction (Mile 165) a connection was made with the branch to Michipicoten Harbour. A connection was finally made with the CPR mainline in January 1912 at Franz (Mile 195). It is interesting to note that one survey had the line going farther to the east from Glendale (Mile 28) and connecting with the CPR at Chapleau. At Hilda, (mile 208) the continental divide was crossed where from here water flows north to James Bay and Hudson Bay. Work continued north to cross the Canadian Northern Railway mainline at Oba (Mile 245) beginning service to there in October 1913, and finally to connect with the National Transcontinental Railway mainline division point at Hearst (Mile 296) in 1914. Algoma Central had no facilities of its own in Hearst, choosing instead to pay for using those of the NTR. Here the Algoma Central ended forever, leaving it to the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario to reach Hudson Bay.

Northern Sub-division at Mile 260 between Oba and Hearst.
Very straight track compared to the curved and rugged Soo and Agawa Subs. September 1963

The one thing that Algoma Central had in common with neighbouring Temiskaming & Northern and far away Pacific Great Eastern was a mixture of second hand locomotives and rolling stock due to the lack of traffic in the wilderness it sought to conquer and develop. What it did not have in common was private ownership, something it shared with the mighty CPR. Both the T&NO and the PGE were owned by their Provincial governments of Ontario and British Columbia.

At Sault Ste. Marie, an international lifting bascule bridge was built following the arrival of the CPR in 1887, by the Sault Ste. Marie Bridge Company. Crossing over the St. Mary's River between Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, it opened December 31, 1887 and connected the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Atlantic (Minneapolis, St.Paul & Sault Ste Marie, later, the Soo Line), with the CPR, and was a subsidiary of the MStP&A. The CPR acquired both companies in 1888 along with the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic, later operating the two railroads as the Soo Line which it was eventually named. This was common for early large bridges and tunnels. No doubt this had a lot to do with liability for these massive structures, which were something of an engineering uncertainty and in the event of a disaster, the assets that could be seized would be limited to the failed structure! There was also the matter of joint jurisdiction when the bridge or tunnel crossed a boundary, especially an international one, in which case it was sometimes necessary to incorporate two companies. This bridge was replaced by a 369 foot long lift span in 1959.

Financial difficulties again hit, resulting in receivership in December 1914. Due to the Great War (WWI) it wasn't until November 1916 that bond holders took over. It was still considered equivalent to being under construction what with poor ballast and 185 wooden bridges out of 200. (It was to take 40 years to get rid of these wooden trestles). There were no tunnels as it would have been too expensive to go through the Laurentian Shield. Instead, track was laid around the mountains, adding to operating difficulties. North of Franz was muskeg country. Lake Superior Corp. was the new holding company created.

Trestle at Mile 20 Soo Sub. Goulais Creek Valley. 1958

Other traffic sources included an iron mine at Mile 25, a copper mine (Superior Copper Co.) at Mile 40 Superior Junction (Perry Jct.) and an iron pyrites mine at Goudreau (Mile 178) where a 2-mile spur reached the Madoc Mining Co. (Nichols Chemical Co.) where their own 0-6-0 switch engine worked. There was also a three-foot gauge line between the mine and the crusher using three dinky engines. This ore went to Michipicoten harbour until the mine closed around 1925.

Weldwood of Canada mill at Searchmount, Mile 32. Taken in January 1961 from a baggage car door!

Major traffic sources included some off-line industries, especially a large newspaper mill in Kapuskasing on the National Transcontinental, complete with its own non-common carrier railway, the Smoky Falls Line. In 1940 Long Lac Pulp and Paper built a large tissue mill in Terrace Bay on the CPR. In 1958 it became Kimberley-Clark's huge Kleenex tissue mill. Another was Abitibi Pulp & Paper Co's sulphite plant in Smooth Rock Falls, also on the NTR and having its own short line, (long before "short line" became a popular term!), Mattagami Railroad, a mere 3 miles long! It was the shortest standard gauge common carrier railway in Canada. All three industries remain in operation, although the two small railways do not.

