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Le Courant

Fall 2010 | 12

Coaticook railway

Carmen Perron

The first passenger train arrived at the station in Coaticook on July 23, 1853.
The means of transportation before the arrival of the railway in Canada was very limited: a reliance on river transport or by way of narrow unreliable roads connecting small communities. The Eastern Townships were clearly at a disadvantage conside¬ring the slow growth of the few navigable rivers and the Jack of a road network. Travelling in these early days meant going by horse and carriage or wagon along dirt roads which became all but impossible to use during times of heavy rain or when those roads began to thaw. At this same time, businessmen and politicians in Canada and the United States caught the railroad fever. In their opinion, it became crucial for Canadian and American merchants to make a railroad connection between the volley serviced by the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad to either Bos¬ton (Massachusetts) or Portland (Maine).

Some rivalry existed at the beginning of the pro¬ject as to whether or not the base of operations was to be located at Boston or Portland. It was decided to hold a horserace from Montreal to the two towns. A well-publicized demonstration was organized in 1847 to see which horseman would be the first to reach Boston or Portland. Two postal riders on horseback carrying special mail were to leave at the same time, one from Boston, the other one from Portland and make their way as speedily as possible to Montreal. If the rider coming from Portland reached Montreal 12 hours ahead of the other rider, this town would be the lucky winner. There was also a question about whether or not the train would pass through by way of Stanstead or Coaticook. There were only two roads in Coaticook to connect the town with the outside world in 1842: one road led in the direction of Barnston Corner and the other road led towards Compton. Ri¬chard Baldwin Jr. understood that Coaticook did not have an efficient means of communication in its de¬velopment at this time but through his determination and his close association with the authorities of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, he was able to convince them that the railway should pass by way of Coaticook, even though it was no more than a village. This was how it came to be that Coaticook become part of the Montreal/Portland line. The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad became part of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1859 and later was sold to the Canadian National Railway in 1923 but once again it would came to be called the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad in 1998.
The Growth of Coaticook
It was in the decade following the arrival of the train in 1853 which was marked by the establishment of many new businesses, trade and the building of new homes. Hundreds of jobs were created during the construction of the railway, the construction of new bridges and Cher work associated with the railway or its workers. Even agriculture was given a boost by having the railway pass through the area. Farmers furnished animals, vegetables and grain as well as other food products to sustain the workers during the construction of the railroad. They also fur-nished the wood for the railroad ties as well as the fuel ta burn in the steam engines (until the 1 940's) and, above all, the farmers were able to export their good and products. A train known locally as the "milk train" came on a daily basis picking up the milk cans and other fresh products which were then taken to Montreal. These milk cans were returned to the farmers on the evening train.
Many animals were also transported by the train. They would arrive in Coaticook and be put into pens close to the railway station. Here they would be inspected before being sent along either crossing over into the United States or being sold in the immediate area. A veterinarian from Agriculture Canada would inspect and give his stamp of approval before the animals were allowed to be shipped out. Animals designated for the butcher shop or horses transported by the train could came from the United States or from western Canada for market here.
The railway company also provided an educational rate for the farmers. A special train operated in the Coaticook area during the 1 930's and it was known as "the Quebec Soil Improvement Train". Soli specialists traveled on board these trains and they would demonstrate and explain to the farmers the need to add lime and other products to the soil. As well, they were able to analyse a sample of their soli. In order to carry out these analyses, the train would stop at the Coaticook railroad station in the morning and the Compton railroad station in the afternoon for a period of three weeks. This service was a first of its kind in Quebec at that time and the train became known as the "Farmers' Train".
Until about 1980 Christmas trees were exported by railcar ta New York, Boston and other large cities. Forty railcars would be filled representing approximately a hundred thousand spruce and fir trees.
Thanks to this economic boost, it was only eleven years later that the Coaticook territory separated from Barnston Township ta form the village of Coaticook on January 1, 1864 with a population count of 700 persons. The service for Federal Statistics in Canada classified Coaticook in 1931 as a town in the center of Quebec where you could find the most flourishing businesses in proportion to the population. Coaticook consisted of 25 industries in the textile sector, in furniture and toys as well as commerce in ail the service sectors, a diversified sector in agriculture and finally a population of approximately 4000 persons.
Changes in Railway Service
The train was the principal means of transport for the people in the Coaticook area until into the 1950's. From about 1860 a passenger could travel by train between Montreal and Portland and pass through St Hyacinthe, Richmond, Windsor, Sherbrooke and Coaticook. In 1875 and for about 135 years the trip between Coaticook and Montreal took about five hours to complete and it took about one hour ta go from Coaticook to Sherbrooke.
Two daily trains made return trips between Montreal and Portland, Maine. A train was available to travel return trips between Montreal and Coaticook on Sundays. The train making shuttle runs to Sherbrooke was known as the "Scout Train".
The Portland train only ran on Saturdays in July and August of 1965 so a daily train was set up ta run between Montreal and Coaticook except on Sundays. A train was added to accommodate the Sunday passengers in 1967. - Regular service between Montreal and Coaticook came to an end in 1969 in order to reduce the truck service between Montreal and Sherbrooke. However, Canadian National did maintain a special service for Coaticook. The passenger train left Montreal on Fridays beginning in January 1970, following the route which would stop at the train stations in Lennoxville, Waterville, Compton and Coaticook and a return train made the trip Friday evening from Coaticook to Sherbrooke. This special train was always listed on the Via Rail schedule throughout 1976-1977 but was no longer listed on the schedule after April 30, 1978. It therefore appears that the last passenger train to Coaticook was no longer in service at the end of April 1978.
Fares: According to the Coaticook newspaper, l'Etoile de l'Est, in 1941, train tickets were available at the following rates:
Coaticook/Sherbrooke, return: 0.55 cents
Coaticook/Montreal, return: $3.25
Coaticook/Quebec, return: $3.65
Excursions to western Canada from
Coaticook to Vancouver, return:
$67.05 or $81.90 if you had a berth.

