Living along the rail line - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
For over 100 years, our part of Ontario prospered because of the presence of rail systems.
In 1871, when mill owner, businessman, entrepreneur and municipal official Patrick Kelly of Blyth campaigned to have a rail line extended into Huron County, his concern was to enable lumber and flour from his mills to be transported to overseas markets. So intense was his desire for a rail line that he offered the Grand Trunk Railway $1,000 in a personal subscription, in addition to 10 acres of land in Blyth. In those days, municipalities offered bonuses to rail companies to put a line through their communities. For example, Clinton paid $20,000, Hullett Township $25,000, Morris Township, $10,000 and East Wawanosh $25,000.
Other enterprises besides Kelly’s were to benefit from the creation of a rail line into southwestern Ontario. The first were those who supplied the tamarack timbers used for the railway ties. Local farmers and their teams of horses were put to work hauling dirt and gravel. Steam shovel companies carved the rail bed.
Once the London Huron and Bruce (LH&B) rail line was completed, varied goods left the Blyth depot. Butter was shipped to Halifax, David Denholm shipped two carloads of horses to Manitoba, Heffron Brothers sent a carload of cattle to Toronto that were to be exported, hay was sent to New Jersey and Mr. A. Wettlaufer used the railway to send two carloads of bricks to Tavistock.
Employment was created for stationmasters, conductors, engineers and brakemen. Names such as Muir, Wilson, Hill, Whitmore, Gammock, Quirk and Waugh are only a few of the many who worked for the rail companies in the area.
In 1907, a second line, for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was constructed that entered Blyth from the west.
Local citizens readily made use of rail transportation, as it was economical and much faster than the alternatives of walking or using horses. By the 1920s and 1930s, students were able to leave Blyth at 7 a.m., attend classes at the high school in Clinton or at the Clinton Business School and be home on the 7 p.m. train.
While the advent of the LH&B railway did achieve Kelly’s dream, while also making travel throughout the area easier, having railways in close proximity to people’s homes and farms created new challenges to the local population.
Many homemakers who lived close to the track had to remember to nudge their dishes and figurines back on their shelves regularly as the vibration of passing trains would jiggle the breakables. If they forgot, some could fall off. Farming practices had to adapt when rail lines bisected properties. David Willis, who lived on the eastern outskirts of Wingham, recalled that a rail line cut right through their property. The cattle pastured on one side of the track and the barn was on the other. Twice a day, the cows had to be herded across this corridor. A close watch had to be kept for any approaching train. A well-known saying was “any time is train time”.
From the pages of A Harvest of Memories comes a story that would put any parent’s heart in their throat. In 1920, three-year-old Norman Deyell, son of George and Mary, wandered to the nearby Grand Trunk Railway track, just west of Wingham, directly into the path of an approaching freight train. When the engine was stopped, the little guy was pulled out from underneath it, unharmed. Not so fortunate, in May of 1910, was Agnes Isabella Little, the two-year old daughter of Thomas and Belle, of Lot 25, 12th Concession of Hullett Township. She had strayed onto the track while her father worked in an adjacent field. Because of a sharp curve in the track, the train crew was unable to see the tot in time and, unfortunately, she was killed.
Sadly, many are the stories of both horse-drawn and motor vehicles, whose occupants met their demise at level crossings. Robert and Annie Casemore were both killed when their buggy was struck by a Grand Trunk Railway train at a crossing on their farm on the 2nd Concession of Morris in 1904. An inquest that followed found that the horse pulling the Casemore buggy seemed to be out of control and ran toward the track. No fault was assessed to the rail company and there was a recommendation that the approach to that crossing be widened to make it a safer place. Unfortunately, even with increased signage and work to improve crossings, fatalities continued throughout the years at the places where trains and road traffic intersected.
And while the residents in the central parts of Huron County enjoyed benefits from having rail lines in their communities, the same cannot be said for those who lived along the shores of Lake Huron, where a less successful story of rail travel is found. In 1902, a group of Goderich area men were given the go-ahead from the Ontario Legislature to initiate a rail line from Goderich to Kincardine. By 1908, a man called John W. Moyes was the company president. Local municipalities were required to guarantee the company’s bonds with a total of $400,000. The rail line, called the Ontario West Shore Railway, was only partially completed when work stopped. Eventually, it was learned that Moyes had left for parts unknown and with him, much of the money. This left the affected landowners with a yearly charge on their property tax bills until 1945, at which time the debts had been paid.
Today, the heritage of our railroading era consists of several stationhouses that have found new life and a walking trail system that attracts many to the area each year.