From the Village of Otterville to the (Ghost) Town of Hawtrey
For solace and relief I flee
To Bradshaw or the ABC
And find the best of recreations
In studying the names of stations
. . . C L Graves
In Oxford County of rural Ontario, lies a small village by the name of Otterville, ‘named after a really conniving otter’ as the village website claims. It’s around 70 kms from the City of London and if you decide to head out on a sunny Sunday morning, the drive would take around 45 minutes to 1 hour. It took me around 50 minutes that sunny Sunday morning as I drove out of the parking lot of my apartment building in London Ontario.
City of London has a lot to offer. It’s a small scale metropolis with a bustling downtown, yet it has the flavor of community living normally found in towns. The residential areas in London are sparsely located and closely knit together where people in the neighborhood know each other well. Three years ago, when I started settling down in South London, it wasn’t a matter of choice but a compulsion as my family had made this city their home after moving from Montreal, about a decade ago. It was not love at first sight, but a gradual affair that matured overtime as I flirted with this beautiful city and its equally fascinating rural suburbs. The routine escapades to explore the picturesque trails following Thames Valley, the morning wilderness at Westminster and Pond Mills, the vivid colours at Komoka Provincial Park and more. The long drive romances with the countryside that envelopes London all around, and it just takes you 10 – 15 minutes to get out of the city and embrace the rural wilderness of South Western Ontario. Me falling in love with the City of London, dear reader, thus was a gradual affair that matured overtime. Let’s save this ‘love story’ for a separate article, and head back to our ‘drive to Otterville’.
The drive to Otterville that morning was a continuation of a quest, that I call ‘railway romance’ and my daughter brands it to be a ‘cheesy tagline’. I was chasing the Ghost of Grand Trunk in Southwestern Ontario, more specifically in the Township of Norwich. An old station, authentically preserved in the village of Otterville, whereas the railway tracks were long gone. The route to Otterville was partly straightforward and partly crisscrossed through the farmlands. Navigating through a few country roads I was right at the ‘Sweet Corn’ outlet that was in fact an extension of the farm. The young girl there was pleasant to talk to, but had no clue about the ‘Station Museum’ in Otterville. In a small town that essentially had only one ‘Main Street’, it was not very hard for me to subsequently locate the landmark. What puzzled me was the apparent ignorance of the new generation to their heritage. May it be Pakistan or Canada, dear reader, it takes some interest and a little bit of effort to know your history. Anyways, following the Main Street West, having gone past the Norwich Fire Station, United Church and Public Library, across James Street, there I was facing the vintage sign of Railroad Crossing beyond which was a section of 4′ 8½” gauge track, aligned with a wooden railway platform. The platform belonged to an elegant structure, the 1881 Grand Trunk Station of Otterville, but, dear reader, the history of this railway asset further predates the era of Grand Trunk.
Port Dover & Lake Huron (PD&LH) Railway
The origin of Otterville Subdivision, as it was called during the operation of Canadian National (CN) Railway in early 20th century, dates back to the times of Port Dover & Lake Huron (PD&LH) Railway, in the years 1875-76. History books here would take us further back to 1848, when the dream of building a railroad between Port Dover and Woodstock was realized in the shape of incorporation of Woodstock & Lake Erie (W&LE) Railway and Harbour Company. What followed were decades of relevant inactivity, financial scandals and mismanagement, and the proposed rails were never laid on ground until 1872, when PD&LH took over the assets of its predecessor to realize the dream of building a railroad over a ‘part of the country lying between the town of Woodstock and the harbours of Port Dover and Port Burwell inclusive on Lake Erie”. Capitalizing on the survey and earthwork already done by its forerunner, PD&LH Railway started laying the ties in South Norwich in January 1874 and it was in Aug 1875 that track laying reached the village of Otterville. The track from Port Dover to Woodstock was in operation by October 1875 and was further extended to the Railway Hub of Stratford in 1876. So trains were going past the Otterville Railway station as early as 1875, but we do not have a definitive date as to when the first operational train rolled on these tracks.
