Port Dover, Lynn Valley and Hickson

Part 2 of 2 on Port Dover & Lake Huron Railway

During Prohibition in the United States (1920 - 1933) Americans would often travel to Port Dover to smuggle whisky across the Great Lakes into Pennsylvania or to enjoy one of the local taverns. Even after Prohibition ended the local attractions around Dover had established a reputation and attracted tourists from the United States arriving in private railway cars for summer vacations and the duck-hunting season. 'Summer in Port Dover' as inscribed on an information board on Lynn Valley Trail

On our trip to Port Dover that cloudy morning, we were modern day vacationers, our primary intention being that of exploring the beach and waterways. There was a secondary intention as well, a covert purpose in fact, perpetrated by the key architect of this visit (and that would translate to be me) but, that too did not include smuggling whisky, not even duck hunting. It was to explore the relics on Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway, a railroad that once ran from Lake Erie to Lake Huron. What survives of that railway heritage today is buried under a heap of nothingness, but, stay put my dear reader, there is plenty to discover…

On a partly cloudy summer day, with sunshine playing hide and seek, we parked our vehicle on Harbour Street at Port Dover. Me and Ahmad then took a stroll on the west pier. Before reaching the iconic lighthouse, we came across the fisherman memorial. It’s a bronze and granite structure with three fishermen poised on throwing a fishing net into the lake waters. The memorial, unveiled in the year 2000, commemorates the fishermen of the town lost to Lake Erie while making a living out of the lake’s offerings. It’s a humble monument acknowledging the might of rough waters and commemorating the valiant fishermen who went out to battle these waters and got their names inscribed on the plaques laid on ground surrounding the memorial. Having explained the monument to Ahmad (my six year old) and after having unsatisfactorily answered his curious questions, we moved further.  Around 100 – 150 yards ahead on the pier, stood tall, in the colors of white and green, the Port Dover Lighthouse. The square wooden building with sloping walls and a square iron lantern was rebuilt in 1904. The very first lighthouse in Port Dover was erected in 1845, a time when Port Dover was a modest settlement. Everything changed as railways arrived and there were more than one railroads to reach this scenic harbour of South Western Ontario, but we shall come to that in a moment.

The Three Fishermen : Fishermen Memorial

In Memory of ... Names inscribed on plaques

Port Dover LightHouse

It was a family outing to Port Dover, and we were to take a sightseeing tour with Nomada Charters (one of the must do things while in town as per tripadvisor). The one hour trip on River Rider, a pontoon boat, was a nice interaction with Lynn Valley River and the Black Creek Nature Reserve. The pontoon boat was preferred over a sailboat ride to better accommodate Ahmad, who had his moments of fun, in fact we all had our moments on this nice family outing. From here the trip was to transition into the ‘secondary (still covert) intention’ of exploring the railway heritage at Port Dover. A straightforward approach would have been instantly disapproved by both Mani and Amelia (the primary stakeholders in the family decision making) who had no interest to take a dive into history. I had to adopt the indirect route and offered them a visit to the local souvenir shop that was gladly accepted. This, dear reader, was no ordinary gift shop, but the iconic Grand Trunk Station of Port Dover.

Grand Trunk Station at Port Dover

A souvenir shop

It was a souvenir shop at 5 St George Street and definitely a place of interest for Mani and Amelia who went inside to browse the items on sale. Me and Ahmad stayed outside, the latter indulged in his signature carefree playful manners and the former absorbed into the architectural beauty of the heritage building, that once served the Port Dover and Lake Huron (PD&LH tracks) and later Grand Trunk Railway when acquired by GTR.

