A characteristic of the 19th century history of Wellington County is the enormous migration of young people from their local homes to embark on lives and careers in other places in North America.
An especially strong draw for dozens of young men was railroad employment.
This column has described the careers of some local boys who achieved great success working for railways in the United States.
Another name to add to that list is that of George L.A. Thomson.
Born on Feb. 28, 1863 in Elora, Thomson received his education in Elora schools. Among his teachers was David Boyle, principal of the Elora Public School in the 1870s. Thomson was only one of many of Boyle’s students to enjoy a successful and notable career.
The son of William and Margaret Thomson, George one of seven children who survived infancy. William was a butcher and enjoyed some success as a cattle buyer and exporter soon after migrating to Elora from England around 1860.
In 1864 he removed his growing business to the large stone building at the corner of Mill and Metcalfe Streets. There his business boomed, and he purchased a delivery wagon to drop purchases at the homes of customers in Elora, Salem and in the immediate outlying areas.
In 1874 his wife, Mary, opened her own store in the same building, selling sewing and embroidering supplies, yard goods and patterns for home sewing. A while later she began doing a good business in women’s hats.
Young George, the eldest of William and Mary’s sons and the fourth child in the family, had no interest whatsoever in following in his father’s footsteps. He worked for a time with his father, but at 19 he headed to the United States, seeking an opportunity to make good in life.
George’s mother, meanwhile, continued operating her store in Elora until after 1900. His father eventually scaled down his activities, but continued to work as a butcher until his death in early 1916 at age 83.
George Thomson was intrigued by the railroad that served Elora, and in his early teens he determined that he would work in the railroad industry. Soon after he left Elora he secured, in 1882, a position as a stenographer with the Chicago and Indianapolis Airline Railroad, a short line that became later part of the Monon Railroad. Airline was a term used by a number of railroads to indicate that their tracks followed a more-or-less straight line.
Two years later he left that railroad, which he saw as minuscule and with few opportunities for advancement. He joined the Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, a short line which had become part of the sprawling Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest system in the United States.
With his new job came a very valuable bonus for him: an annual pass, which he used to pursue his passion for rail travel on his days off work.
Pennsylvania officials recognized Thomson’s abilities, and promotions came regularly, and then frequently. In 1888, after four years with the Pennsylvania, he was named that railroad’s passenger agent in Louisville, Kentucky, a role he filled for 13 years. In 1901 management transferred him to Chicago and promoted him to chief clerk in the office there.
In 1904 he returned to the passenger side of the operation, as a travelling passenger agent based in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1910 he went to Toledo as district passenger agent, and in 1917 he became one of the system’s assistant general passenger agents, based in Cincinnati. He remained here for his next and final promotion, to division passenger agent.
Though he was still a long way from the top of the Pennsylvania’s organization, he nevertheless occupied a position of great responsibility. At the time the Pennsylvania Railroad had more than 110,000 people on its payroll, and accounted for some 12% of American railroad revenue and more than 15% of the country’s passenger revenue. In its day it was the largest corporation by far in the United States.
During his career in the passenger service Thomson developed close relations with his counterparts on other railroads. He was able to travel frequently on both the Pennsylvania system and on other railroads as part of his duties. One of the benefits of his job was that other railroads would issue him annual passes for their passenger trains.
Early in his career Thomson made something of a hobby of collecting passes. The first one that had been issued to him by the Pennsylvania remained a prized possession all his life. Soon it was augmented by passes on other lines. Most were for a term of one year, but Thomson kept them after they expired.
As division passenger agent at Cincinnati he enjoyed showing his collection of expired passes to visitors at his office. His stash of passes amounted to a pile more than 10 inches high. He believed that he had the largest collection anywhere, an assertion backed up by other employees of the Pennsylvania.
Thomson did a lot of travelling in connection with his job, but he never kept a log of his travels. Late in his career he told an interviewer that he had travelled more than a million miles by rail during his career.
George Thomson retired on March 1, 1931, after 47 years with the Pennsylvania Railroad, at the age of 68. He greatly enjoyed his work and would have stayed longer, but poor health was catching up with him. He ended his career by using up a month of accumulated holiday time. To help his health he spent the time in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at a spa.
Prior to his retirement, Thomson’s colleagues honoured him a dinner at Cincinnati’s Gibson Hotel. In accepting the accolades of his fellow employees, he modestly said that after 47 years, he believed he had been accepted as a permanent employee by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and that the company “was a pretty good boss.”
Like many retirees, Thomson was a little concerned about filling his days after a half century as a railroader. At the dinner he surprised his fellow employees by stating his intention to take up golf. He said that he had wanted to learn for years, but that his duties had consumed almost all his time.
He also mentioned his failing health, much of it the result of a failing heart. If his doctor would not permit him to play golf, he said, he intended to spend a lot of time fishing “when the weather gets right.”
George Thomson never married, claiming that railroad duties were not compatible with married life. What little spare time he had, he said, was spent at his room in Cincinnati’s Stinson Hotel, reading books and magazines. He had lived in a single room at the hotel for years, and had never owned a house or rented an apartment.
Unlike many local ex-patriots, who left Wellington County and severed all local connections, George Thomson remained in contact with many old friends and school chums. Every summer, accompanied by his spinster sister Mary, he returned to Elora, naturally making use of his railroad passes.
He enjoyed spending a week or more amongst old friends, exchanging reminiscences and regaling anyone who paused to listen to stories about the early years of Elora.