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The Great Western Railway

The Great Western Railway

The Great Western Railway developed into being the first true southern Ontario railway system that, prior to its merger with the Grand Trunk Railway, operated or controlled 1568 miles of track in both Ontario and Michigan. The following is a breakdown of all lines that were either constructed or purchased by Great Western management.

Great Western Railway Mainline

Location: Located in southern Ontario, the Great Western Railway mainline extended between the communities of Niagara Falls through Hamilton and London to Windsor, terminating at both ends through American ports of entry.

History: The concept of a regional railway for Southern Ontario, patterned after those already in operation in both the United States and Great Britain, was first discussed amongst prominent businessmen in the early 1830's. Their intent was to construct a railway line that would connect a port on Lake Ontario with Detroit, Michigan and with Goderich on Lake Huron. In addition, it was hoped that trade could be diverted from travelling through the States destined for St. Lawrence River communities to tracks on the Canadian side. This led to the incorporation of the London & Gore Railroad Company in March 1834, headed by Colonel Thomas Talbot of Essex County and Allan McNab from Hamilton. Given the lack of capital available, however, the project remained dormant for seven years until 1845. It was at this time that the company was reincorporated as the Great Western Railroad Company (GWR) with permission to construct a line from Hamilton east to the Niagara River and west to the Detroit River. Once again, however, the availability of funds were limited until the passing of the Guarantee Act and amendments to the Municipal Act that took place in April 1849, thus assuring the company some money from public sources.

The much anticipated ground breaking ceremony finally took place in October 1849 with many prominent citizens and officials in attendance. The route was designated by the Federal Government as part of their Main Line program in conjunction with the Grand Trunk Railway and the Intercolonial Railway, thus eliminating the possibility of competition by giving exclusive rights to areas travelled. Construction began immediately in various locations along the proposed route, however, progress was slow given poor weather, inexperienced contractors and engineering, and labour troubles. In addition, the company was forced to accept the 5'6" gauge by the Government in spite of the wide use of the smaller gauge on the opposite side of the border. Matters turned for the worse when the GWR was removed from the Main Line policy of the Government in April 1853, a move that later allowed the Grand Trunk Railway to construct into what had been previously GWR territory only. As the financial condition of the company worsened, construction slowed down, a matter that forced the reorganization of the railway as the Great Western Railway Company. C.J. Brydges was placed in charge of ensuring the line became fully operational.

After many years of planning and construction, the first component of the railway from Niagara Falls through Hamilton to London was opened in November 1853. By January 1854, the remainder of the line to Windsor was in operation. The initial efforts of the company focused on obtaining cross border transit traffic between Chicago and New York although the efforts made were not entirely successful given the requirement of unloading and repacking all cargo at the border due to the difference in track gauge. At Windsor, the company operated a railway ferry while at Niagara, construction had begun on the Suspension Bridge that opened in March 1855. In addition, a short lived shipping division was established to provide connections with various Great Lake ports not served by the railway. At both ends, the GWR connected with the Michigan Central Railway. Company car works, wharf facilities, and corporate headquarters were located in Hamilton. Branch lines were built from Harrisburg into Galt (open August 1854) and into Brantford (1871). The early years of operation along the line were characterised by a number of accidents, many that resulted directly from human error and substandard construction techniques. The worst occurred when a train plunged into the Dejardians Canal near Hamilton, killing 60 people. A second incident near Chatham killed 52 people. By the early 1860's, it became necessary to rebuilt much of the line which had deteriorated over the years given poor maintenance procedures. To solve the gauge problem, the company laid down a third line in 1864, completely at its own expense.

Approximate Milage: The mainline from Windsor to Niagara Falls was approximately 229 miles while the branch lin from Harrisburg into Galt was 12 miles.

Current Status: Under Canadian National ownership, the former Great Western mainline currently forms part of the Chatham, Longwood, Strathroy, Dundas, Oakville and Grimsby Subdivisions. The only portion Great Western mainline tracks abandoned are the following: between St. George and Paris Junction in 1938, between St. George and Harrisburg in 1962, and between Lynden Junction and Harrisburg in 1986. This took place as a result of the decision to route all trains through Brantford along the "cut-off" constructed by the GTR in 1905. The Galt branch became known as part of the Fergus Subdivision. From Harrisburg to Galt, the railway was abandoned in 1986 as well. A portion of the Brantford branch from Harrisburg to Alford was abandoned in 1923.

