On November 26, 1870, the loud cry of a locomotive resounded throughout the sparsely populated region which extended into the territory that now comprises present-day Val St. Michel, Valcartier, Lake St. Joseph and Ste. Catherine, formerly St. Patrick’s. The small locomotive, wheezy and panting, made a great many turns as it boldly pushed its way through newly cut fields, which were scattered with stumps, or as it disappeared into clumps of trees; and the echo repeated ad nauseam the shrill cries of the small locomotive, which pulled several makeshift cars, whence exclamations of enthusiasm and joy issued forth continually.
This small local train was the inaugural train of the Quebec and Gosford Wooden Railway, which was most certainly one of the more interesting and stranger “Decauville” railroads to come before the present National Railways system.It was the first wooden-rail railway to reach Quebec City, and even to snake its way into the Province. On that day, November 26,1870,Sir Narcisse Belleau, Lieutenant-Governor, and some members of the legislature, accompanied by the inventor of these kinds of railroads, J.B. Hulbert of the United States, inaugurated the Gosford Railway. The excursion organized to this end was a complete success: witness the colourful account in the “Journal de Quebec,” which gave interesting details about this new kind of railway construction, borrowed from Sweden and Norway, where undertakings of this kind had been successful up to then. Lets point out at once that it must be assumed that we haven’t been as pleased in our Province, since the only example of this kind of construction was that of the Gosford Railway, operational from to 1874, and that of the Richmond-Drummond-Arthabaska Railway, which did not last as long as the former.
Be that as it may, the travelers who, on this beautiful, sunny, cool November 26, 1870 day, transported by the “Jacques Cartier” locomotive, which, following the example of the great navigator whose name it bore, discovered, so to speak, an unknown region, even though quite close to Quebec, the small cars sliding gently along white wooden ribbons, declared themselves filled with wonder to be “flying” at a speed of twelve miles per hour, while in the woods and fields round about one could hear the honest little whistle of the small locomotive rattling and crackling flat out in a region where a short while ago only the warbling of birds and man’s voice were heard. And such was the “spirit” of this train that, without any extraordinary effort, ascended the Lorette slope, where the elevation is 290 feet to the mile, that is to say one foot per twenty.
We can read in the account: “Seeing what had just occurred, a deputy who was sworn enemy of wooden-rail railways declares that he sheds prejudices and that never could a train on iron rails, though these be sanded, reach halfway up a slope of this sort. ” However, in spite of the man’s enthusiasm, we sense that the journey on the much-vaunted wooden rails had been rather bumpy. “Every minute,” writes the author, “we fear that the train might slip away and plunge into the abyss that seems to attract us.” At that point “the track, for a distance of six hundred feet, rests on mere trestles. But they assure us that the structure is strong enough to resist anything and that all danger of a fall is purely imaginary.” One can quite well take their word for it, for the passengers arrived safe and sound in Gosford.
Let’s add that there was a rapidly-disposed-of banquet in Gosford and then, of course, some speeches, by the Lieutenant Governor among others, “who, along with all the other speakers on this occasion, congratulated the Company on its success: “The inauguration of the Gosford Railway,” said he, “marks a new era in our Province.”
And Sir Narcisse Belleau expressed a wish that henceforth every railway be built in imitation of the Gosford Railway, should it come up to everybody’s expectations.
Obviously, the Gosford Railway did not come up to everybody’s expectations since it died a natural death, no one choosing to repeat the experiment. Subsequently, iron rails were chosen.
However, this little wooden-rail railway was exceedingly useful in spite of the fact that Hulbert’s experiment was soon looked upon to be a failure and that the shareholders money had been wasted. “However that may be, ” said Robert R. Brown in an interview granted to the “Canadian National Railway” in July 1934 -translation by G.-E. Marquis, published in the “Terroir” in September 1934- “however that may be, the spirit of enterprise and daring of our forefathers in their attempt to cover the province with networks of low-cost colonization railways when they couldn’t afford to do better is truly worthy of admiration.”
As the little Gosford Railway contributed to the development of the settlement, agriculture, and industry of Lake St. Joseph and the surrounding area, it might be of interest to make known in more detail the history of the wooden-rail railway, and we can’t help but draw heavily on the study made by Robert R. Brown.
This railway gave good service from September until November 30, 1871, and from the first of May until November 30, 1872, and the revenues exceeded what the company expected. Even the wooden rails far exceeded expectations, considering the very heavy traffic it had to carry. Also, there were a fair number of passengers and picnickers who assembled at Quebec in order to go and admire the beauty spots of the area through which the train passed. However, in the course of the first two years, which were profitable, they had to face serious problems caused by the rain, frost, and snow, which sometimes prevented the trains from making their runs during the winter months as well as on “rainy days in the summer.” After each heavy shower, the rails warped and the corners wore down.
On the first of September 1871, the railway was rented for a period of three years to Hulbert, Who committed himself to keeping it in operation, to paying all expenses, and also to paying 6% interest a year to the shareholders on the money they had invested. In addition, each shareholder had to buy one cord of firewood from the railway, at cost price, for every ten-dollar share. But this bonus, instead of being a blessing, was soon considered as a burden since the conveyance of firewood from St. Sauveur Station increased its price beyond the market value in the city. In 1873, Hu1bert had to leave Quebec and his lease was cancelled by mutual consent. The railway was then in an awful condition because of the wooden rails which were twisted and which the company neglected to replace. The summer of 1873 was spent in carrying out repairs. In 1874, the line was completely abandoned, except for a few sawmill owners who continued to use the wooden rails to transport their wood to the city by using horses as a means of traction.
