Haldimand and Norfolk Counties

With helpful critique and input from David O'Reilly.


Towards the mid-19th century, Haldimand and Norfolk Counties were destined for abundant attention from railway builders and promoters, as these counties'  geographic location was pivotal to the emerging importance of southwestern Ontario for both portage (between Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario) and border-to border (between Niagara Falls/Fort Erie and Windsor/Sarnia) traffic. The major players were the Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich (later the Buffalo & Lake Huron), Great Western, Grand Trunk and Canada Southern Railways. 

Border-to-Border Transshipment
and the Issue of Gauge

For all of the counties of southwestern Ontario between New York and Michigan States, the US realization of faster shipping between those two states through what is now Ontario, stimulated railway development in a frenzy of competition involving the consequent operating challenge between the enforced 5’6” Broad or “Provincial Gauge” in what was then Canada West (formerly Upper Canada), and the already-adopted 4’ 8½” Standard Gauge (with the notable exception of the Erie Railroad with a 6’ gauge that was not converted to the Standard Gauge until 1880) of the surrounding major US railroads.

Briefly, the issue in Canada West was that railways seeking government loan interest guarantees were obliged to adopt the 5' 6" gauge. The reasons for, and the complications and outcome of, the adoption of that gauge are examined in detail at my page Railway Gauges in Ontario.


Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railway

The first railway to cross the former Haldimand County was the Provincial Gauge Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railway (BB&G). The reasons for its formation were a combination of Brantford's need for a railway and Buffalo's interest in reaching into what was then Canada West, but its essential intended function was as a portage railway between Goderich on Lake Huron and Buffalo on Lake Erie. It was not therefore initially a contestant in the border-to-border traffic sweepstakes. It was chartered as the Brantford & Buffalo Joint Stock Railroad Company in 1851, and became the BB&G in 1852. Brantford, miffed at being bypassed to the north by the projected Great Western Railway, commissioned a survey southeast to Fort Erie. This interest was reciprocated by Buffalo, and the railway opened to Brantford on December 20, 1853, financed in large part with municipal bonuses backed by the Province of Canada Railway Guarantee Act (elaborated on in Railway Gauges in Ontario), but also with some UK financing. Of all the railways that came to traverse Haldimand and Norfolk Counties, the BB&G was one of three early major local (i.e., promoted by local civic business interests) enterprises, the others being the Hamilton & Lake Erie and the Port Dover & Lake Huron Railways. (See further below.)

The BB&G entered Haldimand County at Lowbanks, with major stations at Dunnville, Canfield and Caledonia. The line was extended from Brantford to a junction with the Great Western Railway at Paris in 1854. At that point the BB&G was out of money, and the debts continued to pile up in 1855.

In 1856 the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway (B&LH), with backbone UK financial support, was incorporated to take the BB&G over. The railway was completed to Stratford in 1856, and despite the financial crash of 1857, to its ultimate destination at Goderich in 1858. By 1861, the road needed a substantial capital infusion for much-needed improvements in order to stay in business; and in order to boost revenues, was  considering  acquisition of the Hamilton & Port Dover Railway (see below), to give it immediate access to Lake Ontario and potentially to an intermediate harbour on Lake Erie. (While the Hamilton interests were ready to have someone take the Port Dover project off their hands, this proposal fell through, because the B&LH was by then close to bankruptcy.)

The B&LH offered to lease itself to the Great Western Railway, but this proposal was rejected unanimously by the Great Western's London, England board of directors. While undoubtedly a sound decision from a purely economic perspective, strategically it was unfortunate, as the struggling B&LH was then drawn into the orbit of the other major competitor in southwestern Ontario, the Grand Trunk Railway. 

