In a strangely ironic twist, the final of the significant three colonial railways to be completed would be the sole survivor of them all into the 20th century. And while Great Western and Northern Railway of Canada all survived past Confederation in 1867. It would be the Grand Trunk railroad that would absorb both of these before the turn of the century and then lose it all a couple of decades into the new century. Unlike Grand Trunk’s peers, the new railroad had not tried to build a line before the 1850s, chartered on the 10th of November 1852. British investors wholly-owned grand Trunk and headquartered in London. Being a railroad designed to serve British interests, the line would connect Toronto and Montreal, the two economic powerhouses of the province. Just because the railroad was British owned, that didn’t mean it didn’t have champions in Canada; Sir Francis Hincks provided a voice and representative in government to serve Grand Trunk’s purposes. Grand Trunk began their construction and moved far slower than the other two lines in their construction. Stations were built of stone and to specifications found in many British railroad stations. But the investors were not content to stay with one short run. And a year into construction they purchased the St. Lawerence & Atlantic Railway that extended the line from Montreal to the Canadian/American border with Maine. Construction faced further delay on their main branch near the Ganaraska River in Port Hope. And while they kept pushing they decided to again expand by purchasing the Toronto & Guelph Railway then changed the direction and expanded it out to Sarnia. It wouldn’t be until 1856 that the first line saw completion as work continued out to Sarnia. To ensure near-seamless movement of passengers and cargo, Grand Trunk began construction of a Union Station in Toronto. The term “Union” for a railroad indicated that two or more rail lines joined in a single station, in this case, the second railway is the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron. Construction ended in 1858 with Toronto’s first Union Station opening west of where the current one sits today.
By decade’s end, rapid expansion through the takeovers of smaller rail lines and the cost to construct the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, Grand Trunk seemed poised on the brink of financial ruin. Thankfully the Canadian Government began to pump millions into the failing railroad to keep it afloat. It also helped that Grand Trunk converted the millions of bonds into traditional shares to help raise additional capital. With the company solvent again, they turned towards upgrades and expansion. Old iron rails were replaced by steel. The purchase of the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railroad provided two links to major American markets, with a terminus in Fort Erie and a second on Goderich. Each village hosting a rail ferry to carry the rail cars across the bodies of water to markets in Buffalo and Chicago. It would be the actions of Grand Trunk staff that allowed the warning of the Fenian invasion of 1866 at Fort Erie to get out and use of their rail line to move the ill-fated Canadian Militia to Ridgeway that July. By 1867 Grand Trunk stood as the world’s largest railroad operator boasting some 2,055 kilometres of track. Among the promises of Confederation, Sir John A. MacDonald appointed that a transcontinental railroad should be constructed, linking the Maritimes to the central provinces out into the prairies and the west coast. The government turned to Grand Trunk to build the line, a contract soundly refused by the board. The British controlled board felt such a venture would prove unprofitable. But that didn’t mean Grand Trunk didn’t stop, the turn of the decade ushered in the golden age of Canadian rail. Grand Trunk would begin construction of a new set of shops in Stratford and begin construction of a second Union Station in Toronto. The first union station was proving to be too small for the rapid increase in the use of rail travel and was demolished in 1871. Unlike the first station which was three small wooden structures, the grand new station designed by Thomas Seaton Scott in the Second Empire style showed the grandeur of rail travel and the power of the Grand Trunk. It would be the largest railroad station in Canada.
Grand Trunk continued to gobble up smaller lines, and in 1881 the appointment of Sir Joseph Hinkson saw appointment to President of the company. Hinkson saw the chance to start grabbing up significant competitors. Great Western would be folded into Grand Trunk in 1882 but continued to operate under their banner. North & North-Western would fall to Grand Trunk in 1888. North & North-Western provided a critical link for Grand Trunk, connection to the transcontinental railway being built by Canadian Pacific. Despite the inroads being made by Canadian Pacific, by 1890 Grand Trunk held a monopoly on the railroad in Canada and had serious influence in the United States. Their rolling stock includes some 700 locomotives, 47 snowploughs, and nearly 20,000 cars of passenger, cargo, baggage and post office although all this Grand Trunk could not turn a profit. By 1896 Hinkson was out, and the American born Charles Hayes took over. Hayes had a good reputation and had turned several American railroads around. Rather than move towards further expansion, Hayes ordered a more cautious approach to spending, focusing on upgrading the ageing infrastructure. It worked, and by the end of the century, the company had started turning a profit. Hayes then used the money to complete a new Canadian headquarters in Montreal and begin to explore expanding further west by the purchase of the Canadian Northern Railway. And while the headquarters were completed, the purchase of Canadian Northern fell through. But that wouldn’t stop Hayes, and in 1905 with government help, he began work on Grand Trunk Pacific. But cracks were starting to show in the old railway.
