How Kilsyth Almost Got a Train Station

The 1850s was the decade of railway fever in Canada West. Every community from the tiniest hamlet campaigned to have a railway line – and the citizens of the Township of Derby were among them. We don’t know if the Flemings invested in railway bonds, but they must have followed the local Council meetings, and they eventually benefited from improved access to markets for their produce and greater ease of travel.

Image: The Toronto Grey and Bruce, Toronto and Nipissing, and Lake Simcoe Junction Railways 1877. Adapted by Rod Clarke from map of the Province of Ontario by James Campbell & Son of Toronto, 1874. The TG&BR extension from Teeswater to Kinloss was never built. Map also shows Northern Railway Toronto-Barrie-Collingwood-Meaford.

In the 1850s, railway building was booming. Over 2,000 miles of track were laid in the provinces of British North America. [i] By 1859 the Grand Trunk Railway ran from Quebec City, through Montreal and Toronto, to Sarnia, with extensions to Chicago, Illinois and Portland, Maine. Its rival, the Great Western, had lines from Niagara Falls to Windsor through Hamilton and London and connecting to Toronto.   The Northern Railway (previously the Toronto, Simcoe and Huron Railroad) reached Collingwood from Barrie in 1855.[ii] Jennie Fleming took this route for her trip to Toronto in 1869.[iii] But the great triangle of the Queen’s Bush along Lake Huron, the west half of Georgian Bay and south along the Garafraxa Road was unserved.   

Derby Township became involved with railway mania in July 1857 when Mr. Carney and Mr. W.A. Stephens came as a deputation from a railroad committee in Owen Sound – “to solicit a grant of money to aid in procuring the passing of the ByLaw for taking stock in the Toronto and Owen Sound Central Railway” (T&OSCR). Council was immediately enthusiastic and moved to set up a fund of 12 Pounds and 10 Shillings towards getting “sanction” from the ratepayers to buy ₤ 100,000. Further, Reeve Sam Jones and the Council expressed their thanks to the deputation “for affording them an opportunity of expressing their desire to see Railway communication afforded to the County of Grey and for honoring them with the first call for pecuniary assistance towards that object.” [iv]  The proposal, complete with routes, costs and benefits, and considerations, was documented by J.W. Tate in the Report on the proposed route of the Toronto and Owen Sound central railway.[v] The proposed route would run from Weston, up the Humber Valley to Mono Mills, across to Orangeville, north to Chatsworth and from there either along the Sydenham Valley through part of Derby Township or along another stream to the north of Owen Sound.[vi] 

Typically developers looked to municipalities to levy taxes on their ratepayers to pay a portion of the cost. Many were eager to do in expectation of substantial economic and financial benefits to themselves and the area. The bonus was a debenture to be paid off by the municipality through an annual tax levy.

The T&OSCR plan fizzled. Unfortunately for Grey and Bruce counties, railway development in the 1860s stalled due to the Civil War in the United States and the economic and political uncertainty of the British North American negotiations for Confederation. The low population of the two counties put them at a considerable disadvantage: There would not be sufficient outbound shipments of grain and timber to warrant the cost, nor inbound shipments of supplies and equipment. In 1861 Grey had a population of only 37,750. In 1871 it had grown to 59,395, but density was still sparse, and 68% of the land was still uncleared. [vii] Bruce was even smaller, with 27,499 in 1861 and 48,515 in 1871.[viii]

Some postulated that if costs were lower, new rail routes could be made more attractive to investors. George Laidlaw, an immigrant from Scotland with a strong interest in rail, proposed a narrow gauge line of tracks three feet six inches apart. He reasoned that the narrow gauge would require less land, be cheaper in labour and materials, and allow tighter curves and steeper inclines.    With Toronto business support, he succeeded in securing the charter for the Toronto Grey & Bruce Railway (TG&BR) in March 1868 “to build from Toronto to Orangeville, Mount Forest, Durham and Southampton; with a branch to Kincardine and Owen Sound.”[ix]  He embarked on soliciting money from the municipalities in the form of bonus debentures. Derby Township Council was quick on the draw and, in January 1868, had already appointed R.L. Frost as its delegate to the railway meetings taking place in Durham and Walkerton. [x]

Ultimately, eleven townships in Grey County paid a total bonus of $300,000 for 58 miles ($5,200 per mile) for about 6,800 households.[xi] Derby Township was one of those to grant a bonus to the TG&BR. [xii]

The originally planned route of Mount Forest to Owen Sound was seen to be too difficult in terrain and river bridging, and instead, the rail bed was laid along the Toronto Sydenham Road to Chatsworth onto Rockford Castle (now Rockford). Because of the steepness of the Sydenham valley, the route had to be laid in a great arc south of Owen Sound and around to reach the harbour from the north. Owen Sound and Grey County made their bonuses conditional on the line being finished in January 1873, but problems with supplies and weather delayed completion for a year.[xiii] The first mixed train of two cars for passengers and three for freight arrived in Owen Sound on 9 August 1874. Four hundred people attended the grand opening on 9 October 1874. At long last, wheat and other goods could be shipped out of Owen Sound during winter.