Coaticook was an important transit point between 1945 and 1955 for woodsmen going to work in the United States. They would came from all regions of Quebec, go before the Federal Selective board which was installed in Coaticook and then proceed to the United States to work in the woods. It goes without saying that when these men returned to Coaticook they enjoyed a period of relaxation or, down time. They would frequent the hotels before returning on the job and their antics created a lot of activity at the train station as well as on the streets.
A customs office was located in Coaticook because this was the closest train station of consequence to the American border. The custom officer inspected purchases and passengers at the Coaticook station. A jail had been built within the station and suspicious persons would be detained here. The train employees would pass along ail the news they heard during a trip which pleased or amused the passengers on their journey. Coaticook benefitted greatly by the regular mail service brought by the train ta Coaticook and Canadian National had installed telegraph service in the station. Denis Gregoire was the last train manager at the station in Coaticook (until May 1981).
Important Events
The well-known Barnum and Bailey Circus travelled from town to town on the train. Customarily they would stop in Coaticook ta rest the animals. Approximately 125 cars of animals stopped at the station and several were let into the animal pens. It was also a time when the people of Coaticook would witness an unusual sight. The elephants, giraffes and other circus animals were led down Main Street to go and have a drink of water at the river. This was an exciting and fascinating occasion for everyone.
The Harry Thaw affair put Coaticook on the front page of the world's newspapers for several weeks. Harry Thaw, a young New York millionaire, was arrested one evening in June of 1906 at Madison Square Garden for the murder of Sandford White. White had stolen Thaw's girlfriend away from him. After two trials, he was declared mentally incompetent and confined in an asylum for the criminally insane. Thaw escaped to Canada and stopped at a hotel in St Hermenegilde where he was recognized and reported by the hotel owner. He was locked up in the basement of the town hall. The people of Coaticook threw their sympathies in with Thaw and considered that he had been a poor innocent victim. Ta make his time a little less lonesome in this Quebec jail, the musicians of the Coaticook Harmony Bond came outside his window to try and change his thoughts by giving him a serenade. All this history stems from a newspaper story which sparked the interest of Cher newspapermen to come to Coaticook. Lawyers and other litigators, both Canadian and American, as well as the curious came to Coaticook ta witness the event. Most of the hotels in Coaticook were booked up even though the prisoner was to be transferred to Sherbrooke because he could easily travel by train from one point to the other. The prisoner was finally deported to the United States after several weeks of internment and sent to a place of incarceration.

