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Volunteers keep the cabooses rolling

© By Pat Brennan

  Ever wonder what became of those cabooses that tagged along behind freight trains? Some of the lucky ones have been converted to passenger cars, and they are still rolling along the rails - such as the coaches now carrying tourists three times a day up the steep incline from Port Stanley to St. Thomas. And those refurbished cabooses are pulled along by diesel locomotives that have also been rescued from scrap yards across the country. In fact, this whole railway is composed of relics from the great days of railroading - including the staff.
     Most of the 70 volunteers who rescued the rolling stock, maintain the tracks, and operate the unique Port Stanley Terminal Rail Company, formerly were paid to do that full time for some of the biggest railway outfits in the world. Today, they are running a tourist train on one of Canada's oldest railways.
     Recently, they all dressed up in historic costumes to salute the 150th anniversary of the train connection between Port Stanley, a fishing port on Lake Erie, and London. The rail line was built by hand to relieve the traffic congestion on the corduroy road where teams of oxen and draught horses pulled wagons of passengers and freight to London from the busy port. It was a lucrative line owned by the City of London because it tied in with the Great Western Railway that ran through St. Thomas connecting Detroit and Buffalo. In fact, the mayors of Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto turned out to ride that first train July 5, 1856 between St. Thomas and Port Stanley. They had to sit on benches on an open flat car.
     Today, passengers ride in restored coaches with air conditioning and heat, or open windows. There's even a bar car. The railway, known as the L&PS, carried passengers down to the boats and the wide beach at Port Stanley, where they could rent bathing suits from the railway or go dancing in the L&PS Pavilion. That pavilion soon became the Stork Club and passengers flocked by train to go dancing in Port Stanley to Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo and the jazz sounds of Louis "Sachmo" Armstrong.
     In 1943, the line carried 1.1 million passengers, but after the Second World War, people discovered automobiles and ridership fell off until passenger service was halted in February 1957. CN then bought the line from London and operated it for freight until a flood washed out a trestle in 1982. CN abandoned the line rather than pay $450,000 to repair the damage.
     That's when a group of volunteers and investors bought the line for a short-run tourist train. By 1985, they had repaired the washout for $30,000 and their tourist train could then run all the way to St. Thomas. Today, it carries about 25,000 passengers annually. It departs three times a day every day in July and August from the historic Port Stanley station where Kettle Creek flows into the busy fishing harbour. Two of those trips are 50 minutes long and the 3 p.m. run is a 90-minute return trip to St. Thomas.
     The line operates from March to December, but not every day in non-summer months.
     The little trains that are enjoying their second life will share their track with a special visitor this weekend and again July 28, 29 and 30. Thomas the Tank Engine, the famous TV performer, is pulling passenger cars.
     Bill Turvey, a retired engineer from the Chesapeake & Ohio line, serves on the PSTR board of directors and is one of the engineers operating its three diesel locomotives. "We are treated just like any other railway. We need to pass Transport Canada regulations every year, except we have to pay the government for our inspections, but the big guys like CN and CP get free inspections."
     Engine L3, built in 1947, is the oldest of the line's three locomotives. It weighs 44 tons, has 600 hp and was rescued from the Winnipeg Light and Power Commission when it was to be retired and scrapped. The other two, built in 1950 and 1952, worked for nearly 40 years in rock quarries. They haul the former cabooses up the 100-foot elevation change between Port Stanley and St. Thomas; following the west bank of Kettle Creek much of the way.
     The train rolls through thick Carolinian forest, rural pastures and some residential backyards scaring up deer, coyotes, wild turkeys, plenty of other bird species, plus hikers and bikers trespassing along the line. A ticket to ride costs $11.50 for adults and $7 for children two to 12, plus GST.

Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.

Photo Credits
Pat Brennan

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