Cobourg Peterborough Railway - 11
By September of 1860 Cobourg's spectacular new Town Hall, named Victoria Hall in honour of Her Majesty, was almost ready for the gala opening. (Victoria Hall today). Even better, at the very time of the opening, the first-ever Royal tour of Canada was to be undertaken by Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Cobourg had managed — probably due to the dedication of the hall to the Queen — to get on the roster of towns the Prince was to visit in his tour of Canada West.
There are innumerable stories and legends surrounding the opening of Vic Hall: the prince's aides demanding to know whether the floor of the ballroom was safe; the Duke of Newcastle's refusing to allow the prince to disembark if Orange Lodge banners were too prominent; the Prince's horses being removed from the carriage so the fire brigade or some other gallant young men could pull it; and many others.
At the heart of all the celebrations, however, was the great project which, in fact, had occasioned the building of the hall in the first place — the railroad. It was the railroad which promised to bathe Cobourg in such glory and wealth that it would need this monumental palace.
The morning after the gala ball, therefore, the only important item of business was the prince's royal excursion to the C&PRR. We do not know the precise details, but there is little doubt that it was the Duke of Newcastle who took one figurative look at the bridge and declared that there was no way the prince was going to set foot on it. Hence, probably to the directors' chagrin, the prince took a boat across to Hiawatha on the north shore, where he rejoined the train. To the sneering remarks of the Toronto press, the directors announced that that had always been the plan, as so much nicer a view of Rice Lake could be had from a steamer.
Whatever the humiliation involved in this, there was more to come. The story can perhaps best be told from a later perspective. In October of 1864 a public meeting was held in that same Victoria Hall, at which several of the parties involved explained the events surrounding the railway in 1859-60. It is typical of the apparent moral confusion of the times, that the mayor, G.S. Daintry, began the meeting by explaining away his having an interest in, and being a director of "a rival road" (Port Hope, of course). So depressing was the atmosphere that the mayor speech actually began with his declaration that he had faith that the town, i.e. Cobourg, was not yet dead.
John Dumble then reviewed the railway story as he saw it. For approximately $1 million, for half of which the town and its property now stood as surety, the town received "a half-finished railway and a bridge built on stilts." Though the ice almost ruined the bridge the first winter, the thing was such a "vast engineering blunder (that) the bridge would soon have rotted, even if there had been no ice."
He then outlined the disastrous attempts by the stock-holders to try to run the railway themselves, with no real experience of actually ever having done such a thing before: the dismal shape of the equipment when he took over; the efforts and money he sank into the project and the modest success he began to show for it; the offer to have him lease the concern and his acceptance; the request that he relinquish his lease in order for the railway to be sold to the Grand Trunk; the betrayal and trickery as he found that the line had been handed over not to the Grand Trunk but to the Cobourg railway's arch-rival the lessees of the Millbrook Branch of the Port Hope line — whose only purpose and financial interest lay in doing away with the Cobourg line.
After this litany of incompetence and woe, Dumble described the new directors' actions. First they laid off all the men working on the pilings of the bridge. Not only did the ice sweep in the next winter and devastate the bridge with its now unfinished pilings, the ice was helped along by the fact that the new directors thoughtfully removed all the iron bolts and fittings from the bridge and took them off to Millbrook for use on their line. We should note here, in passing, that by 1864 everyone in the audience was aware that at some time between 1861 and 1863 (accounts differ) the entire freestanding central structure of the bridge had collapsed and been carried off down the lake.
Dumble was quite optimistic. He believed that, done properly, the bridge could be rebuilt and that the saving in distance travelled from Peterborough straight down to Cobourg (as opposed to going around the lake) could, coupled with Cobourg's superior harbour, ultimately save the situation.
He pointed out that the Cobourg railway was on the more advantageous side of the Otonabee River and that even the timber in the immediate vicinity of Rice Lake would justify the Cobourg line if properly managed.
Henry Covert soon rose to defend himself. He explained, at some length, all the expenses he had incurred on the railway's behalf and how he had received not one "York penny" back from all of his efforts: nor had he entered into any arrangement with another line until the Cobourg line was virtually moribund; how every man of property had the right to invest his own money where he wished without answering to everyone else (this while being president of the line you are subverting) and how, at his own expense, he had removed the iron bolts and fittings and hidden them safely on "Pig Island", since, everyone knew, the bridge was going to go out anyway and why waste all that valuable ironware; and, after all, if he hadn't done what he did, someone else would have.
Sheriff Ruttan characterized this latter argument as saying that "if some-one else was going to come along and steal the apples off that tree, why shouldn't I do it and have done?" (Bio on Ruttan).
The citizens set up what they called a "vigilance" committee to oversee what was to become of their railway. In particular it was to examine closely the results of an appeal to the arbitrators assigned by the Court of Chancery, who were to decide on what basis the town of Cobourg could settle with all those who thought they had a financial claim on the road, so as to bring the road firmly back under Cobourg's control. Covert reminded them that he still owned the property on which the Cobourg terminus sat, and that he would relinquish the road as soon as his personal claims were settled.
At the end of this stormy meeting, one W. W. Dean Esquire, stood forth and quietly talked about the advantages to be gained from looking into the Marmora Iron works, noting that agents of an American company had just recently been looking at them. He was, in fact, pointing at the railroad's future.
Written by Colin Caldwell
Part 11 is on this page and an index is below.