The Pagwa railway trestle is still standing a century after it was erected. View looking downstream (north).
That is our first impression of the historic village of Pagwa River. When we visited on Thursday, August 1st, 2019, there wasn’t a living soul to be seen. It was a ghost town.
But the ghosts were there.
Lurking in the abandoned shacks, and in the old empty homes, and in a few modern-looking cabins. The village was absolutely deserted. But we sensed that the ghosts would eventually return to inhabit their corporeal bodies. They would soon return to resume their memories.
For me, it was a visit to the cemeteries that suggested that spirits still lingered there.
But first we had to find the village. It was a beautiful day. Early in the morning I had picked up Jim Marino at his family’s hardware store in Geraldton. John Lavoie, my brother, who lives in Manitouwadge, had met us just after 8:00 a.m. at the junction with Highway 11 after travelling the Industrial Road. John parked his pickup and locked it up. This was Jim’s second visit to Pagwa; this was our first. We are all unrepentant bush historians.
The three of us resumed driving east on Highway 11 in my 2018 Subaru Forester. One hundred thirty-eight kilometres past Longlac, we turned north on the Pitopiko Road (well signed), a good two-lane gravel road. After 6.4 klicks we came to a cross-roads. The two-lanes continued north, a single lane road went west, and to the east was the untravelled railway roadbed that nature was reclaiming.
The road led west to Pagwa. It was obviously a forest access road constructed by some logging company. The road followed the old railway right-of-way for the most part. From time to time we could distinguish evidence of the old roadbed immediately to our left. Whenever we crossed a stream, the former railway had provided a solid bridge or culvert.
At 11.4 klicks from the highway, we crossed a solid plank bridge suspended by ironwork over a shallow valley. This was the Pitopiko River, a mere dreamy stream.
The Pitopiko River.
It was a dreamy day. We indulged our curiosity at every opportunity. That’s what bush historians do when in the bush.
At various bridges and culverts we noted arcane metal road signs, always on the right side, such as Rr 1 and Rr 9 and Rr 20. We speculated on their significance and agreed on no conclusion.
One of the mysterious “Rr” sign.
The road was dead straight. A dark structure sprang up in the distance on the right of way. Soon it was looming over us. This imposing steel structure came as a surprise in such a wilderness. It turned out to be the Otasawian River bridge. This bridge was a worthy of a major railway, which the National Transcontinental Railway was when it was being constructed in 1912-13.
The Otasawian River bridge. View looking west.
At 24.4 kilometres from the highway, we rumbled over the planks of the Otasawian bridge. The Otasawian was another dreamy stream, larger than the Pitopiko, but still dreaming its way to the more vigorous Nagagami River, where it would join the fast-moving Kenogami River, and in turn meet the broad Albany River, and finally, weeks later, mix its waters with mighty James Bay.
View looking north from the bridge.
Just over the bridge, on the right-hand side, was a fenced in yard with a cabin, two RVs, and a pickup truck. Nobody seemed to be home.
A cabin, a pickup, and an RV.
At 33.5 klicks, on the right, we passed a cabin set back of an expanse of mowed lawn. Nobody seemed to be home. We learned later this must be the site of the former railway station Savoff.
A beautiful lawn in the wilderness.
Shortly after, at 36.8 klicks, we came to the washout we had warning of. It was easily negotiated in my SUV. Meanwhile, we passed occasional forest access roads which seemed no longer in use, including three with signs: Stanley’s Rd, Burrell Creek Road, and Ch. Clark Creek Rd. The forest was recovering from major harvesting activities.
At 44.8 klicks, another bridge, and just past it, on the right, a small undivided subdivision. As in, a haphazard collection of cabins and house trailers.
We came around a long dreamy curve in the road, veering left. We began to see cabins in the thick bush. Passed the turnoff to the old railway trestle. At the 54.2 kilometre point, our journey ended at the river. To our right was the trestle.
The Pagwa, or Paguachuan River, is a wide slow-moving water course. It looked as if we could walk across. We had been told that some people crossed on quads. Later we learned that for a short period, the river had been bridged at this point. A few metres to our right was a concrete ramp down the bank, evidently a boat launch. There was no evidence of a road ever continuing on the far bank.
View looking downriver. On the far grassy bank is a building being demolished (or rebuilt). Beyond it is the old cemetery.
The Pagwa River runs generally north till it joins the Kenogami River. At the junction, there used to be a Hudson’s Bay Company post called English River (the original name of the Kenogami).
By far the most prominent feature of Pagwa River (both river and village) was the trestle. It cast the Otasawian bridge in the shadow. Gazing right, downriver, my first impulse was to compare it to the new Nipigon River bridge. The Nipigon bridge is Ontario’s largest and longest cable-stayed highway bridge. It opened in late 2018 carrying four lanes of traffic. On second impulse, I realized the Pagwa trestle had only a single lane of traffic during its history. But it is still a huge edifice, towering high, stretching far from concrete pier to concrete pier. The piers and abutments have been standing for one hundred and seven years, since 1912. The rails and ties of the trestle have been salvaged, leaving just the bare steelwork. Yet it is still an awe-inspiring sight. It will still be standing when another century has passed.
