THE STORY OF CANADA IS THE STORY OF RAILROADS. Or at least it was, for a crucial century where the country went from a vast wilderness to a former colony struggling to become a nation. Railroads were the technology that made it possible to get across our incredible distances, though you’d have a hard time understanding that today. Stations have been closed, lines abandoned and tracks pulled up, leaving at best a path through the trees. You have to travel a long way to find the remains of those iron roads – to places like Sault Ste. Marie, on the edge of the Canadian Shield, at the point where two great lakes meet.
This is where the Algoma Central Railway met the Canadian Pacific line as it ran across the country, branching north to iron mines through the ancient forests of Ontario. These tracks also allowed a group of painters access to scenery that they’d immortalize, in their mission to help a new nation understand what it looked like. Incredibly, a train still travels the Algoma Central tracks today, bringing tourists to the spots where those painters camped and sketched.
The epic scenery of the Algoma region and the Soo were discovered by painter and farm machinery heir Lawren Harris at the end of World War One, and he quickly spread the word to the other artists who’d soon be known as the Group of Seven. Harris and his pals arrived at the Canadian Pacific station in Sault Ste Marie on the train from Toronto, but that closed a long time ago, and I arrive by air on a Porter flight.
Sault Ste Marie – or “The Soo” as it’s known – understands its history and importance, and tries hard to tell that story to visitors. The Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site, for instance, contains a stone house built by fur trader Charles Oakes Ermatinger, and the former North West Company trading post powder magazine that was converted into a home by Francis Hector Clergue, the industrialist and founder of St. Mary’s Paper, Algoma Steel and the Algoma Central. Nearby in a series of hangars by the edge of the St. Mary’s River is the Bushplane Heritage Museum, bursting to the seams with planes and exhibits exploring the transportation technology that was crucial to the northern wilderness in areas where roads, boats and railways could never reach.
The Soo has had a substantial Italian-Canadian population for decades, and their legacy is some fine Italian eateries, as well as Muio’s, the Queen Street East diner that’s been an institution for sixty years. Another local institution that was recently revived is the Northern Superior Brewery, just next to the Bushplane Heritage Museum. Northern Superior was once part of a group of breweries going back to the turn of the century. The original company went out of business in 2006, but in 2015 a group of local investors decided to revive Northern Superior as a craft brewery. Brewmaster Blake Winter took me on a tour of their taproom, with samples of a range of pours from a pale ale to an Irish red ale to a German black ale, finishing off with their signature lager, a classic Ontarian taste that brought back memories of long-gone taverns and stubbies.
The artists who would call themselves the Group of Seven were just a group of painters after World War One, some of whom made a living as graphic artists in Toronto. Stepping off the CPR train from the city alongside Harris were J.E.H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston. Other members included Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael, and when Johnston left the group later, his place would be taken by A.J. Casson. Most of them have work hanging at the Art Gallery of Algoma, whose tidy collection gives the context for the Group’s work, both before and after their crucial trips to Algoma.
Lawren Harris’ wealth and connections allowed them to work in relative luxury by paying the Algoma Central kit out a boxcar with amenities and having it pulled to sidings along the route. A replica of that boxcar, made for an Ontario public television documentary about the artists, sits by the former St. Mary’s Paper buildings. It’s a short walk from where you catch the Agawa Canyon Tour Train today – a day excursion that travels along the ACR tracks, and the only passenger service still operating from the Soo through Algoma today.
The Agawa Canyon Tour Train and its vintage rolling stock leaves early in the morning, traveling through the outskirts of Sault Ste Marie for a few minutes before it hits the forest that extends for over a thousand miles north through Ontario through Quebec and Manitoba to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. It gets its name from the hard Precambrian rock just under the soil of the boreal forest that you can see stretching out from the windows of the train. It’s a raw landscape, very different from the farmland and cottage country where the painters in the Group had worked, or the Toronto streets and worker’s shacks that Harris and the others had been sketching until their first trips north.
