Ottawa and New York Railway

Looking south to Toll Gate Road, Cornwall, 1999.  Original whistle post still erected by the rails.

Looking south to Toll Gate Road, Cornwall, 1999.  Original whistle post still erected by the rails.

The Ottawa & New York Railway has a long history behind it. The project was founded by Member of Parliament Dr. Darby Bergin and Joseph Kerr, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, with four different proposals for a route out of Cornwall, each one would have ended at Sault Ste. Marie where a link with the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway and Northern Pacific Railroad would be made. When a charter was granted on May 17, 1882 to create The Ontario Pacific Railway, the company was granted the rights to build “from a point at or near the Town of Cornwall, in the Province of Ontario, running thence through the Counties of Stormont, Russell and Carleton to the City of Ottawa; thence through the County of Carleton to a point at or near the Village of Arnprior; thence through the County of Renfrew to a point at or near the Village of Eganville; thence along or near the valley of the River Bonnechere, (crossing over the height of land which divides the waters of the River Ottawa from those of the Georgian Bay by the route which may be found most firectly available,) by way of Lake Nipissing to a point at or near the French River, and a spur or branch line from the Town of Perth or the Village of Smith’s Falls.” This also included a bridge over the St. Lawrence River to link with an American railroad (more than likely the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad or Chateaugay Railroad).

Bergin and Kerr would manage to get extensions through the years for the date of construction/completion. In 1883, the main line proposal was extended to Sault Ste. Marie as originally sumbitted to Parliament while the start of the Smiths Falls/Perth branch was moved from Cornwall to Newington and extended to Almonte while a second branch was added to run from Douglas to Pembroke. In 1884, an amendment was made to the bridge at Cornwall so that it could be planked for the passage of horses, carriages and foot passengers along with trains. 1885 saw an amendment that allowed the OPR to vary their route between Cornwall and Eganville, likely due to survey problems through Ottawa, which would explain the 1887 amendment that mentioned a new branch from the main line at Manotick into Ottawa. Unfortunately due to several problems in acquiring funds and support, The OPR was never built. For a total of fifteen years, the charter sat dormant and became the subject of ridicule by political opponents. To Bergin’s disgust, he watched as the CPR built a branch out of Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie along most of the proposed OPR route west of French River. To the public, The OPR was no longer a viable company, but that was not how Bergin saw things. Bergin continued to do anything to bring his railway to a reality. Kerr would still remain a backer to the company, but had grown tired of the stretched out problems so he focussed his attention on his family businesses in Farren’s Point. Bergin’s stubbornness did pay out in 1896 when on a train ride from Ottawa he met Charles Hibbard, an American railroad owner that was interested in expanding his line into Canada. They had struck up a conversation that continued in the following months by means of letters going back and forth from their offices until they hammered out a deal.  The OPR was given a second chance but by the time the deal was finalized Bergin had passed away.  Luckily, his brother John would gain the position of company president to continue the dream.

On May 21, 1897, The OPR was renamed The Ottawa & New York Railway, reflecting in its name the purpose of the road and its route, to go from Ottawa to Cornwall, cross the St. Lawrence River and join with the American partner line that would have access to New York City. Although that was eventually built, there was no change in the charter so by rights The O&NYR could still have been built along the proposed OPR route to Sault Ste. Marie. Construction of the line finally began on August 23rd and it was quickly done, due to the land being mostly flat. Only one major obstacle stood in the way, the river at Cornwall. Although the bridge system would be difficult to build, it was not impossible. In Ottawa, specifically Hawthorne, the line crossed John Booth’s Canada Atlantic Railway. Booth was a hard man to deal with and for a time, it looked as if the O&NYR would have to find a new way into Ottawa, but by the end of 1897 a decision was made and the O&NYR crossed the Booth line and ran parallel to it until it got to the Hurdman area.

Unfortunately, the building of the bridges and the line cost more than what the company had figured. To help keep the line in existence, Hibbard had purchased the Canadian company and dropped “The” from the official title on June 13, 1898. From this moment on, the company known as O&NYR remained only in name as operations were now headed by the American owners. The line opened on July 29, 1898, running from Cornwall to Ottawa and for a time the company used the Sussex Street Station that was owned by CPR. The Ottawa stop was then moved to the St. Patrick Street Bridge crossing due to the Rideau River bridge being unfit for passage. After deals were made with CAR, O&NY moved into Central Station. At that time, the bridges were not completed yet over the St. Lawrence and it would be another two years before the crossing would be used. On September 6, 1898, the south channel bridge collapsed, killing 15 workers, when one of the piers on the American side gave way. This delayed opening of the crossing until October 1, 1900, when the first train made an official crossing over the bridges, linking the two rail lines on each side of the border. Cornwall Island had the distinction of having their very own station as well, called Uscan (signifying the USA and Canada crossing). On June 23, 1908, another bridge collapse would occur in Cornwall, but this time it was the north span and involved the swing portion over the Cornwall Canal. A break in the canal wall had eroded the ground under the supporting pier, causing it to collapse. O&NYR, although owned and operated by its American partner, lasted on paper til December 20, 1957. It’s rails were abandoned, officially, on March 22, 1957 (the last train ran the line on February 14).