Port Dover might have had her humble beginnings, but everything changed with the arrival of rails. Port Dover and Lake Huron tracks were the first to reach in 1875, connecting Port Dover to Simcoe and up ahead to Woodstock and later to Stratford in 1876. The second entry ticket was secured by Hamilton and NorthWestern (H&NW) Railway and the year, dear reader, was 1880. A year later Grand Trunk acquired both railways and consolidated their operation to one Railway Station. The station that now houses the souvenir and gift shop was rebuilt by Grand Trunk in 1887 after the original station was burnt. In the early twentieth century Lake Erie & Northern (LE&N), an interurban line owned by Canadian Pacific Railway entered the arena at Port Dover and it also used the same Grand Trunk Station up until later half of 1940s when they moved on to an independent station building. After the railway operation was abandoned and the tracks lifted, this GTR sation building had served as a car wash before it was moved to its present location as a gift shop. The website for the gift shop attributes this effort to Fred Knechtel who “is quite proud to have saved the 100 year old train station (now the Grand Trunk Station) from destruction by moving it to his beach parking lot property.”

Grand Trunk Era Station is now a souvenir shop

Ahmad, on the rear entrance of station, appreciating the architecture

One of the original ends of GTR Station in shades of Railway Red; the other end was lost to time

I had craftily tricked the Port Dover trip members into visiting the railway heritage at the souvenir shop, but that was the closest they would come to the Port Dover Railway. They clearly had other priorities. Mani and Amelia were too content to stay in the car and be busy on their cell phones. Ahmad was more interested to get back home ASAP to resume his paused game on Wii Sports Resort. There would be a continuous ticker of the sort “Baba! How much time more to get home?”, but then Ahmad has his nap rhythm perfectly aligned with the rolling wheels, and he was soon fast asleep. I, dear reader, on the other hand would take this opportunity to become a solo explorer on the Lynn Valley Trail.

In the previous post of this series, we had explored the railway tracks of Port Dover & Lake Huron (PD&LH) Railway, of which we had covered two landmarks. We talked about Grand Trunk Station at Otterville and Beck’s General Store at Hawtrey. I was determined to further explore the now abandoned right of way of PD&LH Railway. To put things into perspective, a route map for PD&LH comes to us from my favorite author on the subject, Ron Brown. The map my readers will find below is taken from Mr Brown’s book ‘Ghost Railways of Ontario’ and is reproduced here with permission from the author.

Port Dover & Lake Huron Railroad
The Ghost Tracks of PD&LH from Port Dover to Stratford
'Ghost Railways of Ontario', Ron Brown (Image used with permission from Author

The railroad that ran from Port Dover all the way up to Stratford via Woodstock was abandoned in 1988. Very little survives to remind us of the long lifted tracks, yet there are two prominent landmarks that run right on the exact alignment of Port Dover and Lake Huron rail tracks. These portions now converted to and maintained as walking and bicycle trails are part of Ontario’s railway heritage. Lynn Valley trail in Norfolk county covers around 10 kms from Simcoe to Port Dover. The second is the Hickson Recreational Trail in the township of East Zorra-Tavistock that is around 20 kms between Woodstock and Hickson. After visiting the Grand Trunk Station in Port Dover that afternoon, the next attraction on the trip was to take a stroll on Lynn Valley Trail and explore one of the four original and nicely preserved trestle bridges.

Steam Whistle on Burt Bridge : A Couple’s Donation

Lynn Valley Trail

In Port Dover, from Main St, turn right on Nelson St East, and then onto St Patrick St, there on a junction with Bridge Alley is the point that marks the culmination or start (depending on the trekkers’ orientation) of the Lynn Valley Trail. You are greeted by the trail map and other informational snapshots. A graceful memorial dedicated by Port Dover Leo Club remembers the ones who gave their lives in the Great Wars. Beyond this is the gravel route that takes you to a historical journey on the trail.

Lynn Valley Trail, from Bridge Alley, Port Dover

Lynn Valley Trail, War Memorial by Port Dover Leo Club

Lynn Valley trail runs on the former Canadian National Railway (CNR) line that back in 1875 (or 1873 when the construction began) was Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway. It connects the business districts of Port Dover and Simcoe and on its stretch of 10 kms follows the scenic Lynn River through woods, wetlands and agricultural farmlands. The real point of interest for me were the nicely preserved and restored, original trestle bridges from the PD&LH days. They are four in number, but dear reader, on that sluggish afternoon, owing to the other not so interested stakeholders in the car, I had to compromise to touch base with one of those bridges, to the least.

