At the end of the 19th Century, with the industrial revolution in full swing and the British Empire near its apex, the lumber baron John Rudolphus Booth built a railroad through the woods of central Ontario from Ottawa to Georgian Bay. Booth held the timber rights to most of this swath of wilderness, and in the process of converting trees into a financial empire, Booth had a railroad built through the scrappy wilds of the Canadian shield. Most finished wood travelled eastbound to global markets, so Booth built a mill complex in Ottawa that, with an output of 140 million board-feet of lumber, would produce more lumber than any mill in the world. On the west end, at the shore of Georgian Bay, he built a dock at Depot Harbour. Booth went on to greater things in his life, but this point in his biographic sketch outlines the purpose and creation of the Ottawa Arnprior & Parry Sound Railroad.
Booth’s railroad went through the southern part of what is now Algonquin Provincial Park, and roughly followed the path of the present-day King’s Highway 60. Booth lobbied to have the park created, in part, to prevent his competition from further exploiting the lands around his own. West of the park, the line twisted across lowlands that are now only very sparsely populated.
Secondary to the movement of timber to Booth’s mill in Ottawa, the line became something of a tourist destination. The industrial revolution and the subsequent struggle for imperial domination over global economics in the early 20th Century precipitated a new class of wealthy elites in America and Britain. Britain’s proxy elites in the Dominion of Canada reaped the benefits of commonwealth, and found themselves with a surplus of time and cash. With a nascent tourist industry obliging the elites and their desire for recreation, luxury hotels proliferated along railroad lines and in port cities across Canada. One such resort hotel was the Highland Inn, built adjacent to Booth’s railroad. The Highland Inn was among many important landmarks in the area.
The railroad station stops at various lumber camps along the line became ghost towns, and the ghost towns themselves have ceded to the forests and fields. Booth’s Ottawa Arnprior & Parry Sound Railroad, like many other railroads across North America, is now a recreational trail, and a stunningly beautiful one at that.
The area recovered from Booth’s industrial pursuits now constitutes one of the nicest publicly owned recreational spaces in the world. It provides car-campers, as well as backcountry canoe trippers and backpackers access to a spectacular part of the Canadian Shield. Booth’s railway has been incrementally converted into a biking trail that takes cyclist well into the woods.
Last week, Graham MacDonald graciously opened his layout to visitors. I visited with Ted and Steve, friends of mine from the WRMRC. I had never seen or heard of Graham’s layout, and Ted kept the details of the layout somewhat guarded from me. When I stepped into Graham’s layout room, I was immediately stunned by his immediately recognizable replication of Depot Harbour. Anyone who has been to the visitor’s centre or any of the logging museums in Algonquin will instantly recognize a number of other important scenes from the area’s history. The Highland Inn and the adjacent Algonquin Park station are recreated, as is the trestle over the Madawaska River. The trestle is now gone, but a hiking trail will take you to its abutments and a high cliff that looks out across the rolling highlands.
Graham allowed me to take some photos with my iPhone, so now that I’ve exercised my blog-given right to self-indulgent prattling, have a look at what one of my favourite places in Ontario looked like in the 1920s (in HO scale).