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railway icon Niagara Rails - Introduction

This set of pages is a survey study of the history of railway development in the Niagara Peninsula. It includes class 1 railways, bridge routes, minor roads, interurban & streetcar lines, industrial, temporary and tourist lines. Bridge routes favour through traffic over servicing on-line industries. Railways are grouped by the company that they were finally merged into.


Geographically, the Niagara Peninsula [ref2] is a land bridge between the rest of Ontario and New York, as well as being on the shortest route from New York to Michigan. As a result, many railways were constructed throughout the area. The Niagara Escarpment and the Niagara River created many challenges for railway builders.

map of niagara region

Niagara Region

Before the 1850's the Niagara Peninsula was a scattering of isolated settlements, inhabited primarily by natives, United Empire Loyalists, and British immigrants who had built the Welland Canal. Port Colborne's population was only 150 and Jordan's 200. Elgin (later renamed Niagara Falls) wasn't incorporated until 1853. Canada's economy was localized, consisting mainly of logging and subsistence agriculture. Manufactured goods were mostly imported from Great Britain and therefore expensive. In 1843 the British government had passed the Canada Corn Law Act, which placed lower tariffs on imports from its' colonies. This created a new market for Canadian grains, including wheat. But in 1846, the Corn Law Act was repealed, and as a result exports to Britain diminished. Prior to this there had been little trade with the United States, but it expanded rapidly thereafter, and with it the need for rail connections.

Railway lines were slow to develop in Canada. By 1850 there were 6600 miles of rail in Britain and 9000 miles in the U.S. but only 70 miles in Canada! The slow construction was due to three factors: a lack of capital; a small population (approximately 1.2 million) spread over a wide area; and a high interest in canal building. To help address the financial issue, the government of Canada West passed the Railway Guarantee Act of 1849, [Ref 2]. The Act provided financial backing on interest to any company building a railway over 75 miles long. This led to a boom in construction and by 1860 there was 2000 miles of railway. However, many of the lines were not economically viable, and the first railway bust soon followed.

Significant Dates in Niagara's Railroad History

Operational dates for publicly chartered railways and opening dates for international railway bridges.

The Gauge War

The term gauge refers to the distance between the inner edges of two railway rails. Gauges are categorized as: Broad (wider than standard gauge), Standard (4 ft 8.5 in) and Narrow (less than Standard Gauge). Engines and car trucks that are built for one gauge are not able to travel on rails of a different gauge.

In 1851 the Railway Guarantee Act of 1849 was amended to guarantee interest only to railways constructed using the Provincial Gauge of 5'6" (a broad gauge not used in the U.S.). The Provincial Gauge was specified for two reasons: 1. Strategic - To prevent the American military from using Canadian railways in any possible future invasions. Tensions were still high following the War of 1812 and the Patriot War of 1837. 2. Political - To encourage trade with Great Britain; since the required trans-shipment (transferring freight from cars of one gauge to another) would make commerce with the U.S. more expensive. At the time Canada was still a British Colony, and very much bound to the will of British Parliament.

However in the mid 1850's political attitudes changed radically. Lord Elgin promoted Responsible Government and in 1854 negotiated the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty. This treaty removed duties and tariffs on agricultural goods and primary resources. As a result, there was an increase in cross-border trade. But the different track gauges presented problems as rail freight had to be trans-shipped at border crossings. Accordingly, two alternatives were tried: dual gauge tracks (requiring a third rail) by the GWR [1864] and adjustable gauge trucks by the GTR [1868]. However neither method proved satisfactory and conversion to Standard Gauge became necessary. The GWR completed its conversion in 1872 and the GTR in 1873. The Grand Trunk Railway was the last Provincial Gauge line in Niagara to convert to Standard Gauge. The Railway Guarantee Act was rescinded in 1870.

Bridging the Niagara

The Niagara River is wide, fast flowing, treacherous near the falls and lies in a deep gorge for many miles. Until the mid 1840's bridge engineering technology was inadequate for these challenges. Experience in bridge stabilization and advances in the design and manufacture of wire rope allowed suspension spans of the required length. A process to manufacture inexpensive steel developed by 1858 led to improved crossings later in the century.

The first bridges to cross the Niagara River could only sustain foot and horse-drawn wagon traffic. In 1848 the Niagara River Suspension Bridge was constructed three miles downstream (north) of Niagara Falls. Passengers and freight arriving by train had to be moved across the bridge by horse and wagon and then reloaded. In 1851 the Queenston-Lewiston Suspension Bridge was constructed near the north end of the Niagara River. It was destroyed by wind in 1854.

In 1855 the first Railway Suspension Bridge, [ref 2] across the Niagara River opened at Niagara Falls. Because no common rail gauge existed, four rails were laid to accommodate cars of three gauges: 4'8.5" (New York Central), 5'6" (Great Western) and 6' (Erie).

In 1873 the southern end of the Niagara River was finally spanned. The International Railway Bridge [ref2] was built from Bridgeburg (Ft. Erie) to Black Rock (Buffalo). A bridge at this location had been proposed in 1857, but could not be constructed for several reasons: the lack of funds due to the American Civil War; the width of the river made a suspension bridge too costly; and the fast flow of the river prevented pier construction using cofferdams. After the caisson method for building pier foundations was created, construction finally begun on a multiple pier and truss structure. Special design and construction techniques also had to be developed so that the large amounts of ice that flow into the Niagara River from Lake Erie, wouldn't damage the piers. The International Railway Bridge was first used by the Canada Southern and the Grand Trunk.

Later bridges used for railway operations across the Niagara were:

Climbing the Escarpment

The Niagara Escarpment is an extreme altitude change of up to 155 feet that created challenges for both canal and railway construction. The First Welland Canal [Ref 2], [Ref 3] was opened in 1829 between Lake Ontario [Port Dalhousie] and the Niagara River [Port Robinson]. Locks (originally made of wood, and later stone) were constructed near Allenburg to raise and lower the ships. In 1833 the canal was extended to Lake Erie at Port Colborne. In the mid 19th century steam engines were not capable of climbing grades of more than two percent. Railway lines required hill cuts (requiring rock blasting, excavating and removal), long grades or a combination.

The TH&B built a long, gentle grade at Grassie (east of Stoney Creek). The GWR built a gentle grade with a short hill cut east of St. Catharines. The E&O constructed a steep grade at St. Davids. The Welland Railway used an even steeper grade at Merritton/Thorold. Electric railway cars were considerably lighter than steam engines and capable of much steeper grades requiring no rock cuts. The NS&T had steep grades on its two lines at Merritton/Thorold. The grade at historic Queenston Heights was so steep (approx 5.7%) that the NFP&R was forced to use a dangerous loopback turn half way down. It also required a secondary steam-electric generator for extra power.

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