Principle Stations: Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Grimsby, Stoney Creek, Hamilton, Dundas, Harrisburg, Paris, Woodstock, Ingersoll, London, Komoka, Glencoe, Bothwell, Thamesville, Chatham, Belle River, Tecumseh and Windsor.

Remaining Stations: A total of eighteen stations have survived along the Great Western mainline and branches. They are as follows:
1. Niagara Falls: In original location at 4267 Bridge Street within community of Clifton.
2. St. Catharines: In original location on Great Western Street as a VIA Rail passenger station.
3. Jordan Station: Moved to property at 2818 Prince William Street within community.
4. Grimsby: Moved back behind original location on Wyndham Street as a lumber company.
5. Hamilton: In original location at 360 James Street, currently vacant.
6. Princeton: Moved to property near Drumbo, exact location currently not known.
7. Woodstock: In original location at Henry Street as a VIA Rail passenger station.
8. Ingersoll: In original location at 45 Thomas Street, currently vacant.
9. Komoka: Moved to Komoka Railway Museum at 133 Queen Street in community.
10. Longwood: Moved to property in Komoka as a storage shed.
11. Glencoe: In original location at McRae Street, remains in railway use.
12. Newbury: Moved to A.W. Campbell Conservation Area as a work shop and craft centre.
13. Bothwell: Moved to Optimist Park on Oak Street as a Scout storage building.
14. Thamesville: In original location at London Road, remains in railway use.
15. Northwood: Moved to nearby property as a garage.
16. Chatham: In original location at 360 Queen Street as a VIA Rail passenger station.
17. Prairie Siding: Moved as a residence, location unconfirmed.
18. Tecumseh: Moved to Southwestern Ontario Heritage Village near Harrow as a museum building.

Galt & Guelph Railway

Location: The Galt and Guelph Railway is located in south-central Ontario, connecting the communities of Guelph and Galt (now part of Cambridge).

History: The Galt & Guelph Railway (G&GR) was incorporated in 1852 by businessmen close to the Great Western Railway in order to construct a line north from the terminus of the GWR Galt branch to the industrial community of Guelph. Construction began soon after with the road being open for traffic from Galt four miles north to Preston in November 1855. Two years later in September 1857, the branch had been opened to Guelph. During this period, all facets of the construction and operation of the line came under the control of the GWR. In 1860, the company was amalgamated with the Great Western. The end of the line at Guelph would later serve as the commencement point for the Wellington, Grey & Bruce Railway north.

Approximate Milage: 15.5 miles.

Current Status: Under Canadian National, the G&GR has became part of the Fergus Subdivision. The line is currently up for sale.

Principle Stations: Galt, Preston, Hespeler and Guelph.

Remaining Stations: Only one station has survived along the Galt & Guelph Railway. That is the Hespeler station which remains in its original location at Guelph Avenue. The building is currently vacant.

Hamilton & Toronto Railway

Location: Located in south-central Ontario, the railway links the two important Lake Ontario cities of Hamilton and Toronto.

History: The Hamilton & Toronto Railway (H&TR) was incorporated in November 1852 by a group of financiers also involved in the ownership structure of the Great Western Railway to provide a link between the Provincial capital and the mainline at Hamilton. Upon the leasing of the company to the GWR the next year, construction on the route began in earnest with the line ready for traffic in December 1856. Initially, direct access into the city could not be had, forcing the GWR to establish a terminal point on the outskirts of the downtown area. This situation lasted until March 1866 when the railway was finally able to establish a central terminal in the city in order to compete with the existing GTR controlled Union Station. The line developed into a very busy route, carrying much of the traffic between the Province's two largest industrial communities. In 1871, the H&TR disappeared as a corporate entity when it was amalgamated with the Great Western.

Approximate Milage: 38 miles.

Current Status: Under Canadian National, the route has become part of the Oakville Subdivision.

