The Northern Railway of Canada Group

Foreword

It is ironic that the first steam railway in Upper Canada has not been accorded its own definitive history other than by Dr. Frank N. Walker's modest Four Whistles to Wood-Up published in the 1953 on the occasion of the centenary of the opening of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Union Railroad to Machell's Corners, now Aurora, Ont., on May 16, 1853. The following has been compiled from the sources cited at the end this article.

The Preamble

A portage railway had been coffee house talk when Toronto was still York (before 1834). The early trails to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay had defined logical lines of communication; and the availability of wheat and firewood were domestic necessities. Above all, early pioneer railways were predominantly built with one of two objectives: either to shorten a circuitous water route by overland transportation; or for a burgeoning and ambitious community to "tap the resources of the hinterland", that is to bring resources to its port for consumption or for the spin-off profits of reciprocal onward transportation. As it happened, Toronto's railway vision satisfied both of these criteria.

A False Start

The precursor effort was the incorporation of the Toronto & Lake Huron Railroad on April 20, 1836. The railway was to run from Toronto "to some portion of the navigable waters of Lake Huron within the Home District [originally the counties of York and Simcoe]". The road was to be started in three years and to be completed in ten. As it happened, this charter expired, along with a number of other ambitious early projects from other places, for "non user", that is to say its terms were not taken up within the times alloted by the charter concerned. Despite the wide reverberation of the Lancashire UK Rainhill Locomotive Trials in 1830, the political and economic climates in Upper and Lower Canada, and in England on whose financing these projects depended to a very large extent, were fraught with considerable uncertainty, and the developing railways in England were a heavy drain on whatever capital was available.

Turning Point Legislation

At the height of the real uncertainty surrounding the development of railways in Canada, in 1849 the Province of Canada showed enlightened self-interest by passing the Railway Guarantee Act with the stimulus of loan interest guarantee on the construction of railways not less than 75 miles in length. This beneficial legislation triggered Canada's railway building boom, and the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railroad, as it was then, was to the forefront in taking advantage of this legislation.

The Issue of the Gauge

  Unfortunately, in 1851 the Province of Canada enacted further, inter alia, to create a Board of Railway Commissioners, one of whose duties was to administer the 1849 loan interest guarantee. The Board required that to obtain the loan interest guarantee benefit, any railway had to build to the 5' 6" gauge, which came to be known as the "Provincial" or "Broad" Gauge. This decision was strongly influenced by civic leader John A. Poor of Portland, Maine, and that city’s mercantile interests, in espousing a “trunk” railway to its port, and to exclude competition as a result of diverted traffic to Boston or New York through the selection of a gauge other than the Standard 4' 8½" Gauge. (The reason for the selection of 5' 6"n itself remains unclear, but may have been motivated by the possible acquisition of available locomotives that happened to be of that gauge.)

  The Northern Railway of Canada, for whom the Grand Trunk was a major interchange railway, did not begin conversion until 1879, and did not complete it until 1881. Conversion was forced on the Northern by necessity on account of its merger with the Standard Gauge Hamilton & North Western (see below). The reason for the delay was undoubtedly the financial necessity of postponing the cost of conversion for as long as possible, combined with the fact that the railways interchanging with the Grand Trunk Railway in Toronto were not as pressured competitively as the trans-Ontario roads competing for American transshipment business.

  Note: The history of the railway gauge in general and its relevance to railway development in Upper Canada is treated in more detail at my page "Railway Gauges in Ontario".

The Biographies

Alfred Brunel

Civil engineer, railway manager, politician, military officer, public servant. Primary profession public servant.
Born in England 1818. At first employed on various public works in Canada, beginning in 1844.
Conducted the surveys for the Victoria Bridge (GTR), Montreal in 1851-2 with Thomas Keefer.
Then appointed assistant engineer for the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railroad, and served as its Superintendent from 1853 to 1856.
Toronto Alderman St. George Ward 1857-59, 1861-62. 
Organized the 10th Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles in Toronto 1862, then gazetted in the rank of Major. Retired from active duty 1871 as Lieutenant-Colonel.
Appointed Inspector of Customs, Excise and Canals 1863. 
Assistant Commissioner of Inland Revenue in the new Dominion civil service. 
Promoted to Commissioner 1871, retired in 1882.
Died in Norfolk, England 1881, at age 63.

Frederick Chase Capreol

Businessman and promoter. Born Hertfordshire, England 1803. Emigrated to Canada in 1828. At first lived in Montreal setting up the affairs of the North West Fur Company, returned briedly to England, married and settled in York (Toronto) in 1833. Pursued various business ventures, but his main enterprise was an auction room in Toronto. Never fully accepted because of a questionable land transaction. In early 1848 Capreol started to promote a railway to Georgian Bay, and in August 1849 became a director of the Toronto, Simcoe and Lake Huron Union Rail-Road Company. To address the issue of chronic lack of capital for early railway construction, Capreol sponsored a "Grand Canadian Railroad Lottery" by means of tickets in the form of debentures for two million dollars in stock prizes. The scheme was put to a civic referendum but Toronto The Good won out. Still regarded with suspicion, he was fired from his position of office or general manager of the railway two days before the official sod-turning on October 15, 1851. Subsequently engaged in diverse enterprises, notable among them the ill-fated and belated Huron and Ontario Ship Canal. Capreol died in Toronto in 1886 at age 83 as a successful merchant, but without the acclaim or the public honours he had coveted. His only memorial is the former railway junction in northern Ontario that bears his name.

