Fuelled by Wood

Canada Atlantic Railway No. 10 at the head of a very long excursion train in November 1886. Not only is the wood piled high in the tender but the second car is carrying wood to replenish the tender. 

It is common knowledge that most early Canadian railways used wood for fuel in their locomotives.  In fact, the large diamond stacks, so constructed to reduce the emission of sparks, was a common feature used on many locomotives at that time.  However, the way in which the railway was run as a result of using wood fuel is not so well known and I will examine here some of the implications.  I will use the Ottawa area for my example and the information has been gleaned from an extensive review of the Ottawa papers.

Before the Railway Opened 

Wood provided a good source of fuel for locomotives but it quickly burns through.  Consequently the supply in the tender had to be replenished frequently and so the railway needed to provide large stocks of wood at short intervals in order to keep its trains running.  Fortunately, thick forest covered the Ottawa area and one of the first things a settler had to do was to clear his land.  A railway coming through the area would provide a source of cash from the farmer’s wood lot. 

Even before the railway was opened the type of fuel used could be controversial. On 10 December 1874 the Ottawa Citizen reported on a meeting of the Ottawa County Council (Quebec):

“Mayor Campbell here stated that he understood the Warden, at a meeting of the Directors of the Northern Colonization Railway in Montreal, had voted in favour of having all engines constructed on the road for burning coal.  He wished to be informed in the matter.  If such were the case, in his opinion, the Warden was deserving of censure for such a disregard of the interests of the county.  When the company's agents were advocating the granting of a bonus by the county to aid the project, one of the strongest and most effective arguments in its favour was the representation that a market for thousands of cords of wood would be found in the company itself.  In fact, people of the county were lead to believe that all the surplus firewood along the route would be purchased at advanced rates, which would almost pay the interest on the tax.

“The Warden stated that he did vote for the motion, for the reason that it was represented to him that if the engines burned wood, the company would refuse to take wood to Montreal and other markets where high prices could be obtained for it.  Another reason why he thought the course pursued was a prudent one was because the county had little enough wood for its own consumption, and that if the engines were to be supplied with it, within a few years, instead of having wood to sell, the ratepayers would be forced to buy their supplies at advanced and ruinous rates.”

This, somewhat convoluted discussion covers both sides of the economic benefits of burning wood.  Not only would there be a benefit to the local economy of selling wood to the railway for their locomotives but markets would open up for firewood in the larger centres such as Ottawa/Hull and Montreal.  The report also suggested that the countryside would eventually be denuded of available supplies of wood.

The supply of fuel loomed large in the plans of a railway planning to commence operations:

From the Ottawa Free Press of 20 August 1890:

“The Pontiac and Pacific railway are sending down an engine and flat cars with cord wood down to the Gatineau Valley road in order to enable them to commence laying rails at the junction of the line with the C.P.R.”

The Renfrew Mercury of 1 December 1879 reprinted a story from the Pembroke Observer.

“The railway shed here is now finished, the smoke stacks now being all up.  An immense quantity of cord wood is also being brought up by the company for the use of the locomotives, which is piled up alongside the track in very large quantities.”

The first train of the Canada Atlantic Railway to arrive in Ottawa was a train containing locomotive wood.  The arrival of such a large amount of wood at one time caused quite a stir.  The Ottawa Free Press reported on 8 September 1882:

“This afternoon about 2 o'clock the first train of cars containing about 180 cords of fire wood reached the city by the Canada Atlantic.  The train numbered eighteen cars and was loaded in the township of Cambridge.  It is a mixed wood and is intended for the use of the company.  As an instance of what will be done on this road in the future it may be stated that the men in charge commenced to load up at 8 o'clock this morning and discharged the load at Elgin street by three p.m. - in seven hours time.  The road runs through an excellent and well wooded country, and even in this respect alone cannot fail to be of great service to our citizens the coming winter.”

