Seaway Diversion

The hammer that fell on the New York Central’s Ottawa Division was in two area of significant changes, Ottawa and the St. Lawrence River.

North bridge

The north span of the Roosevelt International Bridge. Source as stated on watermark of image.

In Ottawa, many years went on where there was talk about removing all the railways within the city. The Federal District Commission (now known as the National Capital Commission) always viewed the railways as ugly, dirty and very unpleasant for the downtown area of Canada’s capital city. In 1922, the first plan was tabled to the group (at that time known as the Ottawa Improvement Commission) concerning a means to remove all traces of rails. Noulan Cauchon was the author and it included the creation of a rail belt line to bypass the city, new marshalling yards to be concentrated along this bypass that would be south of Walkley Road and the lifting of the existing cross-town tracks where a rapid transit highway could be built across the city on the same alignment. This likely would have been carried out if not for World War II and all available resources were needed for the war effort. In 1950, the FDC tabled a new plan by Jacques Greber, which contained much of Cauchon’s proposal but included a suggestion that all rail crossings over the Ottawa River should be concentrated to a new bridge that couple be built east of the city in the area of Duck Island. After some revisions were made, work began on September 28, 1952 with Canadian National Railways, Canadian Pacific Railway, the Ottawa Transportation Commission and the New York Central Railroad’s full cooperation, even though the majority were reluctant to do so. The new agreement would have seen the NYC abandon their station and yard at Nicholas and Mann with the rails as well back over the Rideau River bridge to a new junction with CPR’s M&O Subdivision (the line to Vaudreuil-Dorion) and use the new FDC owned station that CNR and CPR were also to use on Tremblay Road and to use the Walkley Line and Yard that was to run from Hawthorne to Wass. The use of the new union station was not a concern for the NYC since all passenger service was abandoned on the Ottawa Division on July 15, 1954, the last one had ran on the previous April 24th.

At the crossing over the St. Lawrence River in Cornwall, other developments that began many years before were finally gaining a physical form. The St. Lawrence has always been viewed as a major transportation route. No matter the railways or highways built, the river always carried large commodities to several ports and eventually to other countries. As ships grew larger, the river channel had to increase in depth and access by larger canals and locks. The first proposal to allow large ocean going vessels to enter the river and Great Lakes was in 1895 when the United States and Canada created the Deep Waterways Commission to study the possibility of a deep water shipping lane as well as a development to harness the powerful river for hydro generated electrical power. An International Joint Commission was then formed in 1909, but only several studies were performed. The two countries finally signed the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Deep Water Treaty in 1932, but once again no action was taken except for several small powerhouses and increasing the depth and locks of existing canals. When the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Basin Agreement was created in 1941, no work began but it meant that the two countries were closer to an agreement of what to concretely do. Finally, a study began in 1951 concerning where dams would be placed, new canal routes, rerouting roads and rails as well as taking existing towns that would be flooded over and creating new towns from them. Construction finally began of the St. Lawrence Seaway & Power Project in 1954. When it came to bridges, the plans called for them to be reconstructed to allow the large ships to pass under them. Even the low level bridges were converted to have a lift span for the ocean vessels…all except the one in Cornwall.

The Cornwall bridge system was a thorn in the sides of the Seaway. With the new Canadian – American agreement, the shipping lanes were moved from the north channel of the St. Lawrence River to the south channel in this area. Before the Canadian Government’s concession to move the locks to the American side, previous plans showed that the NYC bridge over the Cornwall Canal would likely have changed by the addition of a lift bridge right after passing the old swing span. A second plan that was uncovered revealed that the NYC line in Cornwall would have been diverted to where Brookdale Avenue is and a lift span would have been in operation north of Second Street West due to a new canal being constructed in that area. Instead, with the move of the locks to the American side, the entire south channel bridge was to be removed and a diversion of the NYC would have carried trains from Rooseveltown to what today is the Snell Lock, crossing there over a lift span, then go to Massena Point and cross a new bridge over Polly’s Gut to Cornwall Island to reconnect with the original line and then cross as always over the north channel bridge. It was an odd looking plan and expensive, over $9,000,000 worth in 1950s dollars (that would be $77,000,000 in 2016).

