Quebec's Abandoned Wooden Railways (by Alain Bernier)

Guest blogger Alain Bernier returns to discuss an unusual part of railway history, both in Quebec and across the United States and Canada, the early adoption of using wood as opposed to steel and iron rails to save on costs for early railway lines. 

NOTE: This blog was originally sent to me for publication in February, but due to email mishaps, it got lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thank Alain for his hard work, research, and especially patience in contributing to this blog!

Abandoned colonization wooden railroads in the province of Quebec

 THE HULBERT WOODEN RAIL SYSTEM

When speaking of wooden rails here, we are not referring to the wooden rails laid with strap iron that were commonly used in the early days of the railroads. We are referring to railroads that were built using rails entirely made of wood with no iron whatsoever and without using any iron spikes or other metal fasteners. 

By some accounts, this system of wooden railways, developed in Norway and Sweden, was imported to North America by railroad engineer Jerome B. Hulbert [i] of Boonville, New York [ii].  Having adapted the concept for the northeastern US climate, he became widely known along with his concept following the construction on the Clifton Mines Railroad.  This railroad was built in 1867 to carry ore from the Clifton Mines (located 4 miles south of Degrasse, St. Lawrence County, NY) to the mainline of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad at East De Kalb, St. Lawrence County, NY.

The Clifton Mines Railroad was entirely built according to what would become known, in Canada at least, as the Hulbert System.  The track was of a standard gauge and the ties were made of spruce with 4-inch notches cut near the ends. The rails were made of 12- or 14-foot maple scantlings, 4 inches wide by 6 inches high.  They would butt into each other in a notch and were held in place by double or folding wedges driven into the notches. The wooden rail would be further secured to each of the ties in the same fashion. This meant that no rail plates or spikes were necessary for the initial construction.

 

Drawing by G.W. Breck of a locomotive designed for wooden rails with rail workers laying a basic wooden railway

(Source: Harper’s Weekly, June 15, 1895 – Archives)

Early Canadian railroads, such as the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad and the St. Lawrence and Industry Village Railroad, were originally built with wooden rails laid with strap iron. But those rails could not carry heavy loads and some of these early railroads, for instance the Champlain and St. Lawrence, had turned to iron rails.  So, what suddenly made railways wholly built of wood so attractive to Canadians?

In the late 1860’s, Canada was a very young country [iii] and was very much focused on finding ways to establish settlers in its vast unpopulated areas.  Conventional iron railways were expensive and, although they had facilitated settlement in previously inaccessible territories wherever they were built, they could not be built fast enough and in sufficient numbers to properly settle the vast Canadian hinterland.  At the time, in Quebec, the desire for cheap and rapid railway construction was very much present and the Quebec government would end up pioneering the first wooden railway in Canada in 1869.  Similarly in Ontario, by 1870, “the general feeling was that rapid railway extension was necessary to open up the back districts of the province” [iv].

As demonstrated in a report of December 3rd, 1869 submitted to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, the cost of iron rails, on a 5’ 6” gauge, was estimated at 5,000$ per mile while the cost of the Foster Wood Rail System was estimated at 2,100$ per mile and the cost of the Hulbert System was estimated at 1,290$ or 1,420$ depending on which of two options was retained.  The Foster Wood Rail System was never really tested on large scale and there appears to be no example of any attempt to ever construct a railroad using that system.  The patentee, John Foster, presented his system as an improvement of the Hulbert System, but only ever operated over a short experimental length [v].  Favouring the Hulbert System, the said report carried on by comparing the maintenance cost of the iron railway over a 15-year period, estimated at 5,772$ per mile, and of the Hulbert System, estimated at 1,078$ per mile.

The conclusions and recommendations of the said report presented to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, clearly demonstrate the enthusiasm of the time for wooden railways.  Indeed, John Carnegie, Chairman of the Select Committee on Wooden Railroads concluded by stating “That these roads are possessed of the advantages of cheapness of construction, combined with a capacity equal to, if not surpassing that of several railways now in operation in this province, your Committee believe to be beyond doubt. (…) Your Committee are convinced that no more important subject has been brought under the consideration of the Legislature of this Province, than the wooden railways. And would earnestly commend them to your favourable consideration, as by far the best and cheapest means yet devised for developing the resources of the country, and securing its speedy settlement with an industrious and happy population” [vi].

