Railfanning Around Sault Ste. Marie

After (and, well, let’s face it, during) my day trip on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, and in between visits to the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, I tried to also take the opportunity to do a little railfanning around town. I also visited last July and September, and caught a few things then too, so while I certainly don’t have full information of everything that goes on, I’ve been reasonably successful for an outsider, and I’m starting to learn what’s going on and put together at least a broad picture of things.


Obviously the most well-known rail operating in Sault Ste. Marie is the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. Departing daily at 8 AM during the summer and fall seasons from the Algoma Central Railway’s downtown station beside the Station Mall, the train runs north to Canyon and returns to the downtown station typically around 5:30 PM (although the schedule on the ACR web site says 6). If one is wanting to photograph the train at the station, the best sun angles will be in the afternoon due to the roughly north-west angle of the tracks at this location.


About half an hour before train arrives back in the Sault, it will be passing through this curve just north of mile 10 on the railway. (Restricted speed through the yard limits in Sault Ste. Marie to the station means this final part of the trip through town takes a little time.) North of town the highway, river and rail line all parallel for a short stretch; this shot is taken from the shoulder of highway 17. This is another shot where the sun angles favour the afternoon southbound train as the highway is to the west side of the railway and river. A northbound morning shot could work here if it is an overcast day.


Unfortunately I just missed the southbound regular passenger train from Hearst as it came in later; I was just returning to this spot and it arrived about the same time I did, so I chased it a bit closer to town and had to content with this shot at the highway 17 underpass at the north edge of town.

The regular train operates north from Sault Ste. Marie on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, departing at 9:20 AM during the current summer season from a track at the entrance to Steelton yard, in behind the shops facilities, rather than the downtown passenger station. The southbound train returns from Hearst the following day(s) – that being Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays – and is scheduled to return to Sault Ste. Marie at 6:10 PM, but will often be running a little late. So it should be around the mile 10 curve pretty much any time after 6. (I just missed it at about 7:30.) Note that Wednesday is the off day, where the train will not be running, and the equipment remain parked at Steelton yard.


I missed catching the daily freight train from the US this time around, but it typically operates into the Canadian Sault in the early evening, around 7 PM or so, shortly before the southbound regular passenger train. I did manage to catch it last summer, so I can share a photo or two of that.


Interestingly, this train typically runs with distributed power, with one engine at the front of the train and a second splice somewhere in the middle. The train handles iron ore for Algoma Steel from a mine in uppser Michigan and all manner of interchange traffic from Sault Ste. Marie, primarily southbound steel and pulpwood loads.


The northbound train runs directly into the former ACR yards in Sault Ste. Marie, ON, and will perform some switching to break down the inbound train, fish out the distributed power unit and assemble the southbound train to the States. Once the outbound is prepared, it will head south again; often this will be near or well after dark, depending on the season.

(The two daylight shots of the northbound freight crossing the swing bridge and the old Canadian ship canal were taken in July 2013. The night shot is a time exposure of the southbound freight departing Canada taken in September 2013.)

Freight service on the line north of Sault Ste. Marie I’m a little less clear on, but the northbound freight seems to generally hit Hawk Junction around lunchtime, so would be out of Sault Ste. Marie very early in the morning, possibly just before dawn. When I rode the Tour of the Line back on the last day of September, our regular train met the southbound freight at Northland siding, with the tour train ahead of us meeting the freight at Wabos. However, when I recently rode the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, we encountered no other trains on the trip north.

I’m not entirely certain whether the freights do indeed operate daily (sources indicate yes, and I’m pretty much 3/3 for encountering the northbound freight at or near Hawk Junction) or whether it may be adjusted based on the traffic levels, and that single observation at Northland is not really enough data to say whether that timing is typical, or quite late (for what it’s worth, when I chased the tour train to Searchmont in July 2013, I never saw nor heard any sign of freight activity then either; the passenger train seemed to be having a completely unrestricted run north, just like my ride two weeks ago). Or whether the operating times simply vary wildly for some reason like crew availability at Hearst and/or Hawk Junction.


Huron Central action appears to be typically (and reliably – I’ve shot them all three times I’ve visited the Sault over the past year) caught around mid-afternoon at their yard in the Sault, with the mainline freight to Sudbury departing a little before supper time. Theirs is a colourful operation, and you can quite comfortable watch them switching from the old platform of the former CPR passenger station at the east end of the HCRY yard. The bright orange of the G&W family colour scheme definitely adds a lot of colour to the experience. The westbound counterpart appears to leave Sudbury in the early evening, so this would arrive in Sault Ste. Marie well after dark.


Along the south side of the Huron Central yard are a pair of tracks used for pulpwood loading. The cars loaded here are a mix of cars with Huron Central’s own reporting marks and cars with LRIX markings, that translating to the owner being “Lake Superior Eastern Rail Industries Ltd.” This appears to be a local freight car lessor, headquartered in White River, ON and their entire fleet of about 30 cars appears dedicated to service on the Huron Central. Both the LRIX and HCRY fleets consists of about 30 cars of varying designs and lineages. And since neither are really seen off of Huron Central rails, a quick peek at the pulpwood loading tracks in Sault Ste. Marie is an interesting stop for the freight car enthusiast.

St. Marys Paper, Then and Now

The old paper mill in Sault Ste. Marie, one of the original industries in town and an ACR customer for over a century, has recently closed down, and when I visited Sault Ste. Marie in July, the mill was in the process of being demolished. Fortunately I have some good photos of the mill from some previous visits to the area, so in this post we’ll look at the last 20 years of the mill’s operation.

All photos below taken by myself unless otherwise noted.

Note: this is the last in a series of posts covering specific locations on the ACR based on photos taken taken on my July trip to the former ACR.


St Marys Paper in 1992 from the International Highway Bridge:


Overhead view, 1992. Nell vanderHeide photo.

Plenty of stockpiles of pulpwood logs fill much of the open ground on the property. Plenty of Wisconsin Central boxcars await paper loading. (This shot is before the WC takeover of the AC, but much of the mill’s output was exported to the US.)

And a few more views from 2000:


Those flatcars in the first photo in this set are most definitely former AC 2301-2373 series 40′ flatcars; these are likely owned by the paper mill and used for moving pulpwood logs around from stockpiles on the property. Note in the foreground of the 1992 photo above a pair of 48′ gondolas with similar home-made end racks.


This photo shows what looks to be the log debarking and chipping machinery. A covered pipe or conveyor brings the chips into the pulping mill. Note the switcher poking out of the building at centre.


We can see from this last photo that the water treatment facility has been expanded since the 1992 shot. The tracks running roughly through the foreground head towards the paper loading warehouse off to the left, out of frame.


And here’s one of the mill switchers resting behind the mill, near the warehouse/shipping building. I wonder what’s become of this engine now? Sold to a new owner when the mill closed, or just scrapped along with any other rail equipment at the mill?


And one last photo from 2004, taken from across the power canal. Compare this last one especially to the photos below.


Closed sometime within the last few years, the mill is now being demolished. Everything but the remaining original sandstone structures has just about been torn down in these July 2013 photos. It appears that the original structures are being deliberately preserved for now due to their heritage nature, as they are over a century old. First three shots taken from across the power canal.






From the front of the mill, we can see that the main mill buildings, except for the remaining original sandstone structures, have been completely torn down, and the modern steel warehouse/shipping building at right is the last structure to go. It’s not obvious from this angle, but the back half of that structure is already gone and it’s definitely in the process of coming down.