It contains not only maps, mileages and photos but also a collection of mile-by-mile information—historical tidbits, anecdotes, gossip, nature notes, thumbnail biographies, accounts of momentous events and trivia of every conceivable variety. The books are keyed to the numbered mileage signs that are nailed to telegraph poles along the track. By looking at a map, finding the nearest town and locating the closest mileage marker, you can follow Coo's oddly personalized, and yet wonderfully informative, comments on your itinerary.
For example, in one chock-full paragraph about a relatively un-scenic section of the line near Carleton Place, Ont., Coo points out that the town "is noted as the birthplace of A.R. Brown, the WWI air ace who shot down Germany's Red Baron," and that just down the railroad is the village of Almonte, which is "the hometown of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball," and that although this land "is lush farmland with sheep grazing in nearby fields, [once] it lay beneath the Champlain Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that extended all the way to Arnprior," which is the next village on the line.
Coo has many styles, many tales. In writing about the otherwise not-so-noteworthy region around Chapleau, Ont., he deals in irony and tragedy. He notes that a stone marker close to the tracks is near the grave of the French novelist Louis Hémon, an unlucky gent who "was killed by a train in the summer of 1913 while walking along the railway tracks after mailing the manuscript of his novel Maria Chapdelaine to Le Temps in Paris." After the author's untimely death, Coo reports, the book was first published in Canada in 1916 and soon became "a Canadian classic." Is this important? No. Is it more interesting than talking to your average rail buff about train whistles and track gauges over the Great Divide? You bet!
Sudbury, where the two sections of the Canadian link up, is 10 hours out of Montreal and seven hours out of Toronto. It is also out of another universe. The town is an environmental nightmare, an industrial combat zone that is so wasted and so ugly that it is widely known as "Sludgebury." For decades fumes from nickel-smelting operations poisoned the region so thoroughly that foliage for miles around the city simply died.
While the Montreal and Toronto sections of the Canadian linked up for the trip west, I wandered along the street near the Sudbury train station. It was a bleak neighborhood. There was a bar called the Nickel Bin, and on a nearby fieabag hotel, a sign on the door said Be Good or Be Gone! Anyone Fighting in Hotel Will Be Barred for Life!
I was relieved to leave the streets of Sudbury and return to my snug compartment. All was pitch-black outside when we left. The sway of the car and the steady clicking of the wheels made for a lovely, warm, protected, utterly all-encompassing sensation.
My alarm went off a little before 5 a.m., and I rose in the dark and dressed in several layers of clothes. The train pulled into White River, Ont., for a 15-minute stop, and I went out to stroll the icy platform. Coo pointed out that it can get very cold here and that it has, in fact, gotten down to—72° F. "If you're adventurous enough to get off the train here in winter," Coos cautioned his readers, "wear everything you own." I was adventurous enough, but the predawn temperature was only—28°, rather mild for a Minnesotan like myself.
I had gotten up early at White River so I could be awake and alert for the next four hours of the journey. This section had been described as some of the most beautiful—and difficult—country encountered by the railroad builders a century ago. By the time this stretch was ready for construction, in 1882, a mountain-sized genius named William Cornelius Van Horne had been put in charge of the whole operation. He had come to Canada after being president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, and experts in the train game declared him to be "simply the ablest railroad general in the world."
Van Horne was a man of huge and diverse appetites, a rugged individualist who once cried, "I eat all I can, I drink all I can and I don't give a damn for anyone." He was a talented painter as well as a collector of Impressionist paintings and Japanese porcelain. He was also a roistering man's man who liked nothing better than playing poker all night with a bunch of railway laborers.
Van Horne needed all the savvy he could muster to face the daunting job of pushing the railroad across the region we were entering now—the ancient bedrock of the Canadian Shield. When he had seen this terrain, Van Horne declared it to be "two hundred miles of engineering impossibilities."