Saturday, October 8, 2016

The railroad on ice


In 1875 the Québec, Montréal, Ottawa & Occidental (Q.M.M.&O.) was founded. This railway company built a railroad North of Montreal, which is known as ‘’le p’tit train du Nord’’. On the South Shore, the Montreal, Portland and Boston Railway Company ran from Longueuil to Newport, in Vermont, and from there it was easy to reach Boston and New York. At some point, the Montreal, Portland and Boston Railway Company was purchased by the South Eastern company.


‘’Railway on the ice over St. Lawrence River, Montreal, QC, 1880’’,
by William Notman, 1880, McCord Museum

The general superintendent of the Q.M.M.&O., Louis-Adélard Senécal, wanted to connect the North shore’s railway network with the one on the South shore. However, at that time there was only one bridge between Montreal and the South Shore: the Victoria bridge. It was owned by the Grand Trunk Railway, which used it for its own needs and was not willing to share it with other railway companies. The Grand Trunk charged $10 to $12 per wagon to allow other companies to use the bridge, which was expensive. As for building a new bridge over the St. Lawrence River, it was not an interesting option, since it required very big investments.

In order to solve this problem, Senécal had a very special idea: to build a railroad on the frozen water of the St. Lawrence River!

Senécal met with engineers, who assured him that the ice is at least 60 centimeters thick in the depths of winter. Such a thick ice can support heavy weights: at 45 centimeters, it can support 25 tons; at 75 centimeters, it is 70 tons.
Because Montreal is located at the foot of the Lachine rapids, the ice is not even on the St. Lawrence River. Thus, the first task for Senécal’s workers was to level the ice. Then, they installed the railroad.

The launch of Senécal’s railway took place on January 30, 1880. The railroad ran from Longueuil to the Hochelaga wharf, near the Iberville street. The new railroad was a big success! American merchants signed contracts with Senécal to convey hay to Boston. Great reviews were written in newspapers and in the scientific press.

The railroad was in use during four years. In 1880, the railway was in operation from January 30 to April 1st; in 1881, from January 5 to April 8; in 1882, only from February 4 to March 4; and finally in 1883, it was in operation from January 15 to April 3.
Only one major accident happened during these four years. At the beginning of January of 1881, a locomotive sank into the water near the Longueuil’s shore! Thankfully, no one died in the accident.

In the mid-1880s, Senécal and his partners were able to sell the East segment of the Q.M.M.&O. and the South Eastern company to the federal government. This transaction was more than enough to reimburse the funds that they invested in the railroad on ice.


©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
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