1865 The Blairton-American Connection

Blairton Mine,  Canadian Illustrated News 1873

Written by Colin Caldwell

"To attempt to give a description of the extent or value of the Iron Ore, Lithographic Stone and Marble belonging to the Marmora Iron Works would be folly - suffice it to say that they are all of the very best quality and inexhaustible."
So wrote the Cobourg Star as early as 1848. The reader will, by this time in our story, be familiar with the Star's boundless enthusiasm for whichever local improvement scheme it chanced upon.

By 1865 all efforts at repairing the bridge over Rice Lake were dead in the water, so to speak. Although 12 million board feet of lumber came down the railway from Harwood that year, 19million feet passed through Port Hope. Mayor Daintry's not-so-confident assertion the year before that Cobourg wasn't dead yet, seemed rather wistful.. .. Grass wasn't actually growing in Cobourg's streets, but the business atmosphere was certainly depressed.


By Mrs. Ruby J. Meggs of Gore's Landing

This line was officially opened on Friday. December 29, 1854, at 1.15 o'clock; it was a moment of great excitement. A large crowd had gathered, and as someone shouted "Here she comes" the train topped the height of land between Cobourg and Harwood, a mighty train for the. period, with two engines and twelve passenger cars! The latter were filled with railway officials and civic dignitaries from Cobourg who were on their way to Peterborough, where a banquet was to mark the occasion.

There was a little ceremony at Harwood. The train was halted with great screaming of whistles and brakes, and the conductor ran up to the engine to congratulate the driver, who had achieved a speed of 15 miles an.hour at
several points on the journey. The railroad company offered a free ticket to anyone who was willing to venture on the trip, which involved crossing Rice Lake by means of a bridge set on piers, stretching from Tic Island at Harwood, to the north side of the Lake and thence to Peterborough. There were many who were not ready to take the risk, and many preferred to walk from Cobourg.

Peterborough was gay with triumphal arches and evergreen decorations. Two hundred people sat down to the banquet. which was presided over by Judge Hall. The menu included fresh cod from Boston, Ontario venison, partridge and wild pigeon; it was not a teetotal affair. The speeches appear to have been unusually interesting. The president of the railway, Mr. Scott, recalled the days when the only means of transportation hereabout was by conoe on the Otonabee. The Hon. Ebenezer Perry described Cobourg in 1815, when it was called Hardscrabble. "And hardscrabble enough it was, too", he is reported to have said. The wit of the banquet was William Weller, the owner of the Weller stage line; he expressed his hope that future conditions would be "Weller". This gentleman also owned the Royal Mailline on the Kingston Road. He urged everyone who could to subscribe for stock in the railroad, so that "the expense would not be like the handIe of a jug -all on one side".

This railroad had a busy life while it lasted; the lumber industry was at its peak, and there were two mills busy in Harwood. Logs were warped across Rice Lake after coming down the Otonabee; from Harwood the train drew lumber to Cobourg for further distribution.

The train itself would seem very odd to modern eyes. It was fired with wood, belched forth great clouds of smoker and on a clear day its puffing as it made the grade of the summit could be heard at Gore's Landing. Once on the summit, the passenger coach was disconnected and ran down into Harwood by gravity, while the locomotive. went to the mill for lumber.

When he was Prince of Wales, the late King Edward VII travelled over this road. It was not thought safe for him to cross the Rice Lake bridge, and a steam-boat was on hand to carry him over a fine red carpet from the station platform to the boat. When the train steamed in Tom Dixon, a well known local r:esident, was dismayed to see a man in a gay suit walking on the pristine carpet, and he roared, "Hey, you get off there. Don't you know this is for the Prince of Whales?" He was profoundly embarrassed to discover that the man in the gay suit was the .Prince of Wales.

The trestle bridge over Rice Lake at harwood

Mistrust of the Rice Lake bridge was at last justified in 1861, when it collapsed, and the railroad was closed by government order. However, traffic to Harwood continued for many years. The collapse of the bridge was caused by a sweep of ice pressing against it in a high wind. The railroad itself did not completely disappear until 1916. When its rails were taken up and shippeded to France for military use. Let us hope that the old line ended its days in a blaze of glory.

Trestle bridge for railway over Rice Lake from Harwood built in 1852 by the cobourg peterborough railway co. to run from cobourg to harwood and on to hiawatha and peterborough, via tick island. By 1860 it had disintegrated.

Railway Terminus at Harwood, The railway carried the ore to Cobourg.

Harwood station photographed by Alfred Walter Roper

Enter the Marmora Iron Works. The mines were located a scant nine miles north of the navigable part of the upper Trent River. The market for this ore was expanding in the United States as the steel mills around Pittsburgh responded to the huge growth in American industrial power during and after the Civil War.  As Cobourgers pointed out, much of the ore the mills needed had to be brought down from the great ranges in the Northwest. Here was Cobourg with a convenient supply right in its own back-yard, with water connections to a road that would bring the stuff to Cobourg where there were water connections to anywhere.

