This article is the first of a two-part series on the arrival of the railway in Newmarket and area.
Plans to bring a railway that would serve the area between Toronto and Barrie, with stops in Aurora and Newmarket along the way, would begin in 1835 when “An Act to Incorporate the City of Toronto and Lake Huron Railway Company” was passed but nothing was done about it for another 14 years.
Several attempts were made through the intervening years, but it was not until Aug. 29, 1849 that plans to establish the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway Company, known as the O. S. and H., would become a reality. It was decided that a line would run from Toronto, via Aurora, Newmarket, Bradford, and Allandale north to Collingwood. The line would soon be dubbed the Oats, Straw and Hay Railroad.
The Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway was to become the first railway in Ontario, and the first in the Dominion handling both passenger and freight traffic.
In 1859, the original Act of Parliament passed in 1835 was amended, and the name of the line was changed to the Northern Railway of Canada. Then in 1888, it was taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway Company and with an amalgamation in 1922 it became the Canadian National Railway.
So why is this event of historical significance to Newmarket and area? For the people of our area, it was to be the harbinger of new opportunities for our local economy and culture.
It is not a coincidence that with the emergence of this new transportation system, talk turned to a new national political consciousness and consideration was given to municipal incorporation along the line. The coming of the rail line was to become one of the first milestones in the history of the village.
The first sod was turned on Oct. 15, 1851 in Toronto by Lady Elgin, wife of the governor general of Canada. Contracts for the construction of locomotives were tendered, but it was necessary for construction purposes to import the first one from Portland, Maine.
This engine was transported by rail to Oswego and brought in sections from there by schooner to Toronto, arriving Oct. 6, 1852. Once in Toronto, it was assembled by John Babbitt, an expert engine builder.
Canadian mechanics would soon take over the design and building of future engines. Of interest, one of the assistants was Samuel Sykes of Newmarket.
This first locomotive, named the Lady Elgin, weighed about 25 tons, had five-foot diameter driving wheels, 14 x 20 cylinders, and a hook motion.
The rail line was graded, new rails laid, sleepers ballasted, bridges built and 11 station houses were constructed, and Newmarket was then made ready for the arrival of the railway. A station was to be located on 1.44 acres of land on the south side of Huron Street, purchased from George Lount for $2 on Aug. 14, 1854.
The station building was erected on the east side of the track, and in 1866, another piece of land was acquired from the adjoining property. In 1889, council asked the Grand Trunk Railway Company to replace the first station house with a new building as the first building had become too small to accommodate the growing traffic and it was now in a dilapidated condition.
As you can imagine, there was a huge bustle of activity locally as the construction of the railroad progressed. A large gang of men was employed at the excavation and filling locations along the right of way. Money was freely spent by those lounging about the hotels, post office and stores.
On the first Saturday in June 1853, the construction train arrived in Newmarket, coming as far as the Holland River at Timothy Street, where there was no bridge at the time. The train would then back up and the crew filled the tanks with pails of water from the pond (Fairy Lake). It would be nice to see the site marked historic in recognition of our town history.
The local paper describes crowds of locals lined up “to greet the arrival of the steam engine drawing a train of little yellow cars; farmers from the clearings clad in their rough homespun clothing, a number of ox-drawn wagons observed in the background, mechanics displaying their admiration, women in trailing gowns and bonnets of the day, the motley gathering rounded out by the local officials sedately wearing their beaver hats and long tailed coats.”
On June 23, 1853, the four-horse stagecoach ceased to run up Yonge Street, and on the 25th, the mail was now transported by train for the first time.
Erastus Jackson, the editor of the Era, spoke of his arrival in Newmarket by train on June 20, 1853. He speaks of the train consisting of the locomotive, the baggage-smoking car, and a flat-roofed passenger car and two box cars at the end of the train.
The first crew consisted of Carlos McColl, the engine driver, Joseph Lopez, the fireman, George Wallace the baggageman, and Tom Boucher, John Meek, Tom Wilson and John Mosier, the brakemen. John Harvie was the first conductor, having brought some knowledge of railroading from the United States.
Walter Dudley was the first stationmaster in Newmarket, remaining for more than 20 years. In recognition of his long and faithful service, the Northern Railway Company commemorated this on a marble tablet that was erected in the former St. Paul’s Church and then later transferred to the new church.
Another of the original employees of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway Union Company was Michael Cain, who was the baggage master at the Newmarket station, and along with Harvie, was the longest surviving servant of the railway company, continuing as baggage master until his retirement about 1908. The Grand Trunk Railway Company would provide him a pension for life.
In 1892, Cain was also hired as the public constable on Saturday and Sunday nights to look after the interests of Main Street and prevent the people from congregating on the street corners.
The ticket price from Toronto to Newmarket was 75 cents, afterwards $1 for first class fare, and 75 cents for second class. As everybody travelled second class to save 25 cents, the second-class tickets were soon abolished.
Back then it required one hour to travel from Toronto to Thornhill (Concord) where the water tank was filled, and a fresh supply of wood was taken on. Wood, in cordwood lengths, was stacked at convenient spots along the track and often the train crew filled the tank with water from the ditches and ponds along the track.
The contract to cut and deliver wood to the local station, consisting of 100 cords of hardwood for the wood burning engines on the railway was awarded to Mr. Stickwood, a local man and was cut on the Srigley farm near the third concession of Whitchurch.
