During the first half of the 19th century, settlers began to populate south-western Ontario. Trade and travel were restricted by the poor road conditions in the region. Money in general was scarce and this had a huge impact on the ability of the government and private interests to build and upgrade the travel infrastructure: roads, canals and railways.
The construction of the railways in the middle of the nineteenth century was the catalyst for the economic development of Ontario. Railways facilitated the inland development of the province. Access to larger markets resulted in greater outputs from farms. More goods became available locally and manufactured goods could easily be shipped beyond the local market.
The first two railways constructed in Ontario were the Great Western Railway, construction began in 1851, and the Buffalo, Brantford, & Goderich Railway (BB&G), in 1852.
The Great Western was conceived to run between the Detroit River and the Niagara River moving freight traffic from the U.S. midwest to the east coast crossing southern Ontario, a shorter route than an all American route south of Lake Erie. The route was surveyed in 1847 and Brantford was by-passed, the route ran north of the Town through Paris and Harrisburg.
A couple of developments led to the decision to by-pass Brantford. The road from Detroit through London to Hamilton already passed through Brantford; it was thought that the railway would closely follow the road; so the Town did not offer the railway a bonus to build through Brantford. In addition Sir Allan MacNab and Dr Hamilton, two directors of the Great Western, wanted to build the railway through Hamilton and along the northern edge of the Dundas Valley. This route favoured their land holdings, rather than a more southerly route by-passing the Niagara escapement. The southern route was a less challenging route from an engineering standpoint. This route would have placed Brantford in a more favourable position on a route to London.
As it became apparent that the Great Western would pass the Town, local merchants, led by Phillip VanBrocklin, organised The Brantford & Buffalo Joint Stock Railroad Company in 1849 to connect Fort Erie with Brantford. A ferry would provide the final link to Buffalo. The line would terminate in Paris at a junction with the Great Western. Brantford and Buffalo already had a trading relationship via the Grand River Waterway; the railway would provide an all weather, 12 month connection.
The route between Paris and Fort Erie was surveyed in 1850 by William Wallace, the chief engineer for the New York City Railroad. In 1852, the railroad was chartered as the Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Railway. The extension to Goderich was designed to open up Perth and Huron Counties to development and to capture freight traffic on the upper Great Lakes and funnel that traffic through Buffalo, maintaining Buffalo’s dominance as a conduit for mid-west America trade. The line was the only railway in Canada over 50 miles in length built without the aid of Government funds.
Besides VanBrocklin other prominent local investors included Ignatius Cockshutt, Arunah Huntington, Archibald Gilkison, James Christie, George Wilkes, John Kerby, and John Lovejoy. James Wadsworth, the mayor of Buffalo, was the first president of the company. Brantford’s VIA Rail station is located on Wadsworth St.
The line reached Brantford on 13-January-1854 and Paris, connecting with the Great Western, on 6-March-1854. The Great Western line through Paris opened 15-December-1853.
The line through Brantford built in 1853 is still in service; from Paris across the Grand River on a trestle 80 feet above the river, along Highway 2 to the VIA Rail station then heading straight in a south east direction through the east end of Brantford to Cainsville. The north-east diversion just east of the train station to Harrisburg and Lynden opened in 1871.
Initially the company appeared set to prosper but a series of financial debacles would push the railway into bankruptcy. The line was under capitalised. This resulted in a line that was poorly built and labour unrest when payrolls were missed. In protest, the workers damaged railway equipment and tore up miles of tracks. Labour unrest made people reluctant to use the railway. There was also evidence that the decisions of the railway’s directors placed their personal interests above the company’s. This was not unusual for the time. The railway ran out of money in 1854 and had shut down completely in the fall of 1855.
The Great Western made a low-ball offer to buy the company but the offer would have resulted in substantial losses to the English bondholders so the bondholders reorganized the company as the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway (B&LH) in 1856. The line reopened in November 1856. Despite the financial crisis of 1857, construction of the line to Goderich continued and was completed in June 1858.
Traffic along the route never came close to initial expectations. Lake freighter traffic through Goderich required transshipment at both Goderich and Fort Erie proving more costly than an all rail route through the U.S. In addition, Goderich harbour was ice bound in the winter months. A bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo was finally opened in 1873 permitting through traffic to Buffalo.
Suffering financially, the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway entered into a joint management agreement with the Grand Trunk Railway in 1864. The B&LH provided the Grand Truck a direct route between Sarnia and Buffalo, through Stratford. Because of continued poor financial performance, the Grand Truck acquired the B&LH under a perpetual lease in 1869.
The existence of the railway, much like the construction of the Grand River waterway, spurred the development of manufacturing in Brantford. For an inland town, Brantford developed reliable transportation connections to the outside rather early.
Before the railways, travel to Hamilton from Brantford by road took 7 hours; Toronto, one day; Buffalo via the Grand River waterway, 24 hours; but by train to Buffalo, 4 hours, and that included 18 stops along the way. The increase in speed was staggering. The railway was the equivalent of a 400 series highway in its day.