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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

Penetang's Railway and an Unusual layout in the Bay

In the 1870's Penetang got the railroad to come to town. This was more important than perhaps we can understand today. At the time, cars and trucks were not yet a thing. Horses and wagons or even oxen and wagons were around, but not really efficient to bring goods and supplies to the town. This left the town secluded at least when it came to industry. The natural resources, logs from the north and furs were there, but shipping was limited to the time when the ice was out and bringing supplies in was even more difficult. This limited the ability to exploit the natural resources available to the town.

Adding a rail line into town was far more involved then we can fathom today. This was not a simple addition of infrastructure as we may now see. Much discussion was had and it was only the addition of Tiny in the deal that made it a reality. This is also why the railway has a skew towards Tiny when entering the town. Many meetings were had, finally it was decided to run the line into the town. It also takes advantage of the natural grade of the ancient creek that over time eroded the sands on it's banks to descend gradually into Penetang Bay.

Ironically, although in on the original negotiations Midland was not included in this spur line. Midland and Penetang, despite it being discussed fairly often was never connected by rail. Midland having gotten their rail line years later.

Sketch of Nine Mile Portage route

Prior to the rail coming to town the main industry was the fur trade. A A Thompson who picked up the trade from Dr Mitchell enjoyed a very healthy trade into Penetang. At the time he began there was only the old portage route over to the nine Mile Portage or the rough Penetanguishene Road that was good for bringing troops in and out, but was not very comfortable for travelers. Stage coaches did ply the road for the local hotels to bring in tourists, but it wasn't prudent for manufacturers, mills and tanneries to set up shop in Penetanguishene not being able to bring in or ship out vast quantities of goods. This was becoming a problem, the town had lost the Military and was about to lose the military pensioners who had to live close to the base to collect their pay. Land was not great for anything beyond subsistence farming (and shipping was once again a problem) and like all small tourist towns was losing many youth to prospects in better locals. (Sounds familiar?)

The railway coming to town made opportunities for mills to ship wood brought in from North Shore lumber camps to the outside world. With the Lumber mills came the tannery that used the bark of elm trees, a discard of the lumber mills to tan leather. Unlike the lumber the skins that were tanned into leather had to be brought in on the railway.

Fire insurance map circa 1909.

Now the railway was fairly well engineered, but an unusual situation happened near the town dock.

Larger version below

railway and the steamship combined to accommodate tourist to the cruise ship lines on the

Great Lakes. Many tourists who had come in by train switched to steamships at the town dock. This is of course understandable, however for some reason, they ran the railway off shore and circled (ovalled?) the line back in the bay back out of town. Presumably taking the ships passengers back out of town. I don't know how long it lasted, but it couldn't have been long! Some

Postcard courtesy Rene Hacksetter Cruise ship Waubic with train cars

remnants remain under the surface, with a little still poking through the surface. But what made this engineering necessary and cost effective, or at least the thought of it being so I can not be sure. In the picture above we can see the rail line going across

Another Post card of Rene Hacksetter

Here you can see the track dead ending at the town dock, with the spur still following the waterfront to Becks mill. Not sure if either was still in service.

the waterfront splitting at the dock with a spur continuing on to Becks mill and the main line travelling out into the bay and back around. On the left is wood piled up on the Wharf at McGibbons mill.

Another spur ran "across the Bay" to Davidson's mill. This employed many of the locals in more permanent and profitable employment than the days of tourism and fur trade. It would also improve the tourism trade as tourists could board trains in southern Ontario (or more distant) locals and travel to cruise ships in Georgian bay.

The Railway was pliant to the needs of the town but the name Penetanguishene was just too long for a sign on the station so they put up a sign that said simply Penetang, which is the origins for our little town have two acceptable names. We almost switched to being Penetang officially as a council meeting was held to discuss that issue, but it was turned down and from what I know never discussed again.

The railway is gone now due to a changing world where trucking has taken over for trains. The town has reversed itself and industry is no longer on the shore where the train came and ships went but now industry is high on the hill.

The railway came at a time when the town needed it, and although it wasn't without issues, as in 1903 the train skipped the tracks just outside of town. The train brought in industry and settlers and brought out soldiers and products. Fortunately, the foresight to keep the road as a walking trail means we can still trace the lines in and out of town. Things have changed around town, steamships no longer pick up passengers at the wharf, and the wharf as we know it is very different, but some parts remain. (Gallery below)

Art Duval Pipesmoke of the Past

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