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Last Updated
April 28, 2012

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Ever since man became involved in the production of goods, he has sought the most convenient and inexpensive method to get those goods to the market place. In Upper Canada as elsewhere, canoes on rivers, packhorses on trails, wagons on roadways and barges on canals where all used to transport various types of commodities. By the 19th century a new form of locomotion made possible by improvements to the steam engine became available. This was the steam locomotive and it promised a means of smooth, fast and efficient transportation of goods. The railroad's major advantage was its capability to transport large volumes of goods over long distances. Unlike canals which performed the same task, the railroad could easily and relatively inexpensively reach into all areas of the province.

For its early promoters the railroad was the means by which the economy of Upper Canada would be pulled into the forefront. All that was needed was men of vision, courage and capital to bring the railroads where they were needed. The railroads thus early on became equated with progress and economical development. It was generally held that a town of any size or ambition had to be served by at least one of the competing railroads if it expected to proper. The choice appeared to be either attract a rail line or suffer a certain economic decline.

CPR Bridge Then
CPR Bridge Then
CPR Bridge Now
CPR Bridge Now (1997)

Businessmen in Galt, Preston and Hespeler were not lacking in ambition and in their eyes, the future clearly belonged to the railroads and to those who built them. Consequently there was no shortage of those who sought to bring the railroad to their communities.

For a few heady months in the late 1840's it appeared that the mainline of the Great Western Railway Co. (GWR) would run through Galt thus assuring the village a future prosperity. When this hope failed to materialize, a group of Galt businessmen, late in 1850 and early 1851, approached the GWR with a proposal. The Galt men offered to purchase $25,000. worth of GWR stock if the company would build and operate a branch line from Hamilton to Galt. The company agreed and construction was slated to begin in 1852.

The agreement was seen locally as having a great significance for the economic development of Galt and the town council was determined to mark the beginning of construction with a major celebration. Extensive preparations were made for the sod turning ceremony and several of the leading men of the province were in attendance with Sir Allan McNab present to turn the first sod. According to contemporary reports, Sir Allan "used his silver spade amidst much cheering, the people being delighted with the prospect of soon seeing the ironhorse snorting through the village".

A grand ball, which has been described as "undoubtedly the grandest affair of the kind which ever took place in Galt and vicinity", followed the sod turning ceremonies. The ball was held in the Commercial Block which had been built for Absalom Shade and which had only recently been completed. Mr. Shade made available the three front rooms on the second floor for the occasion. Two rooms were used for dancing with the third set aside for the supper. In attendance were Sir Allan McNab and his daughters, several of the chief officers of the GWR along with many other distinguished visitors and the leading citizens of Galt and neighbouring communities.

The main line of the GWR opened in 1854 and the Galt branch line was officially opened August 21, 1855. This event too, was marked with great rejoicing and celebration. The platform at the station was crowded at 8:30 in the morning when the first train left Galt for Hamilton filled with prominent Galtonians. Even larger crowds, headed by village reeve John Davidson, were on hand to greet the train upon its return at 11:00 a.m. The dignitaries arriving in the train were escorted to the Queen's Arms Hotel on Queen's Square (now the site of the Cambridge Y.M.C.A.) where about 70 people sat down to lunch and celebrated the historic opening of the Galt branch of the GWR amidst toasts and speeches.

Following the 1851 agreement to build the Galt branch line, another group of businessmen began to lay plans to build a rail line from Galt to Guelph. This project was to be built by the promoters with the intention of then leasing the line to the GWR. On November 10, 1852 an Act incorporating the Galt and Guelph Railway Co. was enacted. The company's promoters included some of the wealthiest men in the area including Absalom Shade, Andrew Elliott and William Dickson Jr. of Galt, along with Jacob Hespeler.

