Canadian Northern’s Twisty Tale

Canadian Northern’s Twisty Tale

The East-West Connection with Stations in Sydenham, Perth Road, Opinicon & Mica is Our Lakes’ lesser known line.

By Eric Gagnon

The Kingston & Pembroke (K&P) Railway, better-known as the ‘Kick and Push’ is the best-known line across South Frontenac, but it is not the only one! A second line, running east-west and crossing the north-south K&P at Harrowsmith, was the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR).

The first inter-city mainline across south-eastern Ontario was the Toronto-Montreal Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) built through Kingston in 1856, later Canadian National Railways (CNR). The second mainline was the Ontario & Quebec Railway, built through Sharbot Lake in 1883, later Canadian Pacific.

Enter two of Canada’s most dynamic railway builders, Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann. Having begun their Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) empire in Western Canada, they were now seeking an Ontario connection. Such a link would enable Mackenzie and Mann to complete a transcontinental line linking British Columbia to Quebec. Their railway empire grew to 9,433 miles in 19 years!

The GTR had established its line early, able to choose the best route with stations and yards close to downtown areas of communities along Lake Ontario. The CNoR was left with an inferior route, far from towns or cities. It even found itself paralleling and following the GTR from Port Hope to Deseronto. 

Mackenzie and Mann built their mostly new southern Ontario line in three sections. The first left Todmorden, outside Toronto, reaching Trenton 105 miles later, opening on September 30, 1911. The second section connected Trenton to Deseronto over 28 miles, opening January 30, 1912. The final section from Sydenham to Hurdman, outside Ottawa, 86 miles long, entered service on December 30, 1913. But wait, what about Deseronto-Sydenham?

Mackenzie and Mann bought the Deseronto-Sydenham Bay of Quinte Railway in 1909, at a substantial loss to its previous owners. The only pre-existing part of their route, not requiring new construction, its purchase allowed for a Toronto-Ottawa Canadian Northern inter-city mainline, extending to Montreal. The CNoR did re-engineer some parts of the line to make it faster for passenger trains, notably at Yarker, and between Sydenham and Harrowsmith.

The entire line, when completed, was 255 miles long and 25 miles shorter than any rival route. It opened up the Rideau lake country which until then only had waterborne transportation links. CNoR stations were opened at Rideau Junction, Richmond, Smiths Falls, Portland, Lombardy, Chaffey’s Locks, Forfar, Bedford Mills, Perth Road and existing stations at Sydenham, Harrowsmith and Napanee. The first through train marking this new connection left Toronto on October 7, 1913, arriving in Ottawa at 1:00 the next day.

The initial Harrowsmith to Sydenham line was planned to be three miles, but due to a grade between the two communities, a greater distance was more advantageous, resulting in the building of an additional 1.3 miles. The line passed through Harrowsmith, then continued east after the K&P split off to the south and Kingston. The track hugged the top of the cliff overlooking ‘the flats’ to Sydenham, and today’s Rutledge Road descends to the level of the swampy land that extends south toward Murvale. The sharp curve on the CN line was engineered to ease the grade. The line between Harrowsmith and Sydenham was a continuous 1% downgrade along the edge of a bluff one mile east of Harrowsmith. From there, the line almost doubled back upon itself over 12 degrees via a high embankment in a series of reverse curves, opened on November 2, 1893. In 1912, the CNoR relocated the subway hill grade slightly to the west and somewhat higher, with a resulting 0.5% grade. In 1965, under CNR ownership, the grade was again moved westerly and higher again to accommodate the straightened Harrowsmith-Sydenham road, crossed by a new steel girder bridge which is still in place. At least two of the earlier-alignment limestone bridge abutments are still visible on Rutledge Road between Sydenham and Harrowsmith.

The new CNoR line served an existing lead concentrating plant at Perth Road and the country’s largest mica mine at Sydenham.  Sydenham was an important shipping point for phosphate, feldspar, mica, hogs and cattle. The village also boasted sawmills, a shingle mill and grist mill. Acme Farmers’ Dairy built a milk-processing plant in 1917, later closing in 1953. An apple-evaporator business was built near the station on the north side of Bedford Street.

Sydenham’s station lasted until 1966, and its location is better-known as the Brewers Retail/Beer Store! Just to the east, a turntable and one-stall engine house was built at the shore of Sydenham Lake, dating from the days when Sydenham was the ‘end of the line’, before its extension east to Smiths Falls and Ottawa. A 1971 CNR track schematic showed a 2500-foot passing track at Sydenham Mile 80 of the Smiths Falls Subdivision.

