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Cape Breton has a long history of fighting to keep the railway

At least six railway companies have come and gone over the past century-and-a-half
By Rannie Gillis - Cape Breton Post

For the last several months we have had regular press releases with regard to the possible shut down of the rail line between the Strait of Canso and Sydney It seems that with the demise of Sydney Steel, and the closure of the last coal mine at Point Aconi, there is just not enough freight to make it a fmancially viable business operation. And lest we kid ourselves, it is a business operation, and if it does not make money, the railroad will not survive in Cape Breton.

That would be a real shame, but it would not be the first time that a railroadthas shut down on Cape Breton Island. In fact, over the lst century and a half there have been at least six railway companies that went out of business. Some of these operated on the island itself, while others were to operate between mainland Nova Scotia and various points on Cape Breton.

The first of these was built by the General Mining Association in 1834. In that year a three-mile long railroad was completed from the company’s coal mine in Sydney Mines to their new coal pier in North Sydney.

This was the first railroad in North America to be built with iron rails (from England), and the first to use the standard gauge of 4 feet 8 & 12 inches.

A unique system was devised for hauling the coal. For approximately half the distance, horses pulled the coal cars up a slight grade. At the top of the grade the horses were unharnessed, placed in an empty car at the rear, and the coal train was allowed to glide down to the pier. To return to the pithead, the process was reversed.

By 1875 a new railway was under consideration, one that would run from mainland Nova Scotia to the Sydney coal fields in eastern Cape

Breton. (By this time a railroad had been built from Halifax to the coal mines in New Glasgow) The ‘Halifax and Cape Breton Railway and Coal Company’ planned to construct a line from New Glasgow to the Strait of Canso, where a ferry operation would carry the train across to Cape Breton. From Point Tupper the railroad would continue on to St. Peters, and then along the coast to Louisbourg.

Construction started in 1877, but the new company was not fmancially sound. When it went bankrupt in 1883, only the 75 mile stretch from New Glasgow to the Strait of Canso had been completed. The new line was then sold to the federal government, and became part of the Intercolonial Railway system.

This railroad caine about as a result of Confederation In 1867, when the new government of the Dominion of Canada decided to built a railway that would connect the Maritime Provinces with Central Canada and Quebec. Construction of this ‘Intercolönial’ Railway started immediately but the first section of track in Nova Scotia, between Truro and Amherst, was not completed until 1872.

By 1887 plans were under way to extend the Jntercolonial Railway from the mainland side of the Strait of Canso to Cape Breton Island. In anticipation of this, various commercial and political groups in Cape Breton had proposed three potential routes for the island portion of the railway, all of which would originate in Point Tupper.

The first was a western route through Inverness and Victoria Counties (Whycocomagh, Nyanza, Baddeck, etc.) to North Sydney The second, an eastern route, would pass through Port Hawkesbury, St. Peter’s, Johnstown, and Big Pond, before terminating in Sydney.

The third was a route through the center of the island. This would pass through Orangedale, lona, Grand Narrows, Christmas Island and Boisdale before ending in North Sydney.

(Next week: The Prime Minister cf Canada makes the decision!)

(Rannie Gulls is an author and avid Celtic historian whose column appears every week in the Cape Breton Post. We welcome your comments on this column or any other material appearing in the Post. You cAn write c/o Letters to the Editoç Cape Breton Post, 255 George St., P0 Box 1500, Sydney, NS, BIP 6K6 or Fax to (902)562- 7077.)

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