Living Off the Rails: Uxbridge’s Railroad

It is hard to explain the excitement that swept the Uxbridge valley in the early 1870s. The train, a modern wonder at the time, was finally about to reach the small community. Little did they know it was just the beginning of a 150-year long journey that would take Uxbridge from a little hamlet to a fully grown town. This is the story of the growing years and how the railroad helped build Uxbridge into the town that it is today.


The original Uxbridge train station in the mid 1870s. Courtesy of the Uxbridge Historical Centre. Permanent Collection, P1837.

Chartered in 1868, the Toronto and Nipissing Railway started construction in 1870 with the goal of transporting resources from Northern Ontario to the markets of Toronto. To save money, the railroad was built with a narrow-gauge, meaning the distance from one side of the track to the other was closer together. This made it the first public narrow-gauge railway in North America. Townships paid good money to expand the railway to their town. Uxbridge alone invested $50,000. That amount of money is the equivalent of well over a million dollars today. The railroad finally reached Uxbridge in June of 1871 where construction would temporarily stop. The grand opening occurred 3 months later, on September 14th. The town was decorated with Union Jack and banners reading “The Old Times Have Vanished” and “Onward to Fort Garry."


The early days of the railroad were a huge success, and the line was soon expanded further north to Coboconk. During the summer months the railway ran trips to and from Uxbridge to Toronto. Locals called this “The Watermelon Excursion" because almost every traveler brought a watermelon back with them. Unfortunately, the good times did not last due to an economic recession deemed "The Panic of 1873." The Panic of 1873 was at the time called the Great Depression until the Great Depression of the 20th century proved far worse. Because of the financial struggles of the recession, the line did not have the money to continue to expand north and the market it originally sought to occupy was fulfilled by other railroads. It became one of many small regional railroads which merged in 1881 to form Midland Railway.


Post card of the Uxbridge Train Station. Courtesy of the Uxbridge Historical Centre. Permanent Collection, P369.1.

Despite the economic downturn, Uxbridge’s railway industry was booming. The population had doubled from what it was just seven years prior, and Uxbridge was incorporated into an official village in 1872. Uxbridge had become the headquarters for the new railway. An engine house and repair shop were built along with a water tower. A railway car factory was built in 1874 and later expanded in 1882.


Unfortunately, the luck began running out when in 1883 a fire destroyed the engine house and four engines. The engine house was later rebuilt further North in Lindsay. The railcar factory would enter a steep decline soon after and was out of business before the end of decade. The population entered a decline and would not begin to recover until the 1930s.


Midland Railway was sold to the much larger Grand Trunk Railway in 1893. Grand Trunk Railway was the most dominant railroad in the region at the time, but today is mostly remembered for accidentally killing Jumbo the Elephant in 1885. Uxbridge had its own great accident when in 1903 a wheel broke off a train, causing the entire sixteen car-long freight train to crash. Fortunately, the train was mostly empty, and the only casualty was a single horse. Owing to an ill-advised business move, Grand Trunk Railways went bankrupt in 1919 and the Uxbridge line was sold to CN two years later. Due to the rise of trucks, the railway went into a steep decline soon after. Mail and passenger services went obsolete in the early 1960s. The trains became fewer and fewer and by the beginning of the 1990s the area around Uxbridge Station was a ghost town.


The original Uxbridge train station was constructed just before the arrival of the railway in 1871. The original station was a simple wooden box with a roof. Despite the simplicity the station served Uxbridge for over 40 years. It was even the sight of a birth when Mrs. Brewster stepped off the train and gave birth to her son right there at the Uxbridge Train Station. At the turn of the century the old Uxbridge station could not keep up with demand and the new station that we have today with its iconic witch hat roof was built in 1904. Construction had several issues, the hole they dug for the foundation filled with water and 2 people were fired for drinking whiskey on the job. The train station served the community well but was boarded up soon after passenger service stopped. Fortunately, the station would not be down for too long.


Workers at the Uxbridge Rail Yard. Courtesy of the Uxbridge Historical Centre. Permanent Collection, P372.

The York and Durham Heritage Railway held its first meeting in 1987. A year later Uxbridge Township purchased the station from CN for the low price of $1. The railway was incorporated in 1990 and the railway received royal assent in 1994. Finally, after years of work, the railway gave its first ride in 1996. Unfortunately, due to damage from the recent tornado all current Y&DHR events are currently postponed, but they will reopen again to give passengers a taste of Uxbridge’s rich 150-year-old rail history.

A steam train passing through Zephyr in 1963. Courtesy of the Uxbridge Historical Centre. Permanent Collection, P854.

Sources:


https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Uxbridge_railway_station_%28Ontario%29

https://ydhr.ca/history-2/

https://www.markham.ca/wps/portal/home/arts/markham-museum/all/markham-moves-online/05-history-of-movement-travel-by train#:~:text=A%20narrow%20gauge%20was%20considered,Junction%20Railways%20as%20built%2C%201877


https://www.trha.ca/trha/history/railways/toronto-and-nipissing-railway/


https://www.trha.ca/trha/history/railways/midland-railway-of-canada/


https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/grand-trunk-railway-of-canada


McGillivray, Allan. “Tales from the Uxbridge Valley.” The Uxbridge Millennium Committee, 2000. Pg. 37-40.


Wilmott, Elizabeth A. "Meet Me at the Station." McBain, 1984.


Trout, J.M. & Edw. "The Railways of Canada." Coles Publishing Company, 1970.



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