The right track: Meet Russ Nicholls

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Every two weeks, I will be profiling an extraordinary human being who lives in our community. If you know someone who is doing something interesting with their life, I want to hear about it. Send me an email at [email protected].

It started with an old map. He leaned in closer to get a better look and that’s when he saw it.

Then again, it was probably fate that Russ Nicholls came across it anyway.

“I spotted this little railway, and there was a small inscription that said, ‘The world’s shortest commercially operated railway,'” recalls the 90-year-old. He’s told this story many times but it never gets old. “It was located between Pen Lake and Lake of Bays. I told to my wife that I’d like to see that little railway.”

Indeed there have been dozens of significant moments in Russ’s life over the course of the last nine decades. But what makes this story particularly significant is that had Russ not spotted that inscription on that old Esso three-star Imperial Oil road map 60 years ago, his involvement in resurrecting a tiny steam train, which he helped bring to this town, likely would have never even happened. His love for trains runs deep but his love for the Portage Flyer runs even deeper.

It was an adventure I was keen to get into from that moment.

His eyes still sparkle and there’s excitement in his voice when he rehashes a life well lived. The days gone by are precious to him. There’s been a lot of highs along the way, but the lowest point thus far was losing his beloved wife of 65 years eight months ago. She was the apple of his eye and he misses her more than he can put into words. He’s grateful for the support from his family, though. His three daughters are his pride and joy.

At 90 years old, Russ says the secret to staying young has been not smoking or drinking and staying active. He looks amazing for a man his age!

Russ recently transcribed all of his memories onto paper so that when he departs from this world nothing will be unknown. Or forgotten. In a way, he’s preserving his knowledge. Passing it on. He’s like a historian for his own personal story.

But he’s also a historian when it comes to that once bustling little railway and that shiny, little Portage Flyer steam train. It moved a lot of people and a lot of freight around Lake of Bays in its heyday, which was from 1904 to 1959. As one of the founding members of the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society, Russ was a driving force behind the resurrection of The Portage Flyer. But it wasn’t a solo mission by any means. He wants that to be clear. Getting the steam train back on track to where it operates today was truly a labour of love that was carried out by a long list of like-minded individuals who all believed it had something to offer the town. It was an endeavour that took 24 years to come to fruition. However, the rewards of a lot of hard work have certainly paid off since The Portage Flyer fired up its engine once again in the summer of 2000.

The fact is I didn’t do it alone and I couldn’t have done it alone. There were so many people on board. Seeing The Portage Flyer up and running today means a lot. Especially when you see the little kids and parents riding it. It has become a tremendous tourist attraction and revenue generator. The Pioneer Village wouldn’t be anything without The Portage Flyer.

Russ wrote all about the history of The Portage Flyer and all the hard work that went into making it shiny again in Rebirth of The Portage Flyer. He had the book published in 2005 and sold every single copy he had printed (2,600 to be exact!).

His baby! A lot of time and energy went into writing Rebirth of The Portage Flyer but Russ wanted the story of the historic train to never be forgotten.

Back in May 2017, he handed over the book’s copyright to the Township of Lake of Bays Heritage Advisory Committee. He never intended on profiting from it. He simply wanted to share an important story. The committee now benefits from proceeds from book sales, and Russ was happy to hand over the rights because they were so good to him over the years.

“Writing that took a long time but it was a labour of love. I wanted to document everything I knew so we could have a history of it.”

In March 2002, Russ was presented with a commemorative medal for the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The medal is awarded to Canadians who have made a significant contribution to their fellow citizens, their community and Canada. Seven years later, he received the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement as an appreciation of a lifetime of volunteer work to identify, preserve, protect and promote our province’s rich heritage.

Anyone who knows him will say the same thing. He’s the sweetest man – a true gentleman – with an extremely kind heart. He can tear up talking about an instance of when he allowed a little boy to climb up on his lap to be the conductor’s assistant of The Portage Flyer. He will never forget the look of excitement in that child’s eyes. It reminded him of when he was a boy and heard the steam train chugging down the track. Russ also loves to talk about children who got the opportunity to send a telegraph message from the train station. (At one point early in his life, after a tiresome learning curve, Russ could successfully send and receive 15 words a minute).

