The City of Brockville, Ontario is one of Canada’s oldest railway centres. As early as 1835 – before the opening of the first public railway in the colony – a petition was presented to the colonial legislature supporting the construction of a railway from Montreal to Brockville in lieu of further improvements to the St. Lawrence canals. While the government of the day chose to expand the canals, Brockville’s interest in railways never faltered. Due to lobbying by the towns such as Brockville, the GRAND TRUNK RAILWAY decided to route its Montreal-Toronto main line along the river. It also made Brockville its first division point west of Montreal. The arrival of the first train on November 17, 1855 was the cause for a lavish banquet and public display. The line west of Brockville to Toronto opened for service on October 27, 1856.
By this time, the community was deeply involved in the construction of a second railway running northward to tap the trade of the Ottawa River valley. The BROCKVILLE & OTTAWA RAILWAY had been incorporated in April 1853. Faced with an inability to interest private interests to fully fund the line, Brockville became the second largest investor in the company committing over $400,000 towards the venture. To put the investment into perspective, the private interests held only $177,000 worth of shares.
To permit the lumber traffic from the Ottawa Valley to pass on to the United States or to European markets, it was necessary to extend the B&O to the Brockville waterfront as the Grand Trunk terminal facilities were about a half mile inland from the St. Lawrence River. The decision was made to tunnel under the granite ridge upon which the eastern end of the community was built. The resulting 1,700 foot tunnel was the first railway tunnel to be built in Canada. When the initial section of the B&O opened in January 1859 from Brockville to Perth, the train departed the Grand Trunk station as the tunnel had not yet been completed.
Construction on the Brockville Railway Tunnel began on September 16, 1854. The financial failure of the British contractors – SYKES, DEBERGUE & COMPANY resulted in the work ceasing for almost two years. During this time, factions in Brockville debated whether it would not be better to cheaper to reach the waterfront by locating the railway a bit farther to the west where the ridge flattened out. No less a personage than Samuel Keefer – one of Canada’s first native-born civil engineers who had located the Montreal-Brockville-Kingston section of the Grand Trunk – was asked to report on the matter. Keefer recommended completing the tunnel as so much work had already been done. The fractious city council refused the recommendation and called a referendum on the matter. To the councilors’ surprise, the citizens voted in favour of completing the tunnel. Work resumed in June 1857 and the first train passed through the tunnel on December 31, 1860.
The tunnel was constructed by a crew led by BOOTH AND SON of Yorkshire, England. The first 400 feet at the southern end is unusual as this part of the tunnel is man-made and was designed to carry Water Street over the track. Later in 1863, Brockville’s City Hall was built over a portion of this end of the tunnel. Two of the chimneys on City Hall are actually ventilation shafts used to clear locomotive smoke from the tunnel. The opening portals at each end of the Brockville Railway Tunnel are remarkably fine examples of Victorian masonry.
The B&O finally reached the Ottawa River in 1865. Unable to finance further extensions, the B&O joined with the CANADA CENTRAL RAILWAY to push its rails westward towards Lake Huron. In 1881, when the rails had been laid as far as Mattawa, the nearly incorporated CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY purchased the two railways, parts of which would form part of the Montreal-Vancouver transcontinental line.
About this time, rail car ferries and barges began to move cars the one mile distance over the St. Lawrence River between Brockville and Morristown, then the terminus of the UTICA & BLACK RIVER RAILROAD. In January 1882, 150 cars loaded with steel rails destined to be used in the construction of the CPR’s western transcontinental line used this crossing of the St. Lawrence River. Following the purchase of the portion of the QUEBEC, MONTREAL, OTTAWA & OCCIDENTAL RAILWAY between Montreal and Ottawa later that year, the CPR began to treat the Smiths Falls-Brockville segment as a branch line.
A third railway – the BROCKVILLE, WESTPORT AND SAULT STE. MARIE – linked Brockville to Westport in 1889. Ambitious plans to make this part of a through route from the American Midwest to the U.S. east coast. This included a major bridge over the St. Lawrence River which failed to materialize. The foundations for the bridge remain visible on an island in the river. The railway experienced considerable financial difficulties before becoming part of the CANADIAN NORTHERN and later the Canadian National Railways. It was abandoned in 1952, though the trackage in Brockville remained as an industrial spur into the 1970s.
Railways remained a major employer in the town until the diesel era. With the end of steam, CN closed out the locomotive servicing facilities and ceased changing train crews. CN continues to operate local trains out of Brockville to serve regional shippers while. CP operates daily way freight from Smiths Falls over the original B&O line. Passenger trains continue to be a major part of operations as Brockville ranks as one of the top 20 stations in the country. VIA Rail provides multiple daily departures to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. At present VIA is upgrading both CN and CP trackage in the community for higher speed service and has announced that it will replace the 1872 Union Station with a new structure.
Canadian Pacific stopped using the tunnel in the early 1970s when the waterfront factories closed and the tunnel’s small dimensions could not accommodate modern equipment. The Canadian Pacific donated the tunnel to the community in 1984. In 1988, an interior wooden walkway was installed in the first 85 feet at the southern end of the tunnel, special panels explaining the history of the tunnel were erected and new wooden doors replaced the existing aging ones. These doors were originally used to keep cows from wandering into the tunnel.
The preservation of the tunnel has not been cheap. Over $700,000 has been spent on the tunnel since it was acquired by the city. The most recent project, which cost over $460,000, completely rebuilt the north portal. This involved taking down the facing, numbering all stones, stabilize the ground, and rebuilding the portal while putting the stoned back in their original position.
The tunnel remains a point of civic pride and interest. In 2010, a formal banquet was held in the tunnel to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening. Presently a committee of city council is considering further uses for the tunnel.
Photos are available on request.