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Hello From Ottawa – A Historic Transportation Adventure On The Hull-chelsea-wakefield Steam Train

Transportation is an integral experience of any trip, and when you get a chance to experience a unique mode of transportation it's even better. Even though today we didn't have the best weather, I drove from Ottawa over the bridge to Hull (now officially part of the Municipality of Gatineau), and not far from the famous Casino duLac-Leamy is the train station for the Hull-Chelsea Wakefield Steam Train. This tourist train runs on the former Gatineau Railway Line, built between...

Canada, Gatineau River, Quebec, Train

Transportation is an integral experience of any trip, and when you get a chance to experience a unique mode of transportation it's even better. Even though today we didn't have the best weather, I drove from Ottawa over the bridge to Hull (now officially part of the Municipality of Gatineau), and not far from the famous Casino duLac-Leamy is the train station for the Hull-Chelsea Wakefield Steam Train. This tourist train runs on the former Gatineau Railway Line, built between 1890 and 1903 by the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railway whose purpose was to connect downtown Ottawa with the Quebec town of Maniwaki in order to facilitate lumber transports. Due to a shortage of funds the entire railway line was never fully completed and passenger service through the Gatineau Valley ceased operation in 1963.

Today the 64 km stretch covered by the Hull-Chelsea Wakefield Steam Train winds its way through a scenic landscape wedged in between the Gatineau Hills and the Gatineau River. The idea for this tourist train was conceived by a private and public consortium in 1992, and in 1994 a local businessman, Mr. Jean Gauthier, bought the tourist train, restructured the enterprise and turned it into a successful tourism venture that has since won a variety of prizes and awards, including several Grand Prizes awarded by Quebec Tourism.

The Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train consists of an authentic steam engine of Swedish origin, built in 1907. Sweden used to have an entire fleet of steam engines which they phased out in the 1950s when the country’s railroad system became electrified. They did not scrap the old steam engines, but put them into storage. Due to the threat of the Cold War, they feared that their electricity production capacity might be attacked by invaders, and the old locomotives were hidden in shelters, just in case they were needed to provide an alternate source of transportation.

By 1990 the threat of the Cold War had subsided and the Swedish government decided to sell its 200 steam locomotives, one of which (the “909”) was picked up by the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield project along with a 1962 General Motors diesel locomotive. Each engine is capable of about 1000 horsepowers and when there are more than 8 coaches attached, usually both locomotives are in service.

The nine coaches themselves were also built in Sweden during the 1940s. The Quebec coach holds a snack bar while the Club Riviera is the luxury car. The seven other coaches feature comfortable seating and there is limited wheel chair capacity in the Wakefield coach. The Riviera car was refurbished and upgraded a few years ago and features a great room and 3 private rooms. It is often used for private and corporate events.

My ride was going to be in the luxury Club Riviera coach, and as I settled into a comfortable armchair, I sat back and thought of the grand old times of train travel. Our tour guide and attendant Maxime welcomed us through her wireless microphone in both official languages and our trip had begun. We started rolling slowly through the north end of Hull and soon Maxime jokingly pointed out a “car museum” on our right hand side. Turned out it was a junkyard, I guess “museum” is another, definitely more upbeat way of looking at it.

Our trusty steam train pulled us slowly northwards and we moved into a forested area with the Gatineau River on the right and the forest on the left. Hundreds of trilliums were blooming in the woods and occasionally we heard the whistling of the steam engine. Soon after our departure, Maxime brought an assortment of baked goods, coffee and orange juice to each table. She explained that the Gatineau River is 400 km long and has its origin in Northern Quebec. On the right hand side she pointed out the Chelsea Hydroelectric Dam which was built in 1927 and ended up creating enormous floods. Maxime explained that due to the dam the river is now 75 to 80 feet deep.

In Tenaga, a native word for “water tank”, trains used to fill up their water tanks while in Kirk's Ferry, Thomas Kirk, an American businessman had created a horse-drawn ferry in the 1850s with horses walking on both sides of the river, pulling the boats across the river with a pulley system. Once the dam was built, this became too dangerous and the ferry operation stopped.

