The Union Forwarding Company Railway – The First Railway in the Ottawa Valley

The Horse Railway that ran a Royal Train.


This shows the upper Ottawa Valley between Ottawa and Pembroke.  The towns served are shown as is the location of the Horse railway.


Before the coming of the railway, the Ottawa River was the prime way in which in which passengers and freight could be moved from the St. Lawrence Valley to the west.  Steamboats were used on the navigable portions but rapids and falls posed significant impediments to navigation and then portages were required.  One such impediment was the Chaudiere Falls in Ottawa/Hull and the next one west was the Chats Rapids near Fitzroy Harbour.  Three local businessmen, Egan, Aumond and Wright, formed an unincorporated partnership and started a steamer service from Aylmer to Portage du Fort but a portage was required around the Chats Rapids.  A special act of parliament was obtained in 1859 and eventually, the Union Forwarding and Railway Company provided service from Aylmer to Arnprior, Sand Point, Portage du Fort, Pembroke and Joachim.

This is an adaptation of  the 1:50,000 topographic map (Arnprior 31 F/8) showing the location of the horse railway. 
The old track of the horse railway was shown on topographic maps into the 1920’s, some forty years after the line had closed.


A 3 mile railway was built from Pontiac, on the Quebec side of the river across from Fitzroy Harbour, to Union Village on Chats Lake.  It was likely built in late 1846 and was in full operation by June 1847 (almost eight years before the opening of the Bytown and Prescott Railway in Ottawa).  The promoters realized that the line had to be level if it were to be operated successfully by horse power.  It was therefore constructed to run on a level grade from Union Village to Pontiac where live freight, pigs and passengers would use stairs to reach the steamer jetty.  Freight, baggage, pork, flour and provisions were raised or lowered at Pontiac by means of an elevator.  The terrain is very uneven and fill or gravel was unobtainable locally.  However, lumber was growing right alongside the route and it was decided to fill in the gulleys using trestlework.  With no rock work to speak of the trestles were carried high, in some cases as much as 27 feet above the ground.  The wooden rails were faced with iron straps or bars, similar to the ties used on lumber waggons.  Planking was placed between the rails to provide a firm footing for the horses.  The width between rails is unknown although it was likely standard gauge, it was certainly wide enough for two horses to walk, side by side, inside the rails.  The trestlework was quite narrow, there being no guard railings, so narrow that the cars were wider than the trestle, thus giving nervous passengers a harrowing ride.

At Union Village there was direct access to the jetty.  At Pontiac, passengers from the steamers entered a “reception room” and then mounted a flight of stairs to get to the cars.  The luggage and freight was placed on a platform elevator which was raised and lowered by horse power.

The Cars

The cars were four wheeled.  Those used for carrying passengers were constructed similar to a waggon with eight or ten benches seating about thirty people.  They were fitted with a roof but had open sides.  This was not so much of a disadvantage as might have been thought because the line was only operated during the navigation season (May to November) and ran to connect with the boats which would have been mainly at midday or early afternoon.  Cars used for luggage and freight were platform cars with a capacity of six tons.  The cars would likely have been built locally although at least one was brought in from a distance as described in the Bytown Packet of 27 November 1847:

“A rail road car intended for the “Union Rail Road” was drawn through the streets from the wharf to the premises of Joseph Aumond Esq., (one of the proprietors) on Monday last.  The green “on’s” were at a dead stand as to the exact character of the new arrival.”

This probably caused quite a stir because this was the first railway car ever to have been seen in Bytown.

This is the only known photo of the horse railway.  It was taken at Pontiac and shows the steamer Ann Sissons which was used for the royal party. It no longer appears in Company advertising after 1871 and was likely taken out of service at the end of the 1870 season.  In the upper right can be seen a number of horsecars, both for passengers and freight.  In the centre can be seen the building which housed the winding mechanism for the freight elevator.


The cars were run in connection with the Company’s steamers.  Two horses were normally used with each car although one would occasionally suffice.  They could make the 3 mile crossing in about twenty minutes.  The Company prided itself for many years with not having an accident.  Indeed the only accident I have been able to identify took place on 23 June 1874.  A horse pulling a passenger car stumbled through some planking and in endeavouring to extract him, he fell over the trestle.  He was suspended by the traces a long way above the ground for several minutes.  Finally, when it was found impossible to pull him up, the traces were cut and the animal was allowed to fall to the ground where he was instantly killed.

