By Michael Taylor
First published in the Perth Courier, March 25, 1987. Published here by permission.
Transcribed by Charles Dobie.
In this, the age of space travel, supersonic jets and other forms of rapid transportation including the ever present automobile, it is hard to imagine the days when these luxuries were not a part of our daily lives.
But since the turn of the century technology has advanced and progressed at such a fantastic rate that one has to be reminded that it was only 128 years ago, January 1859, to be exact, that the first passenger train skidded and slid its way into Perth from Brockville.
This momentous occasion hailed a new era in transportation which would directly or indirectly affect the lives of Perth and area residents for many years to come.
The age of the railroad, was of course, welcomed with enthusiasm by most local and area businessmen, but as we shall see later it was not without controversy that the railroad made its way to Perth.
The history of railroading in North America is a fascinating one, based somewhat on folklore and reality, as was the case of the immortal Casey Jones who piloted a snorting and huffing wood-fired steam locomotive across the hills and dales of the United States during the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Canada’s own railroad history is equally illustrious and enthralling, when one considers the enormous engineering feats entailed in building the Canadian Pacific Railway, which now stretches from the east to the west coast.
But before this nationwide railway network united the then fledgling Dominion of Canada, many smaller independent railroads served hundreds of communities in Eastern Canada, one of which was the Brockville and Ottawa line that served this locale for over 100 years.
History of B&O
Like many other railroad enterprises which had their inception in the 1850’s, a period when transportation companies were being formed and built with astonishing regularity, the B&O also found its beginnings.
For the most part the B&O stemmed from the old Canada Central line which formed the nucleus of the CPR system and it was from the Canada Central that the trans-continental tracks were laid.
Creation of the B&O was also due in part to the birth of a railway line that was constructed between Portland and Toronto, known at the time as the Grand Trunk (GTR).
Once the building of the GTR was determined upon, more than one route was suggested and the one that received the most favour would see the line run parallel to the St. Lawrence River.
When this became general knowledge competition throughout the neighbouring communities which lacked a rail outlet for their goods and services reached a fever pitch, but in the long run, those towns and villages along the St. Lawrence were the overall winners.
When emotions reached their peak and rival centres were using all the influence they could muster in order to gain recognition, it was decided to hold a public meeting at the Brockville courthouse in July 1852.
After the meeting had been concluded it was decided that since the railway was destined to run along the St. Lawrence route it should do so until it reached Brockville, but once there should turn inland and connect at Kingston.
It was also decided and a motion passed that, if the government of the day did not acquiesce to this proposal, then the town of Brockville would take it upon itself and raise £25,000 to build the section of the railway that would connect it with Kingston.
Later that same month, an application was made to the Legislature for a charter that would see a railroad constructed between Smiths Falls and Perth “from the nearest practicable point on the GTR now proposed.”
From that time on the railway became a matter of great public interest, but a year and a half would elapse before the building of the line actually commenced and it was several more years before the first section of it was open to the public.
Although the proposed line promised them a railroad link which they did not then possess, a considerable number of Perth residents were opposed to the idea for quite some time.
One point of opposition stemmed from the fact that these pople wanted the GTR to pass directly through Perth and Smiths Falls instead of the St. Lawrence route.
This obstinance went on for quite a while before their opposition subsided and eventually joined forces with neighbouring communities in advocating the construction of the B&O.
But even after the B&O was all but an assured fact, their allegiance to it wavered somewhat in favour of another line that was projected to run from Perth to Kemptville and there hook up with the Bytown and Prescott Railway, which would then connect with the Montreal and Ottawa Grand Junction line.
Only after the Legislature declined to permit the building of the Perth-Kemptville line, which would have paralleled the proposed B&O line, did Perth withdraw its opposition.
In November 1852, another public meeting was held in Brockville when the St. Lawrence route was officially declared. When the meeting concluded a motion had been passed declaring that funding be procured to build a line from Brockville to Smiths Falls then to Perth and ultimately to the Ottawa line where the two would connect at the mouth of the Madawaska River at the present site of Arnprior.
It is interesting to note that Arnprior was so inconspicuous at the time that its name was not generally known.
It was also decided at the meeting to form a committee that would hold public meetings in the various communties in the Counties of Lanark and Renfrew in the hope of garnering support and funding for the proposed railroad.
But as is the case with many public hearings there was dissention among the ranks, brought about by individuals advocating alternative routes which the railroad should take. Some remained faithful to original plan while others thought it should spearhead its way through Carleton Place.
The argument went on for months before a delegation composed of influential citizens from the Counties of Lanark and Renfrew paid a visit on the central committee in Brockville.
