Skip to main content

The Wakefield Steam Train: A New Boom?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

--December 11, 2014.

larger_gatineau_1_0.jpg At the Fairbairn House, an ongoing project spearheaded by two model railway enthusiasts, Stan Carlson and Michael Watts, have been building a replica of what Wakefield may have looked like in the 1930s, as a train station town. An interactive exhibit, visitors can turn the model railway on and learn about the history of the railway in Wakefield. This project has attracted a considerable following, with visitors from around the world, and is one of several ways Wakefield's train craze has manifested into cooperative efforts.

The railway represented a revolution for how one traveled in the Gatineau Valley. Prior to that, settlers and travelers used difficult, poorly-maintained roads as their primary means of transport, necessitating a series of stopping places all along the way. Communities and villages were spaced apart almost equidistantly, each stopping place only a few miles from another. From 1890 to 1903, a railway to Maniwaki was constructed, providing a speedier alternative to travel by wagon. At the same time, this also displaced the economic entrenchment of the old stopping places, whose proprietors were forced to find new ways to adapt to the convenience the railway offered. Business was changed by the introduction of the railway, and communities changed with it.

The railway gave Wakefield rapid access to communities along the Gatineau River as well as the Ottawa region, and was also a ready supply line for farmers settling along the western shoreline. As the railway emerged as a connecting factor in the Gatineau Valley, communities centered themselves around it. As a consequence, for a long time, there were fewer settlers on the eastern bank.

“Many communities like Rupert didn't die, but they shrank dramatically, and when the train came, everyone wanted to move into Wakefield, where the train station was,” Peter Gillies, a resident of Rupert and the Vice-President of the Fairbairn House, explains.

For a long time, Wakefield had both a resource-line and a commuter train that traveled up to Maniwaki. Over time, the commercial service was cut back. In recent years, a tourist train with a Swedish-built steam train, operated on the line. Three years ago, this train was discontinued due to damage to the rails. Today, there are community efforts to bring this tourist train back into service.

The Wakefield Steam Train Group is presently spearheading efforts to establish a smaller version of the steam train, and proposes to have it running by 2016. It is one of three projects currently being considered for funding from the Ottawa Railway Company. A public meeting held at the Wakefield Community Center on November 25, 2014, saw WSTG President Marc Fournier explain the project to a small group of locals. The project promises that multiple trips would be operated on a daily basis with a smaller volume of riders (accommodating about 150 people); the cost of the train fare would range from $17-$22. The project as a whole is expected to cost about $4 million, a cost that proponents say is justified by the promise of an economic boom through tourism.

The steam train was a hallmark of old Wakefield, and locals all over are striving to keep the memory of it alive through various ongoing projects. If the steam train is successfully revitalized, the economic boom Wakefield is experiencing, thanks to the opening of Highway 5 right next to it, will only cause the town to grow larger as a tourist attraction. Meanwhile, locals are happy to share their experiences, memories and nostalgia for the train and the community that grew around it.

Kevin Armstrong, a student in public history, interned with QAHN in 2014.