Smithville, Ontario – Railways

Until the year 1896 Smithville had been without any railway accommodation, nor had the people up to this time the use of the automobile for travel. A short journey had to be taken by horse and carriage, and a long one, by railway after a ride of eight miles on the old stage coach to Grimsby. At last the air became charged with news of the coming of a railway. Would it touch our village? How soon would it come? Perhaps it was just rumor like lots of other things which had been promised to put life into the sleeping old village. Some said: ‘Would it not kill the town?’ Some said it would cut up the farms and kill the cattle. Others said it would never be built. There were those who believed that a railway would be detrimental to Smithville, and some actually canvassed voters against the project. It was the old story of the chronic kickers who oppose every progressive movement. Robert Murgatroyd, Sr., fought strenuously for this transportation facility so much needed by the district. He journeyed several times to Ottawa on delegations relative to its consumation. The route contemplated was to run a mile or more north of Smithville, which was strongly opposed by Mr. Murgatroyd. A bonus by-law of $5,000 was passed by the Township. It has been stated to have carried by the small majority of 9 votes. In advancing this bonus certain concessions were obtained from the Railway Company, guaranteeing a specified number of trains daily each way to stop at Smithville, which was, as was learned later, a wise precaution on the part of the Township. Mr. Murgatroyd was one of the Provisional Directors of the new Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway. And so the work on the cuts and grades began. There were wheel scrapers, slushers or hand scrapers, and plows at work everywhere along the proposed route. There were bridge gangs and workmen of various trades, and skilled and unskilled laborers. A few farmers undertook to stop the construction of a railway on their farms by the use of pitch forks, axes, etc., but in spite of this formidable opposition, the grades began to fill and the cuts to open up a clear view of roadbed ready forties and rails. Soon the track-laying began; work trains loaded with rails, spikes and ties appeared. The rails were lifted by many strong Italian arms and placed into position, followed by the spike drivers, after which the locomotive moved forward foot by foot.

I was not addicted to the habit of playing hookey from school in my youth, but at this time I somehow acquired it, and it seemed to be contagious, as other boys were seen more often at the railway tracks than at school. After all it was an education for us and we no doubt learned more practical knowledge during those days than if we had been at school.

At this time Smithville had an Italian population of over one hundred. The old Lovejoy was packed with Italian laborers and their families. Two Italian children, Pete and Ikey, sons of one of these families attended public school, and sat opposite me in the class room. They were well-behaved youngsters and spent a good deal of their time showing their white teeth in a broad grin of good nature. In order to tease me at home I was called Pete or Ikey. The title of ‘Pete’ did not rile me very much, but Ikey’ was too much. At this I openly rebelled. Ikey; Ikey—just try to imagine yourself called ‘Ikey.’

One day fifty of the Italian workmen decided that they had a grievance against the Railway Company. Working with them were about twenty white men, most of them our own villagers. The Italians declared a strike, hoisted a red flag on a pole, rounded up the Smithville workmen and took them along to the office where a general row took place. This was no doubt Smithville’s first strike.

At last the great day came, when the first train was to pass over the new road, and was the occasion of another morning of hookey, in order to ride a few feet on the big engine that was to pull the first coaches over the new road.

In 1914 a branch line of railway, the Erie and Ontario, forming a part of the T.H. & B. system, was built from Smithville to Port Maitland, touching the town of Dunnville, an important outlet for Smithville to the south. The first T.H. & B. Depot at Smithville was burned by lightning, and the Railway Company has since provided a comfortable depot for the accommodation of the patrons of the road.

Instead of killing Smithville its railway is the big factor which is going to play its part in making our native village into a good-sized, prosperous town.