Simcoe County, by virtue of its strategic location in providing access to the Great Lakes, was destined for early participation in the railway construction boom that occurred in the 1850s, a year after the Province of Canada passed the Railway Guarantee Act that guaranteed the loan interest on the construction of railways not less than 75 miles in length.
From 1853 to 1888 - The Years of Development
A portage railway had been coffee house talk when Toronto was still York. The early trails to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay had defined logical lines of communication; and the availability of wheat and firewood were domestic necessities. So it was that the city fathers, aided by the innovative and energetic Frederick Chase Capreol, brought about, amid flamboyance and some scandal, the first steam railway in Upper Canada.
Incorporated in 1849 as the Toronto, Simcoe & Lake Huron Union Railroad Company, it became the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Union Railroad in 1852. Its first train reached Machell's Corners (now Aurora) on May 16, 1853, Bradford and Allandale later in 1853, with a spur to Belle Ewart in 1854, and it entered Collingwood in June 1855.
The OS&HU was formally reconstituted as the Northern Railway of Canada in 1858. While Simcoe County welcomed this new form of transportation, inevitably disputes arose from the reality and the perception of monopoly. The fight over "the Barrie Switch", a campaign for the construction of a spur from Allandale to downtown Barrie, (which was not accomplished until 1865) was arguably the bitterest of these.
In the meantime, by 1869, both Toronto and Simcoe County business and civic interests, agitated for an extension of the Northern Railway to Orillia, which resulted in the incorporation in late 1869 of the Toronto, Simcoe & Muskoka Junction Railway to build from Barrie to Orillia and beyond to a terminal on Lake Muskoka. The line to Orillia was completed in 1872, and opened to Muskoka Wharf in 1875.
Almost simultaneously, the Northern, which as a matter of policy was not in favour of branch line expansion, was pressured by the prospect of the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway (to Owen Sound) into the North Grey Railway that opened from Collingwood to Meaford in 1872.
All this activity had not escaped the business community of Hamilton, who in 1872 had chartered the Hamilton & North Western Railway to build through Simcoe County to connect with the forthcoming transcontinental railway. The Northern viewed this prospective competition with great concern, and endeavoured to stave it off with the concept of the South Simcoe Junction Railway, a line projected to branch off at King City in York County, and to serve the western portion of Simcoe County by way of Beeton, Alliston, Angus and Penetanguishene. Meanwhile a Simcoe County delegation put pressure on the Hamilton & North Western to build a branch from Beeton to Collingwood, and Simcoe County, fed up with the Northern monopoly and still smarting from such injuries as the Barrie Switch, voted its bonuses to the Hamilton railway.
It was not long after, that a storm of civic anger broke in Simcoe County in 1879, when the Northern and the Hamilton & North Western announced a joint operating agreement to form the Northern & North Western Railways. The main reason for this merger was financial necessity arising from the ambition of both railways to make a connection at North Bay with the proposed transcontinental railway.
(For more information on the Hamilton & North Western and Northern & Northwestern Railways, please click here.)
Just before the Northern & North Western merger, Toronto business interests also incorporated the North Simcoe Railway "from a point on the Northern Railway" (Colwell) to Penetanguishene, built and opened in 1878. The North Simcoe Railway was constructed at the behest of the lumber interests in Flos Township, resulting in the incorporation and opening of the Flos Tramway in 1880. This spur ran from Elmvale to Hillsdale, south of Orr Lake, and was acquired by the Northern & North Western Railways in 1882. Lumber operations are believed to have ceased in the 1890s, but the track was not lifted until 1917, a portion of it as late as 1927. In 1883 another lumber line came into being, the Medonte Tramway, built from Coldwater (off the Midland Railway, see below) south for about nine miles, also in the general direction of Hillsdale. Little is known about its disposition, but there appears to be agreement that it was lumbered out by about 1893.
