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D&NL History

Dullbridge & North Lake Railway - History

Chapter 1: Humble Beginnings

The Dullbridge & North Lake Railway was chartered on March 1, 1866 as the Dullbridge & Eastern Railway. The line was originally built by Cedric Wilson, owner of the Northern Ontario Lumber Company (NOLCO). The D&E's main job was to haul timber from the company sawmill to harbour. The mill is located in Lake Lester, Ontario, about 9 miles east of Dullbridge. Dullbridge itself is a small harbour/fishing community located on Georgian Bay about 30 miles north of Parry Sound. About 10 miles east of Lake Lester is the small resort community of North Lake - the other end of the line.

The Dullbridge & Eastern, which originally wasn't intended to interchange with the outside world, was built to the "Provincial Gauge" of 5'6". The line was started from Dullbridge in April, 1867 and was completed to Lake Lester by late October. The first locomotive on the line was a 4-4-0 built in Birkinhead England in 1854 for the Grand Trunk Railway. Also purchased were 8 flatcars, 2 boxcars, 3 gondolas and a passenger coach. Most of the rolling stock came from the Great Western railway. The rolling stock arrived by freighter along with other necessary supplies such as rails, spikes and joint bars. The hard granite in the area made for hard blasting and grading, but it did make for excellent ballast.

The first train on the D&E ran on October 27, 1868. Coal, supplies and foodstuffs from Southern Ontario and American ports were offloaded from the steamers and schooners just as fast as cut lumber was loaded onto them. Even at the beginning of D&E service, the village of North Lake, 10 miles to the east was asking for rail service. The Northern Ontario Lumber company, not seeing any benefit to it at the time, declined. Up until construction of the railway, cargo and lumber had been hauled on an often impassable haul road between the three towns. North Lake was connected to the outside world by the road as well as a small steamboat which traveled the Highbank River from Lake Lester from thaw to freeze.

Pasenger Service wasn't originally the focus of the D&E, but the single passenger car was run between Dullbridge & Lake Lester 4 times daily, usually on the end of a freight train. In 1870, the provncial gauge legislation was repealed. The D&E used this as a chance to obtain more rolling stock, and an ancient 0-6-0 steam locomotive, 10 flat cars and another passenger coach were added to the D&E's roster... all broad gauge.

Chapter 2: Expansion

The face of railways in Southern Ontario was changing throughout the late 1870's and early 1880's. The D&E toiled on in relative obscurity throughout the 1870's itself, hauling lumber as it was designed. Big changes were on the horizon however. The Great Western Railway was gone by 1880, merged into the ever-expanding Grand Trunk Railway. By 1882, the grading of the Northern & Pacific Junction Railway passed about 8 miles east of Lake Lester. Building north from Gravenhurst, Ontario heading for the CPR's expanding cross-country line, the N&PJR gave the D&E incentive to push eastward.

There was one major problem however, the D&E, still being broad gauge, couldn't directly interchange with the standard gauge N&PJ. Undaunted, D&E crews began grading/building eastward towards the N&PJ tracks from Lake Lester. The rails were laid to standard gauge and management went shopping. A trip to the Baldwin Locomotive Company turned up 2 completed steam locomotives built for a Pennsylvania line that went bankrupt before it could pay for them. Available at a bargain price, the 2 locomotives (a 4-4-0 and a 2-6-0) were sent up to Dullbridge via ship. Also going up with them was a large number of standard gauge trucks.

The new locomotives arrived at Dullbridge on July 19, 1882. The D&E standard gauged the line over the span of a weekend just before the locomotives arrived. The broad gauge cars were regauged using new trucks, and the 2 original steam locomotives were put to pasture. The 0-6-0 was scrapped, but the 4-4-0 was still around as an auxilliary boiler for the sawmill until the mid 1920's.

