Local historian Joan Weston wants Tillsonburg to rehabilitate the Kinsmen Pedestrian Bridge across the Stoney Creek ravine.
The railway bridge, originally built in 1877, was converted to pedestrian use after the tracks were lifted in the 1970s.
In a delegation at the May 25 virtual Tillsonburg council meeting, Weston made presentation on the history of railways in town – and a plea to preserve the bridge.
“For over a century, Tillsonburg owed much of its prosperity to the five railroads that serviced the town,” she said.
In mid-November 1872, Weston said a 1,400-foot long, 118-foot high Otter Creek bridge over the current golf course (The Bridges) was completed on the Canada Air Line railroad, a subsidiary of the Great Western Railway. It began operating from Windsor to Fort Erie in 1873.
“At the time, it was the second highest, longest bridge in the whole Dominion of Canada,” Weston noted.
Within three months, Canada Southern began operating regular freight and passenger service on its steel double-track line through what would be the north end of town, parallel to the Canada Air Line.
Tillsonburg, which was not incorporated until 1872, had been unable to entice the railways to pass directly through the town.
“In July 1873, town council and the citizens of Tillsonburg realized their misfortune in not having lines from the two existing railroads run through town, so they voted to pay the Brantford Norfolk and Port Burwell Railway $10,000 to run their line through Tillsonburg. Eight thousand dollars came from the citizens and $2,000 came from (E.D.) Tillson.”
That railway travelled south into Tillsonburg, passed under the Canada Southern line, heading south to the east of Lisgar Avenue, turned west through town (hence the overhead bridge on Broadway) to cross a rail bridge built over the Stoney Creek ravine (where Participark is now located), and then south again (through what is now Hickory Hills).
“E.D. Tillson’s private spur-line railway was completed in 1894 and allowed all of the goods from his cereal factories in the Otter Valley to be shipped on the major rail lines,” said Weston.
The Tillsonburg Lake Erie and Pacific Railway was completed in 1902, transporting coal from the docks at Port Burwell to the major rail lines.
“The Black Bridge was constructed over the Otter in 1897, so the line could run through town on the way to Ingersoll.”
The Brantford Norfolk and Port Burwell Railway bridge, now known as the Kinsmen Pedestrian Bridge, was the focal point of Weston’s presentation.
“Needing to satisfy their creditors, in February 1877 the Brantford Norfolk and Port Burwell Railway officials leased its rail to the Great Western Railway in perpetuity,” she said. “The Great Western company seized the opportunity to create a loop line from Brantford to its Canada Air Line track at Tillsonburg Junction where the trains could be routed east.
“To cross the Stoney Creek ravine, a timber trestle bridge was constructed in 1877.”
The cement foundations are still being used today.
“Ten years later it (timber) was replaced in 1887 with the steel bridge which is still in place.
“The final 2.4 miles of track out to Tillsonburg Junction opened in December 1878… connecting to Great Western’s main east-west Canada Air Line.
“In the summer of 1878, Tillsonburg’s Great Western Railway station – one of the most beautiful ever built in Canada – was completed. The station was the centre of a very complete railway terminal. This terminal gave welcome employment to a great many people – station and freight shed staff, train crew, engine shed workers… and telegraph operators.”
Daily 6:50 a.m. passenger trains from Tillsonburg headed to Brantford and returned in the evening.
“The Stoney Creek bridge was integral in carrying freight trains, passenger trains and even circus trains, east or west, through downtown Tillsonburg for almost 100 years,” said Weston.
The tracks were lifted in the mid-1970s, she said, and soon after the Tillsonburg Kinsmen Club installed hemlock decking over the Stoney Creek bridge, adding braces and light posts to create a walkway over Participark.
“In 2006, 1.5 kilometres of the trail following the old railway bed from Rolph Street … was named Veterans Memorial Walkway. There is no question that the bridge has remained a functioning and integral link from the downtown to the subdivisions west of the ravine for over 40 years.
“The bridge is indisputably a part of the fabric of Tillsonburg – worthy of heritage status. It cost CN only $640,000 to rehabilitate the Otter Creek bridge over the golf course a few years ago. That bridge is older, much longer and much higher than the Kinsmen bridge. Is there no way to rehabilitate the Kinsmen bridge for less than the cost of a new bridge?” Weston asked.
“Much of Tillsonburg’s charm lies in the presence of its historical buildings and structures. What is remarkable is that there are still tracks in operation from two of our original five railroads, all four original bridges are still standing, as are three of the four original railway stations. What other town can make the same boast? Tillsonburg almost equals St. Thomas for the title of Railway Town. We were a total railway town – we owe our prosperity to the railways, there’s no doubt about it.
“We need to hold on to what makes Tillsonburg a unique and interesting place to call home.
“I’m sure railway enthusiasts across the province would be thrilled to try to help keep the original bridge,” said Weston. “That bridge has done its work for (130-plus) years every single day ferrying people or freight across that ravine, it’s just so much a part of the town, the town’s heritage. That’s how I feel.”
Thanking Weston for the presentation, Coun. Chris Parker noted that council has not had formal discussions about “getting rid of the bridge” or “the repairs.”
“It was just a report that came to us about it,” said Parker, referring to a staff report that came to Council in March identifying the need for repairs.
At that time, Council voted to have staff report back with additional steps or information to help advance the project.
“So there has been no discussion about any of that,” said Parker. “I definitely appreciate you coming (virtually), I just wanted to make sure that you were aware that we hadn’t discussed any of the options yet.”
Mayor Stephen Molnar, thanking Weston for the educational presentation, suggested she reach out to the Tillsonburg Kinsmen Club to also share her presentation with them.