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Northern Railway of Canada

The Northern Railway of Canada was a historical Canadian railway located in the province of Ontario. It was the first steam railway in what was then known as Upper Canada. It was eventually acquired by the Grand Trunk Railway, and is therefore a predecessor to the modern Canadian National Railway (CNR). Several sections of the line are still used by CNR.

The railway was originally known as the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron, referring to the three lakes the railway connected. The aim was to provide a portage route from the upper Meaford, the North Simcoe Railway ran to the port town of Penetanguishene, and the Muskoka Branch ran northeast to Gravenhurst. This last expansion would be the starting point for the Northern and Pacific Junction Railway, connecting to the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline outside of North Bay. In 1887, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) gained a controlling interest, and the takeover was formalized in January 1888.

The line primarily served the port towns on Great Depression and the opening of a wider Welland Canal led to decreased use of the ports, and traffic fell. The closure of Collingwood Shipbuilding in 1986 led to the abandonment of the sections in Collingwood and to the west. The line is intact from the east side of town all the way to Union Station, with the section between Toronto and Barrie used by GO Transit as the Barrie line. The Muskoka Junction has been combined with the Ontario Northland Railway to form Canadian National Railway's mainline in the area north of Orillia.

Several sections of the line have been turned over to Owen Sound as the Tom Thompson Trail. Sections from Collingwood to Stayner have a trail running beside them.[N 1] The North Simcoe Railway now forms the 22.5 kilometres (14.0 mi) Tiny Beaches Trail with sections south of this also in use.


  • History 1
    • Construction 1.1
    • Northern Railway 1.2
  • Locomotives 2
  • Finances 3
  • Recognition of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8



Cover of the Act of the Province of Canada chartering the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railroad Union Company, 1851

Talk about a line from Toronto to the upper Great Lakes has been recorded to as early as 1834, but no serious effort was taken until 1848 when Frederick Chase Capreol announced he was going to build a line to the Collingwood area under the name Toronto, Simcoe and Huron Railroad Union Company. He suggested a novel method to raise the funds for construction, using a $2 million lottery. The proposition was considered so scandalous it was put to a referendum and defeated. With the passage of the Guarantee Act in 1849, Capreol joined forces with Charles Albert Berczy and chartered the company in July 1849, now having to raise conventional bonds for the first 75 miles (121 km), from which point government funding would be available.

Continued difficulties delayed construction, during which time the company re-chartered as the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad in 1850.[2] Capreol was fired as manager two days before the official sod turning, which was carried out on 15 October 1851 by P.T. Barnum.

In February 1853, the railway commissioned the construction of the first locomotive built in any British colony.[3] Early construction required the line to pass over the Oak Ridges Moraine, and it was not until 16 May 1853 that the first train reached Machell's Corners, today's Aurora, Ontario. Work north of there was much more rapid; the line reached Allandale in Barrie later in 1853, and Collingwood in 1855. Early traffic was dominated by agricultural products, earning it the nickname "Oats, Straw, and Hay".[4]

Northern Railway

Map of the Northern and its various expansions, circa 1877.

In spite of reasonable volumes of traffic the line was never very profitable, and by 1858 the company was in financial difficulty. Grey and Bruce counties about building a line through their burgeoning agricultural areas. Cumberland refused, stating that traffic would be too low. This left an opening for the formation of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway (TG&B), which began construction toward Owen Sound in the spring of 1869.

Faced with their first real competition, the Northern chartered their own North Grey Railway on 15 February 1871, with plans to extend to Meaford and authority to continue to Owen Sound. Construction between Collingwood and Meaford took place over the flat terrain between the Niagara Escarpment and the southern shore of Georgian Bay, and the line was completed on 1 April 1872. However, the expansion to Owen Sound was never completed; a combination of much more difficult terrain west of Meaford, the impending arrival of the TG&B, and demand for other expansions that were considered more important.

The company had continually been at odds with a number of groups in Simcoe County, especially those in Barrie who continually pushed for an expansion of the line into the downtown area. This was eventually solved through the late 1869 formation of the Toronto, Simcoe and Muskoka Junction Railway, or Muskoka Branch, which branched off at the Allendale station and ran north-east to Orillia and then on to Lake Muskoka outside Gravenhurst. The line was officially absorbed into the Northern in 1875.

