W-Day, February 1, 2022

Today is the official first day of operations for Watco’s new “Agawa Canyon Railroad”.

The last CN train L572 to leave Hawk Junction departed in the evening of January 30 for Hearst. While CN will still be operating between Hearst and Oba, how that will be operated appears to be in a state of flux still, with those details to be confirmed and ironed out.

No local word on whether ACR trains have begun operating north of Sault Ste. Marie yet, but various news reports over the last few weeks have indicated the new company will employ 27 people and operate between Sault Ste. Marie and Oba with eight locomotives – six SD40-2s and two GP40-3s.

Back in at the end of June 2021, 4 SD40-2s were moved to Steelton yard:

WAMX 4181 SD40-2 (Wisconsin & Southern paint)
WAMX 4182 SD40-2 (Wisconsin & Southern)
WAMX 4191 SD40M-2 (Wisconsin & Southern)
WAMX 4192 SD40M-2 (Wisconsin & Southern)

Not much word on the remaining four units so far, but WAMX GP40 4051 (Watco standard black & yellow paint) was spotted in the yard in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan just today per a facebook post from a northern Michigan railfan group. (Presumably this will be for the ACR, but could also be for Watco’s new Grand Elk Railroad operation between Trout Lake and Munising, MI.)

The new railway is also intended to take over operation of the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, so presumably the passenger cars and engines associated with that train would be included in the sale of the railway.

Watco has a page up on their site now highlighting their new Canadian railway:

https://www.watco.com/service/agawa-canyon-railroad-acr/

The new name and logo of the railway pay nice homage to the history of the Algoma Central, bringing back the black bear, and keeping the ACR initials* and also highlighting the brand of the Agawa Canyon tour train.

* It looks like the new reporting marks for the railway may actually be “ACR” (vs. AC for the original railway, which reporting mark is still active under CN and used on a number of log cars).

Not much is known yet about what operations under Watco will look like, hopefully we will find out more in the coming days.

Freight Car Friday #76 – AC 238405

AC 238405 Pulpwood Flatcar
AC 238405 ex AC 2407 near Wyoming, ON November 7, 2021 My photo.

As mentioned in a previous post, blocks of loaded pulpwood flatcars have been common rolling though southern Ontario on CN M397 for the last year and a half since CN has put the south end of the former Algoma Central on mothballs. I believe that these are loaded on a busy log spur at Mead on the former ACR and routed around Lake Huron via Toronto and Chicago to get to mills in Wisconsin.

Most of these cars bear WC reporting marks, and are a wild variety of former CN-family cars from different groupings, including BC Rail, Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific, CN, and even other Wisconsin Central and Algoma Central cars.

Most of the old Algoma Central-marked flatcars in the 2384xx and 2385xx series are also still in service, and also occasionally show up mixed in, although they are dominated in terms of sheer numbers by the hundreds of cars in the WC 237000-238xxx block.

Last Sunday’s 4-car pulpwood block on 397 contained this treat for an ACR fan. AC 238405, formerly of AC 2401-2425 series built new for the ACR in 1975 as standard 52’10” bulkhead flatcars and converted to a pulpwood car by Wisconsin Central in 1998. The original lettering is quite worn, but you can still see the original “ALGOMA CENTRAL” lettering to the right of the new car number.

Freight Car Friday #75 – WC 237703

WC 237703 (ex AC 2489 nee NAFX 53201) westbound with a load of northern Ontario logs at Sarnia, ON August 2, 2021

Since sprint of 2020, when CN mothballed the former Algoma Central line between Sault Ste. Marie and Hawk Junction (no freight has run south of Hawk since April 2020) loads of pulpwood in AC/WC flatcars have been a relatively common sight running through southern Ontario on Toronto to Chicago train M397. A log loading operation at Mead (former location of the old Newaygo sawmill that operated between 1974-85) is one of the only major customers on the former AC line, and with the line unused south of Hawk these loads take the long route to northern Michigan/Wisconsin via Toronto and Chicago.

It’s not uncommon to actually see AC-marked pulpwood cars mixed in with the WC ones – most of the AC 238100, 238400, and 238500 series cars are still active – but this WC car in particular happened to catch my eye out of a block of nine loaded WC cars on August 2nd’s CN M397 through my hometown of Sarnia.

