Cobourg Peterborough Railway – 7

In February 7, 1853 Mrs. Mackechnie, standing in for her husband Stuart Mackechnie, the mayor, who was away in England, turned the first sod for the new railway.

The whole town turned out for the ceremony, which was held at the intersection of Spring (once Railway) Street and University Avenue, near where the provincial plaque to the railway now stands. In 1853 this corner was designed to eventually become “Victoria Square” but was eventually, due to the railway, taken over by industry instead. Judge Boswell and Samuel Zimmerman both gave speeches, which inspired one poet to write:

The thing is did!
The pickaxe has been stuck
By lovely woman in the frozen muck! A flash of glory played around her spade:
0, Lord-a-massy! What a hole she made!
A speech! A speech! was echoed from the crowd,
And “Lord” George Boswell took the floor and bowed.

In the evening, the firemen staged a torchlight parade and a grand ball was held at the Globe Hotel, which stood somewhere near the current Park night-club.

Construction began as soon as the snow would allow. On March 3 the contractors received permission to begin work on the bridge across Rice Lake and shortly afterward the municipality subscribed to 30,000 pounds in stock. This was followed in September by 45,000 more, with another 50,000 the year after.

It was wet work, what with all the crossings of Cobourg Creek and clearing of some of the marshy lowlands. In April ads began appearing in the Star for laborers at a dollar a day. Local farmers were contracted to haul dirt and railroad ties. Wharves and sheds were constructed at Harwood to receive the Rice Lake steamers, so that shipments could begin even before the bridge was finished.

Here it might be worth noticing the change in emphasis on the part of the planners of the great project which had occupied Cobourg for a quarter of a century. Every scheme conceived for Cobourg and the back townships up to this point had stressed the importance of Rice Lake as the principle means of conveyance for produce. Because of the difficulty of rendering the Trent navigable, the argument was always made that a portage of some sort down to Cobourg was the best answer to the problem of getting goods and people in and out of the back townships. Now, however, the idea of using steamers on Rice Lake was a mere stopgap, to be used only until the bridge was finished.

The bridge made Rice Lake irrelevant. No one seems to have noticed that, if Rice Lake was made redundant by the bridge, so could all the other lakes in the inland waterway be made equally superfluous. They could all be bridged if one could bridge one. And that would make Cobourg, whose position as the best outlet for the lakes was the rationale for the whole plan, equally pointless. If you could build a railroad anywhere, then why at Cobourg?

So why the bridge? Probably it was a holdover from the earlier plan of connecting Cobourg’s road to the Prescott-Lake Huron line, which was to pass through Peterborough.

Yet, later, in hindsight, The Cobourg Sentinel (a rival to the Star) offered a more sinister view. On Saturday, September 10, 1864, after disaster had struck, the Sentinel editorialized about some of the early participants in the fiasco. It is worth quoting a few of the juicier excerpts:

“A Railway was projected… D.E. Boulton was the principal (sic) getter up of the company and had, of course, a considerable voice in the direction.

Today, looking north across Rice lake along route of railroad.

The first thing was to determine the route. D.E.B. was agent for the sale of a lot at Harwood. He had sold it for about a pound an acre, but all the payments had not been made; so he persuaded the buyer to give it up. As it would not do to sell it to himself, D.E.B. selected a friend as the recipient of big favours and conveyed the lot to him. So far all worked well. A contractor was engaged… and after it had gone so far that there was no drawing back, a Mrs. Harwood made her appearance and claimed the lot alleging D.E.B.’s sale to be a mistake. So D.E.B., after attempting a defense, was obliged to give it up. Had D.E.B. not fancied that he could make his pile out of Harwood, he would have joined the Hon. Zaccheus Burnham, the Hon. Henry Ruttan and others, who wished to go around the head of the Rice Lake. Had the line been so laid out, no branch ever would have been built to Peterborough from the Port Hope line. But all argument and remonstrance was useless. D.E.B. controlled the direction and his hundred acres at Harwood would, he believed, realize a handsome fortune. So the road was carried across the lake on piles or, as a contemporary more expressly puts it, “on stilts. which were knocked to pieces the first winter after the bridge was completed.”

Whatever one thinks of this, there certainly seemed to be a kind of drifting in the plan as soon as it came to the bridge part. The bridge when built, was the longest such bridge ever attempted to that date. The design of the bridge called for permanent, completely filled-in piles along the greater length of the bridge from the south shore, across Tick Island and several other small islands and shoals, until the deeper main channel was reached, which would then be crossed by a swing bridge to allow steamer traffic to pass. North of the channel, where the bridge approached the hamlet of Hiawatha — the northern station corresponding to Harwood on the south shore — the piles were also to be filled in completely as was done on the south shore.

Zimmerman completed filling in the southern piles, but did not do so on the northern section. When, in the spring of 1854, the engineers again inspected the bridge they found, with terrible foreboding, that the entire northern section of the structure had buckled and heaved several inches out of shape because of the ice, thus making the bridge impassable. Until the bridge could be repaired the steamers were again called into play, to carry goods and passengers up to Peterborough from Harwood. Thus, almost from the first, traffic on the road had to fall back on earlier patterns for transshipping the goods and passengers from the back country.

In this, the first year of the realization of some form of Cobourg’s great dream, ominous signs of the future had begun to appear.

Written by Colin Caldwell