Taking our exit from Port Dover on Highway 6, we drove north on Blueline Road and took a left turn on Decou Road intersection. Driving west for around 2.5 kms, we reached the Decou Road access point to the Lynn Valley Trail. Ahmad was fast asleep and Amelia and Mani flatly declined the offer to undertake a brief trek on the Trail. With my Sony a6000 strapped on the shoulder, I took on a mere 500 m walk up to the Burt Bridge. At Decou Road access point, the Trail follows the zig-zag pattern of Pioneer River. In this wet habitat, your regular companions are cedar, skunk cabbage and white ash. The landscape was a fluorescent green in full summer bloom. After crossing a tiny trickle of spring waters, I was finally at my destination. Burt bridge, beautifully restored on the original railway trestle on PD&LH tracks. With tracks lifted long ago, the stringers and ties were in place with studded bolts and spikes, all supported by firm interlocking of wooden posts and sways. While on the bridge, I heard a chug and a whistle, distinctive distant sounds, and felt the bridge trembling to embrace oncoming iron wheels. Perhaps there was chug and whistle; perhaps it was my imagination, but that particular moment suspended in time, between past and present, was indeed a real thing. Real and delicate, as a mere sound of someone breathing was enough to shatter it into pieces.

Burt Bridge along with Robinson Bridge was repaired in the summer of 2013. Lynn Valley Trail Association (LTVA) had estimated a hefty amount of $200,000 for bridges’ repair and partial resurfacing of Lynn Valley Trail. Malcolm Miller and his wife Maria Welyhorskyj, a Port Dover couple kicked off the fundraising campaign by donating $2000. Funding for the project was provided by Norfolk County, Ontario Trillium Foundation, local businesses, service clubs and individuals. Repair was undertaken by Robert Simon M. construction and the engineering expertise was provided by Vallee Consulting Engineers. The repair was done to the support piers as well as some abutment and bridge entrances were also upgraded. In 2014 as the locals celebrated 20 years of Lynn Valley Trail, they did it with an assurance that the Trail’s life was extended well into the middle of 21st Century. Lynn Valley trail is an important landmark in Norfolk County Tourism, and that afternoon, I was one tourist to explore the trail and cherish the railway heritage of PD&LH railway that was preserved through a remarkable feat of self-financing and volunteer work.

Trail entrance from the Decou Road leading towards Port Dover
A stroll on Lynn Valley Trail heading in the direction of Port Dover
Burt Bridge - Original PD&LH Trestle Bridge renovated on Lynn Valley Trail
Burt Bridge: Original ties and stringers. Wooden planks on top replaced the railway tracks
Burt Bridge : Posts, caps and sway braces of the trestle foundation

A Pleasant Detour : A Gothic Railway Station

Woodstock Train Station

It was another day, a day of significance, as I had a weekday off in rotation, and after dropping Ahmad at school, I managed to sneak a time bracket to myself, convenient enough to drive upto Woodstock and explore the PD&LH Railway segment between Woodstock – Hickson, now preserved as a walking and cycling trail. woodstock is a favorite intermediary stop while travelling from London to Kitchener, avoiding Highway 401 and plying on the rural routes. Dundas Street from London leads straight to the heart of Woodstock, where the downtown offers a feat of historic buildings. That weekday morning, I was there to embrace the historic Woodstock Railway Station, designed by Great Western Railway (GWR), but built by Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1885 after its acquisition of GWR. The station is one of the oldest train stations in Ontario that is still in service, operated by VIA Rail. But, dear reader, before we take a quick tour of this structure, let me clarify this station did not serve the PD&LH line. Ron Brown tells us that the railway station on PD&LH line existed furhter east, at the south east corner of Peel Street where it intersects Huron Street, to be precise. That station along with any traces of PD&LH right-of-way is completely vanished under the modern day construction. PD&LH right-of-way crossed the GTR line a block west of Burtch Street, a place where the thorough route was later intercepted and a Y junction was constructed by Canadian National Railway (CNR). This important junction that existed a little north-east of GTR Station, unfortunately is lost to time.

