Sunday, 21 December 2014

Turcot Yard's origin

In this post, I intend to explain why I am at this particular location - CNR Turcot Yard in Montreal. 

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
Above: Montreal in 1834 

Canada's native and European populations made extensive use of water surfaces for transportation throughout Canada's early history. The spring thaw often made upstream travel more challenging. Winter made travel much less dependable - although dragging items on metal runners along smooth ice was quite efficient.

Europeans travelling west from the Atlantic Ocean in sailboats - and boats which were paddled or rowed - were generally stopped at the Lachine Rapids (at the bottom of the map). 

Portaging a canoe and its load was possible, but to have a horse-drawn wagon running on a dirt trail to a waiting upstream watercraft was preferable circa 1800. 

Then came the expensive idea of paying workers to dig and operate a canal with walls made of cut stone, and using heavy wooden lock gates as needed. Eventually, the Lachine Canal was opened in 1825 - shown above.

With steamboat technology also came steam railway technology. Canada's first railways were built to apply steam power to portages. These rail systems could portage their loads on a schedule! They were faster than towed boats in canals, and they were soon faster than horse-drawn wagons.

In the map below, you can see Canada's first steam-powered railway (1836) - running from Laprairie to St John's. I won't spend a lot of time outlining which early company operated which early rail system - because once the rails were laid, ownership often flipped a number of times as the companies were consolidated into transportation networks.

from:Canadian Rail; May 1966; Canadian Railroad Historical Assn.
above: Rails from Montreal to the US, 1857

The map above shows how the earliest short railway lines were linked together to form much longer rail systems. At first (in 1847) passengers and goods bypassed the Lachine Rapids by taking the train from Montreal to Lachine. And then they left the train and went aboard a boat heading upstream or across the river. 

from: unknown. Date of map:1856
Above: The Montreal to Lachine railway - facilities at Lachine in 1856

In 1853, a 200 foot steam ferry was put in place which could carry a locomotive and three cars from Lachine to Caughnawaga - so shipped goods and passengers could now have a 'seamless experience'. The passengers could sit on their warm, dry behinds non-stop from Montreal to Plattsburgh!

from:Canadian Rail; May 1966; Canadian Railroad Historical Assn.

In 1863, seeing a good thing, the Grand Trunk took over operations on all the north-south lines shown in the (repeated) map above. The little Montreal and Lachine Railroad Company was operating for only about 16 years before it was absorbed by the GTR. Notice the 'Via Grand Trunk Railway' in the timetable below.

from: Travelers Official Railway Guide; 1868; reprint.


The Grand Trunk Railway was built through Canada, primarily using British capital. To simplify a long story, it connected the Atlantic Ocean with the American interior - ultimately Chicago, the railroad capital of America. In Canada, its mainline was built through the southern St Lawrence Valley and the lowlands north of Lakes Ontario and Erie. 

Some Grand Trunk dates:
  • 1856, October 27 - Ran its first through trains between Montreal and Toronto.
  • 1859, December 17-  Ran its first passenger train across the Victoria Bridge.
  • 1869 - Completed its mainline between Riviere du Loup, Quebec and Sarnia, Ontario. 
  • 1870 - Operated its first Pullman cars.
  • 1874 - Converted from a broad to Standard gauge - to be compatible with the US system.
from: Canadian Rail, Nov-Dec 1994; Canadian Railroad Historical Assn
Above: The Victoria Bridge seen from Montreal side, 13 years after its opening.

The Grand Trunk's building of the Victoria Bridge was a significant accomplishment because the bridge made it possible for Montreal to connect with today's Maritime Provinces and the US by rail. As a result of this bridge, Montreal had dependable all-year access to Atlantic seaports for its imports and exports and expanded trade with the US.

Created during the infancy of the engineering sciences, the Victoria Bridge was cautiously over-engineered. Wrought iron plates were riveted together to form (top-vented) metal tubes - to distribute the physical stresses imparted by passing trains. In addition, this design shielded trains from the winds and snows of blizzards whipping down the St Lawrence. The shape and design of the water-cutter piers was calculated to cut and to deflect the massive lateral ice loads of the river in winter and during the spring ice break-up. And, as you'll observe from the photograph, trains losing power en route could at least roll back to dry land. The travelling cranes shown were permanent - used to maintain the bridge.

Once rails are laid, the railway often stays in that place for quite a while - in spite of corporate ownership changes. The map from 1859, below, shows the Montreal and Lachine Railroad tracks ending in western Montreal - at a station on Bonaventure Street - below the red dot. 

The Montreal ('western') end of  the Grand Trunk's Victoria Bridge is shown at the bottom of the map with the Grand Trunk Railway tracks arriving at the GTR main yard, shops ... and the original GTR Montreal station at Point St Charles - in the area of the green dot. Trains moving beyond the map's left margin were heading west toward Toronto and the US.

from: The Grand Trunk in New England: Jeff Holt: 1986; Railfare
Above: 1859

Looking at the arrangement above you can see why the Grand Trunk chose to make the Montreal and Lachine's station their new Montreal passenger terminal. The Point St Charles station had been down on the docks, in the middle of a freight yard, and far from the city centre. In fact, the Grand Trunk and city officials hoped to extend the former Montreal and Lachine line even farther downtown to set up a more central station ... but mysteriously the price of the land they were considering skyrocketed! 

