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The Port McNicoll “Mouse Hole” Arch – An odd-looking concrete arch with a railway past

October 2023

Like many towns in Ontario, the railways were once a vital transportation link for the movement of people and goods in the days before the automobile and paved roads. Numerous railway line crisscrossed the country until motor vehicles and improved highways made the transportation of people and goods easier.

Smaller railway companies went bankrupt or were swallowed up by the bigger companies, and their railway rights-of-way were abandoned. Left behind are numerous relics such as stations and roundhouses, bridges, trestles and tunnels.

The “Mouse Hole” Arch, also known as the “Hole-in-the Wall,” is an odd-looking concrete arch along-side Highway 12, outside of Port McNicoll, Ontario. This narrow, low-clearance railway subway, was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1907 to allow their trains to pass over top of Highway 12, instead of at grade.

After passing over the “Mouse Hole,” trains would then proceed northward over a curved 2,141-foot-long wooden trestle bridge on the north side of Highway 12, passing over the east-west Grand Trunk Railway line and then Hogg Bay itself, on the way to the CPR Port McNicoll shipping terminal at the north end of Hogg Bay. This terminal, which replaced their Owen Sound shipping terminal, featured amenities such as passenger and cargo buildings, sheds and a two-million-bushel grain elevator, all situated around two concrete piers, one 3,000 feet long and the other 3,600 feet long, at the end of a mile long, 600-foot wide channel.

The CPR also relocated their five-steamship fleet from Owen Sound to Port McNicoll, including S.S. Keewatin, an Edwardian-era steamship launched in 1907. Keewatin featured a smaller, but otherwise identical dining room to the one on the RMS Titanic, launched five years later.

While the Hogg Bay trestle was a very large structure, standing 40-feet above the water at its lowest point, rising to 114-feet at its maximum height, the “Mouse Hole” subway had a centreline vertical clearance of only 12-feet, which forced over-height transport trucks onto lengthy detours, or risking getting stuck, which would occasionally happen. The subway had been originally been designed in an era of horse-drawn carriages and wagons, but with the coming of larger passenger vehicles and transport of goods by bigger commercial trucks becoming more common, the “Mouse Hole” became more of an obstacle. Although passenger vehicles could just barely pass each other, transport trucks could only go through one at a time.

In 1971, Highway 12 was widened and moved to a new alignment slightly to the north, by-passing the “Mouse Hole.” The trestle was also abandoned in 1971, with the CPR building a new line around the south-west end of Hogg Bay. It remained standing until 1978, when it was demolished, leaving only two concrete supports straddling the former GTR line, then owned by Canadian National Railway.

The dominance of the railways continued into the last half of the 20th Century, with CPR’s passenger service to Port McNicoll ceasing in 1965. Freight service continued until 1991, when all the grain elevators at Port McNicoll and nearby Midland closed. The rail line, station, sheds and grain elevator have all since been demolished. 

The former GTR line is now the Tay Shore Rail Trail, which is a part of the Trans-Canada Trail, a multi-use trail for use by walkers, runners, cyclists, horseback riders and cross-county skiers.

Sources: The Hole In The Wall | Tay Township Heritage (wordpress.com), Ontario Highway 12 Photographs – Page 1 – History of Ontario’s Kings Highways (thekingshighway.ca), Old Time Trains (trainweb.org), Canadian Pacific Rail Terminus, Port McNicoll | Tay Township Heritage (wordpress.com), Contact Rails to Midland, canadian-rail-409-1989.pdf (exporail.org), Port McNicoll Railway Stations – Ontario Railway Stations (wordpress.com).

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.

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