The “Railway Trail”

[Original] Introduction

The ”Railway Trail” is the name I use to describe the multi-use trail that follows the old railway bed from Inverness village to the Canso Causeway, a distance of some 92 km (57 mi). This trail is a joint effort of several volunteer groups, including the Ceilidh Coastal Trail Association, the Judique Flyer Trail Association, and the Inverness Trails Federation, aided and assisted by a number of governmental departments and agencies at the local, provincial, and federal levels. Some of its parts have local names, e.g., the Ceilidh Coastal Trail, but if the entire stretch has a proper name, I don’t know what it is, hence my ”Railway Trail” designation. The map at the provincial Nova Scotia trails web site for Inverness County shows that this trail has been incorporated into the Trans Canada Trail. On that map, it appears in yellow as ”under construction” and, though it has been in generally fine shape for hiking in the past five years I have been using it, the improvements from year to year are noticeable and welcome. In 2002-2003, the Canadian Military Engineers improved a number of bridge approaches and provided or repaired wooden railings and wooden flooring on several of its bridges and trestles. An alternative map with more extensive place name labelling can be found here. As can be seen on both maps, the railway bed closely follows Highway 19, the Cèilidh Trail. In most places, it is far enough away from the road that one doesn’t hear road noise, but there are some parts where they are cheek-by-jowl.

Construction of the railway began in 1898 and was completed as far as Inverness, opening for traffic on 15 June 1901. Government appropriated funds and paid for a route from Port Hastings all the way to Chéticamp, but the constructors of the railway, who owned the coal mines at Inverness, simply quit when it reached there; the province never forced them to live up to their contractual obligations nor complete the rest of the route—the owners just pocketed the funds. The railway was primarily used for transporting coal, but was also a major commercial artery for freight and passengers. In 1929, the railway, by then in receivership, became part of the Canadian National Railway, which operated the line until the late 1980’s, at which point the tracks were abandoned. See this site for a very brief history of the railroad. Inverness: History, Memoirs, Anecdotes, a book (ISBN 0-9735816-0-3) by Donald Gillis and Ned MacDonald issued in commemoration of the Inverness Centennial in 2004, has an interesting chapter devoted to The Judique Flyer, the name given to ”a series of passenger trains” that operated on this route (and, in its honour, also the name Buddy MacMaster chose for one of his marvellous fiddle recordings).

Over the past five years, I have hiked this trail from its start at the Inverness Railway Station (built in 1901), now the Inverness Miners’ Museum, to Newtown, though I have not yet made it all the way through to the Canso Causeway. I got close enough last year to see the causeway and the Cape Porcupine quarry very clearly. As one would expect of a railway bed, it is an essentially flat trail that is a fine place to get in shape for the much more strenuous hikes in the Cape Mabou Highlands and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Traversing a variety of different terrain, it offers splendid views along much of its route. The following is a list of the segments I have used for hikes:

Finding the start of some of these segments the first time can be a bit of a challenge. It was a couple of years before I realized how to find the access points. The Railway Trail is multi-use and snowmobiles are very important users of the trail in the winter time (indeed, the Railway Trail is part of a huge snowmobile trail system that criss-crosses the western half of Cape Breton Island from Chéticamp to Wreck Cove south to Port Hastings); at most places where roads intersect with the trail, a sign by the road warns of a snowmobile crossing. If you know from the map where the trail is, then that snowmobile sign is a tip-off to where the trail is.

Each of these segments has its own character and each is worth doing, at least once and, for the prettier stretches, repeatedly. If one were to hike with a party, it would be easy to park a car at each end and combine some of the segments together to make a longer hike. Since I usually hike alone, I do a single segment in both directions.

Bears have been reported in the spring around Kenloch and back of Port Hood, though I’ve never encountered any. I managed to avoid one very territorial guard dog back of Port Hood and another on the Shore Road near Judique North, but have otherwise never run into anything larger than a fox.

As noted, the trails are multi-use: they are suitable for hiking, biking, ATV use, horseback riding, and, in the winter time, for snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. During summer hikes along the St Georges Bay coast and near Inverness, I have sometimes encountered ATVs; in some forested areas, I have also stepped aside for cars and pick-up trucks on the trail, as woodsmen use it to access areas being logged and farmers use it to access fields. But these are relatively rare events and only briefly disturb the calm and peace of a walk through the beautiful countryside.

The photographs in this essay are a small sampling of those I have taken along the Railway Trail. They can’t hope to do justice to all of the many fine sights from so long a trail; future essays will concentrate on a particular segment to give a better feeling for the character of that segment and the beauty that is to be found there.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2006 February 28

Revision of 2012

The thing that strikes me most about this photo essay is the poor quality of at least a third of its photos compared to those of other essays: those photos were taken with a film camera in less than ideal weather and do not show off the Railway Trail as much as I had hoped at the time this essay was first published. Covering a 92 km (57 mi) trail in twenty-four photos is a hopeless task in any case, but, I have since acquired many more and significantly better photos along its route than those on display here. It is clearly time to think about doing another essay on this topic!

