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History - South Western Traction Company/London & Lake Erie Railway

History - 1902 to 1918


In the late 1890's and early 1900's, electricity was a novelty and the electric interurban, or radial railway, was the new and exciting mode of transport. Proposals for new lines were drafted up almost overnight, and most died almost as quickly. London, like many other Ontario towns, was seen as a hub for potential electric railways. The City already owned a rail line stretching from London to Port Stanley, which was currently operated by the Pere Marquette Railroad. The City-owned London & Port Stanley Railway was a steam-hauled freight road with little attention paid to passenger traffic. A number of companies sought to build interurbans out from london, some wanting to capitalize on the passenger traffic between London, St. Thomas and Port Stanley. Most of these proposals never made it past the charter phase. One that did actually make it off paper was the London & Lake Erie Railway. Initially named the Southwestern Traction Company, throughout its short 16 year life, the L&LE was still always referred to as "The Traction Line".

The Beginnings

In early 1902, The London Railway Company was formed to obtain a charter to build an electric railway out of London, Ontario. By August of 1902, the company had been renamed the South Western Traction Company and a charter was granted by the Ontario legislature. The SWT was intended to primarily be a passenger carrier, with little emphasis on heavy freight service. The line planned to build outward from London, west to the village of Strathroy via Delaware and Mt. Brydges. Plans were also in place to build branches eastward to the villages of Ingersoll via Nilestown, Dorchester and Putnam; London to Brantford and from London to Woodstock. The eventual goal was a connection with the City of Hamilton. In June of 1903, the South Western Traction company took over the 1902 charter of the Middlesex and Elgin Interurban railway. The latter company having completed a few surveys, but hadn't laid any track. The revised charter added additional lines south from London through St. Thomas to Port Stanley, as well as branches to Aylmer. Only the 28 miles between London to Port Stanley would ever be completed.

The Early Years - 1903-1906

The Southwestern Traction Company was headed up by four prominent London residents; former mayor and local business owner Frederick George Rumball, Solicitor Thomas H Purdom, Realtor A.E. Welch and Thomas Luscombe. Three other men from the area composed the remainder of the Board of Directors. Construction began in 1903 from London southward to Lambeth. By early 1904, rails had reached Lambeth, and there, the money ran out and construction came to a halt. The company directors travelled to England in an attempt to secure additional funding, and spoke with several potential investors. Their inquiries drew the attention of the Bruce Peebles Company of Edinburgh, Scotland. Peebles was an electrical engineering firm that manufactured generators and traction equipment including electric motors. Peebles & Co. had just secured a license with the Ganz Conmpany of Hungary, another engineering firm, to develop and market their three-phase AC electric traction system. This agreement included permission to manufacture the generating equipment as well the car motors and other hardware.

The Bruce Peebles Company, along with several other investors, formed the Canadian Electric Traction Company. The purpose of the CETC was to fund various electric railway projects in Canada using the Ganz system. The South Western Traction would be the first...and ultimately only...project. Bruce Peebles and Company would supply the three-phase equipment, car motors and generators with actual construction work to be done by a local London firm. The initial phase of the line was to be built from London, Ontario, to St. Thomas, where it would utilize the St. Thomas street railway tracks through town, and then continue south to Port Stanley. Bruce Peebles was unaware of the plan to route the cars over the St. Thomas Street Railway until after the contracts were signed. The St. Thomas street railway ran on DC power and was completely incompatible with the planned Ganz system. Bruce Peebles contacted Ganz for a solution to the problem. As it happened, Ganz had just developed a motor that could be switched from AC to DC operation. The Ganz System utilized two wires, and hence two poles at each end of the trolley car, whereas standard DC operation used the more familiar single pole. The Traction Line cars were to run just outside St. Thomas and stop at the end of the dual AC wire. There, the poles would be dropped, the motor would be switched over from AC to DC, a single pole would be raised and the car would continue through town on DC power until it reached the outskirts on the south end of town where the process would be reversed.

