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FIVE MILES TO GO, and Train No. 631 was running 1 1/2 hours late. In fifteen minutes we'd reach our destination on the historic Algoma Central Railway—Hearst, Ontario, 296 miles and 10 long hours north of Sault Ste. Marie. We'd arrive after 8:30 p.m., but maybe the motel dining room would still be open.

Suddenly there was a whoosh of air, an abrupt application of the emergency brakes, and a jolting stop amid the acrid odor of brake smoke. For a moment the two other passengers in the coach and I stared at each other. What had happened?

The conductor, who had been reading the paper at a seat in the middle of the coach, dashed down the aisle to don his reflective safety vest.

"Train separation," he announced with a smile that I can only describe as fixed, as he swung down to the roadbed. "Engine broke loose."

Indeed our train had broken in two. The locomotive was stopped about 75 yards up the track from its cars, its engineer peering from the rear platform down at the coupler. The conductor stood on the ballast, radio in hand, next to the car in front of our coach, seemingly a picture of irritation.

By and by the locomotive backed down to its train and recoupled, and we were off, another 20 minutes behind schedule.

Were we in danger? Not really. The train had been proceeding at a stately 40 miles per hour, and the brakes had done their job—stopping both parts of the train when the hoses parted and lost air pressure. No one had been walking between cars.

Theoretically an engine could brake to a stop faster than the following cars, the rest of the train slamming hard into its rear. But that has been a very, very rare occurrence. Train separations are not unheard of, especially on long freights, but don't happen often. Coupler knuckles do occasionally loosen and let go of each other.

I'd been there before. Twenty years ago I was riding a westbound Amtrak California Zephyr in the Sierra Nevada when it lost the last car on the train, a coach. Again, no one was walking between cars. Whew.

In the end the only consequence of that separation south of Hearst was that we got into town too late for the dining room, and had to make do at another restaurant.

For me, anyway, t
he incident was just another adventure in what amounted to a day of colorful old-time nuts-and-bolts railroading.  (To their bosses, however, the crew probably had some 'splaining to do.)

The Algoma Central is best known for its Tour Train that carries hundreds of passengers a day to gorgeous Agawa Canyon 114 miles north of the Soo and back. (See "Other Links" at the end of this article for a link to my 2011 Tour Train story.)  Having ridden the Tour Train twice, I wanted to experience the lesser-known two-day "Tour of the Line" on the regular passenger train from the Soo through the wilderness of the Canadian Shield and the Clay Belt to Hearst in the north and return. On this trip I was a guest of the railroad.

No. 631 (and its return, No. 632) are one of a shrinking handful of North American passenger trains that can be flagged down by passengers anywhere along the entire line.  Sometimes they haul only a handful of riders, sometimes a full coach load, and their canoes, kayaks, ATVs, snowmobiles, fishing tackle and provisions to resorts and camps at lakes deep in the roadless Ontario bush. There's no dining car, and passengers must bring their own provender for the trip. (Bottled water and a microwave oven are provided in the coach.)

Because the train is the only practical way for many riders to reach properties along the line, it's subsidized by the Canadian government. I daresay the cost is well worth it—for rail buffs as well as ordinary tourists.

Train in yard

For logistic reasons, No. 631 begins and its journey (and No. 632 ends its) in the Algoma Central yards rather than at the Tour Train depot in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. This consist for No. 631—one baggage car, one coach, and one electrical power car—is typical for a summer train, but a second baggage car and another coach often are added when loads are heavy. Riders leave their cars in the yard's parking lot  and walk a few steps to the train to board.

Inside the coach

The comfortable coach, rebuilt a few years ago, began its career half a century ago with the Santa Fe Railway, then served with Amtrak for many years before coming to the Algoma Central. The Santa Fe's thunderbird motif on the wall between windows has been preserved, and the upholstery and carpeting are in fine shape—far better than on most Amtrak cars. The rest room is clean, the fixtures pristine. And on our trip they stayed that way.

power car

Because the train is hauled by freight locomotives, which do not carry train-line generators, electricity must be provided by a special power car. This one was apparently converted from an old Amtrak express car.

Basset and owner

Waiting in the baggage car were Lolly Balon and her basset hound Lilli Lou, friendly but fragrant in the fashion of the breed. They were from Bellaire, Michigan, bound for a five-day stay with her parents at their wilderness cabin near Summit, 73 miles north of the Soo. Lolly and Lilli Lou rode in the baggage car, where the only places to sit are on trunks, suitcases and coolers. Lolly has been making the trip since 1972 and is friends with many of the crew.


Today's locomotive, backing up to couple onto its train, is a veteran GP40-2 freight engine from the Canadian National, owner of the Algoma Central Railway.

Coupling up

Part of the joy of a Tour of the Line trip is watching railroaders at their varied tasks. Here the locomotive is being coupled to the power car as a brakeman guides the engineer. It took two tries before the knuckles clasped securely. Or maybe not so securely, as it turned out.


The conductor at his table in the rear of the coach. He was casual, genial and helpful, and made sure to pluck a "Guide to Tour of the Line" leaflet from a brochure rack in the coach and hand it to the visiting travel writer. The guide describes in detail all the good photographic locations to be found along the mileposts to Hearst. Be sure also to pick up from the rack a copy of the 2012 Algoma Four Season Travel Guide magazine. It contains an excellent detailed map of the region that shows the stops on the railroad all the way to Hearst.

