Connon’s railway account a cautionary tale for history buffs

Elora historian John Connon (1862-1931) was, in the vast majority of his writing, a stickler for accuracy and completeness.

There were a few times when he could not resist a good story that had no basis in fact. One of those times was near the end of his life, when he published a column to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Credit Valley Railway’s branch to Fergus and Elora.

The second half of Connon’s seminal book The Early History of Elora and Vicinity had been serialized in the Fergus News Record and was on its way to the bindery in 1930. Connon had much material in his files he did not use in the book, and Hugh Templin, the editor of the paper, pressured him to publish more.

Though Connon had no training as a historian, Templin admired the older man (there was more than 30 years between them). Over the years Connon had accumulated piles of documents and artifacts. Writing, though, was a strain for Connon. In school he had been an indifferent student, usually in the bottom third of his class, and he had shown a decided preference for scientific subjects.

Templin, on the other hand, was a university graduate who had majored in history. He studied under George Wrong, one of the pioneers of historical study in Canada. He became friendly with Connon in the 1920s, and was responsible for the completion and publication of Connon’s tome.

In January of 1930 Templin published Connon’s account of the construction of the Credit Valley Railway to Elora.

According to Connon’s story, the promoter of the Credit Valley Railway, George Laidlaw, “planned” that the line should follow the Credit River to the Forks of the Credit, and then proceed overland to the village of Arthur.

Laidlaw sought a charter for this line. Connon wrote that Alex Waddell, an Elora merchant and businessman, became alarmed when he heard of Laidlaw’s plan. The proposed route would cause much damage to the economies of Elora and Fergus, Waddell believed.

Waddell, according to Connon, called on his lawyer, who is unnamed in the account. There are only two possibilities: John Jacob and Ed Burns. Waddell asked how he could procure a charter himself. The lawyer told Waddell that he must specify the end points of the railway, have a provisional board of directors, and advertise the charter application in local newspapers.

The lawyer said his fee would be $10, and that advertising costs were additional. Waddell told the lawyer to “get busy” on an application for a railway from Guelph to Elora, Fergus and Arthur.

Waddell then called on Charles Clarke, the local MPP. Clarke agreed to help with the scheme. He held a meeting with George Laidlaw, and told the promoter that he would have little chance of securing the Credit Valley charter if another railway was already serving Arthur. Laidlaw immediately realized that his plans were in jeopardy. He asked Clarke to intervene with Waddell and his associates to have their charter application withdrawn. In return he would change his own route to take the Credit Valley line to Elora and Fergus.

As proof for the scheme, Connon refers to the map. It shows that the Credit Valley line proceeds from The Forks in the direction of Arthur, but at Orton there is an elbow. From there the line heads in the direction of  Belwood, Fergus and Elora. He concludes that Waddell managed to change the route for the investment of a few dollars and a bluff.

That, in essence, is the Connon’s story. The difficulty with it is that there is no evidence to support it. First of all, an application for a railway charter was more involved than Connon indicates. The promoters needed to have a significant amount of money raised and on deposit before submitting an application for a charter.

Laidlaw was only too well aware of that. He had lined up some of the leading merchants and businessmen of Toronto behind him, and still had difficulty meeting the provisional requirements for the Credit Valley Railway. Laidlaw would have scoffed at a small town merchant such as Waddell succeeding where he failed.

George Laidlaw was one of the most brazen promoters of 19th century Ontario. He built his career on a series of bluffs and promises. He had planned on building a branch from the Orangeville area to Elora from the beginning. He viewed Fergus and Elora as major market towns with good potential.

Connon’s assertion that the province was reluctant to charter railways to towns that already had a railway was nonsense. Fergus and Elora had enjoyed rail service since the summer of 1870. Arthur was not far behind. Crews were building the Toronto, Grey and Bruce (TG&B) to Arthur in 1871, at about the same time that the Credit Valley was chartered. The TG&B had been chartered more than three years earlier, in 1867. The Credit Valley charter made no mention of a line to Arthur, and there is no account of Arthur mentioned as a potential destination for the CVR in any of the newspaper stories from the 1870s.

Unlike most of Connon’s writing, this story is very short on specifics. He mentions no dates other than the opening of the line in 1880, and does not identify the lawyer who worked in league with Waddell.

The story of the Credit Valley is an involved one, covering almost a full decade from the initial proposal until the opening.

The story of George Laidlaw, in attempting to build a railway with no money of his own and a group of well-to-do but reluctant backers is itself fascinating, but Connon seems to be unaware of all that.

During the years when the Credit Valley was in the news Connon was a teenager. He was 18 when the line opened. He certainly heard and read about the line as events unfolded. And like his father, Connon had little ability with mathematics, business or engineering concepts.

It is therefore not surprising that he seemed unaware of engineering and financing problems with a huge venture such as a 19th century railway, and his history suffers from a lack of an understanding of business and economic concepts.

His column on the Credit Valley Railway was certainly inspired by Alex Waddell, who operated a store in Elora from 1870 until the early 1880s, and retained contacts with the village for two decades after that, including a number of investments in local industrial concerns.

Waddell was also something of a windbag. He could talk his way into deals that did well for himself, and he was a skilled raconteur. He certainly captivated John Connon with his Credit Valley story, which Connon accepted totally, and without any of the documentary evidence that he normally relied upon.

This is a cautionary tale for those with an interest in history. It is dangerous to accept unquestioningly the stories offered by anyone when they have no documentary evidence to support them. And more so, it is unwise to regard individuals as reliable sources when we have personal friendships with them.

And most important, a skilled and thorough historian such as John Connon is not always a reliable one. No one is invariably correct and complete, and every piece of written history should be questioned and investigated further.    


Stephen Thorning