Upset with the Northern remained, and demand for additional shipping routes on the Lakes led to intense building through the entire area. Businessmen in Hamilton took the opportunity to plan a second line to Barrie as the Hamilton and North-Western Railway (H&NW), with their proposed line passing through several towns along the way. The Northern countered with the suggestion for a South Simcoe Junction Railway, splitting off at King City or Bolton, meeting the Northern west of Barrie and continuing on to Penetanguishene as the North Simcoe Railway.[5]

Comparing the two, business interests in Simcoe County and towns along the route demanded additional work from both companies. The H&NW finally agreed to run a branch line to Collingwood, splitting off the mainline some distance west of Newmarket, and added optional plans for an extension north from Barrie to Midland. Bonuses from Simcoe County totalling $300,000 were given to the H&NW, along with about $150,000 from towns along the route, some indication of the area's upset with the Northern. The line reached Barrie in 1877 and Collingwood in mid-1879.

The Northern went ahead with one portion of their own expansion plans, dropping plans for the line from King City and instead splitting off west of Barrie to run north to Penetanguishene as the North Simcoe Railway. Construction began in January 1878. The H&NW never completed their northern expansion to Midland. In 1881, the entire line was regauged in sections. The entire mainline to Gravenhurst was converted to standard gauge in a single day on 9 July 1881. Work gangs were located all along the line waiting for the 7:45 AM mail train leaving Toronto, which carried a large card reading "Last Train". The crews moved the rails as soon as the train passed them, having already half driven the spikes.

The cost of construction, general financial difficulties of the era, and the enormous cost of an expansion to North Bay led the two companies to organize a new joint management agreement, forming the Northern and North Western Railway in June 1879. This provided the funding and income needed to begin construction of the Northern and Pacific Junction Railway, which ran between Gravenhurst and Nipissing. This reached the Canadian Pacific Railway transcontinental lines at North Bay in 1886.

In-fighting between management was continual, and the huge cost of the northward expansion, allowed the Grand Trunk Railway to purchase the entire 494 miles (795 km) system on 24 January 1888.

In July 1849, the Toronto, Simcoe & Lake Huron Union Railroad is founded by Frederick Chase Capreol and Charles Albert Berczy. The Guarantee Act helped finance construction of the railway through the sale of bonds, with the interest guaranteed by the colonial government. Other early events were:

  • Groundbreaking by Lady Elgin on 15 October 1851.
  • November 1852 the railway was renamed the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad.
  • In February 1853, the railway commissioned the construction of the first locomotive built in any British colony.[3]
  • In August 1858, the OS&HUR becomes the Northern Railway Company of Canada following a government bailout.

Several subsidiary railways were subsequently incorporated into the Northern Railway, including:

In June 1879, the Northern merged with the Hamilton and North-Western Railway, becoming the Northern and Northwestern Railway. Construction of a subsidiary, the Northern and Pacific Junction Railway, which ran between Gravenhurst and Nipissing, proves to be a significant financial burden.

A further extension in 1880s with the combined forces of the Northern Railway and the Hamilton & North-Western Railway connected the line from Muskoka, to the transcontinental CPR at North Bay in 1886. The Northern Railway was purchased by Grand Trunk Railway in 1888, and through its amalgamation, became part of the Canadian National Railway. CNR operated the mainline as the CN Newmarket Subdivision, selling off the branches to the west, and pulling up the section between Barrie and Orillia. It is now the Barrie line after its purchase by Metrolinx.


Lady Elgin, Engine No. 1 of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad.

The first locomotive of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad was named Lady Elgin and built in Portland, Maine.[6] It was named for Mary Lambton, second wife of James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the 42nd Governor General of Canada (1847–1854); she had also lifted a ceremonial silver spade for the sod-turning ceremony of the construction of the railway at Front Street and Simcoe Street on 15 October 1851.[6] Because of the high customs duties and shipping costs for the locomotive, executives of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad decided that subsequent locomotives would be built in Ontario.[6]

Engine No. 2, The Toronto, seen in 1881 in Toronto.

