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Friday, May 13, 2011

Chapleau Railroad YMCA played important role in community life as 'home away from home' for railroaders for 63 years until demolished in 1971

The Chapleau Railroad YMCA was one of the most distinctive landmarks in Chapleau from its opening in 1908 until it was demolished in 1971, Ian Macdonald writes in 'Mile 615.1: Building a Northern Community'.

Ian, who spent many of his growing up years in Chapleau, worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway for a time, attended university, became an architect, and in 2005 retired as head of the school of architecture at the University of Manitoba.

Writing in a monograph which is an important part of Bill McLeod's newest book, 'Chapleau: Retrospective on Life in an Isolated Northern Community', Ian explains that the Chapleau Y was one of nine railroad YMCA's built by the CPR in Canada and one in Maine. The others were in Revelstoke, Field, Cranbrook (where I now live), Kenora, Ignace, Schreiber, White River, Cartier and Brownville Junction, Maine.

The usual arrangement was that the CPR paid for the construction of the buildings and then turned ownership and operation over to the Young Men's Christian Association.

The company also gave a cash donation of $100 a month and provided steam heat in the winter and ice in the summer. The CPR provided heat for all its operations and other Chapleau buuildings from a central plant.

Ian notes that the YMCA became part of the "social fabric" of the communities served, confirmed by Ron Brown in his book 'The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore' who observed that they became a sight and activity centre as much a part of the community as the gardens, sitting rooms in the stations or new water tanks.

At the Chapleau YMCA, moving picture shows, according to Ian, were routinely patronized by everyone in town.

"The subject matter, of course, was always of the most wholesome variety, some of it even supplied by the CPR's own film interests."

There were also two bowling alleys in the basement which were used by Chapleau citizens. Whenever anyone recalls the bowling alleys, it is to share their experience as a pin boy (or girl), and to mention that Mrs. Mabel Young, Dr. G.E. Young's mother, was still bowling there in her nineties.

Quoting from a CPR publication Ian writes that the facilities were given to the YMCA to operate "because of its unselfish purpose to be of service to railway men without financial gain".

However, before the CPR and YMCA got together to build the railway YMCA's, the railway was concerned about how its employees were spending their time out on the road, away from home, which is a story of it own.

One writer in 'Not Just a Game: Essays in Sports Sociology' commented that soon after the first one was established in Revelstoke, British Columbia, "the YMCA made lambs out of the wild men (of Revelstoke)..." Given the Revelstoke success, the YMCA's were quickly expanded to other divisional points.

Quoting from the CPR Bulletin of August 1922, Ian comments on the social role of the YMCA's. The bulletin said in part: "the buildings are open day and night and provide a 'homelike place' at the other end of the run.


"The engineers and trainmen, after driving through the snow and cold, find an open fire, a good meal and cheerful companionship awaiting them at the end of a journey..."

Ian notes that the YMCA had characteristics of home including a carefully manicured front lawn and fence, rambling front porch and other features of homes at those times.

However, it was not only CPR employees who stayed at the YMCA. George Tremblay, another Chapleauite, in his wonderful book about the movies 'Break at Nine' tells about the arrival of Ruth and Cecil Smith in 1940 to take over the Regent Theatre.

In November 1940 they arrived in Chapleau on the CPR Train, the Dominion, Number 3, and looked for a taxi.

Len 'the taxi man' Perfetto, was there and away they went as the taxi "dashed up and around the steep horsehoe bridge that spanned the railway yards, then through the downtown" and finally arrived at the YMCA on Lorne Street south.

George noted that it may "sound strange" to learn that they would stay at the YMCA "but in 1940 it was the accepted thing to do" as there were no motels at the time and the two hotels were now rooming houses and apartment buildings.

George Theriault, in his book 'Trespassing in God's Country' writes that when he arrived in 1954, "I bunked down at the YMCA, bought an old boathouse on the Chapleau river and hired two carpenters to winterize it." It was the beginning of Theriault Air Services.

Ian notes that "Time and events gradually overtook the established social role of the YMCA in the years following World War II, and it was condemned and demolished in 1971, adding that one can "scarcely miss the irony when the Chapleau Railway Y was demolished to make way for the new Liquor Control Board of Ontario retail outlet."

I have only touched upon the contents of Ian's monograph 'Mile 615.1: Building a Northern Community' and have not even referred to the rest of Bill's book, "Chapleau: Retrospective on Life in an Isolated Northern Community. Thanks to Ian for permitting me to quote freely from his work, and to Bill, who has been a friend since we were kids growing up in Chapleau.
Thanks as well to George Tremblay and George Theriault. My email is mj.morris@live.ca

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet

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