The network of Canada's railways covers almost every conceivable type of topography, from the level plains, to the mountain
passes of the Rockies. In the more than 140 years since the first railway ran in Canada, the development of this network has involved vast numbers of
engineering projects, among the most spectacular of which are the great bridges, which carry the rail lines over rivers, lakes and valleys. A
considerable number of these bridges date from the nineteenth century, although in many cases the original structure has been rebuilt to handle
heavier trains and increased traffic of the present day. Foremost among these nineteenth century bridges is the Victoria Bridge at Montreal,
constructed in the 1850's, rebuilt in the 1890's and still in use. While the construction of the Victoria Bridge is one of the great success
stories of mid-nineteenth century railway building, another, and even longer bridge, of the same period, offers an example of a spectacular
failure. This latter bridge, almost forgotten today, was 2.6 miles long, possibly the longest ever built in Canada, and almost double the length of
Victoria Bridge. This ill-fated structure was the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway bridge across Rice Lake.
In 1850 the aspect of Canada's transportation was just starting to enter its period of great change; the railway age. Until the late 1840's the most dependable, albeit seasonal, was by water, and up until 1848 the Canadian and British governments had spent huge sums on a network of canals in Canada. Although railways had been on the scene since 1836, the early lines were mostly intended to supplement existing waterways, and it is only after 1848 that the value of the railway development got under way, the lines spread rapidly, and within ten years the Grand Trunk main line was essentially completed and the transportation map of Canada was irrevocably altered by this new, fast system, which could operate in all seasons. Among the places adversely affected by the coming of the railway were the old towns, on both river and lake, which had once handled freight shipments by water, and which now were threatened with being bypassed by the railways. One such town was Cobourg on Lake Ontario, which had once shown promise of rivaling Toronto, and was even then in the process of erecting a large new city hall, which stands to this day. With the coming of the railway, the citizens of Cobourg realized that they would lose much business, unless they too had a railway going inland from Cobourg, so making their town the point at which goods and passengers could be transferred from the boats, and from the projected Grand Trunk, to a northbound railway for travel to the interior. Thirty miles North of Cobourg lies Peterborough, and this was a logical initial destination for such a railway. Accordingly, in 1852, an act of the Legislature of the Province of Canada was passed incorporating the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway Company, and authorizing the construction of the line. The first sod was turned at Cobourg on February 9, 1853, the ceremony including a parade, ball, and torch-light procession. The citizens of Cobourg celebrated this event, which was to bring even greater prosperity to their town in this era of great progress. No doubt the line would soon have been completed to everyone‘s satisfaction had it not been for one great obstacle. Midway between Cobourg and Peterborough lies Rice Lake, situated squarely in the path of the intended railway. Going around the lake would have unduly lengthened the route, so it was decided to carry the track across the lake by means of a timber bridge, which would be one of the longest yet built in the world! The lake is shallow, the bottom consisting of black mud in a semi-liquid state, which supported much growth of wild rice, but which afforded no support to piles. Beneath the mud is a layer of hard, compact sand, and below that, clay. Even at the start there were dire predictions from persons who knew the lake, that the planned bridge could not stand up to ice in the winter. However, expediency overruled reason and construction began on the project of which a contemporary writer said, "A greater engineering or commercial blunder can scarcely be found in the Canada‘s". The contract for the construction was awarded to Samuel Zimmerman, contractor, builder and self-styled "railway king", whose death, in the Desjardins bridge collapse of 1857, was one of the contributing factors of the depression which set in later in the decade.
The bridge crossed from the south side of Rice Lake to Tic Island, a distance of 3,754 feet. From there, for the next 2,760 feet there was a series of wooden cribs 10 feet by 20 feet at 80 foot intervals filled with stone and carrying a superstructure of "Burr's truss" spans. At the channel was a swing bridge giving two 50-foot passages when open. The remaining 6,728 feet to the north shore consisted of a pile bridge like the first, except strengthened by crib work filled with stone. The entire bridge was 13,676 feet long, and required 184,000 feet of piling, 782,000 feet of timber, both square and round, in the crib work, and 1,932,000 feet of square timber in the bridge itself. In addition the bridge trusses required 250,000 lbs. of iron while, 20,000 cubic yards of stone were used in the cribs. Total cost was about $l75,000 which was a large sum for a structure on a short pioneer railway of the 1850's. In the sections built on piles, the piles were driven with great difficulty into the hard sand. While it was intended to penetrate through to the underlying clay, it was found so difficult to drive the piles (each blow drove it two inches at the most) that in most cases a depth of ten feet into the sand was judged to be sufficient. In the centre of the lake the hard bottom is about 40 feet below high water, pile driving to the clay was not even attempted, the stone in the cribs being deemed heavy enough to support the piers of the truss bridge. This judgment, like the bridge itself was unsound, as was to be painfully apparent before very long. To be strictly fair to the promoters of the railway, the bridge was not intended to last indefinitely, but only until sufficient fill could be dumped around it so as to convert it into a causeway. It would have been better if this had been done at the start, however such a crossing might have been so costly that it would have killed the project at the outset, and by starting with a bridge, the thought was that the fill could be placed over the next few years as revenue permitted.
