Recently, our local newspaper (MOUNTAIN NEWS; www.hamiltonnews.com), in conjunction with Canada’s 150th anniversary included an article on the origin of Hamilton’s railway infrastructure. This led me to conduct some additional research on the origin of the former Canadian National branch line from Hamilton to Port Dover.
As is commonly known, Sir Allan MacNab is widely credited with having the tremendous foresight to view the mid 1800’s then-newfangled railway technology as the means to achieve city building, even nation building. Deploying shrewd political persuasion along with considerable investment prowess, MacNab was able to have the construction of the Great Western Railway Niagara Falls to Detroit line routed through Hamilton, with rails arriving in the harbour town in January of 1854. MacNab would subsequently become president of the Hamilton and Port Dover Railway (originally chartered in 1835) in 1855 and immediately formulate a plan to join the two adjacent Great Lakes, Ontario and Erie by steel. Such a link would provide access to the United States, in particular the Appalachian coal fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The task would prove to be both formidable and lengthy. The initial hurdle, surmounting the 330 foot high Niagara escarpment, would require five miles of right of way, consume approximately one million 1860’s dollars, and take some three years to complete. Having overcome the first obstacle, further progress of the line stalled, pending the sourcing of additional funding. In 1869, with several additional Hamilton financiers in the fold, the Hamilton and Port Dover Railway (having already absorbed the virtually identically chartered Hamilton and Southwestern Railway Company in 1856) became the Hamilton and Lake Erie Railway Company. Further to championing the next geographical challenge, bridging of the Grand River in Caledonia, service to Jarvis was established by 1873. Attaining the by then long time goal of reaching Port Dover on the shore of Lake Erie would consumer another five years and involved yet another amalgamation; combining the 1872 chartered Hamilton and Northwestern Railway with the Hamilton and Lake Erie Railway in 1875.
The vision and legacy of Sir Allan MacNab is hard to overstate. As mentioned, he orchestrated the economically vital path of the Great Western Railway to include Hamilton. Further, he persuaded the railway to locate their major rolling stock and locomotive construction/repair shop complex in his fair city. The GW facility would establish an industrial base and spawn enterprises that still have descendants located in the city to this day. Most noteworthy would be Canada’s best known steel makers Stelco (The Steel Company of Canada) and Dofasco (Dominion Foundries and Steel Company). Access to Appalachian coal and the natural harbour facility together with the expanding railway network were cornerstones in Hamilton becoming the Steel Capital of Canada. Sadly, Sir Allan MacNab would not live to see much of his Great Lake joining vision unfold. MacNab would pass away at age sixty-four in 1862 just as his Hamilton and Port Dover was mired in the process of climbing the Niagara Escarpment. However, his spirit may still have an eye on the Hamilton railway scene; his home, long ago preserved as the museum known as ‘Dundurn Castle’ overlooks the Canadian National Railway’s Stuart Street Yard complex (currently sub-leased to Genesee and Wyoming’s Southern Ontario Railway). Not sure he would be pleased about the presence of the American interlopers, however.
As shown on the map below, atop the escarpment, the H&LE chartered line runs virtually arrow straight to Caledonia. Despite increasingly sporadic service on the line, the track structure and subgrade was well maintained right up until the very end.