The D&E reached railhead with the N&PJ in late 1882. North Lake, now only 2 miles from the D&E railhead, went upon management with renewed vigour for a connection. The N&PJ, not seeing anything to be gained, had bypassed North Lake, the D&E, this time did not. A town of scarcely more than 150 people, North Lake had a small furniture factory that received wood from NOLCO via wagon and steamboat. Both were scarcely reliable in the winters however and the town wanted a more reliable outlet. Rails were extended the final 2 miles and by November, 1882, North Lake had it's railway.

Furniture and lumber flowed from the D&E, over N&PJ rails to Gravenhurst and beyond, the D&E receiving coal and goods inbound. Passenger traffic picked up as well, people beginning to notice the tranquil scenery around North Lake. In 1884, a man named Lawrence Green from New York arrived in North Lake with his wife on a visit to her cousin. Green, looking out from his wife's cousin's porch across the lake, was immediately beset with an idea. The opposite shore of the lake would be perfect for a luxury resort hotel. Green was an entrepreneur, and having some money under his belt, he purchased 10 acres of land on the opposite shore of the lake. Green also acquired the small steamboat which, since the railway had been built, had been tied up by the dock in North Lake.

Two major events occurred in 1886, one being the discovery of iron ore about 7 miles southeast of Lake Lester, and the second being the Northern and Pacific Junction Railway's being merged with the Grand Trunk. The D&E was extended south to the mining area, and soon a small community grew up around the mine. The town of Iron Hill, Ontario had been born. The D&E purchased several new wooden hoppers for hauling the iron ore. Also, the dock area in Dullbridge was upgraded and a small ore dock was built on the north side of the harbour. This dock was nothing compared to the monster docks on Lake Superior, but could still load boats up to 600 feet.

Chapter 3: North Lake Becomes a Destination

By 1887, the North Lake Hotel was constructed and the D&E's 2 small passenger coaches weren't going to be anywhere near enough to handle the capacity. The D&E purchased a mail/baggage car, a combine and 4 coaches from Pullman, they arrived just in time for the first summer season at the Hotel. A passenger station had been built at Dullbridge harbour, and steamships were soon disgorging their passengers onto D&E trains for North Lake. The line's original coaches fell into service on the twice daily mixed to Iron Hill.

It was soon becoming evident however that 2 steam locomotives couldn't handle the increase in traffic, and another locomotive was obtained. Dullbridge & Eastern No. 3 was a 2-6-0 Mogul built in 1890 by the Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston, Ontario. The 4-4-0 was used on the passenger trains while the 2-6-0's handled freight and the Iron Hill mixed. In 1895, a grain elevator was built at Dullbridge Harbour and a flour mill sprang up in North Lake. As the trackage around Dullbridge harbour increased, the switching times increased as well. Railway management decided to purchase a switcher for use in Dullbridge Harbour. The company again turned to Baldwin and a handsome little 0-6-0 arrived on property early in 1896.

Green began petitioning D&E management for a spur line around the north shore of the lake shortly before the hotel opened. The small steamer was showing its age, and Green wanted something a bit more convenient to handle passengers to his hotel. D&E management didn't see anything to be gained for operating a seasonal branch, and they declined to have any part of it. Green, undaunted, started planning his own rail line, and a 2 mile long line was soon graded and under construction around the lake's north shore. The line was completed in 1891. The D&E consented to allow the branch to connect to the mainline at North Lake, and a siding was built at the North Lake depot to allow passengers to transfer between trains. A small steam dummy was purchased, as was a passenger coach and combine. The passenger steamer was used for excursions on the lake, but hotelgoers were transported to their rooms by rail.

Chapter 4: NOLCO Expands

The Northern Ontario Lumber Company was increasing its reach into the forests, but the horses and haul roads could only do so much. The sawmill at Lake Lester underwent a huge expansion in the late 1890's that more than doubled its size. To keep up the inflow of logs, NOLCO built a railway into the woods. To keep costs down, the company built this railway at 3 foot gauge. There was thought of extending it as part of the D&E, but that wasn't deemed feasible. A pair of small 20 Ton Shays from Lima were the original locos on NOLCO's logging line, and were delivered in April, 1898. The logging line rambled 5 miles into the woods in several different directions. Never intended to be permanent, the NOLCO logging railway nevertheless eventually stretched 15 miles total length at its peak.