Maxime also explained that the train today is propelled by heating oil, not coal. This was one of the safety requirements imposed by the Canadian government when they issued the permit for the tourist train. Heating oil is not only less expensive than coal, it is also less polluting. We chugged by the Morrison Quarry, a now abandoned gravel pit featuring a variety of run-down, yet almost picturesque industrial equipment. On the other side of the quarry is actually the highest bungee jumping tower in Canada.

Two young musicians, one with a guitar and one with a fiddle, came into our railway car and played some folk music which the crowd greatly appreciated. Every outing on the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train features an element of live entertainment. In addition to daytime excursions, the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train also offers evening excursions featuring a 4-course dinner.

After an hour and a half we finally arrived in the quaint town of Wakefield, location of many restaurants, tea rooms and souvenir shops. The big spectacle was yet to come: the operation of the manual turntable! Once the train reaches its final destination the 93 ton steam locomotive needs to be turned around for the drive back to its original location. The engineers slowly drive the train onto a swiveling circular platform. Then the musicians get to manually push the platform using lever arms and this turns the locomotive around in the opposite direction. This is one of only two manual turntables left in North America.

A lunch at the Trois Erables Bed and Breakfast was included in the Riviera Club package, however, I had already made plans earlier to explore one of the most historic properties in town: the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa, a historic gristmill just a 10 minute walk outside of downtown Wakefield.

Following my discovery of the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa it was time to get back on the train at 1:30. There are several sound signals using the steam whistle to announce the departure of the train back to Hull and there are 2 departure points inside the town of Wakefield. People were coming back on the train, somewhat soaked from the rainy weather, and quite a few of them had obviously been to some of the crafts shops or chocolate stores around Wakefield.

It was time for our leisurely hour and a half ride back to Hull, and the mood in the car was noticeably quieter. The chairs in the Riviera Car are so comfortable that a few passengers took a little nap, myself included. The rhythmic chugging of the train is an extremely relaxing experience and made me doze off a couple of times on the way back.

Once we had reached our final destination, I experienced a real treat: the two engineers, Vic and Nikolas, invited me into the cab of the steam locomotive for a few minutes just before they were going to turn around the train around for the dinner excursion at the railway yard. I had missed my turn to climb aboard the engine in Wakefield, but now I got to catch up and see this mechanical beauty up close.

Vic himself is a retired RCMP officer who has found the perfect part-time job. Nikolas, a recent immigrant from Croatia who is very experienced with steam engines, works on refurbishing and maintaining the locomotives during the winter time and drives them in the summer. Both of these gentlemen visibly love their job, they enjoy working with this close to 100 year old steam engine and take good care of it to make sure it has many more years of life left.

The Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train is a great example of how a historic travel experience has been revived and become a major local tourist attraction. It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day.

 

Hello From Ottawa – Doubling Up On Antiquity At The Museum Of Civilization

Today culture was on my mind. After enjoying two interesting exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, I made my way across the river to the City of Gatineau (formerly Hull) to visit Canada’s most popular museum: the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This rewowned Canadian institution is known for its unique architecture and is host to the Canadian Postal Museum, the Canadian Children’s Museum, an IMAX Theatre (which I was going to visit later today) and a v...

Ottawa,Ontario, Canada,Museum of Civilization, exhibition

Today culture was on my mind. After enjoying two interesting exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, I made my way across the river to the City of Gatineau (formerly Hull) to visit Canada’s most popular museum: the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This rewowned Canadian institution is known for its unique architecture and is host to the Canadian Postal Museum, the Canadian Children’s Museum, an IMAX Theatre (which I was going to visit later today) and a variety of special exhibitions.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has three major galleries: the Grand Hall, which is the architectural centerpiece of the museum, Canada Hall as well as the First People’s Hall. The 112 x 15 m (365 ft x 50 ft) glass wall of the Great Hall features a magnificent view of Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings and hosts the world’s largest collection of indoor totem poles.

My goal today was to see a special exhibition: a traveling exhibition organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." Petra - Lost City of Stone" is the most complete portrait ever assembled of the amazing and enigmatic city of Petra. This exhibit tells the story of a once-thriving metropolis at the crossroads of the ancient trade routes.

