Toronto & Nipissing Railway

The Narrow Gauge Phenomenon in Ontario

  The distance between the rails was an immediate issue at the very beginning of the railway itself. Remarkably, the question of the preferred gauge was settled very quickly in England where railways were invented and given to the world. George Stephenson, the inventor who made the steam locomotive a practical proposition, decreed that it should be 4’8½”, or 1435 mm, and that came to be adopted throughout western Europe, and was exported all over the world. This gauge came to be known world-wide as the “Standard” or “Stephenson” gauge. Not surprisingly, any gauge narrower than the standard gauge was defined as narrow gauge, and any gauge wider as a wide or broad gauge.

  The Province of Canada enacted a financial incentive for the building of railways in 1849, and delegated its administration to the Railway Board of Commissioners, who decreed that in order for a railway to obtain that incentive, it had to build to the 5’6” gauge, which came to be known also as the "Provincial" Gauge. Essentially this decree defined Canada’s railway gauge for the next twenty years, contrary to the 4’8½” gauge that was by then rapidly becoming standard in western Europe (with the major exception of Iberia and Ireland) and, more immediately, also in the adjoining northern states of the USA.

  Notwithstanding the increasing prevalence of the standard gauge in railways around the world, those railways that opted for a wider gauge claimed improved stability, higher load capacity and increased passenger comfort, but in some cases selected a different gauge from that of their neighbour for political, commercial and/or strategic reasons.

  Those that opted for a narrower gauge did so usually for geographic reasons – in heavily undulating and mountainous terrain for instance, the required narrower land and infrastructure dimensions (such as for tunnels and bridges) made a narrower gauge an overriding logical and practical choice, and the 3’6” gauge became predominant among common carrier railways. Logical examples of the judicious use of the 3’6” gauge are/were in Norway and Sweden (since re-gauged), South Africa, Japan, Newfoundland (defunct) and New Zealand.   

  The obvious and overarching drawback of any difference in gauge between neighbouring railways has however always been the cost of transshipment of goods, and the inability to interchange freight cars as business is required to flow between the two railways, so that the choice of a disparate gauge always ought to be for overriding construction imperatives. This proved to be a painful lesson for Canada and Canada’s early railways, and the eventual costs of conversion to the standard gauge unquestionably altered the pattern of subsequent railway development in Canada.

  In Ontario, the lesson proved to be the same – “short term gain for long-term pain” – as understandable as the reasons for opting for a narrow gauge may have been, it was a tempting economic choice, but not an innately geographically compelling one – and the outcome was inevitable.

  The climate that encouraged the narrow gauge option in Ontario was in major part the railway financing mechanism that shuttered down in the aftermath of the Crimean War that ended in 1856, and remained more or less closed during the American Civil War that ended in 1865 (bearing in mind that much, if not almost all, of the financing came from British financial houses). During that period there was stagnation in further railway construction, a decline in government political will for financing support, with the result that there was increasing reliance on municipal bonuses, call them downloads, local levies, incentives or bribes, to finance local railways. The euphemistically described “bonus” was essentially a debentured municipal lump sum subscription to have a railway come through its territory. It was paid for the most part with a grudging acknowledgment that a railway was needed – in some cases there were threats by the railway to bypass if the commitment was not forthcoming, but many municipalities were smart enough to figure out that their location was strategically placed to the direction of the railway and were able to hold out for the best terms, including no payment until completion. That was an important negotiating point because it was not uncommon for a first section of railway to be built using funds obtained from bonuses in the second section – sort of an early pyramid scheme. Just the same, these “bonuses” constituted a huge long term liability for fledgling municipalities with, for the most part, modest tax bases.

  The “mover and shaker” of the narrow gauge promotion was one George Laidlaw, a Scot who immigrated in 1855 to become a wheat buyer for “little brown jug” Gooderham & Worts, the prominent Toronto distiller (whose plant has been commemorated today as the Distillery District). He espoused the narrow gauge concept as rebellion against the monopoly and perceived financial excesses of the Grand Trunk Railway; and closer to home, as an effort to break the stranglehold that Toronto’s Northern Railway to Collingwood exercised over the price of cordwood, the key industrial, commercial and residential fuel of the day. Laidlaw argued passionately (and correctly) that the narrow gauge choice offered significant savings in construction and operating costs, arguments that resonated in the cash-strapped decade of the 1860s and resulted in the incorporation in 1868 of the Toronto & Nipissing Railway to the north-east; and its equally narrow gauge sister, the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway that was to strike out in a northwesterly direction from Toronto to Owen Sound to service railway-hungry Grey and Bruce Counties. The issue of the Toronto cordwood monopoly aside, the immediate incentive for the promotion of both of these railways was that their sponsoring distillery needed grain to make its whiskey.

