Railroad station helped to sustain hamlet of Orton

Four hamlets in Wellington County were named for sitting Members of Parliament. For a period of time, the Post Office Department had a practice of using the name of a sitting mem­ber to identify new rural offices in or near their ridings.

The Wellington offices so named were Drew, Parker, Stir­ton, and Orton. Of those four, Orton was the last, dating to 1880. That office took advan­tage of the new Credit Valley Railway’s Elora branch, which began service early that year.

The line was intended to tap a previously unserviced rural area. There were stations at the existing towns of Hillsburgh and Belwood (then known as Gara­fraxa), but railway offi­cials thought a station between the two would generate signi­ficant business.

The Credit Valley located the station at the point where the line crossed the Erin-East Garafraxa boundary. There was already a business there, Moon­ey’s general store. Though it had no official recognition, local people called the spot Little Chicago.

The post office, though, selected the name Orton for the office it opened there, in hon­our of Dr. George T. Orton, the ec­centric, whiskey-swilling Fer­­gus physician who then sat as the Conservative MP for Centre Wellington.

At the time the railway was under construction, Mooney’s store was an insignificant busi­ness. Local people relied on nearby post offices such as Craig­sholme and Mimosa. But Mooney’s store was on a fairly important road that provided access to the local farm com­mu­nity.

The Orton office opened on Oct. 1, 1881, with a man named Tom Turner as post­mas­ter. He resigned a year later, and store­keeper William Moon­ey took over at the beginning of 1883, moving the office to his store. He held the position until his death 32 years later. His son took over for another 13 years, until he retired to Toronto in 1928.

The post office, in the years before rural delivery of mail, ensured a steady stream of busi­ness to the Mooney store. It was the railway, though, that boosted the hamlet.

Along the single siding at Orton there was soon a row of facilities to serve local agriculture: cattle pens, a loading ramp, and a grain ware­house that was twice enlarged into a full elevator.

Within a few years a hos­telry, known as the Exchange Hotel, opened to the public. It was much used as a base by travelling salesmen and cattle buyers who came and went by train. Mooney gained competi­tion when a second store open­ed. A harness shop undertook repairs and new work, and sold farm implements shipped in by rail.

The growth of Orton’s busi­ness sector came at the expense of several nearby smaller hamlets. The major victim was Mimosa, which had two stores and two hotels, plus a handful of artisans’ shops, before 1880. A decade later only one store remained, which housed the post office.

Orton’s peak years spanned the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1907, local resi­dents petitioned for police village status. That permitted them to elect a committee of three to look after certain local affairs such as drainage, streets, and sidewalks, financed by a bud­get set by township council. In the case of Orton, money came from East Garafraxa and Erin. Police village status mini­mized some of the juris­dic­tional problems: the main street was the dividing line between the two townships.

Undercapitalized and per­pet­ually short of working capi­tal, the Credit Valley became part of the Canadian Pacific net­work when the new trans­continental rail line acquired the majority of its bonds. From 1883, the line operated as a branch and feeder of Canadian Pacific’s growing Ontario branch network.

By 1900, the Orton station had become a significant ship­ping point for cattle and grain. On some days a half dozen loaded cattle cars left the pens. The elevator, by then owned by a group of Orangeville grain merchants, also did a good business.

Activity there was suffi­ci­ent­ly strong that the Union Bank, headquartered in Win­nipeg, decided to open a sub-branch in Orton, staffed by members of its Hillsburgh branch.

Located in a new two-storey building, constructed by Enoch Price, of Marsville, and adjoining Mooney’s store, the branch was initially open two days each week, on days when the railway shipped cattle. Bank­ing business soon exceed­ed the expectations of the bank’s head office, resulting in daily opening of the branch.

Two years later, the post office made significant chang­es, closing the majority of small rural offices and institut­ing rural delivery in their place. That meant less traffic at the Orton store by existing custo­mers, but a wider service area. The Orton office became a more important one as the base of three rural routes. 

Orton was situated in what might be termed the “root crop belt” of Wellington County. A few farmers there contracted to grow sugar beets in the years immediately before and after 1900. The railway shipped the beets to the then-new sugar re­finery in Bridgeport. The rout­ing, though, was a circuitous one, resulting in high freight costs. After a couple of years, farmers gave up on beets as too labour intensive and unprofit­able.

More significant were the potato and turnip crops, which reached huge volumes by the 1920s. Those crops, too, norm­ally left town by rail. Jim Courtney, a major dealer in turnips, set up a waxing plant in the old elevator building, which had closed when grain volumes plummeted.

Trucks and automobiles threat­ened Orton’s importance beginning in the mid-1920s. Cattle dealers called at farms and hauled cattle directly to the Toronto stock yards. Trucks ate into the moving of other agri­cultural products as well. Farm­ers, driving powered cars and trucks, could travel to stores in Fergus, Guelph, and Orange­ville. Slowly, the importance of Orton declined.

Changes soon hit the ham­let. In 1932, the Royal Bank, which had merged with the Union Bank in 1925, closed the Orton bank branch. The Ex­change Hotel was also closed by then, a victim of the pro­hi­bition years. A positive devel­opment that year was the arrival of electricity, as Ontario Hydro expanded its rural de­livery network.

Freight volume on the Cana­dian Pacific line declined steadily. The post office, no long­er seen as a profitable ad­junct to the store, moved to its own small building, on railway property near the station, in 1937. Canadian Pacific ended passenger service on the Elora branch in 1957. After that, freight trains served the line on an as-needed basis until the mid 1980s, but cars loading or unloading at Orton were, by then, rare sights.

The Orton public school, open­ed in 1892, closed per­man­ently in 1964 during the school consolidation period. Three years later, Orton gave up its police village status. By then the population had drop­ped to fewer than 60, half of what it had been at the start of the century.

Most controversial was the closing of the post office. In October 1989, postal officials announced that the Orton office would close in two weeks. The reason was that the land under the building was being sold by the railway, due to the closing of the CPR branch. Crews re­moved the track late that year, ending any hope of a rail revival. There was no place for the post office to relocate, be­cause the Orton general store had closed as well.

An uproar by local residents resulted in a 90-day delay, mov­ing the closing date to Jan. 31, 1990. The Orton store opened under new ownership a year later. The proprietors succeeded in having a franchise postal outlet opened in the store. That outlet served until it, too, closed on March 28, 2001.

A new subdivision and new residences have recently swel­led Orton to its highest popu­lation figures ever, but as a busi­ness and shipping centre the hamlet’s heyday is a part of our local history. It is a fate shared by too many hamlets in Wellington County.



Stephen Thorning