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Canada’s first railway tunnel now a tourist attraction

July 2019

The City of Brockville in eastern Ontario has the distinction of having Canada’s first railway tunnel in one of Canada’s oldest railway centres.

Construction of the 1, 700 foot tunnel began in September 1854, thirteen years before Confederation, but it wasn’t until 31 December 1860 that the tunnel was open for service.

The tunnel, built by the Brockville and Ottawa Railway (B&OR), which had been incorporated the previous year, runs from Water Street directly south to the waterfront, where there were once Grand Trunk terminal facilities for the St. Lawrence trade route.

The south end of the tunnel was built using a cut-and-cover method, where a trench is dug, the arched stone tunnel is built and then it is back-filled and buried.

The middle portion was cut by blasting through solid bedrock using black powder.

The north portion was cut using a a manual-shield tunneling construction method, a method made easier by bore-tunneling machines.  The shield protected the workers manually digging through the earth, while the stone masons built the arched stone tunnel behind them.

Rock extracted during the tunnel construction was used in extending the shoreline near the south end of the tunnel and build a causeway to Block House Island.

An interesting feature of the tunnel is that water is constantly dripping from the ceiling throughout the length of it.  This is intentional as the hydro static pressure from the natural groundwater could otherwise cause the walls to collapse, with a drainage system to keep the tunnel from flooding.

This dripping water has caused mineral formations and stalactites to form on the walls.

In 1878, the B&OR amalgamated with the Canada Central Railway, which in turn was bought up by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881.

The tunnel was used by small steam engines and later diesel locomotives until the mid-1970s, when it was abandoned as the tunnel was too small to fit the larger modern locomotives.  The port facilities were also abandoned and later turned into a public park, Armagh Sifton Price Park.

The tunnel was sold to the City of Brockville in 1982 and turned into a tourist attraction with limited access to the tunnel.

A short 80 foot walkway was installed in 1988 going into the south portal from Armagh Sifton Price Park and the stone walls were lined with placards explaining the history of the tunnel.  The original wooden doors, originally used to keep livestock out of the tunnel, were replaced with new ones.

Outside the south portal, a circular pattern was built to represent a turntable from a railway roundhouse, but this was later removed.

By 2017, the former B&OR tunnel was restored so that visitors could walk the entire length of the tunnel, lit up with special coloured lighting that moved up and down the tunnel, like a train travelling through it.

The CPR donated a caboose in 1987 as part of the railway artifacts displayed at the south end park.

Future plans include redeveloping the land outside the north portal into the Railway Tunnel Park.

Sources:  http://brockvillerailwaytunnel.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brockville_Tunnel.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/canadas-first-railway-tunnel-now-a-tourist-attraction/

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