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The Railway Flop - 4

train40As we saw in the last installment, James Grey Bethune's scheme for opening up the inland water-way by means of steamboats and a lock at Bobcaygeon was only partly successful. The steamboats worked fine, but the lock was useless. Added to that was the fact that the goods and passengers still had to find a way down to Lake Ontario from Rice Lake.

As early as October of 1833 the Cobourg Star editorialized about the problems and possibilities. The government in Toronto had recently contracted the engineer Nicol Hugh Baird to investigate the Trent River, with a view to opening it for navigation. Reading their remarks on the outcome of Baird's survey, it is hard not to notice a rather mildly smug sense of self-satisfaction in the Star's remarks about the results. The Trent added about 77 miles to the trip from Rice Lake down.

It would also require some 40 locks, at the unheard of cost of 300,000 pounds, a sum the government was never likely to grant. Fortunately, they said "...every advantage which can arise from the opening of the navigation of the Trent, may be obtained by a railroad between the Rice Lake and Cobourg." Even better than that, the Star remarks, "... a heavy tax on the country's resources will be exchanged for one comparatively inconsiderable."

As we shall see later, this is heavy irony indeed.

Horse RailwayAn example of a Horse-Drawn Railway as used
in 1825 in other parts of the world.
Following their usual pattern, the principle businessmen of the town met at the Albion Hotel (photo of hotel here) in November of that year to hold a public meeting on the proposal and open a subscription book to begin raising the capital and to draw up a petition to government for incorporation. We do not know how much money was raised at that first meeting, but it sufficiently impressed the government that it passed the legislation of incorporation early in 1835. It is interesting that the act called for the building of a railroad over the height of land from Rice Lake to Cobourg, but did not specify exactly what sort of vehicles were to be used — whether steam powered or horse drawn. Apparently at this early stage in railway construction it was thought that horse-drawn carts could also be pulled effectively over a railed track.

The first thing the new Cobourg Railway Company did was hire that same Nicol Hugh Baird, along with F.W. Rubidge (not yet of the lock fiasco) to examine the terrain. He seems to have quickly found an excellent route with mild grades, following the main Cobourg Creek up past Baltimore, gradually reaching the height of land just east of the Harwood Road at the 7th line. From there the road would basically follow the present Harwood Road into the town then known as Sully where, presumably, steamboat docks would be built. No one gave any thought to doing more than connecting the railway up with the water traffic.

One curious feature of Baird's route was the Cobourg terminus. On one early map of the proposal, it is quite clear that the Lake Ontario dock for the railroad was to be at the bottom of D'Arcy Street.

This is most interesting, as George Strange Boulton, [his house here] that indefatigable entrepreneur, registrar of the district, land speculator, politician and member of the Harbour Company, the Inland Waterways Company and the Cobourg Railway Company, owned all of one side of D'Arcy Street, while his nephew D'Arcy Boulton owned most of the other side. With a railway running through it, this would be prime land indeed. It is also curious that some 10 years later, when the town contracted Baird to look into the dredging and repair of the harbour, his report should come back with the recommendation that the area east of the east pier be dredged so as to expand the harbour over to a new wharf or jetty at the bottom of D'Arcy Street. This would have put paid to Cobourg's beach. In the margin of the copy of this report one can just make out the penciled comment, "No bloody way!"

The government granted 10,000 pounds for the commencement of work. More community meetings were held in local hotels, more money was subscribed and the Cobourg Star became such a booster of the idea that it was confident that every householder in Cobourg would eventually get on board. "... to place any limit," they said, "on the amount of produce to be realized... seems to us utter presumption and folly."

Rice Lake RailwayWe do not know how much actual work was done on the road at this stage. Events outside the country took a devastating toll on all such schemes. During 1836 the President of the United States began his attack on the central reserve bank, which he hated as representing the old, monied, eastern establishment and which he saw as counter to the new spirit of democracy which his re-election stood for. The effect was dramatic. The almost completely unregulated U.S. banking system had worried investors for some time. Fortunes were made and lost in land speculation using paper currency at heavy discounts to buy grossly overvalued properties in the expanding west. The banks began to collapse as investors scrambled to try to retrieve their money. The repercussions were felt in Canada and Britain and soon the tiny Canadian banks were forced to close their doors to prevent a run on gold.

The Cobourg Railway Co. met several times to postpone the end by granting extensions on payment of the 10 per cent down payments on the sums pledged in the public meetings.

Into 1837 the depression deepened as investors pulled out of large projects. Political events in Upper Canada combined with the economic uncertainty to delay public works. By the time the rebellion broke out in Lower and then Upper Canada in the late fall of 1837, all hope of commencing the railway dried up. Work on repairing the new, faulty Bobcaygeon lock ceased.

It was to be 15 years before the railway project was revived. The legislation authorizing incorporation specified that work must be started and completed within set times. These now passed with the company still granting extensions to those who had pledged their 10 per cent down payments on the stock.

No one knows what happened to that 10,000 pounds.

Written by Colin Caldwell

Part 4 is on this page and an index is below.