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Portage Flyer Christmas Train - The Joy of an Annual Tradition

Article by Dawn Huddlestone / Photography by Tomasz Szumski

Take the tenacity of The Little Engine That Could, toss in some of the magic of the Polar Express, and place it along a picturesque bend in the Muskoka River and you’ve got the makings of a “supermagicated” Christmas celebration like no other.

The Portage Flyer Christmas Train Ride, held annually on the Saturday before Christmas at Huntsville’s Muskoka Heritage Place, carries revellers young and old from the Rotary Village Station to a cosy cabin at the end of the line where Santa awaits last-minute wishes.

It’s a spectacularly festive event with carols, hot chocolate, a heritage train bedecked with more than 1,000 lights and, of course, everyone’s favourite jolly elf.

“It’s our one shot at giving Disneyland a run for their money,” jokes Muskoka Heritage Place general manager Ron Gostlin.

The pre-Christmas celebration has become an annual tradition for many families, with children, parents and grandparents, alike, eagerly anticipating the cheerful atmosphere, the clanging of the Portage Flyer’s bell as it pulls out of the station, the frosty open-air ride down the track and the welcoming warmth of the cabin at the end of the line. Gostlin says he has heard the big guy himself say just how much he loves to see all those smiling faces arriving by train.

The event was originally the idea of volunteer Paul Campbell and engineer Greg Smith, but staff at first weren’t sure they’d be able to pull it off, says Gostlin. It’s the only time the Portage Flyer runs outside of its regular May to October schedule, and the biggest challenge for staff is keeping the track clear of ice.

It’s well worth the effort for the joy it brings, says Gostlin. “It’s a great family event that encompasses the best of winter in Muskoka and the holiday season.” It now draws more than 1,000 visitors for its single night.

The Portage Flyer hasn’t always been part of the attraction of Muskoka Heritage Place. Long before it arrived in Huntsville, the train was billed as the smallest commercially operated railway in the world – with a track just one-and-one-eighth mile long – carrying passengers over the steep ridge between Peninsula Lake and Lake of Bays to connect the steamship routes on each side.

The train began operation in 1905, and shortly after was purchased by Charles Orlando (C.O.) Shaw, owner of the Anglo Canadian Leather Company.

That the train ran at all was thanks to some engineering feats that likely wouldn’t be approved today.

When the train left the North Portage dock on Peninsula Lake, it climbed a steep switchback to get up the ridge. At its steepest, it had a seven per cent gradient. Today, a mere two per cent grade is considered high for a railway. Cribwork was used where the track rounded Osborne Lake to retain the bed and at the end of a ridge adjacent to the lake, the track turned 160 degrees in just 100 feet.

When it was fully loaded, the train – which ran backward from North Portage, the engine pushing its open-air cars up the ridge – sometimes didn’t have the power to make it all the way up. In those instances, it would back up to the switchback for a second try; sometimes passengers were asked to help push the train to get it to the summit.

When the last of the steamships, the Iroquois II, stopped running in 1958, the Portage Flyer lasted just a single year as a tourist attraction.

In 1961, the track was removed and the equipment sold to become a tourist attraction in St. Thomas, Ontario. But when the steam locomotives were again offered for sale in 1984, the newly formed Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society bought them and returned them to Huntsville. Then began a long effort by volunteers with the railway society and the Rotary Club of Huntsville to build a train station and shed, lay track and return the Portage Flyer to service. It made its first run on its new three-quarter-mile track in the summer of 2000.

Today, visitors can learn about the history of steam travel – both by train and by ship – at the Steam Museum in a replica train station, and contemplate how much more difficult it was to get around 100 years ago as they take a ride on the Portage Flyer. In the spring and fall, a 1948 diesel engine pulls passengers along the track, with a 1926 steam locomotive taking over for the warmer months of July and August.

The train’s destination is the Purser’s Cabin at a scenic rest-stop where the Muskoka River meets Fairy Lake. The cabin originally sat at Norway Point on Lake of Bays. Before the return trip begins, all are welcome to check out the train’s cab and have a chat with the engineer.

The adventurous can even become an engineer for a day in a unique program that teaches all about the operation of the train and provides the opportunity to drive the train for an afternoon. There are a lot of would-be engineers out there, it seems – the program sells out every year before the season even begins.  

For more information about the Portage Flyer and the Christmas train ride, visit muskokaheritageplace.org.  In 2019, the Portage Flyer Christmas Train Ride will be held on Saturday, December 21.  Tickets are $5 per person.





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