Lack of railway siding frustrated Fergus’ James Gow

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.

Last week’s column offered an outline of the history of James Gow’s lime quarry and kiln, which operated from 1897 until 1915 in the heart of Fergus.

This week I am looking at Gow’s problems with transportation and related problems that eventually doomed his business.

Gow enjoyed gratifying success with his new quarry and kiln in its first five years. The growth came from new customers located outside the immediate area. Consequently, by 1900 he was already one of the major shippers for the railways at Fergus.

As early as 1899, the Canadian Freight Association approved special rates for Gow’s shipments. The policy, agreed to by both major railways, equalized rates for lime shipped in full carloads from Fergus, Elora, Guelph, Limehouse, Acton, and several other points in the area to stations in southwestern Ontario. With this rate, none of Gow’s competitors had an advantage over him with their railway freight charges.

Fergus had rejoiced with the opening of its first railway station in 1870 and the second in 1880.

Twenty years later though, the locations of both the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific stations in the northwest quadrant of the town were proving to be inconvenient for major shippers such as Gow, Beatty Bros., and James Wilson’s Monkland Mills.

All shipments in and out had to be handled by horse and wagon. This caused delays, considerable manual labour, and additional costs in maintaining horses.

After 1900, the trend for major shippers was to have direct access to a railway siding. The first manufacturer to install a siding was John McGowan’s linseed oil mill at Aboyne, which connected to the CPR with a half-mile spur line in 1902.

The construction of this line stirred interest in Fergus for similar facilities there, led by James Gow and James Wilson. Both had competitors with direct rail access. The transshipment costs in getting to and from the Fergus stations were eating into their profit margin.

The locations of Monkland Mills and Gow’s quarry made it difficult, if not impossible, for a single siding to serve the two largest shippers in Fergus.

Both railways showed interest in the concept of improved facilities at Fergus. The Grand Trunk proposed a siding from their station to run along the side of St. Patrick Street, ending at Monkland Mills, and serving other shippers along the route.

This would be of little benefit to James Gow on the south side of the river. He proposed connecting to the Grand Trunk at Aboyne, near the end of the Grand River bridge. His concept was to extend this line beyond his quarry to the Beatty factory (now the Fergus Market) and farther east, where Monkland Mills could connect with a conveyor system across the river.

Canadian Pacific floated several proposals involving a new line into Fergus from the east. All were very costly and none seemed very practical.

The Grand Trunk estimated the cost of the St. Patrick Street route in the $10,000 range (equivalent to at least $700,000 today). Fearing that traffic increases might not justify the cost, the railway would not commit to building it. Early in 1903 Fergus council became involved in the projected line.

Gow’s proposal, presented to Fergus council in May 1903, involved a longer route and was even more costly. It had the advantage of not disrupting the residential neighbourhoods along St. Patrick Street. Gow stated that several property owners along the route would donate land for the right-of-way, because their land at present was worth little, but would become potential industrial sites if the railway line were constructed.

Gow estimated that he could ship 300 carloads of lime (containing 15 tons each) if he had better rail access, and in addition up to 10 carloads of crushed rock per day, depending on markets. He also had incoming freight: 1,800 cords of firewood to produce the estimated 4,500 tons of lime, plus coal for the boiler powering his rock crusher.

By June of 1903 it was obvious that municipal financing would be necessary for anything to be built. Fergus council favoured the St. Patrick Street route, and offered to advance $9,000 to the Grand Trunk to pay for it. A condition was that both railways would have switching rights on it. The cost would be recovered by a surcharge of $2 on every car using the line. Fergus ratepayers approved the proposal by a vote of 163 to 76 in Sept. 1903.

The Grand Trunk constructed the siding quickly, and it went into service in the summer of 1904. Though less than ideal, it was still an advantage to James Gow. It brought rail facilities closer to him, and eliminated the uphill run to the station. He began using a steam tractor to haul his lime and crushed stone to a loading facility near the corner of Breadalbane and St. Patrick Streets.

Gow’s shipments in summer often topped 40 carloads per month, and much more when he had large orders for crushed rock. He sent most of his product by Grand Trunk, and was that railway’s biggest Fergus customer by 1905, when his second kiln was in full production. Monkland Mills handled more cars, but split their business between the two railways.

James Gow had a reason for cultivating the Grand Trunk. He still wanted direct access.

He continued to buttonhole and lobby both Fergus councilors and railway officials. In the spring of 1906, after a series of false starts and difficulties, he made some progress.

The success of the St. Patrick Street siding had impressed Fergus council. The annual traffic volume was running twice the estimate, and the project was on its way to paying for itself in four years. Consequently, they were in a mood to approve an advance to the proposed Grand Trunk line to Gow’s quarry.

Fergus would purchase the rails and track components, estimated to cost $7,165 for the 9,400 feet of track. The Grand Trunk would lay the track, and construct all the facilities. Gow would repay the cost to Fergus with a surcharge on each car handled. As security to Fergus, he gave a mortgage on the quarry and kiln. He was also required to acquire the right-of-way and grade the route to Grand Trunk specifications.

Everyone signed agreements in January 1907. Gow made plans to start work in April 1907, but by then the project started to fall apart. Even though Fergus had approved its share of the financing, the Grand Trunk backed out of the project in the summer of 1907.

The reasons are a mystery. The railway may have had second thoughts about the viability of so long a line for a single customer, and a seasonal one at that. There may also have been pressure on the railway from one or more of Gow’s competitors. In any case, Gow’s siding fizzled, and with it the long-term viability of his lime business.

Gow continued to use the St. Patrick Street siding for the last eight years his business operated. The costs of handling lime and crushed stone in wagons from his quarry increasingly squeezed his profit margin, which was minuscule at best. But transportation was not his only difficulty.

Though a major lime producer in the province by 1905, Gow operated the business much as he had since the 1870s. His second kiln, built in the spring of 1905, merely scaled up the technology used in his first kiln. It was a square stone structure, fired by cordwood.

At great cost he hired Ibbotson & Co., local contractors, to build a massive ramp to allow horse-drawn carts to bring limestone to the top of the kiln.

He had no storage or warehousing capacity for his finished product, so he sold only seasonally, filling railway cars as quickly as his men could draw the lime out of the kilns. This made it difficult for him to fill large rush orders, and he could not ship at all in winter when the kilns were shut down.

Gow’s quarry seams hopelessly outmoded when compared to other lime producers. The Elora White Lime Co., for example, began production at what became the Elora Quarry in the summer of 1914, nine years after Gow built his second kiln. The Elora firm had railway access (on the line running to McGowan’s linseed oil mill) from the beginning.

The kilns here were steel structures, fired automatically with coal, and the limestone was handled from the quarry to the kilns by tramways and conveyors. Much of the finished lime went out in 40-pound paper bags. Electricity, not steam, powered the crusher and other equipment. There was a warehouse to store some of the finished product and to fill orders when the kilns were shut down in winter.

Unlike Gow, the Elora firm produced a range of products, including lime for steel mills, paper makers, and agricultural lime.

It is little wonder that Gow began to experience financial difficulties after 1910, even though his quality continued to satisfy loyal customers. Heavily in debt and losing money, he was unable, even if so inclined, to upgrade the technology in his kilns.

The cost of local transportation was the major factor in the demise of Gow’s lime business in 1915, but not the only one.

He was unable to take advantage of evolving technology, and he was a victim of the cyclical nature of the construction business. When new building slowed down with the outbreak of World War I, he was doomed.

Though operating less than 20 years, Gow’s quarry provides a fascinating chapter in the industrial and business history of Wellington.

Then, as now, changing technology and an unpredictable business climate offered continuing challenges. It is a tragedy that James Gow was unable to prevail over all of them.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on June 16, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015