Perth and Huron Counties
The compelling economic urgency for railways in Perth and Huron in the mid-19th century was no different from that in any other part of Upper Canada of the day. With the land newly wrestled from the forest blanket, the tree stumps pulled and the wheat sown, the challenge was to get it to market. Before the railways, that part was almost as laborious and time-consuming as the clearing of the land in the first place, and agitation for a solution to that imperative became a strident chorus for the newfangled railway.
As elsewhere, it is a familiar story of pioneer initiative, rapid growth, financial distress, amalgamation, monopoly, renewed competition and eventual decline of the traditional network.
Initially, it was a choice between what was originally the proposed Toronto & Goderich Railway, chartered in 1847, re-chartered in 1851 as the Toronto & Guelph Railway; and the Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich (BB&G) Railway, chartered in 1851, and rechartered as the Buffalo & Lake Huron (B&LH) Railway in 1856.
The local intuition was that a vote in favour of the Toronto & Guelph would result in a branchline for Toronto's interests, and the decision was made to opt for what was perceived as the broader appeal and prospect of the Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich. There is no point in debating as to whether this proved to be the right decision. The story unfolds below on this page. As it turned out, the Toronto & Guelph proved to be far from a branchline for Toronto's interests. By 1854 it had become a stepping stone in the trans-national scheme of the Grand Trunk Railway.
The GTR was making its way across Upper Canada to reach its international destination at Chicago, Illinois, and had reached Toronto by acquisition of similar local railway pioneer enterprises all the way from Portland, Maine. In short, the Grand Trunk's aim was not to get to Goderich, but to get to Sarnia, following what was more or less the shortest distance to that place from Toronto.
Certainly, if the Huron County folks had thrown their support behind the Toronto & Guelph Railway, it would have produced (and did in fact produce) a railway line to Stratford, but not likely to Goderich, so to that extent the choice of the BB&G/B&LH turned out to be a prudent and informed one with the limited crystal ball vision of what the railway future of southwestern Ontario was to become.
Unfortunately, the B&LH was unable to hang onto its independence, and by 1864 it was in the fold of the Grand Trunk Railway, and there matters remained, with Goderich a branchline after all. And the northern parts of Perth and Huron had not got a lot of benefit so far. Granted the Wellington, Grey & Bruce, with its "subscribers' route" from Palmerston to Kincardine via Listowel, Brussels and Wingham afforded some relief for a railway connection at least, and until 1882 it was an alternative to the GTR if one lived far enough north to be able to take advantage of the service, but that too evaporated when the Grand Trunk took over the Great Western in that year, and with it the Wellington, Grey & Bruce.
And there was still no line that connected the southern part of Perth with the northern part. True, there had been a longtime proposal in the works in the form of the Stratford & Huron (S&H) Railway. This enterprise had been incorporated in 1855 with the design of building "from Stratford to Southampton; with branches to Penetangore (Kincardine) and Sydenham (Owen Sound), etc. etc.", but as with many of these grandiose plans, financing was a chronic problem, so that it was all talk and no action until it received authority to amalgamate with the equally impoverished Port Dover & Lake Huron (PD&LH) Railway in 1877, so at least the two financial cripples could then lean on each other. Construction did then get under way, completed from Stratford via Milverton and Listowel to Harriston in 1877. Amalgamation with the PD&LH did not actually take place until 1879, but it was wholly evident by then that was no cure. Railway competition had become a very crowded field in these parts, and further consolidation was inevitable.
The axe fell in 1881 when the Port Dover & Lake Huron, the Stratford & Huron and the Georgian Bay & Wellington Railways were folded into the GTR as a subsidiary under the name of the Grand Trunk, Georgian Bay & Lake Erie (GT,GB &LE) Railway. The section of the S&H from Listowel via Palmerston to Harriston (15 miles) was abandoned as duplicate trackage as soon as the Grand Trunk assumed control of the Wellington, Grey & Bruce Railway (a Great Western property) in 1882. The GT,GB &LE was fully amalgamated into the GTR in 1893.
So that's where things were in the late 19th century - one giant GTR monopoly, but the CPR was working to change that. The Canadian Pacific had its Trojan Horse Ontario & Quebec line into Toronto, it succeeded in picking up the Toronto, Grey & Bruce (ironically, wrestling it away from the GTR), which gave it access to Owen Sound; and the Credit Valley Railway (CVR), which, most importantly, gave it access all the way to St. Thomas and then to Windsor. It had picked up a branch to Elora with the CVR, already had Teeswater and created two more branches off its TG&B property to Wingham and to Walkerton. There was also a spur off its St. Thomas mainline to Guelph, which became the springboard for a venture to Goderich.
In 1907 Goderich, Milverton and Listowel got competing service, and the other communities along northern Perth and Huron got local railway service.