It is unclear, however, when regular traffic started as the Government inspection was not completed until November 2, 1875. By November 11, 1875 two weekly trains operated between Port Dover and Woodstock on Wednesdays and Friday. A December 11, 1875 newspaper article announcing completion of ballasting from Port Dover to Woodstock stated that in a short time regular traffic will commence. During the February 3, 1876 opening ceremony in Stratford it was unclear if the road was opened for regular service. The P.D. & L.H.Ry. was operating two trains, each way, daily between Port Dover and Stratford and a steamer between Port Dover and Erie, Pennsylvania by June 1876. CNR in Ontario : Otterville Subdivision
Initially visualized to link Port Dover to Lake Huron, this line was later came to be known as Port Dover & Stratford, as the track did not go beyond the railway hub of Stratford. It would eventually link with other right of ways to make it to Lake Huron but that would be a different story beyond the scope of this article. The main line ran from Stratford via Tavistock to Simcoe and further to Port Dover with a branch line called South Norfolk running from Simcoe to Port Rowan. This line was in full swing by 1876 with its main role as a feeder for other major lines. At its busiest, four passenger trains a day ran from Stratford through Tavistock, Hickson, Woodstock, Curries, Burgessville, Norwich, Otterville, Hawtrey, Brandy Creek, Ellaton, Simcoe and Lynne Valley to Port Dover.Following google map will give my readers a better geographical orientation of the PD&LH Railway route.
That Sunday morning, I was at Otterville (red location marker on the map above) south of Norwich to visit the Grand Trunk Station on PD&LH Railway route.
The Grand Trunk Station at Otterville
The Port Dover Lake Huron Railway line served as an important social and economic linkage for the communities it serviced, providing access to the world of commerce, education, entertainment and communication. One could send a letter in the morning and have a reply by night, a true accomplishment for rural townships such as Norwich. historicplaces.ca
Otterville Railway Station was built in 1875 the same year PD&LH tracks reached the village and the train operation started. 1876 onwards it was receiving two trains each way, daily between Port Dover and Stratford. Originally located at North Street, the station survived the abandonment of rail operation towards the mid of 20th century and was designated a heritage asset by the Township of Norwich in 1990. Moved to its current location towards the west end of Otterville village at 225422 Main Street West, the station stands carefully restored and preserved. Upon reaching the site you are greeted by a board announcing the location as Museum for South Norwich Historical Society. Having gone past the board and the Canadian flag, you meet a vintage Railway Crossing sign across which is a portion of railway track flanked by an old railway mile-post and a whistle blowing post. A non functional, more of a ceremonial railway switch alongwith a switch operator cabin also adorn the railway tracks. The railway track aligns itself with a nicely restored wooden platform.
Grand Trunk Station of Otterville is a classic village railroad station, and to my knowledge a very few of this kind survive in Ontario. The station is a single storey structure, a post and beam construction. Painted in elegant shades of light an dark bluish grey, the siding comprises of wide vertical boards with overlapping narrow vertical battens. There’s an elegant side gable roof with its overhanging eaves resting on eave brackets. Standing on the platform facing the tracks, on your right hand side, the main highlight of the station is the Station Agent’s bay that rises 9 feet in height and has a double sash on front and two-pane windows on each side. A peep inside the windows would show you the vintage railway and telegraph apparatus. Further towards the right hand side (while facing railway tracks) is the Waiting Room. Elegant looking pediment architraves ornate the waiting room door towards the platform and the two windows, one each on the eastern and southern sides of the station. Other than the waiting room and station agent’s bay, the front façade has two doors leading to the freight room. A vintage trolley rests beside one of the doors on the wooden platform. Ron Brown, an expert on Ontario’s train heritage tells us that the tracks of PD&LH traversed through ‘Canada’s richest farmland’. More than passengers it was the farm produce that bustled railway platfroms and that explains the relatively large freight shed at Otterville station. The freight doors showcase transom lights and have a delicate arrangement of tongue and groove boards in their construction. It was a delight to see the fine architectural details carefully preserved during the restoration of the station.
Hawtrey and La Salette : The General Store of George Southwick
With PD&LH railway tracks long gone, very little survives of this heritage in present day Ontario. We talked of the GTR Station in a bit detail above, which concluded my visit to Otterville that day. Almost a year later I was back in these familiar corn fields this time to explore a bit farther due south, and I had done some homework studying Google Satellite imagery. There are no traces of the railway track proceeding either up or down Otterville, but the lay of ground on mid to high resolution on Google Maps conspicuously outlines the remains of a railway embankment.
