2011 fall ALSFX's Newsletter

Memories of Montfort: The Trains

I want to start off my memories of the trains that went through Montfort and Newaygo by sharing with you a visual that is as clear in my mind today as it was 61 years ago when I experienced the actual scene. I know it was 61 years ago because it was a big day in my life. It was the time of my 3rd birthday. It was a Friday night and as usual my family and I were gathered at the station in Montfort waiting for the big Friday night train to arrive bringing my father, brothers and sisters up from Montreal for the week-end. Although I am sure all my siblings were on the train that night, I was primarily interested in the arrival of my oldest sister Catherine. She always made sure to bring the most exciting presents. I remember very clearly standing beside my mother who put her hand on my shoulder to prevent any unforeseen moves on my part which might put me in front of the train. As it pulled into the station and came to a stop, here is what a small three year old boy experienced.

I was awestruck, intimidated and fantastically curious all at the same time. It was the largest, blackest and shiniest machine I had ever seen. It stood right in front of me, hissing and blowing steam from everywhere. There were the most awesome and wonderful noises coming from both within and around it. It had a massive bell on top that was deafening when it rang .Its’ headlight was huge and lit up the whole track from the station to Montfort Beach. There were more gadgets, protrusions and cylinders on it than I could count. All of them were a fascinating mystery in terms of what functions they performed. The engineers were so high up in their cab that I had to bend over backwards just to see them. They were like gods and all I could do was smile and wave when they looked down. I was so enthralled with the sight that I forgot all about why I was so excited to be meeting this particular train. Then it pulled out of the station. Huge amounts of black smoke and steam poured out of its’ smoke stack. There was a tremendous rumbling and a deep chug, chug, chug sound. All of a sudden the wheels began to spin and the chugging sound became very rapid. Sand poured out of tubes in front of the wheels. The wheels caught on the sand and off it went, a marvellous monster roaring down the tracks. As it pulled out of sight, I remembered my primary purpose in being at the station that night .

There she was, my oldest sister. She seemed to be struggling with a very large handbag as she came down the platform. When she arrived in front of us, she reached into the handbag, wished me a happy birthday and pulled out the smallest, sorriest looking puppy we had ever seen. We named him Smokey and for the next seventeen years he was the center of my life and the best friend I could have ever hoped for. Those who have been in Montfort for a long time will certainly remember Smokey as he was a very prominent figure in the community, a travelling lady’s man to the end. I don’t know why this memory is so vivid in my mind. Whether it was the appearance of Smokey in my life or the experience of coming face to face with the magic of the steam engine on that July night doesn’t really matter. It is the single event that anchors my interest in trains, specifically steam engines, and forms the basis of all my memories of them.

So now let’s talk about the era of trains in Montfort/Newaygo. First, both the orphanage and the trains were central to life here. Everything that came in and went out came by train. Cars and the roads up until the mid fifties were not very reliable and not everyone could afford a car. The trains were our primary contact with the outside world. They were so important in the life of my family that we gave the train on this line a name, “The Montfort Bullet”. It wasn’t the fastest thing on wheels and my recollection is that it was also not the timeliest . However it was dependable and for most of us, it was all we had. It provided my family’s transportation from Montreal to Montfort every summer and if for no other reason than that, it was a central factor in our lives. A summer in the city was totally unthinkable. The trip up was a two train affair. Central Station in Montreal to Val Royal was the first hop. Val Royal to Montfort was the real experience. The trip was preceded by a wild and stressful race between trains, carrying all our baggage. It was important that we placed it well if we wanted to keep our seats together. I don’t remember much about the actual rides other than they seemed very long with many stops . These were very boring from my young perspective. When we finally arrived at the station in Montfort, we were all tired, and very glad to be here.

Throughout the summer the trains brought my father up every Friday night and back to the city on Sunday night. Unfortunately for him he could not summer in Montfort like us. The weekend was an exciting time when the whole family went down to the station to meet the train and to welcome family and friends from the city, and a sad event as we all went down to send them back.

Both Fridays and Saturdays represented an important business opportunity for the kids in the village. Many of us would show up with our wagons to transport luggage to and from the station for a nickel. Can you imagine doing that for just a nickel? That nickel would supply us with candy for the whole week. Not a bad deal at all. Have you ever noticed how the cottages in both Montfort and Newaygo are clustered more densely together around the railway tracks? That is because it made it much easier to transport goods and materials from the trains .Those lots closest to the stations were prime locations to own.

