Railways and politics went together in the 1850s

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.

It is almost 48 years since it was possible to step onto a passenger train in Elora.

Freight service carried on for another decade, but there were few local customers in the 1970s, and few took notice when the service ceased forever. It is hard now to imagine the era when railways were the main transportation link between Elora and the world at large.

Although a railway was not completed to Elora until 1870, the village and its leading citizens participated fully in the first era of railway activity in the 1850s. Canada enjoyed a great economic expansion in the early years of this decade, attracting a great deal of foreign investment, much of which went into railway construction.

Railway companies soon became intertwined with the volatile political activity of the 1850s. Dozens of lines were planned or projected, and the fortunes of politicians rose and fell with them. At least a half-dozen different lines were projected to go through or near Elora. Some, of course, were more serious than others.

By the late 1850s, two major railway systems were in operation in southern Ontario: the Grand Trunk and the Great Western. Both provided service to Guelph, but no farther north. Construction costs had exceeded initial estimates, and both lines had difficulty meeting their borrowing costs. Heavy subsidies from the government almost bankrupted the province of Canada.

Railway construction ended with the world-wide economic depression in the late 1850s. Virtually no track would be built for another decade.

It is not possible in this column to deal with the convoluted political manoeuvres, shifting alliances and devious tactics that characterized railway politics in central Wellington in the 1850s. Instead, I will deal briefly with each of the more serious railway proposals.

The Toronto and Guelph Railway was chartered in 1851, and was amalgamated into the Grand Trunk system three years later. As one of the early projects of the decade, it was also one of the more serious, involving some of the leading businessmen of Toronto and Guelph.

It was, in fact, the revival of the Toronto and Goderich Railway, which had been chartered in 1847. The men behind the project quickly realized that financing a line all the way to Goderich was out of the question, and that such a line would not generate sufficient revenue at the time to cover its costs.

The line to Guelph was a much more manageable project. At Guelph, the line would connect with the major roads to the north and west, which would act as feeders for freight and passengers.

The high cost of construction made railways prohibitively expensive, and the lines that did get built had to tap a variety of sources for capital. Railway construction techniques were not yet well developed, and inefficient management added further to costs.

A mile of railway, in the 1850s, cost between $30,000 and $50,000 – equivalent to between $5 and $9 million in 2019 money.

On the other hand, farmers and manufacturers called loudly for railways, and helped to keep the political situation in agitation. Farmers especially realized that the high costs of road transportation ate into their incomes, and made some crops unprofitable to grow and export.

Pilkington Township subscribed in 1852 for $20,000 worth of stock in the Toronto and Guelph Railway, but the company turned down the offer because Pilkington demanded too many conditions, one of which was that any extension of the line past Guelph should go through the township. Garafraxa township also considered a stock subscription.

The line from Toronto to Guelph was completed in 1856, forming a segment of the Grand Trunk line to Sarnia. It is still in service as part of the Canadian National system.

Almost concurrently, the Galt and Guelph Railway was completed to Guelph. This line, leased to the Great Western Railway, whose main line ran from Niagara Falls to Windsor by way of Hamilton, was promoted by an assortment of Guelph and Hamilton businessmen.

The presence of competitive railway service helped Elora, by funnelling much of the trade of the northern townships through Elora on its way to Guelph. Elora tapped this trade, and very successfully. It was at this time that Elora’s agricultural market began to develop, and its retailers to prosper.

The Galt and Guelph Railway had a number of local connections. The major figure behind this line was a doctor, William Clarke of Guelph, who sat as the member of parliament for North Wellington. Clarke built his political career on the back of the railway, and steered legislation to support it through the House of Commons. Jasper Gilkison, youngest son of the founder of the village, was also heavily involved with the company.

In 1854, the Galt and Guelph Railway announced plans to build all the way to Owen Sound, via Fergus, Elora, Arthur and Mount Forest. Gilkison was anxious to have the line built in order to raise the value of his property in Elora and Nichol.

For a time, this line looked like it might actually get built, but it soon collapsed, a victim of Clarke’s political machinations and intrigues.

The Canada North-West Railway was a more local project. Charles Allan, of Elora, was the driving force behind the line, which had a charter to build a line from Southampton to either Toronto or Guelph. A number of businessmen from Fergus, Guelph and Elora were involved. The project received a considerable boost in 1857 when Allan was elected member of parliament.

Allan and his cohorts realized the financial burden that their line presented. They hired Sandford Fleming (later Sir Sandford Fleming, of CPR fame) to produce an initial survey and feasibility study.

Fleming’s report is a most interesting document. He regarded the financing, not the engineering, as the principle obstacle, and proposed a system of financing the line as a public work by the counties of Wellington and Bruce.

In essence, a debenture issue guaranteed by the counties would finance the line, and would be repaid out the increase in value of the agricultural products exported. Fleming offered a fairly detailed outline of the scheme.

Although there was solid support for the Canada North-West Railway, the company also had its enemies. Some critics believed the whole scheme was financially impossible. Others thought that a system of high-quality gravel roads would be cheaper and more useful. The loudest critics claimed that Fergus and Elora were sacrificing their interests for the benefit of railway speculators.

Little progress had been made by 1858, and by this time economic conditions were fast deteriorating. Nevertheless, MP Charles Allan and Wellington County council remained determined to carry the project through. They scaled down their plans, intending to build only a short line from Guelph to a common station for Elora and Fergus, to be located at Aboyne.

Defying their critics, the promoters of the Canada North-West Railway held an impressive sod-turning ceremony on May 15, 1858. The location was on the south side of the Grand River, across the road from the former Cedar Spring Nursery. Most of the public figures from Wellington County were present. Fleming, who had been hired as chief engineer, presented Allan with an axe to fell the first tree, and the various mayors and reeves took turns shovelling the first spades of sod.

The large party then retired to the Commercial hotel in Elora for a banquet.

As it turned out, the first sods turned were also the last ones. Allan pushed some amendments to the charter through parliament in the fall of 1858, but he died the following year. Financial conditions prevented anyone from carrying on the project.

Elora waited another 12 years to get train service.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 5, 1993.

Thorning Revisited