July 26, 2016
On March 6, 1834 the Cobourg Rail Road Company was chartered to build a railway from Cobourg to Peterborough crossing Rice Lake. This was one of the first two Railroad charters issued in Canada and it came just a few years after the first railroads were built in the UK. In the summer of 1996 I set out to investigate the remains of the railway.
The concept had begun in 1831 when several businessmen from Cobourg contracted the Provincial Land Surveyor, F. P. Rubidge, to survey possible routes for a railway from Cobourg to Rice Lake. The following year a map showing a proposed route following several valleys ran to the community of Sully (Harwood). Money didn’t show up but the Rebellion of 1837 did and the plan got forgotten until 1846. This is when Samuel Gore revived the idea as the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company. Gore intended to bring lumber and other natural resources to the Cobourg harbour for shipping, thus creating a thriving port community. His plank road didn’t survive past the first couple of winters but pictures of a similar plank road called The Gore and Vaughan Plank Road were published in a previous article.
In 1852 a new plan was chartered for the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway. The official sod turning for construction was performed by the wife of the Cobourg mayor on Feb. 7, 1853. During that first year farmers along the way contributed wood from the forests and labour from their horse teams. The old plank road bed was used but in 1854 a labour shortage was caused by the Crimean War and labour rates rose to $1.00 for a 12 hour day. German labour was brought in and tragically, 14 of them perished that year to cholera. When completed at the end of 1854 the trestle was nearly 5 kilometers long making it the longest railway bridge in North America at the time. The archive photo below shows the trestle set on piles that had been driven into the lake bed. Each truss was 24 meters long and it took 33 of them to make the crossing. In the deepest part of the lake a 36 metre swing bridge was installed to allow navigation from one end of the lake to the other.
The view below from Google Earth shows Harwood and the railway causeway reaching out into the lake. Starting in 1855 John Fowler took over as chief engineer and he began to fill in the cribs below the trusses in an effort to secure them from the winter’s damage. The trestle from Harwood to Tic Island was filled in and this can still be seen from aerial photography. The railway manager, D’Arcy Boulton continually defended the railway claiming that Samuel Zimmerman hadn’t properly completed the line when he turned it over and started work on a rival line out of Port Hope. Boulton suggested that a half a million cubic yards of fill could be dumped into the remaining open cribs and that would solve the trestle problem permanently. The cover photo shows the causeway as it stretches away from shore as it appeared in 1996. It is one of four pictures from that trip that have been scanned and added to this article.
The first train from Cobourg to Peterborough ran the 45.8 kilometer track for free on December 29, 1854 to show off the new railway. Celebrations were a little premature as ice damaged the trestle just three days later on January 1, 1855 and the line was shut down until it could be repaired in the spring. The seventeen truss sections that ran south between the draw bridge and Tic Island were shoved hard enough that the span on the abutment on the island was displaced by four feet. Ice damaged the bridge again in the winters of 1856-57, 1859-60 and fatally damaged it in 1860-61. Parts of the trestle collapsed and some claim that a rival railway had removed some of the bolts from the truss sections. The trestle was permanently closed and the railway from Hiawatha to Peterborough abandoned. The archive photo below shows damage to the trestle following the shifting of the ice. Notice how the rail is twisted near the person standing on the bridge.
Finally I had reached the end of the causeway and found a couple of fishermen trying their luck. The causeway stretches off toward Tic Island which is hidden by the cluster of trees that have found a home on the rocks.
The line was sold in 1866 to the Marmora Iron Works for $100,000 but the citizens of Cobourg had invested ten times that much in the railway. The company planned to bring iron from a mine on Crowe Lake to Trent Bridge at the northern end of Rice Lake by rail. From there a barge would move the ore Harwood for shipping on the old railway to Cobourg. The venture went well until 1873 when the economy went bad and the iron market collapsed. This led to the closure of the mine and by 1877 the company was again bankrupt. Parts of the rail line were absorbed into the Grant Trunk Railway in 1893. The picture below shows the rail end in Harwood at Rice Lake around 1865 with a barge tied up at dockside.
Hiking to the end of the causeway involves a lot of climbing over tree roots and around rocks. The picture below shows the width of the causeway as it stretches from the shoreline. The water level in Rice Lake was raised by about eight feet in the 1920’s when the Trent Severn Waterway was constructed. The rail berm I was hiking on was originally built 4 feet above the high water mark.
In 1996 it was possible to make your way a considerable distance from the shore along the old causeway. This picture is taken from the end looking back to the shore.
It’s now been 156 years since a train made the crossing but the remains of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway still have their story to tell.
Google Maps link: Harwood
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