All Change at Prescott Junction

Taken in August 1861, this is the earliest known railway picture in Ottawa.  Ottawa and Prescott Railway locomotive "Ottawa" at Ottawa, presumably Sussex Street, with Engineer Graham.

The item in a recent issue of The Spareboard talked about the Bytown and Prescott, Railway (B&PR), the first railway in Ottawa, with its connections at Prescott in 1855.  However, the connections at Prescott were not as direct as it may have seemed.

The B&PR was built to provide access to the United States through Ogdensburg and, for this reason, was built to the standard railway gauge of 4 feet 8 inches.  Railcars were ferried across the St. Lawrence River to provide direct freight service to and from the United States.  Passengers and their baggage were also transferred across the river although they did not have the benefit of through cars.

For the first few months the transfer to Ogdensburg was the only travel option available at Prescott because the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was not opened to Montreal until November 1855 while the GTR did not open its line between Montreal and Toronto until October 1856.  Trains to Montreal and Toronto were not available until 11 months and one year and ten months after the opening of the B&PR.

However, even after the opening of the GTR at Prescott, travel from Prescott to Montreal or Toronto was complicated because the gauge of the Grand Trunk Railway was the wider “Provincial Gauge” which was 5 feet 6 inches.  Thus all through freight had to be transhipped by hand between standard gauge and broad gauge freight cars while all passengers with their baggage had to change trains.

Thus Prescott station must have been a pretty busy (chaotic) place with everybody having to change trains or transfer to the ferry.  The situation was alleviated to some extent by the introduction of gauge change cars. These cars had telescoping axles and the gauge could be changed by running the cars through a special apparatus.  I have written about this in more detail in an article for Branchline in July 2003. You can see it on line at:


However, gauge change cars did not become available until 1871, some 16 years after the opening of the Bytown and Prescott.

Just two years later, in October 1873, the GTR altered its main line to standard gauge and resolved some of the problems at Prescott.  It was now possible to run through cars between Ottawa and Montreal and also Toronto.  Traveling was now easier although the two companies did not always see eye to eye and there were still some difficulties.

We very often forget that Ottawa’s first railway ties were not to Montreal or Toronto but to Ogdensburg.  Indeed the first excursion over the B&PR was from Ogdensburg on 10th January 1855.  You can find an account of this on my web site at:

Ottawa Central Railway, Spareboard, December 2007.

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