Frederic Cumberland

Engineer, architect, railway manager and politician. Primary profession initially that of architect, subsequently that of railway manager.
Born in London, England 1820. Came to Toronto in 1847. Was attracted by the novelty of railways, and gradually moved into railway management. In 1852 the floundering Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railroad appointed him chief engineer. From 1852 to 1854 he reorganized the engineering department under his control rather than that of the contractors. He returned to his architectural practice in 1854, but the railway continued to flounder. In 1859 he returned as managing director (general manager), and streamlined the railway's entire managerial structure, while supervising renovations, new construction and capital purchases. He expanded only when forced to by the depletion of lumber along the Northern's route, or by competition. Despite both external and internal financial strictures of the 1860s, Cumberland strengthened the Northern and guided it though the joint management arrangement with the Hamilton & North Western in 1879. His premature death in 1881 at age 61 left the Northern bereft of his advocacy and managerial ability. Aside from those of his architectural legacies that still survive, he is remembered by a cairn and bust erected in his honour (formerly in the grounds of the Allandale station) by the employees of the then Northern & North Western Railway.

Sandford Fleming

Surveyor, draftsman, engineer. Born Scotland 1827. Emigrated to Canada in 1845, settled initially in Peterborough, Ont. Licensed as a Province of Canada surveyor in 1849. Brought over the Fleming family in 1847, and established  a family farm at Craigleith. Moved from Peterborough to Toronto 1849, and in 1852 became an assistant engineer reporting to Cumberland on the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Union Railroad. Discharged by Cumberland in 1855, he was reinstated as chief engineer on condition that he devote all his time to the railway. Fleming left the Northern in 1862, became the Province of Canada Chief Surveyor and was appointed engineer-in-chief in 1867 by the new Dominion Government to build the Intercolonial Railway, completed in 1876. Also appointed in 1871 by the Dominion Government as chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where he led an initial survey and co-ordinated others. Discharged from his post at the Dominion Engineering Department in 1880. Became a Director of the CPR in 1884, and conducted another survey for a passable route through the Selkirks. He was a fervent advocate of science education, tenacious promoter of a Pacific cable, also the driving force in the implementation of North American railway standard time in 1883, followed by world standard time in 1884. (He was incidentally also the designer of Canada's first postage stamp that promoted the beaver as a distinct Canada emblem.) Knighted in 1897, died in Halifax, N.S. in 1915 at age 88.

John Harvie (Harvey)

Railway conductor, manager, businessman, politician. Born Scotland 1833. Emigrated to the USA in 1851, settled in Toronto in 1852. Obtained a position as freight conductor on the OS&HU in 1853, but when the newly-hired passenger train conductor failed to appear for the opening run to Machell's Corners, Superintendent Brunel gave him the job. The high point of his conductorship was when he ran the Prince of Wales's special train to Georgian Bay in 1860.  In 1867, he became train and traffic manager for the Northern (see below), but in 1878 he was replaced and made station master at Toronto's new (1873) Union Station. He retired from the railway in 1881 and turned to real estate development and politics. He died in 1917 at age 84 in Guelph, Ont. The railway community is indebted to him for his foresight in having the first three locomotives of the OS&HU (Lady Elgin,Toronto and Josephine) photographed before being scrapped.

George Laidlaw

Wheat buyer, merchant, railway promoter. Born Scotland 1828. Emigrated to Canada in 1855, obtained a position as a wheat buyer with the Toronto distillery Gooderham & Worts, and became a grain merchant in his own right in 1865.  It was through the grain trade that Laidlaw came to understand the challenges and importance of transportation, and he became a tireless and eloquent advocate of the benefits of narrow gauge railways. He also fulminated against the monopolistic rates for firewood, neither of which made him any friends at the Grand Trunk Railway or the Northern. He persuaded his former employer to sponsor two narrow (3ft 6in) gauge lines out of Toronto, the Toronto & Nipissing Railway northeasterly with an intended destination to Lake Nipissing, and the other northwesterly to Owen Sound. Incorporated in 1868 and running by 1872/3, these feisty little lines broke the Northern's firewood monopoly and the northwesterly Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway to Owen Sound became the first challenge to the Northern's railway monopoly.
Laidlaw also promoted and was actively involved as president in two other later railways (on the Standard Gauge), the Credit Valley Railway from Toronto to Orangeville with a branch to St. Thomas, and the Victoria Railway from Lindsay to Haliburton.
He was good friends with George Stephen, president of the CPR. Two of his railways, the Toronto, Grey & Bruce and the Credit Valley, eventually became part of the CPR and were instrumental in breaking the GTR's Ontario monopoly in the 1880s. His career had taken a toll on his health and he retired to his estate at Balsam Lake in 1881 and died there in 1889, also (as did Frederic Cumberland) at the early age of 61.

Northern Railway of Canada System.
From "Four Whistles to Wood-up".

Northern Railway of Canada System. From "Four Whistles to Wood-up".

Toronto station area. 1850s. Toronto Public Libraries.

Toronto station area. 1850s. Toronto Public Libraries.

Toronto station area. 1850s. Toronto Public Libraries.

Toronto station area. 1850s. Toronto Public Libraries.

NRC Locomotive No. 1 "Lady Elgin".

NRC Locomotive No. 1 "Lady Elgin".

NRC Locomotive No. 2 "Toronto".

NRC Locomotive No. 2 "Toronto".

NRC Locomotive No. 3. "Josephine".

NRC Locomotive No. 3. "Josephine".

Frederick Chase Capreol. 
L&AC MIKAN3471494

Frederick Chase Capreol. L&AC MIKAN3471494

Frederic Cumberland

Frederic Cumberland

"Erected by the men of the Northern & North Western R R". Monument to Cumberland, originally at the Allandale station, now beside the restored Mechanics' Office, Kempenfeldt Park. Mitchell Wilson photo

"Erected by the men of the Northern & North Western R R". Monument to Cumberland, originally at the Allandale station, now beside the restored Mechanics' Office, Kempenfeldt Park. Mitchell Wilson photo