Such was the enthusiasm for wooden railways that in 1869, the Government of Quebec passed an Act [vii] to subsidize the construction of 4 wooden colonization railways, namely the Quebec and Gosford Railway, the Levis and Kennebec Railway, the Montreal Northern Colonization Railway and the Richelieu, Drummond and Arthabaska Counties Railway.  The Act also made provisions for another two potential wooden colonization railways: the Sherbrooke, Eastern Townships and Kennebec Railway and the St. Francis Valley and Kennebec Railway.  The subsidies consisted of a 3% interest on the cost, up to 5,000$ per mile, of all lengths of railroads constructed and exceeding 15 miles by July 1st, 1872, payable for a period of 20 years; and a 3% interest on the cost of all bridges over streams at least 50 yards wide and costing over 5,000$.

Did wooden colonization railways live up to the expectations? Apparently not.  Of the 6 foreseen wooden railways, only 2 were built using wooden rails.  The other 4 were eventually built but using iron rails from the onset.  Doubts or concerns appear to have been raised early on because the Government of Quebec, in 1870, amended its Act of 1869 to specify that the subsidies would be paid to the Montreal Northern Colonization Railway even if it was built in part or totally with iron rails rather than wooden rails [viii].

COLONIZATION WOODEN RAILWAYS

The Quebec and Gosford Railway (1868-1873) (Location on our Abandoned Railroad Map)

The vast area bordering lake St-Jean at the source of the mighty Saguenay River, was a promising land: fertile soil, immense forests, and hydraulic power.  Even without proper land communications, the area was already prosperous.  Yet, the Laurentian Mountain Range made any land connection between the Lake-St-Jean region and the southern regions of the province of Quebec a significant challenge.

Though we don’t know exactly why Jerome B. Hulbert came to Quebec City about 1867, he was likely aware of the significant push towards building colonization railways and was most certainly interested in pushing his wooden rail system as the perfect solution for that purpose. That is the feeling we get from an account, published in La Presse newspaper in 1920, by journalist and historian Alfred Duclos DeCelles where he was recounting the genesis of the Quebec and Gosford Railway: “An American, who had recently arrived at Quebec City, started to advocate, to speak highly of the substitution of wooden rails for iron and steel rails. The former, he said, should meet the needs of colonization by giving the province low-cost railway lines. It was by drawing inspiration from this American’s ideas that a line was built from Quebec to St. Raymond under the name of Gosford Road (translated from French)” [ix]

Although it never reached the Lake-St-Jean region, the Quebec and Gosford Railway (Q&GR) was meant to be the first section of the much longer railway to lake St-Jean [x]. The Q&GR was incorporated on April 5, 1869, by an Act of the Quebec Legislature [xi].  Unsurprisingly, the construction work was contracted to J.B. Hulbert. 

Work started in September 1869.  To avoid the painstaking and costly task of carrying lumber over a long distance, construction started at the northern terminus of the Q&GR near “lac à l’Île”, where a large sawmill was built.  From there, the railway was routed in a southwestern direction over just under 26 miles to the southern terminus located in the St. Sauveur district of Quebec City.  Some 500 journeymen were employed to build this line to the standard gauge of 4’ 8½” on a 12’ wide embankment in a 66’ wide right-of-way.  The wooden rails were made of maple, 4” wide by 7” high and 14’ long.  The wooden ties were much larger than the ones used nowadays.  They were made of either spruce or eastern hemlock, spaced every 15”.

Despite the difficult terrain, the work, except the stations and station platforms, was completed by August 1870.  Curves presented a significant challenge and had to be kept to a minimum with wide radius, not only because wooden rails would not bend much, but also because the additional pressure and friction of the metal wheels of the train against the wooden rails in a curve significantly deteriorated the rails.  Steep inclines were common.  In low-lying areas, to avoid expensive earthworks, wooden trestles were used to keep the railroad over ground.  A 1,250’ viaduct leading to a 90’ bridge carried the railroad over the Jacques-Cartier River.  Trains could reach an average speed of 16 miles per hour.  In total, including the rolling stock, the Q&GR was completed to the cost of 140,058$ or 5,387$ per mile.  The Government of Quebec paid 48,171$ in subsidies and Quebec City contributed 10,000$ in stock.  The whole project was completed in November 1870, 6 weeks ahead of the December 31, 1870 deadline.

