By AMANDA CLEARY*
DRIVING by the Musquodoboit Railway Museum on Highway #7, tourists are drawn in by the caboose, snow plow, old box cars, baggage wagons and pump car displayed around the museum grounds.
David Stephens, a local teacher, began the museum in 1971 in a restored 1918 intercontinental railway station 40 kilometres east of Dartmouth. Stephens obtained most of the museum's artifacts from the family of George Warden, a collector from the Annapolis Valley. The museum was taken over by the Board of Trade in 1981. The Musquodoboit Harbour Heritage Society was formed shortly after that and still operates the museum today.
The construction of the railway from Dartmouth to Guysborough began in 1912 and was completed in 1916. It offered passenger service and transported general merchandise and raw materials.
Ruby Kelly, first president of the Musquodoboit Harbour Heritage Society, says her father always used to say, "You could travel the furthest to the least on that line."
The line was known as the Blueberry Express. John Verlinden, the new president of the society explains:
"The train went so slow, they said that you could actually lean out the window and pick blueberries."
In 1960, the passenger service came to an end. The railway could not compete with the now-popular automobiles. The train still worked as a freight hauler until all service ended in 1982.
"The first time I remember going on the train was in 1939 when the King and Queen came to visit," Kelly says. "I know another trip, I was living and working at Middle Musquodoboit. My girls were small. I had to go to Dartmouth and get my glasses fixed. I was the only one left in the passenger car and I curled up and fell asleep and I missed my stop. I went all the way to the end of the line."
Kelly says a trip to the city cost $2.50 return then. The train would come at about 7 a.m. and passengers didn't get to Dartmouth until about 10 a.m.
Verlinden says part of the society's mandate is to "collect, preserve and promote local heritage." The society is starting a library located in the upstairs of the museum as one way to accomplish this. There, you can find an array of old pictures of the community on every wall. Museum staff have begun to tape interviews with some of the older people in the community in order to preserve their memories. The society has also been trying to involve the community more in the museum.
"One of the things we've tried to do is make the museum more relevant to the people who live here," says Verlinden. "There are people living in this community who haven't been here for years and we're trying to find ways to bring them back because we've made a lot of changes."
The society has restored some of the cars and has upgraded the museums's exhibits. It is also trying to organize events for the people of the community. Verlinden says their approach is working.
"People are starting to come back. This is starting to become a real centre for the community again. When it was a railway station, it really was the centre. People would come here not just to pick up the train, but to sit around the stove and socialize."
Not only was the station a place to socialize, so was the train.
"We have a lot of good memories on it," Kelly says. "And Saturday night coming out was a party!"
Today, the museum includes a Tourist Information Centre, where the men's waiting room used to be, and the women's waiting room is now a gift shop. The museum is open from Victoria Day weekend in May to Thanksgiving Day. It usually gets between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors a season. Verlinden says the museum is in an ideal spot because the Information Centre brings in visitors traveling between Halifax and Cape Breton.
The train track was removed in 1985 and the land remained unused for 13 years. Now the remaining trail from Musquodoboit Harbour to Gibraltar Rock has been made into a recreational trail for hikers, cross-country skiers and bikers.
The trail runs 14.5 kilometres along the Musquodoboit River, passing through lakes, ponds, bogs and wetlands. The trail runs through spruce trees, fir trees, pines, maples, white birches and blueberry bushes. Its forest houses many different species of birds, insects and other animals such as deer and the rare wood turtle.
The trail project was set up by the Seaside Tourism Association in the Musquodoboit Harbour area. The Rails to Trails Committee began in 1995 and the Musquodoboit Trailways Association became incorporated last year and now runs the trail. The association employs a trail coordinator, trail foreman, and two labourers on a permanent basis. It also employs students during the summer months and hired a promotions officer last year to design advertisements, brochures and a web page for the association.
You can get on the trail from either the Musquodoboit Harbour or Gibraltar Rock end. As soon as you get on the trail from the Musquodoboit Harbour entrance, you find yourself crossing the river by way of a steel truss bridge. A sign marks the distance you've traveled each kilometre down the trail. Park benches are scattered along the way for you to rest and enjoy nature's beauty.
"People can go on the main trail on a wheelchair, " says Jessie DeBaie, trail coordinator. "Mothers can take a stroller on there because there's no place in Musquodoboit Harbour you can even take a stroller except for the side of the road. So that's a big plus. Seniors can walk on there because it's level and it's really easy. There's benches and places to sit there, so small children can walk on the main trail. I like that because it's for everybody."
All materials for the trail were bought locally. The trail benches and picnic shelters are sponsored by businesses, families and community associations.
The Musquodoboit Trailways Association also constructed the Admiral Lake and Gibraltar Rock Backcountry Trails -- loops off the main trail which opened in 2000. A 25-kilometre wilderness trail running parallel to the main trail with more loops off of it opened to open in March 2001.
"Then there's the wilderness trails," DeBaie says. "They're challenging, but they're for a younger, more accomplished hiker. The rocks are just out of this world."
DeBaie hopes to begin building a canoe portage next summer and eventually camp sites that will start generating revenue for the association through camping fees and canoe rentals. The canoe portage will offer access to 13 interconnecting lakes and will take canoeists two days to complete.
Ed Cole of Halifax just took his first walk on the trail, but he says it won't be his last. He enjoyed the tranquility.
"For one thing it's clean," he says. "There's no garbage. And it's peaceful and quiet."
The main trail cost about $108,000 to complete. The trail amenities, including such things as the two bathrooms, benches and picnic shelters cost another $70,000. The association has also filled in low parts of the trail and made crusher dust paths in various spots that lead to the water. The loop trails cost almost $72,000 once completed. The wilderness trail required 10 workers and was estimated to cost almost $260,000. The trail receives funding and services from sponsors including the Halifax Regional Development Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation, Human Resources Development Canada, Economic Development and Tourism, the Trans Canada Trail Foundation, the Halifax Regional Municipality and from fundraising.
The Halifax Millennium Committee approved a millennium grant of $5,000 to the association to turn the Musquodoboit Railway Museum's caboose into an interpretive centre for the trails. It opened around September 2000.
Verlinden has observed a boost in museum visitors since the opening of the trail. The trail is also a part of the Trans Canada Trail, which will eventually connect different trails across Canada. It is the first phase of Trans Canada Trail near Metro. DeBaie says eventually these trails may become an alternate route for people to bike to work. And although the trail isn't designated for some users, such as horseback riders, the doors mightn't always be closed.
"We built the trail not locking out anything just in case circumstances changed, or if people wanted it to be different, then it could be opened to all of those things," says DeBaie.
The association hosts various events throughout the year to get people on the trail, including a Trails Trek every October.
*Amanda Cleary is a graduate of the University of King's College Journalism program and a native of the Eastern Shore. She wrote this article for shunpiking some years ago but, unfortunately, was never published until now.
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