Growing Up on Capreol’s “Old Diversion”
Written by Patrick Sweezey and originally posted on CapreolOnline
The railway main line in Capreol was moved from the west to the east side of the Vermillion River in 1911 to facilitate the connection of the branch line from North Bay. The old line was under construction in 1906 and continued to be used by the Canadian Northern Railway from Toronto to Capreol until 1915, later it became known as the “old sub-diversion”. The residents living on the west bank of the Vermillion had no hydro or water service and because their homes were on government land they paid no taxes. All the buildings were vacated and demolished by 1952.
Families who lived on the Old Diversion in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s included Robert and Margaret Greene, Jim and Mary Freeland, Maurice and Kathleen Gelinas, John and Grace Lynn, Andy Baldwin, Dave Strachan, M. Henry, L. Papin and P. Shenasky. All the property at the west end between the train station and the Iron Bridge was owned by John “Scotty” MacLean and wife Christina. Further west lived families who had cleared land for farming, the Lariviere’s and Adolphe & Margaret Sawyer. Several families built log cabins and some houses were built by the railway, however many were fashioned with lumber stripped from the old Canadian Northern boxcars, left abandoned when the railway main line was relocated.
The Old Diversion families faced very harsh living conditions and some were positively frightful. R.W. “Bob” Greene was born in 1927 and grew up on the west side of the Vermillion, along with his brothers Leslie, Vander and sister Dorothy. During Bob’s formative years, his father Robert worked for the railway in Neebing, Ontario, which was approximately 600 miles west of Capreol, near Port Arthur. Many a time during the depression years Robert was out of work. The Greene’s drafty, 4 room log house consisted of a living room, kitchen and 2 bedrooms. Lighting was provided by coal oil lamps. There was no fridge, so to keep food from spoiling, it was placed in a large tub and lowered down to the water line of their unused well. The Greene family maintained a garden, had chickens, a horse, cow and the odd pig. Raising their own food kept the family from going hungry, but they had to be resourceful to survive under their isolated circumstances. During the Christmas season the family would dispatch and dress 25 chickens, selling them to the residents on River Road for 25 cents apiece. Bob’s grandfather, Augusta Pellerin, frequently visited the family on his horse and buggy from his farm near Hanmer Lake. He was a trapper and quite often arrived with his wagon brimming with food and supplies. Over time Bob’s mother, Margaret, became an accomplished taxidermist and she took orders for fox, partridge, deer heads, bear rugs and tanning of hides. Times were tough during the 1930’s and 40’s and they were grateful for the $4 relief cheque they picked up every week at the Capreol Fire Hall. The families could also obtain clothing and other necessities at no charge.
During the winter months their water pump had to be drained every night so it didn’t freeze. To weatherproof their log house, bales of hay were piled up against the single pane windows and then covered with snow, leaving only the window facing the river unobstructed. The wood stove in the kitchen was used for the dual purpose of cooking and heating. In the evening Bob’s mother arranged her assortment of flat irons on the stove top. At bedtime the irons were wrapped up and placed under the sheets at the foot of the beds. ”You couldn’t get a good night’s sleep if your feet were cold,” commented Bob. The wood was hauled by teams of horses from the area where the ski hill is now situated and Mother Greene & the boys did all of the chopping. At the time lumber companies were cutting down trees in the Capreol area and the raw timber was floated down the Vermillion River to Shorty Green’s sawmills at Greens Lake. Occasionally log jams were formed and timber would drift out of the current and become stranded. These abandoned logs were easily rounded up by the old diversion families using a long pike pole.