The generating station for the line was built in 1905 in Chelsea Green, a suburb of London. The power station was actually located on a side track off of the London & Port Stanley Railway just south of the Thames River west of Adelaide Street. The equipment for the power plant was provided by Peebles. The original cars had motors and electrical equipment built by Bruce Peebles, with carbodies built by the Brush Traction Company of England. There were three each of two different types of cars; a combination car for passengers and mail with a top speed of 22 miles per hour, and an all-passenger express car designed for 36 mile-per-hour speeds. Almost immediately, there were issues discovered with the motors running hot and arcing. The carbodies also had a tendency to flex when the cars were running. Work was done to try and iron out the bugs in the system, but things were never fully resolved.

Despite the problems with the equipment, the South Western Traction Company officially opened for service between London and St. Thomas on June 1, 1906. When the line opened, cars were running to Lyndhurst, with the rails not having been laid into St. Thomas as of yet. Buses ran from the end-of-track into St. Thomas for several weeks until the link was completed. Even after cars began running into St. Thomas, there were complications with the AC to DC switchover, and it's unknown if this scheme ever actually worked reliably. The issues with the cars and the difficulty in getting the AC to DC transfer to work, prompted the Board of Directors to approve a switch to straight DC operation in January of 1907.

Changes on the Horizon - 1907-1909

In January, 1907, contracts were let to the Canadian Westinghouse Company in Hamilton for new generating and substation equipment and new DC motors for the six existing British cars. An order was also placed with the Ottawa Car Company in Ottawa, Ontario, for six new fifty-foot passenger cars. The new cars began to be delivered in June of 1907, but the funds weren't available to equip them with motors or hardware, so they sat up on blocks in the barns in St. Thomas. President Rumball sent several messages to the investors in England requesting funding to equip the cars. While the funding issues were being dealt with, work on the line continued south to Port Stanley, and by June, 1907, the grading had been completed. Work was progressing on the overhead and trackwork when the line was dealt a serious blow, one from which it would never fully recover.

On the morning of August 10th, 1907, a fire, caused by a short circut, broke out in the Traction Company's car barns on Chester Street in London. A motorman arriving early for his shift discovered the fire, and managed to save combination car 22. While going back in for a second car, he was driven back, and ultimately, five cars were destroyed. Along with the rolling stock, a number of motors and other equipment were destroyed as well. This was a major setback, and while the line was insured, there was still a delay in getting the line back up and running. A number of the motors that were destroyed are assumed to have been destined for the Ottawa-built cars sitting in St. Thomas. The losses for the small road were penned at over $160,000. The line fought to restore service, but was unable to operate north of Base Line Road in London for several months after the fire due to damage to the track and overhead. The company was insured for the property damage, but the loss of revenue due to the delays in getting the new cars in service seriously hurt the company.

The fire was a major setback to the South Western Traction Company, and although broken, the company was not beaten... yet. Work continued on the extension to Port Stanley, and on October 30, 1907, the first car arrived on Main Street in the centre of town. The line was later extended further down to the actual dock area, where the station was built. A single spur line served the fishing harbour. This was a far cry from the facilities of the London & Port Stanley railway on the west side of the harbour. The L&PS had a large ferry slip in place for docking rail ferries, as well as a large grain elevator and coal yard. The Traction Line's location was suitable for the passenger trade due to its proximity to the central business district in Port Stanley. In the coming years however, the west side of town would be developed with its extensive beach, and the Traction Line's location would be a substantial hinderance to take advantage of this new traffic. The L&PS station was only several blocks away from the beach, and after electrification, a station would be built right on the beach.

The London Advertiser from November 5, 1907, included a quote from F.G. Rumball stating that the line was considering extensions to Aylmer and Delaware. The extension to Aylmer was looked at extensively, but recession and bankruptcy aborted any plans for expansion. These expansion proposals, especially the Aylmer line proposal (which was later extended to Port Burwell), would crop up at various points over the Traction Line's lifetime, but for various reasons, none of them ever came to fruition.

In 1908, the company ordered six new motor cars from the Preston Car and Coach company in Preston, Ontario. These new cars were very similar to the 1907 Ottawa-built equipment.

By late 1908, the company was struggling. The loss of revenues from the fire, coupled with 1907 having been a recession year, didn't bode well for the future financial health of the line. On October 20th, 1909, the company was sold at auction to Mr. J.E. McDougall of London, who represented a group of London, Toronto and Hamilton investors. Mr. C.C. Giles of Montreal, who represented the existing bondholders, most of them from Scotland, as well as a representative of the London Street Railway were also in attendance at the sale.

