Butter and eggs special
Once it was the busiest place in Blyth but now people turn to the former London-Huron-Bruce Railway lands for a place of peace and quiet.
Whether it’s at “The Arch” on the Blyth Greenway Trail, or at The Station House Bed and Breakfast, the east end of the village is a place to go for relaxation today, unlike a century ago when it was the hub of activity. It’s been more than 60 years since a train steamed past the station house,
The rail line, stretching north from London to Wingham, was one of the most colourful in western Ontario, nicknamed the “Butter and Egg Special” because many people travelled to London to sell their farm produce in the markets there. It was also famous for its rather erratic timetable with the casual train crew being known to stop at any point along the way if a farm family flagged the train down for a ride.
The railway was truly a part of Blyth since it was Blyth’s first reeve, the tireless entrepreneur, Patrick Kelly who played a huge role in the line being built.
Blyth and its surrounding farmland had barely emerged from the bush when Kelly arrived in 1866. In the coming years he would own a flour and grist mill, a sawmill and sash and door factory.
His businesses, however, weren’t going to compete for markets far and wide if the goods had to be hauled to Clinton by horse and team before they could be loaded on a train and shipped to the eastern seaboard. Kelly sought to get train service for his town.
First he approached the Grand Trunk Railway but the company showed no interest. So Kelly set off for Hamilton to talk to the Great Western Company which had recently built a railway through London to Sarnia.
To back up his argument, Kelly took with him figures showing the value of goods like flour, firewood, tan bark, sheep and cattle being shipped from the county to the Buffalo market. Apparently they were impressed with the presentation but threw the ball into Kelly’s court by saying he should go back to the communities along the proposed route and seek subsidies for the building of the railway. Municipalities along the northern part of the line were asked to give $25,000, a substantial amount at the time. Not everyone agreed, and so, for instance, the railway by-passed Lucan and Biddulph Twp. creating the villages of Denfield and Ilderton instead.
Kelly’s original plan was to halt the railway in Blyth but East Wawanosh, Morris and Wingham agreed to give subsidies if the railway was extended to Wingham.
The summer of 1875 brought a boom to Blyth as hotels were full of workmen. There were also problems when, on payday, the workers got drunk and caused a lot of commotion in the village.
The influence the railway would have in the development of the village can be seen in the description the correspondent of The New Era of Clinton of the location of the new station “half-a-mile east of Blyth”. The village would later grow toward the station.
The ceremonial first train from London to Wingham ran on Dec. 11, 1875 with the reeve and councillors from municipalities along the way on board. They’d been entertained at a banquet for 600 at which Kelly was one of the principal speakers along with Sir John Carling who had invested in the company.
In 1876 there was one train a day leaving Blyth, in the morning, and one returning in the afternoon or evening.
By today’s speeds, the original wood-burning locomotives, travelling at 12-15 miles per hour, were slow but they were nearly supersonic compared to horses on the rugged roads of the time.
The impact of the coming of the railway was described by the 1879 Belton’s Huron County Atlas. “It struck the village with such force as to elevate it . . . from the proportions of . . . a backwoods village to those of a busy and prosperous little railroad town.”
The effects of the railway were everywhere. In December 1892 The Huron Expositor reported 23,000 barrels of apples had been shipped from Blyth to markets as far away as Chicago. Naturally that created a market for barrels and two cooper shops were kept working overtime to supply the demand.
Edmunson Watson, known as “Huron’s Cattle King” shipped carloads of of cattle from Blyth and drove sheep from the Lucknow area to be shipped to Canadian and American markets from the little station.
Arriving about the same time as the railway was the Grey, Young and Sparling salt well which in 1888 shipped an average of five carloads of salt a day.
By the late 1880s the nearby brickworks was also shipping carloads of brick from the station.
In 1882 both the Great Western, which built the railway, and the Grand Trunk, which had originally been approached by Kelly, were in financial trouble and merged to become the Grand Trunk.
Later, in 1919, the Grand Trunk and several other struggling railways were brought under the wing of Canadian National Railways, a crown-owned railway company.
Melda McElroy before her death, set down some of her memories, and the memories of other residents no longer with us now, of the place the railway held in the lives of the community.
Luella McGowan recalled working the dining room of the Commercial Hotel, now the Blyth Inn. At the time there were a number of “sample rooms” in which salesmen travelling on the railway would set up displays of their goods for local merchants. Special dinners would be served for those arriving on the 7 p.m. train. and breakfasts for those leaving on the 7 a.m. train.
She remembered that Bill Johnston, who met the train with his bus drawn by a team of horses, would open the door of the hotel to announce in a loud voice: “Five minutes to train time”, then take the waiting salesmen to the station. Dick Sellers also met the train with a one-horse dray, hauling the salesmen’s sample trunks to the hotel.
Many students completed their secondary education at Clinton Collegiate or attended Clinton Business College by taking the train daily to school, Miss McElroy remembered. It was a long day with the train leaving Blyth at 7:20 a.m. and returning at 7:20 p.m.
The train also came in handy in times of emergency. In 1906 a huge fire was burning in Clinton and a call for help was sent out. Blyth’s fire rig was loaded on the train and, accompanied by 50 men, made the trip to help out the neighbouring town.
In 1936 in the middle of a fierce storm, the late John Young, had a serious accident at his farm three miles from town. When Dr. Kilpatrick was called by telephone, it took three hours to reach the farm. When he saw the serious condition of his patient, he contacted Clinton’s Dr. Oakes to arrange for treatment at the hospital. Young was taken through the storm by sleigh to the Blyth station, then by train to Clinton. Though his arm was amputated, he would credit that train trip to hospital as well as the skills of the doctors and medical team, with saving his life.
By the 1930s many of the Blyth companies that had helped keep the railway profitable, had long since died and the Depression had pushed the line to a $9,000 loss in 1939. In December 1940 word leaked out that Canadian National was trying to close the line north of Clinton. Despite protests, this section of the line which had lost a grand total of $966 in 1939, was allowed to be closed.
Several local residents took a sentimental journey on the last train on April 26, 1941. The tracks were later removed with the steel being used for the war effort.
The pretty little station that now houses Blyth Station House Bed and Breakfast is not the original station. That station burned on Aug. 11, 1904 and was rebuilt. Now clad in brick, it was originally a frame building which was bricked by previous owners Paul and Jean Yanchus.