  


Engraving of a section of the Quebec & Gosford Railway with the trestle and the bridge on the Jacques-Cartier River

(Source: L’Opinion publique, Vol. 2, No. 52, December 28, 1871, p. 626 – Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

 

Upon completion, the railway operated for a short period in November-December 1870 and was then closed for the winter.  During the following spring and summer, repairs were conducted on the roadbed and many wooden rails, damaged during the thaw period, had to be replaced.  Yet, the operations for the rest of 1871 and for the 1872 season were very successful and profitable.  In addition to carrying firewood and lumber south to Quebec City, the railroad was carrying loads of excursionists.  During the 1872 season, the railroad was used at full capacity [xii].  The train rode 182,988 miles and carried 2,061 carloads of firewood, 210 carloads of square birch, 716 carloads of pine and spruce deals and lumber, 3,000 carloads of pine and spruce saw logs, 69 carloads of merchandise, and 209 carloads of passengers, for a total of 6,262 carloads [xiii]

                                               



A timetable and a ticket to ride on the Quebec & Gosford Railway

(Sources: Timetable – The Morning Chronicle, July 24, 1872; Ticket – Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

In August 1871, the Q&GR was rented to J.B. Hulbert who undoubtedly expected a significant profit [xiv].  However, the Hulbert System was already starting to show its limits in Quebec’s climate.  Rain, frost, and snow made the wooden rails very slippery, often stalling the trains.  They also affected the stability of the rails which would tend to move and warp, slowly pulling out the wedges meant to keep the rails connected to the ties.  The rails, meant to last 5 to 6 years, had to be replaced frequently.  The number of twisted rails discarded along the railroad was such that some were mocking the railway, saying that the axe was their engineers’ most useful tool [xv].

In 1873, Hulbert left Quebec and the lease was cancelled by mutual agreement.  The railroad was in a dire state of disrepair because of warped, twisted, or damaged wooden rails which the company had neglected to replace.  Most of the 1873 season was lost to repairs and in 1874, the line did not operate save for a few sawmill owners using horses to pull wagons along the line. This was the end of the Q&GR. Although the company, by then renamed the Quebec and Lake St. John Railroad, would eventually complete a rail link from Quebec City to the Lake-St-Jean region, it would use a different alignment and the Q&GR route would no longer be.  The new company would only keep the section leading to and crossing the Jacques-Cartier River where they built a new steel bridge to replace the McCullum wooden bridge which had carried the Q&GR over the river.  This remaining section was abandoned in 1901 when a new bridge was built downstream to realign the railroad.

 


Painting of the McCallum wooden bridge over the Jacques-Cartier River also showing the wooden railway

(Source: Marc D. Carette Collection)

 

The Richelieu, Drummond and Arthabaska Counties Railway (1871 – 1894)

This would be the second, and last, colonization railway built using wooden rails.  Like the Quebec and Gosford Railway, the Richelieu, Drummond and Arthabaska Counties Railway (RD&ACRW) was one of the 6 wooden railway projects that the Government of Quebec agreed to subsidize in accordance with the Act adopted for that purpose in 1869 [xvi].

The RD&ACRW was established on April 5, 1869 [xvii] for the purpose of building a wooden railway connecting the Grand Trunk Railway, from a point located in the counties of Drummond, Bagot or St. Hyacinthe, with any point located on the Three Rivers and Arthabaska Railway, and to further extend the railway beyond its junction with the Three Rivers and Arthabaska Railway to connect with the Lévis and Kennebec Railway. The company was also empowered to continue the mainline to the city of Sorel, located at the mouth of the Richelieu River, starting from a point located near the village of Drummondville, and to build spurs no more than 15 miles long from any point of the mainline.

A locomotive and tender of the Richelieu, Drummond & Arthabaska Counties Railway displayed on a stretch of Hulbert System wooden railway
(Source: Société d’histoire de Drummond, Collection régionale ; C1-9.4-29)

Construction began in 1870 between Sorel, Drummondville and L’Avenir, and the work was completed in the fall of 1871. The section between Drummondville and L’Avenir, known as the “short line (la petite ligne)” was meant to be the route connecting the RD&ACRW to the Grand Trunk Railway [xviii].  Inaugurated in the spring of 1872, the line connected Sorel, Yamaska, Saint-David, Saint-Guillaume, Drummondville and L’Avenir.  With the initial success of the Quebec & Gosford Railway, the hopes were high for the RD&ACRW and the comments of those who took part in the inaugural journey were as favourable as they had been for the inauguration of the Quebec & Gosford Railway. A journalist wrote: “We can say that this system of wooden rails seemed to us to work admirably. We covered a few miles at 30 miles per hour. […] The rolling is much smoother than on iron rails, there is almost no shaking and little noise” [xix].

