Canada Atlantic Railway

Canada Atlantic Railway

The Canada Atlantic Railway Company (CAR), the creation of lumber baron John Rudolphus Booth, was for a short period an important participant in the development of trans-Canada railway systems at the end of the 19th century. It existed from 1879 to 1914, and ran trains from 1890 to 1905 (when its operations were transferred to the Grand Trunk Railway) from Ottawa through to Vermont and from Ottawa west to Depot Harbour on Georgian Bay. For a short period it handled up to 40% of the grain traffic from the Canadian west through to the St. Lawrence River valley. [Allan Bell, "A Way to the West" (Barrie, Ont.: privately published, 1991), p. 165.]

J. R. Booth

The Canada Atlantic Railway was the creation of John Rudolphus Booth, the Ottawa-based lumber baron who, in the latter half of the 19th century, amassed timber rights approaching 7,000 square miles (18,000 km2) in Central and Northern Ontario. [Bell, p. 5.] Booth not only was North America's largest timber-rights holder, but also the owner of the world's largest lumber mill at Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River just upstream from the capital. But the mill could never run at full capacity because the output could not be carried out of the yards fast enough. [Bell, p. 8.] By building the Canada Atlantic Booth not only would be able to transport harvested logs from Central Ontario to his Ottawa mills, but also ship cut lumber eastward to American and European markets.

East to Vermont

In 1871 and 1872 a group headed by Donald Macdonald (the brother of Ontario's first premier, Sir John Sandfield Macdonald) created two railway companies to build tracks from Ottawa to Coteau Junction (the Montreal and City of Ottawa Junction Railway Co.) to tie into the Toronto/Montreal Grand Trunk Railway, and to link the first line down to the Central Vermont Railway in the United States (the Coteau and Province Line Railway and Bridge Co.). The promoters failed to lay any track (mainly because the the cost of bridging the St. Lawrence River at Coteau Landing) and in 1897 Booth, with William G. Perley of Ottawa and J. Gregory Smith of St. Albans, Vermont, purchased the two failing companies and amalgamated them into a new firm — the Canada Atlantic Railway. By linking with Ottawa (and the areas serviced by intersecting rail lines) Canadian goods — especially Canadian lumber — could be shipped direct into the lucrative northeastern United States market either for regional consumption or for export to Europe from year-round Atlantic coast ports. [Bell, pp. 10-11.]

Between July 1881 and September 1882 track was laid from Ottawa to Coteau Junction, Quebec, and trains began to run regularly. [Bell, pp. 15-16.] Approval for a bridge across the St. Lawrence River was delayed (partly because of lobbying by the competition, partly from fears of the effect a bridge would have on river traffic), but a railway car ferry was in operation by early 1885 and freight could roll through to Vermont (partly on Grand Trunk Railway track). [Bell, pp. 20-21.]

Permission to bridge the St. Lawrence finally came in 1887. Work began in May 1888 and was completed in February 1890. [Bell, pp. 22-36.] . The bridge consisted of three sections on 16 piers. By taking advantage of river islands (2125 ft/648 m of track), only 3906 ft (1190 m) of bridging was built. The northern section included a 355 ft (108 m) swing bridge elevated 25 ft (7.6 m) above the water. [Bell, pp. 38-42.]

In Vermont the CAR connect with the Delaware and Hudson Railway, the Rutland Railroad, and the Central Vermont Railway. In 1897 a 3.1 mile (5.0 km) US connector section (the Province Line Railroad, later the Vermont and Province Line Railroad) made shipments into the United States even more efficient. [Bell, p. 42.]

West to Depot Harbour

With the completion of the Ottawa/New England section, Booth began looking westward from Ottawa, not only to transport logs year-round to his Ottawa lumber mills, but also to take advantage of the increasing grain production on the prairies which was destined for Eastern North American and European markets. And by building through to an appropriate harbour on Georgian Bay for the receiving of Great Lake steamers, Booth could avoid the large expense of building a land-line through the rough and uninhabited terrain north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. [Bell, pp. 43-44.]

