A Brief History of the Oshawa Railway

oshawa-railway-logo.gif

Oshawa Railway logo, courtesy David A. Wyatt.

By James Bow

Today, the City of Oshawa lives a dual existence. As urban sprawl and the expansion of GO Transit service brings this city closer into the embrace of the Greater Toronto Area, the new commuter-based subdivisions bely the city’s extensive history of manufacturing and shipping. Today, Oshawa has a population of 150,000, but the history of its development goes back more than two centuries. Like the city of Hamilton to the west, Oshawa was the home to its own street railway network, distinct from Toronto’s influence. Indeed, the Oshawa Railway and Navigation Company, as it was called, was a unique operation that combined interurban passenger cars that never left the Oshawa city limits, and electric freight motors that served a rising industry that was threatening electric streetcars throughout North America with extinction.

This article describes the history of the Oshawa Railway and Navigation Company and, with it, the early history of public transportation in Durham Region.

The Beginning of Oshawa

Early non-native settlement of Oshawa likely began in the mid-to-late 1700s, as French fur traders used the harbour as a stopping point to collect furs for shipping to trading posts around the mouth of the Credit River. Ontario was largely wilderness to the Europeans. Following the American Revolution, the settlement of Upper Canada focused on the western end of Lake Ontario as well as along the St. Lawrence River, leaving the shores in between sparsely populated. When Colonel Asa Danforth and his men laid down the York-to-Kingston Road, it passed the site of today’s Oshawa, but few people chose to settle there.

This changed in 1822 with the construction of a “colonization road”, known as Simcoe Street, running from the natural harbour at Lake Ontario north to Lake Scugog. At the intersection between this road and Kingston Road, the first businesses set up, starting with a general store and post office. This hamlet was initially known as Skae’s Corners (after the proprietor of the general store, Edward Skae) until 1842 when Skae applied to the government for official post office status. Local legend has it that Skae was told that the community needed a better name. Moody Farewell, a friend of Skae, was asked to consult with native acquaintances about their name for the area, and was told that it was called “Oshawa”, meaning “the place where we must leave our canoes”. The name was accepted for the new post office and, in 1850, the area was incorporated into the Village of Oshawa.

The Railways Come to Oshawa

Industries soon set up shop at Oshawa, bringing jobs and prosperity. In 1856, the Grand Trunk Railway opened its line between Toronto and Montreal. This railway, along with Oshawa’s natural harbour, proved enticing for such businessmen as Robert Samuel McLaughlin, Sr., who moved his carriage construction company to Oshawa from Enniskillen in 1876 — making him possibly Oshawa’s first car maker. Oshawa became a town in 1879, and it boasted a population of 4,063 in 1891.

In the mid 1880s, two Oshawa businessmen, Mr. Hugo Rathbun and Captain R.C. Carter, saw an opportunity to boost and take advantage of this development, by building a railroad that connected with the Grand Trunk line at the northern end of the city with Oshawa’s port. Such a railroad could help transport building materials into the city, help local industries move more products to market, and provide more convenient transportation for passengers. Thus they chartered the Oshawa Railway and Navigation Company on June 23, 1887.

Rathbun and Carter charter gave them extensive powers to build their railway in and around Oshawa. It specified connections between the port and the villages of Murtle, Burketon, Lindsay and Bobcaygeon north of the town, as well as branches to Whitby and Bowmanville. The company was also given the right to operate ferry service on all water the railway touched, and to buy whatever land or construct whatever warehouses they needed to make the railroad work.

In spite of this enthusiastic support from the Dominion government, construction of the Oshawa Railway was slow to start and the company ran into financial difficulties almost immediately. Local property owners resisted the purchase of right-of-way, and vocal opposition to the venture grew. It took extensive negotiations, but finally the details of the franchise were nailed down, giving the new railway rights to operate over certain streets, and $5,000 subsidy from various levels of government. The name of the railroad was officially changed to the Oshawa Railway Company on August 28, 1891. Construction finally began in May 1894. Indeed, building materials arrived so suddenly at the nearby sidings of the Grand Trunk Railway, it took some residents by surprise.

