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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada

"Canada's Earliest Railway Lines"
by Robert Brown
Bulletin of the US-based Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, 78, 1949, pp 49-63

Comments/contributions regarding this or any urban legend are welcome at:





Canada's Earliest Railway Lines

The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad, completed in 1836, is generally recognized as having been the first Canadian railway and it was the first to use steam locomotives but, if we simplify, the definition of a railway as a prepared roadway having two parallel rails, to support and guide the wheels of vehicles, then we can carry the history back to a much earlier period.


The earliest line of which, we have any knowledge was a a short tramway built in 1720. or shortly after, in connection with the building of the old French fortress of Louisburg, in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately not a great deal is known about it; contemporary French records are still preserved and were quite garrulous about such matters as the conversion of the Indians, the quarrels of petty bureaucrats and complaints about heavily padded expense accounts but they were strangely silent about many important things that would interest us to-day. The famous dry-dock, near Sackville, where the early Acadians repaired and wintered their fishing and trading schooners, is a good example of the difficulty of finding relible [sic] information. The dock can be seen to-day: indeed it could-be used to-day if more conveniently located but no one knows when it was built nor by whom.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which awarded to England most of the coast of North America, including the former French possessions on the mainland of Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland, was a major disaster to the French colonial empire, as it gave England the means of blockading the only route to New France (Canada). France retained only Cape Breton island and, on the bleak and desolate shore of that island, the French commenced to build the supposedly impregnable fortress of Louisbourg to guard the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Most of the material for the building of the fortifications and the new city bad to be brouht from France or from other parts of Acadia or from New France but, at nearby Cow Bay, a coal mine was opened in 1720 to supply fuel for the city and a few miles back in the interior, where the Mira River flows through a beautiful, sheltered and fertile valley, the French established a number of fine farms, a naval dockyard, a brick manufactory and opened several gypsum quarries to supply the mortar and plaster needed.

A few years ago, the older inhabitants of the Mira Valley could point to the embankments and roadbed of an ancient tramway which they thought the French had built to bring gold down from the slopes of Mineral Rock Mountain, across an extensive swamp, to the river
bank, and this story was corroborated by some of the older descendants of the original French "habitants". However, if any gold was found there, and that is doubtful, it could have been carried away in a miner's


pocket, and a careful examination of the site shows that the roadbed actually extends from the river, back to several very old gypsum quarries, which apparently have not been worked for nearly two hundred years.

Was it really a tramway or just a road? No documentary proof has been found but mine tramways were built in France at least as early as 1680, there was a pleasure railway in the gardens of the Chateau at Versailles in 1713, the best French engineers were employed at Louisburg, the surviving remains of the roadbed and the local tradi-tion all point to the possibility and probability of the existence of this tramway from about 1720 until the destruction of the city following second siege of 1758. The Louisburg papers, in the Public Archives of Canada, have not been completely examined and catalogued yet and it is possible that contemporary proof may be found eventually ....

 Herb MacDonald
46 Raymoor Drive, Dartmouth, NS, B2X 1G7

The broad subject matter is the possible use of some type of rail line at Louisbourg (or environs) some time prior to 1758. "Rail line" can be interpreted quite broadly as long as the two fundamentals are present:
rails (presumably of wood) as opposed to a roadway (regardless of the roadway's surface), and wheeled carts that run on the rails (regardless of whether flanges on the wheels, edges on the rails, or lots of good
luck keep the wheels on the track). Whether motive power was men, horses, wind, steam locomotive, or a nuclear reactor is another
irrelevant issue.

You're probably thinking you have the "nut case" of the week if not the month at hand so before going further I should attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of both the questions to come and the questioner.

Coming out of research which has focused on pre-1850 Canadian railways (particularly in the Maritimes) and has included a St Mary's MBA thesis on Nova Scotia's first locomotive-powered railway (the Albion Railway built in Pictou County at the end of the 1830s by the General Mining Association), presentations at the three "Early Railways" academic conferences held in the UK since 1998, and publications in both Canada and the UK, I am attempting a comprehensive examination of all pre-locomotive era (ie pre-1836) lines that existed or have been credited with existing in Canada. This is ultimately for publication in either Canada or the USA or perhaps both. Perhaps I can further affirm my own seriousness by mentioning that for 2000 and 2003 I received awards from the Canadian Railroad Historical Association for best article published in those years in their journal, "Canadian Rail."