The price tag was just too high and the Seaway people needed to find a means to decrease the cost before work could carry on in this section of the project. They approached the NYC for their input on the subject. By 1956, there appeared to be no alternative but to create the new rail/road diversion over the Snell Lock as originally agreed to. Then a new idea was tabled by the Seaway, an offer that would be too good for the railroad to turn away. The corporation tabled that if the NYC would abandon their railroad, the Seaway would compensate them for their loss. Although the NYC line was still doing a brisk, surviving freight business, the offer was more than adequate for ending service in eastern Ontario. After tabling the unexpected application, the NYC was granted its abandonment of the Ottawa Division, taking effect on March 22, 1957.

south span

Work on building the new south channel suspension bridge with the original south Roosevelt International Bridge.

The last NYC train to run from Ottawa to Cornwall and cross the bridges into the United States occurred on February 14, 1957 and the event did not go unnoticed. Many communities along the route tried to persuade the government or another rail company to reopen the Cornwall – Ottawa route, but to no avail. It was on the day of abandonment that the public was informed that the Seaway had paid the NYC $2,280,000 (2016 that would be $19,500,00) to abandon the line and allow the Seaway to build new bridges that would properly serve as a road crossing as well as provide enough height for the passing ships. Not included in that price was the sale of the right-of-way from Cornwall to Ottawa, which was sold in April to CNR (still owners of the majority of the route today). The rails were lifted in June, most of them used to help build the new Taschereau Yard in Montreal and some time afterwards, a portion from Harrisons Corners to Piperville was leased to Bell Canada to lay a fibre optic line.  By the end of 1957, CNR relaid rail from Ottawa to Ramsayville to use during the rail relocation plan in the capital. The bridges were sold to the Seaway and the south channel span was removed in 1958 while a new suspension span went up just west of it. The north channel bridge lasted longer, being dismantled in 1965 as a new north span had been erected in 1962.  This bridge was replaced as well with a new one in 2014.

after seaway

After the south span was removed. Looking north with the new suspension bridge and the “new” high level north channel in the distance with the original north span still up.

Today, there still portions that exist of the route. In Ottawa, CNR removed the rails from the NYC yard to the new Terminal Avenue Yard, making the line from there to Hawthorne, where a junction was finally put in, the North Lead Track. It was handed over to Ottawa Central Railway on December 13, 1998 and they removed the track from Terminal Avenue Yard to just south of the Canada Science & Technology Museum.  OCR would be absorbed back into CNR in 2008.  The rails from Hawthorne to Ramsayville had a short lifespan as a spur. The Canadian Railroad Historical Association leased it on August 1, 1966 for the purpose of creating a museum in Ramsayville. The lease ended on July 31, 1972 as the museum idea was cancelled due to the construction of Highway 417. CNR abandoned the spur in 1973 so that the highway could be built through. In 1971, CNR relaid rails from their relocated main line in Cornwall to the old Cornwall Junction site, dubbed as the Wesco Spur, which is still in service today. The right-of-way from Russell to Embrun was converted into a bicycle path and even some stations still exist (Ottawa’s Union Station, Edwards, Russell, St. Albert Station, Berwick and Northfield Station).

Over in the United States, the remaining line from Helena to Rooseveltown continues to be in service for the time being. In 1958, Reynolds Aluminum opened a plant just west of the line on the St. Lawrence River and GM Powertrain opened on the east side of it so NYC had a lucrative freight service on those 4 miles of track.  After the years under the NYC to Penn Central, to Conrail and now CSX, the Rooseveltown Industrial Track had seen trains almost daily over it. GM though closed up in 2009, the rails used to ship out material as the site was being decommissioned.  It was announced in 2015 that Alcoa, the company that bought Reynolds, would close the plant within the next two years although the State Of New York did give the company a rescue grant to keep the operation in Massena going.  It is not known if the east plant is going to continue operating or be totally decommissioned.


1998, Conrail runs across the Raquette River bridge, part of the former international crossing (looking north)

A small section of track between Tupper Lake Junction and Tupper Lake still remains in place today. Penn Central had abandoned it in 1972, but was reopened by the Adirondack Railway during the 1979 – 1981 seasons. The rails continue to sit in place, waiting to be in service again in the coming years under the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Stations south of the border continue to exist as well (Moira, Santa Clara, McDonald, two from Bay Pond, Kildare and recent documentation claims that the one from Derrick survived).