By Brian Roulston
In the previous issue, we learned about Great Western Railway’s beginnings, accomplishments, and eventual demise. In this final installment, we’ll learn about GWR’s Hamilton Manufacturing and Repair Facility, practically a village unto itself, with over 520 young men from all around Hamilton and the world working together in the area of Dundurn Park between Inchbury and Hess streets. The yard was set back from the passenger terminal and routinely met the highest industry standards in North America. Skilled woodworkers, boilermakers, blacksmiths, and engineers were a few of the occupations employed here, and their abilities and knowledge were practically limitless. To prevent unintentional fires, workers were expected to clean every building of sawdust, cobwebs, and birds’ nests, as well as take any remaining pieces of wood outdoors at the end of each day. Only enough wood to start the fires the next morning was allowed to remain inside. Great Western also had its own fully equipped fire department with the most modern fire apparatus available at the time plus a security force that kept an eye on both the facility and the company’s lumber yard. The only thing constant about the Hamilton maintenance yard was that it was always changing, buildings were built and torn down, then built again. Each shop or location across the complex was leased to the contractors of each department, and some of the shops were quite large for their time. The steam power and shafting required to run the power tools were provided by Great Western Railway.
In 1863, Great Western erected the first rolling mill in Ontario at the foot of Queen Street, employing 150 workers. This massive structure was 170’x100′ in size and ascended 70 feet to the apex. The heavy slate roof was supported by huge beams. The rolling mill was constructed to re-roll British rails that were not up to GWR standards and could not withstand our severe Canadian cold. Frost would shatter the rails like toothpicks, necessitating re-rolling. The rolling mills were powered by a giant 400-horsepower engine as well as two 20-horsepower units. Six boilers were employed, four of which were 30 feet long and 30 inches wide. For every 4,000 new rails, the engines used about 5,000 tons of coal. The mill’s saws were four feet in diameter and buzzed at 4000 rpm. The majority of light locomotive repairs were done at various locations throughout Great Western’s rail network, but the heavy lifting was done in Hamilton, Toronto, and Windsor, all of which had repair facilities similar to Hamilton’s. The rolling mill eventually came under American ownership by a group from Ohio eventually renamed Ontario Rolling Mill Company.
The Erecting Shop affectionately called the ‘Hospital for Sick Giants,’ is our next stop. It, too, was a large structure measuring 165’x125′. The building included a turntable with twelve tracks that ran the full length of the shop, with each track capable of holding two full-size locomotive engines. Twenty-four engines could be built or repaired at the same time. Huge lathes and other pieces of machinery lined one side of the building and were used for boring out cylinders, turning driving wheels, and planing iron. Braemar Presses lined the opposite side of the building and were used to force wheels on or off the axles of the train. This shop also cleaned mineral deposits left behind by the locomotive’s operating water, which would accumulate in the train’s boilers over time. Brass work was completed upstairs while blacksmiths and foundry employees worked on parts and fittings that required a finer finish. Parts for newly manufactured or repaired locomotives were gathered and placed on the shop floor before assembly. GWR’s first five locomotives were coal-burning engines that took two years to construct.
Then to the Boiler Shop, a 134’x60′ structure that employed 40 men. The SCOTIA, a locomotive built in 1861, in Hamilton was the first Canadian locomotive with a steel boiler. This shop also built a large boiler for the steamship GREAT WESTERN FERRY, which ran up and down the Detroit River transporting both passengers and automobiles. This department also designed the iron girdles and trusses that were used to replace rotting timber train bridges.
The Great Western Railway’s repair facility included a 400-foot rail car shop where two freight, passenger or sleeper cars could be built for $2,500 each, simultaneously. In 1858, the first car off the assembly line was a sleeper car, and the fare for the sleeper car from Niagara Falls to Windsor would set you back 50¢.
Great Western also had its own woodworking facility, where high precision woodwork for the luxurious interiors of the passenger cars were produced. An adjacent tinsmith plant produced locomotive headlamps, water coolers, drinking cups, ventilators, and other tin-related items.
The locomotive plant had its own paint shop which painted anything that needed painting and a 400’ long auto shop for fixing and maintaining the company’s cars and trucks. The facility even had its own weigh scales that could calculate the total weight of a locomotive as well as the load carried by each steel wheel.
The Road House, which was built in the same manner as the erecting shop was used to do some light repairs and store the new or repaired engines until they were needed. It was a semi-circular structure with12 tracks; each track had a giant door. Where locomotive service was required, the turntable could easily be positioned to every degree on a compass.
The repair yard even had a library with over 2000 titles in its collection in part funded from penalties paid by employees who broke company rules. For a one-dollar annual fee, all Great Western employees could access the library. Books could also be sent to railroad employees or their families at just about any station along the line for them to pick up or return.
After acquiring Great Western Railway in 1882, Grand Trunk kept the repair yards open for a few years before closing them permanently in 1888.