It was in 1863 that the Grand Trunk first used the Bonaventure location as its Montreal passenger terminal.

from: Montreal Then and Now; Bryan Demchinsky; 1985; The Gazette
Above: 1886

As a result of spring 'ice shoves' on the St Lawrence, low-lying parts of Montreal were sometimes subject to ice dam-caused flooding. This is about the only photo I can find of the earlier version of Bonaventure Station. To the right, you can see the wide, low freight shed for the transfer of freight between railway cars and horse-drawn wagons. I am presenting this photo out of sequence to show the building which the Grand Trunk built and began using in 1864.

from: Travelers Official Railway Guide; 1868; reprint.
Above: 1868

In the year of Canadian confederation, the timetable above shows the frequency and speed of trains operating between Montreal and Toronto. It took about 18 hours and may have seemed very fast and smooth when compared to other overland travel or travel by water.

from: reprint of 1881 Grand Trunk Railway public timetable

In 1881 Grand Trunk passengers could take fast trains to Halifax; Saint John; Portland, Maine; Buffalo; Toledo and Chicago.

Unused postcard.
The Second GTR Bonaventure Station 

This was constructed by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1887. In 1916 the building caught fire. At this point in the Grand Trunk's history 'austerity' was the word - this resulted in the station building being modified and rebuilt as a graceless box.

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; An 1890 Fire Insurance Map
Above: Bonaventure terminal track layout 1890.

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; A 1907 Fire Insurance Map Key
This map shows the general railway layout in 1907 - notice the small village named 'Turcot' to the right of my red dot.

You will recall that the Grand Trunk left behind its 'down on the docks' Point St Charles 'Montreal Terminal' passenger station in 1863. Similarly, by 1903 it was finding the Point St Charles freight yard too small to use for both its car and locomotive shops and also as its main Montreal freight car classification and storage yard. 

Montreal businessman Philippe Turcot (1791-1861) was a local landowner and near the houses of 'Turcot Village' the Grand Trunk purchased over 300 acres to build their new freight yard and roundhouse for locomotive maintenance and light 'running' repairs.

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; A 1912 Fire Insurance Map Key
This shows the east end of the freight yard portion of the Turcot Yard facility. The underground system put in place by the city to drain the filled-in, former river bed is shown. As well the CPR Glen Yard - primarily a coachyard to support the passenger train operations at Windsor Station - can be seen. Its location was 'up the hill' and across the tracks from the CPR Westmount station.

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; A 1907 Fire Insurance Map
This map shows the local track arrangement at the roundhouse and also Pullman Avenue.

from:Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; A 1907 Fire Insurance Map
To the east of the roundhouse, the freight yard throat squeezes to the south and toward Point St Charles and the Victoria Bridge via the wye at St Henri station. I believe that the upper two sets of long yard tracks were the Grand Trunk's equivalent of Glen Yard. I think they were designed to store drafts of coaches for staging into Bonaventure Station - to support West Island commuter operations, as well as all the regular intercity GTR trains.

If you scroll your way over on the 1915 map below, you can see the relative locations of the Grand Trunk's facilities in Montreal at the beginning of World War One.

from: Atlas of Canada; 1915; Government of Canada
Well before this map was drawn, the Grand Trunk was facing competition from the CPR - their headquarters and Windsor (Street) Station are hi-lited just north of Bonaventure. 

The Canadian Northern's east-end facilities at Moreau Street are not shown. But the Canadian Northern had surprised the other two railways by devising the plan to get access to their new, truly downtown station by tunneling through Mount Royal. 

from: Altitudes in Canada; James White; 1915; Commission of Conservation
Above are the station names, mileages and altitudes on the GTR line west of Bonaventure as reported to the Canadian Government circa 1915.

The wonderful maps below solve eternal mysteries for me, and show how the main Grand Trunk line west from Montreal changed locations over the years and through its acquisition by the CNR. 

from: Canadian Railroad Historical Association News Report; May-June 1961
reproduction: Montreal Terminals Timetable; 1957; CNR
Canadian National Railways' fully integrated elements of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern systems are shown in a not-to-scale schematic format. The basic elements were still there but a new automated hump yard was being built to the west in the 1950s. 

Below is the complete map from the timetable in a larger format.
reproduction: Montreal Terminals Timetable; 1957; CNR

from: Canada Handbook; 1954; Government of Canada
Wellington Tower controlled movements around the Montreal Terminal. It was located right at the Lachine Canal because it also controlled the lift bridge over the canal beside it - until the advent of the Seaway. To see its area of control, check the bold "Interlocked Territory Shown" track on the map immediately above.

I believe the tower windows face 'south'. I believe that on the track schematics in the photo above, the trains would be represented running right to left as they came 'eastbound' into Central Station.

The schematic track diagram for Central Station is closer to the clock and you can see it narrow to two tracks at the left as the tracks begin their run through the Mount Royal Tunnel. Turcot Yard is represented immediately above the leverman at the right.

The terminal movement director has a detailed track diagram laid out on his train sheet area. On the console in front of him, starting from the top, the ranks of buttons or lights read:

  • train loaded
  • open gates
  • ready to load
  • acknowledge
  • restore

I have obtained some of the photo's details from a more recent book which shows the same photograph.

Feel free to count all the communication tools available to the director ...

Ultimately, all regular steam locomotive use on the CNR and CPR ended by 1960. This was a convenient time to rewrite the rulebook and to complete staffing changes (mainly cuts) made possible through the efficiencies brought about by diesel-electric locomotive technology.

By 1960, Turcot Yard and its roundhouse were obsolete. Instead of old-fashioned 'flat switching', rail cars would henceforth be rolled by gravity and sorted by computer at the new hump yard to the west. For a few decades, at least ...

With their main driving rods removed and placed on their running boards, the steam locomotives were often towed dead to terminals across Canada - such as Turcot Yard - to be cut apart by torches for scrap. The photo below from 1960 gives you an idea of a fraction of the huge scrapping operation underway.

My father wanted to document what little was left of the steam technology and he took me along on his visits to Turcot and the CPR Angus Shops as this rough old Ektachrome shows.

David Gagnon at CNR Turcot Yard, 1960, looking east, LC Gagnon photo