Principle Stations: Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville, Clarkson, Port Credit and Toronto.

Remaining Stations: A total of three stations have survived along the Hamilton & Toronto Railway. They are as follows:
1. Burlington: In original location at 950 Brant Street, building is currently vacant.
2. Oakville: In original location on Cross Avenue, currently a VIA Rail and GO passenger station.
3. Mimico: In original location at 15 Judson Street, building is currently vacant.

London & Port Sarnia Railway

Location: The London & Port Sarnia railway, located in southern Ontario, connects the community of Komoka (just south of London) with Sarnia on the St. Clair River.

History: The idea of constructing a branch line to Sarnia from the Great Western Railway mainline was first raised in an engineering report released by the company in September 1847. The company's intent was to draw upon traffic generated in the communities of Sarnia and Port Huron and throughout the upper Michigan Peninsula. Soon after, however, it became evident that the rival Grand Trunk Railway had designs on extending its own main line from Toronto to the American border at Sarnia. In order to face the competition head on, a group of businessmen associated with the GWR expeditiously moved ahead in April 1853 by incorporating the London & Port Sarnia Railway Company (L&PSR) to build a railway link between the two namesake cities. Within a year, construction had commenced with the line being opened for revenue traffic in December 1858, one year prior to the opening of the Grand Trunk route. Within a decade, the line proved to be an asset to the GWR given the discovery of oil in the Petrolia area. In order to tap these reserves, the GWR proposed to construct a twelve mile branch line south from Wyoming to Oil Springs. In time, however, the branch was only constructed a total five miles to Petrolia as the GWR had not anticipated on the local oil boom lasting very long. The route was open for traffic in December 1866. In 1871, the L&PSR was amalgamated with the Great Western.

Approximate Milage: 52 miles.

Current Status: The former L&PSR under Canadian National has become part of the Strathroy Subdivision. The branch line into Petrolia was abandoned in 1994.

Principle Stations: Komoka, Strathroy, Watford, Wyoming, Petrolia and Sarnia.

Remaining Stations: A total of six stations have survived along the London & Port Sarnia Railway and Petrolia branch line. They are as follows:
1. Komoka: Moved to Komoka Railway Museum at 133 Queen Street in community.
2. Strathroy: In original location at Metcalfe Street West, building is currently vacant.
3. Kingscourt: Moved as a private residence to property near Cairngorm.
4. Wanstead: Moved to property within community as a Co-op business.
5. Petrolia: In original location on Petrolia Street at Station Street as a library.
6. Sarnia: In original location at 125 Green Street as a VIA Rail passenger station.

Canada Air Line Railway

Location: Located in south-central Ontario, the Canada Air Line extends between the community of Glencoe with Fort Erie on the Niagara River opposite Buffalo.

History: The creation of the Canada Air Line Railway Company (CAL) in July 1869 was a direct result of the threat posed by the construction of the Canada Southern Railway across the southern reaches of the Province, itself incorporated in February 1869. It was proposed that the railway would form a loop, extending southeast from Glencoe on the GWR mainline in a straight line to the Fort Erie area where connections would be made with an existing north-south railway that would lead back to the mainline. In constructing such, the GWR hoped to accomplish three things, to protect territory south of the current tracks, create a more direct route between Detroit and Buffalo, and to avoid double tracking of the existing mainline. Initially, it was hoped that a connection could be made with the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway near Canfield with running rights into Buffalo, in conjunction with running rights north to the GWR mainline on the Erie & Niagara Railway This move, however, was foiled when both lines fell into the hands of competitors, forcing the GWR to construct its own track all the way to Fort Erie and to rely on the Welland Railway for the north-south connection. Construction on the line began in November 1870 with the entire route being open for business in December 1873, one month after the opening of the International Bridge across the Niagara River to Buffalo. The CAL itself had disappeared as a corporate entity in 1871 after being amalgamated with the Great Western.

Approximate Milage: 146 miles.

Current Status: Under Canadian National, the former Air Line route has become part of the Chatham, Cayuga, Canal and Stamford Subdivisions. Portions of the Canal and Stamford Subdivisions were rerouted after Welland Canal reconstruction in 1971. In 1996, the tracks from Delhi east to Feeder West (near the Welland Canal) were abandoned.