The WC 237000-238000 series of converted pulpwood flatcars is a wild range of old flatcars from many previous CN-family (mostly DWC and BCOL, but also other former CN and WC cars) rebuilt and renumbered with very little organization to what prior groups the cars are pulled from, just renumbered into the series as they’re converted.

The orange colour of WC 237703, and some of the paint patchwork underneath the most recent patches for the new WC number and the log bunks suggested a North American Car Co. (NAFX) heritage – likely via AC 2476-2494 series. Some cooperation on facebook with a couple of guys with access to the UMLER (Universal Machine Language Equipment Register) – the common electronic equipment database used by North America’s railways – helped confirm that the previous identity of WC 237703 was in fact AC 2489, and its original number before being acquired by the Algoma Central (in 1994) was NAFX 53201 (from NAFX series 53200-53249).

On the Forest Industry in Ontario Part 3: North of Superior

In a couple of older posts, I explored some of the forest products mills to the west of the ACR line on the CN and Ontario Northland railways in north-east Ontario and north-west Quebec with an eye to mills that could have provided some amount of bridge traffic over the ACR. (For mills served directly by the ACR, see these older posts on paper, lumber and other forest products traffic on the ACR.)

I’ve never discussed here anything west of the ACR though, and it is known from photographic and other evidence that shipments of wood pulp, wood chips, logs and lumber to or from various mills to the west to, from, or over the ACR did happen on a regular basis. This posting, similar to ones before it, will try to explore some of the mills north of Lake Superior west of the ACR line.

As usual, if anyone knows of any I’ve missed, or can expound upon or correct any information presented here, I welcome your comments. It’s difficult to actually get a coherent history on some of these mills and companies from online searches.

Note on company names: similar to previous posts, companies are listed by their mid 1980s name where possible, since that’s kinda my operating era, and describe the history within the text as best as I can determine using online resources.

Additional note on corporate consolidations: The Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company (a.k.a. M&O or Mando) operated a several mills in north-western Ontario and northern Minnesota until being acquired by Boise Cascade Company in 1965. In 1995 the former Mando Canadian mills were sold by Boise to Abitibi-Consolidated. Abitibi-Consolidated went through a major merger with Bowater Inc. in 2007 to create the Abitibi-Bowater company, which renamed to Resolute Forest Products in 2011 and continues to do business under that name today.

You’ll notice in the histories below (and in some of the previous postings in this series) a theme of widespread mill closures during the period of about 2007-2009, when the Canadian forestry took a significant hit due to economic factors and trade disputes and tariffs related to softwood lumber between the USA and Canada.

White River (CP) – White River Forest Products (Lumber mill)

Operated by White River Forest Products, this mill is still operational as an independent mill today.

Terrace Bay (CP) – Kimberly Clark (Pulp mill)

This is one of the prime candidates for a large amount of the Canadian Pacific wood pulp boxcars being shipped over the Algoma Central into Michigan and Wisconsin or beyond.

Of additional interest, from the late 1970s to early 1990s Kimberly Clark owned their own fleet of 150 pulpwood flatcars (with KCWX reporting marks) to support log shipments to their mill. For several years they ran a unit train operation of pulpwood logs from a siding at Hillsport on CN to Terrace Bay via Manitouwadge. Reg Fitzpatrick, former ACR agent/operator at Franz, has indicated that occasionally some of the Kimberly Clark cars would be sent up to Mosher for loading, with logs shipped to Terrace Bay or Thorold, Ontario.

Also coincidentally some of the former Kimberly Clark cars were later acquired by WC and numbered into the AC 238500 series in the late 1990s.

Marathon (CP) – James River Marathon Ltd. (Pulp mill)

This is the second major candidate for a source of wood pulp boxcars routing over the ACR from Franz to Sault Ste. Marie for US export.

