In the third installment of his new dirty gravel bike series, where he sets out to cycle and explore the rail trails of southern Ontario, Rob Brodey heads to the Lake Erie & Northern Electric Railway trail near Brantford.
Story and Photos by Robert Brodey
For as long as I can remember, exercise has been my go-to when I’ve been stressed, depressed, or heartbroken. And of all the physical activities out there, running and cycling have definitely been my most consistent athletic companions and have raised me from many emotional swamps through the decades.
The pandemic has been no exception, and I’ve been particularly grateful to have the chance to decompress while exploring some of southern Ontario’s fantastic rail trails on a gravel bicycle this year.
Today’s ride is along the LE & N Rail Trail built along the now defunct Lake Erie & Northern Electric Railway, which was sometimes known as the “Late Early or Never” train back in the day (I guess the 21st century didn’t invent snark).
Built in 1916, the line ran from Port Dover on Lake Erie to what is now Cambridge, moving goods to local and international markets via the web of railways crisscrossing Canada and the United States. At its peak in 1921, this electric railway also moved 600,000 people annually. But competition with expanding road travel and diesel trains eventually led to this line being mothballed in 1988.
More in Rob’s Dirty Gravel Bike Series:
If you aren’t familiar with the area, it’s about an hour and a half west of Toronto, not far from the land gap between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The 46-km (one way) LE & N Rail Trail runs from Brantford to the shores of Port Dover and promises me new views and tons of history.
My rolling exploration begins south of Brantford in a conveniently located trailside parking lot in Scotland, Ontario (Highway 4, just east of Highway 24). The first section of the trail southbound is paved, so no overgrown weeds or muddy ruts here — just calming views of farm fields.
For centuries, this area has been an agricultural powerhouse, growing everything from tobacco to sweet potatoes and now even ginseng. Looking at a map of the region, it’s astounding that a relatively small land mass has three massive freshwater lakes encircling it (Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron). Little wonder the area has been a magnet for human settlement over the millennia.
In more recent times (relatively speaking), tens of thousands of United Empire Loyalist refugees (those loyal to the British Empire) fled here after the American Revolution (post-1783). Even more arrived a few years later at the invitation of Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe with the offer of low taxes and free land. (Family fact: one branch of my mother’s family were also United Empire Loyalists, and in 1831, moved from Heartland, New Brunswick, to Upper Canada, which is present-day Ontario.)
One of the many legacies of this period was the resettlement of thousands of Iroquois from the northern United States. Led by Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, whose Indigenous name was “Thayendanegea” – which roughly translates to “two sticks bound together for strength” — they had allied with the British during the American Revolution and lost much of their land after it.
Of nearly 900,000 acres later granted by the British to the Six Nations in the Haldimand Proclamation, only a fraction remains in Indigenous hands today. In fact, just east of the trail is the largest remaining parcel of land, the Six Nations of the Grand River, which is the country’s most populous Indigenous reserve, with more than 27,000 members from all six Haudenosaunee nations: Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora. [Editor’s Note: Check out the Six Nations Tourism website for great options on how you can experience Six Nations history and culture firsthand.]
Apparently, the great Scottish inventor and scientist Alexander Graham Bell, who had moved to Canada in 1870 with his family and was living on a homestead close to present-day Brantford, began learning the Mohawk language, and translated its oral language into a written form using special symbols (called Visible Speech). For Bell’s commitment to documenting and preserving the language, he was awarded the title of Honorary Chief by Mohawk Chief George Henry Martin Johnson, whose Indigenous names was “Onwanonsyshon.”
One last important historical note before I keep pedaling my gravel bike: several thousand free Black people, as well as those still enslaved, travelled north after the American Revolution. In time, all Black people found freedom — though they wouldn’t find the end to discrimination — and created Black communities throughout southern Ontario, which became beacons for runaway enslaved people from the U.S. who escaped via the Underground Railroad (communities include Elgin Settlement, Bunnell’s Landing in present-day Brantford, and Wilberforce Colony north of London).
After several kilometres cycling through farmland and forest and breathing the fresh country air, I feel totally energized, despite the 5 a.m. start to my day. It’s clear the LE & N Rail Trail has been given lots of love and attention over the years, with its plentiful navigation signage and informational plaques with historical and wildlife highlights.
About 12 kilometres from Scotland, I arrive at Black Bridge, a 166-metre-long rail bridge spanning the Waterford Ponds. The views from up high are lush and fantastic. Several people are already fishing at the pond’s edge below. If you visit the ponds, it’s well worth cycling down the hill along the Waterford Heritage Trail to take in the views from below.
On the far side of the bridge, the path brings me beneath several towering grain silos, where the Waterford Youth Group painted giant murals on the lower portions in 2016. For a time, I find myself lingering to admire this display of public art — visions of canoes on a lake, sunflowers growing along a picket fence, and a chugging locomotive.
After a quick detour through the streets of the community of Simcoe (construction has shut a section of the trail), I make the final 13-kilometre push, arriving at the Port Dover West Pier Lighthouse. It’s a charming, squarish 8-metre-high lighthouse built in 1850, perched at the end of a long pier. It’s also a perfect place for me to stretch my legs, munch on a snack, and take in the views.
I’ll admit it’s hard to feel the weight of history along the waterfront of present-day Port Dover, which is now a popular summer tourist spot with its modern marina, waterside restaurants, and sand beaches. But there are some deep layers of history here, too. Archaeological evidence, for instance, indicates that the Algonquin people have been here for thousands of years, and later the Neutral Confederacy, all long before European missionaries and explorers arrived. By 1794, United Empire Loyalists had established a hamlet, which was later raided and burned to the ground by American soldiers during the War of 1812.
That’s a lot of history stacked up on one patch of earth, and it makes me wonder about all the other patches that have stories yet to be unearthed.
On the ride back, I meet two young women from Port Dover, as they cycle over one of several original truss railway bridges on the trail. They tell me they like to ride this path as often as possible. And their sentiments are repeated over and over again by locals I meet on these rail trails. Build these corridors of human power, and many people — from near and far — will use them. **