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Place Stories

The Big Chute Marine Railway

boats on a train

Trent Severn Waterway

Big Chute, Ontario, Canada

August 6, 2019

 Big Chute 
 Toronto, ONT 
Killarny, ONT 

This part of Canada merits a second map

to give a feeling for the Canadian Shield terrain

this map covers 10 miles from side to side

 Big Chute 


A first marine railway was finished on this site in 1917 to overcome the 58 foot drop of The Big Chute. It was one of the final pieces to complete the Trent Severn Waterway connecting Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay that began in 1833 with the first lock at Bobcaygeon. The railway was a temporary solution to meet the demands of the Great War; conventional locks would have taken much longer to build. The conventional locks and dams they would have required were started in 1919 but abandoned in 1921 due to the post-war recession.

Instead, the original railway was almost completely rebuilt in 1923-24 to accommodate larger boats.

As boat traffic increased, a lock was again considered in the 1960s to solve the bottleneck the railway had become. But a lock would have allowed the Sea Lamprey access to the valuable Lake Simcoe fishery. This voracious Atlantic predator was introduced to the Great Lakes starting with the completion of the Welland Canal in 1829 that connected Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. By the 1930s the sea lamprey had destroyed the Great Lakes trout fishery. So instead, a larger railway was built right next to the old one, started in 1976 and opened in 1978. A sign says the 1923 version still serves as a trusty backup, but it’s hard to imagine that relic being cranked up.

One of the challenges of history is to visualize the circumstances that drove the construction of such an ambitious infrastructure project as the Trent Severn Waterway, even as railroads were making it obvious that any commercial success would be short lived.

The key to the Trent Severn are the abundant and beautiful natural resources of Ontario and the industries they attracted. The forests of Ontario were logged extensively in the 1800s. The first dam at The Big Chute in the 1870s was built to raise water levels for timber drives – something like the cattle drives of the old U.S. West, but logs in water instead of cattle on range. The dams led to power generation, which led to sawmills, which led to shipping lumber on boats instead of driving logs through water, yippy yi yo.

By the 1930s, the natural beauty of the area was attracting a summer cottage industry to replace the dying logging industry. The recreational boat explosion in the 1950s and 60s solidified the new tourist industry, doing very well in the new century - at least partly due to how well the Trent Severn Waterway is operated and maintained.

Another boat going through Big Chute

Next Story

L.T.  going through Big Chute
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