Located at 94 Victoria Street S, Woodstock train station is an elegant two storey structure showcasing a Gothic revival design.The steep double storey structure is annexed by a single storey wing, adorned by a hip-roof block and projecting bays and gables of varying size. The building combines the station and station-agent’s residence, thus fusing together the features of a public and domestic edifice. It retains its original form in the shape of outside entrance, platfrom canopy, door and window units. The surrounding landscape with characteristic railway elements are nicely preserved. The interior and outdoor woodwork is in original shape and is an elegant design add-on to station’s architecture. Woodstock Train Station was designed by Joseph Hobson who was the chief engineer at GWR and was built by him while serving as chief engineer with GTR. The pictures below shall take my readers through some character defining architectural details of this historic edifice.

Snapped from the junction of Wellington and Henry Street, the building features a Gothic Revival Style, steep slope roofs, complex roof line, gables, projecting bays, open timber brackets, profiled barge-boards.
The two storey block. Vertical orientation is represented by steep roof and gables, tall and narrow proportions of door and window openings, use of transoms to emphasize the height.
Platform snapped from across the tracks. The platform canopy is visible along the one-storey wing. A small verandah with scalloped verge-board is jutting out just above station agents bay. Both the canopy and verge-board are supported by timber brackets.
Snapped from the bridge on Wellington Street. The station retains its relationship with various elements of its site: Adjacent railway tracks, a warehouse opposite the station, an adjacent hotel, two historic overpasses and the hilly area around the station.

Turnips from Hickson & Trunk Line at Woodstock

Woodstock – Hickson Trail

Woodstock to Stratford was the final segment of PD&LH Railway that was completed by Feb 1876. By the end of 1930s, during the era of railway’s decline, PD&LH then part of Canadian National Railway Network, only existed in fractured shape. Three portions of the original railway remained in action: Simcoe to Port Dover (the portion converted to Lynn Valley Trail and was covered a few paragraphs above in this post), Burgessville to Otterville (we talked about this in part 1 of this post) and Woodstock to Hickson. Woodstock – Hickson segment was the most commercially viable as it provided direct link to Canadian National’s trunk line at Woodstock for shipment throughout Canada and the United States. This line was essential to the substantial turnip industry surrounding Hickson that exported by rail across Ontario and as far as upto Chicago. Area surrounding Hickson had established itself as productive turnip-growing region, producing and exporting a peak of 8% of Ontario’s total production. S.T.Loveys Limited shipped this produce across Ontario and beyond international border for 40 years. In 1965 CNR applied for abandoning Woodstock and Hickson segment on the plea that shipments out of Turnips by S.T.Loveys had substantially declined as the same were being transported by trucks. Overall the revenues generated by CNR on this segment were far below the costs incurred for the operation of rail service and maintenance of tracks. There being no justification for continued rail operation, CNR eventually got approval of its abandonment.

After Hickson Subdivision was abandoned in 1965, Oxford County declined an offer from CNR to purchase the abandoned right-of-way. It was Woodstock Naturalists Society that lobbied to preserve the abandoned right-of-way to be used as a nature trail. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, subsequently assumed ownership of the segment and permitted it to be used as a trail. Woodstock- Hickson trail follows an almost linear north – south alignment in line with Highway 59 from Woodstock to Hickson. It is intercepted by two lateral roads and is distinctively devided into three segments. Woodstock to Oxford Road 33, then to Braemar Side Road and finally to Hickson. The subgrade of the original right of way exists in good shape and is easily discernable from surrounding. Although the route is gravelled for some part, it would be hard to conclude if these were the remains of the original ballast. Most likely the gravel is a recent add on to the trail. The ties and spikes are long gone and there are no railway associated features preserved along the trail. PD&LH railway tracks encountered the obstacle of Mud Creek near Breamer Side Road, where a wooded trestle bridge was constructed. The bridge was lifted along with the tracks and for some time the wooden piers stood as a lamenting remnant, but those are also gone. In fact until recently this segment of the trail from Breamer Side Road to Hickson was not accessible from the southern side, when a wooden bridge (suitable for pedestrian and bicycle traffic only) was constructed. The bridge is supported by an Iron trestle which is a recent addition, making the trail accessible all the way upto Hickson. Covered with shady trees on both sides, this trail offers more of a naturalistic outing with very little, almost nothing to be cherished by a railway enthusiast. The trail ends at the town hall of Hickson and that brings us to an interesting story of ‘a town that never existed’, and dear reader, we shall come to that after going through a few pictures of Woodstock – Hickson trail.