  For the Toronto & Nipissing Railway, there was an additional specific object: There was already talk of the planned transcontinental railway and entrepreneurs were quick to catch the enormous economic implication of such a plan – Toronto’s Northern Railway of Canada and Hamilton’s North Western Railway were salivating at the prospect for a connection to that vision. Thus the naming of the Toronto & Nipissing Railway was no random stab at a lake somewhere up in the north – it was a strategic strike towards the connection of all connections.

  For the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway, it was to reach a port on Georgian Bay (at Owen Sound) to offer competition to Toronto’s Northern Railway of Canada to Collingwood that was disinclined to build branches to service the emerging lucrative farmlands of Grey and Bruce Counties.

  George Laidlaw was the driving force behind four railways in all (The Toronto & Nipissing Railway [T&N], the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway [TG&B], the Credit Valley Railway and the Victoria Railway).

  Of these four, the T&N and the TG&B were chartered (in 1868) while the 5’6” Broad Gauge was still a condition for the Province of Canada financing guarantee, and both were built to the 3'6" narrow gauge.

  Both railways were an immediate success, hauling prodigious amounts of grain and lumber into the big City, and with impressive passenger traffic receipts besides. Within a few years, however, the inherent limited capacity of a narrow gauge operation became apparent, interchange with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in Toronto became an issue, and both railways began to struggle to meet traffic demands. At the same time the light rails began to wear out and the accumulating costs of maintenance and renewal began to hover over their balance sheets.

  By the early 1880s, this brave experiment was over. The Midland Railway (itself soon to be leased to the Grand Trunk) bought out the T&N in 1881 and assumed the cost of gauge conversion in 1883.

  By 1880 the financial situation of the TG&B was equally dire, and control of the railway was handed over to the Grand Trunk in 1882 in exchange for the enormous cost ($800,000 [over $19 million today]) of re-gauging and re-fitting the line. The GTR did not however obtain a controlling interest, as it was financially stretched itself in its frantic bid to keep the CPR out of Ontario. In 1884, the GTR had to sell its TG&B stock, which was snapped up by the Ontario & Quebec Railway, the CPR’s unobtrusive cat’s paw bid to enter the lucrative Ontario market.

The Railway

   In 1849, the Province of Canada passed loan interest legislation that triggered Canada’s railway building boom. To obtain financial benefits, a railway had to be built to the “broad” or “Provincial” 5’6” gauge. During this “broad gauge” era of railway development in Upper Canada from 1850 to 1870, one George Laidlaw rose to prominence as an advocate of the economics of the narrow gauge. An emigrant from Scotland, he obtained a position with the Toronto distillery firm of Gooderham & Worts, and persuaded his employers to invest in the narrow gauge concept in sponsoring feeder lines for their business. Accordingly on March 4, 1868, the Toronto & Nipissing Ry (T&N) was chartered “to build from Toronto to a point on Lake Nipissing etc.” with a 3’ 6” gauge.

The objects were threefold:

(1) to provide a pipeline of grain to the distillery,
(2) to break the firewood monopoly of Toronto’s existing development road, the Northern Railway of Canada, and
(3) to reach the proposed CPR transcontinental railway somewhere around Lake Nipissing.

The T&N at first succeeded brilliantly at the first two objects, but failed miserably on the third, only completing the first planned segment to Coboconk.
(The next segment was going to be the tough one through the Haliburton Highlands. Surveys were done as far as Moore's Falls.)

The first sod was turned at Cannington on October 16, 1869 with Sir John Sandfield Macdonald, then Premier of Ontario, presiding. The T&N’s charter was amended in 1869 to include an option to build via Lindsay and Fenelon Falls, which was never taken up.

In 1876 the T&N also ratified an agreement to operate the Lake Simcoe Junction Railway, a feeder line from Stouffville to Jackson’s Point, opened in 1877.

The T&N opened officially at Uxbridge on September 14, 1871, and to Coboconk on November 28, 1872.

The railway was an instant success, carrying grain from all points north to Uxbridge, and firewood from all along the line into the City. Its promotion had been well-organized by George Laidlaw, and it had the good fortune to have a very able chief engineer in Edmund Wragge, and likewise in John Shedden, an able president from 1870 to his untimely death at Cannington in 1873. Shedden had good connections with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), and elsewhere as a contractor and businessman, and he understood the workings of railways. His GTR connections undoubtedly facilitated the third rail that the T&N needed to get from its Toronto terminus at Beverly St. (next to the distillery) to Scarboro Jct. on the GTR mainline, at that time on the 5’ 6” gauge (soon to be converted to 4’ 8½“). His death was the first misfortune to befall the T&N.