Several months later, McDougall sold the line to a group of investors from Toronto, led by G.B. Woods. Under the new management, a new charter was applied for. In late 1909, the South Western Traction Company ceased to exist, and the London and Lake Erie Railway and Transportation Company was born.

A Change of Identity - 1910-1913

The new London & Lake Erie Railway was managed by Mr. Samuel W. Mower. Under his management, the line made a modest profit. The line began to pursue a link with the Michigan Central in St. Thomas. The plan was to ship fish from the docks in Port Stanley to the MCRR in St. Thomas, as well as to markets in London. A survey of the line just before the new company took over in 1909 states the rolling stock as follows; 12 passenger cars (The Ottawa and preston cars), 2 express cars, two boxcars, six flatcars, one line car and one locomotive. The last remaining British-built car had been removed from the roster by this point. This equipment gave the company a small, but usable freight roster. The curves and gradients on the line, coupled with the street running in St. Thomas and London, negated any plans for extensive freight operation.

In 1911, the company was sued by a group called The Lord's Day Alliance. As the L&LE was a provincial, not federal charter, it was subject to the 1906 Lord's Day Act. This act stipulated that any company could not engage in the business of "conveying passengers for hire if such travel was related to amusement or pleasure". This order also included street railways. Railway lines that operated over provincial and/or international borders were not affected by the law. Also not affected were companies built under a Federal charter, such as the London and Port Stanley Railway. As the London & Lake Erie was used mainly for recreational use on weekends, Sunday service was not considered essential. The London & Lake Erie Railway stopped running cars on Sundays in 1912 and would not resume until late 1913.

The line ordered four new cars in late 1911 from the Niles Car Company in Ohio. They were delivered in 1912 in the form of two powered cars and two unpowered trailers. Also in 1912, S.W. Mower resigned from the manager's position and the search was on for a new manager. Several people were considered, but the job ultimately went to Mr. W.N. Warburton.

William Nelson Warburton was born August 24, 1854 in Sparta, Ontario. He had previous experience with the Grand Trunk and was Superintendent from 1880-1886. He also worked at various times with the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, the Chatham, Wallaceburg & Lake Erie Railway and was general manager of the Windsor, Essex & Lake Shore Rapid Railway; all interurban electric lines. With this background, Warburton was more than qualified to act as General Manager for the London and Lake Erie.

After an early inspection trip along the line, Warburton eliminated more than 40 of the over 100 stops on the 28 mile route. This shaved considerable time off of travel between points on the route and while it was still more than an hour from London to Port Stanley, it was better than the competing London and Port Stanley Railway. The L&PS itself was managed by the Pere Marquette at this time, but that was soon about to change.

The L&PS becomes Serious Competition - 1913-1916

The contract for the PM's management of the L&PS expired in late 1912, and the city immediately took control. Sir Adam Beck, head of Ontario Hydro, and former Mayor of London, had a grand plan of an electric railway network spanning all of Ontario. The L&PS was to be the first piece in this scheme. Plans were put in place as early as 1913 for electrification of the London and Port Stanley Railway, inspired, in part, by the London and Lake Erie. London & Lake Erie management, for obvious reasons, as well as residents of the City of London were against the electrification of the L&PS. This opposition was all for naught however. The London and Port Stanley Railway was electrified in 1915.

The beach area at Port Stanley had been developing for several years, and a Casino, as well as various amusement rides had sprung up. In 1915, the City of London built a large bathing pavilion in Port Stanley, as well as extended the L&PS through the backyards of residences to reach the own to reach the beach, where a two-track station was constructed. This put the Traction Line at a major disadvantage, due to its station being located far from the beach area on the other end of town. Under wire, the L&PS ran between London and Port Stanley in an average time of 45 minutes, cutting the Traction Line's time by almost half. Passengers from London and St. Thomas began travelling to Port Stanley via the L&PS, due to its faster, more modern equipment, and more direct route. Whereas the Traction Line meandered along backroads serving all of the rural villages, the London & Port Stanley was almost a straight line south from London. Passengers continued to use the London and Lake Erie for rural travel, but the writing was on the wall.