The assistance of the Algoma Central on their expeditions was an immense gift for Harris and his friends, as the only way into the forests of the Shield before the development of the bushplane was by rail. You can sense his excitement in a letter written to J.E.H. MacDonald, anticipating “that we may proceed to biff the landscape out of a cocked hat at our sweet will.” The forest is a lush green in June, but the most famous paintings made by the Group were made in the autumn, and not surprisingly that’s when bookings on the Agawa Canyon train are hardest to get.
The skies are bright blue and nearly cloudless all the way up to Agawa Canyon, and the lakes under the morning sky are like mirrors. The trees go right to the water, with only the rarest glimpse of a cottage or boathouse. The ACR tried for years to encourage farmers to settle along the route of their trains, but with the dense forest broken only by water and rocky outcrops, you can see why they were ultimately unsuccessful. It really is a landscape better suited to a paintbrush than a plough.
Some of the views painted by the Group have changed – the wild rapids where the Montreal River passes under an ACR trestle, immortalized on canvas by MacDonald, were dammed years ago. From the train, however, you can see the looming cliff face that MacDonald called “The Solemn Land” in a milestone painting. For Harris and his friends, the trips into the wilderness had a spiritual as well as a creative component; in a letter to his wife, MacDonald described the Algoma landscape as having “all the attributes of an imagined Paradise,” and that it evoked “a glimpse of God himself.”
The train pulls into the park at Agawa Canyon around lunchtime, with a 90-minute stop that allows for a hike along at least one of the three maintained trails. Bridal Veil Falls, the centerpiece of the park, was painted by both Harris and MacDonald, more than once. Before lockdown, there were discussions about expanding the experience of visitors to the park – developing overnight accommodation and opportunities for kayaking, canoeing and extended hikes – but the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic has put those plans on hold for now.
After traveling along the ACR line into Algoma, the Group of Seven returned to Sault Ste. Marie to head north along the shore of Lake Superior, to places like Pic Island by Neys Provincial Park – inspiration for crucial paintings by Harris and Arthur Lismer – and the now-abandoned fishing village at Port Coldwell. We take a drive north from the Soo on Highway 17, part of the Trans-Canada Highway, to visit some of the locations that the Group would visit in the years after those first momentous Algoma trips.
There are finally some clouds in the sky when we get to the Chippewa Falls rest stop, where A.Y Jackson painted “Stream Bed, Lake Superior Country” in 1955. There’s a mist coming off the rapids that’s backlit by sunlight coming through the trees, and it provides me the closest opportunity I’ll get on the whole trip for a photo that evokes something like the spirit of a Group of Seven painting.
Heading further north along 17 we stop for lunch – fried fresh local fish with wild rice, slaw and a biscuit, absolutely fantastic – at Voyageurs’ Lodge and Cookhouse, a truck stop and motel by Batchawana Bay. Further along the road we hit another roadside attraction: Agawa Indian Crafts, a souvenir and gift shop by Pancake Bay. You can get anything here, up to and including funeral urns, but The Canadian Carver, an annex to the shop full of hand-carved art and furniture, is the real star – a one-stop shop for fans of Canadian woodworking and devotees of cottagecore.
We get as far as Lake Superior Provincial Park before we have to turn back for the Soo. The pebble and sand beach outside the visitor’s centre is worth the drive – though not without bug spray at the height of mosquito season. Stretching along the lake by Agawa Bay, it provides stark, dramatic views of the largest of all the Great Lakes – an inland sea for all intents and purposes, capable of catastrophic storms though ominously peaceful on this early summer day. It’s easy to feel alone and awestruck in a place like this – feelings that the painters of the Group of Seven were constantly pursuing on creative journeys that would take them from here to the Rockies and the Arctic, on the way to painting Canada.
Rick McGinnis was hosted by Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, which did not approve or review this story.
Photos and story © 2017, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved