Presented by Jim Stanton, President, at SLHS Meeting on Sept 30, 2006.
There was a great rail-building era which followed Confederation in 1867, culminating in the completion of the Canadian Pacific transcontinental line in 1885.
The first railway to enter our region was the Northern Extension of the Grand Trunk line that ran from Barrie to Gravenhurst, with stations at Severn Bridge and Kilworthy. This line served the lake indirectly, and the competing steamers of Capt. Tom Stanton and Tom Wood—the Lakefield and the Champion— ferried passengers and goods from Severn Bridge to all parts of Sparrow Lake.
But a rail link to the very edge of the lake was to arrive exactly one hundred years ago, and that’s what we want to focus on tonight.
The movers and shakers in this venture were two railway promoters—the Donald Trumps of the story—William Mackenzie and Donald Mann. Before the turn of the century, the two had a fling at breaking the Canadian Pacific’s monopoly of transcontinental rail traffic. By they time they returned from the West to Ontario (around 1900), they already controlled over 2500 miles of track on the Prairies.
In Ontario they set up shop in Toronto and created a company of their own. One of their earliest employees was David Blythe Hanna, who 20 years later would become the first president of the Canadian National Railways.
Mackenzie and Mann began looking for opportunity to construct a line from Toronto to the Sudbury/Georgian Bay region. Timbering along the Georgian Bay rivers was still active, and new strikes of nickel in the area looked promising, not only at Sudbury, but at mines such as Moose Mountain, Mond, and Garson mines along Georgian Bay.
At the outset, summer tourism was not a priority, but Mackenzie soon saw it as another nugget to be picked up on the route to Capreol and Sudbury. To get the project started, Mackenzie and Mann picked up the charter of the James Bay Railway for a song in order to obtain its handsome endowments—$710,000 in cash, 875,000 acres of Crown lands. As the name suggests, the original line was supposed to go all the way to James Bay, but in 1905 it was transformed, (by some deft legal footwork), into the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway, and its direction altered from the James Bay area to Capreol, with a branch line to Sudbury, where a great find of nickel had been proved.
In addition to the above endowments, an issue of debentured stock was floated in an amount not to exceed 1,600,000 pounds sterling. A schedule of tariffs to be charged for haulage was printed—for example, logs, by the carload, could be shipped from Parry Sound to Newmarket at a rate of $26.00 per car.
Construction on the line north from Washago was begun in 1901, and reached Sparrow Lake in 1906. Regular passenger service was begun in the summer of 1907. A handsome station was built at “Sparrow Lake”, complete with a telegraph operation, baggage room and waiting room. (The post office, which was opened by Frank Stanton in 1907, was to be called “Port Stanton.”) Smaller stations were constructed at “Hamlet” and “Ragged Rapids”.
Soon after, the Passenger Department of the CNOR issued Sparrow Lake and Severn River an 8-page brochure with many photographs and a list of rail fares and hotel rates. According to Frank Stanton, writing in the Tweedsmuir History, “This publicity brought about the Sparrow Lake Boom, which was in full swing when the tourist season of 1908 opened.”
As well as producing this brochure, the CNOR advertised regularly. In the summer of 1910, an ad was placed in the Toronto Star daily, promoting the quickest route to Muskoka, and Sparrow Lake was mentioned in most ads.
There were 3 trains on weekdays, four on Saturday, as well as special late Sunday night and early Monday trains, “particularly for weekends and for businessmen desiring to visit their families.” The ads also offered holiday weekend specials, and proudly proclaimed that over 2,000 had taken advantage of their 1910 Holiday Special.
Gradually over the years, highways and modern automobiles have pushed the railway era into the past. But, as we read the Monday morning reports of horrendous traffic jams and weekend slaughter on the roads, we may feel a nostalgic urge for a return to the passenger trains of 100 years ago, and to hear once again the sounds of a steam whistle and the conductor’s cry–“All aboard!”