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The Development of Railways in Eastern Canada

The Region
We take for granted today the ease with which we can travel from place to place by many modes of travel.  In the 1800's, settlement in Upper and Lower Canada (now the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec) was confined along the shores of the Great Lakes, the St Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers.  The Rideau Canal, completed in 1832, was a major commercial transportation route connecting Ottawa (at that time called Bytown) with Kingston.  The Trent Canal system from Trenton to Peterborough and on to Georgian Bay was in its infancy.  Canada was a British colony until confederation in 1867.
Commerce and Transportation

Commerce was mainly confined to logging and subsistence farming with its supporting retail and wholesale activities.  The Ottawa Valley was a major source of pine logs which were exported to Britain and the United States.  The transportation of commercial goods and passengers by water or by horse was slow, hazardous, and costly.  Travel from town-to-town was a major adventure along log roads - where they existed - or along paths no better than hiking trails.
Railways and Competition

Canada was much slower than Great Britain and the United States in developing its railway network.  This was due to a smaller population, longer distances, and the absence of vast amounts of capital required for railway construction.  The advent of the railway in Upper and Lower Canada transformed Eastern Ontario from a countryside of pastoral pine and hardwood forests into bustling communities of commerce, industry, and resource exploration.
North-South Then East-West

Established communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River competed with each other to attract railways.  A railway could bring a commercial boom for the town, its entrepreneurs, and its citizens.  Or, it could spell its death knell if it was bypassed.  The centre of commerce was usually relocated when railways chose to skirt the edge of a town.
At first, from 1850-60, small railways were slowly constructed north from Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River into the rich forest and resource hinterland.  Concurrently, the east-west construction of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1855-59 joining Montreal, Toronto, Sarnia connected these north-south lines, although, they still remained independent.  The Grand Trunk, however, was not interested in amalgamating these small lines into one system.  And so they remained independent.


CPR 4-4-0 #207 was built for the Canada Central Railway in 1879 by the Danforth Locomotive Machine Company of Paterson, New Jersey.  It was typical of the type of locomotive used on Canadian railways during the period 1850-1900.  Locomotives burned logs for fuel and couplers were link-and-pin.  The Westinghouse Air brake and the Janney automatic coupler were still a few decades away from being invented.  Railroading was a hazardous occupation in those days.  The photo was taken about 1883 between North Bay and Sudbury.  Photo Courtesy of Brockville Museum, Brockville, Ont.