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Saturday was the 160th Anniversary of the Groundbreaking for Toronto's first railway!

Click on each image for a closer look!

At noon on October 15, 1851, hundreds of citizens began to gather in front of Toronto City Hall at the corner of Front and Jarvis streets. There were marching bands and gaily decorated floats and everyone was in a state of excitement. Resplendent in their colourful uniforms were the Sons of Temperance, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Loyal Orange Institution. Soon the crowd was joined by judges, steamboat proprietors, the fire brigade, the members of the provincial legislature, and the railroad commissioners. As the time drew closer to 1 PM, some of the most important personages in the city began to appear. They included the Chief Justice of Canada West, the Sheriff of the County of York, the Chief Magistrate, bishops of various denominations, the Chief Constable and the Mayor of Toronto.

This illustrious congress had gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a new technology. City Hall was an appropriate venue for such a commemoration as it had already hosted the birth of Canada’s telecommunications industry. Just five years earlier in a small room near the Front Street entrance the first telegraph in British North America had been transmitted from Toronto to Hamilton. As the clock tower overhead chimed half past one, the assemblage moved into position to begin the parade, the largest such pageant ever seen in the 17-year history of the City of Toronto. The procession first moved east to Frederick Street, then north to King Street where it turned west. Thousands of people were lined up along both sides of what was then the most important street in Toronto, the commercial spine of the city. Schoolchildren had been given the day off and most of the population turned out to enjoy this grand spectacle that featured 46 different groups and floats. The parade proceeded along King Street for over a kilometer and then turned south on York Street and west on Front past Simcoe where it finally halted in front of the Parliament Buildings of the united Provinces of Canada. By this time it was estimated the crowd comprised 20,000 people, an impressive gathering for a city whose total population was 31,000.

The occasion for this festivity was the start of construction of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway, the first steam railway to operate in Canada West, as Ontario was then known.

The first trains in Canada East had commenced operations near Montreal in 1836, so the railway era was relatively late coming to Ontario. Before the railway, Canada depended on navigable water routes for transportation but these were frozen for as much as five months of the year. Overland travel by stagecoach was expensive and uncomfortable, even for the elite few who could afford it. Transported goods were frequently damaged on journeys over rough roads and trails.

Torontonians eagerly anticipated the promised delights of newfangled rail transportation with its easy year-round travel and the timely delivery of needed commodities, advantages that were only fantasies before the age of rail. By 1850, the construction of new railways in Canada was seen as the key to the British colony’s economic survival. There were already over 9,000 miles of track in the United States; in Canada there were less than 60.

Now on this October day in 1851, Torontonians were gathered at this vacant lot on the south side of Front Street between Simcoe and John streets to beginning of the railway era. This august event was commemorated by a ceremonial turning of the first sod, a groundbreaking event that a later and less romantic generation would refer to as “shovels in the ground.” Lifting the ceremonial silver spade was the Countess of Elgin, the wife of the Earl of Elgin, the governor-general of Canada. Lord Elgin hovered nearby and was one of the abler members of the British aristocracy to occupy the colonial vice-regal position. Three years earlier in Montreal he had been attacked by an angry Tory mob that burned down the Parliament buildings while they were protesting the Rebellion Losses Bill. One consequence of that riot was that the colonial capital was moved away from Montreal and was at that point ensconced in Toronto across the road from the sod-turning ceremony. After Lady Elgin used her dainty little shovel to lift the pre-cut square of sod, it was deposited into an equally dainty wheelbarrow and carted away by the mayor of Toronto, who was resplendent in knee breeches and ceremonial sword.

Then began the speeches. Lord Elgin commented that ““It may seem a singular application of the division of labour that the lady should dig and the gentleman speak. But this is an age of progress in which we must be prepared for much that is strange.” Elgin was an enthusiastic promoter of railways and a month earlier had attended the Boston Railroad Jubilee, celebrating the building of a railway between Canada and the United States. Elgin had been staying at a hotel in Niagara Falls and had made the journey from there to Boston entirely by rail. The Jubilee had been attended by the most important officials on both sides of the border, including U.S. President Millard Fillmore. Referring to that recent event in his speech, Elgin noted that Americans “never seem more completely at home than when the power of steam is hurrying them over the surface of the earth.”

Following the ceremony, the sod was whisked away and preserved for posterity by a young civil engineer named Sandford Fleming, who would play a principal role in building the new railway and later advance to greater glory as one of Canada’s most illustrious engineers, inventors and scientists.

That night the day’s festivities culminated in a grand ball at St. Lawrence Hall patronized by Governor General Elgin and 400 invited guests. A midnight supper was served and the dancing continued until 2:30 AM. The honorary patroness of the ball was internationally famed soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” who a week later performed at the hall in a concert arranged by American promoter P.T. Barnum. A century later a writer noted that “In such an atmosphere, combining the gala day with a night of gladness, that the people let it be known that they welcomed the coming railway.”

The construction of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway would occupy the next nineteen months. On October 3, 1852, the first steam locomotive to operate in Canada West arrived in Toronto from Oswego, New York on the steamship "Forwarder." Built by the Portland Company in Portland, Maine, the engine was named the "Lady Elgin," to honour the consort of the governor-general who had turned the first sod a year earlier.

The OS&H was unhappy with the extra costs incurred by customs duties as well as shipping the locomotive across Lake Ontario and sought a local builder for its next locomotive, the "Toronto." On May 16, 1853, that locomotive hauled the first passenger train out of Toronto from a wooden depot that was located close to the eastern entrance of today’s Union Station.

Captions for the images

#1: Lord Elgin was James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, who served as Governor General of Canada from 1847-1854. He was probably the only Governor General who actually risked his life to bring about responsible government in Canada. His efforts helped set the stage for Confederation in 1867.

#2: A bandstand was erected to seat 2,000 people; ten times that many attended the sod-turning.

#3: City Hall at Front and Jarvis streets where the parade began at noon. The municipal offices moved from here to what we today call “Old” City Hall at Queen and Bay streets in the 1890’s. Parts of this building were incorporated into the present St. Lawrence Market.

#4: Toronto looking east from the foot of Parliament Street around the time of the sod-turning. The tall steeple in the centre of this view is St. James Cathedral at King and Church streets, although the steeple wouldn’t actually be completed for another 25 years. The smaller cupola just to the left of it is City Hall, where the parade began.

Click here to access our TRHA "resources" page to view or download the above article, Toronto’s First Railway – The Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, in PDF format with many more pictures and illustrations. The PDF also includes an earlier article which we published here on the history of the "Toronto" steam engine.

Articles and postings by Derek Boles, TRHA Historian

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