This timetable, dated 15 April 1851, is one of a number Union Forwarding Company advertisements which appeared in contemporary newspapers.  The train and vessel at the top were standard woodcuts that bore no relation to the actual equipment in use.

Excursions over the line

Travellers on the Upper Ottawa invariably used the horse railway and there are a number of accounts. The line was described as giving a smooth ride and the horses were accustomed to going quickly.  Running through virgin forest, the journey was frequently described as romantic, particularly the section alongside Lake Aumond and on those sections where the high trestles took the traveller above the tree tops.  One particularly well documented account arose from The Canadian Press Association meeting in September 1865.  The party stayed overnight in Brockville and took the Brockville and Ottawa Railway through the Brockville tunnel to the then terminus at Arnprior (the section from Arnprior to Sand Point was opened a week later).  The party then sailed across Chats Lake to Union Village, traversed the tramway, and then sailed to Aylmer, thence to Ottawa by cab.  This seems to have been a bit of a drunk from the many descriptions of the dinner parties and carousing that took place and some of the participants were unable to record properly the names of the vessels in which they sailed.

The accounts describe a smooth ride in a sylvan setting through and above the virgin forest over exciting trestles.  In their euphoria the travellers omitted to mention the mosquitoes and blackflies which must have made overland travel miserable. 

The Royal Train

Prince Arthur travelled the Upper Ottawa in September 1860 and again in October 1869.   He travelled on the steamer Ann Sissons to Chats Falls and the following account is a composite one taken from the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail of 14 October 1869:

As the boat neared the landing place at the foot of the extensive buildings of the Forwarding Company, the place was seen to be extensively decorated and a crowd of some hundreds awaiting to welcome the visitor, and cheer after cheer greeted his approach.  If the village is small no one could mistake its loyalty; men women and children turned out in a body, and more than one old white headed pioneer of the North sent his hat high into the air shouting a hearty welcome to the Prince.  Up the steep steps to where the horse cars were in waiting for them the Royal party went, followed by a swarming crowd, who all the while vociferously cheered them.  The first one was neatly decorated with maple leaves and elegantly seated with easy chairs, and in this, having taken their seats, the Royal party proper then set off, at a grand gallop drawn by two noble horses.  There followed a second carriage containing the representatives of the press, and then a third with the Prince's baggage.  The ride is at once very interesting and rather frightful, for the most part the carriages run over a railway raised to an elevation of more than 20 feet, and the first question suggested to one's mind is, what if a restive horse happened to be amongst the teams, for there is no ledge on the track, and to all appearances a very slight disarrangement would trip the whole thing, waggon, and horses, and passengers over into the marsh below.  But though appearances are so threatening, it so happens by excellent construction and an excellent management not a single accident has occurred since the railway beaun to run.  Along the track there are a few arches quite peculiar in their way.  They were live arches, and consisted of pine trees being bent gracefully over, fastened, and surmounted with a crown made of pine branches.  These arches, perhaps, attracted more attention from the Prince than all the other arches put together that have been erected in Canada since his arrival.  In the course of the drive, several lumberers came to the side of the wharf, lifted their hats in a quiet way, and after their simple expression of loyalty had been heartily acknowledged by the Prince, stepped back to their work.  After twenty minutes drive, the cars arrived at Union village where a repetition of the scene already enacted took place.

This is an enlargement of the top right had part of the previous picture and clearly shows the horsecars.


As so often happened in the past, the railway suffered a number of fires.  The first occurred on Saturday 21 September 1860 when “the freight house, part of the wharf and a few rods of the railway” were destroyed at Union Village.  The fire was started by a spark from the steamer Oregon and the loss was estimated at 250 although four or five horses belonging to poor people in the village were destroyed.

The second fire occurred in late August 1870 when about half a mile of the railway was destroyed at the Pontiac end.  A final fire occurred in early July the following year, again destroying about half a mile of the railway.


When it opened, the Union Forwarding Company had a monopoly in this part of the Ottawa Valley.  However, the monopoly was broken with the opening of the Brockville and Ottawa Railway to Arnprior on 1 November 1864 and the extension from Arnprior to Sand Point on 14 September 1865.  Subsequent railway openings between Ottawa and Carleton Place in September 1870 and between Sand Point and Renfrew in December 1872 rendered the steamer service redundant.  The Company tried to counter the competition by promoting tourist travel by steamer and some day excursions were run from Aylmer to Pontiac and back, including a  ride over the horse railway.  However, in early1878 the Company came to the conclusion that there was more money in towing sawlogs and square timber than in carrying passengers, and consequently the regular passenger boats between Aylmer and Pembroke were withdrawn.  The horse railway was last used in late 1877.  

