The Ten Railways of Brantford

Written by Ray Wright

Many factors needed to converge to create the third largest exporter of manufactured goods in Canada. Entrepreneurs and inventors created the opportunity – without them, there would be nothing to discuss. The railway network provided the means to let those entrepreneurs grow from their Brantford base into global giants.

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Between 1851 and 1911, ten different railway companies invested time and money laying track and building shops and other facilities in the Brantford area.
No. 1 - the BB&G and B&LH   1851 – 1864
Buffalo, Brantford & Goderich Buffalo and Lake Huron
No. 2 - the B&H   1871 - 1882 
Brantford & Harrisburg, Subsidiary of the Great Western Railway
No. 3 - the GTR   1864 - 1923 
Grand Trunk Railway
No. 4 - the BN&PB   1874 - 1878
Brantford, Norfolk & Port Burwell
No. 5 - the BW&LE   1885/89 - 1894
Brantford, Waterloo & Lake Erie
No. 6 - the TH&B   1894 - 1987
Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo
No. 7 - The Brantford Street Railway
1879 (horse-drawn) 1893 – 1940
No. 8 - The Grand Valley Railway
1900 – 1913
No. 9 - The Brantford & Hamilton Electric
1907 – 1931
No. 10 - The LE&N – The Lake Erie & Northern
1911 - 1955/1961

Brantford's transition from a prospering agricultural centre to an industry driven centre began about 1844 with the opening of the Van Brocklin Foundry. 

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In the 1850's, Brantford was becoming a foundry based manufacturing centre for household goods such as household stoves and fireplace tools, and for industrial goods such as plows, sawmills and steam engines. These manufactured goods were in demand in the local community, and importantly, they were gaining a reputation for quality beyond the local area. Demand for these manufactured goods was growing and the manufacturers (primarily the Van Brocklin Foundry, managed by C H Waterous) were becoming concerned about the ability to transport to the rapidly growing west - in Canada and the USA. 

Water based shipping via the Grand River Canal was seasonal and the roads were not capable of handling their requirements. 

Railways were making their appearance in North America and were demonstrating the superiority of that mode of transportation
• year-round availability
• capacity as needed
• solid and reliable rail-road beds
• And powerful, faster motive power


The first railway in what was to become Canada began operations from Montreal to St. Jean-sur-Richelieu in 1836 as a faster and shorter route between Montreal and New York. The first in what was to become the Province of Ontario ran from Toronto to Aurora (then known as Machell's Corners) in May of 1853. It was the first part of a "portage" line between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. The first railway in Brant County was the Great Western Railway in December of 1853 from Niagara Falls through Hamilton, Lynden, Harrisburg, St George and Paris, and on to London. 

In 1851 Brantford businessmen decided to take advantage of a provision of the Plank Road Act to short-cut the lengthy legislative process to incorporate a Railway Company; this they named the Brantford and Buffalo Railroad, with a view to connecting to the USA gateway at the rapidly growing City of Buffalo. Buffalo businessmen decided to join in but they saw a bigger opportunity, the development of a shortcut to and from the west at Lake Huron. The idea then spread to the Goderich area where the opportunity was perceived as a shortcut to draw settlers from the east, and for shipping out local agriculture products, as well as being the focal trans-shipping point for the West. With financing coming from individuals and communities all along the way from Buffalo to Brantford to Goderich, the initial venture was re-incorporated as the Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railway - the BB&G.

The first segment of the BB&G was inaugurated in December of 1853 from Buffalo (actually Fort Erie) to Caledonia. By January 10, 1854 it was extended to Brantford with much pomp and circumstances - parades, dinners, speeches and dress balls - including bands, dignitaries and about 500 people from Buffalo.

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In April of 1854 the line was completed to Paris to meet up with the Great Western Railway which had previously opened from Niagara Falls via Hamilton and Harrisburg. This phase of the BB&G's development included the high level bridge over the Grand River at Paris, a bridge that is still operational to-day as the CNR/VIA Rail's main line. The opening to Paris should have meant happy days for Brantford businessmen as they now theoretically had rail connections via the Buffalo gateway to the Eastern seaboard, to Lake Ontario at Hamilton, and to the west and Lake Huron at Windsor. While all the modern technology of steam engines, and of roads made of steel were theoretically in place, it seems that shoddy construction was still to be dealt with. The BB&G could not surmount the growing mountain of debts to get to Goderich, and in early 1856 the BB&G screeched to a halt for several months. In May of 1856, British interests stepped in with new financing, and the BB&G became the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway (the B&LH). The construction to Goderich via Stratford was completed (sort-of) in 1858. 