On the London and Lake Erie, expansion plans were still being pursued. The branch to Aylmer was seriously looked at again, and meetings were held in 1915 to discuss the proposed route. One of the stipulations of the Aylmer council was an additional connection to Port Burwell. This route was surveyed and planned, but nothing ever came of it. The investors and shippers in Aylmer wanted access to London markets. The London & Lake Erie's lack of a direct connection to the Grand Trunk in London, as well as the lack of any other real freight interchanges along the route doomed the proposal for good.

In 1916, the Niles cars were sold to the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, where they were rebuilt and renumbered into the 60-63 series. These new cars were sold off for several reasons, the main one being that the Baldwin trucks they rode on had issues with the L&LE's tight curves and grades. Throughout the next couple of years the L&LE continued to struggle, competing with both the newly electrified L&PS and the encroaching threat of the automobile.

Decline and Sale - 1917-1918

The outbreak of the first World War did little to improve the L&LE's situation. Power was increasingly cut by management at random times to reduce costs and more than once, L&LE cars were stranded on the line with no power, while the St. Thomas streetcars continued to run by, unaffected. Nonexistant coal supplies in the winter of 1917 forced the L&LE to drastically cut back service, due to their not being able to provide heat for the cars in the cold weather. Electric heaters weren't an option either, and the company's fortunes continued to drop into the red. Costs were surpassing revenues, and the line couldn't afford to maintain its equipment. The line did carry a record 726,799 passengers in the 1916-17 fiscal year, but it was too little too late. The L&LE was operating at a deficit by this time and would never recover. Management began to look at options to sell the line.

Both the City of London and City of St. Thomas expressed interest, but weren't willing to pay the $600,000 asking price. Sir Adam Beck urged the City to offer just under $300,000, but this was turned down by management. The City of London wanted to continue the London to Talbotville section as a commuter railway, preferably as an extension of the privately-owned London Street Railway. The Traction Company management wanted to sell the entire line or none at all, and this proposal was declined. The line was valued at a toal of $360,000; rails were $162,000, catenary $75,000, rolling stock at $50,000 and real estate about $100,000. Due to the war, the price of steel and copper was high, as was demand. By the time the line was dismantled and sold however, the prices had fallen dramatically due to the end of the war.

On October 28, 1918, W.N. Warburton released a statement in the London Advertiser stating that the London & Lake Erie Railway had ceased operations and dismantling had begun at both ends of the line. Service was first cut back to St. Thomas from Port Stanley, with the London to St. Thomas line discontinued later on. Over the next few years, company assets were liquidated. The majority of the line's equipment was sold to the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway with four cars going to the Oshawa Railway.

Post 1918

The Thames River bridge in downtown London as well as the right of way inside city limits was sold to the municipality. The current route of Belgrave Avenue south of Tecumseh in London follows the old traction grade. The London station building was sold to the Salvation Army in 1924 and was used as their hostel building until 1952 when it was demolished in favour of a new structure. The bridge over the Thames River just south of the London station served as a footbridge for many years before being purchased by the City. The original traction bridge was widened and strengthened and used for the extension of Richmond street. This bridge itself was replaced in the early 1990's. The north abutment of the trestle can still be seen from Richmond Street.

The station buildings along the line were sold to various parties and have been dismantled over the years. The only remaining station is in Port Stanley, now home to a real estate office and a pet food store. The right of way can still be seen at several points along the 28 mile route, the most noticable being just off of Southdale Line in St. Thomas, and along Highway 4 heading into Port Stanley. If one looks hard by the statue of Jumbo in St. Thomas, the traction grade up the embankment can still be seen as well.

Interurban Motors Limited

On May 1, 1917, a subsidary company called Interurban Motors Ltd was incorporated to provide feeder service from Aylmer to St. Thomas. The company was also to provide routes from Delaware to Lambeth and Sparta to Union. As of March 1918, only the Aylmer route was running. The company changed its name to the St. Thomas-Aylmer Motor Bus Co but kept the same management.

Any questions, comments, pictures, etc - Please e-mail me Dan MacKellar

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Last Update June 7, 2011