Looking past and under the trestle, I spotted what looked like a church on the near bank, downriver. Many historic photos show an Anglican church in that area. Beyond it I knew we would find an historic cemetery. Everyone agreed to explore the cemetery first, but we got sidetracked.
What I mistook for the church was this. Jim Marino photo.
As we backtracked on the main road, Jim pointed out that the old schoolhouse was up a low hill behind some trees. We turned right (south) and drove into a cluster of scattered buildings. The school was a solid log building perched on a cement block above-ground basement. The blocks had a coating of plaster. The school was locked up tight.
The main door, facing north, was inaccessible behind a covered porch, an obviously later addition. On the east side was another door, and there were traces that a porch once stood there. The windows were located high in the log walls. I want to stress that we did not attempt to gain entry into any buildings in the village. We respected the ghosts, and the living people that no doubt would be returning some day.
It was lunch time. There were a few flies around, so we continued to the cemetery, where we hoped to catch a breeze.
On the main road we took a left (going north), and arrived on a grassy bank overlooking the river. On the right was a building in process of being demolished or rebuilt ̶ it was hard to tell which. We had a bite to eat, enjoying the sun and breeze. Then we walked down a quad trail to the big white cross marking the cemetery. A huge ring at the centre of the crossed pipes suggested it was once a dreamcatcher. To the left the bank fell away sharply where it had collapsed into the river. John and Jim explored on their own while I photographed all the grave markers. In the long grass and weeds I counted 11 stones and one wooden cross. A photo in 2002 shows the cemetery in the same state of disrepair.
Entrance to the old cemetery.
I love old cemeteries. They tell so many stories, some in words, some left to the imagination. The village had its beginning in 1915 when the NTR started operating. The earliest date of birth recorded was 1903, the earliest date of death, 1921. The last recorded death date, 1953. Some grave markers were missing ̶ in his exploration, John found human bone debris where the cemetery was sliding slowly down the bank. If one took the time, most of the gravestones were legible.
Three gravestones defied our efforts to read them. The inscriptions were in syllabics.
Inscription in syllabics.
Most inscriptions touched the heart ̶ the heart of the reader, or the heart of someone long dead who cherished the memory.
IN LOVING MEMORY
WHO DIED DEC. 17TH 1921
AGED 16 YEARS
SON OF JOHN & MARY
The Lord is my Shepherd I shall
not want Psalms XXIII
Sinclair Wahsayahpun died in 1921.
The death noted in 1921 may possibly be attributed to the Spanish influenza pandemic which accounted for 55,000 deaths in Canada, beginning in 1918 and lasting at least a couple of years following. Some of the deaths around that time may also be industrial accidents associated with the operations of Revillon Freres and Hudson’s Bay Company. The year 1916 was the first full year of operation of the National Transcontinental Railway, and in the winter of 1915-16, Revillon Freres built flat-bottomed scows and launched them fully laden right after breakup. Using Cree as pilots and scowmen, they floated the scows downriver to the mouth of the Albany River at James Bay, dropping off supplies. The supplies had to last several remote trading posts a whole year.
Some of the deaths were certainly due to natural causes.
Only one wooden grave marker has survived the decades. The cross had one painted phrase: WILFRID D. TAYLOR.
The only wooden cross.
A couple of plots fenced in with wooden pickets exhibited a sad state of decay. The plot surrounded by unpainted pickets was thoroughly overgrown to the point where the grave
A hopelessly overgrown plot.
marker was hidden. The better-preserved one still featured white paint. Most of the inscription had been obliterated, but one could make out some markings:
This grave is on the road to obliteration.
The stone within the ruined fence is practically unreadable.
MARCH 3RD 1941
DEC 9[TH] [16 HRS] 1941
AGE 9 MONTHS
As you can see, some of the inscription was guesswork. A photo of this grave taken in 2002 by Richard Cameron showed the fence is in far better repair. Soon the remains will be sliding down the bank.
The same gravesite in 2002. Richard Cameron photo.
John and Jim examine the bone debris at the top of the bank.
Jim, poking around shoreline, spotted a bulky metal artifact which might have been used to anchor the scows before they began their voyage. The item was in shallow water but hard to make out. It must have fallen from higher up the bank.
The mysterious metal artifact in the river. Jim Marino photo.
Scows in 1925 about to begin their voyage. The ones on the near bank belong to Revillon Freres. They are anchored just up from the graveyard. The ones on the far side belong to Hudson’s Bay Company. They had a new power boat to bring the loads of furs upriver to the railway.
The three of us returned to the SUV and continued a couple of hundred metres to a newer cemetery, far from the river.
The new cemetery was the same size as the old cemetery, but someone had recently
The new cemetery.
mowed the grass. There were 7 gravestones, and one memorial marker; four of them, plus the memorial, commemorated members of the Wesley family. Three of them memorialized a Bull, a Ferris, and a Faries. The newest stone was devoted to Greta D. Bull, who passed in 2017. Its inscription referenced a white cross which was also devoted to Greta D. Bull. The oldest stones in the new cemetery dated to 1962.
A cross in the new cemetery.