While all this Toronto-Hamilton-axis activity was going on, Port Hope and Peterborough were busy with their own railway ambitions. The original 1846 charter of the Peterborough & Port Hope Railway became the 1854 Port Hope, Lindsay & Beaverton Railway that originally aimed for Lake Simcoe. When greater ambition beckoned, it then set its sights on Georgian Bay and changed its name in 1869 to the Midland Railway of Canada. Construction from Beaverton to Midland began in 1872, but bogged down. The line entered present-day Simcoe County at Gamebridge and was completed to Atherley in 1873, to Waubashene in 1875 and on to Midland in 1879. Peterborough interests then took control, and after acquisition of some smaller neighbouring lines in 1882, the Midland was leased to the Grand Trunk Railway in 1884, and acquired by the same in 1893.
From its original Portland - Chicago corridor, the Grand Trunk had gradually expanded in Ontario to the point of almost complete control within the province. With its acquisition of the Northern & North Western in 1888, and the Midland in 1893, Simcoe County had become part of a much larger monopoly by the turn of the 20th century.
The Canadian Pacific Railway had started to make inroads into Ontario in the early 1880s with its Ontario & Quebec Railway (which gave it access to Toronto from Montreal), and with its acquisitions of the Credit Valley and Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railways that had secured footholds to St. Thomas and to Owen Sound respectively. At the turn of the 20th century, the CPR had therefore loosened the grip of the GTR's stranglehold, and by 1906 it was ready to build its own connection between Toronto and its transcontinental line. The CPR's route through Simcoe County was very similar in parts to that envisioned by the Hamilton & North Western Railway in its original 1873 prospectus, except that Alliston was the only community of any size to have a station close to its main street, with the result that the major reliance for local traffic remained with the Grand Trunk.
The decade prior to World War I was one of feverish transcontinental railway construction in the anticipation of booming prairie settlement. To compete with the Grand Trunk and the CPR, MacKenzie and Mann's shiny new Canadian Northern Railway needed Ontario links to its transcontinental plan, and this came to pass as what was renamed in 1906 as the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway's line between Toronto and Sudbury, originally chartered in 1895, and commonly referred to as the James Bay Railway. From the south, it began service through present day Simcoe County in 1908 at Gamebridge, with stations at Brechin, Udney, Washago and Sparrow Lake.
Meanwhile, with an eye to the grain traffic on the Great Lakes, the CPR sponsored the Georgian Bay & Seaboard Railway, also known as the CPR's Port McNicoll branch, to avoid the delays and the additional distance of shipping to Montreal through Toronto. This line was opened in 1912 by building from the newly deepened Victoria Harbour, creating a community known as Port McNicoll, with stations at Tay, Fesserton, Coldwater, Coldwater Junction (intersecting its newly-built Sudbury line at a point called Medonte), then veering by Uhthoff and Tafton across to Orillia, passing across the Narrows to Atherley, then on to Uptergrove, and via Brechin across country to Lindsay, and thence to Bethany Junction on the CPR's Havelock line. The very lightly used passenger service was discontinued in 1932, and this road was abandoned from Orillia to Bethany Junction in 1937. The last regular traffic across the curved landmark-Hog Bay trestle between Port McNicoll and Medonte was in the mid-1960s.
The only addition that the Grand Trunk Railway made in Simcoe County was a connection between the former North Simcoe (its Penetang branch) and Midland (its Belleville and Midland branch) railways, from a point three miles north of Elmvale, known as Birch, with a station at Wyebridge, connecting with the Midland line between its stations at Victoria Harbour and Tiffin at a point near Old Fort. It was opened in 1911.
The 19th century was the golden period of what has now come to be known as the "Railway Age". However, even before World War I and the advent of the automobile, amalgamation, and hence rationalization of the spiderweb like railway network was inevitable. This had already begun in 19th century southern Ontario, when the Grand Trunk took over a major Ontario rival, the Great Western Railway, in 1882. As it happened, for Simcoe County, this process was already under way in 1879 with the Northern & North Western Railways merger, followed by the Grand Trunk's acquisition of the N&NW in 1888, and its acquisition of the Midland Railway of Canada in 1893.
