Two American lines run through Iona Station, c. 1912. In the foreground, the Pere Marquette station, and, behind it, the Michigan Central station on the original Canada Southern line. (Photo from the Iona Station Tweedsmuir History in the Elgin County Archives.)
An important anniversary passed without note last year: the 150th of the beginning of a project that would change the course of history in many communities along the north shore of Lake Erie – the building of the Canada Southern Railway.
Since the beginning of the railway era in the early 19th century the most direct route between two of America’s biggest cities, New York and Chicago, was seen as a prize by U.S. railways. At one end, the rapidly developing west was producing vast amounts of grain and meat to be shipped east and at the other, the east coast ports were bringing in products and people to be shipped west.
In 1855, New York was already a city of 600,000 and Chicago had 30,000, the same population as Toronto, the largest city in Canada West. U.S. rail trackage then totaled over 9,000 miles and the region south of Lake Erie was already a scene of competing lines and dense settlement.
The north shore, however, was relatively flat and sparsely populated – ideal for a rail line.
In December of 1869, after two decades of abortive attempts to establish a southern route, the Canadian legislature approved a rail line to run from Fort Erie to Amherstburg, with a branch from St. Thomas to Courtright. The line would be called the Canada Southern and most importantly it would be built using the American track gauge. It would also largely be built with American money.
Several municipalities along the route also provided funds, orchestrated by Thomas MacIntyre Nairn, Reeve of Aylmer, and Warden of Elgin County from 1866 to 1871. Elgin, in fact, contributed half the total bonus amount of $400,000 and, while the voters supported the 1870 bonus by-law, by 1877 payments amounting to $18,000 on the debentures and coupons constituted almost half the county’s total budget.
On that same day in 1869, a charter was also granted to the Great Western Railway to build a line directly to Fort Erie from its main line starting at Glencoe. The GWR had been benefitting greatly from transshipping American goods and passengers through southern Ontario and had already decided to build a more direct route to the border rather than double track the main line which ran from Windsor to Hamilton. Now, with the prospect of losing a large portion of that traffic and its revenues – the race was on.
It would take over three years to build both lines, a boom period for the St. Thomas region to say the least. Hundreds of new houses and two immense rail yards were built by 1875. By 1881, the city had grown from a population of 2,000, 10 years earlier, to 8,000 and was incorporated as a city. Meanwhile, through traffic of American freight and passengers, grew exponentially and by 1910, two other U.S. lines ran through the city, all three with a division headquarters in town.
The rail era lasted well past the Second World War and as late as the 1950s, just over 1,000 people in the St. Thomas region worked for the railways. Industries came to the city because of the rail lines. Two of the biggest, Timken and Canron, made parts for rolling stock (roller bearings and wheels). As well, many municipalities would not exist, at least in their current form, and not with the names they have. Dutton, for example, is named after the chief engineer of the Canada Southern. That town and Rodney grew up with the railway. Part of Iona moved to Iona Station – one of its stores, set on rollers and moved with a capstan, travelled so slowly that it managed to stay open the whole way. Hundreds of men and women in the region made the railway their career. One of the more famous is Rodney native Bob Bandeen who was president of CN from 1974 to 1982.
Today many vestiges of the rail era survive. Though the right of ways may have been plowed under or over grown, some are walking trails and, along with a few structures from the past, like the “Railway City’s” Elevated Park (formerly the MCR Kettle Creek trestle) and the huge CASO station, they serve as a reminder of the importance the railway once had in the region.