Essex County Historical Society learns about railroading

Filed under: Headline,In Our Community |

by Sylene Argent

Railroad enthusiast, Bob Mitchell, shared his genuine interest in local locomotive history on Saturday afternoon at a luncheon hosted by The Essex County Historical Society, at the historic Essex Railway Station.

Mitchell outlined the significant highlights of railroad history in North America, which contributed to the station and line being built in what would become Essex Centre in the 1870s.

“I’ve always loved trains, all my life” Mitchell admitted to his attentive audience of around 15 individuals who came out to learn about the history of railroading.

Mitchell’s interest in railroading comes from his grandfather’s influence, who worked as a Station Agent in Indian Head, Saskatchewan for the Canadian Pacific in the 1940s. He and his mother would often take the train to visit his grandfather in the summertime. One of the reasons for the frequent trips was that Polio was quite prevalent in the area at the time, and Mitchell’s mother, wanting to protect her only child from the disease, would go to Saskatchewan where it was not as prevalent, in addition to spending time with family.

“I spent many days sitting in the bay window of grandad’s station, watching trains switching around the busy 14-elevator yards, and ‘flyers’ coming through on the fly. I have love Canadian Railroad history ever since,” Mitchell explained.

Mitchell has fond memories of that station in Saskatchewan and learning about how is grandfather learned telegraphy, which he used in his role in railroading, in a back room of a pharmacy in his younger days, when he worked for a pharmacist who knew the trade.

His historical lecture began with explaining the start of train usage in Canada with the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad in 1836, which featured pine rails and strips of iron. This line was 15 miles long. It would take one hour to go end-to-end on the line. This created a shortcut from using ships, he said.

Mitchell noted at that time, doctors would warn train passengers of the potential of getting a heart attack on what was then considered a fast-pace.

18-years later, he explained, the first long-distance railroad in Canada was the Great Western, which stretched from Niagara Falls to Windsor. Mitchell said the first two trains rolled into Windsor then, with 4-4-0 locomotives.

This provided for the first connection of Windsor and Detroit to the eastern seaboard, connecting to the New York Central at Niagara Falls. Using a ferry to cross the Detroit River, it further connected with the Michigan Central Railroad depot.

Investor Issac Buchannon and other business-developers wanted to build a Niagara to Chicago line. This would later be called Canada Southern.

In 1870, they surveyed lands. The headquarters was established in St. Thomas.
Vanderbilt acquired shares in the Canada Southern after his son-in-law, Horace Clark, died in 1873. He died in 1877. The line was passed onto his son, William. By 1883, the Canada Southern name disappears, and is known as Michigan Central Railroad, under the control of the New York Central.

William, Mitchell said, doubled the track-line and made it with 100pound rails, as opposed to 80-pound rails. This made the track capable of carrying heavier and faster trains.

The Essex station was built in the style it is known for today in 1887. In 1910, the Detroit River tunnel was built for trains using tube.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, other railroads were built, but due to over-expansion, ran into financial problems and bankruptcy, Mitchell said. The Canadian Government would absorb them. The Gran Trunk was the last to be acquired.

For an opportunity to enjoy more about trains, join Heritage Essex at Essex Public School over the February 24 and 25 for the annual Essex Train Show, to be hosted at Essex Public School.