Blairton Mine, Crowe Lake

W. H. Shoenberger, c. 1890, was a shareholder in the Cobourg, Peterborough, and Mamora Railway Company.

So in 1865 John H. Dumble drew up a prospectus of the railway's assets and set off for the United States to interest potential buyers in a railway that could be combined, in some way, with an ore extraction company. After some searching he found a group of Pittsburgh steel-men headed by George K. Schoenberger, one of the wealthiest men in the state. They had purchased the Marmora Iron Works with much the same idea in mind.

Though Dumble had earlier suggested that for $530,000 Cobourg itself could buy the mines, rebuild the bridge and fix up all the other rolling stock, in the end the shareholders agreed to sell the railway to the mining company for $100,000. As there were so many financial encumbrances on the railway, little of that money ever found its way into the pockets of the shareholders.

The principal buildings of the railway company had long been situated at the Cobourg harbour terminus. As well as the main station, which stood to the north of the present esplanade, there were tank houses, a turntable, a semi-circular engine house, a machine shop, office buildings, sheds and smaller structures occupied by workmen.

For the benefit of the new "Cobourg, Peterborough and Marmora Railway and Mining Co.", an elevated spur of the line was added to the track leading to the east pier. This elevation allowed the cars carrying the ore to dump it via chutes directly into the holds of waiting vessels which would then transport it to Rochester.

Photo courtesty of port hope history (facebook)

Similarly,  a track was built from Blairton, on Crowe Lake near the mine, down to Trent River Bridge. There, on another elevated spur of the track, bottom-unloading cars bringing the ore from the mine could empty it into scows which pulled up underneath the tracks. The scows were then towed upstream to Harwood where a steam conveyor belt loaded the ore into the Cobourg bound trains. These cars were all built by the Crossen works in Cobourg and the setup was completed by 1869 or '70.

Click here for George Parker's story of the ore cars and the fatal 1881 accident in the Trent River

Model ore car built by George Parker of Cobourg.

The steamer,  Otonabee,  was used to tow the barges on Rice Lake. At first the company contracted out for steamers on Lake Ontario, to go, as they said, to "Charlotte (Rochester), Buffalo, Erie or Cleveland". Eventually they built their own ship which they named, with remarkable originality, Otonabee II and the trade settled into a regular routine of shipments to Rochester bound ultimately for Pittsburgh. By 1873, when the Otonabee I was sold off and replaced by a new, larger, paddle-steamer named the Isaac Butts, the mine was shipping some three hundred tons of ore per day. This made it the most productive single mine in Canada. The only drawback to the Isaac Butts was that it was too big for the locks at Hastings. which had to he enlarged at company expense.
Without doubt, this was the most productive period in the entire venture's history. It also had a surprising sequel in that during this time the American steelmen and financiers who came to conduct business here, fell in love with Cobourg's atmosphere of aristocratic society and country-town charm and the idea of Cobourg as a summer resort was born. One of the directors of the railway and its first managing director, an amiable southerner named Col. William Chambliss, with his father-in-law, George Shoenberger ( named above),  proceeded to build the Arlington Hotel in 1874. With 150 rooms, situated on the north edge of the present Victoria Park, the Arlington was readily judged to be the grandest hotel between Toronto and Montreal.

Arlington Hotel, c. 1915, built by George Shoenberger and William Chambliss, was the first of many Cobourg hotels designed to cater to affluent Americans. It contained 150 rooms, of which 120 were bedrooms with private parlours. It had a dining room, bar, games room, parlour, commercial rooms and barber shop. c. 1910Was located on King Street East, opposite College Street. The building was demolished and the land is now part of Victoria Park

By the end of the decade, however, the ore began to run out. Cheaper American ore made it pointless to search for more in the area. The last ore shipments were made in 1878.  The mine shut down in '79 and the company cleared out in 1881. (In 1886,  the Trent River to Blairton portion of the company assets were sold to Mr. Thomas Pearce Reeve & later Warden of Marmora.)

Passenger service on the Cobourg-Rice Lake portion was maintained for awhile, mostly for transporting tourists to Rice Lake. Finally this line was taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway, as Dumble had expected back in 1859.

And so the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway petered out, approximately where it was originally to have started as a rail line to bridge the gap between Rice Lake and Lake Ontario at Cobourg. Gone were the dreams of bringing the produce of the far west down from Georgian Bay and out to the wide world through Cobourg's spacious harbour. The canal they had planned to link the inland waterways with Lake Huron wouldn't be finished until 1923, and then it was too small for anything except pleasure craft. Early speculation that a metropolis growing upbetween Cobourg and Rice Lake would soon outshine all other cities in the province (the origin, by the way, of the myth of Cobourg as the capital) was thought, perhaps, best forgotten.

With its glittering summer colony of new found, rich, American friends, Cobourg sat back and slumbered along for a century or so, in the shadow of the town hall they had built to signal the railway's prosperity as it too gradually fell apart.