The Portage Flyer
Just east of Huntsville, Ont., however, between 1905 and 1959, a short narrow gauge railway (only one and one-eighth miles in length, self-billed as "the shortest commercially operated railway in the world"), used to connect Peninsula Lake (at North Portage) with the Lake of Bays (at South Portage).
The Northern & Pacific Junction Railway had reached Huntsville in 1885 and thus opened up the northern Muskokas to commerce, tourism and a vacation retreat for the well-to-do. Officially "the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway", this diminutive shortline came into being to provide a portage connection between Peninsula Lake east of Huntsville, and the northerly tip of the Lake of Bays. Unofficially, it was "the Portage Railway", more familiarly "the Portage Flyer", affectionately "the Hot Tamale" (because of the engines' propensity to blow their fire out of the stacks), or with the dry humour of its employees "the Corkscrew route".
In the late 19th century, a local entrepreneur, Captain George Marsh, had established a sawmill at the foot of Marsh's Falls on the Oxtongue River near Dwight, and gradually built up a steamer service on the Lake of Bays and on the Vernon-Fairy-Peninsula Lakes chain that also adjoined the Huntsville railway station.
What was needed to facilitate transportation between these two water systems was a portage link. In 1900, Capt. Marsh obtained a charter to construct a standard gauge (4 ft 8½ in) railway between the two waterways. Work began in 1903, but with a gauge of 44½ in. because that was the gauge of the used equipment bought from the E.B. Eddy Company in Hull, Que. The railway started operating in 1904, and went into full service in 1905.
The railway's original motive power consisted of two 7-ton H.K. Porter-built woodburning saddle tank locomotives, acquired second-hand (as already noted) from the E.B. Eddy Mills in Hull, Que. They were replaced in 1948 by two Montreal Locomotive Works-built saddle tank locomotives, also second-hand, from the Windsor Foundries, Windsor, N.S. At that time, the railway was re-gauged to 42" to accommodate the replacement locomotives.
The essential rolling stock throughout the railway's existence consisted of two passenger cars that were fashioned from four original horse tram car bodies and later replaced with two open cars; a large boxcar improvised from a flatcar body; two smaller boxcars from E. B. Eddy that were soon taken out of service; some rudimentary flatcars that dwindled in number as freight traffic declined; and one mobile hand-powered crane.
Throughout the railway's existence, it interconnected principally at North Portage (Peninsula Lake) with the steamboat Algonquin, and at South Portage (Lake of Bays) with the Iroquois, and latterly the Iroquois II.
By the 1950s, improving roads, changing economics and visitor tastes and options were cutting into the steamboats' traffic, and the year 1958 was the last year that the Portage Flyer made its connections with the Algonquin and the Iroquois II. The railway ran for just one more year as a tourist attraction, and was abandoned at the end of the 1959 season. Much to the disappointment of local residents and all those generations who had fond memories of "the little train that could", the locomotives and passenger cars were sold off in 1961 for an amusement park railway in St. Thomas, Ontario.
It was in 1984 that a group of Portage Flyer enthusiasists met to discuss whether and how this gem of local history could be brought back to Huntsville and reincarnated.
This nucleus group was to become the founding movement of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society.
An early piece of good news greeted them in that the two locomotives could indeed be retrieved, and from there on in, it is a fascinating story of all the trials and tribulations that this group experienced in their determination to bring the Portage Flyer back to life. A veritable saga.
So today the railway operates as an adjunct of Huntsville's Muskoka Heritage Place on Brunel Road, an easy walking distance from downtown - and a very well-worthwhile experience it is to ride that marvellous little restored train.
Check it out under What's New in Publications on this website.
Also, for more information about Russ's book, click here.
And for the definitive history of the original railway, Niall MacKay who was a founding member of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society, has written and published By Steamboat and Steam Train - the Story of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway and Navigation Companies. Unfortunately it is now out of print, but it is still readily available in the aftermarket [my Links, look under Publishing and Books] ISBN 0-919822-73-8 Boston Mills Press 1982.)
With encouragement from the Tapley family at the Bondi Resort, Dwight, Ont., and with files from Niall MacKay, Russ Nicholls, Jeff Young and Peter Foley.
Sources and recommendations for further reading:
Lloyd, Eric: The Huntsville & Lake of Bays Railway (CRHA Canadian Rail #365 June 1982)
MacKay, Niall: By Steamboat and Steam Train - the Story of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway and Navigation Companies. Boston Mills Press Erin ON 1982.
Nicholls, Russ: The Rebirth of the Portage Flyer - Walker Lake Productions, Huntsville ON 2005.