When asked what’s one of the greatest things he ever did, he responds after a few seconds of pondering.

“I would say it was in 1970 when we moved here. That’s when we started to live the life that I love. Huntsville is everything to me.”

To highlight exactly what this 90-year-old has done in his lifetime (thus far) would make for a great novel. Condensing a life well lived into just over a thousand words was almost impossible because the story really begins long before the pivotal moment of coming across that inscription on the old map. The whole idea of railroads and becoming completely infatuated by them goes back to when Russ was just a small boy. He and his brother used to walk to a one-room schoolhouse in Welland, Ontario. The trek wasn’t just down the road either. It was three miles away. But when they took the train tracks they could shave a whole mile off so that’s just what they did. The highlight of their every day walk to school was seeing the steam train chugging down the tracks. But there’s one particular encounter on a cold winter day that truly made a mark in Russ’s life. Russ and his brother heard the train coming so the stepped off the tracks to let the short train pass. This time, the engine stopped and the fireman came out of the cab to offer them a ride. It was a day Russ will never forget. It sparked something – a forever fire – inside of him. It hasn’t stopped burning.

“From a very young age I wanted to be an engineer, but I think every boy wanted to be one back then. Things were a lot different.”

Russ holds a picture of Anita, his beautiful wife who passed away eight months ago. He was lucky enough to be able to spend 65 years of wedded bliss with her, but losing her has definitely been tough.

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks Russ for the memories. You are and have been a good friend to many. Your love and enthusiasm of many things from Rail to Art are inspiring. Don’t stop … Keep going, my Mom would tell you that too. :-))

  2. Lori Danyshyn-McBrien on

    VERY proud of my Uncle Russ! He truly is a interesting and gentle man! Trains have been his been his lifelong passion and he’s followed the call of the whistle since he was a young boy. He is also a a writer and a self-taught painter with a talent for oils! He relishes painting the beauty of nature and being surrounded by nature is, I believe, the driving force behind him moving his family to Huntsville 47 years ago. How many 90-year olds do you know who can navigate the internet to pick up new tricks to expand on his painting “toolbox”? A man in a million!

  3. Hi Uncle Russel it was awe inspiring indeed to read your story of the railway being reestablished in the Huntsville area. I remember as a child coming to visit you in the railway Station just off of King Street in Welland when you worked there. Thanks for your hard work in this endeavor your nephew Charles L Gare

  4. Thank you Russ for a beautiful precis of your fascinating life. As a former neighbour and friend of mine on Walker Lake, you and Anita were very special folks! I am so glad you did so much with your adventures by detailing them for us to enjoy! All aboard for more, please??

  5. So very nice Russ, for you to be recognized in this way, in the Town that you’ve loved for nearly half a Century. This written tribute to you says almost all about you. It is well written by Laura Maclean so much so that one can almost imagine themselves being a fly on the wall as you reminisced aloud about the years you gave to a cause that adds so much to the history of Huntsville. So many words from you express gratitude to the people who helped you with this Steam project. What was left out though, were those moments when you were handed the news of setbacks in the project and you coped, and pushed and shoved until everything was literally put back on track. So typical of you Russ, to pass the limelight to others while you were busy getting your hands dirty doing Grease Monkey chores.. You deserve all these accolades and more. It’s been my privilege to call you ‘friend.’

  6. A well deserved tribute to a fine gentleman. I had the pleasure of working with Russ when Rotary was helping to build the Portage Flyer train shed and the village station. Russ is a guy who thinks ahead, gets things done but always treats people well and fairly in the process. Thanks for all your good work.

  7. My late wife Gloria and I first met Russ and Anita when they and their daughters became our neighbors on Walker lake. I can’t think of anyone who deserves these accolades and recognition more then this fine gentleman. Keep on chugging, Russ.

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