Treatment of railway history in Canada has tended to equate "railway" with "locomotive." While there is much better reason for doing this in Canada than in the UK, one result is that very little attention has been paid to our pre-locomotive era.

Over the past half-century, the source which has probably been most influential in shaping what little has appeared since 1950 in Canada and beyond about the Canadian pre-1836 period is a paper by Robert Brown of Montreal published in the "Bulletin" of the US-based Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Issue # 78, 1949, pp 49-63.

In that paper, Brown suggests the possible use of a tramway, ie carts upon rails, at Louisbourg. I've attached a scan of his section on L'bourg so you can see exactly what he had to offer. (It's a .tif file and you may have to save it and open it with something outside your email system.) Brown's content is critical because it is the earliest reference I've been able to find about such a possible rail line.

Missing from the scan is the content for footnote 1. That note cites C.W. Vernon, "Cape Breton, Canada, at the Beginning of the 20th Century," Toronto: Nation Publishing, 1903. (Despite Brown's reference to this book, I should add a sub-note to advise that it does not contain
any mention of either rail lines or gypsum quarries serving pre-1758 Louisbourg.)

Brown's '49 paper, like his other work, served a useful purpose and merits recognition. But in general terms, that work often raises problems about both detail and interpretation - usually the product of  his sources used, not used (he generally was very weak in use or pursuit of primary sources), or not identified at all.

As to his L'bourg content, Brown did admit to the absence of any documentation but accepted the physical evidence that he intimates he saw plus the "oral tradition" on the Mira as being enough to make his

Could his case have any merit???  On instinct I doubt it and my instinctive reaction is bolstered by several other factors.

(1)  Were there an "oral tradition" in the vicinity of the Mira at time when Brown might have encountered it (that being between 1919 and 1949), one would have thought it might have worked its way into some of the 19th century work on Cape Breton. I've done some digging without result though I don't consider that I've exhausted the possibilities. But two
things do stand out. 

(a) I ran the idea by Robert Morgan while he was still at the Beaton and he'd not encountered any hints of rails in any form during the French regime. 

(b) In the early-mid 19th century, if there had been any man on Cape Breton who would have been interested in hints of a 18th century tramway, it would have been Richard Brown Sr, the original General Mining Association manager of the company's various Cape Breton pits. During his tenure (1827-1864) the GMA built tramways at Sydney Mines, Bridgeport, Little Bras d'Or, Lingan, and Victoria and later introduced locomotives on its more important lines. Given his background and presence on CB for nearly 40 years, I suspect that he might have encountered any oral tradition floating about regarding an 18th century tramway. But neither of his books on Cape Breton mention anything even though his 1871 "Coal Fields and Coal Trade ..." does provide some background on pre-1758 mining activity. This absence of reference is of course far from proof of the non-existence of a pre-1758 rail line. But it warrants consideration as part of the "evidence."

(2)  Though I haven't been able to identify and contact a recognized authority on early rail lines in France, I have had opportunity to discuss the idea of a L'bourg tramway with the authority on pre-1815 UK railways, Dr Michael J. T. Lewis. He's an industrial archaeologist at Univ of Hull, Yorks, and author of the definitive work on the subject ( "Early Wooden Railways," London: Routledge, 1970). Lewis indicated that he was not aware of any use of rail-based transport by either the French military or in French mines in the pre-1758 time frame. His judgment is perhaps not totally authoritative on early rail lines on the Continent, but I feel it trumps Brown's undocumented assertions about tramways
existing in pre-1750 France. In the absence of any known use of rails "at home," Lewis questioned the reasonableness of any assertion that such a line would have appeared in a French colonial setting overseas - unless one had been built by "foreign" i.e. non-French workers who had used some type of railway in their own home setting....