The Train doesn’t stop here anymore!

The Railways of Durham

By Bill Trbovich

In the early days of Durham, the community desperately wanted a railway but the railroads made tracks elsewhere.

In 1868, the Toronto Grey & Bruce Railway received its charter to build a railway from Toronto to Owen Sound. This made economic sense because the businessmen of Toronto wanted a rail line to a good harbor which would give them direct access by ship to the Lakehead. Secondly, the line would run through the hardwood forests of Grey County which gave the railway a cheap supply of fuel since coal fired engines were still decades away.

The proposed line was to go through Orangeville, Arthur, Mount Forest, and Durham to Owen Sound.

Map courtesy of Durham Public Library Archives

Money talks and the T.G. & B. walked!

The promoters of the TG&B approached all of the municipalities along its route asking for large bonuses to assist in the building of their railroad. To have the railroad come to your community was not only an economic advantage but also a sign of prestige. It showed that your community was progressive and worth moving to. Then like now, not every businessman or resident was willing to ante up what the railway was asking. There was a degree of pushback and resistance to paying the requested amount. The railway promptly went elsewhere with their hat out and found eager donors. Durham was, as they say, left at the station with no train in sight!

The new line went from Toronto through Orangeville, Shelburne and Markdale to Owen Sound and it was completed in 1873. The TG&B then built an east-west line from Orangeville through Arthur, Mount Forest to Teeswater; Durham was 15 miles north of the rail line. The town was stung once again for its previous reluctance to pay the requested bonuses and local business paid the price. All supplies and merchandise coming into and leaving Durham had to be transported by horse drawn wagons in the summer and sleighs in the winter and this made the cost of doing business in Durham very expensive. For example, local pig farmers couldn’t take their pigs to market alive the way cattle were transported, so the pigs were raised for their own use and sold locally. When the railway came to Mount Forest, a new outlet for pork was created. Local farmers fattened their pigs in the summer and when winter came, they butchered their pigs and hung the carcasses until they were frozen and then transported by horse drawn sleigh to Mount Forest for shipment to Toronto.

Tired of watching their future go south, progressive Durham businessmen decided that a branch line had to come north to Durham. Together with businessmen in Mount Forest, it was decided to build a railway from Palmerston to Owen Sound and the Wellington Georgian Bay Railway Company received its charter in 1878. This gave Durham and Mount Forest the direct access to freight and passenger service north to Owen Sound and south to Guelph, London, Hamilton and Toronto that its businessmen were looking for.

Once again the promoters approached municipalities which would benefit from having the line pass through their boundaries, for bonuses to assist in building the line and this time only Arthur Township declined. The bonus from Durham was $25,000.00. The town had learned its lesson; the vote to accept was 93-0!

Work on the new line began in June 1879 but labour unrest stopped construction that August. The men building the line between Palmerston and Durham went on strike! After three days off the job, the workers were given a raise of 12.5 cents per day. Satisfied with their raise, the workers were now earning $1.12.5 per day, they went back to work.

 Upper Town vs Lower Town

A colourful part of Durham’s history was the unwritten yet well observed division between residents of the Upper and Lower town. The joy of the railway coming to town was short lived because of the location of the new train station. The town was divided over where it should be. Lower town residents wanted it west of Bruce Street and south of Lambton Street. Residents of Upper Town wanted it due north of that location but near the Durham Road.  Lower Town won the argument! The Wellington Georgian Bay Railway decided after completing the survey of the remainder of the line from Durham to Owen Sound in 1879, not to proceed with construction of the remaining 33 miles through Moore’s Mill, Sullivan Township, Desboro and Keady to the west side of Owen Sound and its harbor. Although the WGBR owned the 25.7 mile-long line later known as the Durham sub, it entered into an agreement for the Grand Trunk Railway to operate its trains on the line. The project was never designed as a big money maker and the founders had accomplished their goal, to ensure that Durham had train service.

Original Durham CNR Station is now a private
residence in the hamlet of Mulock
Photo by author

Durham was now a rail terminus with a new station, and a new engine house, turntable, small yard, coal shed, water tower and stock pens was constructed. The establishment and growth of Durham originally was centered around milling industries situated on the Saugeen River. But over time the railway changed all of that and industrial growth like the furniture industry while advantage was taken of the areas abundance of gravel and marl resources. Marl and gravel are important elements in the manufacture of cement and the railway access to these resources resulted in the opening of the National Portland Cement Company. The facility was served by both the Grand Trunk Railway and the soon to come Canadian Pacific Railway. The last spike was driven on December 16, 1880 and freight was shipped out of Durham by rail for the first time. Passenger service commenced in 1881 and on November 7, 1881, more than 800 people boarded the train at Durham for a day long excursion to Stratford to celebrate the event. From that day forward, Durham had two passenger trains daily. On April 1, 1893, the Wellington Georgian Bay Railway was absorbed by the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1923, Grand Trunk amalgamated with Canadian National.

