Smiths Falls Railway History

The railway arrives in Smiths Falls

The railway arrives in Smiths Falls

In 1853, caught up in the excitement and foreseeing the benefits of a railway, the municipalities in the United Counties of Lanark and Renfrew secured land and agreed to underwrite the Brockville and Ottawa Railway Company (B&O) to the tune of £200,000. £200,000 was the equivalent of about $11,000,000 in 1859. An average industrial worker earned about $5 a week for a 60-hour work week.

The first phase of the railway started at Brockville and ran to Smiths Falls. It was to be continued to Arnprior and Pembroke, with several branch lines to Westport, Newboro, and Merrickville. Only a line to Perth was realized.

This early photograph shows the ‘Renfrew’, one of eleven wood-burning locomotives operated by the Brockville & Ottawa Railway in the 1860s.  It stands in front of the first B&O depot built ca.1860, and located on the Brockville waterfront, south of the Brockville Railway Tunnel (Circa 1885).

The inaugural run from Brockville to Smiths Falls began on a sub-zero February morning in 1859. Travelling at 15 mph, the wood-burning locomotive carrying two coaches filled with passengers took 2 ½ hours to reach Smiths Falls. The trip to Perth took another 7 hours because of a broken coupling and lack of water. Five years of construction took a heavy toll on the B&O: interest payments could not be met and refinancing had to be arranged.

The line was extended to Carleton Place in 1859 and reached the Ottawa River through Almonte, Arnprior, and Sand Point in 1864. B & O turned over the right to build from Arnprior to Pembroke to Canada Central Railway and the line was extended through Renfrew County in the 1870s. Both companies were united under Canadian Pacific Railway Company and linked in 1881 with the soon to be transcontinental network (1885).

Smiths Falls embraces a new age of industry

Smiths Falls became an incorporated village in January 1854, with a population of almost 1,000 residents. Maps from the 1860s show that most industry in Smiths Falls was centered along the Rideau Canal, with development concentrated north of the river and west of Elmsley Street.

Up until the arrival of the railway, the Rideau Canal was the major transportation route. The waterway was less than ideal since it could not be used for several months out of the year. The railway, in the minds of many, was far superior. In November 1858, The Rideau Gleaner, a local newspaper, wrote of the decline of the canal being “mainly attributed to the greater convenience both for travelling and traffic, furnished by means of railway communication”.

What was mainly an agricultural and mill town began to industrialize with the railway’s arrival. Local companies such as Frost & Wood and the Cossit Bros. – manufacturers of agricultural implements – quickly replaced gristmills and sawmills. A shift from the canal to the railway and from milling to manufacturing took place. In 1871, an Industrial Census of Canada reported only two of the top ten industries in Smiths Falls were mills. Two companies, Frost & Wood (1839) and Cossitt Bros. (1853) paid 69% of the wages in Smiths Falls. The sheer size and demand of their product required modern transportation. Because of the railway, both companies were able to reach national markets. Frost & Wood even had a spur line direct to the factory.

Smiths Falls was well on its way to becoming the industrial centre for Lanark County.

The Railway Metropolis of the Ottawa Valley

Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was an amalgamation of many smaller railways across the country. The Canada Central Railway, formally the Brockville & Ottawa Railway and the Ontario-Quebec Railway became subsidiaries of CPR in 1881 with a 999-year lease. In 1885 Smiths Falls was chosen to be a division point on CPR’s mainline from Montreal to Toronto.

Land was needed to expand the new division point. The company purchased several lots from John McGill Chambers and his wife Mary Elizabeth for $2,000 in July 1886. A roundhouse and new depot building were soon constructed to replace the old Canada Central Railway buildings.

Geographically, Smiths Falls was a perfect choice as a divisional point with lines eventually running north, east, south, and west. At the time of construction between Montreal and Smiths Falls, the company looked to municipalities for financial assistance. After holding a public vote, Smiths Falls gave the CPR $25,000 and with completion of the main line in 1887, the future of the town seemed secure.

After a right-of-way dispute with Grand Trunk Railway was settled in 1898, all western traffic over CPR track went through Smiths Falls. Twenty-three trains ran through Smiths Falls on a daily basis. Growth of the CPR in Smiths Falls was rampant. By 1913, personnel located at Smiths Falls included a locomotive foreman, yard master, express office staff and the first Superintendent, J. R. Gilliland.

Smiths Falls comes of age

In 1912, a second railway, Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) completed construction of a station on the west side of town on William Street West. Beginning in 1914, CNoR’s local passenger service ran between Smiths Falls and Ottawa. A tri-weekly freight service ran between Ottawa and Belleville. Canadian National Railway (CNR) purchased the company in 1923.

By 1924, it is estimated that 1,600 people worked for the CPR in the Smiths Falls Division, with 1,200 living in Smiths Falls. The payroll was $1,500,000, most of it being spent in town.

The CPR yard on the east side of town, on Victoria Avenue occupied several acres with up to date buildings like the roundhouse (engine house), with its 22 stalls. Seven more would be added by the end of the decade. The Express Office, built in 1928 handled small shipments of freight including perishable items in separate insulated cars. Horses and livestock from local farms and even automobiles for individuals were shipped through this office.

However, by the 1930s, the automobile began to compete with the railway. By car Smiths Falls was now only 2½ hours from Ottawa and 1½ hours from Kingston and the St. Lawrence River. Cars and trucks provided freedom for travelers that fixed train schedules could not.

To stay competitive the railway had to modernize. As a result, CPR and CNR began to market train travel as an “experience”, rather than an efficient way to travel from point A to point B. Suddenly the world was at the town’s doorstep.

Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) Station

Construction of the Canadian Northern train station began in 1911 with an official opening in 1912. The building was intended to serve as a model of the railway’s high architectural standards and to draw passenger traffic away from the long-established Canadian Pacific Railway located on the east side of the town. The train station featured a decorative turret, an expansive main waiting room, an adjoining men’s smoking room, a ladies’ waiting room, a carriage portico, and an express office. This grand design, however, was not consistent with the relatively small population of the town at the time and it failed to have much of an effect on the monopoly CPR held in passenger and freight service in Smiths Falls.

In 1918, the Canadian Northern Railway went bankrupt and in 1923, Canadian National Railways took over. Traffic through the station included passengers enroute to Toronto and Ottawa as well as mail and express shipments. However passenger and freight traffic was never heavy and the last passenger train through the station was in 1979. The station was abandoned shortly after.

Word got out CNR was looking to demolish the building. In 1983, a group of community-minded citizens, led by Bill LeSerf, acquired the building in the hopes of establishing a railway museum. In 1985, work began on cleaning out the building and renovating the ladies’ waiting room. In 1989, major work began on the main waiting room and the baggage room with the old rotted wooden floor being torn out. In 1992, work began on restoring the ceiling and decorative plaster scrollwork around the edges of the ceiling.

In 1992, the old asphalt platform was removed and replaced with a new wooden platform of BC fir. By 1993, the restoration work on the station was completed.

Canadian Northern Railway – The Forgotten Transcontinental Railway of Canada

The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was born from the amalgamation of 5 small railways in Manitoba and Western Ontario. Between 1898 and 1918, the railway became the third largest railway in Canada and under the command of Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann, the CNoR became one of the most influential corporations in Canadian history.

The secret of the Canadian Northern success was to acquire bankrupt railway charters, their land grants and bond guarantees, with construction of these rail lines being done by Mackenzie and Mann’s own contracting company. Starting in 1909, the Canadian Northern started expanding from Manitoba into Eastern Canada.