William (Bill) Weller – Part 3

The end of Stage Coaches By John G. Shragge

The Cobourg Star of December 18, 1837 eulogized one of Weller’s newly turned out “Royal Mail Line” coaches:

“…On Saturday morning last Mr. Weller, stage proprietor and carriage manufacturer of this town made a splendid new turn out from his establishment of a very handsome stage coach and six, driven in hand, intended for the line of six horse stages newly established by him between Toronto and Hamilton. The carriage is of improved construction, and being painted a light yellow (Red in earlier years), with the harness entirely new and drawn by six spirited bay horses , it made an imposing appearance…”

Weller Stage passing Trinity Church, Toronto by artist Rowley Murphy

His coaches, the limousines of their day, were even equipped with portable escritoires, although one wonders how anyone could use quill and ink while crashing up, down and sideways over the miserable roads.

Although Toronto became a key hub for the Weller network, Cobourg was his home. Here, he had a carriage works for the manufacture of stage coaches as well as a repair shop. Most Weller coaches were built there although a few were imported from the U. S. Meticulous care was taken in the quality and appearance of his stages.

Carrying Her Majesty’s Royal Mail was lucrative, but troublesome. The government contracts were bureaucratic labours of love specifying every operation in minute detail. The verbiage was impressive, describing the exact distance, departure and arrival times, the speed stages were to achieve — how and when and from whom the mail was to be picked-up. Government agents were also sent out to audit the stage operations.

A rapidly growing population during the 1840’s and 1850’s also resulted in demands for faster and more reliable mail delivery. Weller apparently had trouble, or skimped meeting some of his postal commitments. He was upbraided by postal officials time and again for giving carriage of passengers and freight (pig iron in one instance) preference over the “Royal Mail”.

Depiction of Weller winter stage at Finkle’s Tavern near Bath circa 1830 by J.C. Cotton.

As a result, in late 1852, the Postmaster General tried to bypass Weller and awarded the 1853 contract on the Kingston-Montreal route to another operator. Weller had no recourse but to petition John A. MacDonald (It helps to have friends in high places), then Attorney-General of Canada West, to help him get compensation of £2,625 in damages — the value of the contract.

Weller slashed his stage coach fares and even bought a controlling interest in the International Telegraph line in February, 1854 — hoping to compliment his coach operations with a communication system throughout the province to maximize efficiency.

When he was asked to speak at a dinner in honour of the opening of the Cobourg and Peterborough Railroad in 1854, Weller probably knew his coaching days were numbered, but could still show a sense of humour:

…”I know why you have called upon me for a speech it is to hurt my feelings; for you know I get my living by running stages, and you are taking the BIT out of my mouth at the same time as you take it out of my horses’ mouths. You are comparing in your minds the present times with the past when you had to carry a RAIL, instead of riding one, in order to help my coaches out of the mud. But after all I am rejoiced to see old things passing away and conditions becoming WELLER…” (More)

In the same year, he invested in, and promoted a rival project, the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway, with other local Cobourg businessmen. He became a director in March 1855. However the board agreed to construction of a causeway across Rice Lake — to save the expense of pushing the rail line through hilly country to the west. This turned out to be a fatal error.

The causeway pilings weren’t sturdy enough or set deep enough, and shifting lake ice severely damaged the long rail structure during the very first winter, and in subsequent years. Attempts to use fill to make a permanent causeway across the lake became too expensive and were never completed. As a result rail traffic was always compromised and eventually the causeway became too dangerous to use.

When the rail venture failed in 1860, Weller was forced to mortgage most of his property in downtown Cobourg to pay off his creditors. It put an end to a colourful business career and an important era in development of Ontario’s road transportation.

[He died in Cobourg, Sept. 21, 1863 – a poor man.]