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April 28, 2012

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Railroads in Canada played a significant role in the development of the nation in the 19th century. They formed a physical link between the widespread territories of the new country and they helped to bring "progress" and "prosperity" to many parts of Ontario. These early railroads were embraced enthusiastically by individuals and governments alike and it was commonly held that any town that hoped to prosper had to be served by a least one of the competing rail lines.

As the 19th century progressed, the enthusiasm that accompanied the development of steam railroads carried over to a mode of rail transportation made possible by the advent of commercially available electricity -- the urban and interurban electric railway.

The first application of electricity as a power source for trains occurred about 1885 and progressed so rapidly that by 1900 it was said to have displaced all other systems of city and suburban traffic where electricity was available. As with the steam railroads before them, the electric railways came to be seen as a fair indication of the progressiveness of the municipality they served.

Electric rail transportation in Cambridge can trace its origins to 1890 when Galt and Preston Street Railway (G & P) was organized for the expressed purpose of providing a frequent and low fare passenger and freight service to meet the increasing social and business exchange between the inhabitants of Galt and Preston. At the time this was a most unusual concept, since urban rail traffic was generally restricted to the transport of heavy freight.

The concept appeared to have considerable merit but even apparently good ideas can produce opposition. In this case the opposition came from Preston merchants who felt that the electric rail project would cause them to lose considerable business to their larger neighbour. The project was delayed for about two years and it wasn't until 1893 that Preston Council was prepared to discuss the project. Even then they would discuss it only on their own terms. First of all they rejected a G & P request for a right of way along King Street, offering instead the less used Queen Street (now Queenston Road). This offer was unsatisfactory to the company. After some negotiations, council agreed to the King Street route but only on the condition that the company pay for the opening and grading of a part of Queen Street which at the time was partly closed.

In addition, council required that Preston manufacturers be on a equal footing with Galt manufacturers, that the power house, machine shops and car barns be located in Preston, and that the G & P schedule trains from Preston to connect with all Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) trains arriving in Galt. The company agreed, and in 1894 building on the railway began. Tracks were laid from the Grand Trunk Railway Station in Galt north to Hunter's Corner (now the Delta intersection at Highways 8 & 24) and then west along what is now Coronation Blvd. to Preston.

History of Electric Rail Transportation in Cambridge The arrival of the first electric rail cars to Galt generated considerable local excitement and, according to contemporary accounts, "quite a large crowd repaired to the C.P.R. Station in the evening to await the arrival of the train with the cars. The cars are well equipped and made after the most modern style. Number 23 is a 40 foot car, containing a baggage compartment which takes up 10 feet of space. The seats are finely upholstered; beveled glass windows decorate the ends and the car contains four electric heaters. Fourteen incandescent electric lights with very pretty globes hang from the ceiling and the car has a seating capacity for about 30 passengers. Car number 22 is about 18 feet long, also has four heaters and has seats running lengthwise".

The opening of the electric railway was delayed somewhat because of the C.P.R. overpass on Water Street North had to be rebuilt to allow the electric trains to pass underneath. However, trial trips were begun on July 21, 1894 and the line officially opened five days later thus becoming one the earliest interurban electric trains in Canada and the first in America to offer both freight and passenger service.

The promoters of the G & P, who included Thomas Todd of Galt, the company's first president, were not content with this line alone. In 1895 two additional cars were purchased and construction began on a line running northeast from Preston along the Speed River to Hespeler. This line reached Hespeler in January 1896 and to reflect the change in the company's service, its name was changed to the Galt, Preston and Hespeler Street Railway (G, P, & H).

By 1896, the company was carrying about 35,000 passengers and 1,000 tons of freight each month. It is said that the revenues generated by the freight traffic alone entirely paid for operating the line. The freight traffic ran only at night, pulled by steam locomotive, to allow the generating station to shut down and consisted primarily of coal obtained by undercutting the rates of the Grand Trunk Railway.

