By Laurel J. Campbell
Experience the feeling of yesteryear at the North Bay waterfront where carousel music combines with the chugging of a steam engine to transport you back to a simpler era. Children and adults alike delight in riding on the miniature train where a fantasy destination is as far away and exotic as your imagination can reach, and romance and excitement both seem possible astride the brilliantly coloured steed that spins you around the carousel and into a wonderful world of dreams.
Operated by the North Bay Heritage Railway and Carousel Company (NBHRCC) a group of dedicated volunteers from the community, this magical section of the waterfront along Memorial Drive is a popular tourist destination.
“We sell over 100,000 tickets for rides on the train and the carousels each year,” says NBHRCC president Rod Johnston. “It’s a special place, especially for grandparents who bring the grandchildren and tell stories of what train travel and carousels were like when they were growing up.”
The unique family attraction started with some wishful thinking in 1993 by Johnston, a well-known local dentist, and then North Bay mayor Stan Lawlor.
“North Bay has very strong historical ties to railroads going back to 1882,” says Lawlor. “That was the year the Lucy Dalton made its first trip to town. It was the first steam passenger train to come north and I’m told it was quite the event. I always thought I’d like the city to have a steam train that people could go on.”
When Lawlor and Johnston found out there was a little steam train for sale in Cleveland, they wasted no time in flying down to see it. It was love at first sight, and with the financial assistance of the North Bay Heritage Festival and money raised through donations, the mini locomotive consisting of a steam and diesel engine and two coaches, arrived in North Bay in February 1994.
“The train had to be totally refurbished,”‘ says Lawlor, “and it had no track. A number of councillors of the day told me I had lost my mind and the whole thing was going to be a huge flop.” But the sceptics had not counted on the tenacity and passion of the community’s retired railroad workers who jumped at the chance to get back on the rails again, even if they were only 15-inch gauge.
“In no time we had 70 volunteers who made repairs, sandblasted, painted and refurbished the train, and while they were enthusiastic about building the rail line itself, these men were 75 and 80 years old and admitted that laying down track was a bit beyond their physical endurance,” Lawlor says.
Recalling options used in the historic development of rail travel, Lawlor approached the local corrections institute and found a ready supply of workers more than willing to navvy for a few days under guard supervision. Following instructions from the ever-vigilant railroaders, the team completed a half-mile of line in just one week.
“Originally we ran both an actual steam engine and a diesel engine,” says Lawlor, “and though we had the train working and the track laid, we still couldn’t let anyone ride it until it we had a steam licence.” The train may have been small, but it was mighty, coal-fired and pressing 150 lbs of steam. “It really was against all odds that it passed the licensing pressure test.”
On July 29, 1994 the North Bay Heritage Railroad Company opened for business under the capable hands of the men who rebuilt the train. Refusing to be retired twice from the work they loved, the railroaders took over responsibility for the new tourist attraction, their combined 900 years of rail experience, locomotive stories and railroad passion becoming an added bonus on the two-dollar train fare.
In 1996 the CPR gifted the railway with a real caboose that became the train station and by 1998, when a car barn was erected, the rolling stock included two steam engines, two diesel engines, eight passenger cars and a caboose. While the steam engine is still located on the site, it no longer chugs around the 2700 feet of track.
In 2006 the little train was retired and replaced with a replica of the historic Lucy Dalton.
“The new train is electric, but it was specially made to look like the original steam train, and it even sounds the same,” says Lawlor. While he admits it was a bit emotional to take the steam and diesel engines off the track, Lawlor sites safety concerns as an issue and adds, “there weren’t that many old railroaders left who could operate a steam locomotive.”
Closing in on 2 million riders as the 2011 season opens, Lawlor quips that the North Bay Heritage Train and Carousel Company “is the only profitable railway company in Canada.”
So where does the carousel fit in??
By 1998, the mini railroad was drawing so many visitors and running so smoothly under the guidance of railway enthusiasts, that it was suggested to Johnston that a new project be undertaken to keep the little train company. Barry Jacobs, who shared his passion for railroads with an equal enthusiasm for carnivals, suggested that the calliope sounds of a heritage carousel would make a perfect duet with the chug and whistle of the train.
Johnston knew just the person to help with the project. Local artist Edna Scott, a collector of antique carousel horses, had soon designed 33 unique steeds and had convinced Jacobs and Johnston that nothing short of hand-carved wooden creations, designed to replicate those found on carousels of the early 1900, would do the project justice. Historical perfection comes with a hefty price tag, and with the carved horses priced between $5,000 and $8,000 each, the heritage carousel soon became a citywide project with businesses, organizations and individuals donating money to adopt one of the mounts.
“Missoula, MT carver Chuck Kaparich was originally commissioned to carve the horses,” says Johnston, “but we really felt it would be nice if one of the horses was consigned to the local carving club.” Enthusiasm for the project saw the club’s membership grow from five to 20 people with nine horses resulting from their efforts.
“Most carousel horses have what is called a romance side, the side with all the intricate carving that faces out to the public. The inside of the horse is less detailed,” explains Johnston. “But the local carvers became so obsessed with the project that they made both sides intricate.”
The horses were placed on a 1908 carousel frame that had operated in an amusement park in the United States from 1944 to 1975, and had been lovingly resurrected by the volunteers. In all, it’s been estimated that 350 volunteers were involved in the creation of the heritage carousel over a period of three years.
Opening on July 1, 2002, 130,000 riders were propelled into the romantic world of the carousel in its first year alone. Having caught carousel fever, the volunteers seemed incapable of stopping and immediately started planning a second carousel based on the traditional menagerie theme.
“The second one is made up of animals depicting the north,” says Johnston. “Our wood carvers said they’d never done animals before so Edna Scott, a painter by profession, took to sculpting and did the models for the carvers to work from.”
The second carousel opened in 2005 and lets riders experience the Northern Ontario magic of riding such native animals as a deer, fox, black bear, cougar, or moose. There are 16 animals in all, and if you’re familiar with local folklore that claims a relative of the Loch Ness Monster resides in North Bay’s Trout Lake, you’ll find a whimsical rendition here as you perch atop the mythical hippocampus.
The North Bay waterfront area that is home to the NBHTCC is undergoing a major redevelopment that will see the expansion of the rail line to allow the Lucy Dalton to travel throughout the park. The volunteer navvies are expected to have the extension done this year, and Johnston says a third carousel will be added to the collection when the waterfront project is completed.
This last carousel will depict the original carousels that were built for the nobility to ride around the circle on mounts pulled by serfs as their master attempted to lance metal rings. “It was the replacement of jousting,” says Johnston. “Unfortunately, the safety rules have changed since the 1700s, and because of the danger of the lances we can’t actually have riders on the third carousel. However, they will be able to see fiberglass serfs pulling their fiberglass masters. It’s the perfect completion of our carousel museum.”
Johnston and Lawlor are just two of the hundreds of volunteers that want to share their dream with visitors and residents alike. “There’s something here for all generations,” Lawlor says. “No one is too old or too young to feel the magic.”
The NBHRCC is open on weekends from Mother’s Day to June 30 and Labour Day to Thanksgiving, and from 10 a.m. to sundown in July and August.
Laurel J. Campbell is a freelance journalist in Northern Ontario. An award winning writer and former reporter for The Lindsay Post and the Almaguin News, she also writes for the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspaper Association.