In 1888 Booth incorporated two railways (the Ottawa, Arnprior and Renfrew Railway Company, and the Ottawa and Parry Sound Railway Company) to build track from Ottawa to Lake Huron. Despite opposition from the Canadian Pacific Railway and from Toronto business interests, despite fires at his large Ottawa saw mill and the deaths of his partners, Booth pushed forward with his rail line.

Even though from September 1892 to May 1893 only the Ottawa to Arnprior section had been built (38 miles/61 km), by December 1896 the line was complete through Algonquin Park to Depot Harbour on Georgian Bay, although another 16 months was needed to complete ancillary elements such as freight yards and port facilities. The first eastbound train, Depot Harbour to Ottawa, ran on 22 April 1898. [Bell, p. 45.] In the process Booth had acquired (1892) the Parry Sound Colonization Railway which had started to build track westward from Scotia Junction towards Parry Sound. [Bell, p. 51.]

Depot Harbour

The original plan for the Georgian Bay terminus of the CAR was in the vicinity of Parry Sound. However speculation in the late 1880s and early 1890s drove up the price of the necessary terminus and port lands. In 1885, after he had visited the Parry Sound area, Booth chose instead to locate the terminus on undeveloped land on nearby Parry Island, occupied by Parry Island Indian Reservation (No. 16). Under pressure from the federal Department of Indian Affairs, the local band that autumn surrendered the necessary 315.5 acres (128 ha) for the rail access, terminus, port facilities and residences. [Bell, pp. 63-68.] (A further 110 acres/44.5 ha were purchased in 1899.) [Bell, pp. 69-70.]

It should also be remembered, as regards the choice of the terminus, that Depot Harbour was one of the best natural harbours on the Great Lakes and its choice as terminus can stand on its own merits. [Niall MacKay, "Over the Hills to Georgian Bay" (Erin, Ont: Boston Mills Press, 1981), p. 19.]

Out of the brush the CAR carved a town site and port — waterfront freight sheds, a 1,000,000 bushel (36,370 m3) grain elevator, wharves, water towers, pumping stations, offices, a bunk house, hotel, over 100 houses, a community centre, a school, and several churches. [Bell, p. 83.] (The 1901 census recorded 576 inhabitants in the village, plus 231 on the reservation.) [Canada, Census Office, "Fourth Census of Canada, 1901" (Ottawa, 1902), vol. 1.]

A swing bridge over the channel between Parry Island and the mainland at Rose Point allowed commercial boats to continue to ply the waterway.

The Canadian National Railway closed business in Depot Harbour on 30 May 1953. All the remaining inhabitants of the village moved out and the buildings were either demolished or left to disintegrate. [Bell, p. 149.] However, the track from the main line remained, and from 1959 to 1979 iron ore from Northern Ontario was loaded at Depot Harbour into lake boats. The workers commuted from Parry Sound. [MacKay, p. 77.]

Great Lakes shipping lines

In 1898 Booth created the Canada Atlantic Transit Company to operate steamships on the Great Lakes from Depot Harbour to Fort William (now Thunder Bay) and (in 1889) the Canada Atlantic Transit Company of the United States (1889) to operate between Depot Harbour and American ports such as Chicago and Duluth, Minnesota. [Bell, p. 73.]

The companies were sold along with the railway in 1905 to the Grand Trunk Railway (later absorbed into the Canadian National Railway). The American company was voluntarily dissolved in 1948, and the charter for the Canadian company was allowed to lapse in 1950. [Bell, pp. 73-82.]

During their early years the ships of the transit companies (and other vessels that they chartered) regularly carried goods between the upper Great Lakes and Depot Harbour, linking the railway in Eastern Ontario with other lines from the West terminating at Great Lake ports. Overall east-bound tonnage far exceeded west-bound tonnage (around 4:1), but Booth was able to make a profit on the ships during the few years that he owned them. After the sale to the Grand Trunk Railway, profits turned to losses and the Transit Companies declined in importance. [Bell, p. 81.]


* Grain and Lumber freight, 1899-1902: [Bell, p. 162.]

space|10Grain (bushels) space|5Lumber (board feet) 1899 space|512,999,612 space|10224,267,000 1900 space|515,053,238 space|10374,906,000 1901 space|519,301,281 space|10231,869,000 1902 space|519,038,924 space|10311,885,460

*In the 1899 season Depot Harbour handled 38.4% of all grain shipped via Great Lakes rail ports, and 51.2% of all western grain exported from Montreal. [Bell, p. 165.]

