Old postcard depiction of the Jackfish Tunnel, looking east


Gazing west across Tunnel Bay, I saw a white CPR truck emerge from the mountain.  That was the west entrance, I thought, of the Jackfish Tunnel.  Well over a half kilometre across the bay.  About a kilometre and a half by the tracks.

I preferred walking to swimming.

I set off walking in a northerly direction, following the tracks around Tunnel Bay.  When I arrived at the head of the bay, I could see Jackfish Lake to the north.  I searched for the culvert that contained the stream which drained the lake into Tunnel Bay.   I had to determine if it was navigable by kayaks.  The drop to the water from the tracks was 7 or 8 metres.  No luck.

The head of Tunnel Bay, looking northwest. The tunnel is off to the left.

The track curved around until it was heading generally south.  There was the entrance to the tunnel.  The famous Jackfish Tunnel.  When this section of track was under construction in 1885, it cost about $700,000 a mile in 1885 dollars.  That would be, what?  About a gazillion loonies in 2011 dollars?  The most expensive mile of track in Canadian history.

Just routing the track around Tunnel Bay had to be enormously expensive.  The route had been blasted out of the surrounding hills and re-shaped to carry tracks.  The generous waterway connection between Jackfish Lake and Tunnel Bay had been reduced to a culvert.

In April of 1885, while the railway was still under construction and while winter persisted in the Canadian Shield, the government had shuttled 8,000 militia across this section on the way to Batoche to settle Louis Riel’s hash.  The weekend soldiers suffered unbelievable privations.  Here is some history by Pierre Berton in his book The Last Spike (McKellar’s Harbour no longer exists, but in 1885 it existed between Tunnel Bay and Marathon, then called Peninsular Harbour):

They crossed [the gap in the railway] in a driving storm of rain and sleet, trudging up to their knees in a gruel of snow and water, in gutters eight inches deep left by the blades [runners] of the cutters [sleighs].  At McKellar’s Harbour the men were forced to wait six hours for the flat cars to return [from the west].  Fortunately the rain ceased, but the temperature dropped and the soaking wet clothes began to freeze on the men’s backs.  They built roaring fires and clustered around them, scorching the front and freezing behind, until the train finally arrived . . .

At Jackfish they could see the gaping mouth of one of the longest tunnels on the road, piercing a solid wall of rock, one hundred and fifty feet high, for five hundred feet.  For miles on end the roadbed had been blasted from the billion-year-old schists and granites . . .

Most existing photographs of the Jackfish Tunnel show its “western” entrance.  Mine below shows the eastern entrance:

The eastern end of the Jackfish Tunnel, a view rarely recorded because it is less dramatic than the western entrance.

After I snapped my picture, an enormous racket told me I was about to be flattened by a freight train.  I leapt off the rail bed and hugged the mountainside.  The endless cars filed past me, emerging from the tunnel and heading east.  Then I followed in their tracks, so to speak.

However.  I noticed activity in the tunnel.  At the other end, a railway worker was peering at me.  One of the guys from the pickup.  And we all know how railway workers love civilians who trespass on railway property.  I plugged on, head down, putting distance between us. 

When I looked back, there was no one.  I’m just lucky, I guess.

That’s when I noticed a channel cut through the rock from Tunnel Bay, heading north to Jackfish Lake.  I had found the culvert.  However.   I could not get down far enough to peer through it.  But I could hear water rushing.  I drew a conclusion:  a kayaker wielding a double-bladed paddle in cramped quarters against a current would not make it.  Another element of my story fell into place. 

I heard that racket again.  The way sound bounces off the hills that hem in the bay, I could not immediately tell from which direction I was being rushed by a freight train.  Turned out it was coming from the east.  I stepped off the rail bed and into the bush and found a seat on a boulder.  Time to eat my second sandwich, which I had been carrying in my hand all this time to prevent its being crushed in a pocket. 

Yum yum.  How many trespassers can say they enjoyed lunch while avoiding the vigilant eyes of railway workers?  Some people are just lucky, I guess.

Finally, back in my truck, I made it into Terrace Bay while it was still light.  Got myself a hot chocolate to go, phoned Olga to let her know I was returning by the highway.

I had come down the Goldfield that morning as part of my research.  I wanted to renew acquaintance with the landscape, and to photograph the pulp mill at Terrace from the north.  I didn’t need to risk getting stranded on the Goldfield overnight.  In winter only fools travel the Goldfield at night.

My research continued along the North Shore as I counted the mountains I crossed and the islands I saw in Nipigon Bay.  I ran into a whiteout, which is, as Northerners know, a driving snowstorm.  I followed a sander (a truck dispensing sand) for a few kilometres.  Then mixed sun and cloud and descending darkness and one more snowstorm before I arrived home.

Olga had supper ready.

Yum yum.  How lucky can a guy get and still live?

From Goldfield to Jackfish.  And back again.

I am filled with wonder and joy and, yes, a marvelous peace .

Construction of the Jackfish Tunnel, 1884-85, looking east.


About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website
This entry was posted in KENNET FORBES MYSTERIES, LOCAL HISTORY, WRITING and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s