Massive ship railway was planned in 1890

The building of a shortcut for lake shipping from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron was a concept that intrigued engineers from the beginning of the canal era in the 1820s until the early 20th century. Most of those concepts con­nected the Ottawa River or Eastern Lake Ontario with one of the rivers flowing into Geor­gian Bay.

One route was constructed – the Trent-Severn Waterway, though it was of minuscule com­mercial importance. There were also plans for a true shortcut, connecting the Hum­ber River at the west wend of Toronto with Georgian Bay.

Both the government and independent engineers studied the latter concept in the 1880s – very late for new canal projects in North America. Engineers put the cost estimate in the $30,000,000 range, equivalent to more than a couple of billion in today’s dollars.

All those plans and projects make for interesting history, but they had little to do with Wellington County. That chan­g­ed in 1888, when a new con­cept quickly gained attention: a ship railway. It would physi­cal­ly carry lake vessels overland between Toronto and Georgian Bay. The idea sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke today, but those who proposed it were quite serious. They estimated the cost of such a system at $12,000,000, less than half of the cost of a canal. Promoters in Montreal, Toronto, and Chi­cago combined their efforts, and they commissioned three rough surveys for the route, which would be 69 or 70 miles long. On one of the proposals, the line skirted near Mount Forest on its route to Toronto.

The idea of a ship railway was then a new one and had caught the imagination of engineers as a useful technique for moving ships overland where a canal was impractical or too expensive. An engineer named Cantrell, from Chicago, was one of the boosters of the Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario project, and he said in July 1890 that “Canada has one of the best locations for a ship rail­way that there is anywhere.” By then, the rough surveys had been done. They showed that the route from the Humber to Geor­gian Bay would be no more than 69 miles, and that the highest point on the route could be as low as 665 feet above Lake Ontario.

One of the proposed routes skirted Mount Forest to avoid the high land in Melancton Town­ship and the Reddick­ville-Dundalk area, which was the highest land in southern Ontario. The route via Mount Forest had a much higher sum­mit than the alternatives, but it had other advantages.

The engineers wanted a smooth, easy grade either side of the summit, one of less than 30 feet per mile. Crossing rivers and railways would mean substantial and expensive viaducts, and the engineers wanted to minimize those cros­s­ings. The ship railway would have a lock at either end, providing an initial 50-foot lift for lake vessels. Specifications called for the handling of the largest vessels then on the lakes, or contemplated.

The ships would be posi­tioned above large, barge-like flatcars, and the water drained then drained from the lock. The “flatcars” would ride on three parallel standard gauge railway tracks, 20 or 25 feet apart. A regular railway locomotive on each of the tracks would be attached by cables to the “flat­car” carrying the vessel. Operating speed was to be 10 miles per hour.

That meant the trip would take roughly seven hours. The many wheels on the “flatcars” would be operated by air­brakes controlled from one of the locomotives. At four places there would be huge turntables to allow a ship to be switched into a siding to allow another vessel to pass in the opposite direction.

Ideally, the route would have no curves. Those that were necessary had to be very broad indeed. The rail would be heavier than that in use on any existing railway. The system was designed to handle ships with a displacement of 2,000 tons; which was subsequently raised to 5,000 tons by tweak­ing the specifications. That was seven or eight times the weight of the heaviest freight trains then running.

The advantage of the huge railway installation, said the pro­moters, was that it would eli­minate 428 miles of naviga­tion on Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron, and 28 miles of canal on the existing route via the Welland Canal, Lake Erie, and the St. Clair River. That would allow vessels from Chi­ca­go to reach Quebec City be­fore Buffalo. With the new shortcut, ocean traffic could reach the Windy City with only two days additional time over New York and Boston. With the relatively shallow canals avoid­ed, the route would be open to ocean-going ships as well as lake vessels.

The new technology had the potential to disrupt the rail traffic of the major lines linking Chicago with the eastern sea­board. Some railroad me ex­pressed worry and alarm, but most realized that the ship rail­way, like lake shipping itself, would be seasonal in nature, and unlikely to be a real threat to rail systems. And many be­lieved that the new system would never be built.

Some of the promoters went to England in the spring of 1890 to arouse the interest of investors. On their return they declared the trip a success, but had no firm commitments of money. That summer the pro­moters made plans to approach the Canadian and American governments, asking for a charter and a subsidy from Ottawa, and subsidies from the Americans.

In the end, the promoters talked the Dominion govern­ment into modifying an older charter for a canal to permit the construction of the ship rail­way. But no subsidy was forth­coming from either Ottawa or Washington. Private investors were no more enthusiastic.

Skeptics viewed the ship railway as nothing more than the idle dreams of engineers with too much time on their hands. Still, the concept of the ship railways remained alive. A similar scheme to the Ontario one was even considered for Panama in the 1880s, at a time when the canal project there languished, and before the Unit­ed States assumed control of the project. James Eads, considered the dean of Ameri­can engineers in those years, pushed the Panama proposal and helped make the concept of ship railways fashionable. Oth­er ship railways were proposed to link high-altitude South American cities with the ocean.

The Ontario project remain­ed alive for several years. In the summer of 1892, the engineers revised their drawings and speci­fications upward, to per­mit the proposed railway to carry loaded ships weighing up to 5,000 tons. That raised the estimated cost to $15,000,000.

Within months after that, the project slipped into the his­tory books as a major depres­sion hit the North American economy. It was never revived, though the idea of marine short-cut across Ontario linger­ed. In 1904, the Department of Public Works undertook a four-year study for a commercial canal linking the Ottawa and French Rivers that would in­volve the building of 23 locks. The cost was put at an even $100,000,000, with annual op­era­ting costs approaching $1-million. Not surprisingly, that proposal went nowhere.

The period either side of 1890 was an exciting one for engineering, with new ideas and construction materials ap­pearing constantly. The enthu­si­asm for the ship railway is easy to understand in that con­text. The proposed ship railway excited a few local visionaries as well. A couple of Wellington County businessmen envision­ed a day when the lake ships might stop at Mount Forest, to load grain and offload coal. To them, the characterization of Mount Forest as Wellington Coun­ty’s port town was any­thing but absurd.



Stephen Thorning