Georgian Bay and Wellington
Grand Trunk, Georgian Bay & Lake Erie
Port Dover & Lake Huron
Stratford & Huron
Unlike a handful of other planned lines that existed only
on paper, the Georgian Bay & Wellington was a real railway, though
its life was exceedingly short. From concept to takeover occupied a
brief period of three years.
Early in 1878, a group of businessmen from Mount Forest and Durham,
with additional support from Guelph, met to plan a new railway to tap
lake traffic at Owen Sound. At that time a "land bridge" across
southwestern Ontario had captured the popular imagination. Such a route
would shorten the all-water route, via the Detroit River, Lake Erie,
and either the Welland Canal or the Erie Canal, for shipments to and
from the American midwest. A side benefit would be the ability of Ontario
mills and factories to tap this traffic for processing in Ontario.
In truth, the idea was folly. The Toronto, Grey and Bruce line had already
connected Owen Sound with Toronto and Lake Ontario. As well, most traffic,
other than grain, was already moving on east-west routes via rail.
Despite the dubious prospects for their plans, the Mount Forest and
Durham men pushed ahead, incorporating the Wellington and Georgian Bay
Railway in March, 1878. By then they had worked themselves into a fervour
that they soon discovered was not shared by those outside their small
group. A few of the men were well-to-do, but no one involved in the
organization possessed much capital, certainly not sufficient to build
a railway. Borrowing, in the depressed economy of the late 1870s, would
be impossible on a large scale.
The organizers of the line reluctantly scaled back their plans. By the
end of 1878, they decided that a much shorter line, from Palmerston
to Durham, via Mount Forest, more closely matched their limited resources.
Such a route would provide Durham with its first rail line, and Mount
Forest with its second, but one offering a more direct connection with
The provincial legislature provided first and second reading for a charter,
and it received royal assent in 1879. The name of the company was flipped:
it would be called the Georgian Bay & Wellington, with authorization
to build from Durham to Palmerston, where the line would connect with
existing lines there. That distance was about 27 miles.
The charter authorized up to $100,000 in capital stock, and required
that $25,000 of stock be subscribed, and 10% of that paid in, before
construction could commence.
That provision was met in October 1878. Other than $1,000 subscribed
by Holstein residents, all the rest came from Durham and Mount Forest.
The provisional directors met for the first time in Durham on Oct. 10,
1878. A full shareholders meeting followed on Nov. 4.
The shareholders elected Gilbert McKechnie as president
and James McMullen, the Mount Forest businessman and future MP and senator,
as vice-president. The directors included all the MPPs from the area,
plus a sprinkling of reeves and mayors. Though lacking financing, the
company had excellent political connections. The MPPs on the board promised
to push for a large provincial subsidy.
Though there was only $2,500 in the till, from the down
payments made by shareholders, the provisional directors lost no time
in making a start. They contracted with the Great Western Railway's
engineering department to run a preliminary survey from Palmerston to
By then the municipalities on that route had promised a total of $155,000
in financial aid. Palmerston promised $15,000, as did Mount Forest,
but Minto and Arthur Townships declined to contribute. Durham chimed
in for $25,000, and the rest came from townships in Grey County.
The municipal contributions, together with the shareholders' capital,
worked out to about $7,000 per mile for the first section. The engineer
optimistically estimated that construction of the first section could
be completed for $10,000 per mile. With buildings and equipment, the
total cost of the line would be $12,000 per mile at the barest minimum,
and a figure of at least $18,000 was more realistic. The directors had
a long way to go in financing their line.
Extension from Durham to Owen Sound would come later, when resources
permitted. The rural areas north of Durham, lacking good transportation,
retained optimism for the line, as did Owen Sound, where civic leaders
viewed their town as a potential major lake port. Eight townships plus
Owen Sound offered a total of $259,000 in aid to the building of the
line beyond Durham.
Soon after receiving their charter early in 1879, the directors awarded
the contract for the first section, from Palmerston to Durham, to Frank
Shanly, one of the major rail contractors in Canada. His bid was absurdly
low, $127,000 for the 25 miles of line. Shanly had a habit of bidding
extremely low in order to secure contracts, then coming back to the
company for more money when the original amount ran out and the line
was not yet completed. That is precisely what happened, in March of
The GB&W faced a growing pile of bills by then, with no cash on
hand. The directors were either unwilling or unable to supply more working
capital themselves, and decided against issuing any more stock. They
found it impossible to borrow. Their bank, the Ontario Bank, was itself
on shaky ground, and could offer no further assistance. There was money
promised by municipalities, but most of that was conditional on the
completion of various stages in the work.
By then, the Grand Trunk Railway, whose main east-west line passed through
Guelph, had began an aggressive expansion policy. Joseph Hickson, its
president, was fearful of competition from various other lines in Ontario.
His policy, backed up by the line's British directors, was to buy up
everything in site.
Initially, Hickson offered advice to the GB&W, but within a few
months he became heavily involved in its affairs. The GB&W directors
had desired to maintain autonomy over their line, but that had become
impossible due to the immense cost of construction. Reluctantly the
GB&W directors signed an agreement whereby they would grade the
roadbed between Palmerston and Durham, and the GTR would provide rails
and equipment. The GTR would then acquire the capital stock of the company.
That effectively meant the end of the Georgian Bay & Wellington
as an independent company.
In March 1881, the GTR folded the GB&W into a new subsidiary, the
Grand Trunk, Georgian Bay & Lake Erie, along with two lines it already
controlled, the Stratford & Huron and the Port Dover & Lake
Huron. Altogether that added 194 miles of line to the Grand Trunk system.
The cost was $13,350 in cash to the shareholders of the three companies,
and the assumption of a total of $1.5-million in debts.
That worked out to $8,000 per mile, a high price for poorly-constructed
and wandering branch lines that had little potential of ever operating
at a profit.
In 1877, the Grand Trunk had taken control of those other two companies,
the Port Dover & Lake Huron and the Stratford & Huron. The GTR
completed construction of the lines, which together provided a route
from Wiarton to Port Dover via Harriston, Palmerston and Stratford.
The GTR took plenty of time in completing the line between Palmerston
and Durham. The goal was to keep the route out of the hands of others,
rather than to gain a valuable branch.
The Durham line was complete in January 1882, and service began soon
Durham always was the terminus of the line. The extension to Owen Sound
never materialized. Those plans died, along with the vision of the Mount
Forest businessmen who tried to build and control their own local railroad.
The Georgian Bay and Wellington Railway became a minor footnote in the
rail history of Canada.
For its part, the Grand Trunk absorbed the other major railway in Ontario,
the Great Western, soon afterward, giving it a monopoly in many localities,
and turning Palmerston into a one-company town.
James McMullen, the Mount Forest merchant who pushed the Georgian Bay
& Wellington as much as anyone, left his store and his seat on council
to become the Member of Parliament for North Wellington in 1882.
Wilfrid Laurier appointed him to the Senate in 1902, where he served
until his death in 1913.