The main impediment to rapid development in Wellington County was a lack of transportation. Settlers could buy a piece of land and move to it. Their problem was getting produce to outside markets. With costly and difficult transportation there was no profit in shipping out timber. When they harvested their first crops, transportation costs could equal or exceed the crop value.
There were proposals to build railways through Wellington as early as the late 1830s. A decade later the concepts took a more serious form, but the great obstacle was the cost of building. As an alternative, people in rural areas seized on the idea of good-quality gravel roads. By 1850, they formed several private road companies, financed by share capital, borrowing, and invariably, public money in the form of subsidies. Those routes, toll roads, linked Guelph with Dundas, Erin, Fergus and Arthur, and Elora and Harriston.
Hauling freight by horse-drawn freight wagons was slow and expensive. Many longed for railway transportation, especially when they could see rail connections usually brought prosperity.
Rail service came to Wellington in 1856 with the opening of the Grand Trunk main line from Guelph to Toronto, and the Great Western’s link to Hamilton. Those helped areas close to Guelph. Agriculture in the north, though, still faced high transportation costs.
The railways were reluctant to build branches, fearing the traffic would not justify the expenses. Locally, a group of investors, led by Charles Allan, of Elora, proposed to build a line into the north from Guelph. Chartered as the Canada North West Railway, it never got beyond a sod turning ceremony at Aboyne in 1858.
The early 1860s brought lots of railway talk, but no construction. By then, much of the initiative came from Toronto and Hamilton. Civic leaders there believed prosperity depended on having a large hinterland area under domination. The best way was to connect to the outlying area by rail. Both cities eyed Wellington County.
The toll road system fostered close connections between Wellington and Hamilton. There was no easy route from Wellington to Toronto until the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway. It began to eat into Hamilton’s business connections in Wellington. Hamilton businessmen responded by organizing the Wellington, Grey & Bruce Railway as a subsidiary of the Great Western line, to reinforce their connections with the counties in its name. It was chartered in 1864, but construction was delayed until 1869.
Toronto businessmen responded with the Toronto, Grey & Bruce in 1867. The rival WG&B was to be built to a gauge of 66 inches between the rails. The TG&B embraced a new concept: narrow gauge. Its rails were 42 inches apart.
Advocates of the narrow gauge argued construction costs would be lower by up to 30%, and the route the line took would require less excavation because curves could be sharper. Everything about the narrow gauge would be smaller: freight cars would be 15 feet long and carry six or eight tons, rather than 10. Passenger cars, at 35 feet in length and 6 tons in weight, would carry 40 or so passengers, rather than 60 or more on existing railways. The lighter weights meant that rails and roadbed could be lighter.
The arguments were persuasive for branch line railways. TG&B promoters had great faith in the concept. That group also had a charter for the Toronto & Nipissing Railway, to extend northeast from Toronto. Toronto heavily subsidized both the lines, for $250,000 in the case of the TG&B.
The charter specified a route through Orangeville to Mount Forest, and then to Southampton. A branch would connect Mount Forest to Owen Sound. The route, through the northern part of Wellington, produced a battle with the WG&B, as both lines tried to line up aid from the municipalities on their routes. The fight between the two lines was a bitter and animated one.
An early setback for the TG&B was its relationship with Grey County. Council there had approved $300,000 of aid, but ratepayers voted the support down in December 1871. That resulted in a change for the Owen Sound line, which was built north from Orangeville to miss the centre of Grey. Luther and Arthur Townships, and Mount Forest, spent $20,000, $35,000, and $20,000, respectively. After a sod turning ceremony in October 1869, construction proceeded rapidly on the first sections. Frank Shanly, the famous railway builder, secured the contract for the portion west of Orangeville. His policy was to sub-contract work in small sections to local firms and farmers.
The line was done to Orangeville in May 1871, and shortly thereafter as far as Arthur. In December, service began to Mount Forest. That remained the terminal until December 1873, when service extended to Harriston. A year later the line opened to Teeswater. The TG&B ended there – it never did reach Southampton.
The line fulfilled many of its promises. One of the reasons for strong support from Toronto was the need there for firewood. That provided a source of cash for north Wellington farmers. And, their grain could move easily to Toronto markets. But there were enough problems to turn public sentiment against the line.
One was a shortage of cars. Farmers and grain dealers could not ship when they wanted. Goods piled up on station platforms. Another extra cost was moving goods to points beyond the TG&B facilities in Toronto. Everything had to be unloaded from its cars, and reloaded onto wider gauge cars. Curiously, there was no connection between the two narrow gauge terminals in Toronto, though they were within sight of one another.
The biggest problem for the line was severe winters in the early 1870s. The light locomotives could not cope with the immense snow drifts. Sometimes, the line was shut down for weeks. By 1873, many concluded the narrow gauge concept had been a mistake. The supposed advantages failed to materialize, and by the late 1870s the company was in financial difficulty. The bondholders took control in 1880 when they failed to receive their interest payments. They leased the line to the Grand Trunk, which also bought some TG&B stock.
The bondholders also pushed ahead with a change in gauge to 56-½ inches, which, during the 1870s, had become the standard gauge in Canada and much of North America. That change was made on Dec. 8, 1881 at a cost of over $1-million, financed by a bond issue. Less than two years later, a majority of the shareholders agreed to sell the line to the Ontario & Quebec Railway, a subsidiary of the new and aggressively expansionist Canadian Pacific Railway. The Grand Trunk, itself stressed financially at that point, could not match the offer.
From then, routes of the Toronto, Grey & Bruce became branch lines in the Canadian Pacific network. They remained so until the abandonment of the lines north and west of Orangeville in the late 1880s.