Money for the project was to be raised by the sale of stock secured, primarily, by an agreement with the GWR to lease the line once it was complete thereby guaranteeing its profitability. However with many similar rail projects being promoted, often with less than favourable results, investors were initially reluctant to sign up for stock in the new company. Several public meetings were held to encourage purchase of the stock and a dispute quickly arose between merchants and millers in Galt and Preston concerning the best route for this line. The Galt businessmen wanted the line to run from Galt to Guelph through Hespeler. The Preston businessmen, fearing an economic decline if their village was not on the rail line, insisted on the somewhat longer route from Galt to Preston and then on through Hespeler to Guelph. Jacob Hespeler, though he had moved much of his business activity New Hope, still retained considerable property in, and economic ties to Preston and strongly supported the Preston route. Since the other backers could see benefits for themselves resulting from the Preston route, they tended to support Jacob Hespeler, thus apparently assuring the victory of the Preston route.

It is not entirely clear why the Galt businessmen were so opposed to the Preston route although economic concerns would appear to be the most likely cause. Certainly since it was longer than the route proposed, the line would be more expensive to build. Of greater significance was the increased economic competition that would be provided by Preston goods entering the market place on the same railway cars that served Galt businesses. A railway line that served Galt but not Preston could provide Galt businessmen with an economic advantage that was not easily or lightly given up. Galt merchants feared a loss of business if the line ran through Preston and they were determined to fight it.

Though determined, the Galt merchants were unsure of their next move. When the stock books were first opened, Galt businessmen declined to purchase any shares in the rail line. However they soon realized that if the line was built without Galt representation on the Board of Directors, it would certainly go through Preston. Thus, at the last minute, apparently after discovering the total stock purchased in all the other communities, the Galt businessmen staged a coup by signing up for three times the total stock already purchased, thereby assuring themselves control of the Board of Directors.

Jacob Hespeler, with interests in Preston and New Hope, was equal to the challenge. Upon hearing of the Galt move he arranged for a Henry McCracken, a bar keeper at the Royal Hotel in Hamilton, to sign up for almost twice the total of the Galt controlled stock. With McCracken's proxy in hand, Jacob Hespeler held enough votes to control the election of the Board of Directors. In the end not one of the Galt stock holders was elected to the none member board.

Having now lost the battle, the Galt investors were faced with a serious problem. They were now responsible to pay for the shares for which they had signed but they had absolutely no influence on the decisions made by the company. The Galt investors responded by launching a law suit that charged that Jacob Hespeler's McCracken manoeuver was illegal. The suit was dropped when the Galt investors were released from their obligation to buy stock in the Galt and Guelph Railway Co. This left the company short of funds but after considerable manoeuvering the company was ready to proceed.

A contract to build the line was awarded in January 1854 and the formal sod turning was held in Preston on May 12, 1854. Even with the law suits out of the way the project did not go well and encountered numerous financial difficulties. In the spring of 1855 the GWR finally stepped in and agreed to complete the line. In order to compete with the Grand Trunk Railway, the GWR required a branch line to Berlin (Kitchener) and this was not possible until the Galt-Preston line was built. Thus with the GWR in charge of the construction, the Preston line was opened in December 1856 with the line through Hespeler to Guelph opened in September 1857.

Over the time the hard feelings resulting from the dispute over the route were forgotten as the fear of Galt businessmen about their economic decline proved unwarranted. However the episode is an early example of the rivalry and antagonism that have been an unfortunate aspect of the relationship of Cambridge's founding municipalities. However, it should be noted that it was a rivalry that grew out of the similarities of the communities and which was based on the competition for a larger share of the same finite market. If the market for the communities' goods had been seen as infinite, it is unlikely that the rivalry and resulting antagonism would have developed. There would have been plenty for everyone. However the available wealth was seen as both finite and severely limited and it was commonly held that for one area to advance economically another must decline. Each of the founding communities was determined not to suffer a decline. The rivalry then was based on a common desire to succeed and a common tendency to look at business, industry and the railroads as the vehicles that would bring prosperity. It was then a rivalry, built on similarities, not differences.

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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