Bill bets on the Governor - By John G. Shragge
Weller as it turned out was also obliged, in part, to maintain the roads his stage coaches used -- with a bit of government help. In 1835, for example, he had to petition the House of Assembly for a grant so he could repair the road between Highland Creek and Duffins Creek, between West Darlington and Brown's Mills, and from Brighton to the Trent River.
He also needed £500 to build what may have been the first bridge across the Rouge River and to cut down the hill on the east side of the Rouge. A year later Weller petitioned for another £600 he claimed he had to pay out of his own pocket to complete the project.
At the same time as he was building his coaching business, Weller also became involved in one of the earliest schemes to build a railway in Canada -- from Cobourg to Rice Lake in 1835. (More - Cobourg Peterborough railroad - part 4). However the Cobourg Rail Road Company proposal fizzled.
As Bill Weller's network grew, more depots were erected for the convenience of local passengers who wanted to buy tickets or ship freight. Weller's stage office in Toronto was strategically located at the apex of the Coffin Block, at the gore formed by Wellington (then Market), Front and Church Streets.
Hold-ups were few and far between in Upper Canada, but Weller stages must have been tempting targets. One night in 1839 a gang of robbers tried to steal several trunks from a Toronto-bound stage just west of Port Hope. They struck in the dark as the passengers had dismounted to walk to allow the horses pull the loaded coach up a steep hill. But the driver noticed the luggage straps had been cut after he had crested the hill and stopped. He unhitched one of the horses and quickly raced back down the hill and apparently scared the hooligans away. The trunks were soon recovered hidden in the bush beyond the road. Bill Weller posted a £100 reward for robbers, for what in those days would have been a hanging offence.
But that kind of irritation didn't slow down Weller. In 1840 he bought the stage line from Toronto to Hamilton and shortly afterwards extended stage service from Toronto to Holland Landing via Yonge Street. (See footnote).
In another venture he became president of the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company in 1846 -- essentially a reworking of the 1830's rail proposal. Unfortunately, before the plank road was even completed to Rice Lake, the carefully laid planks were heaved and twisted by the frost in the winter of 1847-48. (More - Cobourg Peterborough railroad - part 5). By the 1850s, however, it was described by travelers as one of the best roads in the area.
Weller's steam ferry passenger and freight business running across Rice Lake and on the Otanobee River, another facet of the company's operations, went along swimmingly as did the Weller-operated steam ferry on the Trent River.
Weller also became a joint-stock owner in a scandalous venture, the Cobourg and Port Hope Road Company along with other Cobourg businessmen. The toll house and gate apparently went up even before the road was properly completed and gravelled. This lathered local residents into such a state that someone burned the toll house to the ground in 1848 -- along with the gate.
Also in 1848, Bill Weller decided to enter politics and successfully ran for mayor of Cobourg. [He eventually was elected mayor for 1850, 51 & 63. Before 1850, the town was run by the "Police Board"]. Soon after, he arranged the purchase by the town, of the floundering Port Hope and Rice Lake Road for £4000. One might assume he recouped some of his losses by this manoeuvre. -- a finesse that would be considered slightly below board for an elected official today.
While he was mayor, his stage business was booming. Weller stage coaches ran between Cobourg, Port Hope and Peterborough; from Toronto to Kingston; and between Kingston and Prescott. And in 1849 Weller won the contract for the Prescott-Montreal mail run from the Post Office, thus extending his stage coach network all the way from Hamilton to Montreal, a distance of 400 miles (643 km).
However, Bill Weller really made a name for himself because of an amazing feat in the winter of 1840.
The Governor-General, The Right Hon. C. Poulett -Thomson, (Lord Sydenham) (at left) needed to get to Montreal as fast as possible.
According to one account it was to reprieve a condemned prisoner from the hangman's noose; another, that it was to catch a steam packet sailing for England.
Poulett-Thomson, called on Weller at his Toronto stage office. Bill Weller quickly agreed to the request, and decided to drive the Governor-General himself.
But before they left, Weller being a sporting man, bet £1,000 with some cronies that he could cover the 360 miles between Toronto and Montreal in under 38 hours.
He knew the odds were favourable as it was February, and the route was snowbound -- the surface hard and fast. The Governor was tucked in to a warm bed in a covered stage sleigh, the start officially timed, and with Weller at the reins and cracking a 20-foot lash, they were off at 6 a.m on a Monday morning. A second sleigh followed with the governor-general's staff.
Every 15 miles Weller's hostlers stood ready at the post stations with four fresh horses, hot food and drink. Without a stop for sleep, Weller drove through the night and the next day. And 37 hours and 40 minutes later, at 7.40 p.m. on a Tuesday, pulled up his steaming horses outside the Montreal stage office. In addition to winning his side bet, Weller received £100 from the appreciative Governor-General and an engraved gold watch.
It was an amazing accomplishment considering that the regular trip by coach and four usually took four and a half days, including stops for meals and overnight stays at the many wayside inns. Weller averaged nine to 10 mph throughout the journey with speeds reaching 15 mph. In comparison, wheeled coaches could only average speeds of three to six miles per hour during the summer months.
- At the end of 1839, the Toronto to Kingston Stage left Toronto 4 days a week and took 46 hours to travel the distance. Stops included Port Hope, Cobourg, Grafton, Colborne. By 1844, there was daily service to Toronto from Cobourg with the fare being $2.00 - travel took from 7:00am till "early in the evening".
- Since the above was published, Dan Buchanan has published a book on a portion of William Weller's career: 38 Hours to Montreal. This covers the time he carried the Governor-General from Toronto to Montreal. More here.