1854 Railroad Petition: The Start of a Long and Arduous Journey
On June 27, 2015 an exhibit entitled Arrivals and Departures: The CPR in Grey County opens at Grey Roots Museum & Archives. At its centre is a diorama of the east side of Owen Sound harbour, circa 1910, which took four years and thousands of volunteer hours to build, not unlike the amount of work that went into bringing the railroad to Owen Sound.
Although the first train would not arrive in Owen Sound until June 12, 1873, petitions, by-laws, and reports on the benefits of a railroad from Toronto to Owen Sound began as early as 1850.1 Largely isolated during the winter months, the benefits of a railroad to Owen Sound were numerous: farmers would be able to reach new markets; commerce and industry would boom; and, populations would expand. However, were these benefits worth the exorbitant cost to build the railroad? This was the question on many minds during more than two decades of debate over the railroad.
Owen Sound was first suggested as the northern terminus of the Toronto and Lake Huron Railroad in 1852, but was quickly replaced by Collingwood in January 1853. This decision prompted a flurry of newspaper articles extolling the virtues of Owen Sound and a petition from the Grey County Council to Legislature in April 1852 to extend the Toronto to Guelph railroad into Owen Sound.2 They made another petition in October 1854 (transcribed below).3 However, it was to no avail. Richard Carney, Warden of Grey County, had mistakenly persuaded community leaders that no financial commitments to the railroad companies would be necessary; he believed that the railroad companies would recognise Owen Sound’s superiority and select it on this basis alone. Unfortunately for Owen Sound, the Northern Railroad still selected Collingwood as its northern terminus and the Toronto and Sydenham railroad scheme collapsed.4 In 1857, Carney, now mayor of Owen Sound, requested a report on the practicality and advantages of a railroad into Owen Sound from the Grand Trunk line, but this also fell through.5
Debate over the benefits of a northern railroad extension from Collingwood versus a central railroad line to Toronto, and concerns about the costs of either one, kept the railroad out of Owen Sound for the next fifteen years: “Tempers through the County were easily ignited. Friends became temporary foes. Churches sent prayers to heaven of wide demand. Even farmers, depending on their locality, were divided in their opinions.”6 Finally, a By-law passed on April 20, 1871 in favour of the Toronto Grey and Bruce Railroad. When the first train arrived in Owen Sound in 1873, citizens relieved the tensions of the past two decades with a celebration that lasted until the early hours of the morning: “There were great throngs of spectators…Third and fourth avenues were crowded! The Band of the 31st Battalion played. The engine was tastefully decorated with garlands of flowers and flags. Addresses were given…”7
Transcription of the 1854 Railroad Petition from the Grey County Council to the Legislature
To the Honourable the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, in Provincial Parliament assembled:
The Petition of the County Council of the County of Grey in session, humbly sheweth—
That Owen Sound Harbour is confessedly the best on Lake Huron; that it is open longer in the season of Navigation than any other; and that it can be approached without danger in any weather, night or day; and that the route from it to the North Western Regions, which are every day being proved to be rich in minerals, is well sheltered nearly the whole distance, which is an advantage not possessed to the same extent by any of the other harbours; and that it will require no more expenditure of money than is absolutely necessary to construct accommodation for vessels to load and unload at (sic) to make it a safe and convenient harbour for a terminus on Lake Huron for a Railroad for the North Western trade; and as the said Harbour also runs a long way into the county, it is accessible to an extensive tract of a fertile agricultural county.
Your Petitioners would bring under the notice of your Honourable House the extent of country enclosed by the undermentioned railroads, in the centre of which Owen Sound Harbour is situated: there is the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railroad, along the eastern boundary; the Toronto and Guelph Railroad on the southern boundary; and the Great Western, and Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railroads on the southern and western boundary, within which circle is the largest quantity of valuable and fertile land, now rapidly settling, in the Province, and that a Railroad running from the south connecting with the Toronto and Guelph Railroad, would pass nearly through the centre of said tract of land, and would have an incalculable influence in settling and demonstrating its resources.
That a Railroad running through such an extensive tract of agricultural country must necessarily have a large amount of way travel and freight; that there can be no doubt of the undertaking being at once a paying concern; besides which Owen Sound is the principal depot for the Lake Huron fisheries, which are only yet in their infancy; and should it become the terminus of a southern Railroad, an immense amount of through travel and freight may be anticipated to the Lake Superior country, to escape the dangers of Lakes Erie and Huron.
Your Petitioners trust that your Honourable House will perceive that it will require a Railroad to enable the settlers to take advantage of the advancing prosperity of the country, and to participate in the increased demand and price for all kinds of produce, of which they cannot now avail themselves, on account of the great expense of talking it to market.
Your Petitioners therefore humbly pray that your Honourable House will be pleased to grant a Charter to a Company to construct a Railroad from some point in communication with the Toronto and Guelph Railroad; or so amend the Charter of the Galt and Guelph Railroad that it may be extended to the Owen Sound Harbour, and
Your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
RICHARD CARNEY, Warden. GEORGE JAMES GALE, Clerk.
COUNCIL ROOM, Sydenham, October 11, 1854.
Scan of the 1854 Railroad Petition [GF1S1F1I89]
- Melba Morris Croft, Fourth Entrance to Huronia (Owen Sound: Brown Printers Ltd., 1980), 50, 128.
- Paul White, Owen Sound: The Port City (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2000), 44–5.
- Proceedings of the Municipal Council of the County of Grey, 10–12 October 1954.
- White, Owen Sound: The Port City, 45–6.
- Croft, Fourth Entrance to Huronia, 72.
- Ibid., 117. Some of the correspondence over the railroad can be seen at the Grey County Archives [PF77, Box 46, Railroads].
- Owen Sound Advertiser, 19 June 1873. Quoted in Croft, Fourth Entrance to Huronia, 128.
With thanks to Archives Volunteers Mollie Wilson, transcription, and Mike MacLean, scanning.