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 The next nine paragraphs are from an unpublished manuscript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 3½ 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
"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, 3½ 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 3½ 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
"As we have seen, Shanly had built “3½ 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
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