The Portage Flyer

Asked to think of the shortest railway in Ontario past or present, some might opt for the 8 km long Thousand Islands Railway that once connected Gananoque, Ont. with Gananoque Jct. on the former Grand Trunk Railway's Montreal-Toronto main line; or perhaps for the Flos or Medonte tramways in Simcoe County.

HISTORY
Just east of Huntsville, Ont., however, between 1905 and 1959, a short narrow gauge railway (only one and one-eighth miles in length, self-billed as "the shortest commercially operated railway in the world"), used to connect Peninsula Lake (at North Portage) with the Lake of Bays (at South Portage).

The Northern & Pacific Junction Railway had reached Huntsville in 1885 and thus opened up the northern Muskokas to commerce, tourism and a vacation retreat for the well-to-do. Officially "the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway", this diminutive shortline came into being to provide a portage connection between Peninsula Lake east of Huntsville, and the northerly tip of the Lake of Bays. Unofficially, it was "the Portage Railway", more familiarly "the Portage Flyer", affectionately "the Hot Tamale" (because of the engines' propensity to blow their fire out of the stacks), or with the dry humour of its employees "the Corkscrew route".
In the late 19th century, a local entrepreneur, Captain George Marsh, had established a sawmill at the foot of Marsh's Falls on the Oxtongue River near Dwight, and gradually built up a steamer service on the Lake of Bays and on the Vernon-Fairy-Peninsula Lakes chain that also adjoined the Huntsville railway station.
What was needed to facilitate transportation between these two water systems was a portage link. In 1900, Capt. Marsh obtained a charter to construct a standard gauge (4 ft 8½ in) railway between the two waterways. Work began in 1903, but with a gauge of 44½ in. because that was the gauge of the used equipment bought from the E.B. Eddy Company in Hull, Que. The railway started operating in 1904, and went into full service in 1905. 

Overall map, Lake of Bays and the Vernon-Fairy-Peninsula Lake chain of lakes, Muskoka, Ont. Map courtesy Niall MacKay.

Overall map, Lake of Bays and the Vernon-Fairy-Peninsula Lake chain of lakes, Muskoka, Ont. Map courtesy Niall MacKay.

The Huntsville GTR station ca 1910 - the arrival and departure point for the throngs of vacationers to the upper Muskoka lakes area. 
The steamer and Portage Flyer schedules were integrated with those of the Toronto trains.

The Huntsville GTR station ca 1910 - the arrival and departure point for the throngs of vacationers to the upper Muskoka lakes area. The steamer and Portage Flyer schedules were integrated with those of the Toronto trains.

Its terminus at Peninsula Lake became North Portage, and at the Lake of Bays, South Portage.
Route map. Note the switchback at North Portage. The Flyer would leave North Portage at the head of its train, and then back all the way to South Portage. The steepest incline was between the switchback and the summit at just over 7 per cent. The sharpest curve was at Osborne Lake.
Courtesy Niall MacKay

Route map. Note the switchback at North Portage. The Flyer would leave North Portage at the head of its train, and then back all the way to South Portage. The steepest incline was between the switchback and the summit at just over 7 per cent. The sharpest curve was at Osborne Lake. Courtesy Niall MacKay

Track diagram at North Portage.
Courtesy Niall MacKay.

Track diagram at North Portage. Courtesy Niall MacKay.

Track diagram at South Portage. The structure on the west side south of what is now Muskoka Road 9 is a water tank. The road that T-bones into MR 9 is MR 23.
Courtesy Niall MacKay

Track diagram at South Portage. The structure on the west side south of what is now Muskoka Road 9 is a water tank. The road that T-bones into MR 9 is MR 23. Courtesy Niall MacKay

Sadly, Captain Marsh did not live to see his vision go into full service. His railway and steamboat service was acquired by C.O. Shaw, owner of the Anglo Canadian Leather Company in Huntsville. The steamboat service was expanded, and Shaw opened the famed Bigwin Inn in 1920.
What people from all over came to see. The Portage Flyer is pulling way from the North Portage dock towards the switchback. The superstructure of the ALGONQUIN steamboat can just be seen over the roof of the primitive boxcar. The train is double-headed by the two original Porter-built locomotives.

