by Bary Uman, used with permission, originally published in C.N.A. Journals 1978-79
Just as the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 had hastened the construction of the St. Lawrence canal system (Lachine Canal), so the expansion of the American railroads and their encroachments upon the commercial hinterland of Montreal provided the stimulus for Canadian railway construction. The St. Lawrence and Welland Canals had been built to draw the export and import trade of the midwest to Montreal. Not only had this objective not been achieved, but what was even more ominous, the trade of Canada itself was being attracted to New York and Boston by the new American railroads rather than to Montreal by the St. Lawrence canals. No sooner had the Canadian canal system been completed, than it became apparent that even more strenuous efforts would be required, not only to challenge the spreading influence of the American Atlantic ports, but even to retain the limited traffic which the Canadian route had thus far managed to secure.
Several railway companies were charted in the 1830's and early 1840's, but the difficulty of raising capital during a period of depression and political unrest, combined with a concentration of interest in canals, prevented any important construction being undertaken. A few small railways were actually built, however most of them being the portage type, that is, they were built around rapids on the rivers and were intended to supplement water transportation. A 16-mile line was constructed around the rapids on the Richelieu River in 1836 to facilitate trade and travel between Montreal and New York, and in 1847, an 8-mile short line was built around the Lachine Rapids between Montreal and the city of Lachine.
In 1844, James Ferrier of Montreal and his associates began to plan the construction of a railway from the foot of navigation on Lake St. Louis (part of the St. Lawrence River) to the city of Montreal. The purpose of this railway was to shorten the time required to transport people and goods from the river boats of the St. Lawrence to the lake boats, which could pass through the Lachine Canal to the upper St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. In the winter, when the canal was closed, the railway was able to carry local traffic especially since Montreal was spreading westward towards Lachine.
The railway was built parallel to the Lachine Canal using material excavated from the canal, which was then being enlarged. The construction of the railway was difficult especially through the marshes, where the track had to be supported on woden pilings. It is said that 2 steam locomotives were lost in the swamp at Turcot.
When the Montreal & Lachine Railroad began operations in 1847, this marked the opening phase of public transportation in Montreal. The railway was incorporated in 1846 under the laws of the Province of Canada with a capital of 75,000 pounds, to build a railway from Montreal to Lachine and also to operate steamers on the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. One of the directors of the railway was William Molson, a descendent of John Molson senior, one of Canada's most distinguished businessmen.
The terminus of the railway was situated at Chaboillez Square on Saint-Bonaventure Street (now known as St. James Street West). The station borrowed and perpetuated the name long after the street had been renamed and it later became known as "Bonaventure Station". The terminus in Lachine was located at the wharf near 32nd Avenue where steamers departed for the ports in the Upper Province.
The Montreal & Lachine Railroad became an enormous success. It took only 20 minutes from either terminus, according to a guide issued in 1851, which also showed 6 trains daily, regularly scheduled each way. Later, the railway became one of several alternate routes to the United States via a ferry from Lachine to Caughnawaga and then through St. Isidore, Hemmingford, Mooers (New York), to Plattsburg and the Lake Champlain steamers, all by August 15, 1852. The railway amalgamated with the Lake St. Louis & Province Line Railway in 1850 to form the Montreal & New York Railroad Company. This north-south route was preferable, for a short time, to that of its competitor, The Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad, for it avoided the rather lengthy water journey from Montreal to Laprairie.
The first steam locomotive on the Island of Montreal was operated by the Montreal & Lachine Railroad. It was named the "Lachine" and on November 19, 1847, it hauled the first official train carrying the Governor-General Lord Elgin and Lady Elgin from Montreal to Lachine in 21 minutes. On November 30, 1847, the Locomotive had its first accident when the engine and tender jumped the track 5 miles from Montreal, due to a faulty rail.
The locomotive was purchased from Norris Brothers of Philadelphia in 1847 but it was later replaced by 2 new locomotives in 1848, the "James Ferrier" and "Montreal", from Kinmonds and Company, Lillybank Foundry in Dundee, Scotland. The railway then sold the "Lachine" to the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railroad which renamed it the "Champlain" and ran it until 1860 when it had 33,600 miles.
The Montreal & Lachine Railroad retained its original function largely unchallenged as a suburban carrier until 1896, when the Montreal, Park & Island Railroad opened its electric line between the two cities. By this time, the original railway had been integrated in 1864 into the Grand Trunk Railroad system and later in 1923 into the Canadian National Railway. Service between Montreal and Lachine remained intact essentially over the original route of the railway until 1960, when buses replaced the streetcars. Thus it was discontinued after nearly 113 years of service.
When the Montreal & Lachine Railroad began operations in 1847, the use of the railway became so popular that the company was forced to use a token. The company issued a round, copper, 34mm, third class token in lieu of the railway tickets because ordinary tickets were not convenient for Natives and workmen, whowere labouring on the Lachine Canal and who formed the bulk of the third class travel. The tokens were made in Birmingham, England with a center hole, so that they were strung on a wire while they were collected by the conductor. The remaining balance of the tokens were melted at St. Lambert, Quebec in 1862 by the Montreal & Champlain Railroad.
The obverse of the token pictures an old steam locomotive with the inscription MONTREAL & LACHINE RAILROAD COMPANY. The reverse pictures a beaver near a body of water and the inscription THIRD CLASS. The token is listed in Breton's book as number 530, in Leroux's book as number 600 and in Atwood's book as number 620 M.
In 1947, the City of Lachine celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first railway by restriking a replica of the original 3rd class token in copper, silver and gold. specimen set exists at a local museum. The token differs from the original in that the dates "1847" and "1947" appear on both sides of the locomotive. There are other differences such as in the design of the locomotive and the beavers to differentiate the original from the copy.
The old Lachine Canal still exists as a park in Lachine. Near the canal, some of therailway bed and the right of way, can be seen by observant visitors. The city Lachine has also erected a commemorative plaque near the site of the railway. It pictures two steam locomotives and is inscribed, "Commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the opening on November 19, 1847, of the first railway or the Island of Montreal, the Montreal and Lachine Railroad, now part of the Canadian National Railways. 1847-1947". The plaque is circular with a picture of the first locomotive above, while below, it pictures a modern streamlined locomotive. The plaque is situated in a stone monument which is about 612 by 5 feet in size. It lies about 50 yards from the Lachine Canal on St. Joseph and 21st Avenue facing 2100 St. Joseph which is the old post office.
1) Canadian Economic History by W.T. Easterbrook & H.G.J. Aitken, published by
The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited. 1967.
2) The Montreal City Passenger Railway Company by O.S.A. Lavallee, published
by the Canadian Railroad Historical Association. 1961.
3) The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal, 4th Series, Volume IV.
1933, published by the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal.
4) Canadian Rail, numbers 237, 252, 293 and others, published monthly by the
Canadian Railroad Historical Association.
5) Information kindly sent by K.A. Palmer and other miscellaneous publications too
numerous to mention.