Bytown and Prescott Railway

Bytown and Prescott Railway
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The Bytown and Prescott Railway, Ottawa's first railway to outside markets, was a railway joining Ottawa, Ontario (then called Bytown) with Prescott, Ontario on the Saint Lawrence River. The 52 mile railway facilitated shipments of principally lumber via the Saint Lawrence River (and not by rail) to markets in the United States and Montreal.[1] The company itself was incorporated in 1850, and the train first ran from Prescott to Bytown on Christmas Day, 1854. The event was important for the City of Ottawa which was to incorporate the following year.



Thomas McKay and partners decided to build a railway from Bytown, Upper Canada (now Ottawa, Ontario) by the most direct route to the St. Lawrence river to transport logs, which hitherto had to be floated down the Ottawa River to Montreal and thence to Quebec City to be loaded onto ships bound for Europe. (McKay was one of Ottawa's founders, making huge contributions in many areas to the city's growth)[2]. Bytowners had been promoting their town as the capital of Canada since the 1840s and later several of its citizens formed a syndicated to promote the railway scheme.[2]

The idea was to build the Bytown terminus on the Ottawa River just above the Chaudière Falls, saving the need to form log booms at that point.

Former Bytown mayer and cabinet minister, Richard William Scott recalled that in early 1850, he and Edward McGillivray's (Ottawa's second mayor) conversation regarding the need for a rail connection of Bytown with the "contemplated trunk which was to unite Montreal and Toronto". This compelled Scott to prepare a petition asking for an act incorporating a company to construct a railway between Bytown and Prescott.[3]

Recalls Scott, "Neither Wellington, nor the streets south of it, between Elgin and Bank, had been laid out. Sussex was the business thoroughfare, and lots on it and the western ends of Rideau, George, and parallel streets, as far north as St. Patrick Street, commanded the best values. Wellington west of Bank, to Bay Street, was fairly well built up. The Le Breton Flats, extending north-westerly from Pooley's Bridge (in the vicinity of the Water Works building) contained a number of scattered houses."[3]

He states the landowners of the town: East of bank above Wellington and Rideau was owned by the Imperial Ordnance Department, except for a few lots "in Letter O" facing the Ottawa River. Also Sparks, and east of him was Besserer, also the By estate, and Lebreton owning the flats.[3]

The charter was obtained the following month in August, 1850, and a meeting of the promoters was held in the Town Hall at the Lower Town Market, where Robert Bell was meeting secretary, later to become secretary of the company. John McKinnon was chosen president, Walter Shanly appointed engineer. [3] (Bell was the owner of what would become the Ottawa Citizen). A route through Kemptville was chosen after Walter Shanley walked over 200 miles in search of the best route, and ground was broken on October 9, 1851.[2]

The population of Bytown in 1850, according to Scott, was about 7000.[3] According to a directory from November 1851, Bytown's population was about 8000.[4]

Scott noted that Thomas McKay took a "warm interest in the project", along with his son-in-law, Mr. McKinnon.[3]

Money was difficult to raise from the townspeople, until the city, in 1853, borrowed $200,000 and loaned it to the company.[3]

As the project progressed, however, the location of the Bytown terminus was shifted to a property already owned by McKay well below the falls (where the Department of Foreign Affairs now stands). McKay, a major stockholder, agreed to bail out the company provided that the line terminated at his industrial complex in New Edinburgh.[2] This may have reduced the project's initial investment by its owner, but it seriously undermined the viability of the scheme. The re-located terminus meant that the logs had to be assembled into rafts to use the timber slide that bypassed the falls, and then promptly disassembled and lifted up a considerable cliff to the rail yard.

After running out of money when the rail lines reached Billings Bridge in 1854, the contracter had to make due with hardwood rails capped with strips of iron.[2] Operation of the Bytown and Prescott (the terminus on the St. Lawrence) began in 1854, with the official arrival of the first train into Bytown on December 24, 1854.

Here is the text of a plaque erected in the town of Prescott, as it read in 2004: "This company, incorporated in 1850, built a railway from Prescott to Bytown (Ottawa) for the shipment of lumber and farm products to the markets of the northeastern United States and Montreal. Substantial funds were raised at Bytown, Prescott and other municipalities along the line. In 1851, Walter Shanly, Chief Engineer, started construction, and a train first ran from Prescott to Bytown on Christmas Day, 1854. The railway, renamed the Ottawa and Prescott in 1855, was the first to serve the nation's future capital, giving it access at Prescott to the St. Lawrence River and the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1867 it became the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway and in 1884 was leased to the Canadian Pacific Railway for 999 years."[1]

It wasn't until April 1855, recalls Scott, that "the first train crossed thr bridge over the Rideau River to the station at Sussex Street".[3] Following its physical completion, financial difficulties ensued leading to decisions for the raising to funds to pay the debts.[3] City council had been indebted for $60,000 in 1851 and $200,000 in 1853 and later in 1865, the property of the company (then renamed) was foreclosed in a Toronto auction at a huge loss, and money invested by municipalities was totally lost.[5]

Eventually, the Bytown and Prescott Railway was absorbed into the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Ottawa terminus was in use as a secondary rail yard until the 1950s. The rails in Ottawa were finally lifted in 1966, the same year in which all rail traffic was removed from the downtown core of the city. The footings of the bridge crossing the nearby Rideau River are still evident. A small spur line still exists from Kemptville, heading south for a few kilometres.

It would be possibly as late as 1864 before rail travel Montreal to Ottawa would be possible[6]

Officers And Directors

Officers And Directors Of The Bytown And Prescott Railway Company, 1851:[4]

  1. John McKinnon, president;
  2. Alfred Hooker, vice-president;
  3. Robert Bell, secretary;
  4. Edward Masse, treasurer at Bytown;
  5. C. H. Peck, treasurer, Prescott.
  6. DIRECTORS: Joseph Aumond, John Egan, Charles Sparrow, N. Sparkes, Wm. Patrick, John Moran, D. McLachlin, Joseph Bower, J. S. Archibald, Alpheus, Jones, Wm. Creighton. Office Aumond's building, Bytown.

See also


Further reading

  • Bytown and Prescott Railway (1849). Bytown and Prescott Railway, its influence on Canada trade: Report of the Boston committee, upon the aid to complete the same. C.C.P. Moody, printer, Boston.. 

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