Rails Up Simcoe

The focus of the Oshawa Railway was on Simcoe Street, through the middle of Oshawa. Not only did this serve the most residents, giving them connections with the town’s downtown, it was also the most direct route between the Port of Oshawa and the Grand Trunk Railway north of the city. Nine miles of main line were built, north from the lake, along with two miles of double-track and one mile of passing siding. The railroad was built to be electric from the start. The line opened to the public on June 13, 1895. The fare was six cents a ride, or five tickets for 25 cents. The first order of freight was a shipment of sheet metal delivered to the Pedlar Metal Roofing Company.

The railway proved very useful to the industries of Oshawa. Although revenues from passenger service was light, due to the small population of Oshawa, freight shipments were enough to pay the bills. However, in 1898, things changed as founder F.S. Rathbun passed away, leaving his son E.W. Rathbun to inherit the business. Relations between the railway and the Town of Oshawa became strained as both parties argued about the location and the maintenance of the rail. Oshawa demanded that concrete be poured between the tracks so that the railway’s street sweepers wouldn’t whip up a hailstorm of gravel and stones as they cleared snow. Rathbun was reluctant to cover the expense.

By 1910, a compromise was reached to re-lay and repave the tracks, with the town footing at least some of the bill. It’s likely that part of this compromise was reached because E.W. Rathbun was leaving the company. On March 1, 1911, the operations of the Oshawa Railway was contracted to the Grand Trunk Railway. A year later, Grand Trunk purchased the Oshawa Railway outright, maintaining it as a subsidiary corporation, independent from the main company.

A Portrait in 1911

In 1911, the Town of Oshawa commissioned the Ontario Reformer printing house to produce a 36-page publication called The Oshawa Illustrated, promoting the businesses and “natural advantages and resources of Oshawa” to prospective investors. The Oshawa Railway was praised as follows:

“One of the greatest assistants to the growth and prosperity of Oshawa is The Oshawa Railway Company, who operate passenger, express and freight service to every part of town, to Oshawa Junction and to Oshawa-on-the-Lake.

“The Oshawa Railway Company was incorporated in 1889, but did not begin operation until 1895. Ever since that time a continuous and convenient service has been given. Cars meet every train and deliver passengers directly to every hotel. All express and baggage is brought up town by special cars, and incoming and outgoing freight is brought to and from the Grand Trunk Railway and the various factories, coal yards, etc., by means of freight trolleys. Manufacturers are supplied with switches and sidings so that the freight cars may be brought right to the factory, thus making the matter of receiving raw material and coal, and the shipping of the finished product, a simple and expeditious matter.

“A regular passenger service is run to Oshawa-on-the-Lake to the South, and to the town limits and the Fair Grounds on the North, the fare being five cents. The service is an excellent one, conductors and motormen are courteous and obliging, and the feeling between Company and employees has never been marked by any unpleasantness.

The General Manager of the Oshawa Railway Company os Mr. E.W. Rathbun of Deseronto, while the management of affairs in Oshawa is in the hands of Mr. D.A. Valleau, Superintendent. Mr. Valleau has had a long training in railway work, having been engaged in survey work in 1886, railway construction 1889 and 1890, despatcher and assistant superintendent 1890-1908, and Superintendent at Oshawa sine 1908 to the present. He has the faculty of keeping everything running smoothly and is always ready to oblige the manufacturers, business men, and general public in any way possible. He is an indefatigable worker and a splendid organizer and manager.

Expansion and War

The purchase of the Oshawa Railway by the Grand Trunk Railway gave the GTR direct access to the industries within Oshawa, although the company’s charter required that electric service be continued.

