Canada’s First Railroad

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In this first episode of Coast to Coast I thought about beginning when the debate over a creation of a Trans-Continental Railway began but I felt that it was best to start at the very beginning, with the first railroad Canada ever had.

So, today, we begin the journey into Canada’s Trans-Co ntinental Railroad with the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad.

To look at this first railroad, we should first look at a man by the name of John Molson. The man who would found the Molson Brewery, itself an iconic part of Canada, would lead the way when it came to create the railroad that would be the predecessor of the trans-continental railway.

Born in Lincolnshire, England on Dec. 28, 1763, the eldest of five children. By the time he was eight, he was an orphan following the deaths of his father in 1770 and his mother in 1772. Cared for by his grandfather, who was decently well off, he would provide for Molson in an inheritance.

Struck by an illness at the age of 17, Molson was told by his doctor to take to the sea to restore his health. He decided that he would set sail for Canada, over the objections of his grandfather. His uncle, privateer Robinson Elsdale encouraged him. Molson set sale for Quebec on May 2, 1782 on a ship that was leaking so bad in the journey across the ocean that he had to change ships along the way. One year later, he would move into the home of Thomas Loid just outside Montreal, where Loid brewed beer. Molson became a partner and took over the brewery in 1785, only eight days after he had turned 21. His beer soon became incredibly popular in Montreal and the legacy of Molson’s had begun. By 1791, his brewery was selling 30,000 gallons of beer and Molson was a rich man. Four years later, it was producing 54,000 gallons of ale, beer and spruce beer. He would use that wealth to improve the infrastructure of the area, including by building steamships. He would launch the Accommodation on Nov. 1, 1809, which ran from Montreal to Quebec City. Over the years, he would expand his shipping fleet, and eventually had a monopoly on steam travel along the Ottawa River, Rideau Canal and the St. Lawrence.

By 1830, Molson was following the news about railroads in England and he saw an opportunity for his adopted country. Nothing would come of this at first, but it stayed in the mind of Molson for the couple several years. Around this same time, Canada was beginning to see the benefits of steam power. In the 1820s, military engineers used a winch that was driven by a steam engine to pull rail cars filled with granite up the slopes to the Quebec Citadel. Around the same time, a very short railway was used to build the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. In 1831, a railway would also open in New York. That railway would carry several people, including Peter McGill, the president of the Bank of Montreal, who would become the leading proponents of a railway in Canada with Molson.

The benefit of a railway was highlighted in the Montreal Gazette on Oct. 6, 1831, which stated quote:

“Our enterprising neighbours in the United States have become sensible of the great advantages to be derived from the construction of railroads, and, unlike the sages who sit in our Legislature, are disposed to grant every facility to those who wish to embark in such undertakings, instead of frivolous objections or crushing the scheme by ill-judged opposition.”

In 1831, a bill was tabled in the Lower Canada Legislature called Making A Rail Road From Lake Champlain To The River St. Lawrence was put forward in the Lower Canada Legislature. On Feb. 25, 1832, it received royal assent.

The proposal was that the railroad, which would be called the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, would connect the St. Lawrence to the Hudson River, making the trip from New York to Montreal much faster. Essentially, it served as a portage over the most difficult part of the journey from Montreal to New York. The railroad would make things much easier as roads were nearly non-existent and severe weather conditions made it difficult for travel in the winter.

Peter McGill would become the first of 754 subscribers to the charter of the new railway, with John Molson second on the list. The estimated cost of the railroad was £33,500, which would be £3.5 million today. In Canadian funds, that would be $6 million today. Molson would contribute roughly one-third of the entire cost of the construction of the railroad. In 1835, the shares in the company would cost shareholders two pounds ten shillings per share, according to the Montreal Gazette of March 19, 1835.

Construction on the railroad would begin in January of 1835 when surveyors worked to determine the line from St. John to La Prairie, which was across the river from Montreal. By the end of the year, the grading, fencing and masonry, as well as the bridge work, had been completed. Next up was the need for a locomotive. Orders were placed, with the locomotive being built in Newcastle, England and the four passenger cars being constructed in the United States.

In 1836, the 26-kilometre line was built with rails consisting of six-inch pine logs that had been squared off and were joined together with iron splice plates and bolts that were put across the cross-ties. These wood rails would last until the 1850s when they were replaced with iron rails.

In June of 1836, the Dorchester, Canada’s first locomotive, arrived in Montreal at the wharf owned by Molson. This was the 127th locomotive built by Robert Stephenson, who was the son of George Stephenson, considered to be the father of railways. Dismantled before it was shipped, the locomotive was reassembled in Montreal. It had four driving wheels and a high centre of gravity. Combined with its short wheel base, it was unsteady and workers called it “Kitten” due to its skittish behaviour. The locomotive also had a driver who came with it during shipping but he left soon after arriving and was not seen again. The locomotive cost £1,500 and weight 12,000 pounds, measuring 13 feet long, with four wheels that were 48 inches in diameter.

In order to test the locomotive and the railroad, trial runs were conducted at night to avoid frightening a public who had never seen a locomotive before. The trail runs had the locomotive running at a top speed of 48 kilometres per hour.