This deputation was pressing for the construction of the road via Smiths Falls, Carleton Place and Arnprior in preference to the Perth and Lanark route.
After hearing their presentation the central committee expressed the opinion that the presence of a ridge of granite near Perth would make construction in that area more expensive than in the alternate route.
The committee did propose, however, not to neglect Perth entirely, but advocated building a branch line to Perth from Smiths Falls.
On January 18, 1853, the central committee along with the representatives from Lanark and Renfrew Counties boarded sleighs and left Brockville to inspect both the Perth and Madawaska routes.
During their sojourn the ‘inspection pannel’ travelled through many communities and as they did so many of the towns promised to subscribe a certain amount of money to assist in the building of the railroad.
Ramsayville residents promised to donate £20,000 towards the project, Arnprior £5,000 and Pakenham £10,000.
In May of 1853, the railway bill was finally introduced in the Legislature at which time it was decreed that the company was empowered to build a line from Brockville to Smiths Falls, thence to Arnprior and Pembroke with a branch line from Smiths Falls to Perth, if they so desired.
By the end of the year, an English firm, Sykes, Debergue and Company, had been hired to construct the railway at a cost of £930,000. Included in the price was provisions that the company also supply all necessary operating equipment as well as 13 locomotives and 270 cars consisting of passenger cars, freight cars, lumber cars, snowplows and hand-cars.
From the time the contract was signed until the spring of 1855, everything went smoothly, but then catastrophe struck when Messrs. Sykes, Debergue and Company sustained financial reverses which caused serious misgivings as to their ability to continue the work.
During the six to eight months things went from bad to worse and workers, many of whom hadn’t been paid in months, took matters into their own hands and destroyed both equipment and property in retaliation. The sheriff also got into the act and began seizing the firm’s property.
By January 1856, with no resumption of work in sight the central committee once again sent out tenders, this time for completing the remainder of the line.
Between 1856 and 1857 several contractors had gone to Britain in the hope of securing financing for the project, but to no avail, and considering about £100,000 had already been sunk into the railroad, prospects looked dim.
But like a knight on a white charger coming to the rescue the Counties of Lanark and Renfrew decided to undertake the construction with the counties offering to spend £250,000 and Brockville £100,000.
But even then things did not go according to plan and after a number of additional setbacks the Brockville and Otawa Railway sprang to life in January 1859.
The inaugural run from Brockville to Perth was something less than auspicious as the following eye witness account describes and it must be remembered that the passengers were boarded into two miniature passenger coaches hauled by a wood-burning locomotive.
“We had to ride on the rail to Perth. Don’t ask how long the journey occupied, whether three hours or ten hours, as the time taken cannot ignore the fact that the rails are connected and passengers from Brockville have entered Perth. This is a great fact and there is no use denying it.
“On Monday morning we went on board a car for Perth, at the special invitation of Mr. Wattson, the managing director of the Brockville and Ottawa Railroad. The cars were to start at 8:30, but it was nine before they took their departure. The invitation to ride not being general, the crowd in the cars specially invited, was not great.
“The distance between Brockville and Smiths Falls was made at an easy rate, over what appears to be a first-rate road, if we expect[sic] a few miles not yet ballasted on this side of the Falls, and of which it would be unfair to judge at present.
“We left Smiths Falls about eleven, and here commenced a “chapter of accidents”, which continued till the end. Monday’s proceedings were a complete epitome of the history of the road from its first inception, stopping, backing, changing, with no one apparently capable of solving the difficulties.
“Why, we should like to know, were the engines and cars not under the direct control of Mr. Madigan? Had this been the case, the “chapter of accidents” we have been speaking of would have been fewer, at least we think so.
“Monday, however, was a bitter cold day — the thermometer at five in the morning stood at 40 below zero, cold enough surely. The line between the Falls and Perth had not been run over from the Friday previous. The consequence was, that the snow had caked on the rail, and became as it were, after the slight rain of Friday, part and parcel of the iron.
“The wheels of the locomotives had thus to contend with glare ice, they would revolve, but could make no progress in dragging the cars after them. Several attempts were made to advance, but all was of no avail.
“At length it was decided to “back up” to the station, in order that the crowd might dine at the Falls, while a locomotive was sent over the line to do battle with the ice and snow by itself and prepare the way for the cars. After dinner another start was made, but also with no effect — the fates were still against us.
“The forward engine’s cow-catcher caught up the snow from the centre of the track and turned it over quite scientifically on the rail, and thus rendered progress impossible. Another “back up” to the station in order to give the lead to another engine.