In the intervening years, a lot of very good things have happened to the Railway Trail, so do not assume that the trail conditions you see in the photos in this essay still hold today. See the 2007, 2008, and 2011 “News and Discoveries” pages in the Hiking Information section of my web site for lengthier descriptions of the changes. Although the Railway Trail is now officially a part of the Trans-Canada Trail, I continue (as do many locals) to call it the Railway Trail, as the Trans-Canada Trail is a much larger entity that connects all three of Canada’s coasts (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic)—the Railway Trail is but a very small part of that massive trail system. The Railway Trail remains multi-use and is maintained by five local community trail associations: the Ceilidh Coastal Trail, the Judique Flyer Trail, the Chestico Trail, the Mabou Rivers Trail, and the Inverness Shean Trail. The Railway Trail has been widened; brush at the sides of the trail has been cleared; places that needed it have been ditched and shored up; barriers have been installed to preclude vehicles from driving on the trail (though they can be temporarily removed to allow access to grooming equipment and trail management vehicles); new vistas have been opened up; and it now has a fine sand surface on a solid base throughout much of its length (a few sections in the back country still retain their older surfaces). Six kiosks with parking areas have been built, at the Canso Canal Park in Port Hastings, at Troy Station, at Michaels Landing, at Port Hood Station, at West Mabou, and at the Miners’ Museum in Inverness. The signage is now superb, with interpretive panels at the kiosks and some points along the trail, kilometre markers throughout the trail, and blue signs marking those points where the Railway Trail crosses a road: there is no longer any problem finding the access points to the trail. All of these improvements have turned it into a world-class trail, for which the coöperative efforts of many volunteers, local businesses, and all levels of government deserve our heartfelt thanks.

Downloadable trail maps for each of the five constituent trails are now available from the Nova Scotia government’s trails web site; as with the other links to this web site, you may encounter spurious “Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)”error messages when accessing this page: if that happens to you, wait a few seconds and try again—you may have to try multiple times, but you will eventually succeed.¹

I neglected to say in the original introduction that the photos are ordered from north to south, an arrangement I have retained in this revision, even though the official numbering of the kilometres along the trail is now from south to north.

As described in my 2007 “News and Discoveries” article, I have since found the southern terminus of the Railway Trail (at the Canso Canal Park, marked by one of the six new kiosks). I have continued to regularly hike this trail and have visited all of its segments since this essay was written, many of them multiple times. As I have aged, I find myself using shorter segments than those given in the original introduction above and the introduction of the kiosks at Troy Station and at West Mabou would certainly cause me to divide the trail into segments differently today than I did then. Its generally level nature makes it great for my first hikes each year in Cape Breton, when I try to get back in good enough shape to tackle climbing. The beautiful and varied countryside through which it passes, however, continues to be its main draw for me. If you have not yet hiked it, or have not hiked it in recent years, pay it a visit soon. It is well worth your time.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 January 14

¹ The Inverness Shean and Mabou Rivers maps have an egregious error: West Mabou is shown near Riverville. I did not note any other problems and it is certainly very useful to have these in downloadable form. Unfortunately, the web page does not have an address to which it is possible to communicate errors of this sort (nor a place to report the spurious connection error messages).

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Note 1: If you are unfamiliar with the place names mentioned in this essay, a list of map resources is given here. Of these, the best computer-readable map of Cape Breton Island that I currently know about is the Cape Breton Travel Map, produced by Destination Cape Breton and, thanks to their express written permission, available as a PDF file here; I strongly urge you to download it. This map scales nicely, allowing you to zoom in on an area of interest, has a very helpful place name index, and provides a level of detail, both of back roads and streams, that is quite good.

Note 2: See the description here for the notation I use for GPS (Global Positioning System) coördinates. I did not have a GPS device when I took the photos in this essay; the coördinates found here are those written down on later trips or computed from Google Maps; when no coördinate is given, I have been unable to reconstruct where I was exactly when the photo was taken.

Feedback on the photos and the accompanying commentary, including corrections, is always welcome; send it to the address in the footer below. All of the essays in this series are archived here.


To read this essay in sequence, click the “First” link in the footer below (or in the navigation bar at the top of the page) and the “Next” link in each subsequent page’s footer or navigation bar. Click the “Essay Index” link in the footer or navigation bar to see thumbnails of all of the photos appearing in the essay; you may click on any thumbnail to move directly to that page of the essay, perhaps resuming your reading where you left off on a previous visit or searching the essay for a particular topic or main photo. You may return to the introduction by clicking the essay title link in the navigation bar at the top of this or any subsequent page.