Image: Fairlie Locomotive – double-ended steam locomotive delivered to the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway in 1872. Courtesy The Grey Roots Archival Collection.

But TG&BR immediately ran into trouble. There were several competing railways using the wider standard gauge of four feet eight and a half inches, the TG&BR track and bridges were already; deteriorating, and the company was unable to meet payments of dividends on bonds.[xiv] Holding on by a thread, the TG&BR converted to standard gauge by 1881 and, in seeking financing, eventually conceded to a takeover in 1884 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had the advantage of meshing its rail operation with its steamship services out of Owen Sound.

Concurrently, several railway projects in Southern Ontario were still petitioning municipalities for aid. The Township of Derby received requests from the Stratford and Lake Huron Railway and the Georgian Bay and Wellington Railway (GB&WR) in December 1878. Council quickly struck an agreement with GB&WR in February 1879.[xv] This was a sweet deal, as described in Bylaw 9 of 1878. Had it worked out, Kilsyth would have had a train station. Council voted $23,000 for debentures assuming a 6% interest rate to support the GB&WR over 20 years. The Railway was “To erect and maintain a freight and passenger station in Kilsyth near Main St, within ¼ mile of town hall.”[xvi] This was to come into effect on 31 December 1879, and the work completed in six months. It must not have worked out well. A few months later, in 1880, James Fleming, with James Cochrane and William Brien, formed a deputation from the ratepayers “to guard the interest of the ratepayers.”[xvii]  Something was awry.

It is unlikely that the Township of Derby paid any of this. In March 1888, the Stratford and Huron was merged with Georgian Bay and Wellington to form the Grand Trunk Georgian Bay & Lake Erie Railway. No line came anywhere near Kilsyth, although the Grand Trunk did extend a line to Owen Sound from its Wiarton line at Parkhead Junction in Bruce County in 1890. [xviii] All lines were eventually taken over by the Canadian National Railway.


Old Time Trains: Toronto Grey and Bruce, by R.L.Kennedy – concise and illustrated history of the TG&R. (2018 last update)

Charles Cooper’s Railway Pages: Grey and Bruce Counties, by Charles Cooper- extensive site on the history of railways in Canada – mainly Ontario, and other railway interests.

1854 Railroad Petition: The Start of a Long and Arduous Journey, by Rebecca Shaw, Grey Roots Museum and Archives (2015) – about the failed effort in 1854 to make Owen Sound the northern terminus.

[i] Rod Clarke, Narrow Gauge Through the Bush: Ontario’s Toronto Grey & Bruce and Toronto & Nipissing Railways, (Rod Clarke and Ralph Beaumont, 2007), p 16.

[ii] Why Collingwood became the terminus rather than Owen Sound has been much examined.  Owen Sound had the better harbour and was a shorter route to the upper lakes. Paul White in Owen Sound – The Port City attributes the loss to the over confident actions of Richard Carney, editor of the Times, to discourage Owen Sound businesses from offering enticements to the rail company, whereas Collingwood did the opposite. (p 45-46)

[iii] See her Diary of 1869 in which she notes the station stops and describes the scenery.

[iv] “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 18 July 1857, pp 32-33. Microfilm GS 2228 . Archives of Ontario

[v] J.W. Tate, Report on the proposed route of the Toronto and Owen Sound central railway. (Peterborough, c. 1866) Available at Internet Archive –

[vi] J.W. Tate, Report on proposed route,  p 18 

[vii] Rod Clarke, p. 46

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Charles Cooper’s Railway Pages, “Grey and Bruce Counties” (2014) – source of quote not given but likely from the actual charter. This web page has succinct accounts, images, maps, and references on railroads in this part of Ontario.  Other pages on the web site will delight rail history buffs.  URL

[x] “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 4 January 1868, pp 32-33.

[xi] Rod Clarke, table on p 98

[xii] “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 10 August 1868 – the Reeve submitted to Council a draft of the bylaw for the bonus to TG&BR.  

[xiii] Rod Clarke, p. 128

[xiv] Ibid., p 283

[xv] “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 12 December 1878

[xvi]  “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 5 February 1879

[xvii]  “The Township of Derby Minutes 1856-80,” 7 August 1880

[xviii], “The Grand Trunk, Georgian Bay & Lake Erie Railway”, (Lastupdated 2 January 1998)

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