Chelsea, QC has been developing the former Hull to Wakefield train tracks into the Voie Verte shared pathway since 2017. But you won’t cycle the entire track from Gatineau anytime soon due to a missing link.
First, some history
E.B. Eddy and Alonzo Wright and several other Gatineau Valley entrepreneurs incorporated the railway from Hull to Wakefield in 1871. Building however only started in 1882, but not much happened until the late 1880’s, partly due to the Leda clay, a marine clay which is terrible to build on. It was only in 1892 when the train tracks arrived in Wakefield, 21 years after the railway was incorporated. Ten years later, in 1902, Canadian Pacific acquired the railway. 1904 was the date of completion to Maniwaki. For decades, the train would transport people, freight and mail. Leda, also known as quick clay or Champlain Sea clay, eventually caused the demise of the railway.
Fast forward to the 1970’s
Since the 1970’s the line carried a steam train, on which I actually travelled once on a ‘team building day’ with the embassy. It would leave from the museum of Science & Technology in Ottawa, crossing the Prince of Wales bridge into Gatineau and eventually stop in Wakefield, Quebec. I only travelled the part from Gatineau to Wakefield though, somewhere around 2008. I remember the speed being excruciatingly slow.
Land slide kills the tracks
But then in 2011, June 18 to be precise, a land slide ruined the future for the Wakefield Steam Train. Part of the rail bed had slid away again, as it had done a few years before, and the cost to repair the tracks again turned out to be too high. The train had already be running on a repaired track for two years and there was no appetite anymore to reconstruct the tracks. There was no guarantee the Leda wouldn’t strike again.
But Chelsea has a very active trail building group. Some trails built by the group run on private land in the sparsely populated communities in Chelsea and they were able to convince land owners to open their land to the public. It made sense to develop the tracks into an active mobility corridor. On a side note: did you know that “the Canadian Act has no provision for any Canadian to own physical land in Canada, Canadians can only own an interest in an estate.”
Chelsea rail corridor to turn to voie verte
In spring 2017 a coalition of six community groups presented the results of a petition, signed by 1560 people in Chelsea, supporting a recreational option for the former Chelsea rail corridor from the southern limit of Chelsea to the northern limit at Wakefield, about 20 km.
The coalition also asked council to commit to active mobility only (walking, cycling, skiing, snowshoeing), in order to receive government funding. Many of the signatures came from the area around the tracks, which basically runs as a spine through the community.
What an opportunity!
Things have been moving forward ever since though and the trail -while delayed somewhat- is slowly nearing completion. “Awesome”, I hear you thinking, “I can soon bike to Old Chelsea via the tracks”. Not so fast. Let me explain.
Connecting Chelsea to the Gatineau-Ottawa region
Not everyone was a fan of the rail to trail plans though. There has been resistance, such as concerns about shifting earth if the tracks would be lifted. Others thought Chelsea should remain rural (is it rural?). There has been concern about fast cycling on the trail, and that is one of the reasons that the path consists of crushed stone, which is in my opinion, is a better choice in this treed, natural environment. I have cycled the trail and you should be fine on a tire like 700 x 35C or even a bit narrower.
The remaining railway track on the Gatineau side starts in Gatineau. It crosses the NCC Leamy creek pathway (you have crossed the tracks when on the trail if you bike from Lac Leamy to Gatineau park) and Chemin Freeman (at the Unigym), then runs parallel on Rue de Dôme, crosses the Chelsea Creek and into the southern ‘suburbs’ of Chelsea.
Going south to north on the map, you’ll see it would take Gatineau (and NCC?) only 850 meters of trail resurfacing to get to the border with Chelsea from the NCC Leamy Creek pathway. From the city limit with Gatineau to the collapsed section is another 450 meters, a stretch Chelsea is not going to rebuild though. North of the collapsed section, you’ll find the Voie Verte – Community Trail all the way to a few km before Wakefield.
Legend to the map above:
- Red: Leamy Creek multi use pathway owned by the NCC
- Orange: Stretch of rail track from the NCC pathway to the Chelsea city limit (ca 850 meters)
- Pink dots: Chelsea stretch from collapsed section to Gatineau city limit (ca 450 meters)
- Blue: Chelsea creek with collapsed section where pink dots meet
- Green: former tracks in Chelsea section (part of it). It is not entirely clear to me if the bottom 950 meters of the green line between Loretta and the city limit is planned to be turned into a pathway too)
- Yellow: to be developed new paths to detour the collapsed section
- Black: residential road (Rue de Dôme) to bypass the tracks to Chelsea – Gatineau city limits.
No connection in the near future for Voie Verte
One would think that this is the obvious way to connect Chelsea with Gatineau on a safe trail, away from cars, but no, that is not going to happen any time soon as rebuilding the collapsed section will take millions, money that is not being committed. Thus the 105 is suggested as the preferred cycling route into Chelsea for now.
Meanwhile another petition has sprung up to address the missing link, this time not by the coalition of 6 community groups though but by a private person. The coalition doesn’t appear to be interested in the connection. The petition is also addressing the green space of the 1300 missing meters as there is fear for that space being built up. Gatineau apparently has other plans with that strip of greenspace, which is really too bad. The petition has garnered over 5000 names at the time of writing.
Alternative route of Voie Verte
If you look on a map, Chelsea is becoming more and more of an adjacent bedroom community for Gatineau, like it or not; the Voie Verte Community Trail is a perfect and safe connection for commuters working in Gatineau, yet the missing link makes it just a bit less desirable to use to get to work/shop/entertainment.
The alternative route (in yellow on the image) proposed is one that leaves from Boulevard de la Technology north along highway 5 all the way to the exit of Old Chelsea. Halfway, there will be a path branching off into Old Chelsea connecting to the Voie Verte – Community Trail, the former railway track. The Voie Verte – Community Trail should eventually connect with Loretta, just north of the Chelsea Creek. I understand that these new trails are build with developers money, with money for a study for a bridge across Chelsea Creek coming from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. It is a bit of a roundabout way to connect and several km of extra cycling in a less desirable environment along highway 5.
If the track over the creek will ever be built remains the million dollar question. Currently, no one is champing at the bit to pay for it or even attempt to develop it even though logic is screaming to connect the two ends. I have a feeling it will eventually connect, with more people moving to Chelsea. In a country where we don’t blink an eye to spend 100+ million dollars on three kilometres of road and a country that is committed to reducing carbon and promote active transportation, that is a shame. So far, several levels of government have contributed $130,000
In the meantime enjoy the Voie Verte as it officially called now and be mindful of others. You could basically bike the circa 70 km from Stittsville, ON to Wakefield on MUPs nowadays, except for those missing 1300 meters. If you are not sure how that would work, take a look at my map section on my website.
Note: I made some edits in the years when the tracks were built, thanks to David Jeanes (who else?) for noticing the errors.