CPR Railway: Blyth
Blyth's CPR Line: 1907-1988
It would be hard to imagine from the excitement that greeted the arrival of the first passenger train arriving in Blyth on July 8, 1907 on the new Canadian Pacific Railway line that the whole venture could disappear just over 80 years later.
The excitement had captivated the community for much of the previous year as the new Guelph and Goderich Railway (which would be leased to Canadian Pacific Railway for 999 years) inched its way from Guelph to Goderich. There was the fascination with a new-fangled steam shovel used to dig a new river channel so the Blyth Creek could be diverted to the north to allow more room for the station, sidings and various auxiliary services. There was the curiosity about the Italian workers in the solidly British community.
And finally on that Monday night at 10:30 p.m. the first passenger train arrived bringing the station agent and supplies. Despite the late hour there was a big turnout, though The Huron Expositor’s correspondent noted sourly that it didn’t do them much good because there was no light at the station and the historic moment was lost in the darkness.
“Those on the train would not have known there was any person there only for the cheer that went up.”
Still, the correspondent said, those who walked through the coaches felt “they were certainly a good deal better than those used on the Grand Trunk.”
The CPR was a big success for many years. At one time, grain trains up to 100 cars long would go through Blyth, requiring an extra engine to get up the grade east of town. Once up that hill, the engine at the back of the train would unhitch and back up to Goderich.
From 1907 to 1930 the CPR ran four passenger trains a day, two in each direction, through Blyth.
But improving roads and the increasing number of cars were already starting to cut into passenger train service. By April 1955 CPR passenger service was down to a bare minimum as The Blyth Standard of April 13 reported:
“According to Mr. Elmer Keller, local CPR station agent, a change is to take place in the present passenger service offered for so many years to passengers wishing to use rail service on the Goderich-Guelph run through Blyth.
“Effective April 25, the present passenger service will be suspended and replaced with a mixed train that is expected to run daily, leaving Guelph at 8:30 a.m. and arriving at Goderich at 1:45, while the return train will leave Goderich at 10 a.m. and arrive at Guelph at 4:30 p.m.
“The train will be principally for freight and a check on the time table will reveal that very few people wishing to make time will use the train service after April 25.”
This depleted passenger service continued until August 1961.
There was one last thrilling moment for fans of steam-powered passenger service the year of Blyth’s centennial in 1977. A special steam-powered excursion train travelled from Guelph to Goderich on the July 1 holiday weekend to mark Goderich’s 150th anniversary. The train stopped in Blyth to take on water and hundreds were at the station to greet the train and its happy passengers.
It wasn’t long before the CP Rail decided it wanted the station itself removed from the site. Fortunately the Snell family bought the building and moved it to The Old Mill south of town where you can still visit it in its new use as a bargain outlet for leather and woolen goods. In the 1970s the livestock pens were also removed from the railyards.
Freight continued to be revenue earner for the railway with Goderich and Blyth being two of the biggest users of the service. Howson and Howson had a private siding and used the railway for many years both to receive the Western Canadian durum wheat required for their pasta-flour milling operation and ship flour to other parts of the country, particularly to export markets.
But as the years passed, improved highways and larger trucks made trucking faster at the same time as rail service became slower and less reliable. Unable to get the service it required from the railway, Howson and Howson created its own fleet of bulk tankers, using the railway only for export markets. Still, in 1987 the company shipped 60 carloads of freight on the line.
In 1988 CP Rail applied to abandon the line claiming losses of $836,283 in 1984, $1,003,521 in 1985 and $1,104,384 in 1986.
It was aided in its attempt to close the line by a change in the National Transportation Act. Under the previous act the company had to prove it didn’t have a reasonable expectation of making a profit in the future. Under the new act, it was up to users of the line to prove it did have a reasonable expectation of making a profit. As Doug Howson of Howson and Howson said at the time, his company was being asked to virtually guarantee what business it would give to the railway over the next few years.
CP Rail was also aided by the fact the application was made in the transition period between the two acts. The new act required a 90-day notice of plans to abandon a railway line followed by 60 days to receive submissions about the future viability of the line. But on this part of the issue, the railway took advantage of the old legislation which required only 15 days notice. As well, because of this transition period none of the advertisements of notice to close the line had been placed in any newspapers along the railways routes.
And so on Dec. 1, 1988 permission to discontinue the railway line 30 days later was given by the National Transportation Agency.
For most people the last train came and went with no notice but train buff John R. Hardy, who grew on an a Colborne Twp. farm beside the Goderich-to-Guelph line, was there to record the last train on Dec. 16, 1988 as it passed through the farm of Adrian and Toni Vos, his in-laws, just west of Blyth. A photo of that train is contained in his book Rusty Rails: A Photographic Record of Branchline Railways in Midwestern Ontario 1961-1996.
The next year the rails and railway ties were torn up and, on a dreary day in December, 1989, a power-shovel-mounted jack-hammer was used to shatter the landmark of “The Arch”, to the anger of local history buffs.
Today the former railway lands have been put to good use as the Blyth Greenway. The Arch hasn’t been restored, but you can walk over it again thanks to a bridge built by the Lions Club. The old water tank beside the river is the only highly visible part of the railway still intact.