Trout Lake

Much of the ride involves long passages through green tunnels of trees, but frequently the bush parts for glorious views of wilderness lakes. This one is at Trout Lake, Milepost 57. It was taken during the return trip southbound.

Trout Lake

The railroad shelter and flag stop a mile further up on Trout Lake, where dinghies and a pontoon boat awaited to carry fishing enthusiasts to camps around the lake.

Approaching Summit

The conductor, Lilli Lou and Lolly peer from the baggage car as the train coasts to its flag stop at Summit, Milepost 73. There dog and owner debarked (excuse me) from the train with their luggage.

Montreal River trestle

Southbound on the 1,550-foot trestle, 130 feet high, across the dam on the Montreal River at Milepost 92. This is one of the most spectacular views visible from the train.

Montreal River power plant

The penstocks and power plant below the Montreal River dam. The electricity generated here supplies the city of Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding region.

at agawa canyon

No. 631 arrives at Agawa Canyon (Milepost 114), the Tour Train boarding its passengers while waiting for us to clear the main so that it can return with its six coaches and a diner to the Soo. At the left is the Camp Car, a converted caboose parked on a siding. It has all the amenities of an overnight cabin and is for rent to rail travelers.

camp car

Pam and Ian Cunningham from Ottawa boarding the Camp Car, their home for several days. It would be their base for canoeing and fishing on the Agawa River, and Pam, an artist, would work on her painting.

Canyon Park

Agawa Canyon Park and the Agawa River. Many Tour of the Line riders choose the "Canyon Combo," in which they check their bags at the downtown depot to be loaded on No. 631, then board the Tour Train at 8 a.m., arriving at the canyon at noon.  They have approximately 90 minutes to enjoy the park before No. 631, which leaves the yards at 9:20 a.m., arrives to take them to Hearst or other stops on the way.

boarding at canyon

Four travelers who signed up for the Canyon Combo wait at the shelter to board No. 631.


North of Agawa Canyon, the train leaves behind the rocky Canadian Shield and enters the flat and level Clay Belt region of north central Ontario. It's prime moose country, but I saw none, although I did spot deer, foxes, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, hawks, a bald eagle, an owl and a loon.

In the hole

Where, oh where, is that train? The crew waits "in the hole" on a siding at Milepost 189 near Wanda for a southbound freight to pass.

siding meet

After 15 minutes the freight arrives, its fireman waving to our conductor.


At Franz, Mile 195, No. 631 clatters over the crossing of the main transcontinental line of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Freight cars bound for CPR points in the west are transferred from the Algoma Central here.

Mail at Oba

At Oba, Milepost 245, the postmaster waits, eyes shut against the dust in the wake of the slowly moving southbound train, to toss a bag of mail into the door of the baggage car for delivery to Sault Ste. Marie. At Oba the Algoma Central crosses the main transcontinental line of the Canadian National Railway, and freight, mainly steel products from the mill at Sault Ste. Marie, is also transferred there.


At Hearst the next morning, Train No. 631 becomes No. 632 and heads back to the Soo. To do so, it has to back up for about two miles west on the Ontario Northland Railway main line until it reaches the far end of the world's largest "wye," a Y-shaped track structure, then turn south on the Algoma Central.


I carefully checked the couplers between engine and train to make sure all the parts were in.

ONR switchers

Two well-used Ontario Northland GP38-2 switchers making up a train in the ONR yards at Hearst. (The yellow crane in the rear is part of a giant log loading facility. Hearst is a center for forest products.)

Hearst brakeman

An Ontario Northland brakeman walks along a train being assembled in the Hearst yards.
Watching the switchers briskly bang cars together while waiting for No. 632 to depart for the south is just one of the many pleasures of the Tour of the Line.

If you go:

For information on the Tour of the Line, visit this site. Round-trip fares are $227 for adults, $141 for youth (6-18 years old), and $87 for children (2-5). Infants under 2 ride for free.

For information on motels and hotels in Hearst, visit here. (I stayed at the Companion Motel right across the parking lot from the station. Its restaurant provides box lunches for travelers to the Soo.)

A listing of lodges and fishing camps on the line is here.

An excellent source of general information, including hotels and motels, on the Canadian side of the Soo is at I chose to stay at the Quality Inn downtown, whose restaurant provides box lunches for both the Agawa Canyon and Hearst trains.

Be sure to click on the colorful Visitors Guide for a full rundown of all Soo attractions.

By automobile from the U.S., Sault Ste. Marie is reachable from the west by Michigan Highway M-28 and from the south by Interstate 75, which runs into the International Bridge (toll $3, both U.S. and Canadian). From Canada, Ontario Highway 17 brings travelers from the east and north.

By air, several airlines fly into both the U.S. and Canadian airports on either side of the Soo.

And don't forget your passport!

Henry Kisor, who retired as book review editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006, is the author of several books, including Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America, now available in ebook format.

Other links:

Read my 2011 article on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train

Please visit my blogs:  The Reluctant Blogger  and The Whodunit Photographer

Also see my books website,

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