World War I brought about consolidation of the ambitious Canadian Northern Railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and its venerable parent, the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada itself. By the end of January 1923, all of these enterprises were part of a new beginning as the government-owned Canadian National Railways system.
The CNR had assumed the Grand Trunk Railway network in Simcoe County intact, but it hardly had a chance to take stock when the Great Depression stalked the land. Though service was pruned, the only abandonment casualties were the GTR Wyebridge connection (1932) and the Georgian Bay & Seaboard section south of Orillia (1937).
World War II sustained the railways into the 1950s. However with the automobile within the reach of most people in the burgeoning post-war economy, and the development of bus and truck service on improved roads, the traditional railway service was doomed. The final blow was the cancellation of the lucrative post office mail contracts.
Chronology of Simcoe County abandonments and related dates:
1879 - Hamilton & North Western (H&NW) facilities on Walnut Street, Collingwood abandoned.
1879 - Hamilton & North Western right-of-way and station at Allandale, and the route to its terminus at Sophia Street, Barrie abandoned.
1917-27 - Flos Tramway abandoned.
1918-23 - Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern Railways assumed by Canadian National Railways (CNR).
1923 - realignment of the track layout at Washago as a result of the CNR consolidation.
1932 - GTR connection at Birch on the Penetang Sub. to Tay on the Midland Sub. abandoned.
1937 - Georgian Bay & Seaboard Railway (CPR) south of Orillia to Lindsay abandoned.
1950s - "Mixed" service to Penetanguishene ceased.
1955 - former H&NW branch between Alliston and Creemore abandoned and lifted.
1955 - former Northern Railway of Canada/GTR route (CNR Newmarket Subdivision) at Washago re-aligned as a result of highway improvements.
1958 - "Mixed" service to Midland ends.
1960 - passenger service from Hamilton via Allandale, Collingwood to Meaford ceases.
1960 - stub from Lake Junction (Collingwood) to Creemore abandoned and lifted.
1963 - Barrie station demolished.
1971 - Georgian Bay & Seaboard Railway (CPR) from Port McNicoll to Coldwater abandoned.
1975 - former North Simcoe Railway north of Elmvale to Penetang abandoned.
1978 - Hog Bay trestle dismantled.
1982 - GO-Transit assumes VIA Rail Barrie -Toronto service at Bradford.
1984 - former Hamilton & North Western Railway between Cheltenham and Beeton abandoned.
1985 - former North Grey Railway abandoned.
1986 - former North Simcoe Railway south of Elmvale to Colwell abandoned.
1986 - Tottenham Chamber of Commerce acquires Tottenham-Beeton right-of-way of former Hamilton & North Western.
1990 - former Hamilton & North Western Railway between Beeton and Highway 400, including the Alliston Spur, abandoned.
1990 - GO-Transit extends rail service to Barrie/Allandale.
1992 - South Simcoe Railway starts operation of a vintage steam train between Tottenham and Beeton, an attraction that draws tourists, railfans, and families who want to give their children (and to savour for themselves) an experience from a bygone era.
1993 - GO-Transit cuts back rail service to Bradford.
1994 - CNR Uhtoff - Midland abandoned.
1995 - CNR Orillia - Uhthoff abandoned.
1995 - The CNR ceases to be Crown Corporation and becomes a private sector railway (CN).
1996 - trackage in Collingwood removed.
1996 - former Toronto, Simcoe & Muskoka Junction Railway trackage from Barrie through Orillia to Longford (south of Washago) abandoned as CN consolidates its transcontinental traffic onto the former James Bay Railway/Canadian Northern Railway line (the former CNR Bala Subdivison.)
1996 - rails lifted Orillia to Midland.
1997 - Collingwood station demolished.
1997 - Barrie and Collingwood purchase the rail line between those two cities.