The Union Forwarding Company’s horse railway was the first common carrier railway in the Ottawa Valley and one early traveller commented that it was the only railway within a hundred miles.  Having served a useful, albeit seasonal, purpose for thirty years, the horse railway succumbed to that newfangled invention, the wood fired steam locomotive.


There is one unsolved mystery in relation to the Chats Falls Horse Railway.  The Arnprior Watchman was reported in the Ottawa Journal on 28 May 1892 (14 years after closure):

Strange as it may seem, it is a fact notwithstanding, that the body of the first railway car ever constructed in Canada may be seen lying on an old scow in the village of Quyon, P.Q.  Mr. John G. Watson, our marble dealer, informed us that this is the genuine article, and that an old gentleman, a Mr. Davis, a resident of Quyon, rode in it and is able to relate something of its history.

Four years later the Ottawa Free Press of 20 November 1896 noted:

When in Quyon a (few) days ago Mr. John G. Watson looked up the old railway car there, reputed to be the first ever run in Canada.  From Capt. Davis he learned that what had been said of the car was correct.  It was built in England and was first used in the Maritime provinces; then was purchased by the Union Forwarding Co. for their track on the other side of Chats Lake.  It was nicely, even elegantly, built, but had been allowed to go to decay. 

This would explain how one of the cars came to be moved through Ottawa in November 1847 after the end of the first season of operation, but is seems at this late date that there is no way of verifying or amplifying the details.



Brockville Recorder – 9/7/1865.
Bytown Packet – 6/12 & 11/27, 1847; 2/23 & 4/30, 1850.
Hamilton Spectator – 9/11/1865.
Hamilton Times – 9/13/1865.
Kingston Canadian Church – 9/13/1865.
Newmarket Era – 9/15/1865.
Ottawa Citizen – 6/7/1851; 9/2/1854; 6/14 & 8/30,1865; 7/4 & 9/25, 1866; 10/14/1869; 4/25/1870; 4/20, 5/29 & 7/5, 1871; 6/24/1874; 4/27/1876; 5/3/1877; 8/28/1880; 6/4/1892.
Ottawa Free Press – 6/25/1874; 11/20/1896.
Ottawa Journal – 5/28/1892.
Ottawa Times – 5/22 & 7/5, 1866; 10/14/1869; 8/23/1870; 6/13 & 7/6, 1871; 5/29/1872.
Ottawa Tribune – 10/21/1856.
Ottawa Union – 9/26/1860; 12/2/1862.
Perth Courier – 9/15/1865.
Peterborough Review – 9/15/1865.
Renfrew Mercury – 3/15/1878.
Toronto Globe – 9/14/1865.
Toronto Globe and Mail – 10/14/1869.

Other References
- Robert F. Leggett.  Exerpt Transaction of the Newcomen Society read at the Science Museum, London on 7 February, 1968.
- Union Forwarding and Railway Company Tourist and Travel Guide to the Upper Ottawa 1867 and 1873 (National Library, Amicus 576734 and 5737216.)
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, July/August 2006.

The Ottawa Citizen 8 February 1930 (Old Time Stuff)