To the east, the (now) ghost village of Opinicon hosted three sawmills, a shingle mill, cheese factory and phosphate mine dating to 1870. Later, a sawmill operated between Rock Lake and Opinicon Lake, and a flour mill was at the outlet of Rock Lake Creek. This settlement was connected to Bedford Mills by the Old Bedford Road that was crossed by the railway. A feldspar mine on Upper Rock Lake shipped its product by rail. It was taken by barge through a canal dug between Upper Rock Lake and Stonehouse Lake, then loaded on flatcars on a siding at Stonehouse Lake.

Storrington was perhaps better-known for its boat-building than any railway connection. Barges for the Rideau Canal were built by the Dog Lake shipyards as early as the 1860s. Cordwood was taken down to Kingston, with coal carried north to Ottawa on the return voyage.

At Forfar, a connecting line for the Canadian Northern line was bought by Mackenzie and Mann in 1911. It secured a connection to Brockville and St. Lawrence shipping. Originally grandly called the Brockville, Westport and Sault Ste. Marie Railway in 1888, the 45-mile line linked Lyn Junction, near Brockville, to Westport. Its balky construction included the ferrying of a steam locomotive and two freight cars up the Rideau Canal from Kingston to Newboro in 1889! Renamed the Brockville, Westport and North Western Railway in 1903, its owners perhaps realized then that the Sault was far beyond their grasp! A trip along the line lasted two hours and 45 minutes. World War I and the ensuing economic slump was bad news for Canada’s overbuilt railway network. Basically broke from its beginning, the CNoR became part of the Canadian National Railways (CNR) on December 20, 1918, and finally legally in January, 1923. The CNR renamed this line the Westport Subdivision, crossing its Napanee-Ottawa-Smiths Falls Subdivision at Forfar Junction. The Westport Subdivision was abandoned in 1952.

According to CNR timetables, in 1931 the Smiths Falls Subdivision hosted four daily passenger trains: Numbers 7 and 35 Ottawa-Toronto and Toronto-Ottawa Numbers 8 and 36. Passenger trains had a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, while the line’s four freight trains could not exceed 30 miles per hour. Freight train Number 510 operated three times per week from Yarker to Ottawa, with its westbound counterpart 511 running on opposite days Ottawa to Yarker. Through freight 448 ran Belleville-Napanee-Ottawa, and its westbound counterpart 447 in the opposite direction, each six days per week.

Due to a curve four miles east of Perth Road station, train speeds were cut in half there. The same speed restriction existed on the curving grade up to Harrowsmith from Sydenham. Area stations were located at Chaffey’s Locks, 62 miles west of Federal (near Ottawa), Buck Lake at mile 71, Perth Road at mile 74, Sydenham at mile 80 and Harrowsmith at mile 85. Three-car spur tracks were built at Storrington Feldspar at mile 69.5 and another was simply named Mica at Mile 77.6.

The Buck Lake stop disappeared by the 1944 timetable, as did the passenger trains. Passengers then travelled on mixed trains (a coach attached to a regular freight train) 337 between Forfar Junction and Napanee on Tuesdays and Fridays, and 338 Napanee-Forfar Junction on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Through mixed trains 445 and 446 ran daily except Sunday between Napanee and Ottawa.

By 1955, the only scheduled trains were freight trains 445 and 446. These carried Ottawa-Toronto freight traffic and handled any cars for customers along the line, such as the paper mill at Strathcona, just east of Napanee.

On Valentine’s Day 1966, CNR began running opposing overnight Cavalier trains between Ottawa and Toronto. Completely separate from the Montreal-Toronto overnight trains, this pair ran between Smiths Falls and Napanee on the ex-Canadian Northern line, not on the CP line to Brockville used by the day trains.

As of February 1, 1971, Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto night trains were combined/split at Belleville. With two locomotives and several baggage cars, coaches and sleeping cars, the Cavaliers left Toronto or Ottawa late at night, stopping only at Smiths Falls before arriving in Ottawa or Toronto early the next morning. Interestingly, these trains operated until October 1978! After that date, the Cavalier route was changed, and from then until its cancellation by VIA Rail in 1989, the overnight trains travelled over CPR rails from Brockville to Smiths Falls then CNR rails from there to Ottawa.

The improvement of roads, and the convenience of road transportation led to CNR ending operations on the Smiths Falls Subdivision around 1980. The tracks were lifted in the spring of 1989 from Forfar to Harrowsmith.

The Strathcona-Smiths Falls section of the CNR Smiths Falls Subdivision was donated by the CNR for conservation authority trail use in 1997, a section of which is now known as the Cataraqui Trail. Next time you walk or ride the trail, just imagine those pioneering Canadian railway builders. They laid two rails through South Frontenac linking two of Canada’s busiest cities, more than a century ago!

Eric Gagnon is the author of eight Canadian railway books. You can see his most recent book at

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