Railways may have had more impact on shaping the growth of Canada
than in any other country – they played a fundamental role in
uniting the many communities and vast landscapes of Canada, as well
as being an instrument of economic growth throughout the nation’s
before the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous peoples had their
own methods for travelling great distances. Their equipment and
method of moving across land and water was so effective it was
adopted by early Europeans as they explored and settled in Canada.
Early settler transport in Canada evolved in response to the fur
trade. Despite long-distance and local transportation routes
developing across the country, there was no alternative to road and
water transportation before the 1850s. Settlement and trade occurred
along these routes, which were often slow and dependent on the
seasons. The advancement of railway technology and an increasing
population brought the railway era to Canada. The rail was a fast,
year-round system, and the construction of lines occurred with gusto
in three periods of history: the 1850s, 1870-90, and 1895-1917.
Mill Street South, August 2021 - Ryan Gaynor
Progreston rail bridge - Photo #688
As the railway spread across the landscape during the 19th
century, it was far superior to the earlier trunk roads that little
effort was made to maintain or upgrade them. While these roads may
have been impassable in certain weather conditions, they served as
routes to railway stations.
time rolled into the early 1900s, there would begin the transport
tug-of-war between rail and road. Rapidly increasing motor vehicle
usage pushed governments to provide properly engineered roads. The
1930s challenged the railways with loss of business due to The
Depression, and motor vehicles. There was recovery of rail traffic
during World War II, with rail freight more than doubling. Even so,
motor vehicle activity was growing faster, and the railways couldn’t
keep up. Changing technologies, such as the conversion from steam to
diesel in the 1950s, allowed the railways to remain competitive. The
use of intermodal freight allowed transportation systems to work
together – containers could be loaded and shipped to destinations
via rail as well as truck haulage. In 1966, CPR launched a ship
designed for containers. In the 1990s, double-stacked containers
doubled the capacity of a train without increasing its length.
Before construction, the railway route must be determined. Trial
surveys were run to compare cost and characteristics of routes,
keeping the steepness of the track as low as possible. Maximum grades
on the GTR in the 1850s were about one percent, while modern lines
are kept below 1-2 per cent.
a satisfactory route was surveyed and purchased, the first step in
construction was to build a ‘subgrade’, the permanent foundation
that supported the tract. Good drainage was and is still paramount to
prevent tracks shifting. Different styles of embankments were used
for different situations.
Well into the 20th century earth
and rock was moved by man and horse-powered equipment. Some railways
used steam shovels for construction, but they were best suited for
large excavations. Mechanical equipment such as bulldozers and
graders does not appear to come into common use until the 1930s and
Track design fundamentals were developed in Britain and the United
States in the 1830s-40s. By the time construction of rail began in
Canada, track was more or less standardized. The structure includes
rails, ties, ballast and track fastenings – when assembled, they
provide a smooth riding surface for trains. Due to the stresses track
is subjected to, this system must be of high quality and robust. Each
element of the system was designed with safe, economical operation in
mind, as well as assembly and maintenance.
wasn’t just the rail that had to be built – signals, bridges,
tunnels, and stations were all a part of the vast network.
Flamborough posed a challenge to rail travel with its escarpment and
rolling rural topography. In Waterdown, the Grindstone Creek had to
be moved to facilitate the introduction of the Canadian Pacific
Railway - a fact often shocking to those not familiar with local rail
Most memorable to the general public are the passenger
stations, where travellers would arrive and depart, mail and
telegraphs were sent and received, and freight business for the local
community was conducted.
Waterdown rail construction, 1911
Progreston: lifting girder in place for railway line over Twelve Mile Creek, 1911
Waterdown North during construction, 1911
The list is much shorter of what didn't change with the arrival of the rail in our area than what did. Familiar landscapes were altered to facilitate construction, shipping to faraway places became easier and more economical, passenger travel was quicker and more comfortable. The economic and sociocultural changes are still evident today.
Local mills, factories and farms were able to ship their product to customers over long distances. Many mills had their own spur lines to facilitate ease of shipping. Conversely, special freight that was not or could not be manufactured within the local area was now easily accessible.
The railway allowed young Flamborosians the opportunity to travel to school, go to the 'big city' for a weekend with friends, and there are even stories of railway romance - couples that met while travelling to the same destination.
Yearly farm implement shipment, Aldershot Station, 22 March 1899
Mill Street South, June 2019 - Ryan Gaynor
The logistics of rail can often seem daunting. How does the railway
ensure trains arrive safely on schedule, even when mishaps occur?
train movements allowed for the safe operation of a railway. Early
signalling devices were lights and flags. The time-interval system
was used prior to 1850. In this system, there is a time interval
between two successive trains. A train is dispatched only after
sufficient time has elapsed since the departure of the previous
train. This system works fine just as long as everything goes well
with the previous train, but if there is a mishap and the previous
train is held up, the system fails, jeopardizing the safety of the
trains. By the 1860s semaphore signalling was used both line-side and
at junctions and crossings. A General Time Convention was established
in the 1870s to coordinate time-related issues.
Image sourced from Ingenium Digital Archives CN Images of Canada Collection, ID X-36737
Locomotive Interior, Waterdown North - Ryan Gaynor
The telegraph was quickly adopted by railway officials to regulate
train movements. By the 1860s train orders were transmitted by
telegraph, augmented by the turn of the century with telephone
communications. Communications are vital for train operations, but
from the 1950s on telegraph declined in use and was replaced with
telephone, radio, and microwave transmissions.
Progreston, May 2021 - Ryan Gaynor
Shortly after the turn of the century, the three-position semaphore
signal was introduced. It had three aspects: horizontal for stop, 45
degrees above horizontal for caution, vertical for proceed. In 1908
this type became the standard for new installations.
introduction of light signals, semaphores were seen as inferior,
since they used two different aspects – blade position by day and
light colour by night – to convey their message.
Following World War II, signals on the busiest tracks were converted to centralized traffic control (CTC) with long stretches controlled from a single dispatching office.
There are a myriad of different signal systems and equipment over railway's history. Cab signalling is another safety system, communicating track status and condition information to the cab compartment. The
simplest systems display the trackside signal, while more sophisticated
systems also display allowable speed, location of nearby trains, and
dynamic information about the track ahead. Some cab signal systems will apply the brakes automatically should the operator not respond to a dangerous situation.
J.E. Archer, Lynden Station Agent 1951 - Bruce Murdoch, Hamilton Spectator
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The associated brochure for the display is available for download through this link.
Many thanks to Garth Wetherall, heritage society member and director, for loaning all of the items to ensure our vision for the exhibit came to life. Thanks also to Ryan Gaynor for letting us use his amazing images as part of the exhibit.
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