The Railways of Ottawa
Findings of the Circle 

Finding No. 25 Updated 10 May 2020

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 The next nine paragraphs are from an unpublished manuscript on the history of the Bytown and Prescott Railway by S. Robert Elliot.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 3 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 road.

"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, 3 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 3 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 Shanly’s assistant who took over from Shanle 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 farmland.

"As we have seen, Shanly had built “3 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
Myles Pennington - Railways and Other Ways: Being reminiscences of Canal and Railway Life During a Period of Sixty-seven years; with Characteristic Sketches of Canal and Railway Men, Early Tram Roads and Railways, Steamboats and Ocean Steamships, the Electric Telegraph and Atlantic Cable, Canada and Its Railways, Trade and Commerce.  Williamson and Company 1894. It was published when the author was 80 and some 40 years after the event described.

The story is found on pages 146 and 147
"Among Canada's early railway pioneers, I must not forget genial, pleasant, humorous Robert Bell, manager of the Prescott & Bytown (Ottawa) Railway. who must have passed through such an ordeal in building a railway as no man in all railway history ever passed through. It would require many chapters to tell the story, but I can only refer to two or three incidents  connected with it, as told me by Mr. Bell himself. After getting his track laid within three or four miles of Bytown, he found himself stuck for want of rails ; the P. & B. Company's coffers had long been empty and there was no chance of raising any more funds. Then some of the people of Bytown jeered at Mr. Bell and pointed the finger of scorn at him ; said he had got to "the end of his tether,"and was stuck in the backwoods with his railway without a terminus. This raised the ire of the manager, and, like the emigrant crossing the plains to California in the early days, who when his wagon broke down, chalked upon it the inscription, "I'll get through or bust," Mr. Bell, inspired by some such feeling, said: "I'll get through to Bytown yet in spite of 'em," He set to work, secured a lot of timber, and laid a wooden railway for the remainder of the distance, merely putting a strip of hoop-iron on the top of the wooden rails ; and in a short time he entered Bytown on his locomotive in triumph, much to the astonishment of the inhabitants."
"One winter's day Mr. Bell ran me up from Prescott to Bytown on a locomotive at 50 miles an hour, and over that wooden track ; and I freely confess that I was mighty glad when we got through in safety without paying a sudden visit into the backwoods."

Because 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 Prescott yard.”

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.

A further point to note is that Walter Shanly, in his 26 July 1851 survey report on the Bytown and Prescott Railway indicated that the line would be 53.12 miles long and that the rails required would be 100 tons per mile.  The amount of rail ordered was 5,400 tons. At 56 lb per yard this works out to 2000 yards of rail per ton - with 240 yards per mile available for sidings.

So we conclude that the snake rail myth makes a great story but we are certain it is not true.

26 October 2003 updated 10 May 2020

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