Not to be outdone by the competition, the Ottawa Citizen sent a reporter to Elgin Street who wrote, the following day:

“The city and the Canada Atlantic Railway may be congratulated on the progress which that last named corporation is making in the vicinity of Elgin Street.  The company is now laying its sidings, erecting its water tanks, laying down a turntable for the use of locomotives, and putting up other works.  The framework of the engine house is also in course of construction and will accommodate several engines.  On their ground is now to be seem an immense pile of cordwood, about two hundred cords, which came in yesterday from the township of Cambridge by a train of eighteen cars.  This shows in one out of many ways what good the Canada Atlantic Railway will be to the city of Ottawa, for the line runs through a fine district of woodlands sufficient to supply the city of Ottawa for many years to come.  The firewood now lying at the station was at eight o'clock in the morning lying at the side of the track in Cambridge, and in the afternoon of the same day was unloaded on the west side of the Rideau Canal.  In the construction of the Canada Atlantic road there is a prospect of cheaper fuel for the city for some time to come.”

Day to Day Operations

There seems to have been a difference in approach as to how the wood was obtained by the railway companies.  The St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway seems to have obtained lumber from piles placed by local farmers at the side of the line.

This is presented with the permission of, and thanks to, Tom Patterson.  It illustrates a number of Edmondson sized card “wood tickets” that were used by the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, and presumably its predecessor, the Ottawa and Prescott.  It appears that the locomotive engineer would stop at a convenient wood pile and take the wood he needed.  He would then give the owner one of these tickets which could then be redeemed for cash at the company offices.  There is a different ticket for each locomotive (Josiah Robinson, St. Lawrence, Lady Lisgar and Thomas Reynolds being shown) and the tickets are printed with a consecutive number for accounting purposes.   The system was retained after the St. Lawrence and Ottawa changed over to coal although now this would have been a purely internal one for accounting purposes.  The lower three tickets illustrate this, the left and centre tickets being wood tickets that have been overwritten for coal while that on the bottom right is a ticket expressly printed for coal.  The St. Lawrence and Ottawa was subsumed by the Canadian Pacific in September 1884 so it is likely that this system was used until the end of its independent existence.

The Canada Central Railway used a different system.  It established a series of wood stations and contracted out the supply of wood to them.  This was carried out by wood trains which had a separate connotation in the railway timetables:

Rule No. 20.  No construction, Wood or other irregular Train must leave a “turn out” in the morning unless sure that all the Night Trains have passed, and they must be off the Main Line fifteen minutes before any regular or signaled Train is due, and await its arrival, unless duly signalled or specially ordered to the contrary.

(Canada Central and Brockville and Ottawa Railway Timetable No. 6 commencing Monday, Jan. 11, 1875.)

The Renfrew Mercury of 27 August 1880 gives some insight as to how the Canada Central was supplied with wood:

“Messrs. John Kemp (a Carleton County Councillor) and Wesley Cherry of Stittsville, have the contract for cutting wood on the line of the Canada Central.  They have been at work a month now, and have got nicely started into the 8,000 cords to be cut up, having gone through some 1,200 cords.  The following are places where  wood is stored viz.:- Ottawa, Stittsville, Ashton, Carleton Place, Franktown, Smiths Falls, Perth, Irish Creek, Bellamy's, Arnprior, Renfrew, Haley's, Cobden and Pembroke.  The machine used is a patent one.  It is called the "Firefly."  Some thirteen men are kept in constant employ.  A boarding house on wheels, a car stable and a flat car for the transport of the wood cutter, form the contractor's stock.”

This allows an opportunity to analyse the operation of the railway:





Carleton Place











Carleton Place













Carleton Place








Smiths Falls










Smiths Falls



Smiths Falls

Irish Creek






Irish Creek














The maximum distance between wood stations was 23 miles and the minimum was 5 with an average of 11 miles.   Although it is possible that some of the stations were omitted from the account, it is clear that the maximum distance that could be travelled between taking on wood was little more than 20 miles and this had a significant impact upon timings and schedules.