Tracing the PD&LH line as it leaves Otterville in the direction of South East, we come across the villages of Hawtrey, La Salette and Rattlesnake Harbor before reaching the prominent town of Simcoe. A website dedicated to ghost towns in Ontario tells us a story that this area comprising of Hawtrey and La Salette was originally called Port Dover Junction and it had not one but two railway stations in the town. In the late 19th century boom of Railways, Hawtrey was served by Canada Southern line and the tracks of Port Dover & Lake Huron Railways, both of which had built railway stations of their own. What survives on ground now are tiny hamlets of Hawtrey and La Salette, around 1 km apart with no trace of the railway heritage. Hawtrey, comprising of a few dwellings, appears to be a ghost town. It very much seemed to be a ghost place as my vehicle’s GPS would decline to recognize Hawtrey as a place to exist, and I had to rely on Google Map navigation on my phone. Rewinding back to the late 19th century, we come to know of a George Southwick who benefited from the railway influx into Hawtrey and came out as a rising entrepreneur. George had a general store in town that happened to be located in close vicinity of the Grand Trunk Station. With the advent of railway he would become a local railway agent as well as post master operating a postal office near his general store and to top it all would also build a hotel near GTR station. This all vanished with the decline of railway and with no traces of any railway landmark, legend had it that Southwick’s general store still survives as a private dwelling. Legend had it, so I was there, plying on interconnecting country roads, following the directions from the husky voice of Google Maps assistant, keeping a hand drawn map as a back up. After a few winding turns and unwinding turfs, I was at the address 812227 Base Line Road, and there on the 3D canvas, stood in all grace, the relic from the bygone days of railway, the 1870s George Southwick’s General Store.
The present Hawtrey store was built in the 1870s by George Southwick when the village of Hawtrey contained two hotels, two stores, two black smith shops, and a large shingle and planning mill. Township of Norwich website
The plaque on the building read Beck’s General Store. The store was operated by John Beck and his wife up until 1974. Becks had purchased the store from John Innis and that was in 1920. Since its construction this commercial building has always been used as a general store. A peek inside the front glass windows would reveal an old styled weighing scale and counters and shelves in original shape. It’s a red brick building with the corners bearig elegant brick quoins providing additional strength. The mansard roof in the colour of grey is decorated with green and white hooded dormers, two each on front and back and three each on the sides. These dormers, simple in design are decorated with scrolls on their sides. The eaves are supported by pairs of elaborate brackets adorned with turned pendants. The entrance showcases two large four-pane windows on each side, recessed inwards to a double door entrance. The rear side of the building gave more of a residential look. In a remote villge of Ontario, coming across such an elaborate structure with French Renaissance inspired architecture was a pleasant surprise.
Here somewhere in the close vicinity used to exist the Hawtrey’s GTR Station on PD&LH Railway route of which no traces exist. A little over a km towards south east, near La Salette existed Canada Southern Railway Station, that is no more extant. What survives in La Salette from the past is a historic church. Beck’s General Store can very well be preserved as part of Ontario’s Railway Heritage in Hawtrey. A little plaque announcing the railway history would be a treat for locals as well as railway enthusiasts.
Decline of Railways : 21st District and Otterville Subdivision
The year was 1881 when PD&LH was merged with other rail operators and designated as a subsidiary of Grand Trunk Railway. It was subsequently amalgamated with GTR in year 1893. During GTR days, Otterville became part of the 21st District, that comprised of the railway track from Port Dover to Tavistock Junction. In 1923 GTR became part of Canadian National Railway (CNR) and Otterville became part of Otterville Subdivison, comprising of Burgessville, Norwich, Norwich Junction and Otterville. This was the era of railway decline, gradually losing itself to the rising trend of road transport. Otterville Sub Division was was eventually authorized for abandonment and removed from time tables effective October 27, 1963.
In second part of this post, dear reader, we shall talk more of this decline, explore the legacy of a railway line that once passed through ‘Canada’s most productive farmland’ and visit few more surviving remnants of Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway.