Imagine hearing a bell ringing in the distance, but it isn’t from a bell tower. Imagine hearing a strange whistle way off across the fields, and then feeling a rumble under your feet as a mighty monster comes into view.
Bell ringing, whistle blowing, steam billowing from its sides; it is 1854 and here comes the very first steam locomotive train into Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The railway system, owned by the Erie & Ontario Railroad, was the first railway in the area and the train only ran a short run, from Chippawa to Niagara Falls to the escarpment above Queenston, where it would descend down to Concession 2 (crossing what is now Queenston Rd.) and into Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL).
Once in NOTL, the train headed through the intersection at King St. and John St. towards the Niagara Docks, swinging to the right as it reached Front St. and finally crossing Delator St. on a wooden trestle bridge to arrive at the dockyard.
Remnants of the railway line can still be seen today at two intersections in NOTL (Charlotte St./Pafford St., and John St./King St.) and although the trestle bridge is long gone, you can still follow the trains route at Front St. by walking along Riverbeach Dr., passing Balls Beach to Turntable Way.
At the Niagara Docks, cargo and passengers bound for Toronto would make their way onto the steamers that crossed the lake three times a day.
Most of the cargo would be shipped during the summer, comprising of peaches, cherries and other delicate fruits grown in the region, while the passengers mainly consisted of business men from Buffalo, anxious to tap into the lucrative Toronto markets. Tourists also used the steam boats to take their summer vacations.
Once unloaded, the mighty steam locomotive would then be moved onto a turntable where a rotating bridge allowed the engine to be turned around to be loaded again for its return journey. If there were any problems with the engine, it would be shunted into the locomotive barn for repairs.
Remnants of the turntable and the barn are still visible today. In fact, this area of the old docks has been designated as a “Site of Historical Importance” in NOTL.
Niagara-on-the-Lake was also home to the train’s only conductor, George Patrick Miles (Paddy Miles) who worked on the train from 1863 to 1901 and made an impression on the people of the town.
Even though the railway changed names throughout the years as it passed between companies, most of the town’s people called it “the Paddy Miles Express.”
Miles became a familiar figure, standing at the docks in his blue suit, brass buttons and brass-trimmed blue cap, greeting all passengers boarding the train in a friendly manner.
Even after he retired he could be seen on the front porch of his home on King St. watching for the train to pass by.
Besides transporting people and cargo from Toronto to Buffalo, the train was also heavily used during the First and Second World Wars as a troop transport.
The spur line (a secondary track for loading and unloading railcars without interfering with other railroad operations) for Camp Niagara turned off the main line at King St. and Mary St. and ran along John St. as far as Paradise Grove.
On this line you would see raw young recruits step off the trains, and months later you would see well-trained soldiers board the troop trains to Toronto, where they would then be sent to Halifax for transport to Europe.
Remnants of this line and the loading platform are still visible as you walk along the path, through the Commons parallel to John St.
The railway line was extended to Fort Erie and across to Buffalo in 1863, and the daily train service was implemented in 1864, running from Buffalo to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The schedule posted was: “departure from Buffalo at 7 a.m. and arrival in NOTL by noon.” Once in NOTL, passengers could then take steamers across Lake Ontario to Toronto.
The return trip to Buffalo left NOTL at 2 p.m. arriving in Buffalo at 7 p.m. — how civilized they were to travel by train and then steamer between Toronto and Buffalo.
The Erie & Ontario Railway, in 1869, became a division of the Canadian Southern Railroad, which formed a partnership with the Michigan Central Railroad to better access the American Market.
By 1873, the Canadian Southern Railroad was offering three daily trips between Buffalo and NOTL. One advertisement even offered passengers a 15-20 minute stop in Niagara Falls for site-seeing.
By 1882, the assets of the Canadian Southern Railroad were taken over completely by the Michigan Central Railway, who then leased the railway lines from the Government of Upper Canada for 21 years. Before the lease was up, the Michigan Central Railway renewed it for the railway lines for 999 more years. The lease still exists to this day.
Passenger service to NOTL ceased in 1926, except for the use of transporting troops during the two World Wars, though the rail line was used for cargo until 1959. On April 8, 1960, a rockslide along the Niagara Escarpment destroyed about seventy feet of the rail line, ending any possibility that rail service might come back to NOTL.
It must be noted that the train station on King St., now Balzacs Coffee House, is unrelated to the railway. It was built in 1913 and served as the station for the electric streetcar that ran down the centre of King St., paralleling the rail way tracks.
The electric streetcar connected Niagara-on-the-Lake to St. Catharine’s and Niagara Falls, though by the 1950s the service was discontinued and several years later all tracks and electric overhead wires were removed from the town.
Today, the abandoned railway line in NOTL is now called the Upper Canada Heritage Trail and runs from the intersection at John St. and King St., all the way to St. Davids.
Many sections of the Upper Canada Heritage Trail have been lost due to rock slides, soil erosion and over growth of vegetation. However, there is a group called the NOTL Canada Sesquicentennial Committee who are committed to rehabilitating the trail as part of a project to commemorate Canada’s 150 years of confederation. For more information on this project you can go to their website, notlegacytrail.ca.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, in 2017, received a Canada 150 grant for restoration work to assist with the completion and rehabilitation of the Erie & Ontario Railroad culvert.
This culvert is one of the last remaining structures of the first railway line built in Ontario and is located in NOTL at Balls Beach, near Ball St. by the Niagara River.
To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.
The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.
Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.
Denise’s full profile can be found here, niagaranow.com/profile.phtml/13.