The Pontiac Pacific Junction and the Canada Atlantic also ran wood trains. [1]

No matter the method, finding, cutting and taking on wood was labour intensive.  This was often a benefit to the economy as it provided continuous employment for many.  From the Ottawa Free Press of 22 February 1876:

“Work for the Poor.  We referred some time ago to the commendable action of the C.C.R.R. authorities in having their wood cut by hand this winter, instead of by machinery, as formerly.  The work having been completed here last week, the men were removed to Bells Corners, where they had an opportunity of cutting up 312 cords of wood at 35c per cord.”

The Effect upon Schedules

The Bryson Equity of 25 February 1886 describes a round trip over the newly opened Pontiac railway:

“Two gentlemen, bent on a pleasure trip to the capital, left this village at 5.40 and arrived in Shawville, (the present western terminus) at 6:45.  At 7:00 sharp the signal was given to start.  The road from Shawville to Quyon is not yet ballasted, consequently the progress between these two points was rather slow, and a considerable amount of time was also lost in shunting cars, but with all this the Quyon was reached at about 9:00 a.m.  The road from Quyon to Aylmer is ballasted and in good condition, and the progress from this point was much more rapid, the run being made in one hour and 15 minutes, including three stoppages.  Nothing of any importance occurred, with the exception that, at a point where the road turns in close proximity to Deschene Lake, some of the cordwood on a truck between the engine and passenger car commenced to fall off on the track, but owing to the care and watchfulness exercised by the officials, prompt measures were taken to remedy what might have resulted in a serious accident.  The party reached Ottawa at about 11:30, and after pleasantly spending the time at their disposal, took train again for home at about 5:00 p.m. reaching Aylmer 35 minutes afterwards,  At 6.00 p.m. the signal was given, "All aboard'" and the P. & P. J. train started for Shawville.  The run from Aylmer to Quyon was made very rapidly, in fact, one of our county residents, whether it was that he had never been on a train before in his life or not, I cannot say, but he asked the question seriously.  "Is the Bullgine running away."  The time actually taken between Aylmer and Shawville was two hours and thirty minutes, deducting from this thirty minutes for stoppages to wood, leaving two hours the actual time between Aylmer and Shawville, a distance of about 40 miles, arriving at Shawville at 8.30.”

Stopping for wood took 30 minutes of the 2 hour journey in the evening.  In the morning while there was an additional delay because the wood had been improperly secured and began to fall off.

On the Brockville and Westport Railway passengers were expected to assist in wooding up, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen of 11 September 1888:

“The Brockville and Westport Railway takes eight hours to run about forty miles from Brockville to Newboro. Every time the train goes out it has to stop to take down three fences built across the track, much to the amusement of the American visitors; and every now and then they make the passengers get out and help wood up.”

Some people welcomed the additional time afforded by wooding up as reported by the Renfrew Mercury of 23 August 1878, reprinting from the Smiths Falls News:

“On Friday last, as the one o'clock train for Brockville was just going out (of Smiths Falls), several parties went into the freight shed at the depot and the baggage master Earle, not knowing of their presence in the shed, and having duties elsewhere, locked the door and went off.  Shortly after a great racket at the door.  Mr. Bayley was near at the time, and inquired what the matter was, when the prisoners made known their distress.  They were passengers by the train and were in danger of being left behind.  Mr. B. started for the key, but the chaps, fortunately discovered another door which they could unbar inside, and caught their train while she was taking on wood.”

The Change to Coal Burning

While cheap supplies of wood could be obtained locally the railways were content to use them.  However, the availability of wood, began to dry up and there was the ever present cost of frequent stops to wood up together with the fact that coal, the replacement, had a higher calorific content and was susceptible to mechanical handling techniques.  The local railways changed to coal as follows:

St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway – June 1875 [2]

Canada Central Railway – January 1881 [3]

Canada Atlantic Railway – by September 1887 [4]  (some wood burners were retained after this date while the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway stayed with wood for a little longer because it traversed an area where wood supplies were plentiful)

Pontiac Pacific Junction Railway – February 1893 [5]