The BB&G/B&LH’s fundamental challenge from the outset was the low population density along its route. The portage traffic was simply not enough to sustain it at its completion to Goderich in 1858. The only centres on its route of major commercial importance were Brantford, Stratford and Goderich. While none of these three places was connected to the railway grid in 1853, by virtue of the BB&G’s extension north, Brantford became connected to the GWR at Paris in 1854. The GTR reached Stratford more or less at the same time as the B&LH in 1856. Goderich’s connection to the railway grid in 1858 (by virtue of the B&LH’s completion) thus came with a built-in alternative access to the emerging railway network and markets of Ontario (then Canada West) through the arrival of the GTR at Stratford. These connections all served to syphon off traffic from a railway that was already in financial straits by 1855, and whose financial woes continued to deepen throughout its renaissance as the B&LH in 1856.

So a share of the border-to-border traffic was a potential lifeline, but the railway was already too financially strapped to make its share of the necessary capital outlay happen as an independent road. It could not even make it happen with the eventual joint management agreement with the GTR in 1864 (which effectively brought the B&LH under control of the GTR). The death throes as a nominally independent road continued for a few more years, and the GTR assumed outright control under a perpetual lease in 1870.

Grand Trunk Railway (GTR)

Please read in conjunction with Railway Gauges in Ontario.

The British-owned and backed Provincial Gauge GTR had emerged in 1852 as a major railway that was coincidentally destined to become a dominant economic and social force in Upper Canada, even though its grand design was to be a trunk railway link between Portland, Maine and a US Midwest terminus at Chicago, Illinois. Construction on its geographically-necessary Montreal-Toronto main line began in 1853, and the first trains in each direction passed each other in October 1856.

By late 1859, the GTR had reached Sarnia via Guelph and Stratford. It became the second railway presence in the former Haldimand County through an emerging alliance with the B&LH.  While the Grand Trunk's primary business focus was its Portland-Chicago trunk line, it needed feeder traffic and revenue from any source contiguous with its mainline.  

The border-to-border traffic was therefore an obvious target. To offer competition to the Great Western, the GTR developed a plan to cut into the profits to be made from that traffic with an inside Standard Gauge rail to its Provincial Gauge track. This would expedite this traffic with the through movement of US railroad Standard Gauge cars rather than by means of the expensive unloading and reloading at each end. The GTR's contribution was to be between Stratford and Sarnia. In alliance with the B&LH (see above under the "Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railway [BB&G"]), the route would become complete with the corresponding third rail between Fort Erie and Stratford.

As noted, unfortunately, the B&LH could not come up with the necessary capital, and in 1864 entered into a joint management agreement with the Grand Trunk in exchange for the necessary financial support to bring the plan about. Even then, the B&LH could not pull its financial weight, and after some  infighting, bickering and acrimony, in accordance with an agreement ratified in 1870, the Grand Trunk acquired the B&LH under a perpetual lease [i.e., outright] effective July 1, 1869.

The inside rail never came about for the B&LH - and neither for the GTR: The GTR's eventual solution to the "mixed gauge" challenge was the use of an ingenious moveable axle system, and later the exchange of bogie trucks (complete two-axle wheel assemblies) on the car bodies. These devices however were not able to offer real competition to the simplicity of the GWR's third rail. 

By 1872, the issue of the Provincial Gauge had become moot, and competition for the border-to-border traffic then became a pure standard gauge slugfest as to which carrier could move the freight across southern Ontario in the shortest possible time.

The overall length of the GTR's Buffalo - Stratford - Sarnia route was 197 miles.

Great Western Railway

Please read in conjunction with Railway Gauges in Ontario.

The GWR was, although substantially financed by British investors (as most early railways in Canada were), an all-Canadian venture. Conceived as early as 1834 as the London & Gore Railroad, the passing of the Railway Guarantee Act in 1849 was the trigger for the newly-transformed GWR to start construction in the expectation of becoming the premier railway gateway to the American Midwest as the southwestern Ontario trunk link between the New York Central and the Michigan Central Railroads. Its intended major purpose from the outset was the US border-to-border traffic between Niagara Falls and Windsor (with a branch from Komoka to Sarnia in 1858). 