Its inhabitants, the Nabateans, constructed a magnificent city in a harsh desert environment. Petra only receives about 15 centimeters (6 inches) of rain a year. Ingenously its residents were able to control the water supply of the city by capturing and collecting water from flash floods in more than 200 underground cisterns which would then be redistributed through the city through a system of clay pipes. This stored water was used during periods of extended drought and the city even prospered from the sale of the water. In effect the ancient Nabateans had created an artificial oasis.

Originally the Nabateans were traveling merchants, but they became even more prosperous once they settled down and started serving and taxing other traveling merchants. Being located at the intersection of several caravan trade routes, the Nabateans integrated art and architecture from other cultures. Asian elephants, for example, were a popular symbol for strength, many carvings found show artistic elements from in the art and mythology of Ancient Greece. Several centuries later, Byzantine Christian art was widely adopted.

Petra’s surrounding natural environment is visibly stunning and geologically unique. A dark and narrow gorge called the Siq (the “shaft”) cut into sandstone forms the eastern access to the city. In some places the Siq is only 3 to 4 metres wide and its end stands the magnificent ruin of the Treasury (Al Khazneh), an absolutely stunning decorated façade hewn out of the natural stone. In total, Petra had 3000 temples, tombs and dwellings and during its heyday the population was an estimated 20,000 people. Originally these structures were covered with stucco and brightly painted, which must have been a spectular view in this desert environment.

Despite the abundance of temples we actually know relatively little about the religion of the Nabateans. They apparently had a small number of Gods, with Dushara being the most important male god, and Al-Uzza representing the most important female deity.

Petra celebrated its zenith between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. when it was one of the major trading centers linking the Silk Road and the spice routes that connected China, India and Arabia with buying consumers in Greece, Rome, Egypt and Syria. In 106 A.D. Petra was annexed by the Roman Emperor Trajan. During the Byzantine period the city had its own bishop and later large Christian churches were built.

Being located in a seismically unstable area, Petra had experienced many earthquakes, but a tremor in 363 AD hit the city particularly hard. Half the city was destroyed and the water system was disrupted. With the increase of ocean trade, the decline of land-based trade routes through this area had already affected the city earlier and it seems that Petra was unable to muster the resources to rebuild itself. In the early 7th century, Muslim Arabs arrived in Petra from the south. The transition to Islamic rule appears to have been relatively peaceful in Southern Jordan.

By the seventh century Petra was finally abandoned and remained virtually lost to the outside world. It was not until 1812 that a Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhard, rediscovered the city. Today, less than five percent of the city has been unearthed, so this ancient city of stone still has many secrets to reveal.

The exhibit itself consists of many components, including artifacts, architectural detailing, jewellery, vases and other objects. Some of the highlights of the exhibition are a striking gravestone bearing the likeness of a man’s head, a recently discovered column capital with elephant heads, a relief carving of a standing eagle and a recently reassembled sculpted garland frieze from one of the city’s main temples. 19th century paintings, drawings and prints illustrate the city’s rediscovery by Burckhard in 1812 and Petra – Crossroad of the Ancient World is an 8 minute film that presents a brief cultural history of this city. It also illustrates the Nabateans' unique rock-cutting process as well as their water management and storage techniques.

This historical exhibition is augmented by a photo exhibit: The Bedouin of Petra is a collection of 25 colour photographs by award-winning photojournalist Vivian Ronay. The photos were taken at various times between 1986 and 2003 and document the life of the Bedoul Bedouins, and their transition from a pastoral life to a lifestyle based on tourism. The Bedoul had lived in tents and caves among the ruins of the ancient city until the Jordanian government became concerned about the city’s preservation. They were then invited to move to a nearby village where modern housing and facilities would be provided. The majority of them moved from tents and caves to conventional houses, giving up their old life as herders and farmers to work in the tourism industry. A fascinating look at an ancient people who have undergone an enormous change in lifestyle.