CNR locomotive 201 is about to take on water at the old Grand Trunk water tank in Durham. The sweat on the side of the tender marks the level to which the water had dropped on the 27 mile trip from Palmerston to Durham. In the days of steam, water was obtainable every 20 miles and coal at 70 mile intervals. As the round trip to Durham was just less than 55 miles, there was no need to refuel locomotives except in an emergency. In this case, a top up was necessary.
Photo by Harold Kenzie:
Courtesy Durham Public Library Archives
The quantity of sand shipped from the Durham pit is shown in this view of the yard taken on August 8, 1958.
Photo by Lou Sabetto: Courtesy Durham Public Library

The Walkerton & Lucknow Railway aka Canadian Pacific Railway

To say that Durham had difficulties with Canada’s railways in its first 150 years would be an understatement. When the Walkerton & Lucknow Railway Company received its charter in 1904, it was built from Saugeen Junction (between Flesherton and Dundalk) in the east through Durham and Hanover to Walkerton. It was built for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

CPR construction crew Lot 11, Concession 2, SDR Glenelg Courtesy Grey Roots Archival Collection  

Troubles began almost immediately. When the new line was surveyed in 1905 the town of Durham had multiple concerns. The surveyor’s line ran through the corner of the Public Schoolhouse; the line was cross Garafraxa Street – modern day Highway 6 – at the foot of Durham Hill; and then there was a row of houses on the north side of George Street which required moving or demolition. Town officials asked Canadian Pacific Railway to move the proposed line away from the school property but the railway politely refused to budge. Undeterred the town assumed that if the school had to be torn down, Canadian Pacific would simply build a new school for the town. Upon further reflection, Canadian Pacific moved the proposed line rather than build a new school, but it took part of the school yard instead!

The next thorny issue was the level crossing across Garafraxa Street at the foot of the hill. Today you can still walk much of the Canadian Pacific right of way through Durham, past the Art Gallery, across the Heritage Walkway Bridge over the Saugeen River to the foot of the Durham Hill. Now try to imagine a train taking the same route. By today’s standards it’s a strange if not dangerous place to install a level crossing and town officials thought so too in 1905. Town Council asked the railway to build a tunnel through the hill on the other side of the old library next to Knox United Church. It’s a funny thing about railways back then, they wanted towns to ante up bonuses to have the railway come to your town but they wouldn’t spend money to make their lines safe once they arrived! Canadian Pacific refused saying it would cost $200,000.00, as a compromise, the railway installed a safety gate at the crossing, which would be opened and closed manually by a railroad employee. Council agreed to this solution.

Now about those row of houses that had to be moved north of George Street and west of Garafraxa Street. The majority of the homes earmarked for moving was of frame construction and were easily moved to foundations at another site. However, two of the houses were multiple story structures, one brick veneer and the other solid brick. Their move had to be considered a wonder of modern engineering! During the move not a dish was broken, the furniture was undisturbed, the plaster did not crack and according to sources at the time, even the clock did not stop ticking!

All this and a spike had yet to be driven. A CPR station was built north of George Street, between Countess and Bruce and the water tower was erected west of Garafraxa Street. The station in railway parlance was known as a CPR type 19, a single storey frame structure with a bell cast hip roof and a hexagonal track facing operation window. It included a passenger waiting room, ticket/operator office and a freight/express room.

Courtesy Grey Roots Archival Collection                           

This railway line, by 1908, later known as the Walkerton Sub, had two passenger trains a day each way. For decades, the train was the only viable method of transportation in Grey County for both passengers and freight. Even with the advent of the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, local roads were no match for the speed and comfort of the railway. People relied on the railway to get from point A to Point B and back again. A case in point involved my late mother-in-law, Marjorie McKechnie. Her first teaching job was in 1942 at the one room school house at Hutton Hill, just outside of Durham. She lived on a farm near Proton Station and every Sunday night her father Elmo Stevens would drive her to the train station at Dundalk, to meet the northbound train from Toronto. In the winter this journey to the station was made via horse-drawn sleigh. The Toronto-Owen Sound train would take her north to Saugeen Junction where she would switch trains to board the westbound Canadian Pacific Walkerton Express which stopped in Priceville, Durham, Hanover and Walkerton. She would get off the train in Durham and then walk the two plus miles to her boarding residence. On Monday morning she would open the school at 8AM and ready the facility for the arrival of students. Come Friday afternoon, she would board the eastbound train to Saugeen Junction and then catch the southbound train to Dundalk. This is how people travelled to work back then, long before the term commuting became commonplace.

For decades, with two furniture plants, National Portland Cement, a thriving agricultural base, and later Interforest Veneer, the railways prospered in Durham. With continual improvements to our provincial highways shipping goods by truck grew in popularity and eroded the railways freight business. The growing independence afforded people by the automobile meant the future of passenger rail service was in jeopardy. These two factors led to the decline of the railways.

A baggage car is being unloaded at the Durham CPR station in 1959.  Knox United Church can just be seen in the background to the right of the water tower. The 37.3 mile Walkerton Sub ran from Walkerton, through Hanover, Durham, McWilliams and Priceville, joining the Owen Sound line to Toronto at Saugeen Junction between Flesherton and Dundalk. At its peak, Durham had four CPR passenger trains daily.
Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Fletcher

The Canadian Transport Commission allowed both CN and CP to end all passenger service to Grey and Bruce Counties on October 30, 1970. The CPR station in Durham was closed and sold in 1970. It was moved to nearby Townshend Lake where it was converted into a private residence. The CNR station was sold in 1971 and moved to the Hamlet of Mulock to be used as a residence and restaurant.

Former Durham CNR Station in the hamlet of Mulock
Photo by author

Freight business along the Walkerton Subdivision declined steadily in the 1970’s. In its submission to the Railway Transport Committee, Canadian Pacific submitted documents showing a significant drop in traffic. In 1974, 693 carloads were received on the branch including 305 from Durham, 143 in Hanover and 245 in Walkerton. These consisted of logs, lumber, livestock, furniture and agricultural implements. By 1978, inbound traffic totaled only 182 carloads with furniture, logs, potash, livestock and agricultural implements as the commodities. Traffic forwarded was something altogether different! Only 103 carloads shipped out in 1974 and only 6 were shipped in 1978. Plywood, veneer, mill products and furniture were the commodities. Approval to abandon the line was given in two stages, the first on July 25, 1983 and the second final segment on August 9, 1984. Within months the rails were lifted and the railways that were once so vital to the growth and survival of Durham had vanished for good!