The GWR opened in 1853/4 from Niagara Falls via Hamilton, Paris, Woodstock, London, Komoka, Glencoe, Chatham and Windsor. The Provincial Gauge had not been in its best interest from the outset, as its main source of traffic was intended to be U.S. (Standard Gauge) border-to-border traffic. Despite that, the GWR did well at first, even though the cost of transshipment was a significant impediment to economy and speed. When competition for the US border-to-border traffic intensified in 1864 with the GTR's agreement with the Buffalo & Lake Huron road, by 1867 the GWR had installed a third rail all the way along its main line route to facilitate US (Standard Gauge) through traffic, with the same object of saving the time and expense of unloading and reloading.  

When the proposed Canada Southern Railway (see below) promised to increase competition for this lucrative traffic even further with a substantially shorter route than the GWR's main line; despite its own systemic financial strictures, the GWR, not so far a player in Haldimand-Norfolk, had no choice except to come up with its own more direct route. 

In 1869, the GWR obtained a charter for its "Canada Air Line", to diverge from its main line at Glencoe (southwest of London) and to cut across southwestern Ontario, entering the former Norfolk County just south of Tillsonburg, with stations at Courtland, Delhi, Nixon, Simcoe, Renton, then in Haldimand County at Jarvis, Nelles Corners, Decewsville, Cayuga and Canfield. There it had hoped to come to an arrangement with the Buffalo & Lake Huron for running rights over the latter's track to Fort Erie. With that railway however now part of the competing GTR, the GWR had to run its own line all the way through to the international border at Fort Erie (also obtaining running rights over a portion of the Welland Railway from Welland Junction to reach equidistant Niagara Falls as well).

Completed and opened in 1873 almost simultaneously with the Canada Southern Railway (CSR), the "Canada Air Line" more or less paralleled the Canada Southern's track, passing out of Haldimand County east of Moulton station. Both the CSR and the GWR's Air Line were built to the Standard Gauge.

The GWR's faster overall route between Windsor and Fort Erie was now slightly shorter (226 miles) than that of the CSR between Windsor and Fort Erie (228 miles).

Canada Southern Railway

In 1868, an Ontario charter for the Erie & Niagara Extension Railway Company was approved, with powers to build from Fort Erie via St. Thomas to either Sandwich or Windsor on the Detroit River. A year and a half later, this charter was parlayed into the Canada Southern Railway (CSR). Built to the 4 ft 8½ in Standard Gauge, its object was also the US border-to-border traffic. The Canada Southern consisted of two divisions, the Western and the Eastern. Construction began from both ends in 1871, and the two met at Townsend on February 20, 1873. From the west, the new line entered Norfolk County at La Salette, with stations at Windham, Waterford, Townsend (Centre) and Villa Nova, passing into Haldimand County at Hagersville, then on to Dufferin, Cayuga, Canfield, and passing out of Haldimand County into Niagara County between Attercliffe and Perry stations. 

While nominally a Canadian road at the outset, it was under the influence of US backers as represented on its Board of Directors from the outset, and when it floundered in the chronic economic depression of the 1870s, came under control of the Vanderbilt empire in 1876.

The Great Western's "Air Line" and the Canada Southern Railway were the first to traverse Norfolk County.

Hamilton & Lake Erie Railway (H&LE)

In 19th century Ontario, all lakeshore communities recognized the development of their harbours as the key to local prosperity, even before the emergence of railways as the dominant force in the development of commerce. As early as 1835, while still a town, Hamilton had chartered the Hamilton & Port Dover Railroad in  recognition  of the need for traffic to be brought to its harbour to stimulate local trade of goods, produce and natural resources. At that time, the charter's intended purpose was to establish a portage link between the harbours of Port Dover and Hamilton to divert traffic from what was then the fledgling and hence very slow and congested Welland Canal.

Nothing came of that charter because of the generally unsettled economic conditions in Upper Canada at that time, until the passing of the Railway Guarantee Act (elaborated on in Railway Gauges in Ontario). This Act ushered in Canada's railway building boom, including the construction of the Great Western Railway (see above), which arrived in what was by then the City of Hamilton, on its way to Windsor. The GWR, however, was a "through" rather than a "feeder" railway. While any railway was good for business, the GWR did not address the needs of the local economy that depended on a vibrant market and its "spin-off" benefits of local trade and manufacture, lower retail costs and the attendant creation of additional local employment. (Noted however that, as it turned out, the GWR and its locomotive and car shops proved to be the foundation of Hamilton's steel industry.)

