Above, top: The former CPR Station in Winchester — located around the mid-point of an organizational rail segment the company internally describes as the “Winchester Subdivision,” running between Smiths Falls and Montreal. (Photo courtesy of the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario) Above, lower: The former Chesterville station and water tank, circa 1977. (Photo courtesy of A.W. Mooney)
by Craig Stevenson
Special to Nation Valley News
“The death knell has sounded”, she wrote, and her statement extended well beyond the subject at hand.
In 1978, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s abandoned station at Apple Hill, Ontario was demolished. In the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, Irene Shaw reflected on the importance of the station in her life. As the daughter of long-serving station agent Harold Mackie—and as someone who had been born at the station and spent her youth there—Irene was well-qualified to describe how the station had functioned and how it had been an integral part of the community.
Ms. Shaw’s farewell was personal, but it could have been a goodbye from a string of communities seeing a way of life disappear. When those familiar structures disappeared from the landscape, it was only a final step in the receding importance of rail from communities that were created by the train.
The railway is, of course, still with us. CP Rail’s “Winchester Subdivision”—the organizational term for the stretch of line running between Smiths Falls and Montreal — sees regular use as one of Canada’s main east-west rail lines.
It started out as the Ontario and Quebec Railway, a patchwork of short rail sections intended to compete with the Grand Trunk Railway in Ontario. Under long-term lease to the CPR, which owned a majority stake in the network, the O&Q’s section between Smiths Falls and the Quebec border gave the CPR a connecting Toronto-Montreal route by 1888.
In the short term, building the line caused a speculative real estate boom and brought rail-construction money into the area. Of more lasting importance, the new railway coincided with the period when rural Ontario was moving beyond its pioneering phase, and many local communities were shaped by its arrival. Early Dundas County historian J. Smyth Carter singled out Mountain as a village that owed its existence to the arrival of the rail line and station, prompting the building of a railway hotel—the Hyslop House—as well as grist, saw, and planing mills and generating a local livestock trade. Carter’s description of the station as the village’s “nucleus” is still faintly evident in the string of buildings that parallel the tracks along Clark Road.
This improvement of the line was finished in 1909 and increased the rail traffic capacity of the Winchester Subdivision. It also serves as the starting point of a “golden era” for local communities located on the line, a period of prosperity facilitated by their location on one of Canada’s most important transportation networks. For the next half century, rail service tied these communities to a broader and rapidly expanding Canadian economy.
With the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces in 1905, the CPR played a key role in moving people and products into the continental interior and linked this area to Canada’s emerging agricultural heartland. As unlikely as this seems now, lumber was one of the area’s chief agricultural exports in the early years of the century. Lumberyards located next to the rail line shipped sawn wood west to supply construction materials to a prairie region unable to meet its own demands for wood products. Sawmills owned by Walter Robinson and Byron Coulthart in Monkland and A.O. Miller’s Beaver Lumber in Avonmore purchased timber from area farmers and processed it into finished lumber that was exported out of the region.
Western Canada’s growth also required labour. In an age before prairie wheat farming became mechanized, the need for people to work the west’s fields was especially pronounced at harvest time and created a demand for farm help stretching back into eastern Canada. In the early years of the twentieth century the CPR operated annual “harvest excursion” trains that took young men out west to fulfill this need and to earn seasonal wages as migrant field workers. Photographs of a harvest train stopped at the Avonmore station show a largely female crowd by the tracks, bidding farewell to young men heading west—some of whom may have been departing eastern Ontario for a new life on the prairies.
It was a cross-country rail system, but the CPR had a tremendous influence on local agriculture, commerce, industry, and travel in the following decades.
For area farmers, the train provided a connection to markets in urban Canada. A daily scheduled service to Montreal — train No. 30, the “Perth Local”—collected milk cans at every stop on a route running down the spine of eastern Ontario’s dairy country and delivered them to markets and customers such as the large Elmhurst Dairy. Regular freight service also serviced local mills such as Campbell’s Feed Mill in Monkland, collected eggs at Barkley’s Egg Station in Avonmore, and gathered livestock at the Apple Hill stockyard. In turn, big-city industries used the CPR to deliver farm machinery to rural customers through equipment dealerships like Oscar Fulton’s “Machinery Hall” at Avonmore.
The connection between rail and agriculture was magnified in importance at Finch, where the CPR line was crossed by the north-south route of the New York & Ottawa Railway and turned the small community into an important transfer point for moving commodities throughout the region. As with dairy, the rail connection at Finch allowed the Stormont Poultry and Egg Producers — and later Canada Packers — to ship eggs and poultry to the Montreal market.
Heavier industry along the CPR line was connected to the region’s agricultural economy. In Chesterville, the Maple Leaf Condensed Milk Company — which took its parental name after 1921 to become the Nestle Food Company of Canada—used its trackside location to import milk and ship out an expanding variety of milk-based and processed food products. Nestle used the CPR line for shipments into the 1970s, bringing in coffee beans and sugar and loading finished products along a dedicated siding track across from the town’s station.
At Winchester, D.L. Berry & Sons built trackside grain elevators in 1967 as an upgrade from the company’s facilities at Mountain and South Mountain. Today the elevators are owned by Parrish and Heimbecker and continue to serve as a major point of shipment for area grain crops headed to Quebec markets. At an adjacent site, Agri-Partners Crop Centre brings in hoppers of potash for fertilizer production. These two businesses are the remaining customers for rail service on the Canadian Pacific line in SD&G.
Moving agricultural and industrial rail business into local communities concentrated business and services in these villages and turned them into commercial centers for their surrounding countryside.
In an era before highway trucking became the norm, trains moved a wide range of consumer goods into local communities. The heyday of the village general store parallels the age of local rail service, with local way freight service supplying the range of farming supplies and household goods needed in and around town. Merchants like Barkley’s Store in Avonmore relied heavily on the CPR as a connection to urban industrial suppliers. Small-town merchants were assured of regular, fast freight service along the line. Mailed orders leaving on a morning train could expect to be filled by delivery on an evening train.
And as with goods, so with people. Hotels serving the rail-travelling public sprouted up quickly along the line to satisfy the demand for those travelling for business purposes or for seasonal events such as agricultural fairs. Tom McBride’s Grand Union Hotel in Avonmore and Chesterville’s Temperance Hotel and Ontario and Quebec House were located within easy station reach.
The hotels are gone, but they are reminders that being located directly on a major rail line had the effect of turning these towns into destinations.
The trains themselves have always had an impressive following, a fascination for the machines rumbling across the countryside with freight and passengers.
But it was the stations that really mattered, those connecting points of town and rail. Memories of the station run strongly through local histories — not a surprise, considering their service as important centers of community life in their time.
From station to station, the CPR structures served a similar function. These “combination” stations consisted of a ground-floor waiting room and office, second-floor living quarters for the station agent and his family, and a freight and baggage shed extending off and along the platform to the side of the main building.
Through those stations flowed the essence of what these communities what they were — people, travellers, mail and personal packages, and news from near and far. Connected by rail and telegraph line, they were a community’s eyes and ears to the world, places that witnessed farewells and reunions and conveyed happiness and tragedy. At Apple Hill and Monkland, the stations served as gathering spots for local students commuting by train to Avonmore High School — with the Avonmore station taking on the same role at the end of the school day for the homeward trip. As a point of connection to the world beyond, the Finch station played an outsized role because of its location at the intersection of two rail lines. From 1900 until the line’s closure in 1957, someone standing on the Finch station platform had the option of taking a train north toward Ottawa, south to Cornwall, east to Montreal, or west toward Toronto.
Station agents and telegraph operators were crucial railway employees in their time, responsible as they were for a constant flow of people, baggage, freight, and communications. Men like Billy Ford at Avonmore, Roger Johnston at Monkland, Austin Hurd at Mountain, Edward Pennett at Inkerman, and Bruce Gillies at Chesterville maintained a connection between their communities and those down the track and telegraph line. Their skill set may now be obsolete — communicating by Morse code, setting rooftop train signals, and “hooping up” orders to moving trains in the pre-radio era — but their mastery of time and orderly movement were vital to keeping complex rail systems moving smoothly.
The stations were also the focal points of essential rail maintenance work. Tank engineers and section men at Chesterville and Monkland provided the water and coal essential during the age of steam locomotion. Those same section men were responsible for daily track inspections to ensure that the double track and sidings were in proper operating condition. At Monkland, a boxcar-turned-shop allowed mechanic Bob Long to perform needed repairs on rail cars.
The arrival of the modern era in the decades after World War Two brought a swift end to station life. When personal transportation became dominated by the automobile and the airplane, the CPR sought and received government approval to end its station services. Through the 1960s station agents were removed and regular, local passenger service was ended along the Winchester Subdivision. The stations stood empty and boarded up until the early 1970s, when they were dismantled. The decline in local passenger service was mirrored by the arrival of diesel locomotion that rendered many local rail tasks obsolete. Except for remnant stone water tank bases at Chesterville and Monkland, nothing remains of the station age but empty spaces of overgrown trackside scruff.
Mr. Shaw’s reaction to the destruction of the Apple Hill station was personal, but also a comment on the passing of an age in these communities and across the nation. Modernized commerce and the automobile changed the character of local commerce and travel rapidly after World War Two, and revenue from railway passenger service plummeted through the 1950s. Here — as elsewhere in Canada — the local services provided by rail were no longer in demand, and they vanished accordingly.
Losing the train and station was a sign of broader change, and in trying to understand the local impact of rail we mustn’t romanticize its importance. An honest account of the railway’s influence must also note its darker and destructive features. The historical record offers plenty of evidence of that in the form of derailments, vehicular collisions, and trackside deaths. The age of rail carried a significant human cost.
Today the train is still visible, but its role is different. It is a transient visitor, sighted in the distance across fields or along County Road 43 or as a temporary interruption to the flow of traffic through village and town. Aside from routine maintenance, the rail line running through SD&G is vacant geography for Canadian Pacific, the backdrop to larger rail operations carrying goods and commodities between ports and urban depots.
The railway is no longer woven into the fabric of local life. We are not, however, so far beyond the age when those steel lines determined daily life as definitively as did the St. Lawrence River to the south, or the region’s forests and farms.
And that, for the towns and villages along its length, is its lasting importance.