As most residents of Bruce and Grey Counties remain home-bound in self-isolation, it might lift our spirits if we imagine taking a train ride with a rail enthusiast who wrote about his memories of local passenger service in the 1950s.
An era drew to a close this year (1994) when the scrappers arrived to tear up the CNR tracks in town. In June, the crews had removed the rails between the junction and Walkerton, leaving only crumbling embankments as reminders of what was once an important and revered railway.
The story began in 1856 when the provincial government gave the Canada North-West Railway Company authority to build a railway from Southampton to Toronto. Due to poor economic conditions nothing was done until 1864 when the lapsed charter was revived as the Wellington, Grey and Bruce railway. Guelph was now to be the point of origin.
Although modern construction machinery was far into the future, the gently rolling farmland provided relatively few obstacles to the army of workers equipped with picks and shovels, teams of horses and wagons and scrapers. December 7, 1872 was a red l letter day when the line was finally completed into Southampton. For much of its lifetime the Southampton railway provided a vital link to the outside world. Until about fifty years ago highways were unpaved and often impassible in winter blizzards and spring thaws. But the train usually got through, carrying not only passengers, but many essentials of life for local residents: coal, furniture, farm equipment, clothing, building supplies and dozens of other items.
During World Wars, our railway performed an essential but poignant service, transporting thousands of servicemen off to training camps and active duty. The platforms were crowded with family, friends and sweethearts bidding an often tearful farewell. A few years later the trains brought back the survivors, older and infinitely sadder.
The Port Elgin station was virtually the center of the community, the agent knew almost everyone. Often, townspeople would drop by the station at train time to chat, see who was coming or going and to exchange pleasantries with the train crew. Life was slower paced and simpler in those bygone days.
Next month we’ll go for that train ride.
This article was originally written for the 1994 Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook and adapted by Bob Johnston