As if Petra wasn’t fascinating enough, I decided to add another encounter with antiquity. I walked over to the Museum’s IMAX Theatre to see a special presentation: Greece – Secrets of the Past. This IMAX Theatre is the first of its kind in the world and actually combines two IMAX technologies. The size of the vertical screen is 10 times the size of a conventional movie screen and tilts into place to convey a multi-dimensional experience, as close as possible to actually being there.

This realistic quality was definitely appreciated since one of the movie’s opening sequences starts with a flight over the Mediterranean and a stunning look down on some of the Greek islands. In dramatic pictures I learned about the formation of the island of Santorini and its volcanic eruption: the most powerful explosion in history.
Images of Athens and the Acropolis demonstrated that 2500 years ago Greece was indeed the cradle of Western civilization. Art and architecture flourished while science, philosophy and literature reached impressive heights. The camera follows in the footsteps a team of archeologists and introduced the audience to innovations in this scientific field.

Greece: Secrets of the Past is a MacGillivray Freeman Film produced by Alex G. Spanos in association with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Museum Film Network with major funding assistance from the National Science Foundation. Incidentally Nia Vardalos (from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) narrates the feature.

The visual images are stunning and it’s true: it’s almost as good as being there…

 

Hello From Ottawa – The Canadian Tulip Festival Features The Flotilla

For a period of almost three weeks, the Canadian Tulip Festival offers a wide range of special events and festivities, and the Flotilla on the Rideau Canal is certainly one of the highlights. This morning I made my way down to Dow’s Lake through the leafy historic neighbourhoods of Ottawa. I parked my car about 20 minutes away from Commissioner’s Park which gave me the opportunity of a nice morning stroll through some of the gorgeous residential areas in Ottawa. Queen Elizabe...

Ottawa, Canada, casino, flowers, tulip, festival, Rideau Canal

For a period of almost three weeks, the Canadian Tulip Festival offers a wide range of special events and festivities, and the Flotilla on the Rideau Canal is certainly one of the highlights. This morning I made my way down to Dow’s Lake through the leafy historic neighbourhoods of Ottawa. I parked my car about 20 minutes away from Commissioner’s Park which gave me the opportunity of a nice morning stroll through some of the gorgeous residential areas in Ottawa. Queen Elizabeth Driveway had been blocked off to road traffic, but yesterday I had the opportunity to drive right next to the Rideau Canal - it simply has to be one of the most scenic areas in Ottawa and one of the most serene public spaces in any of the big world cities that I have visited.

People were lining up beside Dow’s Lake and no one was quite sure if the weather was going to hold up or not, so there were many umbrellas to be seen in the crowd. But that didn’t deter a large number of loyal onlookers from gathering on the shores of Ottawa’s urban lake, ready to take in the beautiful images of the Flotilla. Ottawa’s parade on the water is one of the highlights of the Tulip Festival and this year more than 40 especially decorated boats participated.

The Flotilla Weekend features a variety of events, including Music on the Lake on a floating stage; there is a remote-control model boat exhibition and historic blacksmithing demonstration. The main event, the Flotilla started at 1:00 pm at Dows Lake and decorated boats of varying types and sizes paraded along the Rideau Canal all the way up to the Rideau Street Bridge. Along the route there is entertainment, refreshments and bilingual commentary introducing the participants.

Always curious, I made my way towards the announcer right next to the Dows Lake Pavilion who was dispatching and describing each floating participant in the parade. Right next to the announcer I found one of the key people behind the Canadian Tulip Festival: Benoît Hubert, the Executive Director of this non-profit organization who sat down with me to give me a better background of Ottawa’s largest festival.

The Canadian Tulip Festival got its start in 1953 and has very interesting historical roots: Queen Juliana of the Netherlands (1909 – 2004) went into exile to Canada during the Second World War and her daughter, Princess Margriet, was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Canadian soldiers also played an integral role in liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II. As a gesture of appreciation Princess Juliana sent 100,000 tulips to Canada in the fall of 1945 and this tradition has continued every year since then with an annual shipment of tulips from Holland.