*Between 1899 and 1914, grain traffic averaged 13,084,483 bushels (475,866 m3) per year.
*Between 1987 and 1095, lumber traffic averaged 294,272,203 board feet (694,405 m3) per year.
*Between 1897 and 1914, passenger traffic averaged 419,139 people per year. [Bell, p. 162.]


During the 1890s, the Canadian government was interested in the creation of a second Canadian transcontinental rail line (in competition with the Canadian Pacific Railway and with American transcontinental lines), and the Canada Atlantic could form an important link in such a new system.

Booth himself was concerned about building and maintaining tonnage on his new line, [Bell, p. 137] either by cooperation with other lines in the east and in the west, or by sale to or amalgamation with some existing line. Booth was contemplating such a sale as early as 1901. [Bell, p. 139.] Whether it was because Booth (now 74) was tired, or because he realized that competition from other transcontinental lines would soon cause serious problems for the Canada Atlantic, he did everything possible in the early years of the 20th century to make every aspect of the railway profitable, and therefore attractive to potential buyers. [Bell, p. 142.]

Prompted by the federal government, the Grand Trunk Railway began negotiating with Booth to acquire the Canada Atlantic as part of the Grand Trunk's efforts to expand into Western Canada. In August 1904 the Grand Trunk agreed to purchase the Canada Atlantic, the Great Lakes steamship lines, the tiny US line in Vermont, and the Depot Harbour and Ottawa facilities for Can$16,000,000. [Bell, pp. 143-144.] The Grand Trunk took over all operations of the CAR on 1 October 1905; actual purchase was ratified by Parliament only in 1914. [Canada, 4-5 George V, chap. 89 (27 May 1914).] While controlled by the Grand Trunk, the Canada Atlantic purchased the Pembroke Southern Railway (1906) [Canada, 6 Edward VII, chap 73 (26 June 1906).] ; and in 1907 the CAR and the Grand Trunk created the Ottawa Terminals Railway Co. which in 1912 opened the main train station in downtown Ottawa near Parliament Hill. [Canada, 6-7 Edward VII, chap. 117 (27 April 1907).] (This station operated until the 1960s when it was converted into the Government Conference Centre.)

However, despite further Grand Trunk investments in depot facilities, improved roadbeds and heavier track, the increased freight tonnage, passengers and income did not keep pace with the more rapidly increasing costs, so that net losses increased year by year. [Bell, p. 148.] After the First World War, the bankrupt (or near-bankrupt) Grand Trunk Railway was taken over and absorbed into the new government-owned Canadian National Railway, which also took over ownership of the former Canada Atlantic properties.


The lines east of Ottawa have, for the most part, been retained within the Canadian National Railways (CNR) and the VIA Rail passenger systems. West of Ottawa, 263.79 miles (424.52 km) of track were built; [Bell, pp. 157-158.] of this 110.37 miles (177.62 km) have been abandoned. [Bell, p. 160. See A. B. Hopper and T. Kearney, "Canadian National Railways, Synoptical History of Organization, Capital Stock, Funded Debt and Other General Information as of December 31, 1960" (Montreal: CNR Accounting Dept., 1962), pp. 28-36.]

Despite efforts by the Grand Trunk Railway to turn a profit on the CAR lines, it was fairly obvious early on that this was not going to happen. The separate CAR accounts during the transition period (1905-1914) made that clear. [Bell, p. 120] During the run-up period to 1923, while it was well understood that the government would force the amalgamation of a number of money-losing railways, and the rationalization of trackage, the GTR was itself involved in pruning unnecessary routes. It was particularly expensive to operate on the section over the height of land through Algonquin Park, where trains had to be divided and pulled with two locomotives. [Bell, pp. 120-122.] Trains from Depot Harbour could be routed south around the Haliburton Highlands to eastern Ontario at less expense.