So it was that in the same year as the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Hamilton (1853), the original pioneer charter of the Hamilton & Port Dover Railroad was reactivated as the Hamilton & Port Dover Railway (H&PD. [The H&PD, unlike the GWR, did not qualify under the Railway Guarantee Act on account of its short length and was built to the Standard Gauge from the outset]). 

One of its objects was still to establish a portage link between the harbours of Port Dover and Hamilton as a short-cut to passage through the Welland Canal, but by 1856 its other aims were now "to facilitate and increase the local traffic [i.e., trade]", "to secure a portion of the freight and passenger business of the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway and of the Grand River" [at Caledonia], and to "form a connection with the proposed [Canada Southern Railway (see above)] considered to be most strategic to capture the traffic from the broad agricultural belt along that proposed line". (Note: The reference to "the Grand River" is likely to the Grand River Navigation Company,  one of many canal companies that were being driven into bankruptcy as the railways started to take their business away.)
If the H&PD had been completed in the 1850s, it would certainly have succeeded in its original intention of establishing a portage link between Port Dover and Hamilton, but construction did not begin until 1856. Unfortunately the cost of scaling Hamilton Mountain had been grossly underestimated, with the result that construction ceased in 1858 for lack of funds and a dispute with the contractor, and the railway had not even reached Caledonia, a mere 16 miles from Hamilton. 

The project then languished and was not revived until 1869 as the Hamilton & Lake Erie Railway (H&LE) when construction resumed with a new contractor. Aside from its chronic struggle with financing, the H&LE then also had to negotiate with the Grand Trunk Railway (successor owner of the B&LH) at Caledonia and with the Canada Southern at Hagersville to cross their respective tracks. At Jarvis it also had to arrange for joint station facilities with the GWR's Air Line. Traffic commenced from Hamilton to Jarvis in 1873, with Jarvis becoming the  temporary terminus.

It was not until 1878 that the railway passed from Haldimand County through to Norfolk County when its last leg from Jarvis to Port Dover was completed under the auspices of the Hamilton & North Western Railway (H&NW), which had assumed the H&LE in 1875 and then built its own station at Jarvis. This last leg had by then lost its original object of capturing the lake-to-lake portage traffic. There were three reasons for the port's failure to develop for significant  lake traffic:  the much improved third Welland Canal by then in progress;  the harbour's tendency to silt up; and the necessary  circuitous access to it from the Lake Erie shipping lane because of the Long Point sandbar. 
Indeed, all that was left to the H&LE/H&NW was the prospect of business to be generated from local trade, but then to add to its misfortune, a rival railway (the Port Dover & Lake Huron [see below]) had ensconced itself in Port Dover three years earlier. Not only did that railway secure for itself the prized and "convenient to down-town" harbour location (obliging the former to terminate with its own station at a more distant spot on the east bank of the Lynn river), but it was also a fact of pioneering railway competition  that the first railway into any place usually retained the higher volume of local traffic. 
(However, Hamilton did come to benefit  substantially from the railway's other later objects to attract traffic to its city [and in the early years, to some extent, its harbour]), especially with the Canada Southern at Hagersville, and to some degree with the Grand Trunk at Caledonia and Jarvis.
(For more information on the H&LE and the H&NW, please click here for information about the book Hamilton's Other Railway; for a quick webpage summary, please click here.