In 1928 the derelict ore docks at Michipicoten Harbour were dismantled and the following year a steam powered coal bridge and 550-foot dock were built on reclaimed land. The first ship unloaded in September 1929. It was for many years an important traffic point delivering coal for paper mills and the CNR. The coal bridge itself was replaced in March 1970 by self-unloading lake vessels and eventually, the coal traffic declined and died. This came about with Canadian National railways dieselizing, (to say nothing of the CR itself), and the arrival in 1958 of the Trans Canada oil pipeline.

29 2-8-0 dumping iron ore Michipicoten Harbour, 1948

Ore dock at Michipicoten Harbour.

Looking west from Helen Mine, Helen Jct. at centre. Wawa to left, Hawk Jct. to right. Note lack of trees and blue green water.

Iron ore-coal dock at Michipicoten Harbour. Maintenance of Way cars are on Pulp Dock.

View of both docks at Michipicoten Harbour at 5.30 a.m. Imperial Oil boat unloading fuel oil.

Iron ore loads, ore storage in middle rear.
Imperial Oil tanks.
Michipicoten Harbour

Algoma Ore Properties, Wawa. Automatic unloader of buckets with iron ore from Helen Mine.

AOP, iron ore processing plant at Wawa. Principal iron ore shipper.

Unloading a coal boat. Iron ore loading conveyor system left foreground.

E. B. Barber loading
iron ore at Michipicoten.


Michipicoten Harbour. Foreground train on pulp dock with engine on start of upgrade. Two unit train in background on ore unloading lead headed east. Note the two different paint schemes. Solid red one didn't last. Three units, 153, 157 and 161 were given experimental paint schemes, simplified versions of the original paint scheme. On these three locomotives, the bottom greay area was eliminated thus the maroon went right to the side walkway. At the same time, the road number was placed in the middle of the long hood in yellow. This was dropped within a year. Later the road number was placed on the long hood of all units except 140 and 141.

Another variety of paint scheme

Extra 166 East (& 154) at Brient on the Michipicoten Subdivision, with a drag of ore empties for Wawa.
Note downhill grade of yard to the west.

During WWII a plant was built at Hawk Jct. to treat ties that came in off a new spur to a railway sawmill. These ties are unique with their greenish colour caused by the Osmose process of treating them compared to the black look of creosoted ties or raw wood colour of untreated ties.

In March 1941 the original 1899 wooden car shops were destroyed by fire. They were rebuilt with brick and improved at that time, as was the Steelton yard in Sault Ste. Marie.

Further financial reorganizations in 1930 saw creation of a new holding company, Algoma Consolidated Corporation. Following World War II changes began to occur after decades of stagnant ownership. On March 31, 1959, the 1910 bonds were redeemed in full and the shareholders were once again in control. Money was available for improvements and expansion.

Mechanized track work for the first time in its history brought about a proper roadbed and track, including replacing 85lb. rail with 100lb, along with slag ballast from the steel works.

Freight trains included three freights each way between Soo and Hawk Jct. With one train each way beyond to Hearst. (Remember, twice the tonnage can be hauled on this easier grade.) Two way radio between the headend and tailend, along with short range to others, aided in operations. ACR and ONR were both early users of VHF radio.

In 1959 freight tonnage reached an all-time high, and decline followed caused in part by the building of the Trans Canada Highway through the area in 1960. One exception was the 100% increase of pulpwood shipped by Abitibi Paper when it changed from water to rail. An earlier boost came about inadvertently in the winter of 1950 when 5000 tons daily of sintered ore began moving by rail instead of from stockpiles, which had become depleted by high sales volume. All-rail had the unknown advantage of reducing damage to the ore. Damage to ore? Yes, breakage actually resulted in the repeat handling of the ore and when this was eliminated with the all-rail handling there was a very substantial increase in blast furnace production. A hidden benefit to both parties or, as they say nowadays, a "win-win" situation.

Algoma Central became a diversified transportation company moving cargo by water, rail and road.

In 1965 the name reverted to Algoma Central Railway.

On to: Passenger Service


Algoma Central Part 2

Algoma Central Railway, Inc.

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