In 1910, 2 more Shay locomotives were purchased and several miles of track were added. The Northern Ontario Lumber Company, had a bit more forethought than its predecessors. Management realized that the vast stands of timber in the area wouldn't sustain the company in the long term. For each tree the company cut, a sapling was planted. This ensured that the company would continue to be able to log the area and the future of the company would be stable. The spindly 3 foot gauge rails hauled logs out of the forest and to the vast Lake Lester Mill. There, the logs were cut and loaded on flat cars for shipment to the outside world via the D&E. NOLCO used an 0-4-0 purchased in 1890 for switching the Lake Lester Mill. Most trackage around the mill was dual gauge, so while the Shays sometimes switched their own cars, the 0-4-0 did most of the work.

Chapter 5: The North Lake Amusement Park

By 1900, the elder Green had passed the reins of the hotel over to his son, George. The next chapter in the development of North Lake was about to begin. Having travelled extensively in Southern Ontario as well as the United States, George had caught the amusement park bug. He believed the passenger traffic in North Lake would support a park, and may even grow because of it. A bluff overlooking a small beach on the north shore would be perfect he reasoned. At the start of the 1900 season, a tunnel was constructed underneath the railway tracks, a bath house and refreshment stand built on the beach and a dance hall, picnic grove and passenger shelter built next to the railway spur.

The first rides on site arrived in the form of a Ferris wheel, carrousel and a miniature steam train. The following year - 1901, a 'Figure-8' roller coaster was constructed opposite the entrance to the dance hall. An 'Old Mill' water ride and fun house were also added that year. More rides continued to be added and the North Lake Amusement Park could claim 20 rides by the end of 1905. Both visitors to the area and the locals flocked to the park during the summers.

The opening of the park also brought electrical power to the area. A coal fired power plant was built in 1900 near North Lake. The Dullbridge & Eastern constructed a spur line to the plant, and soon solid trainloads of coal were making their way out of Dullbridge Harbour on a weekly basis. The two percent grade out of Dullbridge posed a few logistical problems however, and it was standard practice to double trains out of Dullbridge. Even with doubling the hill, coal trains usually had to be double-headed. The road always used the two Moguls for the coal trains, although on more than one occasion No. 4 was used as a pusher. The 4-4-0 had been built for passenger and light freight service, and was pretty much useless as a drag engine. The early part of the 1900's was a boom time for the D&E

Chapter 6: We Need More Power!

The age of the line's two original locomotives was beginning to show by 1910. They had been taken care of, but run hard and it was soon becoming apparent that larger power was needed, both for passenger and freight service. An order was placed with the Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston, Ontario in 1911, but it wasn't until 1912 however, that new power actually arrived. Dullbridge & Eastern Number 5 was a trim 4-6-0, and was to be used for mainline passenger service. The road freight was to be handled by No's 6 and 7, a pair of 2-8-0's. These new locomotives allowed the road to retire No. 1 and 2. Mogul No. 3 was assigned permanently to the Iron Hill branch and No. 4 stayed in Dullbridge.

The North Lake Amusement Park flourished in the early part of the 20th Century. The park continued to add rides, and in 1912, they rebuilt the roller coaster. The Figure 8 lost half its track and new track was built along the back side of the picnic grove to a turnaround. The coaster train then made its way back over a series of hills to the station. The "Big Dipper" was alot more thrilling and featured bigger drops than the old Figure 8 did and opened to rave reviews.

The passenger traffic also increased durign this time, and Green upgraded his spur line in 1913. The proximity of the power plant was encouraging, and Green decided to electrify. Wire was strung from North Lake to the hotel and a second platform was added at the three stations on the line. A 3-stall car barn was built in North Lake as well. New rolling stock consisted of a pair of Pullman green electric passenger motors, an express motor and a pair of trailer coaches. All of these were purchased from Preston Car and Coach in Preston, Ontario. The express motor could handle 2-3 freight cars, or if necessary, both trailer cars. Supplies for the hotel came in on a weekly basis by rail.