The early dreams of Brantford's businesses have left a legacy to this day. Brantford's station and rail yards are where they are today because that is where the BB&G established them. The main line from Brantford to the west and over the high level rail bridge crossing the Grand River in Paris is where it is to-day because that is where the BB&G built it in 1853.

The second railway system to develop in Brantford was part of the Great Western Railway. The GWR, in 1853, had by-passed Brantford through Harrisburg to Paris, much to the consternation of Brantford businessmen who were looking for ways to ship their products to grow their businesses. The BB&G to Paris should have been a solution to this problem but there were clearly non-technical factors at play. There was no track connection at Paris between the BB&G and the GWR - the rails simply crossed each other at an angle. Freight had to be offloaded at the two-sided Paris Junction depot and then reloaded onto the other train. 

In 1871, with a payment by Brantford to the GWR, a new spur line named the Brantford and Harrisburg line was constructed from the GWR tracks at Harrisburg into Brantford. This new line crossed the 1854 BB&G / B&LH line, but did not connect with it. It ran south into Brantford along Clarence Street into the industrial heart of Brantford in the South Market and Water / Wharfe St area. An important contribution of the B&H was the introduction of "INDUSTRIAL SIDINGS" into the industrial scene - these were short, spur lines right to a factory so that goods could be loaded directly onto rail cars. Prior to this, heavy goods had to be carted (horse drawn) to the BB&G depot on the northern outskirts, then off-loaded and re-loaded onto rail cars. The B&H line now the CNR / RailLINK, still operates to-day along Clarence Street, and is the only surviving rail service into the Greenwich-Mohawk industrial area.

While all this Brant County and south-western Ontario activity was taking place, the Grand Trunk Railway was striving to become the predominant railway serving Eastern Canada, including the Toronto to Lake Huron area. In late 1859, it opened its line from Toronto to Sarnia, thus creating unfriendly competition for the growing Great Western, as well as the still struggling Buffalo & Lake Huron. In 1864 the GTR acquired the Buffalo and Lake Huron line, thus providing the funding to finalize and upgrade the B&LH's operations. This acquisition was also a big strategic step for the GTR as it provided an entry to the Buffalo gateway. An early upgrade project was the construction of the INTERNATIONAL RAILWAY BRIDGE from Fort Erie to Buffalo in 1873. Now, after 20 years, there could finally be a true Buffalo - Brantford railway.

Railways were not only a help in the transportation of goods manufactured in Brantford. By 1871 they were also a large part of industrial Brantford. The 1871 Census of Canada lists manufacturing enterprises.In the Town of Brantford there were 7 employers (out of a total of 178) with more than 50 employees. The largest was the Grand Trunk Railway with 315 employees (1 female) and second largest was C H Waterous & Company with 118 employees. Those 2 were part of the top 1% of all manufacturing businesses in Canada. So, as far back as 1871, Brantford was becoming known as an industrial city. Buck Stove was the No. 3 employer with 105 employees.

Business interests in the Port Dover and Port Ryerse area on Lake Erie also wanted to be connected to the action in the Paris and Brantford area. They saw opportunities to be the access points to the bigger markets and coal supplies across the Lake. Brantford businessmen and the GWR saw the same advantages. As a result the Brantford, Norfolk and Port Burwell line was created in 1874 to satisfy those ambitions. The GWR provided the financing to complete the line from Brantford to Tillsonburg where it connected with an east-west affiliate of the GWR The Canada Air Line. This Brantford, Norfolk & Port Burwell line included the first railway bridge across the Grand River in Brantford, just downstream from the canal dam and about at Brant’s original fording place.


At last, Brantford business had a straight forward connection to the USA markets in the West via Detroit. The GWR then proceeded to merge its new BN&PB line with its B&H line from Harrisburg. This was good news locally for Brantford, because it meant many more INDUSTRIAL SIDINGS and additional depot service right in the growing South Market Street area. The combined B&H and BN&PB depot was on Clarence Street just south of Colborne St. The GTR's presence in Brantford began with its acquisition of the B&LH back in 1864 and then in 1882, it also gobbled up its biggest competitor - the smaller GWR. This meant that the industrial sidings and service and indeed all the rail traffic in and out of Brantford was now owned by one railway - the GTR.

Brantford businesses became nervous about their rail service and costs being in the hands of only one transportation company. So, in 1885 Brantford businesses developed another railway - this one was to be independent of the Canadian GTR behemoth and was to connect Brantford directly (again) with the US lines crossing South-Western Ontario. This new railway was called the Brantford, Waterloo and Lake Erie Railway and began operations in 1889 from a depot in West Brantford to Waterford where it connected with the Michigan Central's Canada Southern division. 