Like the earlier Quebec & Gosford Railway, the RD&ACRW was built on the Hulbert System.  Again, the enthusiasm was short-lived and the issues that plagued the Quebec & Gosford Railway soon started to affect the RD&ACRW.  According to Dr. L.-W. Joyal from the village of Yamaska, the trains were threading water whenever it rained or when frost or dew covered the rails.  He commented that “the wheels of the locomotives slipped in place and the train remained stationary. To get the convoy moving again, it was necessary to steam back, move back over some distance, then launch the engine forward, at full speed, to be able to move forward a little further, then start this maneuver again indefinitely” [xx].

                        


Route of the RD&ACRW between Sorel, Yamaska, St. Guillaume, Drummondville and L’Avenir

Source: Allard, Yolande, La Pointe Allard : Une terre promise au cœur des Cantons-de-l’Est du XIXe siècle, in Collection Société d’histoire de Drummondville, Éditions Histoire Québec, 2003, p. 35 


Map showing the northeastern end of the RD&ACRW at the pier on the St. Lawrence River in the city of Sorel

Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

The life of the RD&ACRW as an independent railway was over almost as soon as it started.  Indeed, in 1872, the railway merged with the South Eastern Counties Junction Railway and the resulting company was named the South Eastern Railway (SER). One of the first decision taken by the SER was to abandoned the proposed connection to the GTR via L’Avenir and instead, to route the connection through Wickham.  The “short line” became a dead-end [xxi].

                                      


Map showing the “short line” between Drummondville and L’Avenir, and the route taken by the South Eastern Railway (SER) to connect to the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR)

Source: Allard, Yolande, La Pointe Allard : Une terre promise au cœur des Cantons-de-l’Est du XIXe siècle, in Collection Société d’histoire de Drummondville, Éditions Histoire Québec, 2003, p. 39

In September 1875, the SER began replacing the wooden rails by iron rails imported from England laid on new crossties.  The replacement was completed between Sorel and Drummondville in November 1875.  However, the replacement works only started in 1882 between Drummondville and L’Avenir.  In 1883, the work stopped at Wheatland when the SER went bankrupt [xxii].  As a primarily rural railway, the main issue facing the SER was that it was not serving any significant industry or industrial town.  It was therefore at the mercy of the fluctuating lumber and hay markets.  Service remained basic and irregular, and the line suffered from underinvestment in maintenance.  The route was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) in 1883.  By 1891, the CPR was looking for reasons to abandon the railway between Sorel and Drummondville as it was deemed unprofitable.  The perfect excuse presented itself in April 1891 when the rail bridge over the Yamaska River, between Sorel and St. Guillaume, collapsed.  The CPR declined all subsidies offered by the Government of Quebec to help with rebuilding the bridge and resisted all calls to keep the line operating between St. Guillaume and Drummondville [xxiii]. The former route of the RD&ACRW between Sorel and l’Avenir was abandoned and the tracks were removed in 1894 [xxiv].

           

Engraving of the rail bridge over the Yamaska River

Source: Pelletier, Louise, Le premier chemin de fer à Sorel et l’hôtel Rail Road, in LaRPV.tv, November 13, 2013

https://larpv.tv/le-premier-chemin-de-fer-a-sorel-et-lhotel-rail-road-par-louise-pelletier/

In addition to the collapse of the rail bridge on the Yamaska River, two other major accidents took place on the line during its short history.  On June 4, 1873, the Jos Boisvert sawmill, located close to the railway, was razed to the ground by a major explosion which took out a nearby rail bridge.  By 1876, the SER was yet to rebuild the bridge. Then, on September 28, 1880, saboteurs placed a rail across the railroad at a location about 6 miles out of the city of Sorel.  The Quebec Mercury newspaper reported that 11 people were killed and 25 were injured [xxv].

Though the RD&ACRW was built in accordance with the Hulbert System, there is no evidence of any involvement of Jerome B. Hulbert himself in this railway endeavor.  However, another interesting character was involved in the establishment of the company.  This figure who would become controversial in the nascent Quebec railway industry, was Louis-Adélard Sénécal, at the time member of Parliament for Drummond-Arthabaska.  The RD&ACRW was Sénécal’s first brush with the railways, but it wouldn’t be the last.  He would eventually be appointed to the position of General Superintendent of Railways for the province of Quebec.  While his future dealings with the railways would be riddled with patronage, collusion and corruption, he appears to have had his practice run with the RD&ACRW.  Sénécal had been entrusted with the construction of the RD&ACRW but challenged the company and some of the other shareholders by refusing to complete some of the contracted work.