The immediate impact of this change was a reduction in travel times as set out in the Equity, Shawville of 2 March 1893:

“A change in running regulations has been made by the Pontiac Railway Company by which the regular daily train is run on considerably shorter time between Fort Coulonge and Ottawa.  The changes took effect on Monday of this week.  The saving in time amounts to 35 minutes on the train going east and 25 minutes on the up train going west, thus the tedious delays at stations will be almost altogether done away with.  According to the new regulations, the arrival and departure of the trains at the Shawville station will be as follows:

Morning train going east - arr. 8.36 dep 8.40
Evening train going west - arr 7.22 dep 7.30

Even here The Equity could not resist a dig at the railway as it finished its comments:

“Here we are reminded that the Railway Company are rather too economical with their disbursements for printers ink, otherwise they would place this information before the public by having their timetables published in the local press, as all other railway companies do.”


It made eminent sense for railways to use wood for fuel in the Ottawa area where the supplies were readily obtainable.  Many relied upon supplying the railway as a useful source of additional income.  However, wood fuel was labour intensive, it created some logistical problems and significantly slowed down schedules.  Over time, supplies became difficult to obtain and there was competition from coal which the railways could bring easily and cheaply into Ottawa.  Although area railways had made the change to coal by the mid-1890s the last coal burner on Canadian National was not retired until 1926. [6]

And so the wood burning locomotive with its diamond stack was replaced by the coal burning locomotive, and with it there came a new invention known as the coal scoop.  Apart from bailing coal with it, I have used a coal scoop to cook bacon and eggs and defend myself from a fellow worker armed with an offensive weapon (another coal scoop) but the Brockville Recorder of Friday 21 June 1895 describes another use for the coal scoop:

“There was not a little excitement at the C.P.R. dock Monday afternoon over the loss of a 48 pound cheese, which in being unloaded from the steamer Massena, slipped from a truck and rolled into the river.  There is about fifteen feet of water at about the point where the boat lay and as the cheese sank like a stone, it looked as though Capt. Dana was out the price of the lost box and its contents.  He was not however, as Harry Trussell and some of his companions fished it up by the aid of a coal scoop and some pike poles, and sold it back to the agent for $1.25.”


[1] Ottawa Citizen, 16 November 1883; Ottawa Free Press, 10 October 1884; The Equity, Shawville, 6 August 1891.
[2] Ottawa Citizen, 23 June 1875; The Times, Ottawa, 24 June 1875.
[3] Ottawa Citizen, 1 January 1881.
[4] Ottawa Free Press, 21 September 1887.
[5] The Equity, Shawville, 2 February 1893.
[6] Ottawa Journal, 26 March 1926:  “The last of the old wood burners on the C.N.R. system, which went to the scrap heap under her own power recently.  John R. McIntyre, who retired after 56 years’ continuous service with the company was the first and last engineer to handle this pioneer of the steel.” This is accompanied by a picture of 2194.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, May 2007.

Unfortunately footnote No. 6 was omitted from the May Branchline and I prepared the following letter in clarification which appeared in the June 2007 Branchline.

Reconfigured: In my article "Fuelled by Wood" in the May 2007 Branchline, page 9, there is a reference to the last wood burning locomotive owned by Canadian National being retired in 1 926. Don McQueen has pointed out that this was #21 94, a 4-4-0, which was referred to in the media as a wood burner but was, in fact, the B-1 3-a 269 (its last GTR road number), a coal burner reconfigured to make it look like a wood burner. It is doubtful whether CN ever had any wood burners as most Canadian locomotives would have been converted to coal by about 1900.

Unfortunately the source for the statement about wood burners was left out of the article. It came from a picture in the Ottawa Journal of 26 March 1926: "The last of the old wood burners on the C.N.R. system, which went to the scrap heap under her own power recently. John R. Mclntyre, who retired after 56 years' continuous service with the company was the first and last engineer to handle this pioneer of the steel." This is accompanied by a picture of 2194. [Colin J. Churcher, Ottawa, Ontario]

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