Submitted by Brian Roulston
In the early 1830s, Canadians still bitter from the War of 1812, watched as the Americans slowly built, expanded, and benefited from their rail infrastructure while Canada lagged behind, using horses and buggies or canoes. Britain’s rail service was also getting underway at the time. There were rumblings among towns and industries around natural resources, such as forestry or mining, that a much faster and more efficient way to move these materials and people was needed. In short, Canadians were demanding their own rail service.
The concept of this southern Ontario regional railroad was patterned after both the American and British rail networks. They intended to link one of the ports on Lake Ontario with Goderich on Lake Huron, then Detroit and Chicago. There was also optimism that Americans would pay to use Canadian railroads instead of taking the longer distance around the Great Lakes.
Most of the money that was needed came from Samuel Zimmerman, a former American thought to be Canada’s richest person at the time. However, there would be no railroad without Allan McNab’s political clout. He not only convinced the Government of Upper Canada that a railroad was needed, but he also pushed for it to go through Hamilton. Peter Buchanan, a mercantilist, helped him get the line set up.
On March 6, 1834, the London & Gore Railroad Company was formed. Still, even with Zimmerman’s money, they didn’t have enough capital to start the project, and because of the 368-kilometer distance the railroad had to travel, the rail project was put on the back burner for 10 years.
The London & Gore Railroad Company established its headquarters in Hamilton in 1845. Four more years would pass before amendments were made to the Municipal Act guaranteeing enough money for the new railroad. Also in 1845, the London & Gore Railroad Company was renamed after the Great Western Railway of Britain, which was founded in 1833 and ran its first locomotives in 1838. The name change was done to attract wealthy businessmen as riders. Back then, anything British was seen as a sign of wealth and success, as Gucci bags and Rolex watches are today.
On October 23, 1847, Colonel Thomas Talbot of Essex County and Allan McNab attended a ground-breaking ceremony in London, Ontario, to commemorate the start of the railroad’s construction.
Great Western used their own steamers to move most of the heavy rails, trusses, and other heavy equipment from Hamilton to ports like Grimsby and Port Dalhousie as the railroad progressed from Hamilton to the Niagara Falls area.
Construction was often excruciatingly slow due to Canadian weather and untrained workers. The Hamilton-to-Niagara Falls extension opened six months after the Northern Ontario Line beat out the Great Western Railway (GWR) to become the first steam locomotive railroad in the province.
The port of Hamilton, with its population of approximately fifteen thousand people, saw its first locomotive arrive on November 1, 1853. Regular service between the two towns would not officially begin for another ten days. The second stretch of the railroad from Hamilton to London was finished a month and a half later. GWR completed the final stretch of their main line from London to Windsor on January 17, 1854. A charter locomotive left Hamilton two days later, bound for Detroit to celebrate the completion of the line. It was met with a 21-gun salute, a march through Detroit, and a banquet for six hundred hungry souls.
Great Western built the first suspension bridge over the Niagara Gorge. Several years later this would the main way that slaves escaped the U.S using the Underground Railroad.
GWR established the first railway post office (RPO) in North America in 1854, transporting mail and packages 8 years before the American railroads. It was a great financial boon for them. The RPO was a concept which originated in the United Kingdom. Mail was sorted in specially built rail cars as they traveled up and down the tracks from Niagara Falls to Windsor; later, RPOs were used on all of GWR’s other routes.
The railway was an immediate success; Hamilton’s population had more than doubled, and Great Western embarked on a three-year project to construct Hamilton’s first train station and maintenance yard on 40 acres of land. This included the sites of today’s West Harbour Go Station and the Stuart Street railyard, part of which was built on man-made land in Burlington Bay. It was a big change for the Port of Hamilton. Thousands of workers and visitors from all over the world now arrived by steamboat or rail in the Stuart Street area. The workers would settle in
Hamilton’s north end with their families while the wealthy and visitors to the city headed up the hill to the Gore District.
Despite being the third-largest railway station on the GWR line, Hamilton’s original terminal was obsolete even before it opened because GWR officials miscalculated the number of people who would use the station. Several changes were made to the terminal before a new one was built behind the old one in 1875.
Life was great for the Great Western Railway. At its peak, it maintained over 2200 kilometers of track throughout Ontario and parts of the American Midwest. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The Grand Trunk Railway, an English-owned rail system, built a line across Hamilton’s mountain brow, and that made GWR nervous. The Great Western Railway started buying up smaller rail lines just to keep them out of the hands of the competition. Many of the Grand Trunk rail lines traveled through the same towns and cities that the Great Western did. A serious recession gripped Europe and North America. In the late 1870s competition between the two companies had heated up; a series of drastic cutbacks alienated both staff and passengers, followed by a brutal price war in the 1880s. All this did irreversible harm to the companies.
More competition arrived when the Canada Southern Railway constructed a route from Niagara Falls to Windsor.
In August 1884, the GWR formally merged with the Grand Trunk Railway. The GWR train station in Hamilton functioned until 1923, when the CN Rail Terminal, now known as Liuna Station, opened at James and Murray Streets. In 1888, the maintenance facility was permanently shut down. On a related issue, the GWR heavy maintenance facility in Toronto was transformed into a food shed before becoming the Toronto Wholesale Food Terminal. Canadian National started buying up local rail lines in the same manner that Great Western Railway had done years before in order to compete with Grand Trunk. Until it was too late, Grand Trunk did not take CP Rail seriously. In 1923, CN Rail and Grand Trunk Railway amalgamated as well.