Like Kimberly Clark at Terrace Bay, this was a pulp mill, producing market pulp for shipment to other finishing mills and not finished papers. The mill (and town) was established in 1944 by Marathon Paper Mills (a subsidiary of Marathon Corporation out of Wisconsin) with the mill completing construction in 1946. In 1957 the mill was sold to American Can of Canada (renamed America Can Canada Inc. in 1980). In 1982 American Can sold assets to James River Corporation of Virginia and the mill became know as James River Marathon Inc. (In 1997 parent company James River Corp. merged with Fort Howard Paper Co. and renamed Fort James Corporation.) In 2000 the mill was acquired by a partnership of Tembec and Kruger and named Marathon Pulp Inc. The Marathon operation went bankrupt and was shut down in 2009, and the mill later demolished.

This mill was the destination for large amounts of wood chips shipped out of the Dubreuil Forest Products mill on the Algoma Central at Dubreuilville. During the 1960s, chips were shipped in regular boxcars (provided by CP for this service). From the mid 1970s to mid 1980s, the mill on the ACR was apparently somewhat dormant from a rail-shipping perspective, but around 1986 they reconfigured some rail spurs into the mill and started shipping out lumber and wood chips again. This time chips were loaded into 50′-60′ gondola cars, again provided by CP for this service. (I’m told CP had about 100-150 cars assigned to this service, with the mill shipping up to 20 cars a day of chips between Dubreuilville and Franz. The ACR ran a dedicated afternoon/evening job for Franz/Dubreuilville switching requirements and empty cars were stored at Wanda siding between Franz and Dubreuilville.) These shipments from the ACR ended by 2007 when the supplying mill at Dubreuilville closed. Chips were also supplied to marathon from a sawmill in Chapleau on the CPR east of the Wawa area.

Also, I’m seeing in early 1950s AC timetables a Marathon Paper Mills spur at mile 294.8 connecting off the AC-CNR wye at Wyborn. It’s possible to infer (though not confirm) that logs could have been shipped from this spur via Franz. It’s also possible they could ship via CNR through Nakina and Manitouwadge.

Red Rock (CN and CP) – Domtar (Paper mill)

In 1937 Lake Sulphite Pulp Company began construction of a pulp mill but went into receivership about a year later and the mill construction halted. After a brief stint as a POW camp during the early years of World War II, the property was purchased by Brompton Pulp & Paper Company/St. Lawrence Corporation and construction on a new integrated mill began in 1944 and opened in 1945. In 1961 the St. Lawrence Corporation was merged into Dominion Tar & Chemical (Domtar) and in 1997 was organized as Norampac, a joint venture of Domtar and Cascades.

Of interest, CP for a time handled wood chips into this mill in 40′ and 50′ de-roofed boxcars although the ACR was not a source for this traffic.

This mill closed down in 2007, a victim of a downturn in the forest industry at that time, and has since been demolished.

Nakina (CN) – Nakina Forest Products (Lumber mill)

There a YouTube video from 2007 of a southbound freight at Franz showing several loads from Nakina Forest Products and Long Lake Lumber (next entry), so this is one we can actually prove as a specific source of traffic.

This mill closed down in 2008, but restarted operations in 2017 as Nakina Lumber Inc., owned by Buchanan Sawmills. I couldn’t find much other history online on when this mill was established.

Longlac (CN) – Long Lake Lumber (Lumber mill)

Once again I couldn’t find much detailed early history on this one, but in 2012 the bankrupt mill closed but was reorganized and re-opened in 2013 as Longlac Lumber Inc.

Dryden (CP) – Weyerhaeuser? (Paper mill)

The beginnings of the current mill at Dryden were built in 1913 by Dryden Timber and Power Company. It went through a few ownership and name changes afterwards; in the 1960s it changed to Dryden Paper Company, and after a few more changes at some point (the when is not clear) it was acquired by forestry giant Weyerhaeuser, who in turn sold this mill to Domtar in 2007, who still owns and operates the mill today.

The Dryden mill produces a full range of finished and coated papers.

Kenora (CP) – Kenora Forest Products (Lumber mill)

I couldn’t find a lot of history on this mill but it was acquired by the current owner in 1994 and idled in 2008, but reopened in 2015.

Kenora (CP) – Weyerhauser (lumber mill)

Thanks to a commenter on this post who highlighted this mill. Opened in 2002 by Weyerhaeuser, this mill produces laminated strand lumber (LSL) under the brand names Trus Joist and TimberStrand. Obviously that date means it wasn’t around during my own modeling time frame, but it could be a good source of traffic for a contemporary modeler.