In 1894 with the completion of the Galt-Preston line, a charter to build an electric rail line between Preston and Berlin (Kitchener) was granted to Thomas Todd of Galt (President of the G & P), Fred Clare of Preston and J.A. Fennel of Kitchener. For various reasons, the Preston and Berlin Street Railway lay dormant until 1900 when it was reorganized. Construction on the new line began in 1901 at the G, P & H connection at east Preston. From there it followed the G, P & H line to Preston Junction at the entrance to Riverside Park. From there it traveled through Freeport and on to Berlin where it connected with the Berlin and Waterloo Street Railway. The laying of the track was completed by 1902 but initial passenger service on the line was delayed until February 5, 1903. The official opening of the line occurred on August 21, 1903 with normal service in place five days later.

Although the Galt, Preston and Hespeler Street Railway and the Preston and Berlin Street Railway operated officially as separate companies, they were in fact closely connected and were formally amalgamated in 1908 to form the Galt, Preston and Hespeler and Preston and Berlin Street Railway (G, P & H and P & B).

Shortly before this amalgamation, on December 4, 1906, the large main car barn in Preston was completely gutted by fire. Much of the rolling stock, including six passenger cars and two freight cars were lost. Only two passenger cars and some freight cars escaped the flames but with cars borrowed from other electric rail companies, service was back to normal within a few days.

In 1908 the close relationship between the G, P & H and P & B and the C.P.R. was formalized when the latter railway leased the street railways' lines for 99 years. The C.P.R. and the G, P & H and P & B were closely connected with another interurban electric rail line called the Lake Erie and Northern Railway (L E & N). This line originally resulted from a desire for a rail link between Brantford and the Lake Erie town of Port Dover. This line incorporated in 1911, was leased to the C.P.R. in 1913 and was extended from Brantford to Galt in 1916. Although not officially linked, the G, P & H and P & B and the L E & N railways were closely connected, sharing members of the same management team.

In 1914, the Galt, Preston and Hespeler and Preston and Berlin Street Railway, perhaps finding the corporate name somewhat cumbersome, became the more streamlined Grand River Railway (G R R). The name change certainly did not hurt business and interurban electric rail service remained profitable for quite some time. The 1940's saw total freight service at a level that was higher than at any time in the line's history, with 85 cars per day traveling in some areas over track originally intended to accommodate only 42 cars per day. At the same time the L E & N offered 12 scheduled trips from Galt to Port Dover daily with a one way fare set at $1.60.

However, the other modes of transportation began to make inroads into the rail passenger traffic and in April 1950 the Grand River Railway requested permission from the Board of Transport Commissioners to discontinue passenger service. As a result of local protests, the request was refused but business did not improve. In 1955 the company renewed its request to discontinue passenger rail service and this time the request was granted. On April 14, 1955, electric rail passenger service in Cambridge came to an end. Electric freight service continued for a few more years but the end of the local electric rail service same on October 1, 1961 when diesels took over the local freight traffic.

Any discussion of electric rail traffic in Cambridge would not be complete without reference to the Preston Car and Coach Co. This company operated on a site now occupied by the Kanmet Ltd. plant on Margaret Street. From 1908 to 1923 they built electric rail cars reputed to be the equal of any produced by the larger more well known companies. Preston Car and Coach products were made to order to the specifications of the customer and at one time could be found from coast to coast in Canada.

In addition to the electric rail cars which formed the bulk of its business, the company also built a small amount of steam railway equipment and as early as 1914 became one of the early manufacturers of motor buses by building bus bodies on truck chassis.

In 1921 Preston Car and Coach was purchased by American interests and was renamed the Canadian Brill Co. The U.S. parent company was looking to build cars for the Toronto Transportation Commission. Brill required a Canadian presence since the TTC restricted its purchases to Canadian built equipment. The tactic worked and the company secured an order for fifty cars, the largest single order ever built in Preston. Then, abruptly, for reasons that will probably never be clear, the Preston plant closed in 1923.

Now only a handful of Preston Car and Coach products remain on view. Even the majority of the company's product photos have vanished, leaving little evidence of a quite remarkable and efficient, though short lived, company.

We gratefully acknowledge Jim Quantrell, Archivest for the City of Cambridge and the Corporation of the City of Cambridge's Archives Department for their gracious provisioning of the material upon which this page is based (published articles and more) and for allowing us to draw, liberally, on that published material and images in their library!

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