By 1873, the T&N owned 12 locomotives, including a Fairlie-patent double-boilered locomotive with a very low-slung centre of gravity, and prodigious hauling power for a narrow gauge engine. It was named 'Shedden' in honour of the railway’s president. There were only two of them in the Province of Canada, and they were widely reported as curiosities and marvels of the mechanical age. (The other engine was the 'Caledon', acquired by the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway, the sister Gooderham & Worts enterprise striking out to the north-west of Toronto.)

Even with the 'Shedden' engine, the railway could not keep up with the volume of traffic, as complaints about the backlog of firewood waiting to be carried to Toronto started to mount. That was the T&N's first misfortune. It had become an immediate victim of its own success.

The T&N’s second misfortune was the worsening economic climate of the 1870s, with the result that, as with neighbouring railways, traffic receipts started to fall at the same time as the light narrow gauge rails and other infrastructure were starting to wear out, on account of the heavy volume of traffic in the early years of operation.

The T&N’s third misfortune proved to be the very feature that had sold it in the first place. By 1873 its connecting GTR neighbour to the south had converted to the standard 4’ 8½” gauge, and by 1874 its bi-secting neighbour at Lorneville Jct., the Midland Railway, had followed suit. This left the T&N “between a rock and a hard place” where its narrow gauge could no longer cope with the volume of traffic, and the increasing traffic to be forwarded beyond its line, continued to have to be unloaded and reloaded at unsustainable cost and inconvenience..

The T&N simply could not afford to re-gauge, and thus it was taken over and re-gauged to the standard gauge by the Midland Railway in 1881, in exchange for its purchase. Thus died the Gooderham dream of reaching the transcontinental CPR, and the railway remained at Coboconk. Once acquired by the Midland, a connection was made from Wick (Blackwater) Junction to connect with the even more destitute Whitby, Port Perry & Lindsay Railway near Manilla. For the next 80 years the segment of the former T&N south of Blackwater Jct. became part of the railway artery from Peterborough via Lindsay to Toronto.

The Kirkfield Quarry, opened in 1908, also justified the retention of the track north of Blackwater Junction until the quarry’s closure in 1961.
The last “mixed” train from Lindsay to Coboconk ran on March 25, 1955, the last freight service on March 30, 1965.

Of the original T&N stations, only Unionville, Markham and Victoria Road ( converted to a private residence) remain.

The Locomotives

The T&N had 12 engines altogether, six from Canadian Engine & Machine Company in Kingston (generally referred to as the "Kingston Locomotive Works"); and six from the Avonside Engine Company, Bristol, England.)

Since Narrow Gauge For Us was written, a roster of the T&N locomotives as of 1872, and the identity of the engines lost in the Uxbridge engine house fire in 1883 have surfaced. (Both courtesy Carl Riff, Hamilton, Ontario.)

 No. Name  Where Built  Driving Wheels 
 1  Gooderham & Worts Avonside 
 2*  M.C.Cameron Kingston 
 3  R. Walker & Son Kingston 4
 4*  R. Lewis & Son Kingston 4
 5* Joseph Gould  Kingston 4
 6 Uxbridge  Kingston 4
 7 Eldon  Kingston 4
 8 Toronto  Avonside 6
 9* Shedden  Avonside 12

(The Globe, September 12, 1872)

*Engines destroyed in the January 1883 engine house fire at Uxbridge
(The Uxbridge Journal, January 18, 1883)

 No. Name  Where Built  Driving Wheels 
10  Coboconk Avonside  6
11  Bexley Avonside 6
12  Brock  Avonside 6

These three locomotives were presumably delivered in 1873. (Information courtesy Rod Clarke, Whitby, Ont.)

Note: Rod Clarke, in Narrow Gauge Through The Bush (see below), has dealt comprehensively with the locomotive history of the T&N (and the TG&B) at pages 181 - 220. 

Constructed in Kingston by Don McQueen and Bill Thomson (CRHA Kingston 2000) has further information re the Kingston-built locomotives at page 168.

Don McQueen, co-author of Constructed in Kingston, has contributed an article at page 21 in the January-February 2002 Issue of Canadian Rail (#486), that deals in detail with the possible disposition of the Kingston-built T&N locomotives.