Drove Horses on the Pontiac Tramline;
Probably Last Surviving Driver of Line
Horse Walked Without protectionon Board-Walk From 20 to 30 Feet Above the Ground - Thousands Carried in Three years But No One Hurt - Some facts About the Old Connecting Link Between Two Waterways.
When David McClelland was 18 years of age and living at Pontiac village (which does not know exist) he secured a job (1867) as driver of one of the horse-car trains of the Union Forwarding Co. which carried passengers and freight from Pontiac at the head of Lake Deschene, to a point at the foot of Chats Lake.
Mr. McClellan is probably the only driver of those tramway cars still alive. If the are others, both Mr. McClellan and the O.T.S (Old Time Stuff). will be glad to hear from them.
The old Tramway was three miles long and ran for long stretches on trestle work just as a steam railway does. This was because of the unevenness of the country. In some places that cars ranfrom 20 to 30 feet off the ground.
Two horses for used on all cars, but owing to the narrowness of the track, they travelled tandem fashion.
On a plank walk.
The space between the tracks was filled in with three-inch plank, and it was on this plank that the horses travelled.
The trestles work was not fenced in and the horses always stood in danger of falling off. As a matter of fact one or other of the horses did fall off now and again. Sometimes a bird would fly suddenly up from the trestle past a horse's head and frighten it, and it would "shie" off the trestle. But Mr. McClellan does not recall a case where a horse, so falling was killed. Usually the traces supported them and they will hauled back on to the track.
As to the cars.
The freight cars were about 24 ft long and could carry about 50 barrels of pork, or the equivalent of weight in other things.
Cars Carried 50 to 60.
The passenger cars were approximately the same length. The seats were placed crosswise as in a stage and there were curtains to pull down to keep out the wet and cold. The cars were crowded and could carry between 50 and 60 people.
On this tram-line the company-owned three passenger cars and five freight cars.
Mr. McClellan drove on this line till 1870, when at his request the company transferred him to the freight service at Ottawa.
No one hurt.
During the three years that David McClelland drove on the Pontiac line thousands of passengers were carriedt, but not one was ever hurt.

The Ottawa Citizen  2 January 1937 (Old Time Stuff)

Description of a Journey on an Extraordinary Railway.
Having given a fairly lengthy description of the life and works of the late John Egan and hs effort to construct the Chats Canal back in the fifties, O.T.S. has been requested to publish a few facts about the old Pontiac Railroad, which was one of the most amazing examples of railway construction on the whole history of Canada, and which was built for the purpose of transporting boat passengers between Chats Lake and Lake Deschenes. 
For this purpose we can do little better than present a description of this wonderful railway as written by a man who rode over it in 1855 and wrote a first hand story.  The writer was W.S. Hunter Jr.  After describing the Chats Falls and their wonderful beauty, he said:
"It's now time to describe the mode in which this formidable obstruction to navigation  'Chats Falls' is overcome.  On landing from the steamer at the foot of Chats Lake, we find ourselves on a convenient wharf and are presently invited to take our places in an open carriage drawn by two horses, tandem fashion and soon find ourselves traveling at a pretty sharp rot along a railway track.
Was Extraordinary
"This extraordinary railway is built across the barrier of rock on piles of squared trees.  These trees have been laid across each other horizontally and longitudinally in alternate layers until the required height was obtained.  In order that the track may be level it has been necessary in many places to raise the pile of timber over twenty-five feet from the ground.
"There is no railing or fence of any description at the side, but during the several years that this amazing road has been in operation no accident has ever occurred on it, so well has it been managed.
"On arriving at the other end of the railway, which, by the way, is three miles long, we find that we have to descend a long flight of stairs to the wharf below.  These stairs are built in a warehouse belonging to the steamboat company, and are necessary because there is about seventy feet of difference between the level of the railway and that of the river below.  Descending these stairs we find ourselves on a large wharf alongside which lies the Steamer Emerald, etc., etc."
This remarkable tramway, we learn, stopped running in 1877, owing to the C.P.R. having been built into Pembroke.  This was also the last year that the passenger boat "Jessie Cassels", ran to Pontiac from Aylmer. This narrow gauge railway was built away back in the middle forties - when steamboats began to ply regularly bewtwen Aylmer and the foot of the Chats.  Congestion in the transfer of goods overland to the foot of the lake made it necessary.
Remembers Journey on Remarkable Railroad.
One who retains vivid memories of the old Pontiac horse railway which played an important part in the transportation affairs of the Chats Lake district many years ago, is Mr. Ernest Therien, 408 Rideau street.  Writing to O.T.S., Mr. Therien says:
"I doubt if there are many living in the Ottawa Valley today who can say they had a trip on that remarkable old railway.  I once had the pleasure and will never forget it, though I was very young at the time.  Sometimes two horses were used, one travelling ahead of the other in the center of the track.
"The last time I saw that wonderful railway it was in ruins; the high trestles were rapidly decaying and falling apart.  When I lived in Arnprior years ago, we used to cross Chats Lake to this forsaken spot to pick blueberries.
"When the railway was being built in the forties my grandfather, Charles Garrant, was chief cook in the construction camp.  His youngest daughter is still alive and living in Almonte at the advanced age of 88 years."

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Updated with items from the Citizen 3 January 2021