We should remind the reader that the wooden-rail railway was used at full capacity and that 1,500 wagons of sawed wood in 1872, awaited conveyance at different points of the line.
What were the causes which led to the construction of the Gosford Railway? In the middle of the last century, a vast agricultural region stretched to the east and west of the old capital. Unfortunately its comparatively dense population was spread out over a rather narrow strip along the river; and at less than ten miles from the St. Lawrence, rarely behind it. “The Laurentians , “said Mr. Brown, ” seemed to stand in the way of progress and agriculture, and it extended no farther than the bottom of the mountains’ Foothills.”
During the two previous centuries following the first attempts at colonization, the strip of land that lies between the mountains and the river had soon been settled, and emigration headed westwards. Quebec didn’t have a back country; therefore, it was soon outstripped both in population and industries, the wooden shipbuilding industry having fallen into decline.
The legislature in those days began discussing, and especially during the session of 1870, the construction of a railway which would serve the capital. Several projects were discussed and the government held several meetings with delegations coming from many different parts of the province and even from New Brunswick. A railway was to be built from St. Andrews to Riviere-du-Loup in order to link the Grand Trunk and the Intercolonial at the junction with the ports of Saint Andrews and St. John. There was yet another project for a Raiway going to Les Piles on the St. Maurice; there was also the one from Montreal to Ottawa some wanted to continue on only as far as Aylmer, and others up to Riviere Creuse, north of Ile-aux-Allumettes. There was also some talk about the Intercolonial project, and about Saint-Francois and Megantic, which was supposed to link the western part of the province with the ports of New Brunswick via the United States. Naturally the Lake St. John area was no stranger to this craze for the railways.
Despite difficulties with communications, the region behind the Laurentians was thriving and it was then that Quebec started to realize that the hinterland, neglected for such a long time, was of great value. In 1854 a company was set up at Quebec, under the name of Northern Railway, in order to build a railway from the capital to the Ste-Anne River, with the intention of extending it to Lake St. John. After carrying out some surveying work and planning some layouts, the project fell through and was consigned to oblivion for the next fifteen years.
But it was in 1868 that the Gosford Wooden Railway project sprang up thanks to the intervention of Mr.Hulbert, the inventor of the system. It was, in actual fact, the beginning of the Lake St. John Railway.” for, when abandoned the Quebec and Gosford Wooden Railway” changed its name to “Quebec and Lake St John Railway. They began at once to continue this line in order to extend it to Chambord, Lake St. John. Naturally wooden rails were no longer considered. The St. Sauveur to Loretteville section was abandoned and a new line was built by passing via the “Limoilou and Charlesbourg” hillside. The Gosford Railway’s three locomotives, namely the “Jacques Cartier,” the “No. 2 Quebec” and the “No.3 Gosford” were still used for some time to convey materials. Work on the “Quebec and Lake St. John” was slow and it wasn’t until 1888 that it was completed to Chambord. The railway was inaugurated that same year.
The total cost of the Gosford Wooden Railway, cars included , was $140,058.60 or $5,387 per mile. The government subsidy amounted to $48,171.20, which was paid cash on the nail as soon as the railway was built and the trains were running.
In 1870, Mr. S. Peters of Quebec was awarded a contract to build fifty-five small four-wheeled wagons and fifty larger ones at $325 per wagon for hauling wood. Mr. Peters also built a closed freight car for $500 and four deluxe passenger cars at $800 per car. The construction of the wagons and cars had to be completed by July 15, 1870, but it was considerably delayed by a fire that destroyed the Bissette foundry, where the wheels and other metal parts were to be cast.
Let’s remind the reader that, according to Mr. Robert R. Brown’s notes, the wooden railway had to be completed by December 31, 1870, but the work was done so rapidly that it was totally finished six weeks ahead of schedule.
The province of Quebec, and elsewhere too, continued to inaugurate with great pomp every new railway; and the ceremony consisted of a lavish banquet followed or preceded by an excursion on the new line. The directors of the “Quebec and Gosford Wooden Railway” didn’t want to make an exception to the rule. Therefore, on November 26, 1870, a great number of guests pressed around the tables of the St. Louis Hotel, where a good many speeches were delivered and where the new railway was christened with a goodly number of bottles of champagne. As there was a heavy snowfall that day, the guests of honor were driven by sleigh to St. Sauveur Station, where a passenger train, pulled by the “Jacques Cartier” locomotive, as we have already mentioned, took them to Gosford.
In a column he wrote for “La Presse” in 1920, and in which he set down some memories of the first session of Quebec’s Legislature on December 27, 1867, Mr. A.-D. DeCelles wrote about Gosford’s Wooden Railway as follows:
“In 1871 a curious experiment was carried out as regards communication routes. An American, who had recently arrived at Quebec, 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 Saint Raymond under the name of Gosford Road. The line’s inauguration took place in the fall of 1871. I was present at the inauguration It was wonderful to see the cars bouncing on the rails, which seemed endowed with the elasticity of rubber. The guests, sated with champagne, came back to Quebec full of enthusiasm, proclaiming the superiority of wooden rails over the two other kinds of rails. A few months later, disillusionment set in. Winter, and spring in particular, dealt a deathblow to the wooden rails and the decision was taken to return to iron rails, which were more expensive but also more durable and, on the whole, cheaper. It was the Chauveau system’s first railway line. It covered only a few miles of what now forms the first part of the Lake St. John Railway.”
And that’s the history of the “Quebec and Gosford Wooden Railway,” which, luckier than Mr. Seguin’s little goat “that managed a walk in the woods only once,” was able to go from Quebec to Gosford for three years.