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Feb. 20, 2020 | Thursday
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History Unveiled: The history of Queenston’s railways
One of the Beltline's rail cars pictured in 1916. (Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum/Supplied)

When a six-year-old relative visited Italy this past spring, she enjoyed, among other things, the food, (real pizza and pasta in all sorts of sizes) and the gloriously huge statues.

What truly struck her, however, was travelling by train. She loved going from place to place quickly, and ending up very close to an interesting place. She wondered why this doesn’t happen in Canada.

Automobiles, buses and even bicycles may be the chosen mode of transportation today, but had my young relation lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, she would have seen that there was indeed a complex and efficient railway network that brought many travellers to Niagara, including the village of Queenston.

In 1835, the Erie and Ontario Railway Company finally had its application to construct a line from Chippawa to Queenston accepted by the government. Incorporated by Alexander and John Hamilton, 6,000 shares for the project were sold, raising 75,000 pounds ($375,000 Canadian equivalent). The application had been submitted as early as 1831, but William Hamilton Merritt, the Welland Canal Company, and the military opposed it.

The route between Chippawa and Niagara Falls opened in 1839. The Niagara Falls to Queenston portion came later, in 1841. In spite of the large sum raised through the sale of shares, the government of the day contributed a further 5,000 pounds to finish the project. When the railway opened, Queenston was a village of about 300 people, a population similar to today. Unlike today’s quiet community, there were three stores, eight taverns, a wagon maker, blacksmith, baker, four shoemakers, and one tailor serving the village.

The rail line ran parallel to Portage Road, eventually moving away from the river toward the Queenston Quarry. Because the slope was gentler, it descended from the Escarpment very near the point where today’s Concession 2 meets York Road.

The station in Queenston was located at the corner of Front and York streets. The incline in the village was steep, so visitors and goods were transported from the Queenston dock by horse and carriage to the railway station.

This railway, the first in Upper Canada, came into use before the age of steam. The carriages were similar to ones used on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in England. It was, in fact, a horse-operated tramway.

The line was really useful only in the summer. Eventually, it had to close because it was unable to compete with the Welland Canal’s ability to carry large quantities of freight between the lakes.

By 1854, steam trains were being introduced to Niagara. The railway companies, which included the Great Western, created spur lines to the Queenston Quarry, which provided building materials for the Welland Canals, as well as gravel as ballast for the ships. The steam-driven railway, however, bypassed Queenston.

In 1892, the Niagara Falls Park and River Railway was incorporated. Like its horse drawn predecessor, it ran from Chippawa to Queenston, and used single cars.

This was an electric railway. The company built a steam-driven generating station on the riverbank south of the dock in Queenston to provide the power.

The land for the rail bed was provided by Niagara Parks. This track ran closer to the Niagara River and along the rim of the Niagara Gorge. The track moved slightly inland in order to descend the Escarpment although there were two steep and sharp 180-degree curves that the trains had to negotiate to get to the Queenston dock. From there, ferry connections took goods and passengers through Lake Ontario and east.

Although usually reliable, there is a story of a power failure. In 1901, passengers were forced to walk up the Escarpment to Victoria Park in Niagara Falls where they were attending a picnic. Fortunately, the power was back by the time the visitors were ready to return to their ferry back to Toronto.

The next development in Queenston’s railway history came with the 1899 opening of the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. At the same time, the Upper Steel Arch bridge opened near the falls. Both bridges had railway tracks, allowing the creation of a circular route.

In 1902, the Niagara Falls Park and River Railway became the International Railway Company. It billed itself as “the most magnificent scenic route in the world.” It carried no freight traffic at this time. Tourism was paramount on what became the Great Gorge Route or the Niagara Belt Line.

Capt. John M. Brinker of Buffalo came up with the idea of building an electric railroad through the Niagara Gorge on the American side of the river. He believed that riding along the gorge on an electric train would be a tourist attraction.

After five years of operation, the Great Gorge Route was running trolley cars through the gorge every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The Great Gorge route closed seasonally between March 1 and April 30. In its heyday, an average of 200,000 people took the journey annually.

On July 7, 1915, a major accident occurred on the line. There are many reports on it and the details differ. Over a dozen people were killed.

A storm had ended a Sunday picnic on Queenston Heights. More than 150 people were crammed into a car built for 84.

As the train moved down the hill, it gained speed. Although the passengers thought that this was part of the experience, the car was out of control, and it derailed. Some reports said it hit a tree.

The trolley motorman and the general manager were arrested for “slack observance of rules.” These charges were later withdrawn, however, when it was determined that the cause of this accident was a broken brake rod.

The event gave the villagers of Queenston their “Come From Away” experience long before 9/11. They looked after the injured and invited others to rest in their homes.

In 1916, the line was rebuilt. The engineers tested the quality of the track by sending a car without brakes down the Escarpment. It successfully reached the bottom. This is the route now used by walkers and cyclists.

The Great Gorge Route ceased operations on the Canadian side in 1932 due to declining ridership and the rising interest in bus and automobile travel. The American side continued until 1935, when a rock slide destroyed some of the track.

While the story of rail travel is important in Queenston’s past, the village remains, much to the relief of its inhabitants, a small community on the banks of the Niagara River. Had the story of the railway been different – an attempt to build major railway bridges occurred in 1847, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1866 and again in 1873 – a more urban, industrial Queenston would probably exist today.

There are many books about Niagara’s railways including those by George Seibel, John Jackson and John Burtniak, and Andy Panko and Peter Bowen. The Niagara Railway Museum in Fort Erie also has a wealth of information.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: