Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Return to Monk Subdivision

Last September, when the fall colors were still subtle and  subdued, I went to Bellechasse to hunt for backdrop pictures and visit a few spots I missed last time I followed the old National Transcontinental Railway roadbed.


It was one of these strange autumn days when nights are cool and days are warm, generating a deep fog that clings on hill and wood. This luminous and eerie ambiance was perfect for a road trip yet a little bit less for backdrop photographs since Appalachian mountains were virtually invisible to the naked eye even if they were only a few miles away. That said, they were plenty of good opportunities and I didn’t miss them when they shown up!


As expected, railfanning the old NTR is a fool’s errand in the sense that there is very little to see and most of the adventure is about driving long rural roads dotted with colonization era farmhouses, crumbling barns and lost fields. Forest is regaining its rights in these countries and soon, nothing will be left to be seen. That said, I was for a great start when the main street leading to Tourville (Monk station) gently curved around the calm and beautiful Lac Noir (Black Lake). Serene and scenic, the lake reminded me I entered a territory well known for being a sportsman paradise.

Lac Noir, in Tourville

Tourville was, as always, that sleepy town it has been since 1955 when the steam locomotive shops were closed down. That said, while it’s no longer the vibrant place it used to be, it’s still quite alive due to a renewed touristic vocation. Taking the gravel road westward, my goal was to finally get a glimpse of the causeway at Lac Therrien which was immortalized to vividly by the late Richard Manicom back in 1963.


Google Maps indicated a parking lot and a hiking trail leading to the Monk subdivision under the pompous Tourville Nature Park which convinced me it would be relatively easy to reach the roadbed… however, as is always the case, the parking lot was inexistant and the hiking trail was long lost to nature. My only choice was to park the car by the ditch and walk a muddy ATV trail. Since it was the beginning of hunting season, I wore my bright orange pullover, but it didn’t feel safe to walk there alone! But Monk always reserve surprises and after a while, the muddy path was consolidated by using wood planks… or should I say, old railway ties. Unmistakably, the roadbed was nearby and sure it was.


NTR ties are always found where you least expect them

I climbed the gentle slope of the fill then found myself in the middle of a long straight corridor lined with conifers until it vanished into the horizon on both side. That was the hallmark of NTR exacting standards of construction applied in the most remote areas. On the right, toward Tourville, I could see a break in scenery that was the old bridge over the lake discharge. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken the Nature Park trail up there, but that would be for another time. I turned on my left and walked for about 500m until I reached the old causeway.

The causeway reveals itself after a short walk

In any circumstance, there is nothing exceptional about Lac Therrien. It’s one of these thousands of similar lakes that can be found everywhere in Canada, yet that’s why it’s interesting because it’s such a classic sight. At that point, as was common with railway building practices of the time, the roadbed was built at the boundary between the lake and the marshes. In early Autumn, the marshes were covered in a beautiful array of colors ranging from various greens to yellows. Straw color, brown and reddish hues completed that mundane yet subtle landscape painting. In the middle of nature, nothing could be heard and a peaceful feeling filled the place.

A large marsh lies north of the causeway

After meeting a few peoples on ATV, I started to explore the causeways and soon, details started to pop up. I was looking for a small steel deck bridge over the creek, but was welcomed by a concrete culvert. At some points, big lumber were added to the original structure to widen it. But at the time of my visit, they were crumbling and sliding down the causeway. Nevertheless, I went down and stood on them to get a better glimpse of the culvert. It was quite obscured by the fallen lumbers, but a quick examination shown the concrete was in perfect condition after all these years. Better, a built date could be still read on the span: 1913, which was consistent with the first year of operation under Intercolonial Railway care in 1914.


This culvert was built in 1913

Nearby in the dark stagnant water of the marshes was a straight stump from a tree, but that also revealed itself to be the remnant of a telegraph pole. I would discover later that is was common practice to install the lines right in the water when crossing water courses on the NTR. I then proceeded to shoot several panoramic pictures with the goal of replicating that neat scenery on the home layout. When walking back to the car, I was tempted to walk another 1.5km to reach the other bridge, but decided to postpone that trek due to active hunters and a sun that was going down faster than I thought.


An old telegraph pole blending into the landscape

Driving on the country roads, I could see the fog starting to gather faster than I thought. I stopped in several places to shoot typical Appalachian landscapes, but I perfectly knew most of them would be unusable. When I reached Ste-Apolline-de-Patton, you could have bet a wildfire was in the area.


Atmospherical fog layering Ste. Apolline's landscape

From that point on, I decided to change my plans and drive to Armagh as fast as I could. In Ste. Euphémie, I tried to shoot the classic Ken Goslett scene, but trees had completely obscured the sight and it was no longer possible to replicate it. The concrete culvert was barely visible, yet the old houses and barns were still standing.


In Armagh, road construction blocked the main route and I had to take a rickety detour which yielded a couple of nice panoramas that could have some use on the layout. So, when I thought my trip was just a fun autumn ride, it finally provided some results. It was time to go back home before the sunset.


It was the third time I visited Monk Subdivision and it left the same weird feeling about the NTR. The malaise of seeing such beautiful track standards but serving almost no tangible goals, except political ones, is quite strange. A weird mix of being baffled by a nonsensical piece of work yet astounded by the skills and resources poured into it.  I’m not done with the NTR in Quebec and will need to revisit it again and again to make sense of that Transcontinental that could have been…

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