It’s at this time that another electric player enters into the Oshawa market. In 1910, the Toronto Eastern Railway was chartered, with a plan to connect the City of Toronto to Bowmanville via a high-speed interurban line. The line and its assets were acquired by the Canadian Northern Railway the following year (part of the Mackenzie and Mann empire, who also owned the Toronto & York Radial Railways and held the charter for the Toronto Railway company). Tracks were laid down on a private right-of-way stretching from Whitby to Bowmanville between 1912 and 1913, crossing Oshawa along an east-west path running north of King Street and passing through the Ontario Missionary College (today known as Kingsway College).

Construction halted in 1913 due to financial difficulties, and no connection built between Whitby and Toronto. The rails would have languished, were it not for a spur running east from Mary Street connecting the Oshawa Railway to the Toronto Eastern Railway, giving the Oshawa Railway access to more of the city’s industries.

The First World War increased traffic on the Oshawa Railway, as the factories of the town ramped up production of munitions and other military equipment, and increased demand for workers to man the new jobs. The Oshawa Railway grew considerably at this time, adding new sidings and spurs, as well as new shunter equipment to move freight cars to and from the interchanges with the three railway mainlines that connected with the town through the electric railway.

Takeover by Canadian National

The Oshawa Railway emerged from the First World War with an extensive network that was now 18 miles long. It had six freight locomotives and eight passenger cars. There was a lot of business to be done. However, relations with the town council again soured. Oshawa mayor William J. Trick complained bitterly about the condition of the streets the railroad had tracks on, and stated that the railway had failed to provide service to the city’s fringes, limiting suburban development and contributing to a housing crisis in the city’s downtown. Mayor Trick proposed that the town council take over operation of the railway, but he did not have the political backing to make his proposal happen.

Instead, Grand Trunk Railway went bankrupt, brought down by a downturn in the economy and an ill-advised transcontinental project. When Canadian National Railways absorbed Grand Trunk in 1923, the operations of the Oshawa Railway were merged into Canadian National Electric Railways. The Oshawa portion of the Toronto Eastern Railway, also a CN property, was formally incorporated into the Oshawa Railway at this time, running from Mary Street east to the Ontario Missionary College.

Operation by Grand Trunk and the Canadian National Electric Railways meant that the Oshawa Railway was treated more as an electric interurban line than a city streetcar operation, even though the tracks were never extended beyond Oshawa’s boundaries. Canadian National supplied the Oshawa Railway with similar equipment as its other electric lines, including the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway.

The Decline and Fall of Passenger Service

The Oshawa Railway expanded further in the 1920s. The town it served was incorporated as a city on March 8, 1924. The main line was extended north to Rossland Road, and the tracks on Bond Street from the aborted Toronto Eastern Railway were incorporated into the railway. Canadian National also extended wires down a spur into its North Oshawa Yard to provide another connection between the main railroad and its subsidiary, relieving traffic congestion on the original interchange with the Grand Trunk Railway in the south of the city.

Oshawa’s industry was growing in leaps and bounds, with General Motors leading the way as a major employer. Oshawa’s automotive industry dates back as far as 1907, when the McLaughlin Carriage Company (mentioned earlier in this article) began manufacturing Buick automobiles under the McLaughlin name. McLaughlin’s local owners had entered into a partnership with American “Billy” Durant and when, in 1908, Durant founded General Motors, the McLaughlin operations were soon merged with the American company, forming General Motors of Canada. By the mid 1920s, GM deliveries was commanding a lot of the Oshawa Railway’s freight traffic.

Ironically, the Oshawa Railway was serving one of the industries that was spelling doom to its passenger rail business. The onset of the Great Depression had an even greater effect, reducing traffic and revenues. With the start of the Second World War, Canadian National decided to end passenger rail service on January 27, 1940, replacing the streetcars with a fleet of buses operated by Canadian National Transport Limited. Unused tracks were quickly torn up and melted down for the war effort.