Chapter 7: The Teens and Twenties

The outbreak of World War One slowed any more tourist expansion in the area, but people kept coming. Soldiers from the area, home on leave, went with their families to North Lake to escape for a time. Production at the Iron Hill mine picked up during the war years, and it wasn't uncommon to see the 6 and 7 double-heading coming off the branch. Armistace in 1918 brought stability, but traffic continued to flow over the D&E.

In 1919, the 'Big Dipper' was completely demolished in favour of a new roller coaster. Rising 75 feet above the head of the bluff, the new 'Deep Dipper' was designed by John Miller. It followed the same route as the old Big Dipper, but was considerably faster and higher. The coaster was an immidiate success. New rides were added throughout the early 1920's in the form of a Tumble Bug, a Pretzel dark ride and Sea Planes on the park's Circle Swing. The park and Hotel were the most popular destinations in the Muskoka area. The D&E purchased several new Heavyweight coaches at this time to meet the passenger demand coming from the interchanges and the docks.

Passenger traffic had slowed to Iron Hill however, and a gas electric car was purchased in 1920 to handle the branchline run. Ore production had slowed after the war as well, and only about 10 cars a week were being shipped out of Iron Hill, compared to over 60 per week during the teens. A weekly wayfreight using No. 3 was usually enough to meet the freight needs of the branch.

The early 20's was a prosperous time for the area as a whole. The grain elevators in Dullbridge were enlarged in 1922, and more grain made its way over D&E rails. All wasn't completely rosy however. In 1923, disaster struck the Iron Hill mine. The lower portions of the mine shaft flooded late in the evening on June 9, 1923. No miners were killed, but several were injured. The mine itself was a write-off. Production had been decreasing for several years, and instead of re-opening the mine, the decision was made to just close it. Traffic to Iron Hill almost dried up overnight, but the gas-electric was still used on the branch. Iron Hill residents began dispersing as the main employer was no longer active. By 1926, the town was a shadow of its former self.

One would have thought Iron Hill was finished, but the granite and gravel deposits around the area proved its salvation. A couple of locals talked to D&E management and were given permission to relocate the rails from the old mine spur. In 1927, a small gravel and quarry operation opened just north of Iron Hill. The gondolas and hoppers once used for iron ore were now used for gravel and stone. The gas electric continued to serve the Iron Hill branch, but freight trains were again using the line as well. People started returning to Iron Hill to work the quarry and soon 20 cars a day of gravel and stone were heading up the branch. The 2 consolidations were normal power on the rock trains, although 2-6-0 No. 3 sometimes handled the trains as well. There's a stiff 1.5% grade out of Iron Hill and presented a challenge to the heavy trains.

Chapter 8: Fire on the beach

The railway prospered in the 1920's, passenger trains were running 5 times daily each way trying to keep up with the summer tourists. People flocked to North Lake to dance by the lake and scream on the roller coaster. In the early hours of April 9, 1927, a fire began in the lifthouse of the 'Deep Dipper'. The cause was never determined, but was thought to be an errant cigarette tossed aside by a worker. Regardless of how it started, the 'Deep Dipper' was soon engulfed in flames. By the time the fire was put out, half the ride was destroyed. The front on the 'Stardust' ballroom was charred and several stands and other rides were damaged as well. George Green, undaunted, began planning for a bigger and better roller coaster. Crystal Beach to the south had just built the 'Cyclone' and Green knew he'd have to build something good.

Chapter 8: Changes on the horizon


Have I missed or messed a major historical fact? Want to comment on something? Please feel free to e-mail me. All images are 2005 Dan MacKellar unless otherwise noted.

This work is Copyright 2005 by Dan MacKellar and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written consent of the author..