This was the end of the road. We turned around. We looked for the old rubbish heap that we’d heard about, but failed to find it in the long grass. It was time for a closer look at the trestle.
Back at the main road, we parked and walked up the remnant of the railbed that soon brought us to a metal cyclone fence. Following the steps of other curious visitors, we skirted the barrier and gazed on a marvel. The open framework of the trestle seemed to
View looking west across the river.
stretch interminably. Glancing down, we observed the date 1912 inscribed in the concrete abutment. We had earlier learned that Mohawks from Caughnawaga, high steel walkers, had erected the beams and girders in 1913.
The year the concrete abutment was poured.
The skill of ironworkers from Caughnawaga Reserve, also known as Kahnawake, near Montreal, was recognized in the 1880s when they were employed to construct a railway bridge running from the island of Montreal to their reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. As bush historians tend to do, we tried to supplement that information with Internet searches. Some reputable writers described the Mohawks as displaying their skill and daring as “skywalkers” during the construction of the Victoria Bridge in 1886. The Victoria Bridge was an engineering marvel, the longest railway bridge in North America, about 2 kilometres long. The fact is that the Victoria Bridge, in the same area, was constructed of iron in 1859. Reputable historians do not mention the Mohawk connection. From 1885 to 1887, the Mohawks were learning their trade on what was called the Black Bridge (possibly a description of the colour of the steel), and later named the St-Laurent Railway Bridge.
Despite literally days at the computer, I was unable to ascertain the length and height of the Pagwa trestle. It is long and it is high. Richard Cameron, in 2002, describes crossing the trestle after the rails had been removed. His wife feared walking the closely spaced ties. He and his wife rode in a van with 4-wheel drive to inch across the deck. His wife closed her eyes. The crossing took a full five minutes. After visiting the site of the USAF Pagwa Air Station (aka as a radar base), they crossed back.
The radar base operated from 1953 to 1966. Richard Cameron, writer and photographer, made several trips to Pagwa River at the turn of the century. During one of his trips, he described the trestle length as 800 feet.
View of the ties on the trestle looking east. Richard Cameron photo.
A contemporary observer of the construction of the trestle in 1913 estimated the height as 100 feet.
The comparison with the Nipigon River bridge begins to seem less far-fetched: trestle, 244 m long, deck 30 m high above the river; bridge, 252 m long, deck 25 m above the river.
Anybody who tries to walk across the skeleton trestle today has rocks in his head.
John, who is a naturalist, was the first to spot saskatoon berries. We spent some time picking them. The area is rife with saskatoons. John has an interest in orchids. He pointed out one to Jim. who photographed it. John was curious about a patch of Joe Pye Weed. That plant with its clusters of pinkish flowers prefers low, damp places. This patch was on a small hill in a clearing.
Northern Green Orchid. Jim Marino photo.
We had one more mission to accomplish ̶ to find the old Anglican church. Historic photos show the church close to the river bank on the north (downriver) side of the trestle. We conducted a search starting from the launch site on the south side, walked under the trestle, and tramped on a trail through the bush all the way to the area of old cemetery. The only structure was the mysterious unfinished building. We were almost prepared to declare that building was the old church until an informant later told us the church was still standing, intact. Somehow we had missed it. It much have been relocated in an area of private dwellings that we chose not to survey.
One of the cabins in the village. Jim Marino photo.
Bush historians conduct their research in, well, the bush. Often they are lucky enough to eke out their findings with real artifacts or scraps of texts or fading images or the faulty memories of living people. Rarely can they find corroboration of their conclusions by reputable historians, who themselves rely on the words and images of long dead people.
In the case of the Pagwa schoolhouse, I searched for hours in digital archives, and stumbled across letters and records of the Pagwa Indian Day School. In 1938, the Rev. Neville R. Clarke, of the St. Clement’s Mission Anglican Church, applied to the Department of Indian Affairs for funding of a school in Pagwa. Apparently the school was already established, with 24 pupils enrolled. Rev. Clarke asked, quite humbly, for financial support for a dozen pupils whose families were resident in Pagwa. He had faint hope of getting funding for a dozen others who had no history of year-round residence in Pagwa. The records show that after the Constance Lake Reserve established a day school, the file for Pagwa day school was closed in 1946.
On our next trip, we will find the old Anglican church.
The church and village in 1941 looking north. Neville Clarke photo.
Following the main road to the highway, we met the first live person we had seen on the trip. He was a Conservation Officer who had lived his life in the Hearst area. Why he was on patrol to a ghost village, he didn’t explain. But, in conversation, we learned about a bailey bridge that once joined the two banks of the river at Pagwa. No more information, just an off-hand reference. It is just such a scrap of information that keeps us bush historians interested and walking the bush and searching in cyberspace. Again, performing digital searches, we found more info on how vehicular traffic used to get across the river.
Enjoy these last two photos.
View of the log and gravel summer bridge looking east. September 1962. USAF airman photo.
View looking south and east. Bailey bridge under construction. February 1965. RCAF airman photo.
We shall visit Pagwa Village again on some weekend soon, when the corporeal bodies return.
We’ll try to pick a sunny day.