Article by Doug Archer.
(We recommend viewing this article in it’s intended format, which includes photos, by clicking HERE.)
In decades gone by, locomotives chugged along what is now
the Saugeen Rail Trail, bringing residents and summer
visitors to the lakeside towns of Port Elgin and Southampton.
Today the trains are gone, but the route they took is still
travelled by locals and visitors. Only now the travel is on foot,
bicycle and snowshoe.
For over 25 years, a group called the Saugeen Rail Trail
Association has been maintaining and improving the Saugeen
Rail Trail, a year round, multi-use trail system that connects
Southampton to Port Elgin and beyond. Built on an old
Canadian National Railway (CNR) line, the trails are used by
countless thousands each year. Permanent residents and
summer visitors. Young and old. Walkers, runners, hikers and
cyclists. Even those on snowshoes and cross-country skis.
Making the Rail Trail one of the most popular and widely used
trails in Bruce County.
It started out simply enough.
When the CNR suspended freight operations from Port Elgin
to Southampton in the 1980s and abandoned their tracks, a
group of locals got an idea. According to Bruce Alexander,
Director of Trails for the Rail Trail, “they thought the rail bed
left behind would make a great walking path.” So they founded
the Saugeen Rail Trail Association. At the Association’s
prompting, Port Elgin, Saugeen Township and Southampton
acquired sections of the rail bed – and in July of 1995, the
Saugeen Rail Trail was officially opened.
It took off from there. “At first the goal was simply to
establish a clear corridor for people to trek along,” Bruce says.
“But under the guidance of the Association, it became so much
more than that.”
The Saugeen Rail Trail Association is a non-profit, charitable
organization overseen by a Board of nine dedicated volunteers.
Their mission is to preserve, maintain and enhance the historic
rail line as a trail for Saugeen Shores. And they have been more
than meeting that mission. “Every year the Association makes the
trail system bigger and better with improvements and extensions,”
Bruce explains. And he should know. A member of the Rail
Trail Association since the year 2000, he has been involved
in just about every one of those improvements and extensions.
He has helped to construct walking bridges along the trail. Built connecting
links between pathways. Assisted with paving kilometers of the rail
bed to make it more accessible. And this past winter, he and the Rail
Trail Association undertook a COVID project. Popular Pursuit
According to Bruce, they wanted to open up the trails for winter use
in order to give people a safe place to get outside and stay active during the pandemic.
Especially in the face of closed gyms, pools and other fitness
facilities. To that end, they purchased a groomer and prepped
the snow-covered trails for winter walking, snowshoeing and
cross-country skiing. They even widened many sections of the
trail to allow for social distancing.
As Bruce puts it, “As long as the community keeps supporting
and making use of the Rail Trail, we’ll keep working to expand
and improve it.”
And the community is certainly making use of the Rail Trail.
Everyday, up to 800 people are out on it. Which is not
surprising. Trail use is one of the top three recreational pursuits
in Ontario. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and
Sport, more than 25 percent of all Ontarians walk, run, trek,
cycle, cross-country ski and snowshoe on the province’s trails
The benefits of trails are far-reaching, too. From social to
environmental – the Rail Trail is lined with gardens as well as
preserved flora and fauna habitats – to health and wellness. As
highlighted in Ontario’s Board of Health guidelines, access to
safe and affordable recreation such as walking trails, not only
promotes mental health, but also helps to prevent and manage
physical issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart
There is another benefit to the Rail Trail, as well. An
historical one. The trail system celebrates its rich railroad
history with signboards and information installments all along
its route. An example is the Historical Pavilion, located at what
is called the Rotary trailhead at Elgin Street in Port Elgin.
Partnering with the Town of Saugeen Shores and the Saugeen
District Secondary School (SDSS), the Rail Trail Association
oversaw the construction of an historical centre built as a replica
of the original Port Elgin CNR Train Station. The SDSS
students, under the guidance of teacher Bud Halpin, built the
structure complete with accessible washroom and historical
displays. Now it educates trail users on the 120-year history of
rail travel in Saugeen Shores.
Trekking the Southampton end of the trail will bring one to
another historical feature of the trail, this one marking a tragic
episode in local rail history. On the night of October 16th, 1954,
the day Hurricane Hazel battered Ontario, a train coming into its
Southampton terminus didn’t make it. Heavy rain from the
hurricane had washed out a section of the track and the engine
derailed, sending the entire train over on its side. The
locomotive’s engineer and fireman were killed in the accident.
Miraculously, the rest of the crew as well as the passengers
escaped without major injury.
A memorial garden and lookout on the Saugeen Rail Trail
now marks the location of that accident and remembers the two
trainmen who lost their lives that day.