The Wars
At the beginning of the twentieth century Canadians were token hold of by the craze for rail travel. The government of Wilfrid Laurier passed out loans and grants to encourage the construction of additional railway lines. Companies also received funds from England but unfortunately this form of financement from overseas, and notably England, dried up at the start of World War I due to the fact that the country's funds were diverted towards the maintenance of their army. The railway companies also played their patriotic part in the war effort by transporting men and goods at little or no cost to the east coast. This is the start of when the railway companies lost money and went into debt. The same situation took place during World War Il: military convoys were the priority, ordinary train travel by passengers was secondary. The people of Coaticook saw troop trains passing through as well as military hardware even though the trains were not clearly identified.
Some of the factories in Coaticook were converted into the production of war materials. Such was the case with the Norton plant in Coaticook which made jacks for the railroad but then went into the production of shell casings which were dispatched out as quickly as possible on the train. After the war the condition of the Canadian National equipment and rails were considered outdated due to lack of maintenance. During the war the railway companies were not able to buy pertinent material because none was being constructed and steel was reserved for the war effort. After the war the railways were confronted by new competition: more people were driving motorized vehicles, air travel and the improvement or building of new highways took their place above rail travel. This was the beginning of a slow decline in transportation by train. As more and more goods began to be transported by truck, the Canadian National gradually lost their hold on the transportation of goods and merchandise.
Traces of the Railway Era
The first station was located in the same general area but on the west side of the railroad truck. With the exception of the railroad truck which is still used by the trains carrying goods strictly to the United States, the second railroad station was constructed in 1904 to the east of the railroad built by the Grand Trunk Railway and gives us a view into the past. One can see a water tower. In 1980, the station lost official status as a railway station and the Town of Coaticook acquired the building for the sum of $1.00 paid ta the Canadian National. The Town of Coaticook then put the building into the disposition of the Aramis Club who financed a renovation respecting the architectual characteristics of the building. Currently, the building is controlled at the discretion of SPA Menthe Fraicheur but remains unoccupied. The building was cited as an historic site by the Town of Coaticook in 1999. It is hoped that the station remains in this place for a long time to come in order to remind future generations of the history found here.
If you would like to learn more about the history of trains in Quebec, proceed ta the site, Internet de l'institut ta re-search history on Quebec railroads: www.irhcfq.org/
Carmen Perron
Sources: - L'Impact du Chemin de Fer sur Coaticook - September 1991, by Groupe Viau
- Canadian National Railways Time Table Employee No. 16 taking effect at 12:01 a.m., Sunday, June 20, 1948. Details on the Sherbrooke subdivision. - The New Busy is not the too busy.

Le Courant

Le Courant is published by the Society every year. Society's members, professional and amateur historian shared with the readers results of their searches. Articles are available in English and French. This publication received generous support from local sponsors that the Society wishes to thank with all it's gratitude.


Fall 2010 | 12 | Sommaire

Coaticook Historical Society

34 Main Stree East
Coaticook, Québec
(819) 849-1023

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Over 23,000 pictures from our weekly newspaper Le Progrès.
Copies of The Coaticook Observer 1928-1938 complete plus others of different dates.
Copies of the newspaper L'Etoile de l'Est from 1928 to 1938 (complete) and others bearing differents dates.
Copies of our weekly newspaper Le Progrès de Coaticook from 1971 to 2003.

Approximate number of objects in the collections: 23000

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