The Victoria Railway Comes to Kinmount
January 8, 2023
By Guy Scott
Railways: the stuff of legends. In Canada, railways are a part of our history, ingrained in our culture, legendary chapters in the Canadian Experience. Railways transformed the scattered & isolated colonies of British North America into the country called Canada. They were the ‘National Dream.’
Railways were the National Dream for the village of Kinmount as well in the 1800s. Before the Victoria Railway linked Kinmount to the outside world, it was a sleepy backwoods hamlet on the Bobcaygeon Road. In 1870, it was comparable to Peterson’s Corners or Silver Lake. Never heard of those two ‘vanished’ hamlets? Kinmount is still around because it had the railway and they didn’t!
Railways were common in Ontario by the 1850s. It was a noted fact that the iron horse brought prosperity to any community it graced. Lindsay & Peterborough both became railway towns by 1860. But railways, like roads, functioned better with more connections. The more railway lines into town, the better. North of these thriving economic centres lay the newly opened Ottawa-Huron Tract: a seemingly boundless area of unexploited riches. A railway or two would be just the ticket to prosperity.
The first railway to penetrate our area was the Toronto-Nipissing Railway. It originated in Toronto and extended north-east through Uxbridge to Coboconk. Plans called for this line to carry on to the Nipissing District near North Bay. The rails reached the banks of the Gull River in 1872: and never went any further. The TNN railway dead ended in Coboconk, exhausted & broke. Now it was Lindsay’s chance to seize the golden ring of northern prosperity.
The booming railway town of Lindsay was mortified by the TNN plans. This rival railway never went near Lindsay, funnelling its riches west to Durham & York Counties. Lindsay, the county seat for the newly formed Victoria County, might lose out on the riches of its back townships. The businessmen of Lindsay & South Victoria sprang into action & planned a railway from Lindsay north into the back townships: The Lindsay-Fenelon Falls & Ottawa (Valley) Railway. As the title says, the plan was to extend the line north into the Ottawa Valley to tap the rich lumber trade. The title was quickly changed to the Victoria Railway, a more geographically appropriate title. The route of this new line was planned to cross the Kawartha Lakes either at Fenelon Falls or Bobcaygeon and travel north to Haliburton Village. The village was the headquarters of the English Land & Emigration Company, a private stock company that had just brought 10 townships from the Ontario Government and was anxious for a railway to assist in land sales.
Railways were expensive to build. It was estimated the first section (Lindsay-Haliburton) would cost 1.4 million dollars! There were several ways to raise this large sum: government grants, stock sales & municipal bonuses. Grants were secured & sales of stock in the new venture were brisk. But then the railway promoters almost foundered on the shoals of municipal politics. To many rate payers, railway bonuses (outright grants of money) were a curse and a burden on taxpayers. The town of Peterborough and the townships of Southern Peterborough County outright refused to grant bonuses. In 1870, Haliburton County did not exist: most of its municipalities were still part of Peterborough County. The new line was to pass into Peterborough County just north of Kinmount, but Peterborough, in a pique of jealousy, refused to spend money on a railway centred in the rival town of Lindsay. This lack of support so angered the residents of the north end of the county that they literally seceded from Peterborough County and formed their own county: the Provisional County of Haliburton. Their first act was, you guessed it, a big cash bonus for the Victoria Railway!
Municipal politics also raised its head in other places. The location to cross the Kawartha Lakes barrier: Fenelon Falls or Bobcaygeon. Using the mathematical equation that railway=prosperity, Mossom Boyd, the Lumber King of the Kawarthas, lobbied hard for the railway to use the Bobcaygeon corridor. But his municipal counterparts were less impressed and refused to grant bonuses to the railway. The rival sawmill centre of Fenelon Falls incorporated and offered a huge bonus if the railway crossed the lakes at their town. Impressed (money does talk!), the railway promoters planned to make Fenelon Falls a stop on the line and changed the history of the area. Bobcaygeon, the traditional entry point for the back townships thanks to the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road, declined as an economic centre. Fenelon Falls, now a railway stop, flourished. It was estimated the population of Bobcaygeon dropped to half its pre-railway size, while Fenelon Falls quadrupled! Mossom Boyd was devastated. Not until 1904 did Bobcaygeon finally get a railway link, by then it was far too late for the mighty Boyd Lumber Company, Fenelon Falls was the new boom town.
