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Broadside Notice of the "Railway Celebration", Toronto, October 11, 1851. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railroad, Lady Elgin turning first sod, south side Front Street West, west of Simcoe St, October 15, 1851, Curtesy of the Toronto Public library.

"The Toronto", Toronto, Circa 1881. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

A poster for the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, Circa 1855. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

  • Toronto's First Railway

    Celebrating construction

    The ground-breaking of the railway was cause for much celebration in the city. Many notable dignitaries, including the chief justice of Canada West and the Mayor of Toronto, all attended the ceremony. Even children had the day off from school to attend the event.

    On October 15, 1851 a crowd gathered near the corner of Front and Simcoe Streets for the ceremony. The Countess of Elgin and the Mayor turned the first sod to signify the start of the railway’s construction. Following the ceremony, Sandford Fleming, who was later instrumental in the construction of railways and railway technology across Canada, collected the newly turned sod for preservation. The day’s festivities finished with a dinner at St. Lawrence Hall and a grand ball that featured a performance by the famous opera singer Jenny Lind.

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  • Toronto's First Railway

    Canada's first locomotive

    As there was no train service in Ontario until 1853, Toronto’s first locomotives had to be shipped from the United States. The first locomotive created for the OSHR was the “Lady Elgin” in 1852. The OHSR shipped the locomotive by boat from Maine to Toronto. The high cost of shipping fees led the OSHR to find a local foundry to create many of its subsequent locomotives.

    The first Canadian-built locomotive was the “Toronto”, which was put together in 1853 at James Good’s foundry near the corner of Queen and Yonge Streets. Good put the 30-tonne locomotive on display and it became an instant attraction for passersby. For OSHR’s inaugural trip, the company chose the Toronto locomotive to lead the train. It took hours to move the Toronto from the foundry. OHSR worked with local authorities to close roads and had to lay temporary rails to move the locomotive to the rail tracks near Front Street. Good’s foundry only made a few locomotives and eventually switched to making stoves. 

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  • Toronto's First Railway

    A company in crisis

    Although the OHSR was met with huge fanfare, the company did not last long. The tracks were poorly built, and ridership was low. To help attract passengers, the company bought boats and created shipping routes to take passengers from Ontario to Illinois. The scheme backfired and riddled the company with debt.

    After bankruptcy in 1859, the company rebranded as the Northern Railway of Canada and later as the Northern and Northwestern Railway of Canada (NNRC). With new management, the NNRC prospered and expanded. By the 1880s, Canada’s two main railways, Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk, began buying the smaller railways in Ontario. Ultimately, the Grand Trunk Railway purchased NNRC in 1892. Interestingly, the original OHSR station in Aurora still exists and is currently used as the Aurora GO train station.

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  • Toronto's First Railway

    Additional resources

    Derek Boles, “Toronto’s first railway”, Toronto Railway Historical Association, 2011.

    George T. Denison, “Railway Celebration” [full notice], Toronto Public Library, 1851.

    Toronto Railway Museum, “A locomotive called Toronto”, 2021.

    Robert Brown, “Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron Railway”, Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Bulletin 85, pp. 35-42, 1952.

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