Principle Stations: Glencoe, St. Thomas, Springford, Tillsonburg, Simcoe, Jarvis, Cayuga, Welland and Fort Erie.

Remaining Stations: A total of five stations have survived along the Canada Air Line. They are as follows:
1. Glencoe: In original location at McRae Street, remains in railway use.
2. Tillsonburg: In original location at 40 Hale Street as a craft guild.
3. Jarvis: In original location at 80 Main Street, leased for commercial purposes.
4. Moulton Station: Moved to nearby property within community as a storage shed.
5. Stevensville: Moved to property on May Avenue as a storage building.

Great Western Railway Expansion and Grand Trunk Takeover

Upon the completion of the mainline from Niagara Falls through Hamilton and London to Windsor, the Great Western Railway wasted little time in expanding its realm of influence and potential traffic base through the purchase of rival lines or the incorporation of companies under its control. For many of these routes, the GWR was forced to pour substantial funds in the upgrading of both the road bed and equipment in order to operate trains efficiently and safely. Another factor in purchasing certain companies was to keep them out of the hands of the competition, in particular the Grand Trunk and Canada Southern Railways. The first line to be incorporated as a subsidiary of the GWR was the Galt & Guelph Railway in 1850, opened for traffic from Galt to Preston by 1855 and to Guelph by 1857. This was followed by the Hamilton & Toronto Railway in 1852, opened in 1855, and the London & Port Sarnia Railway in 1853, constructed and opened in 1858. The next year, the GWR moved to purchase controlling interest in the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway, an American line that operated between Detroit and Grand Haven. Matters remained quiet until 1869 when the company acquired the Wellington Grey & Bruce Railway which was followed by the incorporation of the Canada Air Line in 1869, a line completed by 1873. In 1876, the company purchased the London, Huron & Bruce Railway . The last transaction made was in 1877 when the GWR moved to obtain the Brantford, Norfolk & Port Burwell Railway . Other moves made by the company included the leasing of the Erie & Niagara Railway from 1863 to 1872, and of the London & Port Stanley Railway for a single year in 1874. Many of the above lines never paid for themselves and the financial burden of carrying the debt load contributed to the ultimate demise of the GWR.

As both the Grand Trunk and Great Western Railways grew in the competitive Southern Ontario market, both serving many of the same communities, each became compelled to eliminate the other. This led to vicious rate wars and other tactics that ultimately had the purpose of hurting both lines. The Grand Trunk, being the larger of the two companies with a more solid financial base, was better capable of withstanding the battle between the two lines. In 1875, discussions ensued between the two companies about a possible rate pooling scheme and an end to price cutting. While fares did stabilize, an agreement could not be reached on the other issue. At the same time, the GWR officials were meeting with officers of the Canadian Pacific and Canada Southern Railways concerning the possible co-ordination of schedules, fares and traffic. As time progressed, however, the financial stability of the GWR became increasingly bleak and the Grand Trunk chose to bide its time before moving in to purchase and takeover affairs. An offer to this effect was placed before the Great Western board in April 1882 when the GTR offered to lease the GWR, split revenue, and guarantee the value of existing stock. In doing so, GTR officials made attempts to target dissatisfied shareholders to obtain proxies for extending their cause. Later, the offer was changed to full amalgamation. In May, the GTR had gathered enough support among the ranks to have the offer accepted. Accordingly, as of August 1882, the Great Western Railway and all related lines became Grand Trunk property. The combination of the two railways provided for a stronger company to face American competition.

Additional information about components of the Great Western Railway can be had from the following sites:

Mark Liddell's "Hamilton Railfan Guide" CN Grimsby Subdivision Footnotes page Link
Bill Miller's "The View From Galt Station" pages as follows:
Cayuga Subdivision page Link
Chatham Subdivision page Link
Dundas Subdivision page Link
Grimsby Subdivision Link
Oakville Subdivision Link
Stamford Subdivision Link
Strathroy Subdivision Link

Last Updated: December 30, 1997

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