“Here several who had joined the “expidition” at the Falls concluded to “go home” and two Brockville gentlemen did the same, trusting to the Perth Stage for conveyance to Brockville, at which place they arrived about three hours before the railroad excursionists.
“At length another attempt to reach Perth was made, but before long a halt was called in order to search the ditches along the road for water to supply the locomotive. This interesting experiment having to be made a secomd time. Slowly and steadily the train at length moved on, and hopes were high that no other difficulty would intervene, but fate again decided against these hopes.
“About a mile and a half from Perth the last car on the train came to a dead stand: the coupling of the car had given way, and the engine, with the forward car, went off by themselves, leaving a car full of most consumate grumblers, all alone in their glory.
“At length the grumblers reached Perth about a quarter to seven at night, having made the passage, forty miles in nine hours and three quarters.
“After the crowd was again in motion towards the station, the hour for starting homeward being eight o’clock. Here again our prospects for reaching Brockville were all but smashed into a cocked hat. In shunting one of the cars, it got off the track and about three hours were spent before it was got on.
“About eleven o’clock, “all aboard” was the word, and the wearied excursionists reached home about half-past three in the morning never to forget the first trip to Perth over the B&O Railroad.”
The first trip into Perth aboard the B&O left much to be desired as a form of rapid transportation but during the ensuing years the railroad served its patrons well.
There were of course times when the train did not run according to schedule, goods and baggage were misplaced and trains were derailed and wrecked. But these unfortunate incidents were not limited to just the B&O, they occurred on railways all over the world.
During its long and useful lifetime the branch line which ran from Perth to Smiths Falls accommodated the residents of these towns in such a fashion that train travel became the favourite mode of transportation.
Over the years the railroad proved to be a boon for area businesses and industries alike, allowing goods to be shipped to markets far afield all year round.
Prior to 1859, and the coming of the “iron road”, business on a large scale was carried on in every season but winter.
During the winter, lakes and rivers froze over making it impossible to get goods and supplies shipped to and from Perth; at times it was almost impossible to use horse and wagon so Perth was virtually isolated for five to six months of the year.
Many small business men found that much to their surprise the railroad saved them money, for no longer were they required to spend large sums of money laying in goods and supplies for the winter months. Now they could order as required saving both money and space.
But as times progressed and technology took over, the era of the railroad gradually slipped away in favour of more advanced forms of transportation, but the romance of the steam age did not pass completely into oblivion.
There are many around today who look back with fond memories to those times when the steam engine was “king of the road” and deeply regret their passing into history.
But with every death there is a birth and with the demise of the steam engine came the diesel. Admittedly, the romance and character of that hissing, steam-spewing “monster” could never be replaced by the unromantic diesel engine, but such is the price of progress.
As far as Perth and many other towns in Lanark County were concerned, even the diesel would one day pass into oblivion, for once railroad travel started to drop off in favour of the more preferred methods of rapid transportation, the railroad literally closed down and moved both bag and baggage to more lucrative locales.
This was the case on April 26, 1952 when the CPR finally closed down the “Local”, an obituary so to speak, appeared in The Courier of April 24, 1952, part of which follows:
“After approximately 62 years of service between Smiths Falls, Perth and Glen Tay, the Perth “Local” will steam into the Perth station for the last time this coming Saturday night.
“The service which began about 1890, has been steadily losing money for the last few years and Canadian Pacific officials estimated that nearly $24,000 was lost on the run last year.
“The “Local” has become the favourite of Perth’s oldsters and they have fought for many years to save that which was definitely inevitable. Railway officials have been approached by committees and delegations and asked to leave the train running, but to no avail, its end has come and nothing can be done about it.
“In 1894, conductor on the train was Alonzo V. Grant and in this capacity he remained for many years. Also at this time the Allan family took a very active part in the functions of the station and freight sheds.
“Allan Grant was the station agent, Michael Allan was the baggageman and the father was the freight clerk. In 1894, Mr. Allan Sr., died and he was succeeded by F.V. Buffam who was freight clerk until his retirement in 1931.
“In this year, Orville P. McLaren became freight clerk, and he still occupies this position.
“During these many years, the “Local” has seen many changes in faces and services. When the first train began its run to Perth it stopped at what is now used as the freight unloading platform.
“After the train lines pushed west of Perth a new station was built where the present one stands and from that time on the “Local” went through Perth to Glen Tay where it was placed on a turntable and headed back to Perth.”
It was not the writer’s intention to write a definitive account of the B&O Railway system, as there is so much information on this subject, but we hope our readers will enjoy this ‘glimpse into the past.’ Information for this article was gleaned from newspapers of the day and a series of articles written by H.R. Morgan in the Perth Expositor, 1926.