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A Brief History of the Algoma Central Railway

Graphical map depicting rail line between Sault Ste. Marie Ontario and Hearst Ontario.

The Algoma Central Railway was a historic Ontario short line railroad which connected Hearst with Sault Ste. Marie.  The Algoma Central was the idea of Francis H. Clergue to tap Northern Ontario’s vast timber and iron ore deposits.  

The availability of cheap hydroelectric power on the St. Marys River attracted Clergue to Sault Ste. Marie. He quickly created an industrial base which included a pulp and paper mill, mining and steel making.

In 1899 The Algoma Central Railway was incorporated. The company constructed railroads between iron ore mines and Michipicoten Harbour in the Wawa area, and another north of the Sault to access timber lands. Docks were built at Michipicoten Harbour, and steamships provided transportation for both freight and passengers.

Clergue industries developed during the late 19th century included St. Mary’s Paper and Algoma Steel (originally known as the Algoma Iron, Nickel & Steel Company) in Sault Ste. Marie. Between 1899 and 1910 other industries and businesses included hotels, mines in the Sudbury and Wawa areas, lumbering, brickyards, street cars, ferries and a shop to repair and construct railway cars

Clergue’s entire empire collapsed in 1904. Subsidiaries continued to operate as companies were reorganized and consolidated. New ownership in 1909, based out of London, England, not only gave up on developing Michipicoten but also ended Clergue’s hope in reaching Hudson Bay.  Instead, they believed a more practical operation would establish a northern connection with the National Transcontinental Railway (later Canadian National) at Hearst. By January of 1912 through service was opened from Sault Ste. Marie to Michipicoten via Hawk Junction.  

At the same time crews worked northward out of Franz (where interchange was established with Canada’s other transcontinental system, the Canadian Pacific) and had finished the line to Hearst in 1914. In all, the railroad operated a 296-mile main line in addition to the 26-mile Michipicoten Branch giving it a total of 322 route miles.

Shortly after the railroad’s completion, continuing struggles saw it slip once more into bankruptcy where it remained a ward of London’s Bondholder Committee until after World War II.  

The steel and paper interests were separated in 1931.  Private ownership would not return until 1959. From its inception days, the company operated as more than just a railroad with a fleet of Great Lake ships known as the Marine Division.  During the 1960’s, it further diversified by expanding into real estate and the trucking industry.

Into the early 1980’s more than 100,000 passengers rode annually, many preferring the popular, seasonal round-trip “Agawa Canyon Train.” The railroad did become profitable, operating a spectacularly scenic route through the Agawa Canyon.  Its beauty offered an unexpected benefit, popular rail tours.  These trains maintained a high level of demand through the 2000’s. 

By the 1990’s, the Algoma Central Corporation had broadened its business portfolio to focus on marine shipping. Its rail division was sold to Wisconsin Central, Ltd. on February 1, 1995.

There was a wide range of other trains and packages including another popular run, the Snow Train.  Despite their success, these trains were not profitable ventures losing upwards of a half-million dollars in some years, although the Canadian government did provide much-needed subsidies covering 80% of the losses.  

In 2001, Canadian National acquired the WC and Algoma Central.  

In 2022, Watco purchased the line from Sault Ste. Marie to Oba and is continuing to operate the Agawa Canyon Tour Train as well as providing freight service.

CN still owns the line between Oba and Hearst.

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