An 1861 report by The Northern Railway stated that the consumption of wood from all sources during that year was 15,800 cords. The cost including purchase, hauling, and preparing for it for use, was $2.07 per cord, which gives a total fuel cost per mile run of 9.25 cents.
It seems that a wire screen covered the top of the smokestack to prevent sparks from escaping that might set fire to the grain or woods along the track. As the line was built, it was laid out with U rails that were considered quite modern. They were like the letter U upside down, and the spikes held them down by the flanges.
The whistle signals were: one puff if it was a signal to apply the brakes, two puffs to loosen them, three puffs a signal for backing, several rapid sounds of the whistle for wooding up, one prolonged sound for the approach to a station.
Weather signals were displayed on the side of the mail coach. If the day was clear and sunny, a large round sun would appear in white, if it was cloudy or showery, half of the sun was covered, if it was decidedly rainy, a black disk appeared.
By 1881, the old wood-burning type of locomotive was to go out of use. Engine No. 1, the Lady Elgin, and No. 2, the Toronto, were deemed historic. They marked the beginning of the railway age in Upper Canada, and both were associated with the development of Newmarket and area.
The Lady Elgin was scrapped in 1881 and a plaque of the Lady Elgin was placed on one of the eastern pillars outside Union Station. On that plaque was a model of the locomotive with the words: “At this place, May 16, 1853, the first train in Toronto, hauled by a steam locomotive, started and ran to Aurora”.
Back then, most of the locomotives were given names. The third engine, a particularly fast and elegant machine for those days, was named ‘the Josephine’ for Josiah Huckett.
These old engines would become celebrities. Two engines, No. 17 ahead of No. 16, pulled the train carrying His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales through Newmarket to Collingwood in 1860. To avert any hard feelings the engines were then reversed for the return trip. In 1874, the train carrying Lord Dufferin, his family and entourage was hauled by the old Seymour, engine No. 8.
As anticipated, an immense amount of lumber, squared timber, spars and cordwood was transported over this first line, often 15 loads daily, where the timber would be rafted from Toronto to the seaboard. Some of the timber shipped on the early trains was cut along the railway and was said to be the finest in the country.
And there was also heavy haulage of flour, from Newmarket alone 16,000 barrels were shipped. Cain, in his accounts, frequently spoke of the large amounts of baggage that was brought into the district with the settlers bound for Sutton and Beaverton.
Over the years, many improvements were gradually made. Steel rails replaced those of iron, and coal was used instead of wood for firing the boiler. The telegraph lines were a great convenience and improved safety.
In the old days, when a train was off schedule, and a curve was being approached, a brakeman had to run ahead and wave a flag. If trains met between stations, the one nearest a siding had to reverse into it to permit the other to pass.
In 1865, a smoking car was added to each passenger train as the result of an appeal to the management by the women of Newmarket. The ads of the day stated, “The management guarded the comfort of the passengers very jealously, and the conductors were picked because of their gentlemanliness and sobriety.”
The coming of the railway brought with it a great transformation to the regional economy. New markets were opened to our agriculture and our raw materials were shipped more easily and cheaply to the larger centres. A comparison of rail with wagon shipping illustrates the dramatic differences. Before the train there were long lines of teams and wagons loaded with grain making their slow way along Yonge Street to Toronto, the nearest market.
Generally, the farmer, accompanied by his wife, would leave home at about 2 a.m. There were stops at the inns along the way to feed and rest the horses, and to pay the toll gate fees, a slow and expensive trip. Short cuts were often made to evade the tolls as one would imagine.
With their produce dropped off, the return journey would have been completed on the third day. The train took only a couple of hours each way.
In some instances, the new system would disadvantage many of the local merchants. Smaller mills would gradually disappear, and quite often when two villages possessed similar advantages of location and waterpower, one village would profit from the railway, while other village’s fortunes tended to dwindle.
An excellent case in point is that of Newmarket and Bogarttown. Boggarttown was at one time much bigger and more active in the first part of the century, however, Newmarket got the rail line and Boggarttown lost out and eventually withered away.
My grandpa used to regale me with stories of how these little wood-burning engines, with their funnel-shaped stacks puffing out smoke were a friendly feature of the day in the Newmarket area. However, by the end of the 1880s, they were beginning to disappear from the scene, replaced by mighty steam-powered giants with their streamlined luxury coaches, a far cry from those first trains with only wooden coach seats.
Today, those too have been sent to the scrap yard and replaced with the less attractive but extremely convenient and efficient diesel-electric engines, a sign of progress they say.
For over a century the Newmarket resident heard the clickety-clack of the wheels and the mournful steam whistle of the train at the rail crossings breaking the silence of the night. Today, the diesel trains herald their approach to the crossings with only a rather mournful wail.
Next weekend, we will look at the menace that these iron monsters brought all along the line. Railway accidents often were the result of several factors, including but not exclusive to improper track beds, metal fatigue, fire, flawed rails, human error, a lack of proper signage / signal location and frail bridges. In next weekend’s article I will detail some of the more spectacular railway disasters in our history.
Sources: The History of Newmarket By Ethel Trewhella; Articles from the Newmarket Era; Records, County Registry Office Online; The Evening Telegram; Canadian Railway Development by Edgar Thompson; Minutes of Newmarket Council from Newmarket Era; Canadian National Railway Company Website; Toronto’s First Railway – The Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway By Derek Boles; Excerpt from Four Whistles to Wood Up; Camera on King Website; When Upper Canada Welcomed the First Railroad, Canadian Magazine
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.