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Today's date: Friday May 25, 2018 Vol 51 Issue 21
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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Ratepayers supported scheme for electric railways in 1920

Recent announcements by GO Transit to extend train service through the southern portion of Wellington County to Guelph and Kitchener are a reminder that frequent rail service to this area is not a new idea.

The old Toronto Suburban Railway connected Guelph with Toronto between 1917 and 1931, operating two-car trains on approximately 90-minute headways.

That service lasted but 14 years. It had very poor connections at the Toronto end, and never turned a profit. A small portion of the route was rebuilt for the Halton County Radial Museum, where visitors can take a brief run on what was part of the route.

The Toronto Suburban was only one of a number of planned and projected electric rail routes in Ontario, and was one of the last to be opened. Inflation during and after the war made such lines prohibitively expensive, and the advent of wide ownership of motor cars and trucks ate into the potential pool of users of such lines.

The great champion of the electric lines was Sir Adam Beck, head of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Commission and a cabinet member in the provincial Conservative governments of James Whitney and William Hearst.

Hearst was born in Waterloo County, but had strong ties to Wellington. He attended the famous academy at Rockwood that produced a number of prominent men, and he was a frequent visitor to Wellington to promote his power and rail schemes.

The years immediately after the First World War were difficult ones for Beck. With his domineering and humourless management style and his contempt for regulations, he made enemies easily.

Businessmen loathed him for his advocacy of public ownership of utilities and his habit of making blunt statements.

The premier and fellow cabinet members resented his power and influence, which far exceeded that of Hearst himself. During the war, super-patriots wanted him removed from office due to his German background.

Despite the critics, Beck maintained a solid following with the public, and managed to retain support for his railway scheme at a time when other jurisdictions were abandoning the idea. But as time went on he had an ever larger struggle to push his scheme.

In the fall of 1919 Hearst’s Conservative government was swept from office, to be replaced by the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO), a rural protest group with no official leader. Beck himself lost his seat. Some in the UFO were prepared to offer the premiership to Beck, but others strongly opposed the choice. In their view, Beck was a big spender. And the did not like his railway scheme. Farmers wanted good roads instead.

Beck decided to push ahead. During the last weeks of 1919 he campaigned actively for the latest version of his railway scheme, especially a route from Hamilton to Dundas and Galt, with a branch to Kitchener and Elmira, and another to Guelph, Fergus and Elora. It would be built in large part with municipal funding. A vote was to be held on Jan. 1, 1920, along with municipal elections.

His own health by then was not good. He took to the campaign trail against doctor’s orders. Meanwhile, his wife, who was also failing, went to England. Beck decided to join her there for Christmas. When he disembarked he was suffering from pneumonia and almost died.

The vote was a gratifying one for Beck. In Guelph there were two plebiscites, one of which was on the sale of the city’s streetcar system to Ontario Hydro. That one passed with a majority of 5-1.

The other bylaw, for the $535,000 purchase of debentures to build Beck’s system of rail lines, received only six fewer votes. In 1920 that was a huge sum of money, and clearly demonstrates the public had not abandoned the concept of quick and frequent rail service to nearby communities.

In Galt the margin in favour of the electric railway was 1,029 to 79. Hamilton, Galt, Kitchener and Waterloo also voted in favour by huge margins. Only three townships in the area voted in the negative.

Part of the reason for the strong support was Beck’s willingness to search for economies. For example, he had earlier vowed to have nothing to do with the existing railways. During the campaign he changed his policy, stating he would use the existing under-used rail line from Guelph to Galt for his electric cars.

Beck’s promise to co-operate with the new Canadian National Railways, which was then in the process of being organized to take over the former Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern systems, was a very popular one, and was endorsed by most of the newspapers and civic leaders in the province.

Another factor in Beck’s favour was nationalism. Many people resented being tied to the United States for the supply of coal needed to operated locomotives, and there was much outrage over strikes in the American coal industry during 1919. Electric lines would use hydro power generated within the province.

Ontario’s United Farmers government, during its first months in office, became increasingly alarmed at Ontario Hydro’s debt, and at Beck’s willingness to borrow ever-larger funds.

He was convinced the debts would be paid off by the economic activity produced by cheap and available electric power and by the convenient rail service of Ontario Hydro’s rail system.

Premier Drury, prodded by doubters in his caucus and stunned by the announcement that Beck’s huge new generating station at Niagara was more than four times over budget, decided to slow Beck’s course. He announced no rail line would be built unless all municipalities on its route were in favour.

In July 1906 Drury appointed a commission to study the electric railway question. The report came out a year later. It was outspokenly critical of new electric lines, describing them as obsolete in light of the popularity of motor cars, and increasingly expensive to build and operate.

That effectively killed the radial railway plan. All the towns and villages on the Wellington/Waterloo line voted strongly in favour, as did most townships. Only West Flamborough, Beverley and North Waterloo Townships voted against the proposal, but that was more than enough to kill it. The comprehensive report piled on more reasons for not building the system.

Adam Beck’s final years were not happy ones. His wife, 23 years his junior, died of cancer in 1921. Beck himself returned to the legislature and retained his position as head of Ontario Hydro, but his power was significantly reduced. He died in 1925 at the age of 68.

Ever since the last car on the Guelph Suburban line ran in 1931, there have been occasional voices raised in favour of frequent electric rail service among the larger towns and cities of southern Ontario.

The recent announcements by GO Transit are the first solid steps made in that direction. Initially at least, the service will be geared for rush hour service.

Advocates of transit hope for a switch to electric power at an early date, and the setting up of feeder routes by bus from outlying areas.

Adam Beck, in the end, may prove not to have been wrong, but merely a century too early with his plans.




Wellington North Guide 2018-2019


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015
Kelly Waterhouse

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