Freight operations continued, however, serving the factories that were again building munitions and equipment for the war. The need for service remained even after the war ended, as the factories switched back to serve the burgeoning American economy. In 1950, General Motors opened the Oshawa Car Assembly plant, one of the largest automotive plants in North America, becoming the biggest driver of jobs in the city.

The Twilight Years

Canadian National transferred ownership of the Oshawa Railroad holdings, including its tracks and its bus services, to the City of Oshawa’s Public Utilities Commission on December 3, 1959. Looking to improve road conditions for the city’s automobile drivers, the PUC decided to cut back on the rail network, paving over or removing all tracks on Simcoe Street, as well as any other not needed for freight access. Bus operations were handed to the newly founded Oshawa Transit Commission, while the remnant railway was operated as a connection between Canadian National and client industries. The electric freight locomotives were on their last legs. On May 11, 1963, the City of Oshawa held a parade to mark the removal of tracks on King Street. The end of electric operations followed at the end of that month.

The Oshawa Railway continued quietly as a diesel operation for Canadian National until June 27, 1964, before the remaining rails were absorbed into CN proper, and the Oshawa Railway vanished into history.

The Oshawa Railway thrived, but then was done in by its unique operation as an integrated electric operation serving both passengers and freight within the City of Oshawa. The freight traffic allowed the Oshawa Railway to remain profitable, even in the face of low passenger volumes, but it also confused the mandate of the railway. Did it serve the needs of a growing city’s populace, or its industrial base? This probably precluded the possibility of Oshawa replacing its streetcar operations with trolley coaches, as the Hamilton Street Railway did when streetcar services needed replacing in the late 1940s.

Still, the Oshawa Railway represents the beginnings of public transportation for the City of Oshawa, and its routes were the core of the city’s bus network as it grew and eventually merged to form Durham Region Transit.

Preservation

When passenger service on the Oshawa Railway ended in 1940, some equipment shifted over to Canadian National Eletric Railway’s other operations, but many of these were abandoned soon after, before a number of museums were around to take over and preserve the equipment. Freight motors continued to operate for another two decades, however, and were thus retired when there were more museums around to save the locomotives from the scrap heap.

One example was Oshawa Railway electric freight motor #45 served the Oshawa Railway from 1925 to 1963 when it was retired. In 1965, it was donated to the Halton County Radial Railway for preservation, and it continues to serve the museum as a showpiece and a workhorse (as an overhead wire maintenance vehicle) to this day. Another example was Oshawa Railway steeplecab locomotive #18, which was donated to the Connecticut Trolley museum in the mid 1960s. It remains at the museum and has been called “one of the most travelled item of equipment at the museum”. Oshawa Railway freight motor #300 was also preserved, currently operating at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

As Oshawa’s industries changed and redeveloped, the private right-of-way saw a decrease in traffic until the rails were finally abandoned. In recent years, the tracks were taken up, and the right-of-way repurposed into the Michael Starr Trail running through the centre of Oshawa. The trail officially opened to the public on October 11, 2001.


Oshawa Railway Image Archive

Oshawa Railway Company Passenger Bus Roster (1940-1959)

Fleet #

Year

Maker

Class/Model

Notes:

1-9

1940

Yellow Coach

TG-2101

 

1

1949

Fitzjohn

Duraliner

Ex Mackenzie Thru Lines.

104-107

8/1950

Fitzjohn

Cityliner 310

to Oshawa Transit Commission 104-107

108-112

12/1950

Fitzjohn

Cityliner 310

to Oshawa Transit Commission 108-112

113

1950

White

8M2B

 

114-120, 300-301, 400-401

1951

White

8M2B

 

148-149

?

CC&F

C-36?

 

150-153

1947

CC&F

C-36

 

154-155

1947

CC&F

C-36TC

 

156-157

1948

CC&F

C-36TC

 

158-160

1950

CC&F

C-36TC

 

161-162

1950

CC&F

C-36ATC

 

163-164

1951

CC&F

C-36ATC

 

References

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