Rails into the Wilderness: The Port Arthur, Duluth & Western Railway

Hi everyone, my name is Dave and I’m a guest blogger for this week. Many thanks to Andrew for allowing me the opportunity to write about this unique and relatively unknown railway. I’m a history teacher and railway historian from Thunder Bay, Ontario. My interest in this line began back in 1990, and I began formally researching it a few years later. It’s now been 25 years and I’m still at it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods of northwestern Ontario and northeastern Minnesota following the grade and exploring nearby mines, ghost towns and logging camps. This project has also taken me to numerous museums and archives in Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. So, I guess I should tell you a little about this railway.

The original idea for constructing this railway dated back to 1872 when the Thunder Bay Silver Mines Railway was incorporated. Silver had been discovered southwest of what would later become the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William, Ontario and promoters were anxious to tap this resource, as well as providing a rail connection to Duluth, Minnesota. Nothing was done however, and the charter lapsed. Another attempt to revive the idea was made in 1881, but the application was thrown out of Parliament. Politicians argued that the plan to build so close to the boundary violated their agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway that, “no railway be constructed within 15 miles of the border.” Undaunted, the promoters tried again one year later. Finally, in February 1883, a Provincial charter was granted to the Thunder Bay Colonization Railway (TBCR).
Now that the promoters of the railway (which included many of Port Arthur’s prominent citizens such as Thomas Marks, D.F. Burk and James Conmee, M.P.P) had their charter, their efforts were buoyed by further good news. American interests had begun construction on the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad north towards the boundary, which offered to provide the sought-after link with Duluth. As well, a large iron deposit had been discovered just across the border at Gunflint Lake, which was part of the now famous Vermilion and Mesabi iron ranges. The promoters, however, could not afford to build, having only received a subsidy from the Provincial Government.
In 1887, the corporate name was changed to the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway (P.A.D & W) by Provincial Statute. With subsidies later granted from the Dominion, Provincial and Municipal Governments, construction was commenced in the fall of 1889. By December 1892, the railway had reached its Canadian terminus at Gunflint Lake. A six-mile branch, known as the P.A.D & W of Minnesota, was constructed across the border to the Paulson Mine. However, at the same time, the Panic of 1893 caused world markets to crash and led to the bankruptcy of the Gunflint Iron Company, which owned the mine. Attempts to construct the 50 remaining miles to link with the Duluth & Iron Range were frustrated by rough terrain and lack of capital. It was now a line to nowhere.

Excursion train on the PAD&W, 1891.
Rock oven used by construction crews at Leeblain on Gunflint Lake, 2012.

The railway was officially opened on June 1, 1893. The railway wound its way 86 miles from Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) to Gunflint Lake. After leaving Port Arthur, it crossed the adjoining city of Fort William and along the Kaministiquia River to Stanley. It crossed the river on a large trestle and followed the Whitefish River Valley for some distance. Passing Whitefish, Sand and Iron Range Lakes, the P.A.D & W turned southwest to North Lake at mile 70. From there it followed the chain of boundary lakes past the town of Leeblain to Gunflint Narrows and the iron mine. The journey would take upwards of 9 hours. Motive power was provided by four locomotives, three American type and one
PAD&W from Port Arthur to Whitefish Lake, 1893.
PAD&W from Whitefish Lake to the Paulson Mine, 1893.
International bridge at Gunflint Narrows, 1911. (W. Germaniuk) 
Hand car on Gunflint Lake, pre-1910. (S. LeTourneau)

From the date of its opening, the railway was in immediate trouble. In 1892, the silver market collapsed and the numerous silver mines along the line closed. Its perpetual bad luck and constant lateness would lead noted author James Oliver Curwood to dub the railway, “Poverty, Agony, Distress and Want.” By 1898, the railway was bankrupt, and it was purchased by Canadian Northern Railway (C.No.R) for $500,000. Its owners, Donald Mann and William Mackenzie, wanted the P.A.D & W’s 19 miles of road from Stanley to Port Arthur for their planned Ontario and Rainy River Railway. Under Canadian Northern, the “Duluth Extension” flourished. Many of the silver mines reopened, and passenger traffic was up. However, the section of line between North Lake and Gunflint Narrows was abandoned in 1902, but it was quickly leased by the Pigeon River Lumber Company which was engaged in extensive logging operations in the area. They built a logging line which branched off the Duluth Extension at Milepost 79 and was known as the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. The logging at Gunflint and others along the railway made it profitable for the first time in its history. However, soon after the Gunflint logging concluded in June 1909, a large forest fire destroyed a one-thousand-foot trestle on North Lake, which severed the line to Gunflint and to the US.
2-6-0 Mogul #108 heads up a mixed train of the Canadian Northern Railway at Mackies Siding, circa 1918.
2-6-0 Mogul #108, circa 1918.
North Lake Station, a Canadian Northern 3rd class station, circa 1918.
In 1915, all of the Minnesota rails and some of the rails west of North Lake were removed sold for scrap and apparently used in the war effort. In 1920, the troubled Canadian Northern became nationalized under the name Canadian National Railways (C.N.R). Now known as the CNR-North Lake Sub-Division, the “PeeDee” (as it became known) was in its twilight. In 1923, with next to no business from Mackies to North Lake, CNR abandoned that section of line. The rails were left in place and not removed until 1937. In March 1938, Canadian National gave the order to halt operations. The railway was losing money, which was compounded by the fact that many sections of line had deteriorated badly and needed to be repaired. In October of that year, CN formally abandoned the line and the rails were removed over the next year. A few miles were left as an industrial spur, but they were removed in 1989. All that remains of the PAD&W is about 500 feet of track, one station and a number of rapidly disappearing relics.
Last rails at Rosslyn, 2012.

Bridge over the Kaministiquia River at Stanley, 2010.
Bridge remains at Hillside, 1995.
Trestle Bay on North Lake, site of a 1000-foot trestle, 2010.
Author holding the remains of a telegraph pole on Little North Lake, 2010.
My goal is to someday write my own book about the history of the railway, which is a monumental task and may take many more years. Several years ago I wrote an article about the ghost town of Leeblain for the local historical society, and for the past 5 years I have been working on a book about the logging railroad at Gunflint Lake, the Gunflint & Lake Superior. You can follow what I'm up to my own railway blog, or read more about the PAD&W. I also have a number of social media pages and a YouTube channel you can follow, which are listed below. I hope you enjoyed this little piece of history.


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