The Stations

Summarized station Information:

Main Line

  • Scarboro Jct. (1870) - burned December 18, 1960
  • Agincourt (1870) - demolished, date not known - 1982?
  • Milliken(s) (flag stop) - likely demolished, moved or dismantled after cessation of CNR passenger service Jan 1962.
  • Unionville (1870 - preserved on site
  • Markham (1870 - preserved on site
  • Stouffville (original) - burned April 23, 1886
  • Stouffville (2nd) - demolished January 30, 1979.
  • Goodwood - demolished 1960
  • Uxbridge (1st) - 1871, converted to freight shed 1903, subsequent disposition not known.
  • Uxbridge (2nd) 1904 - preserved on site, home of the York-Durham Heritage Railway.
  • Marsh Hill - T&N flagstop - design and disposition not known
  • Wick - abolished 1883
  • Blackwater (Wick) Jct. - restaurant building demolished August 28, 1941. Station demolished 1960s 
  • Sunderland - demolished ca 1969 
  • Manilla Crossing - presumed abolished 1883
  • Cannington - burned to the ground 1968 
  • Woodville - dismantled 1966 and converted to storage shed, no longer resembles original structure 
  • Midland Jct./Lorneville - moved to adjacent yard, west side Hwy 46
  • Argyle - demolished or dismantled 1954
  • Eldon - demolished or dismantled ca 1962
  • Portage Road - demolished or dismantled ca 1946
  • Kirkfield (original, rebuilt 1892) - burned to the ground Dec. 18, 2001
  • Victoria Road - truncated and rebuilt on site as a private residence 
  • Coboconk (original, rebuilt 1894?) - burned to the ground Aug. 4, 1908 (lightning)
  • Coboconk (2nd) - moved to nearby park across from original site - now a community centre.

Note: The November 24, 1870 Markham Economist reported that at a special general meeting, "Mr Wragge stated ... the track was laid fifteen miles from Scarboro' Junction. The station buildings were completed at Scarboro', Unionville, Markham, and other places. (Courtesy Barry Laxton, Unionville, Ont.)

Feeder Line

These were the stations of the Lake Simcoe Junction Railway:

  • Ballantrae - flag stop and section house - disappeared after closure of line ca 1928?
  • Vivian (1st) - destroyed by fire 1919, (2nd) - demolished 1928
  • Mount Albert - demolished on closure ca 1929
  • Zephyr Crossing (not to be confused with the station on the Bala Sub.) - south of Holborn Road on the east side - believed demolished on closure 1929
  • Blake/Ravenshoe/Brown Hill - demolished 1935
  • Baldwin (flagstop) - waiting room disappeared 1950s, disposition unknown
  • Sutton (1st) - replaced at turn of 20th century with GTR design
  • Sutton (2nd) - struck by lightning 1920s
  • Sutton (3rd) - moved to Georgina Township Park
  • Jackson's Point - survived for some years after closure in 1929 as a pavilion at the lake. (The adjacent baggage sheds still survive.)


Stouffville to Zephyr 1928.
Sutton to Jackson’s Point 1929.
Lorneville Coboconk 1965.
Woodville to Lorneville Jct. 1966.
Zephyr to Sutton 1979.  
Blackwater Jct. to Woodville 1986.
Blackwater Jct. to Uxbridge 1991.

Sources and Recommendations for Further Reading:

Beaumont, Ralph: Steam Trains to the Bruce Boston Mills Press, Erin, ON 1977.
Brown, Ron, Ghost Railways of Ontario (Vol I), Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ont. 1994
Clarke, Rod: Narrow Gauge Through The Bush, self-published, 2007
Cooper, Charles: Narrow Gauge For Us, Boston Mills Press, Erin, ON 1982
Currie, A.W., The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, U of T Press, Toronto ON 1957.
Gilhuly, Brian: The True Story of the Provincial Gauge, Branchline (May/June 2017), Bytown Railway Society, Ottawa, Ont.
Grand Trunk Railway Buildings & Bridges Inventory 1907
Hansen, Keith: Last Trains Out of Lindsay, Sandy Flats Publications, Roseneath, Ont. 1997
Heels, Charles H.: Railroad Recollections, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ont. 1980
Lavallée, Omer S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Provincial Gauge, Canadian Rail (Feb 1963), CRHA, St. Constant, QC.
Lavallée, Omer S.A.: Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada Railfare Enterprises, Montreal QC 1972.
McIlwraith, Thomas F. The Toronto Grey & Bruce Ry 1883-1884 UCRS Toronto, ON Bulletin 56, September 1963. 
Stevens, G.R.: Canadian National Railways, Volume I, Clarke Irwin, Toronto, ON 1960
Trout, J.M. and Edw.: The Railways of Canada, Toronto ON 1871 (reprinted 1970, 1974)
Wilson, Donald M: The Ontario and Quebec Railway, Mika Publishing Co., Belleville, ON 1984