Cobourg Peterborough Railway - 12
"To attempt to give a description of the extent or value of the Iron Ore, Lithographic Stone and Marble belonging to the Marmora Iron Works would be folly — suffice it to say that they are all of the very best quality and inexhaustible."
So wrote the Cobourg Star as early as 1848. The reader will, by this time in our story, be familiar with the Star's boundless enthusiasm for whichever local improvement scheme it chanced upon.
By 1865 all efforts at repairing the bridge over Rice Lake were dead in the water, so to speak. Although 12-million board feet of lumber came down the railway from Harwood that year, 19-million feet passed through Port Hope. Mayor Daintry's not-so-confident assertion the year before that Cobourg wasn't dead yet, seemed rather wistful.... Grass wasn't actually growing in Cobourg's streets, but the business atmosphere was certainly depressed.
Enter the Marmora Iron Works. The mines were located a scant nine miles north of the navigable part of the upper Trent River. The market for this ore was expanding in the United States as the steel mills around Pittsburgh responded to the huge growth in American industrial power during and after the Civil War. As Cobourgers pointed out, much of the ore the mills needed had to be brought down from the great ranges in the Northwest. Here was Cobourg with a convenient supply right in its own back-yard, with water connections to a railroad that would bring the stuff to Cobourg where there were water connections to anywhere.
So in 1865 John H. Dumble drew up a prospectus of the railway's assets and set off for the United States to interest potential buyers in a railway that could be combined, in some way, with an ore extraction company. After some searching he found a group of Pittsburgh steel-men headed by George K. Schoenberger, one of the wealthiest men in the state. They had purchased the Marmora Iron Works with much the same idea in mind. (More on American Connection). Though Dumble had earlier suggested that for $530,000 Cobourg itself could buy the mines, rebuild the bridge and fix up all the other rolling stock, in the end the shareholders agreed to sell the railway to the mining company for $100,000. As there were so many financial encumbrances on the railway, little of that money ever found its way into the pockets of the shareholders.
The principle buildings of the railway company had long been situated at the Cobourg harbour terminus. As well as the main station, which stood to the north of the present esplanade, there were tank houses, a turntable, a semi-circular engine house, a machine shop, office buildings, sheds and smaller structures occupied by workmen.
For the benefit of the new "Cobourg, Peterborough and Marmora Railway and Mining Co.", an elevated spur of the line was added to the track leading to the east pier. This elevation allowed the cars carrying the ore to dump it via chutes directly into the holds of waiting vessels who would then transport it to Rochester.
Similarly a track was built from Blairton, on Crowe Lake near the mine, down to Trent River Bridge. There, on another elevated spur of the track, bottom-unloading cars bringing the ore from the mine could empty it into scows which pulled up underneath the tracks. The scows were then towed upstream to Harwood where a steam conveyor belt loaded the ore into the Cobourg bound trains. These cars were all built by the Crossen works in Cobourg and the setup was completed by 1869 or '70.
The steamer Otonabee was used to tow the barges on Rice Lake. At first the company contracted out for steamers on Lake Ontario, to go, as they said, to "Charlotte (Rochester), Buffalo, Erie or Cleveland". Eventually they built their own ship which they named, with remarkable originality, Otonabee II and the trade settled into a regular routine of shipments to Rochester bound ultimately for Pittsburgh. By 1873, when the Otonabee I was sold off and replaced by a new, larger, paddle-steamer named the Isaac Butts, the mine was shipping some three hundred tons of ore per day. This made it the most productive single mine in Canada. The only drawback to the Isaac Butts was that it was too big for the locks at Hastings. which had to he enlarged at company expense.
Without doubt, this was the most productive period in the entire venture's history. It also had a surprising sequel in that during this time the American steelmen and financiers who came to conduct business here, fell in love with Cobourg's atmosphere of aristocratic society and country-town charm and the idea of Cobourg as a summer resort was born. (More here) One of the directors of the railway, an amiable southerner named Col. William Chambliss, proceeded to build the Arlington Hotel in 1874. With 150 rooms, situated on the north edge of the present Victoria Park, the Arlington was readily judged to be the grandest hotel between Toronto and Montreal. More
By the end of the decade, however, the ore began to run out. Cheaper American ore made it pointless to search for more in the area. The last ore shipments were made in 1878, the mine shut down in '79 and the company cleared out in 1881. Passenger service was maintained for a while, mostly for sporting tourists to Rice Lake. Finally the road was taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway, as Dumble had expected back in 1859.
And so the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway petered out, approximately where it was originally to have started as a rail line to bridge the gap between Rice Lake and Lake Ontario at Cobourg. Gone were the dreams of bringing the produce of the far west down from Georgian Bay and out to the wide world through Cobourg's spacious harbour. The canal they had planned to link the inland waterways with Lake Huron wouldn't be finished until 1923, and then it was too small for anything except pleasure craft. Early speculation that a metropolis growing up between Cobourg and Rice lake would soon outshine all other cities in the province (the origin, by the way, of the myth of Cobourg as the capital) was thought, perhaps, best forgotten.
With its glittering summer colony of newfound, rich, American friends, Cobourg sat back and slumbered along for a century or so, in the shadow of the town hall they had built to signal the railway's prosperity as it too gradually fell apart.
Written by Colin Caldwell
Part 12 is on this page and an index is below.