Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was both controversial and highly political. British Columbia had joined confederation in 1871 with the promise that there would be a transcontinental railway within 10 years. It wasn’t happening. By 1881 the project was seriously behind schedule and in serious danger. Enter William Van Horne, an American, who had a mandate to complete the project as quickly as possible.
By 1883, construction of the railway slowly progressed towards the northern shores of Lake Superior. The company in turn made the decision to build several sections of line at once and connect them one by one. The railway shipped construction materials and supplies through a number of ports on Lake Superior. One such landing was just east of present day Michipicoten Harbour, near Wawa, on Lake Superior. The company hired Mormons to build six major tote roads and haul the building materials to a number of locations. One, named Dalton, was a nothing more than hypothetical dot in the bush.
In 1884 the Mormon gangs were hard at work hauling vital equipment and goods to the future rail heads. In 1885 the navvies were busy grading, then laying tracks through the region. Little by little the main line took shape.
Late in March of 1885 the line was still under construction, when train loads of troops passed by the crude workers’ camps at Dalton, enroute to the northwest. The soldiers were on their way to quench the second Riel Rebellion in present day northern Saskatchewan. Occasionally they had to disembark with their equipment and breach gaps in the line. A few miles west of Dalton, at the Dog River, they built an ice road over one of the crossings. Unfortunately one load containing two cannons and supplies broke through and was beyond saving. By the time the soldiers returned in the fall, the line was complete from coast to coast. They disbanded the construction camp. Over time, the site returned to nature.
Activity at Dalton didn’t die off immediately. At mile 44.2 of the White River subdivision, the CPR built a station, a water tank, a siding and established a small section village for maintenance of the line. The small settlement contained no more than a half a dozen buildings, notably three single dwellings and a bunkhouse. Dalton’s role seemed sealed as a little railway outpost in the bush. In 1916 the Austin-Nicholson Lumber Company moved in near Dalton. The firm had begun to cut pulpwood at a location two miles east of Dalton. At this location the firm built a camp and laid down a spur line. By 1920, production at the Austin-Nicholson, was at full capacity. The company had a contract to produce nearly 700,000 additional ties which required construction of a new mill and the hiring of additional men.
Austin-Nicholson decided to locate the new mill 4.8 kilometres south of Dalton Station on the Shikwamkwa River. The location was ideal for a mill and for timber transport. Unfortunately, it did not lend itself well for the large scale storage of lumber. In 1921 the new mill at Dalton Mills was complete and linked to the CPR main line at Dalton Station by a small narrow gauge railway.
At the station, on the south side of the line, they cleared an area for a lumber yard, which they quickly put into use. Built to contain 100 million board feet of lumber, the site became the largest lumber yard in northern Ontario. Although at its peak, it never contained more than 40,000 board feet of lumber, there was plenty of additional space to also store pulpwood. Plans had originally been in place for a second mill at the station, however after the government refused to allocate a parcel of land, they relocated the mill to Dalton Mills.
On the north side of the line the firm surveyed a townsite. However the census takers dropped in a little early and counted only 16 residents, all railway employees, some with their families. By the end of the year, they built a number of company dwellings and residents moved in. A few years later, as operations at Dalton Mills stepped up, the pace at the station also intensified.
By the end of the decade, the little town had grown to include a general store, company offices, bunkhouses, cookery, school and a Catholic church. In 1925 a post office under the name of Parma opened in a separate building. A new name of Dalton Mills rightfully followed in 1935. At its peak over 25 sturdy homes dotted the townsite, filled with nearly 150 residents. The CPR also built a few dwellings on the townsite to accommodate additional employees tending to station duties and railway maintenance.
Although the depression years were financially disastrous for the firm, the fire at the Nicholson mill in 1933 required the transfer of operations to Dalton Mills. The planer in Nicholson was still in use for finishing lumber from Dalton Mills. The company dismantled and reinstalled it at Dalton Station to cut down on freight charges.
The mill burnt down in 1939, but was promptly rebuilt. A decade later in 1949 a second fire gutted the mill for the second time. With lumber supplies dwindling, there was no second chance this time. Following the mill’s closure, Dalton Mills a community that once boasted over 600 residents, had nothing left to sustain it. By 1955, the station population had also dropped to below 50 residents, and the school population had shrunk significantly. Following the brutal murder of the schoolteacher in the schoolhouse that same year, his replacement finished out the year and locked the doors for good.
Dalton Station saw a brief renewal of life in 1962 after the newly reorganized Dalton Lumber Company returned to Dalton Station and opened a smaller, electrically powered sawmill. The men lived in bunkhouses, converted from abandoned town homes. By then there were fewer than 20 residents living in the time. By the time they built the highway in the mid-1960s, it was practically over for Dalton. The post office closed in 1968. After the sawmill closed in 1979, very few remained in the village, apart from a few summer residents who had grew up in Dalton.
Of the community that once stood at the station, very little remains of its busy past. When last seen, seven buildings remained on the site. Two are newly-built cottages from the 1970s, while one is a new CPR bunkhouse. In the clearings south of the railway line, lie the remains of the old lumber yards, as well as the sawmill foundations and the planner site. On the south side of the tracks, near the station name board and CPR bunkhouse, the old station foundations struggle to remain visible. To the west of the station are the overgrown remains of the townsite and with four original homes. The townsite continues to see a small summer population.