Local history: A rail passage into Kingston

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Winter in Canada West could be grim. “The splashing wheels are silenced, the roar of steam is hushed, the gay saloon, so lately thronged with busy life, is now but an abandoned hall, and the cold snow revels in solitary possession of the untrodden deck,” writes civil engineer Thomas Coltrin Keefer in 1850.

Travelling icy roads, heavy stagecoaches slogged through mud and snow drifts to get passengers to their destinations. Winter in Upper Canada was grim. After presenting the dreary imagery of a lethargic economy due to the freeze-up of the St. Lawrence River, Keefer offers an active response that would breathe life back into commerce. The railroad.

However, Keefer (born on Thorold, Ont., Nov. 4, 1821) had no experience in railways when he wrote “Philosophy of Railroads.” After graduating from Upper Canada College in Toronto in 1838, he received an apprenticeship in waterworks on the Erie Canal. Enjoying his trade, the 18-year-old trained for a year then moved on to larger projects.

Keefer “worked, initially, on the second Welland Canal as a divisional engineer until 1845,” said Peter S. Chisholm, P.Eng, in “Contributions to Professional Engineering: Thomas Coltrin Keefer” (Professional Engineers Ontario). Then the young man “moved to the position of chief engineer Ottawa River, where he was responsible for maintenance, design and construction of water control works and log slides required to move timber downstream from remote inland source areas.”

Eminent engineer and essayist Thomas C. Keefer. (Engineering Institute of Canada)

An independent spirit with little respect for political influence and interference in public works, Keefer was let go from his job in Ottawa. By this time, the civil engineer was considered a transportation visionary, so it was no surprise when Keefer received appointment as chief engineer to establish a route for the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1851, he was assigned the Montreal to Kingston section survey, then Kingston to Toronto survey, plus the bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.

In an urgent manner, the Montreal and Kingston Railway Company incorporated in 1851. “The committee set up to promote the Montreal and Kingston argued that ‘the time has arrived, when a vigorous and earnest effort should be made by the people of Canada, to construct as speedily as possible, a Grand Trunk Line of Railway from Quebec to Windsor…,’” according to John Victor Barkans in his 1976 McMaster University thesis, “Labour, Capital and the State.”

Attempting to get merchandise from Montreal to eastern and central Ontario was a challenge and a threat to the Canadian monopoly, and was being filled by American rivals. “The want of a Railroad between Eastern and Western Canada is at present seen by the fact that the principal intercourse now passes via the United States, and to a commercial community it is scarcely necessary to state, that want of facility of transit tends to paralyse trade…,“ according to railroad preliminary report, quoted by Barkans.

The time was right to build the railway, declared John Young, chairman of the Montreal and Kingston Section Committee. “The political horizon is almost unclouded — the public credit is better than it has ever been before — money is to be obtained on favourable terms … public attention has been aroused to the subject — provisions, labour, iron, and all other material are cheap….”

Aside from Keefer’s survey, promoters of Montreal and Kingston Railway hired civil engineer Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski to determine a route plan. Gzowski was experienced in a range of projects, from supervising “the construction of a host of roads, bridges, lighthouses, and harbours throughout the western peninsula [southern Ontario],” to canal consulting, and “laying down gravel and plank roads between Hamilton and Amherstburg…,” stated H.V. Nelles in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 12, 1990.

Two routes were examined by Gzowski, one running on the north side of the Ottawa River, the second from Lachine to Prescott along the St. Lawrence River and on to Kingston.

“The City of Kingston can be approached in three different directions — one by crossing the valley on the north-west side of the Canal, ascending a Ridge which extends in a north-westerly direction past Kingston, and enter the city on a level through the French Village,” writes Gzowski in the 1851 “Report of the Committee on the Montreal and Kingston Section of the Grand Trunk Railway.”

A second route follows “the Ridge extending into Barriefield, and with a descending grade, reach such a level as may be found necessary to cross the Cataraqui River at a point not far from the present Bridge, and enter the City on the water side.”

The engineer also notes that, “Another way of reaching Kingston is to descend into the valley of the Cataraqui River, after crossing the Canal, and following the north-west side of the River to the City.”

After much calculation and weighing of positives versus negatives, Gzowski chose the route parallel to the St. Lawrence River and Cataraqui River as best value for the money and ease of construction. As well, the route “presents generally an appearance of prosperity and wealth among the Agricultural community.” The farmers, suggests Gzowski, need “only ready means of access to market to make it one of the finest agricultural countries on the continent.”

Keefer produced a detailed Kingston and Toronto route survey, his report discussing the limestone forming the area’s foundation.

Due to “the rocky character of their upper banks, the crossings at three points, Cataraqui, Powley’s Creek and Napanee, must be elevated, and will be expensive,” writes Keefer. “Between Kingston and Mill Creek there are two expensive points on the line — viz: the crossing of the Little Cataraqui and the rocky ridge and swamp at Powley’s Creek, but on either side of the line the route is worse; the most eligible ground is found upon the most direct route.”

According to the chief engineer, the estimated cost in 1851 to build the railroad 165 miles (265.5 kilometres) from Kingston to Toronto was £4,425 per mile for a total of £730,125. (One Pound Sterling in 1850 was worth £127.96 in 2017.) The largest portion of projected cost per mile was not the laying of track, including iron, ties and fastenings at £1,250 per mile, but the “Graduation, Masonry, Bridging and Culverts, coming to £1,900 per mile. The least expensive per mile was £60 for clearing the land; engineering came to £125.”

The next year, Keefer left his prominent post. “The English contractors assumed the position of the Canadian companies and appointed their own engineer to the charge of the railway and bridge, and Mr. Keefer, unwilling to take a subordinated post under the contractors’ engineer, went into general practice,” stated Henry J. Morgan in “Sketches of Celebrated Canadians” (R. Worthington, Montreal 1865).

The massive Grand Trunk Railway project got underway in 1853 with the building of the Montreal to Toronto line, completed three years later with the labour of thousands of men. In 1856, Kingston’s Grand Trunk train station was constructed in limestone. Called the Outer Station and located on Montreal Street, the once busy hub of travel and commerce is now crumbling before our eyes.

In 1885, the Kingston and Pembroke Railway Station was built, now the Tourist Information Office across from City Hall; in 1886, Hanley Station — known as the Inner Station — was built at 167 Ontario St. and is now a restaurant.

A prolific author, Keefer composed reports and books about water management, canal building, and railway construction. As he left railroads to return to water works and designing municipal water systems, his older brother, Samuel Keefer, took up the railway industry. Samuel Keefer rose to deputy commissioner of public works and direction construction of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

Member of the Royal Society of Canada and a dedicated promoter of civil engineering, Thomas Keefer was president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and was co-founder and first president of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers (CSCE) in 1887. McGill University celebrated Keefer’s skill and work with honorary doctorates in 1905 and 1912; CSCE established the Thomas C. Keefer Medal in 1942, awarded annual for “best civil engineering paper in hydrotechnical transportation or environmental engineering.”

Married twice, Keefer was father of seven children. At age 93, the distinguished Thomas Coltrin Keefer died at his Rockcliffe (Ottawa) home on Jan. 17, 1915.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.