Perhaps the most intriguing business venture proposed for this region of Ontario in the early 20th century was The People’s Railway.
Aspects of its history have been featured in this column several times over the years, and from time to time I stumble onto more material relevant to that proposed system.
The name “People’s Railway” suggests some sort of socialist enterprise, but this one was nothing of the sort. A group of American entrepreneurs, with more brass than hard cash were behind the proposal. As originally formulated, the plan was to construct an electric railway line from Woodstock to Guelph via Kitchener, with several branches to places such as Stratford. The railway would build a transmission line to the generating plant at Niagara Falls, and would sell electricity to customers within six miles of the rail lines.
On the face of it, the scheme sounded like a sound one. Construction costs would be met with contributions voted by the municipalities to be served, and the board of directors would consist of representatives of municipalities supplying at least $20,000 of the financing.
Ontario’s legislature granted a charter for the People’s Railway in 1909, with an authorized capital of $1,000,000. By then the organizers had become more ambitious.
The charter authorized branches to Fergus and Elora, Arthur, and other points to the north. During the ensuing 18 months, the system, on paper, would be extended to Kincardine, Owen Sound, and Collingwood. The promoters were happy to expand the scope of the project because there was much enthusiasm and requests from municipalities in north Wellington and Grey County.
Towns and villages were enthusiastic from the beginning, fired up by the twin promises of cheap electric power and better transportation. Farmers were less enthusiastic. Many had doubts about the company and its promoters, and others could see that the system would be unlikely to generate sufficient business to meet expenses.
Municipalities in the southern and western areas began voting on financial aid bylaws in May and June of 1909. In some of the townships the vote was close. Wilmot voted in favour by the narrow margin of 388 to 306. By the fall of 1909, there were promises of $150,000 of municipal aid. Guelph later voted $85,000.
As the calendar turned from 1909 to 1910 nothing further was heard about the People’s Railway.
By spring, though, survey crews were in the field, restoring public confidence in the project. Many elected officials retained their enthusiasm, and they spent much time generating support for the People’s Railway as the company looked to the east and north for financial support in the first half of 1910.
During the last week of October 1910 the company opened an office in Fergus, with a staff to provide information to the public on the venture. Fergus council had authorized a vote for $10,000 of aid, and the company wanted no wrinkles or misunderstandings among members of the public. On hand were two local members of the preliminary board of directors: former reeve Albert McLelland of West Garafraxa and Dr. Abraham Groves of Fergus.
The route planned and partially surveyed would bring the line north from Guelph to Elora, and then swing east along the southern side of the Grand River, with a station near the old Beatty plant (now the Fergus Marketplace). The line would cross the river near Monkland Mills at the eastern edge of Fergus, and then head to Arthur and points north on a route between Concessions 3 and 4 of West Garafraxa.
The proposed line between Guelph and Fergus paralleled the existing Grand Trunk Railway within a mile. It was an absurd duplication of service, although the People’s Railway promised hourly service.
By that time, it appeared that the People’s Railway was a genuine company, not a paper enterprise. Following a sod-turning ceremony between Bloomingdale and Maryhill on July 4, a grading crew was at work on a seven-mile stretch of roadbed between Guelph and Breslau, not far from the parallel Grand Trunk line. The ceremony had been an impressive one, staged largely to generate publicity for the company and to assure favourable outcomes in the voting of bonuses scheduled for many municipalities at the end of 1910.
Some 40 teams and scrapers were lined up that day. Only a few remained the next day to continue the work.
Company officials were active in the Fergus and Elora area beginning in June of 1910, lobbying councillors and holding public meetings. A serious threat to their plans was now on the horizon. Ontario Hydro was developing plans for distribution of power to smaller centres, and the construction of its own electric railway system named the Ontario Hydro Radial Railway. The spokesmen for the People’s Railway claimed its system would offer cheaper rates and fares.
The promoters continued to look north, although the charter had yet to be amended to authorize any line north of Arthur. On Aug. 20, 1910 a group consisting of Albert McLelland, reeve John Coutts of West Luther, and Charles Hewitt of Proton Township visited Flesherton to stir enthusiasm amongst the populace and elected officials for lines to Georgian Bay. They asked the northern municipalities to purchase stock in the company at $3,000 per mile of route, with no purchase needed until the line was up and running.
The delegation continued its tour to other places along the potential route, all the way to Meaford and Collingwood. On stop was Eugenia Falls. The railway looked at that site as a potential Electric power source for the railway and the customers along the route who would purchase electric power.
They believed that Eugenia could power the northern portion of the People’s Railway system, and act as an alternative should there be interruptions to the Niagara power that would normally power the southern part of their system.
The proposed system of the People’s Railway continued to expand. In November of 1910 there were announcements of further lines, extending service to Erin and Puslinch Lake. Company credibility, though, was beginning to suffer. Service was to commence between New Hamburg and Guelph at the end of 1910 and the rest of the system by August of 1911. It was clear that those promises were hopelessly optimistic.
On New Year’s Day of 1911, six municipalities voted to aid the line for a total of $145,000. All were favourable except Elora, where civic leaders expressed grave doubts about the system and its promoters. As well, Elora had run into severe financial difficulties in the 1880s with aid to factories that failed and to the railways that had not brought growth and prosperity.
Fergus approved $20,000 in aid by a vote of 233 to 50, with the proviso that there be 14 round trips to Guelph in the summer and eight in the winter.
In June of 1911, the People’s Railway applied for a federal charter for a greatly expanded system, that ran from Detroit and Sarnia to Toronto and as far north as Midland. The construction promised to be finished by the end of 1910 was still not started except for the short stretch west of Guelph, and none of the rest had been started or even surveyed in detail.
From that point the entire project began to unravel. The federal charter was never granted.
The outbreak of World War I signalled the end of the People’s Railway, except for a couple of official investigations. Few municipalities had actually advanced any money to the company. They were luckier than the individuals who had invested their savings in a project that the Detroit promoters claimed could not fail.
But that is a story for another time.