The Pontiac and Renfrew Railway
The Railway to the Bristol Mines

Location map showing the Pontiac and Renfrew Railway in red.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the territory in the Ottawa valley was explored extensively for minerals and a number of sites were found with rich deposits of iron ore.  One of these was in Bristol township in the province of Quebec between Quyon and Shawville.  A mine was first opened at Bristol Mines as early as 1873 but, right from the start, transportation, or lack thereof, caused significant problems.  The mine changed hands a number of times and by December 1884 some sixteen men and three spans of horses were at work mining the ore which was drawn by teams across the ice of the Ottawa River to Braeside (four miles) where it was put on rail.

Transport by team was expensive and was only feasible in winter when the ice on the Ottawa River was sufficiently thick to support the waggons.  The company planned a horse railway from the mine to the Ottawa River and then a steam barge to transport the ore to Braeside.  However, transport to Braeside was expensive and ate up all of the profits, and the company approached the Pontiac and Pacific Junction Railway (P. & P. J.) to ascertain its plans and route from Aylmer to Quyon and on the Shawville.  The P. & P. J. was a little reticent about its routing plans but a survey of a branch line to connect with the P. & P. J. near Wyman’s, also known as Billerica was undertaken in mid 1885. 

Although the P. & P. J. opened between Aylmer and Shawville in March 1886, there was no indication that it intended to build the short branch to the mine.  Nothing was done in 1886 although by July 1887, work started on the construction of a smelting works  and some 50 men were employed at the mine.

The Bristol Iron Mining Company was incorporated in September 1887 and started negotiations with the P. & P. J. regarding a 4¼ mile branch to their main line.  Although the ore was of good quality, the mine was forced to close down in February 1888 because of the lack of transportation.  The company took the matter into its own hands and incorporated the Pontiac and Renfrew Railway.  This was a federal charter, S.C. 1888 c. 66, with powers to build from a point between Braeside and Arnprior in Ontario to a point on the P. & P. J. near Quyon, Quebec. 

The Pontiac and Renfrew Railway secured a 66 foot wide right of way and started construction in August 1888.  Very quickly, the timber for the trestles was laid out on the ground and 150 men were at work grading the roadbed.  Meanwhile, the three shafts at the mine had filled up with water and were not touched until after the railway had been completed.  The grading and trestle work was completed by the end of October 1888 but there was now another delay as no rails were available.

Another winter went by and the steel rails were not shipped until May 1889.  They came from Liverpool, England, on the steamship “Ontario”.  A frog was laid in the P. & P. J. main line in early June, the rails were laid by early October and the Pontiac and Renfrew placed its own locomotive on the line in late October 1889.  The company was anxious to obtain a supply of cars for their shipments and Mr. Van Horne, of the Canadian Pacific Railway agreed in early November, to supply sufficient cars to allow the company to ship iron ore to Pennsylvania.  The routing was to Aylmer where the P. & P. J. handed over to the C.P.R. for movement via Ottawa and Prescott.  Shipments commenced in mid November 1889 at the rate of 100 to 130 tons daily.

This picture was taken after the mine had been closed and abandoned for a number of years.  The steam locomotive can be seen in the distance stood outside the engine stall.  Unfortunately nothing more is known about this locomotive.  Modified from National Archives PA-17861.

This is a plan of the mine showing the track arrangement and the main buildings.

The Bristol Iron Mine had a chequered history.  The mine was shut down frequently in the next few years and the company also changed hands several times.  The engine house was destroyed by fire in early 1891 but a new building was optimistically built in April of that year.  It seems the ore was last shipped from the Bristol Mine some time in 1894.  After that time there were occasional rumors that the mine would be reopened but they remained rumors.  The mine and the branch line lay untouched until 1915 when the rails were lifted as part of the war effort.  After the rails had been lifted, it was decided in early 1917 to ship out the remaining ore which had been left on the ground for at least twenty years.  It was hauled out with teams to a point of the main line of the P. & P. J. near Wyman’s where it was put on rail. 

The Pontiac and Renfrew thus operated, for freight only, from November 1889 until 1894, and only intermittently at that.  Only the section from the mine north to the P. & P. J. was constructed and there was never any real intent to bridge the Ottawa River and connect with railways in Ontario.  However, the roadbed was ultimately put to good use.  The C.P.R. Hilton Mines spur was opened  on 17 December 1956 using the original roadbed of the Pontiac and Renfrew Railway and this lasted until closure on 29 March 1991.


Bryson, The Equity:  9/11/1884; 2/12, 6/4, 6/18, 7/30/1885.
Hull, La Vallée d’Ottawa: 2/16/1885.

Ottawa Citizen: 9/10, 9/12/1887; 5/29, 11/18/1889.
Ottawa, Free Press: 6/5/1885; 2/20, 7/21/1888; 8/24/1895.
Ottawa Journal: 5/18, 7/7, 7/23/1887; 10/9/1888; 5/29, 11/22/1889; 11/20/1896.
Renfrew, Mercury: 12/5/1884; 12/30/1887; 3/22, 11/15/1889; 11/28/1890; 1/23, 2/13/1891.
Shawville, The Equity: 3/1, 7/19, 7/26, 8/9, 10/11, 10/25/1888; 6/6, 11/7/1889; 3/13/1890; 4/23, 11/14, 11/28, 12/31/1891; 3/31/1892; 4/13/1893; 7/21/1910; 2/17/1917. <> 
Public Archives RG 12 vol 1860 file 3268.29

Department of Mines:  Bristol Iron Ore Deposits of the Bristol Mine, Pontiac, Que.bulletin no. 2, magnetometric survey, 1910 RL 82 8c21.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, December 2007.

Follow up letter to the editor of Branchline:

"I have found some additional information about the locomotive illustrated in my article on the Pontiac and Renfrew Railway in the December 2007 Branchline.  The picture used to illustrate this article clearly shows the tender of a steam locomotive but I mentioned that nothing was known about this locomotive. I have now discovered its history.

"Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway No. 6 "Rice Lewis & Son" was a 42" gauge 4-4-0 built by Avonside (serial number 839) in 1871.  It was converted to standard gauge in 1881-2 and became Canadian Pacific #156 in 1884.  There are two illustrations of it being used in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Superior section in 1884-5. It was sold to the Pontiac and Renfrew Railway in 1889 and appears to have received little use there.  I don't know its disposition, but would surmise that it was left at Bristol Mines until the line was dismantled as part of the wartime drive for scrap metal around 1915.

"For this information I am indebted to :

Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada" by Omer Lavallee - second edition (2005), page 22.
Narrow Gauge Through the Bush by Rod Clarke (2007), page 163.
Canadian Pacific Steam Locomotives by Omer Lavallee, 1985, page 232.
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, September 2008.

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