Though his name is largely unknown today, Sir Henry Thornton was one of the best known men in Canada in the 1920s.
American born, he achieved his fame as a railway administrator in Great Britain during the First World War. The grateful British government awarded him a knighthood in 1919. Three years later he accepted an offer to serve as chairman of Canadian National Railways.
The CNR was a government-owned system, cobbled together from a group of bankrupt and overextended railways in the years on the either side of 1920. It had far too much trackage, much of it duplicated and most in abysmal condition. With a few exceptions the equipment was decrepit, and morale, which had been poor on the various lines for years, had reached an all-time low.
Thornton portrayed himself as the champion of the average rail worker, and he soon won the admiration and loyalty of the workforce. He was determined to bring the unwieldy system into a properly functioning one, and he was prepared to spend a lot of money and risk huge short-term losses to achieve his goals.
Thornton rode every mile of his system on inspection tours to see for himself what was needed, and to meet as many employees as possible. On May 24, 1923 his private train stopped for several hours in Guelph, where he talked with local politicians, community leaders and major shippers.
That day he showed particular interest in improving service on the CNR line from Guelph to Hamilton, and on the line north to Palmerston, where it divided into branches to Durham, Owen Sound, Southampton and Kincardine.
His visitors complained of slow and inconvenient service on those lines, in some cases worse than it had been in the 1880s when the Grand Trunk had cobbled them together in its major Ontario consolidation. They were stunned and delighted when Thornton agreed with them completely.
An engineer by training, Thornton’s practical experience was with lines with extensive passenger operations, both in the United States and Great Britain. He wanted to make Canadian National’s passenger service the best in the world.
Changes did not come at once. But in November of 1925 the railway replaced its conventional train on the Guelph-Palmerston-Southampton run with a two-car articulated unit, powered by an oil engine driving a generator that supplied electric motors on the axles.
Basically, it was very much like diesel-powered units used 30 and more years later. It offered a much faster schedule than the former steam-powered train on that run, and its operating costs were a fraction of what they had been.
Service on the line from Guelph to Fergus and Palmerston consisted at that time of four passenger runs each way daily, an improvement over the three each way that had been the norm before World War 1.
Just before Christmas of 1925 Canadian National added a fifth run. This was another gas-electric car, and it ran from Hamilton to Guelph to Fergus, arriving at about 2pm. It then reversed direction and retraced its run back to Hamilton. This was the first time that midday service was offered on the line since the 1870s.
The improvements to the passenger service through Wellington included newer locomotives and passenger cars, and faster schedules.
But not all of Thornton’s changes were popular. There was a furor when he introduced a program to rationalize stations, which included closing the station at Goldstone in 1928, and discontinuing downtown express offices in most towns, including Fergus and Elora.
In 1928 there were major improvements to the track between Guelph and Palmerston, which included the installation of heavier rail, allowing bigger loads in freight cars and faster speeds for passenger trains. Cars of rails were parked at the Fergus station during the summer of 1928, awaiting installation.
As well as the passenger service, Thornton also brought about improvements to freight handling and to the railway in general.
In 1929 Canadian National crews replaced the old wooden water tank at Fergus with a new steel one with a 50,000 gallon capacity, almost three times the size of the old one. Locomotives did not regularly take on water at Fergus, but the new tank, with its outlet placed so that it could top up locomotives on two tracks, allowed the operation to be done easily and quickly.
The new tank was all steel, and lined with brick so that a fire could be used to keep the water from freezing in winter. The tank was assembled on a site just east of the Fergus station in May of 1929.
What is most fascinating is the source of water for the tank. It would seem most likely that water would come from a nearby well. That was not the case in Fergus.
The railway got its water from a well more than a quarter mile away, down the track and west of the Beatty Line. It was directly behind what is known locally as the Ketchen house, and beside a creek that went under the rail line at that location. Today the best and most recognizable reference is to the rear and a little west of the Fergus FreshCo store.
Since its installation, probably in the 1870s, the pump had been powered by a small steam engine, sending the water through an iron pipe alongside the track and below the frost line to the tank. The well may have also supplied water to the station.
The steam engine required the attention of a full-time fireman, who would fire it up when the level of the water in the tank was low. The last attendant at the pump was a man named Jim Ashwood. When the railway retired the steam engine they transferred Ashwood to Kitchener, where he operated the crossing gates at King Street, near the Kitchener station.
The new equipment at the well consisted of an automatic electric pump, which was turned on when the water in the tank fell below a predetermined level. When the tank was full another automatic switch turned off the pump. If the level of water in the well was insufficient, another circuit turned the pump off until the water rose sufficiently for the pump to click on again.
Why the railway originally went such a great distance to secure a supply of water and maintain an awkward and expensive refilling system is a mystery.
The 1930 electric replacement certainly reduced operating costs, but for some reason the railway sought to maintain that source rather than use a supply closer to the tank. How long it remained in use is another mystery.
In any case, the new electric pump was part of Thornton’s program of reducing operating costs and boosting efficiency. It was also the last improvement done by Canadian National in Fergus under the Thornton administration.
With the start of the Great Depression, the improvements to the passenger part of the operation started to rack up massive losses, and cuts were inevitable. Thornton had long been a target of R.B. Bennett and the Conservative Party, and with the election of Bennett as prime minister in 1930 his days were clearly numbered.
Pressure from the government resulted in massive cuts to passenger service. For example, service to Fergus dropped from five trains each way daily to two. The government fired Thornton in 1932 and cancelled his pension. He died of cancer, virtually penniless, a year later in New York at 61.
CNR employees, especially those who had been involved with his modernization plans, lamented his loss.
In places like Wellington County, Canadian National began a slow decline until most of the system was abandoned in the 1970s and 80s. The year 1930, the peak of the Thornton years, can be viewed as the apex of rail service locally.