The Great Western Railway

Location: Across Ontario; 1855-1882, headquartered in Hamilton, Ontario

Map of G.W.R. lines in Ontario [293 KB]
Map of Hamilton in 1858 [895 KB]

In the early 19th century, Southern Ontario was dotted with settlements separated by expanses of rough, tree-covered terrain. No railway existed at that time; the only modes of transportation were boat, horse, or foot.

In March of 1834, a group of businessmen combined efforts to obtain a charter for the name and construction of a railway, the London and Gore. This railway was to run from London, Ontario, to Burlington Bay in the District of Gore. Among the men involved was Allan MacNab, who was later to become Prime Minister.

Financial resources were difficult to obtain, so the project was all but abandoned until 1845, when the charter was renewed and amended. The name of the fledgeling freight and passenger railway was changed to The Great Western Railway (G.W.R.), and its mileage was expanded to cover the area between Windsor in the west and the Niagara River in the east. This new run was not originally intended to pass through Hamilton; it was MacNab who arranged for the line to bypass Brantford in favour of a route along Lake Ontario. He felt that Hamilton would be a "greater strength as a base for the promotion of railways." (Beer, p. 209) Once constructed, the G.W.R. would be the first railway in the city of Hamilton.

Great Western Railway's Locomotive #113, which was built in Rhode Island in 1871 (click for a closer look)Construction was begun on the G.W.R. in 1851, after the municipalities along the projected route bought great amounts of stock to finance the effort. Materials and locomotives had to be brought in from England and the United States, making their way to their final destination by ox-cart. On January 17, 1854, the first train set off from Niagara to Windsor. The official celebration in Hamilton took place two days later. Business in the city was suspended as residents crowded downtown to watch the parade and fireworks. The trains at the time ran, at most, 30 miles per hour, and the full 229-mile trip from Niagara to Windsor took seven hours.

The first year of the railway's existence proved to be successful for Hamilton. Industries were drawn to the city because of its location at the head of Lake Ontario, and because of the G.W.R.

In 1852, the Hamilton and Toronto Railway Company was incorporated to construct a line between Hamilton and Toronto. This line would be amalgamated as the Toronto Branch of the G.W.R. in 1857. Hamilton became the official headquarters of the G.W.R. in 1855.

On March 12, 1857, a tragedy occurred just west of Hamilton. A passenger train on its way from Toronto became derailed due to a broken axle and crashed into the icy waters of the Desjardins Canal, below the swing bridge. Fifty-nine lives were lost, and the mayor proclaimed March 16 to be a "Day of Humiliation". [Read an 1857 magazine article about the accident at]

Great Western Railway yards and station (Bay and Stuart Streets) in Hamilton, 1870 (click for a closer look) In 1860, shops were set up along the bayfront where engines would be built. Nine years later, the G.W.R. constructed a rolling mill in the city to reroll old and inferior iron nails. The G.W.R.'s rolling mill was the very first in Ontario, and one of the first industries in Hamilton. However, it would not be the last; in fact, it was the very presence of the mill, the shops, and the railway itself that led to the development of Hamilton as a manufacturing city: "The iron and steel industry came to Hamilton on a large scale when the locomotive shops and rolling mill of the Great Western Railway were set up here." (Evans, p. 177)

Unfortunately, in 1872, iron nails were being increasingly replaced by steel. Additionally, British investors were buying up large numbers of stocks, while the municipalities were selling theirs. These two factors led to the closing of the G.W.R. Rolling Mill. (The Rolling Mill eventually became the site of the Ontario Works plant of the Steel Company of Canada.) Eventually, the Canadian Board of Directors was dissolved, and the G.W.R. was entirely under British control.

In 1875, the G.W.R. built a new passenger station on Stuart Street, in the north end of Hamilton. The previous building was considered to be unsuitable for such a prosperous city.

By 1879, increasing competition from other railways (especially from the Grand Trunk Railway [G.T.R.]) and poor management from London, England, led to a tense financial situation. It appeared that the only alternative to giving up completely would be to amalgamate with the G.T.R. On August 12, 1882, the Great Western Railway became a part of the Grand Trunk Railway. The headquarters of the G.W.R. (as a branch of the G.T.R.) were moved to Montreal, Quebec. "On that date, Hamilton lost its railway." (Wentworth Bygones, no. 11, p. 43)

In 1923, the G.T.R. itself was taken over by the Canadian National Railways (C.N.R.). The original Stuart Street station of the G.W.R. (built in 1875) still stands, but is abandoned. It had been used as a station for the G.T.R., and then the C.N.R., until the latter built its own new station on James Street North at Murray Street in 1930.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence that the Great Western Railway had on the development of Hamilton. A few of the companies that set up shop in Hamilton between 1850 and 1882 are:

Other companies that are or were located on the tracks of the Great Western/Grand Trunk/Canadian National in Hamilton are:

The decision of Sir Allan MacNab to route the Great Western Railway through Hamilton made this city the industrial hub of Canada.




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