On July 9, the first trial run of the railroad would be conducted, only 12 days before the inaugural run in front of Montreal residents. Thankfully, it went well and everyone was ready for the big day.

On July 21, 1836, Canada’s first railroad opened with several honoured guests including the Lt. Governor of Canada Lord Gosford and Louis-Joseph Papineau. As well, 300 people crowded onto the passenger cars for the first run.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“The public opening of this important route took place on Thursday last, under circumstances of peculiar interest and to the general satisfaction of a numerous and respectable company, who had been invited to partake of the hospitality and good cheer of the Stockholders of the Company.”

Unfortunately, this was far too many people for the locomotive to run and the two first-class coaches that had 32 people in them were uncoupled and hauled by the locomotive, while the other cars were hauled by a team of horses. Another reason for this was that during a trial run, the boiler water was allowed to get too low, causing burned tubes that were plugged instead of repaired due to a tight schedule. With diminished power, it could only pull two cars.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“Before starting the locomotive engine made two short trial trips with its tender and as the accident which occurred lately to it had not be thoroughly repaired, it was deemed advisable to attach to it only two of the passenger cars, all of which are very comfortably fitted up and elegantly painted outside, with the other cars with the rest of the company, were drawn each by two horses.”

Also on hand for the event was the 32nd regiment, which performed several songs to the delight of those who gathered for the big event.

One person who was not at the big event was the man who helped get everything moving in the first place, John Molson. He had died in January of 1836, never seeing the train that he helped to bring to Canada.

The first passengers would take a run to Saint-Jean which would take two hours.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“In less than two hours from starting, all the company had arrived at St. John’s in good time and in excellent mood for the collation in the Railway Station House, which was pleasantly cool and decorated with green branches. The repast, with its accompaniments of sparkling champagne was not more enjoyed, than it was universally admitted to be in itself, suitable and excellent.”

At the reception, Peter McGill toasted to the King, followed by a second toast to the President of the United States. A third toast was given to the Earl of Gosford and the ladies and Gentlemen who had honored the company with their presence.

The party then returned, making it in 59 minutes but passengers who reached La Prairie had to spend the night there as the ferry boat had grounded.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“In being time now to depart, the company proceeded to the cars, extremely well pleased with the entertainment they had received.”

The newspaper continues, relating the arrival at La Prairie.

“By this time it was so dark that it was considered dangerous to pass the rapids. Upon landing, there was an immediate scramble among the passengers for beds, of which few, in proportion to the demand, were to be found. To diminish the disagreements of this mishap and to extract even amusement from the misfortunes of so pleasant a day, a dance was got up at the hotel, which was continued until a late hour. Those who were able to procure beds that could be slept in, had a fund of amusement for the rest of the night, in recounting to each other their adventures in search of luxuries.”

A few days after the big day, the locomotive was withdrawn from service so that the burned tubes could be replaced.

For those companies that did want to haul freight, the Aug. 13, 1836 edition of the Montreal Gazette gives us a look at the costs. To haul ashes, the cost was two shillings per barrel. Beef and Pork was one shilling per pound, while boards and planks were five shillings per 1,000 feet.

At first, the railroad only ran in the summer when its services as a portage route were needed the most.

The railroad proved to be incredibly popular but until more locomotives were brought in, extra passenger trains were hauled by horses. A second locomotive, called Jason C. Pierce, would arrive in 1837. The railroad was too expensive to haul freight, but residents of Montreal were more than happy to pay a few shillings to ride the railroad. Unfortunately, they tended to have carefree behaviour and that led to various rules being implemented including no dogs in first class and no walking on top of the coaches.

One of the most distinguished guests to ride this line would be the noted author Charles Dickens, when he was in North America for a speaking tour.

In the mid-1840s, the rail was lengthened and the water section of the route was shortened. By 1852, the rail line was extended north of Montreal and south to Lake Champlain.

Eventually, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad would be merged with the Montreal and New York Railroad in 1857, and would be renamed as the Montreal and Champlain Railroad. By 1850, when the wood rails were replaced with iron rails, the railroad had only suffered one single minor accident. During its first 15 years of operation, it made an average of a 40 per cent profit each year. New locomotives would also be added in 1847, 1848 and 1849. The Dorchester would continue in service until 1849 when it was sold to another railway in Canada, where it would remain in service until 1864 when it boiler exploded and it was scrapped.

It would not be until the 1850s that Canada would begin to expand on its railroad construction but once it started, it would quickly go in force. By that year, Canada only had 128 kilometres of rail, and nearly all was in a small stretch of land in Quebec and Ottawa. The coming construction of the railroads over the next decades would change Canada forever, for good and bad, but it all began with this one railroad that only ran for a few kilometres.

In 1872, the line was taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway.

The first rail line continues to hold a place of distinction in Canada’s history. The Dorchester would be inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame in 1999 for its distinction of being Canada’s first locomotive.

In 1986, a functional replica of the original steam locomotive, built in 1936, was donated by Molsons to Expo 86.

Today, all that remains of the Dorchester is a nameplate, that was found in a farmer’s field. It is now in a museum. 

Information comes from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, The Story of the Dorchester and Canada’s First Train, McCord Museum, Montreal Gazette, Macleans,

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