Attending school in Capreol required a lengthy journey by foot, passing over 3 bridges and most days it was necessary to trespass on CNR property. Bob walked along the trails and old railway roadbed, setting his snares on the way. He crossed over the Vermillion River on a platform consisting of 8 x 10 timbers chained together and floating on the water. This passage over the river was a dangerous part of their lives, especially in the spring and fall. After a young boy drowned, Mr. Freeland made arrangements with the Capreol Legion to construct the Swinging Bridge about 1939. The journey continued across the old cement rail line bridge, over the wooden culvert bridge, up to the Capreol Station platform and then on to school. On the return trek home Bob checked his snares to see what was for dinner – usually rabbit. Bob’s mother made mitts from the rabbit hides. During the winter months, when the trails were too treacherous to travel, his only way to school was to be pulled by toboggan across the river by his dog Prince. After school Bob would wait on shore and his mother would say, “Prince, go get Bob” and off he would go. In the spring time Bob frequently took the family boat across to the east side of the river. Once in a while after school if the boat was no longer in sight Bob would swim home. He hid in the bushes to get undressed and then swam across the Vermillion trying to keep his clothes out of the water. The Capreol Public School became so overcrowded around 1938 that Bob’s grade five classes were held above the fire hall, the students were relocated to the YMCA for grade six.
Summer holidays were spent working in the family’s large garden and of course picking blueberries, which were sold to Scotty MacLean. Occasionally the Greene’s would set up a tent at Suez, camping out 2 or 3 days at a time to do their berry picking. When they were finished, Grandfather Pellerin met up with the family and gave them a lift home in his horse and wagon. Spare time was spent swimming, fishing, playing baseball and ice skating in the winter. Bob’s ball team, the River Rats, was coached by Alex Freeland. There were several large families living on the old diversion, the Freeland’s with 12 children and the Gelinas’s with 11 could have easily fielded their own teams. Bob scored his first pair of skates from the fire hall and later on bought a new pair from Helen Nepitt. Capreol had an enclosed skating rink and curling club down at the eastbound railway crossing, however the river rats had there own rink on the river. It was usually positioned in front of the Freeland homestead, directly across from 14 River Road. Endless hours of fun were spent on their windy river rink and everyone helped with the task of keeping the ice cleared of snow with shovels borrowed from the railway. Large bonfires helped thaw out frozen fingers and toes, discarded car tires were particularly prized as burning material.
A few of the part time jobs Bob had growing up included pin-boy, paper-boy and bus-boy. One of the fringe benefits of being a pin boy at the YMCA bowling alley, besides the spare change received from the bowlers, was the hot shower Bob was allowed to have when he was finished for the evening.
During the weekdays between 5 and 6 p.m., the Sudbury Daily Star newspaper was dropped off in front of Capreol’s Ivan R. Douglas Drug Store in bundles of 30 papers. Bob Greene, Verino Tagliabracci, Esmond Kennedy and Frank Lingard were each paid 25 cents to deliver 25 newspapers, the remaining 5 papers were theirs to sell. Bob picked up his bundle and immediately rushed over to the Capreol Hotel to sell his 5 papers at 5 cents apiece and then bicycled over to Norman Township to complete his paper route. When he finished his deliveries, Bob rode back into town to begin his shift at Frank and Leo Young’s Canton Cafe restaurant on Front Street, across from the station. When he wasn’t washing dishes or making ice cream, he was in the basement peeling 75 pound bags of potatoes. Bob was granted a free meal at the end of his shift and permitted to bring the evening’s leftovers home on occasion. The Canton Cafe was a popular hangout for the boys to gather and listen to Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. The Young brothers moved from Capreol around 1953 to operate the Victory Restaurant in Parry Sound.
R.W. “Bob” Green began working for the Canadian National Railway in 1943, where he was employed for 40 years. Bob started out as a call boy for the CNR when he was 16 years old. Household telephones were far and few between then, so each morning Bob would rise before dawn and bicycle throughout Capreol waking up the morning crews. He earned $14 working seven days a week and $10 went to his mother for room & board. Bob looked into purchasing 5 acres of land on the old diversion from the municipal government in Sudbury, but was told by district engineer O’Malley, “If the Fed’s won’t sell any land to us they sure won’t sell any to you.” Bob moved from the Old Diversion and took up residence in the town of Capreol following his marriage in 1947.