The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Any one who studies the history of 19th century Ontario quickly sees that the subject of railways dominated public policy and the public imagination for a generation, from the 1850s until about 1880.
By then, most of the railway network had been constructed.
These railways were seen as the essential transportation system, offering a rapid and relatively inexpensive means of moving people and goods. They allowed consumers in places like Elora and Fergus to have access to goods from virtually anywhere, and they provided a means for locally manufactured items to secure a wide market.
A second railway boom occurred in Ontario in the decade immediately preceding the First World War. A few branch lines were added to the existing network, but most of the attention was directed to new, electrically powered lines.
These electric railways, which were essentially streetcar systems running between towns, were proving to be very popular in the United States. Lightly built, they offered frequent and sometimes fast service, and could operate profitably on a much lower volume of business than regular railways.
Few of these lines were built in Ontario, but many were planned and projected, including at least a half-dozen into the Fergus-Elora area. Several were to be extensions of existing streetcar systems in Guelph and Berlin (Kitchener).
None of the proposals for an electric railway into Centre Wellington proceeded very far until 1910, when promoters for the People’s Railway began working the area. To the modern ear, this name has a socialist ring to it, but this was not the case in the pre-Soviet days in 1910. The inspiration for the venture came from a group of capitalists and speculators in Detroit.
The People’s Railway received a charter from the Ontario government in 1909 for an electric railway line from Woodstock to Arthur, and running through Plattsville, New Hamburg, Berlin, Guelph and Elora. The promoters had connections with hydro interests at Niagara, and offered to provide electrical power to municipalities along the route.
The backers of the People’s Railway possessed considerable skill in generating favourable publicity for themselves. For example, in the fall of 1909 they announced that various branch lines would also be constructed; for example, to Erin and Puslinch Lake.
Although they tried to give the impression that the People’s Railway was a well- capitalized venture, its promoters started a campaign in the spring of 1910 to sell stock in the line to the municipalities along its proposed route. Two of the promoters, named Bugg and Moody, worked the Centre Wellington area in June of 1910. They requested a purchase of $20,000 of shares by Fergus and $15,000 by Elora.
Elora did not give a cordial reception. The village, led by Reeve Udney Richardson of the Elora Mill, feared that an electric railway would take retail customers to Guelph. As well, Elora people remembered unpleasant experiences in previous decades when aid had been extended to railways and industries. The village had only recently extricated itself from a heavy debt load, and was very reluctant to take on additional burdens.
Fergus, led by Reeve A.C. Steele, quickly lined up behind the project. At the time, Fergus had a much more vital retail sector than Elora, and its merchants believed that an electric line would make it easier for rural people to shop in their stores. As well, the promise of hydro-electric power was attractive. The existing electrical plant, owned by Dr. Groves, provided service for only five or six hours a day, and even then the supply was erratic.
On July 4, 1910 the People’s Railway orchestrated an impressive sod turning ceremony near Bloomingdale. Following the obligatory speeches by various dignitaries and politicians, the promoters signalled to the drivers of 40 teams, which immediately began moving earth with scrapers and scoops. As things turned out, this would be the only construction undertaken by the railway.
The sod-turning ceremony helped to line up support for the company for a series of plebiscites on stock purchases by municipalities. The promoters promised that the line would be operating from New Hamburg to Guelph by the end of 1910, and that the whole system would be complete by the fall of 1911. Even the normally skeptical J.C. Templin of the News Record was impressed the railway’s promises.
Guelph voters agreed to an $85,000 stock purchase in the summer of 1910. Aggressive downtown merchants such as G.B. Ryan led the campaign in the Royal City. They believed the People’s Railway would bring customers to Wyndham Street, at the expense of St. Andrew’s Street and Geddes Street.
Plebiscites for Elora, Fergus, Arthur, West Garafraxa, West Luther and Proton were scheduled for Jan. 1, 1911. Enthusiasm was strongest in Fergus, where the proposed route included a branch line serving the Beatty Bros. factory (now the Fergus Market) and Gow’s quarry (now the site of the sewer plant). These were major industries, but lacked rail connection.
The bylaw prepared for Fergus voters specified a $20,000 purchase of preferred stock in the railway, to be financed by 30-year debentures.
In addition, Fergus voters were asked to endorse a franchise bylaw for the railway’s operation within the town. This bylaw gave the People’s Railway a 25-year charter to operate on the streets of Fergus, authorized the route of the line, and specified construction standards and the street maintenance to be done by the railway. Service was to be at least hourly between Arthur and Guelph in summer, and every two hours in winter.
Fergus voters supported the project enthusiastically, approving the stock purchase 233-55 and the franchise bylaw by 276-50. As expected, Elora turned the project down.
After securing promises of share purchases from most municipalities along its proposed route, the People’s Railway did nothing to begin construction. Instead, the promoters began lobbying for a federal charter, which would entitle them to subsidies.
The promoters’ ambitions escalated at the same time. The new plans included lines from Arthur to Owen Sound and Meaford, from Owen Sound to Midland, Waterloo to Hamilton, Stratford to Goderich, and a long line from London to Mount Forest through Mitchell and Listowel.
The People’s Railway secured a federal charter, but no federal subsidy. They suffered another reversal when they lost their access to Niagara power. Plans for the commencement of construction got pushed forward several times during the summer of 1911. Support for the line evaporated quickly, and municipal leaders began to hold their wallets tightly. By the end of 1911 the whole scheme was a dead letter.
To the modern observer, it is obvious that the People’s Railway was little more than a pyramid scheme from the beginning, and that its backers hoped to make their money from promotion rather than railway operations.
It is also easy to view men such as A.C. Steele and J.C. Templin as dupes for being taken in. However, in the context of the time, the People’s Railway did have the appearance of a viable entity. It was widely accepted that an electric railway would guarantee growth and prosperity, and that any town without one would wither and die. Local leaders are easily swept up into the enthusiasm that such proposals generate. In any case, the system planned by the People’s Railway resembled the electric railway system that Adam Beck proposed a few years later.
Fergus grew rapidly without its streetcar line. Beatty Bros. secured access to the railways at their new plant on Hill Street, and Ontario Hydro soon provided cheap, 24-hour electrical power.
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on March 15, 1995.