As this 1923 sketch map shows, three transcontinental railways spanned Canada, the NTR, the CNoR, and the CPR. The Nakina Cut-off transformed two of the routes. Image Canadian Railway & Marine World.

In 1923 the Canadian Northern Railway put into motion the second most dramatic event in its history. The first event had been the driving of the last spike at Little White Otter River, east of Longlac, on January 1, 1914.

In 1923 the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) ran east and west between Winnipeg and Quebec City through Cochrane. The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) linked Winnipeg with Montreal and Toronto via Port Arthur and Fort William. The two transcontinental railways approached within 30 miles of each other at Longlac. What would happen if the NTR and the CNoR were linked at Longlac by a short line railway?

In 1923 the short line was built. Originally called the Longlac-Nakina-Cut-off, the name was shortened to the Nakina Cut-off. In the process a new community was created called Nakina, and a new settlement called Longlac. Before 1923 the most significant structures at the north end of Long Lake were the Hudson’s Bay Company post and Calong Station (CNoR).

Calong Station ca 1924, view looking north. The station was a shack, a water tower, and a section house. To the right, the building with the false front is the HBC store. Photo Greenstone History.

The principal object in building the Cut-off was to shorten the distance from Winnipeg to points in Eastern Canada and vice versa. Using the NTR line and the Cut-off, the distance between Winnipeg, Montreal, and Toronto was shortened 102 miles. Using the CnoR line and the Cut-off, the distance between Winnipeg and Quebec City was shortened 99 miles.

This route realized further savings in energy in an era of coal-fueled steam locomotives. Travelling east from Fort William, CNoR trains would have to climb 499 feet to the height of land near Longlac before descending towards Montreal and Toronto. Travelling west from Montreal and Toronto, CNoR trains would have to climb 499 feet to Longlac, that is true. However, if westbound trains used the Nakina Cut-off, they had an almost level run to Nakina and Winnipeg. If, on the other hand, trains continued on the CNoR beyond Fort William, they would have to climb another 958 feet to reach Winnipeg. The more coal and more wear and tear on rolling stock, the higher the costs.

Longlac Station ca 1924, elevated view looking east. The photographer is perched on the water tower. Some buildings have been constructed facing the line running to Nakina. In the distance is the Kenogami River and scattered buildings on the northeast shore of Long Lake.

The Canadian government authorized the construction of the Cut-off on December 22, 1922, and preliminary work commenced on January 6, 1923. The main construction camp was located at Longlac, and contractors engaged an army of men, horses, and machines. On September 6, tracklaying began. Ballasting began soon after. Ballast was gravel in which ties were embedded to provide stability and drainage. On December 17, 1923, the first freight train ran from Longlac to Nakina. On January 6, 1924, Canadian National Railways (CNR) issued new working timetables. On the same day, CNoR scheduled a new train to meet the CNR at Longlac.

Canadian National Railways, created in 1919, was a network of financially troubled railways that included the National Transcontinental Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway. The original names of NTR and CnoR remained in usage for several years after the consolidation.

After the Nakina Cut-off began functioning, a reorganization of railway divisions and subdivisions ensued. Prior to 1923, the CNoR division which was called the Nipigon Division ran from Foleyet, east of Hornepayne, to Port Arthur. The Nipigon Division included the Longlac Subdivision, which ran from Hornepayne to Jellicoe. As of January 1, 1924, the Nipigon Division was renamed the Hornepayne Division. The Hornepayne Division added the Nakina Cut-off and the NTR line from Nakina west to Superior Junction. The line from Nakina to Hornepayne was now known at the Caramat Subdivision.

At the same time, the section of CNoR line from Longlac to Jellicoe was named the Kinghorn Subdivision. The line from Jellicoe to Port Arthur was named the Dorion Subdivision.

Imagine this scenario: A train running from Nakina to Longlac was headed south towards Hornepayne. How did it get reoriented to head to Port Arthur? A train cannot turn at right angles. Also, a train running from Port Arthur to Longlac was headed south towards Hornepayne. How did it get reoriented to head for Nakina? The solution was a wye.

Google Earth view of the CNR wye at Longlac, view looking north.

A wye is an arrangement of three railroad tracks in triangular form. Each point of the triangle has a switch. A train can be switched to an adjacent line, or a train can be switched to head in the reverse direction. A railroader has many ingenious solutions in his bag of tricks.

An artist’s conception of a railroad wye.

There is an interesting footnote to the construction of the Cut-off. From Longlac to Mile 6 of the Cut-off, ballast was quarried in the Kinghorn Subdivision of the CNoR.  The pit was located 32 miles west of Longlac. That distance puts the pit just north of Wildgoose Lake. There is a pothole lake or pond just south of the railway line at that point. It is quite possible that the pond is a water-filled gravel pit. Field investigation may shed light on this mystery.

Just a hop and a skip from the author’s home is a memorial to the Nakina Cut-off. It may be a water-filled pit.

Google Earth view of the ballast pit area 32 miles east of Longlac in the Kinghorn Sub.

Selected Sources

Canadian Railway & Marine World, 1922, 1923, 1924

Canadian Rail, No. 334, November

Documents in E.J. Lavoie’s personal collection