Kenora (CP) – Boise Cascade (Pulp and Paper mill)

This mill was originally built in 1924 (although I couldn’t immediately dig up the original company name) and acquired by Minnesota and Ontario Paper Co. (Mando) in 1941, which was merged with Boise Cascade Company in 1965. In 1978 the Kenora and Fort Frances locations were officially renamed Boise Cascade Canada Ltd.

The mill underwent an extensive modernization program in the early 1980s and in 1995 the Boise Cascade Canada mills were sold to Abitibi-Consolidated.

In 2005 the mill was permanently closed by Abitibi-Consolidated.

Of particular interest with this mill, was a group of boxcars owned by the Minnesota, Dakota & Western Railroad (which was a subsidiary owned by Boise Cascade) built in 1969 by National Steel Car and featuring Boise Cascade lettering that were marked for international service and assigned to loading at this mill. These cars were sold or returned to lessor and had their lease transferred to CP in 1987, renumbering into a CPAA series – the only Canadian built cars ever to bear CPAA reporting marks.

Fort Frances (MD&W/IB&T) – Boise Cascade (Pulp and Paper mill)

Established in 1914, this mill has a similar history to the one at Kenora, both being owned by Minnesota and Ontario Paper before being acquired by Boise Cascade in 1965 and sold to Abitibi-Consolidated in 1995. Like the Kenora mill it produced pulp and un-coated paper/newsprint. The most recent owner of the mill was Resolute Forest Products, however the mill has been idle since 2012. As of spring 2019, it appears that Resolute has been entertaining bids for sale of the Fort Frances property.

The Fort Frances mill is pretty much guaranteed to not be contributing any bridge traffic to the ACR though, as they are significantly west of the Superior lakehead and situated right on the Ontario/Minnesota border – actually served by a branch of the Minnesota, Dakota & Western/International Bridge and Terminal Railway running across the river from International Falls, Minnesota. Traffic interchanges to the CN/DW&P via the MD&W in International Falls and any traffic flowing to the US midwest would just go south from there. However it remains an interesting addition to the list and could be of interest to someone modeling other lines pulling traffic from northern Ontario.

Also of note is the even larger mill (established in 1910) immediately across the river in International Falls served by the MD&W, also formerly owned by Minnesota and Ontario Paper and Boise Cascade and now owned by Packaging Corporation of America (PCA).

ACR for Sale: Confirmed

So the last post about the ACR possibly being for sale involved a bit of inference and guess work from the information in the news about “certain lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario” from “mostly ex Wisconsin Central” trackage being put up for sale this year, and the general state of CN’s operations on the ACR (nothing’s run between Sault Ste. Marie and Hawk Junction since April).

Local news sources are now reporting they have confirmation from CN this week that the line is in fact for sale and they’ve been in contact with interested parties (although they will not comment further on that as those business negotiations or arrangements are currently in progress).

CN To Sell Algoma Central Railway: Report [SooToday]

Northeastern railway updates: CN to sell ACR, Huron Central gets six-month reprieve [Manitoulin Expositor]

Meanwhile, Huron Central has been doing it’s regular poverty dance, and had been threatening to discontinue operations as of the end of this week, but has agreed to another six months of operation, but are looking for $44million in funding
(mostly from federal and provincial governments) to do maintenance on the line to keep it running.

Millman Industries of Sudbury (which owns Diesel Electric Services) has been indicating an interest in taking over Huron Central if Genesee & Wyoming Canada pulls out, but it’ll be interesting to see how things all shake out with both the Algoma Central, the Huron Central, and likely also the ex SOO/WC CN line coming into the Sault from Michigan over the next year or so. Hopefully we are looking at the start of a new chapter in the ACR’s history, and not a “last chapter”.

The sale of course also leaves large question marks hanging over the Agawa Canyon Tour Train operation – but a lot of money was also just spent this year to construct a brand new station for the tour train over at the former paper mill property redevelopment. The track beyond the mill property now terminates short of the road heading past the power generating station to the park around the historic canal and boat lock, and no longer goes to the old station in the Station Mall parking lot.