Port Dover & Lake Huron Railway

The Port Dover & Lake Huron Railway Company (PD&LH) had established itself in Port Dover in 1875, three years before the belated arrival of the H&LE/H&NW (see above). The PD&LH's forerunner, the scandal-ridden Woodstock & Lake Erie Railway and Harbour Company, had been created in 1848 by Woodstock interests, to build "either a track iron or wood railroad or way over any part of the country lying between the Town of Woodstock and the harbours of Port Dover and Port Burwell inclusive on Lake Erie". Revived in 1872 as the PD&LH, the road was completed (using the Standard 4' 8 ½" Gauge) from Port Dover via Simcoe to Woodstock by the end of 1875, making judicious use of the earlier earth works. (It crossed the GWR Air Line just north of Simcoe and passed out of Norfolk County at La Salette, intersecting there with the Canada Southern Railway). In 1875 the federal government sold the Port Dover harbour facilities to the railway for a nominal figure. In 1876, the line was opened further to Stratford, and the "Lake Huron" component (actually Harriston, Chesley and Wiarton) of the route was completed by means of the Stratford & Lake Huron Railway, which leased its operations to the PD&LH. 

Other Railways

The South Norfolk Railway (SNR) was incorporated by local civic interests on June 23, 1887 to build from Port Rowan via the Town of Simcoe to a point on [the] Canada Southern Railway". It was in fact built in 1888 between Port Rowan and Simcoe, connecting there with the Port Dover line, and was acquired by the Grand Trunk Railway the following year. 

Many years later, a latecomer to the scene was the Lake Erie & Northern Railway (LE&N), incorporated by Brantford business interests in 1911, to build from Port Dover via Simcoe and Brantford to Galt. It was acquired by the CPR in 1914, the same year that construction began, the line being completed by 1915. Service as an electric interurban (passenger and express  [and later, freight]) line was inaugurated in 1916. At Port Dover, it joined the right-of-way of the former PD&LH (see above) to reach the GTR station (until 1947, after which the LE&N used its own station). Passenger service on the Lake Erie & Northern Railway ended on April 23, 1955.

In addition, there were two other railway lines that traversed the former Norfolk County. In the northwest corner, the Tillsonburg, Lake Erie & Pacific Railway (TLE&P) briefly intruded into Norfolk County on its way from Tillsonburg to Port Burwell in 1896. Also further east, the Brantford, Waterloo & Lake Erie Railway (BW&LE) was incorporated in 1885 to build from Berlin (Kitchener) via Brantford to Lake Erie. The section between Brantford and a connection with the Canada Southern at Waterford was opened in 1889, entering Norfolk County near Scotland. The line faltered after a change of ownership in the same year, and was acquired in 1892 by the newly-formed Toronto, Hamilton &Buffalo Railway (TH&B). The Brantford-Waterford stretch in fact became the TH&B's first operating section of track.

To the east, in Haldimand County, once the TH&B had built its main line from Hamilton to Welland, the citizens of Dunnville petitioned the TH&B for a branch from Smithville, and this resulted in the incorporation of the Erie & Ontario Railway Company (E&O) to build from Port Maitland to Smithville via Dunnville. It was promptly assumed by the TH&B and opened for traffic in 1916. The TH&B by means of its TH&B Navigation Company then operated a freight ferry service between Port Maitland, Ont., and Ashtabula, Ohio from 1916 until 1932.




Original BB&G route

Lowbanks in the GTR era - the first stop westbound of the pioneer Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railroad in Haldimand County.

Lowbanks in the GTR era - the first stop westbound of the pioneer Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railroad in Haldimand County.

A GTR passenger train at the Dunnville station on the former Buffalo & Lake Huron line. Circa 1900.

A GTR passenger train at the Dunnville station on the former Buffalo & Lake Huron line. Circa 1900.

Canfield GTR courtesy Bruce Mercer

Canfield GTR courtesy Bruce Mercer

This location was for many years one of the busier railway crossings in southern Ontario. In this view, the eastbound Dunnville Sub. of the former Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway bisects in quick succession the former Canada Southern Railway, and also the former GWR "Air Line". The station is a country Grand Trunk Railway station with a generous angular platform serving both its Fort Erie-Dunnville-Caledonia-Brantford-Goderich and its Fort Erie-Cayuga-Jarvis-St. Thomas lines. The tower guards the Canada Southern/Michigan Central (later CASO Sub.) It was destroyed in a derailment ca 1959.

Canfield GTR courtesy Bruce Mercer

Canfield GTR courtesy Bruce Mercer