The Tulip Festival has become a symbol of international friendship and over the last 53 years has evolved into the World’s biggest tulip festival. World-wide interest in this festival was stoked early when internationally renowned photographer Malak Karsh presented his stunning tulip pictures which appeared in newspapers all across the nation. Today more than two million flowers grace Ottawa during the festival, and the National Capital Commission, a federal agency with a mandate to beautify the National Capital Region, is in charge of the hundreds of flower beds and gardens that adorn the city.

Benoît mentioned that this year is a very special year since Ottawa is hosting the World Flower Council, an organization that promotes peace through the shared joy of flowers. The conference is introducing an international flavour to this year’s Tulip Festival and even the Flotilla had participants from the Netherlands, Thailand, Turkey, Taiwan, and France. He went on to explain that during the Kid’s World events, more than 3000 children come every day from different schools to learn about the history of the tulip.

The historical background of the tulip is surprisingly interesting: as a flower it is native to southern Europe, northern Africa and Asia, all the way from Anatolia and Iran east to northeast China and Japan. The tulip is the national flower of Iran and Turkey, and Persian and Turkish folk art prominently feature tulip motifs. Over the centuries tulips became more popular and moved westwards where Holland became the world’s primary tulip producer.

During the 1600s Holland was gripped by a regular “tulip mania” which makes the stock market crash of 1929 pale in terms of its speculatory excesses. At the peak of this crazy historic period, enormous prices were charged for a single tulip bulb. Today the term “tulip mania” has come to mean any large economic bubble. The historic appeal of the tulip has continued, evidenced by the fact that the Tulip Festival is Ottawa’s biggest festival, and incidentally the largest festival of its kind in the world. It attracts somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000 visitors in 19 days and generates C$ 70 million in revenue for the National Capital Region.

It is interesting to note that the Canadian Tulip Festival is a non-profit organization that only has three full-time employees year round. Leading up to the festival staff levels grow to 45 full-time employees and more than 1200 volunteers who play an integral part of this special event. The Canadian Tulip Festival enjoys the generous support of major sponsors such as the Casino du Lac-Leamy and the Hilton Lac Leamy, CTV, the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Life Financial.

Government Partners include the City of Ottawa, the Federal Government (Human Resources Development, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions and Heritage Canada), Ontario’s tourism marketing agency ("Ontario - More To Discover"), the National Capital Commission (who is the “official gardener “of Canada’s Capital) as well as the City of Gatineau. From corporate sponsors, to public sector partners to private individuals, the Canadian Tulip Festival is a magnificent collaborative effort that mobilizes the entire National Capital Region on the Ontario and Quebec side and attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Tulip Festival has four official sites, all lavishly decked out with flower beds featuring different varieties of the coveted tulip. Parliament Hill, Majors Hill Park, Commissioners Park next to Dow’s Lake and the Casino du Lac-Leamy are all official Tulip Festival sites and host a variety of events, concerts and displays during an almost three week period.

The Capital Infocentre on Parliament Hill provides all the necessary information for visitors of the Tulip Festival and the Parliament Buildings are adorned by thousands of these iconic spring flowers. Commissioner’s Park showcases more than 350,000 tulips planted by the National Capital Commission. The Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau on the other side of the Ottawa River has been hosting the “Tulip Explosion” for the last three years. This event encompasses floral shows, dress and hair design competitions as well as floral design competitions. Seven different schools compete for the top prize in floral design. Major’s Hill Park plays host to the Tulip Friendship Village, the Artisans Marketplace, to the Family Zone entertainment area as well as the Get Out! Ottawa Citizen Concert Series.

Benoît also informed me of the 16 attraction sites that are part of the Tulip Festival: all of Ottawa’s and Hull / Gatineau’s major attractions are part of this spring festival. Some of the attractions on this long list include the Canadian Agriculture Museum, the Dows Lake Pavilion, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Rideau Centre, the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Canadian War Museum, Little Italy and many more.

There is no doubt that the Canadian Tulip Festival with all its attractions, special events, concerts and displays is a major tourist draw. Even the couple from Rochester that I met at the Auberge McGee said that the Tulip Festival was the main draw for them to come to Ottawa and it’s a wonderful way to get to know the City of Ottawa and its neighbour Gatineau across the River. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate the arrival of spring and the international friendships that are symbolized by the Canadian Tulip Festival.




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