‘A whole chapter is nearly over:’ How Lindsay lost its train service
Newly-fallen autumn leaves blow across the vacant yards as the call of cicadas echo from east to west. A gentleman climbs up on top of a barren platform, his young son in tow. They gaze across the concrete, once humming with activity but now quiet. Weeds poke through ignominious cracks in the surface.
Weather-beaten bricks are scattered across what was once the floor of a warm waiting room. Shards of a glass beer bottle are strewn here and there, each piece glistening in the late morning sun. A decade before, it was possible to see a train or two pass by this very spot, the site of Lindsay’s busiest railway station. Now, they are no more.
When I was still quite young, our family would regularly make the journey down to the Durham Café for breakfast. We would park in a dusty lot across the road, where the Canadian National Railway station stood from 1890 until its unceremonious demolition in 1963. By the time our family began frequenting the Durham to enjoy then-owner Steve Green’s famous pancakes, the site of the station resembled the desolate scene I’ve sketched above: a concrete wasteland littered with broken bricks, twisted metal, shattered beer bottles, and weeds hiding from plain sight.
Re-development over the last 15 years has dramatically altered the once busy station grounds, and today a string of well-manicured bungalows line Durham Street, with the sights, sounds, smells, and stories of Lindsay’s railway age all but oblivious to passersby. As the years pass, first-hand memories of this significant epoch in Lindsay’s history will no doubt fade away.
Indeed, April 1, 2018 marks 40 years since the last Lindsay-based train crew boarded a way-freight bound for Belleville. Two locomotive engineers, two brakemen, and a conductor made the jaunt, and returned to Lindsay the following morning. For decades, train crews had made Lindsay their home. They raised families here, joined churches and various social and service clubs, and even ran for municipal office:William G. Graham (1884-1968), an Omemee-born locomotive engineer, served as mayor of Lindsay between 1924 and 1925.
Train service to Lindsay continued for another 15 or so years, with the last rusting rails and rotting ties being removed around 1993. Nonetheless, that 40-year-old headline, “CN pulling Lindsay crew, home base no longer here,” stands out as one pathetic scene in the final act of a drama that had captured the imagination of some four generations of citizens for whom the railway represented, if not their livelihood, then their connection to once-faraway places like Toronto, Georgian Bay, and Ottawa.
Between 1857, when the pioneer Port Hope & Lindsay Railway reached King Street here in town, and 1912, when the Canadian Pacific Railway completed a branch line through Lindsay to ship grain from Port McNicoll to port cities like Montreal, Lindsay acquired rail connections from the north, south, east, and west. It was truly a hub out of which radiated many spokes. By the 1920s, some 20-50 trains were passing through town each day of the week, save Sundays.
But irreversible changes in technology were looming on the horizon, changes which would drastically affect the community’s relationship with rail transportation. As early as 1934, an editorial in The Lindsay Daily Post was predicting that motor vehicles would one day supersede the trains:
There are people who argue that the day of the railroad is done ‒ that it has outlived its usefulness…This argument has been going on for years and not only concerning railway and motor competition. Many years ago there was a fight when trains replaced stagecoaches. Before that they fought when stages took the place of travel by horseback…Commenting on this [topic], the Rotarian Magazine says: ‘In spite of all such laments, stagecoaches came, had their day, and in turn gave way to a score of modern means of transportation. What will be next?’ That is a question that concerns the livelihood of thousands of men and their wives and children. What will be next?
What came “next” was the proliferation of semi trucks and automotive traffic, barrelling along new and much-improved highways. By 1960, the CPR and CNR alike had phased out steam-powered trains, depriving many specialized workers in Lindsay of a job. Scheduled passenger service ceased in 1962 (though a few special excursion trains, often led by retired steam locomotives, stopped in Lindsay during the 1970s), and Lindsay-bound train service gradually dwindled.
Dr. Watson Kirkconnell, writing in 1966, predicted that remaining rail service to Lindsay would cease by 1970. “A whole chapter is nearly over,” he lamented in his County of Victoria Centennial History.
Kirkconnell was wrong, of course, as we have seen. Many local industries ‒ Abex brake shoes, Bonar Plastics, and Union Carbide, to name a few ‒ continued to depend on semi-regular train service. Or at least they would for another couple of decades.
By 1989, all of this had changed. On November 28 of that year, the Canadian National Railway Co. applied to the National Transportation Agency for authority to abandon its Uxbridge Subdivision into Lindsay. The application was approved the following autumn. The rationale was clear: “With respect to future carload traffic forecasts, CN submitted that, in its opinion, there are no potential rail customers in Lindsay who can provide significant rail carload volumes in the foreseeable future.”
The curtain had closed on a significant chapter in Lindsay’s history.
Little has been preserved, and what has been is highly selective. Only four of the eight “spokes” radiating from this once-upon-a-time rail “hub” have been converted into well-maintained Rail Trails, while the rest have been re-appropriated by Mother Nature. The CNR and CPR’s once-busy grain routes between Lindsay and Orillia are examples. Silent for over 50 and 80 years, respectively, they are visible only as heavily-overgrown embankments cutting through the fields and thickets northwest of Lindsay.
Said one anonymous poet of this phenomenon: “Years are many. This road served its past. A piece of our past is gone.”