“Of course, none of these walking trails or memorial gardens
or lookouts would be possible without the support of the
community,” says Bruce. It takes countless volunteers and
thousands of dollars to maintain and develop the Rail Trail
system. Fortunately, the community has always been wonderfully
supportive – starting with the Town of Saugeen Shores.
“Since the beginning the municipality has been an active
partner in the Rail Trail,” says Bruce. “Working with us on
expansion and improvement ideas. Providing between $10 and
$20 thousand a year for ongoing maintenance such as grading,
resurfacing and trail paving. We wouldn’t have this trail without
But the Town’s financial support is not enough. “Overall, the
annual cost to maintain the Rail Trail is about $30 thousand,”
Bruce points out. “And trail enhancements are funded
separately.” That’s where local businesses and service clubs
“They have always stepped up,” enthuses Bruce. The Port
Elgin and Southampton Rotary Clubs. Bruce Power. Ontario
Power Generation. Power Workers Union. The Society of
Management Professionals. Home Hardware. Saugeen Valley
Conservation Authority. Trees for SauGreen. The list of
generous supporters goes on.
Then there are the Rail Trail memberships and individual
Currently the Rail Trail Association has about 125 members,
Bruce points out, but they are looking for double, triple …
quadruple that. “We always encourage people to show their
support for the trail by becoming a Rail Trail Association
member,” he says. “For the $20 base membership, we can run
the trail tractor for four hours. That’s a lot of grooming.” Since
the Association is an authorized charity, donors and members
also receive tax receipts. And donations of $50 or more are
recognized at a Rail Trail information kiosk located at River
Street in Port Elgin.
The fund raising doesn’t stop there. Every July 1st the
Association hosts a walking and biking event on the Rail Trail.
People come out by the hundreds to use the trail, put some coins
in the collection pails, and to celebrate Canada Day. “It’s a fun,
family-oriented day,” says Bruce. And there are usually
giveaways, too. Bells for bicycles. Reflector lights. “Even
copies of the Saugeen Rail Trail safety guide,” he smiles.
While donations are critical, the Rail Trail also relies on
volunteers. And Bruce cannot say enough about them. “We
have a group of dedicated individuals who donate literally
thousands of hours of labour a year to the Rail Trail.” They trim
branches and bushes. Fill in potholes and clean up debris. Pull
weeds and plant gardens. Carve ski and snowshoe tracks in the
winter; groom stone paths in the summer. And those are just the
“We also have a legion of unofficial volunteers,” admits
Bruce. Daily users of the trail, along with residents who live
adjacent to the trails, are constantly pitching in to cut grass, pick
up garbage, and generally keep the trail in a well maintainedstate.
“It is truly a community trail.”
Bruce himself goes out on daily trail inspections. All year
long. “Not only do I get a lot of personal fulfillment from
volunteering with the Association and giving back to my
community, but it’s also something my wife, Anna Maria, and I
can share.” The couple can often be seen walking the trail
together after a windstorm – chain saw in tow.
Of course, Bruce and his wife are not always working when
they’re out on the trail. “Sometimes we walk and bike it just for
exercise and enjoyment,” he smiles. A popular route for the
couple – as well as for many others who use the trail – is to cycle
the entire length of the Rail Trail and then loop back along the
North Shore Road that runs between Southampton and Port
Elgin. Not only does this showcase all the wonderful features
of the Rail Trail, it provides spectacular views of the Lake
Huron shoreline as well.
Being out on the trail system as much as he is, Bruce solicits
feedback from users. “I ask people what they like about the trail
and what we can do to improve it.” The ideas that he and other
members of the Rail Trail Association get back help to direct
trail maintenance and development projects going forward.
And going forward there is an ultimate goal. “Ideally we
would one day like to connect with the Kincardine trails,” Bruce
says. The Kincardine Trail Association, in partnership with the
Municipality of Kincardine, maintains their own system of
walking paths stretching from Kincardine to Inverhuron
Provincial Park. Connecting the two systems would create a
wonderful network of trails, Bruce points out. “You could
cycle, jog or walk along a safe and scenic path from Southampton
“The Rail Trail is an invaluable feature of the Saugeen Shores
community,” Bruce says. “Residents and visitors alike look
forward to walking, running, cycling – and now cross-country
skiing and snowshoeing – its network of trails. With ongoing
community support, it will continue to be a source of exercise
and enjoyment for everyone in the area for decades to come.”
If you would like to join the Saugeen Rail Trail Association
or contribute to the continued upkeep and enhancement of the
Rail Trail, please go to www.saugeenrailtrail.ca. Memberships
and donations are tax deductible. And anyone interested in
volunteering their time to help maintain the trail system can sign
up at the same website. Please help blaze the trail!