The James Good foundry Toronto Locomotive Works, located at the corner of Queen and Yonge Street,[7] would manufacture nine locomotives for the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron railway at an average cost of $5000.[4][8] The first of these was named Toronto, built in its namesake city and the first locomotive built in Canada[9] or in any colony of the British Empire.[7] Commissioned in February 1853, its construction was completed by 16 April.[9] Over five days, it was rolled along temporary wooden rails on Queen Street and York Street, and on 26 April it was lifted onto the new OSH railway tracks on Front Street.[4][9] Torontonians would monitor the locomotive's progress from the foundry to the Front Street tracks, and the event was the subject of a later artistic rendering.[7] Its first duty was three weeks later, transporting passengers and freight between the city of Toronto and the community of Machell's Corner, now known as Aurora.[4] This first duty is commemorated by a plaque installed in 1953 at Union Station in Toronto.[10] The Toronto and other locomotives were scrapped after Canadian railways converted from the 5'6" track gauge to the 4'812" American standard gauge starting in the 1870s.[8]


The railway earned revenues from passenger, freight, postal, and sundry other sources. The total earnings for 1 January to 7 July 1860 were $166,108.64, and for 1 January to 6 July 1861 were $210,177.46.[11]

Year Week Passenger Freight Postal and sundry Total
1860 ending 14 April 7012.86[12]
ending 19 May 8645.63[13]
ending 7 July 6824.88[11]
ending 14 July 6409.73[14]
ending 8 August 6564[15]
1861 ending 13 April 8953.38[12]
ending 18 May 8724.89[13]
ending 6 July[11] 1810.92 7168.35 84.72 9064.00
ending 13 July[14] 1728.20 7412.90 81.66 9222.81
ending 8 August 9224[15]

Recognition of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway

In 2010, the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway was inducted to the


  1. ^ As of 2014 the condition of the rails through Stayner suggest this section of the line has been unused for some time. The line in this area is significantly rusted and heavily overgrown.


  1. ^ Peppiatt, Liam. "Chapter 37: F. C. Capreol’s Residences". Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto Revisited. 
  2. ^ Charles Cooper, "The North Grey Railway", October 2009
  3. ^ a b Hind 1854, p. 76.
  4. ^ a b c d Filey 2014, Full steam ahead.
  5. ^ A map of the proposed routes and extensions can be found here.
  6. ^ a b c Boles 2009, p. 12.
  7. ^ a b c Boles 2009, p. 13.
  8. ^ a b Mainer 1982.
  9. ^ a b c North America Railway Hall of Fame: The Toronto.
  10. ^ Boles 2009, p. 14.
  11. ^ a b c Poor & Schultz 1861, p. 524, Railroad earnings.
  12. ^ a b Poor & Schultz 1861, p. 372, Railroad earnings.
  13. ^ a b Poor & Schultz 1861, p. 422, Railroad earnings.
  14. ^ a b Poor & Schultz 1861, p. 549, Railroad earnings.
  15. ^ a b Poor & Schultz 1861, p. 611, Railroad earnings.
  16. ^ North America Railway Hall of Fame.
  • Boles, Derek (2009). Toronto's Railway Heritage. Images of Rail. Arcadia Publishing.  
  • Filey, Mike (2014). Mike Filey's Toronto Sketches. 10–11. Dundurn.  
  • Hind, Henry Youle, ed. (1854). """Mr Good's Locomotive Engine "Toronto. The Canadian Journal (  
  • Mainer, George Grahahm (1982). "Good, James".  
  • Poor, Henry V.; Schultz, John H., eds. (1861). "Railway Locomotives and Cars". American Railroad Journal ( 
  • "Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad Company". North America Railway Hall of Fame. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  • "The Toronto No. 2". North America Railway Hall of Fame. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 

Further reading

  • Ridout, Trevelyan (1883). Statutes Special and General, Relating to the Northern Railway Company of Canada. Toronto: Hunter Rose & Co. 
  • Ashdown, Dana William (1999). Iron and Steam: A History of the Locomotive and Railway Car Builders of Toronto. Robin Brass Studio.  
  • Marsh, James (25 March 2009). "Railway history".  
  • Young, Jeffery (7 February 2006). "Locomotives and rolling stock".  

External links

  • Ontario Plaques - Northern Railway Company of Canada
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