Thursday, May 31, 2018

American Railways in Quebec

The history of railways in Southern Quebec is always fascinating. It is a blend of grandeur, delusion and scaled down dreams. During the railway fever, every locality in the area thought it would genuinely become the next metropolis is only it was linked to the outside world by the steel ribbon. Farmers, workers, investors, governments both local and national pledged impressive amount of money that was often wasted on pipe dreams. Other stories tell us of relatively humble local projects that found their place as a link in larger national and international trunk lines. Hard to not be enthralled by such a diversity of outcomes born from the same faith in the iron horse.

But another interesting aspect of Southern Quebec railways is how many American companies tried to control railways in La Belle Province up to Quebec City. In this short article, I won't talk about larger railroads that were only interested in linking cities such as Montreal and Ottawa, but those who truly desired to create regional networks serving the province itself. In this sense, they were much  more interesting because they wanted to be much more integrated with the land they crossed.

Vermont Central (1860s-1923)

Vermont Central then Central Vermont tried hard to create a monopoly in the second part of the 19th century. With success then failure until its absorption into the Grand Trunk network in 1899. In fact, Central Vermont was probably one of the most obnoxious company out there in Southern Quebec during la Belle Époque. Obsessed to keep absolute control and compete with regional players and Grand Trunk, they bought many small promising (and not so promising) companies only to keep the lines uncompleted and badly rail-served due to their chaotic corporate history. Like a Monopoly board game champion, Central Vermont tried to thwart every concurrent's project on its path, but while it worked for a while, it was also a seed that would spell their doom. By 1923, their remnants were integrated in the Canadian National Railways.

Rutland (1901-1963)

On a more positive note, other railroads like Rutland tried to create a substantial network in Southern Quebec and Montreal. Intermingled with Central Vermont's shaky ploys during most of the late 19th century, Rutland finally severed its ties with this problematic railway in 1901 and set a clear goal to link Canada by creating an independant line linking Canada with the USA via Lake Champlain islands. The terminal was located in Noyan, QC, a few miles from the border. This shaky financial condition of Rutland and several strikes killed the company in the long term. Rutland thus never created a real network in Southern Quebec, being more a bridge line.

Maine Central (1890-1927)

Another player was Maine Central who leased the Hereford Railway linking the USA border to Lime Ridge, an important lime mining area. Called the Raspberry Branch - yes, even today raspberries grow on the old roadbed and I can testify they are delicious - it was a decent investment for a while and looked promising since it linked directly MEC with CPR Short Line and QCR that gave access to important mineral deposits (asbestos, lime). But by the 1920s, the gamble started to be much more a liability than a good investment since it moved very little traffic and didn't connect any town of importance. In 1927, CPR took control of the line and started to prune off several sections of the road, effectively ending its role as a connecting line. By the 1980s, the Hereford Railway and MEC were a faded page of history.

Boston and Maine Railroad (1893-1926)

Boston & Maine, during the same era, decided to give a second life to its Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad which had no important terminus and bought the Massawippi River Railway connecting Beebe Plains to Lennoxville and Sherbrooke. While it was a good regional road linking an industrial city well connected with major players such as Grand Trunk, Canadian Pacific and Quebec Central, it seems it was no longer thought to be a strategic asset by the mid-1920s when B&M was facing a financial crisis and was sold to CP and operated by QCR. It is interesting to note Boston & Maine ran weekly passenger trains between Boston and Quebec City in partnership with Quebec Central. During the touristic season, some sleepers full of pilgrims even reached Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.

Delaware & Hudson Railroad - Q.M.&.S.R. (1906-1929)

However, the most interesting and ambitious player to enter the Quebec was the Delaware & Hudson. They kind of built upon Rutland vision to develop a real main line along the St. Lawrence river. Through purchases and building campaigns, they were on the verge of achieving their dream to connect their american lines with Quebec City via the new bridge under construction. This line was called the South Shore Railway but was operated under the Quebec Montreal & Southern Railway. The D&H was dead serious with their project and made sure it would be completed swiftly. Even an out-of-place camelback locomotive retrofitted with a special snow plow made its debut. Unfortunately, in 1907 their dreams were fatally destroyed when Quebec City bridge collapsed. The disaster and slow reconstruction project meant D&H project was no longer viable since it was running through insignificant rural parishes devoid of industrial potential. From that moment, no new construction was planned and the line slowly withered into a bunch of disconnected branchlines. In 1929, D&H pulled out of Quebec and closed the era when american railroads thought they could develop international bridge lines in the province.

One could argue this is a sad story, but I believe whatever if the original goal was never reached, most of these projects did have an impact. Maybe railways weren't the ultimate solution to develop these regions and certainly too much lines were built, but at a time when no other technology existed, they were a step forward and gave an impetus that lasted a few generation.

This intricate mixture of canadian and american interest in a bunch of regional and local lines is probably what attracts me. While small and simple to understand and model, these lines were complex and compelling stories. They have a soul and are a great occasion of mixing together the common railway culture both our countries had shared since the craze started in the early 1830s. In a sense, most railways ever built in Quebec were always about connecting some place with the american market, with a specific obsession with Boston.

So don't be surprised I often visit and revisit the Southern Quebec railways time and time again.

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