The construction of Grand Trunk Pacific proved far more dangerous with cost and timeline overruns Grand Trunk was digging a little too deep into their cash reserves, and the investors were starting to holler. It also didn’t help that Toronto’s Union Station was beginning to require upgrades, the 1896 expansion had turned the station into a nightmare for anyone who visited to find their way around, and the 1904 fire that destroyed much of the area around the station highlighted the need for a fresh start. But delays over the design, location, and cost kept the old station going. It didn’t help that in 1912 Hayes would be lost on the ill-fated voyage of the RMS Titanic on his way back to Canada to look into the new problems with Grand Trunk. Rather than fix the issues, the books were cooked to make things look better, and using government money construction would finally start on Toronto’s third Union Station along with Canadian Pacific. But the company was on the ropes already; they had no more cash. In 1919 the government would nationalise Grand Trunk Pacific to help cover the debts incurred by Grand Trunk. It would be one of the first railroad companies to be operated by the Crown corporation Canadian National. Canadian National had been formed back in 1915 as a management company run by the government to prevent railroads from merely disappearing. By 1920 the rest of Grand Trunk would be absorbed into Canadian National, and the British investors were furious and launched a lawsuit to get some of their money back. During the proceedings, the truth of rampant mismanagement and forged books showed that the investors would get nothing, as that was precisely what Grand Trunk had in the end. On the 20th of January 1923, Canadian National stopped being merely a management company, but rather a proper railroad operator, some 12,800 kilometres of track in Canada and 1,900 in the United States formed the core of the new CN network.
Today much of the original Grand Trunk network, including Grand Trunk Pacific is still functioning and operating under the Canadian National banner. Many of the stations that were built along the original line from Toronto and Montreal continued operations under Canadian National until passenger service ended in 1979, today they operate under VIA Rail and GO Transit in some cases. One of the best examples of an original station is in Napanee, Ontario. But others exist in Port Hope, Belleville, and St. Marys. Grand Trunk’s Stratford shops continued operating under Canadian National as the Cooper Shops and by mid-century were the largest locomotive shops for Canadian National. After they closed in 1964 at the end of the steam era, they still stand abandoned today although there is an ongoing effort to preserve the structure. Toronto’s third and current Union Station saw completion in 1930, and while Grand Trunk was long gone, it is still listed above the station’s grand entrance on Front Street rather than Canadian National. An example of a small wooden Grand Trunk Station stands in Doon Heritage Village a part of the Waterloo Regional Museum in Kitchener, Ontario. The 1878 North & North-Western Station in Milton, Ontario continued to operate under Grand Trunk and Canadian National and today stands just south of Highway 401 on Martin Street and serves as the communities information centre. Both the original London, England headquarters and the Montreal headquarters of Grand Trunk still stand today, the Montreal headquarters now houses government offices, but served as a time as the headquarters of Canadian National. And while Grand Trunk is all but gone from Canada, Canadian National still operates its American holdings under the Grand Trunk banner.
While today the Railroad has lost much of its romance as travellers prefer to travel by car on superhighways or by planes, there is still certain civility to travelling by train. I have now twice travelled to Montreal using VIA rail. Not to mention running around France, Belgium, and the Netherlands back in 2015. Traces of that golden age of Canadian railway still stand across Canada from grand railroad hotels that still operate today in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and more. The old stone stations that continue to serve or the abandoned ones that sit there, or ones that dedicate themselves to the history of the transportation method. We have books and movies that take place on trains from murder mysteries to the mysteries of Christmas. The Polar Express is still a tradition of my wife and I to watch on Christmas Eve. Even the band Grand Funk Railway takes their name from the mighty Grand Trunk. The railroad, like the canals of old, helped forge Canada out of the wilderness and the frontier. So next time you want to go to Ottawa or Montreal, why not take the train, watch for those old stations along the way and soak up the history a little bit closer to the source.