Work on building the Cobourg and Peterborough continued during 1853 and 1854. During construction it became apparent that costs were greatly in excess of estimates, and a dispute arose between the directors of the company and the contractor. A shortage of material and outbreaks of sickness among the workers also complicated matters. Eventually the directors agreed to dispense with the services of Mr Zimmerman and continue the work themselves. The Rice Lake bridge was completed in the summer of 1854, and the line pushed on towards Peterborough. Despite difficulties with the bridge, the line was opened in December 1854 and amid much rejoicing, the inaugural train, hauled by locomotive "Cobourg", newly built by James Good of Toronto, pulled the first train into Peterborough. The following year two additional locomotives, "Alma", named after the recent battle in the Crimean War, and “Peterborough" joined the fleet. These locomotives were also built by James Good. In addition two passenger cars, 82 freight cars, and five work cars completed the equipment. All were, of course of 5 ft. 6 in. gauge which was then the standard "Provincial gauge". The line was scarcely opened when the ice began to play havoc with the new bridge. Ice two-and-a-half feet thick, formed on the lake, this tended to buckle under the alternate heating of the bright sun and cooling of the cold nights. Furthermore, when the lake level rose the ice would lift too and pull the bridge with it, pulling out the inadequately driven piles. Although this effect had been noticed during the winter of 1853-54, at that time only part of the bridge was in place, but by 1854 the total effect was much worse, with the entire bridge subject to the moving of the ice. The worst damage was caused on January 1, 1855 when a massive shove moved two parts of the bridge in opposite directions, creating a seven foot gap. This of course stopped operations, but was eventually repaired and the spring of 1855 saw the bridge still in service but twisted and shaken and pushed out of line in many places. There is no record of the speeds of trains on the structure, but they must have been VERY slow. It takes some imagination to picture the scene of a 4-4-0 wood-burning locomotive hauling two light wooden passenger cars over the undulating twisting line. The creaking, pitching and swaying must have been incredible enough to cause seasickness in the most experienced sailor.
By the start of 1856 the total cost of the line was almost a million dollars, and revenue was not sufficient to pay, even the working expenses and bond interest, as money was being constantly spent to keep the bridge in repair. In 1867 the line was leased to a mister D. E. Boulton who appeared to be somewhat more successful in management. However just at this time, the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway obtained authority to build a branch line to Peterborough from Millbrook on their main line. This branch was opened on August 18, 1858, was only three miles long, and was more dependable than the Cobourg and Peterborough. As a result the latter‘s traffic fell so much that the bond-holders foreclosed on the line in the same year, and through-service was discontinued. However, one last attempt was made, in 1860, to revive the line and replace the bridge with an embankment, this was also unsuccessful, and finally, in 1861, the ice completed its destruction and the bridge was swept away, never to be rebuilt. So ended the through railway from Cobourg to Peterborough, and for some years the only connection to Peterborough was by way of Port Hope.
However the whole story was not quite ended. In 1865, what was left of the railway was sold for $100,000, and the following year it was amalgamated with the Marmara Iron Works, to form the Cobourg Peterborough and Marmara Railway and Mining Company. By 1870 total trackage was 25.5 miles including a physically-separate branch to Blairtan, the site of considerable mining operations. In the 1870's most other railways which had been 5 ft. 6 in. gauge converted to standard 4 ft. 8.5 in., however the C P and M could not afford to make the change. By the mid eighties it and the Carillon and Grenville were the only broad gauge lines left in Canada, and this situation continued until 1889, when the former Cobourg and Peterborough lines were abandoned. As the railway was 5 ft. 6 in. gauge to the end, it is likely that the original locomotives survived until then when they were no doubt scrapped having served for 35 years.
So ended the story of a railway which had been conceived with such optimism and which proved such a disappointment. It is difficult to tell what might have happened if circumstances had permitted the building of a more substantial bridge across Rice Lake. Would this now have been a main connecting link in one of Canada's major railway systems and would Cobourg have become a large railway junction, or would the line have suffered the fate of so many other branch lines in the later twentieth century? This is difficult or impossible to say, but it is true that the Cobourg and Peterborough achieved three distinctions; it built the longest railway bridge in Canada. Portions of the line were among the first to be abandoned in Canada. The remaining part of the line became the "second-to-last broad gauge". Although the project failed to achieve its objective, the construction of such a long bridge was a good example of the spirit of the railway pioneers, a spirit which in so many other cases pushed railway lines on to success and helped to build the network which helped to bind together the nation.
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