* In 1923, a stretch of 5.58 miles (8.98 km) of track was abandoned between Two Rivers and Algonquin Park Station. [Hopper and Kearney. In 1933 an iron trestle between Lake of Two Rivers and Cache Lake was damaged by flooding (and neglect). Since the old CAR track had been already abandoned in this area for 10 years, the CNR did not want to repair it, nor did the government (which at the time was heavily subsidizing a road through Algonquin Park parallel to the railway), so the line remained physically severed. MacKay, p. 65.]
* To the east of Two Rivers, the stretch to Whitney (just outside of Algonquin Park was abandoned in 1946 (16.46 miles or 26.49 km of track).
* Near the west end of the line, a short (3.44 miles/5.54 km) section of duplicate track was abandoned in 1938. The CNR continued to use the parallel track of the former Canadian Northern Ontario Railway, later styled the Canadian Northern Railway to Sudbury.
* The 41.19 mile (66.29 km) section from Falding on the CNR Sudbury line over to Scotia Junction on the CNR North Bay line (former Grand Trunk Railway) was abandoned in 1955.
* The section from Kearney eastward through to the end of severed section at Algonquin Park Station was abandoned in 1959 (38.3 miles/61.64 km). [Bell, p. 160.]
* The section from Scotia Junction to Kearney was torn up in 1975 (5.4 miles/8.69 km). [MacKay, p. 119.]

ignificant dates and legal history

*1871: Montreal and City of Ottawa Junction Railway Company created [Canada, 34 Victoria, chap. 47 (14 April 1871).]
*1872: Coteau and Province Line Railway and Bridge Company created [Canada, 35 Victoria, chap. 83 (14 June 1872).]
*1879: J.R. Booth buys and merges the two lines, creating the Canada Atlantic Railway Company [Canada, 42 Victoria, chap. 57 (15 May 1879).]
*1881 to 1882: Ottawa to Coteau section completed
*1882: Province Line Railroad Company created in Vermont [Vermont, Articles of Association (4 March 1882).]
*1885: system south of the St. Lawrence River completed
*1885: Parry Sound Colonization Railway created [Ontario, 48 Victoria, chap. 78 (30 March 1885).]
*1887: Coteau Bridge over the St. Lawrence River approved
*1888 to 1890: Coteau Bridge built
*1888: Ottawa, Arnprior and Renfrew Railway Company created [Ontario, 51 Victoria, chap. 71 (23 March 1888).]
*1888: Ottawa and Parry Sound Railway Company created [Canada, 51 Victoria, chap. 65 (4 May 1888).]
*1891: Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway Company created [Canada, 54-55 Victoria, chap. 93 (31 July 1891).] (amalgamation of Ottawa, Arnprior and Refrew Railway Co. and Ottawa and Parry Sound Railway Co.)
*1891: Parry Sound Colonization Railway acquired.
*1893 to 1986: rail laid from Ottawa to Georgian Bay
*1895: Parry Island/Depot Harbour land acquired
*1896: Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway Company (amalgamation of existing railway and Parry Sound Colonization Railway Co.) [Canada, 60 Victoria, chap. 8 (5 October 1896).]
*1897: Vermont and Province Line Railroad created in Vermont [Vermont, Articles of Association (27 May 1897).]
*1897: Vermont and Province Line Railroad section built
*1898: through train service established, Depot Harbour to Ottawa
*1898: Canada Atlantic Transit Company created [Canada, 61 Victoria, chap. 65 (13 June 1898).]
*1899: Canada Atlantic Transit Company of the United States created [General Laws of the State of Minnesota, 30 October 1899.]
*1899: Canada Atlantic Railway amalgamates with Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway Co. [Canada, 62-63 Victoria, chap. 81 (11 August 1899).]
*1905: control of CAR, the Vermont railroad and the two steamship companies assumed by the Grand Trunk Railway (1 October)
*1914: sale of CAR to Grand Trunk Railway ratified by Parliament; [Canada, 4-5 George V, chap. 89 (27 May 1914).] Canada Atlantic Railway Company ceases to exist
*1923: bankrupt Grand Trunk Railway absorbed by Canadian National Railway [Privy Council of Canada Order 181, 30 January 1923.]
*1923: Last through trains between Depot Harbour and Ottawa [Bell, p. 126.]
*1923-1959: abandonment of main track sections
*1953: closing of Depot Harbour Village




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