© Alain Bernier, 2024

 


[i] Un chemin de fer peu ordinaire : De Québec jusqu’au Lac-Saint-Jean,

https://baladodecouverte.com/circuits/1074/poi/12977/un-chemin-de-fer-peu-ordinaire

[ii] Palmer, Richard F. and John Thomas, Wooden Rails in the Wilderness: Part II – The Railroad, in The Quarterly, Official Publication of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, July 1969, p. 11

[iii] The Dominion of Canada was established by the British North America Act on July 1st, 1867.

[iv] Shortt, Adam and Arthur G. Doughty, Canada and its Provinces: A History of the Canadian People and their Institutions by One Hundred Associates, Vol. 10, section V: The Dominion Industrial Expansion – Part II, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, p. 427

[v] Foster, John, Description of the Various Systems of Wooden Railways, in Connection with the Report of the Special Committee Named by the Toronto Legislature to Investigate and Enquire Into their Usefulness and Cost for Colonization Purposes, Montreal, John Lovell, 1870, p. 2

[vi] Carnegie, John, Chairman, Report of the Select Committee on Wooden Railways, in Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario, Vol. III, Appendix No. 1, Session 1869, Toronto, Hunter, Rose & Company

[vii] Acte pour l’encouragement de certains chemins à lisses de Colonisation, in Statuts de la province de Québec, 32 Victoria, Chapitre 52, Québec, Charles-François Langlois, Imprimeur de Sa Très Excellente Majesté La Reine, 1869

[viii] Acte pour amender l’acte de subvention des chemins à lisses de Colonisation de 1869, in Statuts de la province de Québec, 33 Victoria, Chapitre 35, Québec, Charles-François Langlois, Imprimeur de Sa Très Excellente Majesté La Reine, 1870

[ix] Potvin, Damase, L’histoire du chemin à lisses de bois – Le Québec & Gosford Wooden Railway, in Histoires forestières, Québec, Société d’histoire forestière du Québec, juillet 2021, p. 36

[x] On December 1870, the Government of Quebec authorized the Q&GR to extend its railway to Lake St-Jean and the company was renamed the Quebec and Lake St. John Wooden Railway Company (Acte pour autoriser la compagnie du chemin à lisses de Québec à Gosford à prolonger sa ligne jusqu’au lac St-Jean, in Statuts de la province de Québec, 34 Victoria, Chapitre 24, Québec, Charles-François Langlois, Imprimeur de Sa Très Excellente Majesté La Reine, 1870).

[xi] Acte pour incorporer la Compagnie du Chemin à Lisses de Québec à Gosford, in Statuts de la province de Québec, 32 Victoria, Chapitre 53, Québec, Charles-François Langlois, Imprimeur de Sa Très Excellente Majesté La Reine, 1869.

[xii] Unknown author, The Quebec and Gosford Wooden Railway, Family Collections, History of Valcartier, April 29, 2019,

https://valcartiergenealogy.com/family-collections/the-quebec-and-gosford-wooden-railway/

[xiii] Prospectus of the Quebec and Lake St. John Railway, 1875

[xiv] The lease agreement required Hulbert to keep operating the railway, to support all expenses and to pay each shareholder a 6% interest per year (Gagnon, Rodolphe, Le chemin de fer de Québec au Lac St-Jean (1854 – 1900), Thèse présentée à l’École des Gradués de l’Université Laval pour obtenir le diplôme d’études supérieures en histoire, Québec, Université Laval, Décembre 1967, p. 39)

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Acte pour l’encouragement de certains chemins à lisses de Colonisation, op. cit.

[xvii] Acte pour incorporer la compagnie du Chemin à Lisses des comtés de Richelieu, Drummond et Arthabaska, in Statuts de la province de Québec, 32 Victoria, Chapitre 56, Québec, Charles-François Langlois, Imprimeur de Sa Très Excellente Majesté La Reine, 1869

[xviii] Allard, Yolande, La Pointe Allard : Une terre promise au cœur des Cantons-de-l’Est du XIXe siècle, in Collection Société d’histoire de Drummondville, Éditions Histoire Québec, 2003, p. 37

[xix] Pelchat, André, Drummondville, au temps du chemin de fer… en bois, raconte-moi l’histoire, in Journal web Vingt 55, December 4, 2022

https://vingt55.ca/dmv-drummondville-au-temps-du-chemin-de-fer-en-bois-raconte-moi-lhistoire-par-andre-pelchat/

[xxi] Allard, Yolande, La Pointe Allard : Une terre promise au cœur des Cantons-de-l’Est du XIXe siècle, op. cit. p. 37

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 38

[xxiv] Une idée de génie : du bois d’érable plutôt que du fer!, op. cit.

[xxv] Special Despatch: Railway Accident near Sorel, in The Quebec Mercury, September 29, 1875, p. 2


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