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Britt-Byng Inlet 100 years: Crossing the Magnetawan River
Published: June 11, 2008
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A train travels along a wooden trestle bridge going over the Magnetawan River in this undated historical photo.One cannot sense today the incredible feelings the residents of Byng Inlet and Byng Inlet North (later Britt) must have had that late spring day of June 15, 1908 when the CP Rail line between Toronto and Sudbury opened.

Suddenly, the shackles of isolation were broken and the two shoreline communities became connected to an outside world, regardless of ice and bad weather. From May 1868 to June 15, 1908 the residents were prisoners to the packet steamer schedule and fares, and to winter with its frozen waterways.

In those days before global warming, the last packet steamer of the season would call no later than mid-November and not return until the ice abated in late May.

The railway’s advancement came in stages led first by the surveyors and engineers. This was followed by the workers blasting a track bed from both the north and south until they came to the Magnetawan River.

Here a huge timber trestle was constructed from the north shore to the main river channel, where a bridge spanning just over 875 feet connected the south shore.

The predominant settlement, Byng Inlet, was on the south shore, but the railway station was built south east of the village, a distance of about three miles.

Built in 1908, the station was a two storey wood-framed building measuring 22 feet by 50 feet long and boasted an 11-foot high ceiling on the main floor.

Taxi and ferry services

The local entrepreneurial spirit of the village quickly seized the opportunity presented and a teamster soon had a taxi service from the village to the station while another created a ferry service between Byng Inlet North and Byng Inlet.

Almost overnight, the shoreline communities began to change in response to the railway.

The Inlet’s hospital on Hospital Island would soon close due to the ability to treat patients in Parry Sound and Toronto. The satellite office of Parry Sound dentist, Dr. Cunningham, closed and patients road the rails to his office.

A Wal-Mart type effect

Local merchants first experienced the Wal-Mart type effect as residents could, by riding the rails, check styles, fashions and, most importantly, prices. Competition finished off the Company Store and the last packet steamer left Byng Inlet permanently with the navigation season’s close in 1916.

William E. Bigwood, President of the major Inlet lumber mill, Graves, Bigwood & Co., recognized the power of rail. He switched from water transportation to box cars to take his lumber to southern markets.

On the train's return, he filled flat cars with logs from the Pointe au Baril area.

His lumber barges were soon sold, leaving him his tugs for towing log booms from the Spanish River area and for moving log booms within the Inlet.

Company doctor, Dr. John Allen Oille, noted the lighter side of the railway’s coming in an after dinner speech to a group of University of Toronto medical students. He had the occasion to have a patient arrive to pay her bill carrying a large wad of cash.

Inquiring, he quickly deduced that on this particular Sunday, the lady had been harvesting the CPR work crews.

Had a revolver

Worried about a woman with so much cash walking home in the evening, she calmed him by showing off her revolver, of which there was little doubt of her ability to use it.

Steam locomotives of the day consumed coal and Byng Inlet had a deep water port. With the railway now across the Magnetawan River, heavy equipment moved in and built, in 1910, a large coaling yard, which opened for its first ship in 1911.

Tankers a delight

As diesel replaced coal, the coaling operation was dismantled in 1956; however the CPR continues to invest in the community by recently upgrading its dock adjacent to their tank farm. Three oil tankers on average per season are a delightful sight to residents and visitors alike.

Four hundred and some feet of ship by 65 feet wide navigating Byng Inlet can make the waterway feel very narrow.

More than one ship’s captain has lost fingernails during the inbound passage.

The railway has also rescued people.

In one winter, a group of young ladies were hiking north from Pointe au Baril beside the tracks, very much frightened with the realization that they were being stalked by a pack of wolves.

Fortunately a train was heading north and the girls successfully flagged it down and hitched a ride into the Britt station.

In 1868, the Inlet community was given its identity when the Byng Inlet post office opened on July 1.

The north shore post office opened June 10, 1885 bearing the name Byng Inlet North but it was the CPR who ultimately gave the north shore community its current name of Britt, after Thomas Britt, fuel superintendent for the CPR in Montreal.

In September 1927, the north shore community and its railway station both became Britt instead of Byng Inlet North and Dunlop respectively.

It is an understatement to say that the impact of the CPR was not profound to the Inlet.

Continued investment by the CPR continues to benefit the shoreline communities and watching the oil tankers is a great tourist draw.

The Inlet welcomes the CPR’s second one hundred years of crossing the Magnetawan at Byng Inlet.

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