The Friday night train was a real event. Because it brought up all the week-enders, it often had extra cars added to handle the number of passengers. We could hear it start off in Morin Heights and everyone held their breath as it rumbled up the tracks towards the big hill at Deer Lake. You could almost feel the collective prayer from everyone on the platform that it would make that hill. On more than a few occasions it did not and had to back all the way down to Morin Heights and start again. On those nights you could feel the disappointment in the attendant crowd and the frustration at waiting another half hour for their families to arrive. My father used to talk about the times when the men would get off the train and walk to lighten the load.

Passenger trains were not the only ones to travel the line. Almost every day one or more freight trains would rumble through. These were huge and often had two or three massive engines pulling them. They seldom stopped but it was a real delight to see the station master come out and hang a message tied to a big loop on a pole* and to watch the engineer lean out and hook it with what looked like a shepherd’s staff as they roared by.

Montfort was a thriving tourist destination in those days and that, coupled with the freight train traffic made it an important stop. We had two side tracks next to the main line, a turntable and an impressive station. The sidings always had passenger and freight cars parked there. These were used by us kids as a play ground. The passenger cars also provided week-end tourists who could not find or afford a room, a place to stay providing they were not caught. The freight cars often included a cook car for the railway workers. My sister used to be able to talk the cooks into giving us pies. I don’t know how she did this and she is not telling. The turntable was a mystery. It was located just behind the Montfort Beach where the volley ball court is today. All of us kids would rush there when an engine was turned around. The turntable ran off the steam from the engines but it was so well balanced that a group of us kids could move it. However it was still a big job for little kids and we often left it half turned, much to the frustration of the railway workers. The station was paneled in painted BC fir and had a large waiting area, a pot belly stove, a ticket counter and a telegraph room which was constantly buzzing with the ticking sound of the teletype machine. Montfort was important enough to have a full time station master, Mr. Lapointe, who lived in the village.

Attached to the station was a freight room with big sliding doors. In addition to the station there was a Put–Put building and a storage shed. Do you know what a Put-Put is? It is a little cart that runs on the tracks that carry workers and equipment to job sites. We had both engine driven ones that really sounded like their name and hand driven ones. The workers were men from the village such as Mr. Chartier and Mr. Tasse. Watching the men getting on these little carts and go off to work always fascinated me for some reason. I always wanted to ride with them but never had the courage to ask.

My dream of riding the Put-Puts was finally rewarded. In the last few years of the railway when I was ten or eleven years old and the station was closed and the workers gone, my friends and I inherited a very simple Put-Put. It had no engine or mechanical drive at all. It was a platform on wheels and certainly it seemed to have been left behind for us kids to play with. Why else? For two summers we pushed that thing everywhere. It had a tendency to go off the rails. We used to ride it down the Deer Lake hill laying on our bellies and watching the wheels. Then we would jump off when it looked like it would derail. Can you imagine that at the age of eleven we had our own vehicle and that we spent many exciting days traveling the rails on it? This all ended one day when we were rolling down the Deer Lake hill and met a train coming the other way. We all jumped off, but our poor Put-Put didn’t make it.

Newaygo also had a train station. It was just a roof with benches underneath and was located where Heather Ball’s garage is now. This also has very special memories for me as well as for all the other kids in Montfort/Newaygo at that time. We used to congregate there as a gang. It was our social place and where we experienced the adventures of girls and boys in our early teens. I could tell a few stories , but some of those girls and boys still live on the lake and for my sake I think I’d better not let any old secrets out.

The railroad also was present in most of our activities as a family as well. On rare occasions we would take it into Morin Heights or to Sixteen Island Lake for day excursions. Almost every day we walked the line from the village to the Montfort Beach. We had to be aware of the train schedules to avoid being on the tracks when they went through. We were taught to put our ear on the track to hear/feel the vibrations to know when it was coming. One of our great games was to see how far we could walk, balanced on the rails. As a family we often walked the rails from Montfort to Newaygo. I remember my father would challenge me by offering to buy me an ice cream float at Pane’s Store in Newaygo (now Heather Ball’s House) if I could walk the whole way on the rails without falling off. My father also talked the engineer into allowing me up into the traincab when it was in the station one day. What an experience, I was with the gods in that moment.

I could go on for pages and pages but I have already taken up much more room than I intended. I want to close off with a visual that I hope I can due justice to. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting on the lake in a canoe. The lake is absolutely calm and the mountains are reflected perfectly in it. Then suddenly the train comes into sight. It is chugging up the tracks with smoke and steam billowing from its stack. As it comes closer you can see its’ magnificence its’ shiny black bulk, its’ bright head light and individual carriages with people in the windows. Then you can hear it, a deep and powerful rumbling as it draws closer. All this framed by the beauty of the pristine environment of the lake and mountains of Montfort/Newaygo.

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this scene and I can tell you that the beauty of it is unsurpassed and that once seen, it can never be forgotten.

Dave Clark

*The hook