The Railways of Ottawa
Findings of the Circle - Part 4

Finding No. 25 Updated 26 October 2003

Rails for the Bytown and Prescott Railway

Over the years, a number of authors have repeated the myth that the Bytown and Prescott Railway did not order enough rails to complete its line between Prescott and Ottawa and was forced to lay down maple timbers covered with iron straps, known as snake rails, in order to complete its line.  Our research has concluded that this is not true and the basis for our conclusions is set out below. The next nine paragraphs are from an unpublished manuscript on the history of the Bytown and Prescott Railway by S. Robert Elliot.

"Shanly still had to build 3 miles of timber causeway to bridge a swamp some fourteen miles north of Prescott, i.e. between Spencerville and Kemptville.  This causeway was to earn a place in the mythology of the road.

"President (of the Bytown and Prescott Railway) John McKinnon went over to London, England, in February, 1853.  There he persuaded the Ebbw Vale Iron Company, a London based firm with large mills north of Cardiff, Wales, to sell him 5,400 tons of iron rails, together with the necessary fittings and spikes.  This rail was a standard “inverted ‘T’” pattern, i.e. American not British.  The Ebbw Vale had earlier sold the same pattern to the Ontario, Simcoe and Northern, which was building north from Toronto.  Delivery was to be in two shipments; one half in the autumn of 1853, the rest in the spring of 1854.  The first shipment arrived in Quebec in September 1853, the remainder shortly after the break-up in 1854.  Walter Shanly did not stay to see the iron laid.

"Tracklaying began in Prescott Yard on May 1, 1854.  An engine for the iron train arrived on the 19th (it came over the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburgh).  Main line tracklaying began the next day under Resident Engineer D. Wicks.  By June 21 the iron had reached Spencerville; the date that the bridge over the Nation River had been completed is not recorded.  Tracklayers reached Oxford Station some time in July and Kemptville on August 19.  The people of Oxford County celebrated the latter occasion with an excursion and a picnic dinner. Completion to way points beyond Kemptville is unrecorded until November 3, when the track reached Billing’s sawmill in Gloucester Township, 3 miles from Bytown.  On November 14 rails were reported at the Montreal Road, just east of what is now the Rideau Street road bridge.  On Christmas Day, 1854, a work train reportedly reached the Rideau River. Service into Bytown itself began on December 29th.  Bytown became Ottawa on January 1, 1855; the Bytown and Prescott became the Ottawa and Prescott.

"A colourful story is told of the first train to Ottawa.  The company allegedly ran out of iron rails.  So as not to keep his supporters waiting, Robert Bell is said to have laid some 3 miles of 3x4 inch maple timbers and sheathed them with iron to carry the first train over this makeshift line on Christmas day “to the astonishment of its (Bytown’s) inhabitants”.

"The practice of running light equipment over strap-iron sheathed timbers was known in the very early rail era.  It had not lasted long, and fastenings holding the strap down soon worked loose and the strips of iron would spring upwards as the wheels passed over them and pierce the floors of the cars.  These “snakeheads” posed a serious risk to passengers as well as offering equal risk of derailments.  The use of such primitive technology had virtually died out by mid-century. It would certainly have been opposed by Sims because of the dangers. (Alfred E. Sims was Shanley’s assistant who took over from Shanley when the latter resigned).

"Why this story is suspect is that not one of the newspapers in Bytown or any other interested centre seems to have carried any story of this event or, indeed of any celebration to mark the arrival of the train at Bytown on Christmas day.  Admittedly, the files of contemporary newspapers are incomplete. Even Bell's own "Citizen" published during Christmas week made no mention of the line.  Had there been some makeshift arrangement such as wooden rails, he would doubtless have sought to reassure his readers firstly that the rails were safe and secondly that they would be replaced as soon as possible.  Further, had such an installation been made and subsequently replaced some mention of the replacement and possibly the costs could have been expected to appear in the local press.  Articles written about the line in local and technical papers in later years would surely have commented on such a retrograde construction practice.  Nor was there any mention of such an event in a book of reminiscences written by Sir R.W. Scott, one of Bell's associates but not one of his most ardent admirers.

"There is no valid reason, assuming that all the iron ordered from the Ebbw Vale Iron Company in Wales arrived - and there is no evidence that it did not - that the company would have been short of rails.  The Imperial or "long" ton is 2,240 pounds.  One mile of 56 pound to the yard rail weighs 88 tons.  For the 54 miles, 4,752 tons would be needed, leaving 648 tons for yards and sidings; just over seven miles worth, and the first sidings totalled only 2 2/3 miles.  Shanly was too good an engineer to have made a mistake of the magnitude of 308 tons.  In fact, all his other estimates for the line show he was conservative, invariably leaving himself a safety margin.

"The story appears to owe its origin to Myles Pennington, one of Canada’s earliest rail “buffs”.  In his book, “Railways and Other Ways” published in 1894, Pennington talks also of riding this temporary track at “50 miles per hour” and his concern lest he pay a “sudden visit into the backwoods”.  Apart from the speed, about twice the time-table limit for the line, even as early as 1854, the area of Hurdmans, which is where this substitution would have been, was hardly backwoods.  Rather, it was well settled farmland.

"As we have seen, Shanly had built “3 miles of causeway” in Edwardsburgh Township in order to bridge a swamp.  It is this section that Pennington had traversed - well after its completion.  His tale, told some 40 years after the event (and, incidentally, 29 years after Bell, his host had left the railway), is at best a colourful but inaccurate story told by a master - but aging - raconteur."

Pennington’s book is the earliest mention of the strap rails and, although it adds considerable colour to his story, writers and historians in the hundred years since have seized upon it and perpetuated this error.

In his book, “The Ontario and Quebec Railway” (Mika Publishing, 1984), Donald M. Wilson says (p. 77):

“It is not surprising that there was a shortage of rails.  A simple calculation will show that the quantity of 5400 tons ordered was only sufficient for 54.8 miles of track, exclusive of any sidings and/or trackage in the Prescott yard.”

However, it is Wilson who has made the error.  To come up with the figure of 54.8 miles he has used the short ton of 2,000 pounds which we now use in North America.  At the time, and to this day in the United Kingdom, the long, or Imperial ton, of 2,240 pounds was used and this confirms the calculations of Robert Elliot.

So we conclude that the snake rail myth makes a great story but we are certain it is not true.

Updated 26 October 2003

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