|A new era, a new purpose for Monk Subdivision|
About 2 weeks ago, I visited Bellechasse in search of the old National Transcontinental Railway mainline in nested in the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. 40 years ago, the last train rolled over these rails which would be removed only 5 years later.
|For a few miles, Monk Subdivsion still run in the fertile Laurentian Plains.|
|A friendly young cow welcomes us near the NTR in St-Jean-Chrysostome, QC|
This section of line, better known as the CN Monk (or Armagh Subdivision), was never truly developed and didn't bring that much prosperity in the area, meaning it left very little visible traces. Certainly, the roadbed has survived in its entirety as a bike and ATV trail, but most visible traces are now erased from the landscape. It could be easy to visit the area and never think a railway - a trunk line - was built there. While Richard Manicom's beautiful pictures of the 1960s would make you believe a mighty line graced the Appalachian Mountains, I wanted to see for myself was remained of that grandeur...
|The linear quality of the remaining track hints at high construction standards|
|A sweeping curve built on a well-graded embankment in St-Isidore|
Of the railway structures, none subsist along the former right of way. A handful were relocated and transformed as private residences. In Armagh, at Parc des Chutes d'Armagh (Armagh Falls Park), an exterior display of railway artefact tells the story of the line. The park managed to move and restore the old Armagh speeder shed and Langlois Siding station. The restoration has been done, surprisingly, with care.
|A few surviving structures displayed in Armagh|
While the Monk subdivision is now a thing of the past, the first few miles from Charny still survive as an industrial spur to a very large feed mill in St-Isidore. The well-maintained roadbed, repaired bridges and generally high construction standards gives you a good idea of what used to be Sir Wilfrid Laurier's third canadian transcontinental railway.
|Agri Marché - a large feed mill - is the sole customer and final destination|
|The former main line is now downgraded as an industrial siding|
|A string of colored hoppers waiting in St-Isidore|
But as with many pipe dreams, it must come to an end and by the time you reach the end of the spur, the former main line - now downgraded to a grain hopper car storage track - morphs into a gravel access road where remnants of weathered ties uncover stories of a distant past vanishing into the fertile fields.
|The last few hundred feet still in service...|
|Come to an end and morph into a dirt road...|
|Where buried wooden ties betray better days.|
This uncanny story reveals itself as - when railfanning the line - you can't help but feel a a strange impression of the well-built railway in the wrong place. As you leave the St. Lawrence plain and reach the Appalaches piedmont, it starts to be obvious the railway is now a preposterous feat of engineering serving no discernable purpose.
|As NTR reaches Ste-Claire, the Etchemin river valley imposes itself...|
|And while the first Appalachian is in sight, the line is steadily gaining altitude|
Sweeping curves and neatly built embankments succeeds each other in a rolling valley up into St. Malachie were the former NTR' in all its vanity, climb up to the Appalachian plateau through a largely erased horseshoe curve made of earth. Once the location of a mighty concrete and steel viaduct, you can barely spot the remnant of an eroded bridge pile so ruined it has lost any capacity to testify it was once a railway feat.
|A clearing on the west bank indicates where St-Malachie viaduct once stood...|
|And only the protuding remains of a pile on the east bank stands.|
By the time you reach St-Damien, the line is steadily climbing the valley at a furious rate. No wonder the Monk Subdivision was notorious for its exacting grades. There, a magnificent brick and concrete mill, in the 1930s style, is still standing. Large and industrial, this structure feels completely out of place and would have looked more natural in a city downtown than in the forest. A large embankment and loading decks indicates a substantial siding was standing there. Make no mistake, this industrial compound is an oddity and not representative of NTR. Until you reach Edmunston, nothing of substance ever existed if not for CNR locomotive shops in Monk.
|In it's heyday, Moulin Goulet was impressive... (credit: Goulet Collection)|
|Which surprisingly remains, its docks ready for boxcars to visit the siding.|
At Armagh-Station, a strange desolation can be found... The topography is scarred by a large cut that once held three tracks, but nothing remains. Trying to locate the coaling tower site was a fool's errand, particularly when it's basically impossible to believe a water tower and station stood... Such the demolition process was, complete and systematic. A small hamlet of tiny houses built between the 1910s and 1930s by a road call "Rue de la Station" (Depot Street) gives a hint it once was a place of importance, but it is no longer the case. By the former station, an old abandoned house is crumbling down, proving once more this place, though still inhabited, has lost forever its initial impetus.
|A wide roadbed in Armagh survives were the sidings used to be...|
|And if not for an amputated telegraph pole, nothing would be left...|
|Except for this abandoned house standing behind the former station.|
A few miles further away, unrecognizeable industrial ruins litter the deep Armagh river valley. The first indication something happened here... Under the highway bridge, huge concrete walls facing a mighty water falls remind us an impressive hydroelectric dam used to stand there and if you venture into the woods, a suspiciously linear ATV trail dominate the surrounding valley...
|Under the highway bridge, the intriguing remnants of a dam no longer holding water|
Raspberries along a gravel path down the hill tell another story. How common these berries can be found on the poor soil of railway embankments! As you walk down, the earth is unnaturally rocky and made of a loose dirt that has nothing to do with the surroundings. The slopes of the hill are regular and linear while the river valley is notoriously meandering through an ingrate topography... Then, now more than 100 feet lower, reaching the river bank, the truth reveals itself in its grandeur. A huge concrete culvert of gigantic proportions lies at the bottom of the hill which is, in fact, simply a fill cutting the valley in two halves. Impressive when CN used to keep the slopes cleared of trees, the so-called "Viaduc d'Armagh" can only be appreciatde by the modern eye as a silhouette not very different to mighty mayan pyramids buried in the jungles of Peten.
|From the former roadbed, glimpses of Armagh river don't tell the full story...|
|Until you reach the valley bottom where an impressive structure reveal the truth|
Climbing back the hill, it's time to reach the next station called Langlois Siding. A small gravel road leads to an old and picturesque feed mill. From the days of Richard Manicom visit, very little changed here... tracks and telegraph poles are gone, but most structures are still standing, giving a lively image of what used to be here. How long the abandoned structure will stand, no one knows... but today, it reminds us thriving agricultural communities once dotted this complex topography.
|The old feed mill by the former railway line in Armagh. |
And indeed complex it is when a few miles later, a few steel trusses towering over the vegetation canopy reveal themselves for a few seconds. Soon to be completely invisible, a substantial steel bridge dominates the Rivière du Pin (Pine River) valley.
|Barely visible, Rivière du Pin bridge is slowly disappearing from the landscape|
Farms are no longer in intensive exploitation there and forest is gaining back its rights. In a few years, maybe less than a decade, it will be impossible to appreciate this work of art soon to be buried under vegetation like the rest of the surrounding panorama. There lies the tragedy of Quebec rural landscapes: they are rapidly disappearing while trees reclaim the abandoned fields. Where the eye could see for miles and gaze at mountain ranges, now a recent growth curtain of vegetation hides everything.
|An overbuilt concrete culvert bridging a stream...|
As we move along, a sweeping curved embankment embraces the road at the bottom of a valley and a large concrete culvert, similar to Armagh, reveals itself. Here, the NTR once again used excessive force to cross a gentle creek. About 40 years ago, when this place was still clear of trees, powerful MLW M630Cs, Alco C424s and classic RS18s pulled long freight trains en route to Edmunston.
|Used to supports heavy freight consists back in the 1970s (credit: Ken Goslett)|
In Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire, one of the only village directly served by Monk Subdivision, the usual large vacant lot found at any former railway installation gives a hint something of importance occurred in this place. NTR was famous for laying its track several miles from inhabited area... By sheer luck, this small town happened to be in the right place at the right time. A substantial saw mill was built and forest exploitation bustled. But that was several decades ago and this old Catholic parish returned to the quiet days it enjoyed before the train, for a while, crossed its territory.
|Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire, once an industrious town, lays quietly by its silver steeple.|
The Monk Subdivision continues its journey into wilderness before it wraps itself around a small valley, espousing its contour near a village called Ste-Euphémie-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud. A dirt road, once a vital link to the nearby station is the only remnant of what used to be a busy place where pulp wood and lumber were loaded. Once again, nothing remains and we must drive back to the main road and cross another quaint village lost in its "rêverie" of better days.
|At Ste-Euphémie-Station, conifers hint at a substantial gain in altitude along the line|
At this point, the road venture far from the track which is increasingly becoming isolated in its valley. Soon, the Monk Subdivision will enter a remote territory that can hardly be reached by normal means.
|For many kilometers this partridge is the sole living inhabitant we met.|
From that point on, the foolishness of NTR is omnipresent. As the line continues its eastward progression on my electronic tablet, the rural road system starts to vanish at a increasingly alarming rate... From now on, we are on our own on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere, wondering seriously why some people truly believed rails in such wilderness would make towns and villages sprout like grass in the springtime.
At Ste-Apolline-Station, a remote area we reached after driving over trails in the woods, the sheer idiocy of this railway reveals itself glaringly. I don't know if this station name was a prank played on Ste-Apolline's residents by big wigs, tycoons and shrewd politicians, but the road sign tells us we won't reach the village until 12 km.
|It seems NTR loved to move the goal post in the most ironic way possible...|
Basically, Ste-Apolline-Station is an euphemism, and a bad one at that. This isn't Ste-Apolline at all! And as we venture on the bad trail called "Chemin de la station" (Depot Road) we can't help but wonder about people that wasted an entire day on that abject road to take delivery of their new kitchen range back in the 1930s. To add insult to injury, the map announces a steep slope ahead ominously called "la Côte croche" (the Crooked Slope) which is another proof this station was a haphazard project built in haste and with little thought about convenience. Monk subdivision in a nutshell if you ask me.
|"Depot Road" in Ste-Apolline is a graceful tunnel of vegetation for miles...|
But while all this makes very little sense, the road to Ste-Apolline reveals itself to be a wonderful trek through a dense maple tree canopy... and after such a long trip, a breathtaking panorama over the Appalachian is rightfully deserved.
|Beyond this mountain range, it used to be Quebec Central Railway territory...|
|Though impoverished, Ste-Apolline makes a strong impression on the traveler...|
From that point on, trying to follow the main line from a road, albeit a dirt one, becomes increasingly impossible. Led by some adventurous spirit, you can then proceed to take a few trails and hope for the best. Fortunately, between Ste-Apolline and Tourville - where the division point was located - it is somewhat possible to find a way. Travelling at more than 20 km/h is now a reckless behavior, but taking in account the most direct route using "real" asphalt roads would require to go down the mountains back to the St. Lawrence river then climbing back the Appalachians a few dozen kilometers further east makes it somewhat worth a try.
|Beyond Ste-Apolline, civilization is now an alien concept...|
It is indeed in the middle of this forest that the sheer futility yet profound beauty of Monk Subdivision becomes increasingly apparent. Just like a photograph of the line in the 1960s by Richard Manicom, a beautiful landscape made of distant mountains, mixed forests and beautiful beaver ponds and marshes lays in front of our eyes. Make no mistake, gazing outside the window of a comfortable CN coach back in the 1960s must have been quite an experience, and reaching the Atlantic by this road in the summer heat must have been a refreshing journey.
|As we approach Lake Therrien, ponds and marshes become common place...|
|Leaving an amazement that must have made that line magical|
After crossing several marshy lands inhabited by a wild fauna, the Lake Therrien makes its appearance and signals us Tourville, better known as Monk, is soon to be reached. From the lake shores, most of them private properties, the NTR embankment can be seen as the sun sets amidst menacing gray clouds on the horizon. It is a beautiful sight and a truly Canadian sight where railways and wilderness are blended together is a weird yet perfectly harmonious marriage. Building such a line, in such a place in our modern world would be tantamount to a sacrilege. But more than a hundred years ago, the straight line across a lake and a wetland didn't raise an eyebrow. Ironically, draining a swamp and replacing it with an eco-friendly storm retention pond would be considered a decision worth a few praises in the local newspaper... At the end of the day, it seems we have lost something about keeping a small and efficient footprint, as for Monk Sudvision, humans aren't the winning team in this game!
|As the sun set, a faint straight line near the horizon is the only hint about NTR|
With these thoughts in our heads, the trek reaches its final destination: Monk itself. The famous railway town that can ignite countless discussions in railfan circles. The dirt trail now parallels what used to be the roadbed and as white houses start appearing on the horizon, the right of way, barely visible, widen as if we entered the former yard that once stood in this forest.
|The former Monk yard western end|
A derelict telegraph pole, recycled to support a power line to a cabin tells us our instincts aren't completely wrong.
|Creativity at its best in Tourville!|
Tourville (Monk) is a sad sight. Maybe the obscuring skies don't help, but even if we've seen several decrepit villages, they all had a quaint vibe or at least a nice panorama to admire. This time, we are located on a flat plateau devoid of any view or landscape. As far as you can look, you see small houses and trees of little value. This is indeed an ideal place to build a railway division point, but not exactly the most suitable for a village. In Monk, the railway heritage reveal itself by the void it created in the middle of the town when it was torn down rather than by its presence. The NTR can be appreciated as a negative on the landscape. The stations and all related structures are long gone and it is basically impossible to locate any remnants of the imposing locomotive shops that once graced the area. While walking toward an interpretation panel, my foot gets caught into a rotten stump... which under closer scrutiny reveals itself as a cut down telegraph pole. Buried in the grass, its decaying crossarms are now sinking into the soil, soon to be completely forgotten.
|A rotten crossarm slowly decaying near the old station|
When CN closed the shops back in 1954, the town died a slow death. With the loss of its main employer, hundred of families migrated toward better days, leaving the place to devolve and stagnate. Just like the remains of a concrete coaling tower lost far into the woods, it seems to me the local population that stayed here defies the passing of time.
|An empty concrete shell stands as a sentinel in the former yard... once a coal tower|
While the village no longer means anything of importance in the area, a sense of pride can still be seen in these numerous "100" and "Monk" letters stuck to many houses clapboard sidings, reminding us that a hundred years ago, Tourville was incorporated as a municipality. The equation is simple: no train, no town. In 2020, there is no train, but still a town. Maybe the National Transcontinental Railway succeeded in delivering a part of its promises here.
|Glendyne Subdivision lies ahead... time to go back home|