1998 - Barrie-Collingwood Railway (BCRY) commences operations from Collingwood through Allandale to the Beeton spur at Hwy 400, and one lone track now traverses the former division point complex at Allandale, with the hard-fought-for track from Allandale into Barrie (the "Barrie Switch") now lifted.
2007 - GO-Transit restores rail service to a new station south of Allandale.
2009 - Metrolinx acquires Toronto-Barrie rail commuter corridor.
2011 - Collingwood-Utopia section of the Barrie-Collingwood Railway abandoned.
Given the railway evolution in Canada over 150 years from a portage to a community-based transportation service, and now to today's long-haul non-stop freight transportation, one supposes that Simcoe County should be honoured to host two such transportation routes: the CPR's MacTier and the CNR's Bala Subdivisions, but these are cold comfort for local transportation needs.
The good news is that there is no final chapter to the saga of rail transportation - it continues to evolve. At least Simcoe County can point proudly to its pioneer railway contribution that, despite its trials and tribulations, developed it both economically and socially. And the reality alone of greenhouse gas emissions and their threat to survival, and the fact that of all forms of public transportation, rail remains the most efficient in that regard, will surely bring it back into favour as the only real option for GHG reductions in the transportation sector that will have to come about sooner than later.
Sources and some recommendations for further reading:
For reference to 1880 County Atlases, please click here and then click on 21 for Simcoe County.
Andreae, Christopher: Lines of Country: An atlas of railway and waterway history in Canada, The Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ont. 1997 (Then an Affiliate of the Stoddart Publishing Co.)
Brown, Ron: Ghost Railways of Ontario, Vol I, Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ont. 1994
Brown Ron: In Search of the Grand Trunk, Dundurn Press, Toronto, Ont. 2011
Cooper, Charles: Hamilton's Other Railway, The Bytown Railway Society, Ottawa, Ont. 2001
Currie, A.W.: The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ont. 1957
Dorman, Robert: A Statutory History of the Steam and Electric Railways of Canada 1836-1937, Canada Department of Transport, Ottawa, Ont. 1938
Green, Lorne: Chief Engineer, Dundurn Press, Toronto, Ont. 1993
Heels, Charles H.: Railroad Recollections, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ont. 1980
Hopper, A.R. and Kearney, T.: Synoptical History of Organization, Capital stock, Funded Debt and other General Information, CNR Accounting Department, Montreal, Que., 1962
Hunter, Andrew F.: A History of Simcoe County, The Historical Committee of Simcoe County, Barrie, Ont.1948
Leitch, Adelaide: The Visible Past, The County of Simcoe, Minesing, Ont. 1992
Mika, Nick and Helma: Railways of Canada, A Pictorial History McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., Toronto-Montreal, 1978.
Regehr, T.D.: The Canadian Northern Railway, MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, Ont., 1976.
Smith, Jeffrey P.: CNR Ontario Research http://cnr-in-ontario.com
Stevens, G.R.: Canadian National Railways, Volume I, Clarke Irwin, Toronto, Ont., 1960
Trout, J.M. and Edw.: The Railways of Canada, Toronto Ont., 1871 (reprinted 1970, 1974)
Walker, Dr. Frank N.: Four Whistles to Wood-Up, Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto, Ont. 1953
White, James: Altitudes in Canada: Commission of Conservation, Canada. Second Edition, Ottawa, Ont., 1915.
Wilson, Donald M: The Ontario and Quebec Railway, Mika Publishing Co., Belleville, Ont. 1984
Wilson, Ian: Steam at Allandale, Canadian Branchline Miniatures, Orillia, Ont. 1998
Wilson, Ian: Steam Scenes of Allandale, Canadian Branchline Miniatures, Orillia, Ont. 2007
Wilson, Ian: Steam in Northern Ontario, Canadian Branchline Miniatures, Orillia, Ont. 2006
Wilson, Ian: Steam Memories of Lindsay, Canadian Branchline Miniatures, Orillia, Ont. 2010