What people from all over came to see. The Portage Flyer is pulling way from the North Portage dock towards the switchback. The superstructure of the ALGONQUIN steamboat can just be seen over the roof of the primitive boxcar. The train is double-headed by the two original Porter-built locomotives.

A snapshot like many others in family albums of the day. The two original Porter-built engines Nos. 1 and 2 are waiting with their train for the ALGONQUIN steamboat to arrive from Huntsville for their daily trip "over the hill" to South Portage. 1930s. Nels McFarland family album.

A snapshot like many others in family albums of the day. The two original Porter-built engines Nos. 1 and 2 are waiting with their train for the ALGONQUIN steamboat to arrive from Huntsville for their daily trip "over the hill" to South Portage. 1930s. Nels McFarland family album.

The train waiting at North Portage, July 1944. Robert S. Brown photo, courtesy Niall MacKay.

The train waiting at North Portage, July 1944. Robert S. Brown photo, courtesy Niall MacKay.

Huntsville & Lake of Bays steamer ALGONQUIN and passenger train at North Portage, July 1946. John D. Knowles photo, courtesy Niall MacKay.

Huntsville & Lake of Bays steamer ALGONQUIN and passenger train at North Portage, July 1946. John D. Knowles photo, courtesy Niall MacKay.

Locomotive No. 1 at the water tank at South Portage. 1944. Robert S. Brown photo, courtesy Niall MacKay

Locomotive No. 1 at the water tank at South Portage. 1944. Robert S. Brown photo, courtesy Niall MacKay

Both the passenger train and the steamer IRIQUOIS are ready to depart from South Portage after having exchanged vacation- and home-bound passengers. Ca 1920.

Both the passenger train and the steamer IRIQUOIS are ready to depart from South Portage after having exchanged vacation- and home-bound passengers. Ca 1920.

The railway's original motive power consisted of two 7-ton H.K. Porter-built woodburning saddle tank locomotives, acquired second-hand (as already noted)  from the E.B. Eddy Mills in Hull, Que. They were replaced in 1948 by two Montreal Locomotive Works-built saddle tank locomotives, also second-hand, from the Windsor Foundries, Windsor, N.S. At that time, the railway was re-gauged to 42" to accommodate the replacement locomotives.

The essential rolling stock throughout the railway's existence consisted of two passenger cars that were fashioned from four original horse tram car bodies and later replaced with two open cars; a large boxcar improvised from a flatcar body; two smaller boxcars from E. B. Eddy that were soon taken out of service; some rudimentary flatcars that dwindled in number as freight traffic declined; and one mobile hand-powered crane. 

Throughout the railway's existence, it interconnected principally at North Portage (Peninsula Lake) with the steamboat Algonquin, and at South Portage (Lake of Bays) with the Iroquois, and latterly the Iroquois II.

By the 1950s, improving roads, changing economics and visitor tastes and options were cutting into the steamboats' traffic, and the year 1958 was the last year that the Portage Flyer made its connections with the Algonquin and the Iroquois II. The railway ran for just one more year as a tourist attraction, and was abandoned at the end of the 1959 season.  Much to the disappointment of local residents and all those generations who had fond memories of "the little train that could", the locomotives and passenger cars were sold off in 1961 for an amusement park railway in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Awash at South Portage, 1957. Abandonment is not far away. Hubert Brooks photo.

Awash at South Portage, 1957. Abandonment is not far away. Hubert Brooks photo.

REVIVAL

It was in 1984 that a group of Portage Flyer enthusiasists met to discuss whether and how this gem of local history could be brought back to Huntsville and reincarnated.
This nucleus group was to become the founding movement of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society.
An early piece of good news greeted them in that the two locomotives could indeed be retrieved, and from there on in, it is a fascinating story of all the trials and tribulations that this group experienced in their determination to bring the Portage Flyer back to life. A veritable saga.
The former right-of-way still visible in 2009 at Muskoka Road 23 looking south towards Osborne Lake.

The former right-of-way still visible in 2009 at Muskoka Road 23 looking south towards Osborne Lake.

A fitting memorial to the Portage Flyer at South Portage, looking out towards the Lake of Bays.

A fitting memorial to the Portage Flyer at South Portage, looking out towards the Lake of Bays.

The Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at South Portage, just to the right of the commemorative track and garden above. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at South Portage, just to the right of the commemorative track and garden above. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Township of Lake of Bays plaque commemorating the settlement of North Portage and the role of the Portage Flyer. Courtesy Russ Nicholls. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Township of Lake of Bays plaque commemorating the settlement of North Portage and the role of the Portage Flyer. Courtesy Russ Nicholls. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Companion plaque by the Township of Lake of Bays, "Dealing With Terrain", describing the manoeuvre required of the train to leave North Portage, and the general operating procedure, in that the engines always remained at the North Portage end of the train. Courtesy Russ Nicholls. (Click on the image to enlarge.) 

Note: The reference to "Porter" is to the builder of the two original locomotives No. 1 and No. 2, built by the H.K. Porter Co., Pittsburgh, PA, USA, who specialized in "industrial-type" locomotives.

Companion plaque by the Township of Lake of Bays, "Dealing With Terrain", describing the manoeuvre required of the train to leave North Portage, and the general operating procedure, in that the engines always remained at the North Portage end of the train. Courtesy Russ Nicholls. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Note: The reference to "Porter" is to the builder of the two original locomotives No. 1 and No. 2, built by the H.K. Porter Co., Pittsburgh, PA, USA, who specialized in "industrial-type" locomotives.

The reborn Portage Flyer waiting to depart for the Fairy Lake station. The two passenger cars have been restored and are named  ALGONQUIN and IROQUOIS in tribute to the meeting steamboats of years gone by. 2007. (Note the station building has since been moved to the other side of the tracks following the building of the Summit Centre.)

The reborn Portage Flyer waiting to depart for the Fairy Lake station. The two passenger cars have been restored and are named ALGONQUIN and IROQUOIS in tribute to the meeting steamboats of years gone by. 2007. (Note the station building has since been moved to the other side of the tracks following the building of the Summit Centre.)

Arriving at the Fairy Lake station terminus, a restored purser's cabin from the former Wawa Hotel at Norway Point, in 2007.

Arriving at the Fairy Lake station terminus, a restored purser's cabin from the former Wawa Hotel at Norway Point, in 2007.

The train on that day was in charge of the H&LoB diesel switcher No. 3 (the two steamers are off-duty), and is about to run round its consist at the Fairy Lake terminus. 2007.

The train on that day was in charge of the H&LoB diesel switcher No. 3 (the two steamers are off-duty), and is about to run round its consist at the Fairy Lake terminus. 2007.

In the end with dogged determination and unstinting support from many quarters (civic, commercial and individual), and with an ongoing group of passionately dedicated volunteers, the rebirth of the Portage Flyer came to pass with a grand opening on July 1, 2000. It had not been possible to reclaim the original right-of-way, but even if it had been, its relatively out-of-the-way location might not in any event have been in the revival's best interest.
So today the railway operates as an adjunct of Huntsville's Muskoka Heritage Place on Brunel Road, an easy walking distance from downtown - and a very well-worthwhile experience it is to ride that marvellous little restored train.
 
14 portage flyer cover 209 px
15 by steamboat and steam train
Read all about the remarkable story of the Portage Flyer's revival in a book by Russ Nicholls (also a long-time member of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society) - The Rebirth of the Portage Flyer - and still available from the Society:
Check it out under What's New in Publications on this website.
Also, for more information about Russ's book, click here








And for the definitive history of the original railway, Niall MacKay who was a founding member of the Huntsville and Lake  of Bays Railway Society, has written and published By Steamboat and Steam Train - the Story of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway and Navigation Companies. Unfortunately it is now out of print, but it is still readily available in the aftermarket [my Links, look under Publishing and Books] ISBN 0-919822-73-8 Boston Mills Press 1982.)
Credits:
With encouragement from the Tapley family at the Bondi Resort, Dwight, Ont., and with files from Niall MacKay, Russ Nicholls, Jeff Young and Peter Foley.

Sources and recommendations for further reading:

Lloyd, Eric: The Huntsville & Lake of Bays Railway (CRHA Canadian Rail #365 June 1982)
MacKay, Niall: By Steamboat and Steam Train - the Story of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway and Navigation Companies. Boston Mills Press Erin ON 1982.
Nicholls, Russ: The Rebirth of the Portage Flyer - Walker Lake Productions,  Huntsville ON 2005. 

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