Don Broadbear has maintained a life-long dedication to railway preservation in Elgin County. Also noteworthy is his time spent working with the Ontario Rail Association to operate some very successful steam excursions out of Toronto.
Donald Broadbear is the only son of Percy Broadbear, a career locomotive engineer with Canadian Pacific Railway. At the age of seventeen he was hired by Canadian Pacific as a wiper in the shops and was soon training as a fireman on steam locomotives. Father and son purchased the Huntsville & Lake of Bays Railroad in the early 1960s. This railway, though successful for many years, became less profitable as the use of cars and trucks increased until ceasing operations in 1959. The steam locomotives, track and equipment were moved to St. Thomas, Ontario and became the popular tourist attraction known as the Pinafore Park Railway.
The Broadbears and a handful of volunteers worked diligently for some time, spending all their spare time and personal finances to fund the project. The railway came with two 0-4-0 saddle tank steam locomotives which were non-operational at the time of purchase. Donald arranged for the first engine to be placed in his back yard at his home on Charlotte Street, in London Ontario. The locomotive was restored to operating condition and was moved back to St. Thomas where it began pulling tourist passenger trains.
In 1984, the steam locomotives were offered for sale by Don and were purchased by the newly-formed Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society and brought back to Huntsville. The steam locomotives returned home after an absence of twenty-three years. The Pinafore Park railway however, continued to operate with diesel power.
In the summer of 1997, the railway (along with the old station, the water tower, track, diesel locomotive and coach) was sold back to the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society by Don. The final piece of the railway was going home. Don and his father had inadvertently “saved” the railway from destruction by providing a good home for it for more than thirty years.
This small railway was truly a labour of love for Don. The city provided a space for the railway to exist, however, the rest was up to the owner. Don certainly never made any financial gains from operating the railway as the cost of its yearly operation exceeded earnings from the public trips. Don’s knowledge, ingenuity, perseverance and tenacious attitude towards the project were what kept it alive for so many years. During the years of steam however, many young men were introduced to the wonders of steam locomotion and the challenges of maintaining them. Don was able to pass on his knowledge of steam locomotives and railroading to volunteers who were interested in learning. Many were even trained on how to operate them. Some of these men went on to be successful railroaders, stationary engineers, and engineers/tradesmen for General Motors.
During the 1970s Don was selected as one of the “designated engineers” to operate Ontario Rails steam excursions. These excursions frequently ran out of CPR’s John Street Roundhouse in Toronto utilizing steam locomotives ex-CPR 136 and ex-CPR 1057. As the Ontario Rail group was a not-for-profit organization, Don and other engine crews would donate their time while preparing and operating these locomotives. As Don was highly regarded as a fine steam locomotive man and locomotive engineer, he was handpicked by CPR and Ontario Rail for these assignments.
Don Broadbear was one of the founding members of the Port Stanley Terminal Railway (PSTR). In 1982, a washout at Union rendered the section of rail between St. Thomas and Port Stanley unserviceable by CN. It was then that Don and a group of others formed the Port Stanley Terminal Rail Inc. to purchase the line and rebuild it into an operating railway.
Don led the charge on various projects over the years. Some of these major projects included repairing the critical washout, and moving equipment to the site from as far away as western Canada. Trees, weeds and mud buried the right of way and road crossings had been paved over.
The fourth and final aspect of Dons accomplishments are those that have taken place while volunteering with the Southern Ontario Locomotive Restoration Society (SOLRS). The story of former Essex Terminal Railway 0-6-0 switcher No. 9 is a remarkable one. There had been a group attempting the restoration of No. 9 in Nanticoke. However, the project had begun to stall by 1993. Don had been approached regarding taking over the project as he was among only a few in Canada with the expertise required to tackle such an assignment. By this time Don had over 43 years of service as a locomotive engineer with the Canadian Pacific Railway working out of London and was approaching retirement. He accepted the project and retired shortly after. No. 9 arrived in St. Thomas on December 23, 1993 in more than 500 pieces on five rails cars. The restoration would begin.
Don worked with relentless tenacity to plough through a project of this magnitude with a limited budget and using only volunteers. He was always an excellent leader who had a knack for educating and encouraging others who were willing to learn. Some of the projects that were required to allow No. 9 to operate again were not just difficult in labour and time, but required specific knowledge of steam locomotives and some of the scientific aspects behind them. Don in essence became the boilermaker, pipe fitter, steam fitter, labourer, shop foreman, welder, educator, engineer, designer, fabricator, locomotive engineer, and the list goes on. While he had excellent people working with him on the project as well, Don had to wear all the “hats.”
In October 1997 the engine was fired up and operated under its own power for the first time since 1963. After four years of intense work, No. 9 was operational once more. Don is one of only a handful of individuals in the North America to lead a project of this nature. Very few who attempt these types of projects (particularly on a volunteer basis) ever see the finished product.
However, the work was not yet complete and the project continued through the winter to prepare No. 9 for steam trials in the spring of 1998. No 9 continued to operate successfully out of St. Thomas, on occasion pulling excursion trains to Windsor and Guelph.
Don is currently leading the restoration of 0-4-0 tank engine No. 124 with a handful of dedicated volunteers who have remained loyal to the cause of steam in St. Thomas. Don will be 80 in February 2010. He continues to volunteer on various projects between the Elgin County Railway Museum, and the Waterloo Central Railway all while working six days per week on No. 124. He expects to have No. 124 operational by 2011.
Don has been educating many on the inner workings of steam locomotives for over half a century, always volunteering his time. He has been involved with many schools in the London/St. Thomas area taking the time to enlighten children on the wonders of steam locomotion by giving class room talks and shop tours. He frequently took “at risk” high school students under his wing and would assist these challenged teenagers on learning “hands on” trade skills. Some of these teens came away from the experience changed in a very positive way.