The Fenelon Falls crossing had big implications for Kinmount as well. The new line was to follow the course of the Burnt River Valley north, crossing into Haliburton County at Kinmount. The sleepy little village in the valley of the Burnt was to be the halfway point on the railway. Somerville Township promptly granted the railway at $15,000 bonus, the same sum it gave the Coboconk line earlier. It was money well spent. Fell’s Station, Burnt River & Waton’s Siding all became railway stops. And the village of Kinmount flourished as never before.
Kinmount now had the trifecta for prosperity: river roads & railway. The sleepy village quickly grew from 50 souls to 500 permanent residents. Mills lined the Burnt River, employing men, creating markets for local products and attracting neighbouring residents to town. In short order, the Main Street was lined with impressive new businesses catering to the traffic generated by the railway line. Settlers from all over the area headed to Kinmount to sell, buy, shop and travel. Let the good times roll!
The Victoria Railway was not without problems. Money woes dogged the construction. It took 4 years (1874-1878) to complete the line to Haliburton. The railway never did go beyond Haliburton village. Labour shortages hindered construction, and a whole settlement of Icelanders was shipped in to work on their line. (See https://maryboro.ca/story/the-icelanders-at-kinmount/) The Burnt River was bridged at the Fenelon-Somerville line and again near Lochlin. Two huge trestles near Kinmount were necessary to cross Kendrick’s Creek & Rushworth’s/Crego Creek. Once the railway entered the Ottawa-Huron Tract, rock cuts in the granite of the Canadian Shield became necessary. Swamps had to be crossed & grades filled in. It cost a lot to build railways on the Shield fringe, and twice the Government of Ontario had to send more money. Was all this expense worth it?
From a profit point of view, the results were mixed. The line actually cost $900,000 to build. In its best year, 1880, the line handled 74,660 tons of freight and 63,390 passengers. A profit of $28,140 was realized. This rosy financial picture made the Victoria Railway a target for mergers. In 1881, the independent line was purchased by the Midland Railway (based in Peterborough) and in 1883 the Midland Railway Company was absorbed by the Grand Trunk. In 1923 Grand Trunk merged with the Canadian National (CNR).
This rosy financial picture as well the ‘aura’ of the railways led to the founding of a second railway line in the area; the Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa Railway. The Great IB&O met the Victoria Railway at Howland Junction, next stop north of Kinmount. Kinmount now had 4 trains a day go through town. A schedule for 1913:
6:00 am Mixed Train #32 Leaves Haliburton, arrival at Lindsay 8:50 pm
11:00 am Mixed Train #43 Leaves Lindsay for Howland Junction to connect with IB&O
2:40 pm Mixed Train #33 Leaves Lindsay, arrives at Haliburton 6:10 pm
6:10 pm Mixed Train #42 arrives Lindsay from Howland Junction.
All trains were “mixed” meaning that they carried both passengers & freight.
You can see by the times, these were not the express trains and stopped at all the flag stops in between. The slow progress through the back townships meant all trains travelled only 1 way per day, except for the IB&O connection. They stopped overnight and retraced their steps in the morning. All trains stopped in Kinmount. For a century, the railway rendered faithful service to the Kinmount area. In the era before motor cars, it was the primary means of contact with the rest of the world. In winter, when snow blocked all horse or foot traffic, the railway still operated. Major centres like Lindsay, Peterborough and even Toronto could be reached in a day’s travel via rail: not bad in the 1800s.
But times change, and the railway was doomed by progress. The lumber industry declined. Motor cars destroyed the passenger business and transport trucks dealt a death blow to the freight side. The writing was on the wall.
The Victoria Line was losing money long before CN applied for permission to abandon the line in the late 1970s. The official excuse was washouts at Black’s Rock, just north of Kinmount would be too expensive to repair; but everyone knew the truth: the age of railways was over. The locals were vociferous in their opposition to abandoning this piece of heritage. Municipal leaders went to CN headquarters in Toronto to protest. The CN official asked them how they travelled: their answer, by car. The point was made. There was no ‘last train’ on the Victoria Railway, like the IB&O had. The end came quietly. In 1982, the rails were ripped from the road bed and sold for razor blades. Most of them were stamped 1890 or 1894. The ties were salvaged as well, but in the spirit of forward thinking, the trestles, culverts and bridges were left intact. Local legend has it one local stood guard with his shotgun to ensure that the demolition crew left Crego Creek Trestle intact. CN sold the roadbed to the counties, and as one door closed, another opened.