In 1890 with new financing, the BW&LE started on the planned Grand River Crossing, the INDUSTRIAL SIDING connections in Brantford, and the expansion to Hamilton to complete a connection down to the Lake Ontario level. The first part of the expansion to Hamilton involved climbing out of the Grand River valley. This was done from the locks area up to Cainsville and on up to the height of land (the summit) separating the Grand River / Lake Erie watershed from the 300 foot lower Lake Ontario level. It culminated at the Summit in a refresh station. Once again, the amount of money needed to develop a functioning railway was under estimated, and at the Summit, in 1893, the BW&LE ran out of money. The BW&LE was acquired in 1894 by the embryonic Hamilton based Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway, and thus became the first operational part of the TH&B.

It can be said that the TH&B started in Brantford, but in May 1986 after an unusually heavy rainy spring the Locks to Cainsville section collapsed ending the TH&B's involvement in Brantford. While the BB&G may have started Brantford's romance with railways, it can be fairly stated that it was in the TH&B era that the romance blossomed. The entire Railway ‘RIGHT OF WAY’ is now a Hiking / Biking Trail.

The 1882 acquisition of the Great Western meant that the GTR could focus on upgrading and rationalizing its service in the Brantford / Brant County area. In 1904 the GTR re-aligned the mainline from just west of Lynden, to curve south into Brantford. Brantford was finally on the main line! The GTR then followed up with "twinning" the track, including the Paris Grand River bridge. and to the joy of all, it erected a new Railway Station in Brantford with much celebration again in 1905. 

The railways were also a people mover and helped the growth of populations. In the late 1890’s there were over 80,000 people trips per year at the Brantford station, and 22 passenger trains a day stopping in Brantford. The first six railways were all steam powered –But the next four were all electric powered railways. (aka “RADIALS”) The Electrics provided all the convenience of steam engines, plus they were not dirty and smoky. They also had another advantageas their power was distributed, “trains” could economically be just a single car - which meant more frequent service. Single car “trains” meant they could operate in tighter circles – such as city streets.

The BSR began service with its inaugural run in Sept. 1886, as a horse-drawn railway with its barn in West Brant. It seems to have had some start-up problems ‘by the cars quite frequently running off the track’. But it wasn’t too long before a local newspaper was able to report “yesterday not one of the street cars left the tracks”. In 1893, the BSR was converted to an electric railway - the first in Brantford. It was a new-fangled & effective way of moving people to & from all parts of town – Brant Ave., the GTR station, West Brant, Eagle Place, Holmedale, and regular service to Mohawk Park. The BSR had a very interesting history. 1905 - “practically out of business”; merged with the Grand Valley Railway 1914 - bought by the City of Brantford and the final run of the electric cars was January 31, 1940, as a result of another evolution – buses.

The Grand Valley Railway The GVR line was incorporated once again with a grand name - the Port Dover, Brantford, Berlin & Goderich Railway - but then it became the simpler Grand Valley Railway focused on interurban service between Brantford, Paris & Galt. The GVR and the BSR merged in 1905 and except for the Brantford to Paris line, the GVR ceased to exist. It was a scenic line for a short while.

The Brantford & Hamilton Electric The B&HE was created as a connector from Hamilton through Ancaster to Brantford to provide superior passenger service. It also provided express package service. 1907 - 1931

The LE&N – The Lake Erie & Northern
1911 – 1955 PASSENGER SERVICE -- 1961 FREIGHT SERVICE  The LE&N (as it was called) became the “Port Dover / summer beaches” train. In 1921, it carried 609,000 passengers on its routes from Galt - Brantford - Port Dover. While PASSENGER traffic was glamorous, the LE&N was mainly a FREIGHT operation as a feeder line to the main CPR operations.  But, like its earlier cousins, the LE&N was instigated by commercial interests in Brantford who wanted greater access to the main east-west lines of the CPR and the American lines through Waterford – and access to US business across Lake Erie. 


LE&N electric service came to an end in 1961 when CPR starting using diesels on what remained of the LE&N network - and with that, the electric railway era in Brantford ended. Like the TH&B, the LE&N became somewhat of an icon - and is remembered as ‘one of the speediest and most impressive electric interurban lines’.  The LE&N lives on - mainly as hiking & biking trails along its railway right-of-ways from Galt all the way to Port Dover and parts along the Grand River still provide great scenery. Unfortunately, its ‘UNIQUE’ iconic Union Station was demolished in 1958.