Oxford Road 33 laterally intersecting the trail. The snap is taken from the side of Woodstock - Oxford Road 33 segment.
Second segment of the trail between Oxford Road 33 - Braemar Side Road. The photograph was taken facing Hickson.
Mud Creek Bridge. The original railway bridge with wooden piers is long gone. The one photographed here, is a recent addition on the segment from Braemar Side Road to Hickson.
The trail after Mud Creek Bridge opens up to the surrounding fields on the eastern side, with the western spur densely dotted with trees.
The start (or end) of the trail at Hickson. Snapped at the parking lot across the road from East Zorra-Tavistock Municipal Township Office at Hickson.

A Town that never existed

Hickson : A name given by Grand Trunk Railway

Once upon a time, in the year 1865, in South-Western Ontario, there was only one large settlement north of the town of Woodstock by the name of Strathallan. It was located on the Woodstock – Huron gravel road and that on today’s maps, dear reader, would show up as Oxford Road 59. The village of Strathallan had two churches, a school and more than a dozen businesses. The announcement of construction of Railway connecting Woodstock with Tavistock, prompted a real estate boom on the speculation that the village will be connected with the main rail link. It was Andrew Kennedy, a pioneer settler and one of the influentials of the area, who decided not to allow the railroad to cross his land. Why it happened, history is a bit hazy on the subject. In the historical accounts concerning small towns, gossips have their say, and we shall go by a few. One account states that Mr Kennedy was of the view that the arrival of railway would ‘disturb’ the tranquility of Strathallan. There were other people, who were of the opinion that perhaps, no acceptable monetary compensation could be agreed upon by both the parties that prevented the railroad from crosssing the mainland Strathallan. Away from the town gossip, as a matter of fact, PD&LH Railway company, determined to establish a stop between Woodstock and Tavistock, chose the instersection between Oxford Road 8 and north – south roads of Oxford Road 59 and the 13th line as the location. This place, locally known as ‘Harwood Corners’, at that time sported a few residences and a blacksmith’s shop. When the tracks were laid in 1876 and train operation started, Harwood Corner started having a development thrust in early 1880s. Soon the businesses and residences from Strathallan would move to this new developing locality that was yet to be named. Having developed a flag stop at the location, PD&LH Railway Company started seeking a name for the place. Joseph Hickson, who was the General Manager of Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) requested the place to be named Hickson, after him. In 1883, the place officially recieved a name as ‘Hickson’ Post Office got established. Joseph Hickson would never visit the place, that was named after him. In 1901, Hickson Methodist Church was constructed at the corner of County Road 8 and Highway 59 further attesting the rise to prominence of flagstop of Hickson, that had a humble beginnings as Harwood Corner.

As of 1901, Hickson was still a flagstop, with no station of its own. Tickets were purchased from a general store and a waiting room was provided for passengers in waiting. It was three years after the Methodist Church was constructed that GTR built the Hickson Railway Station. The location of this station was towards south-east from the intersection of railway tracks with present day Oxford Road 8. There were associated Rail Yards as well and this node defined by the junction of Railway Tracks and Oxford Road 8 was the bustling hub of railway activity in Hickson. Hickson residents would come here to board the passenger trains, trade livestock, send or receive mail, buy groceries and attend to community functions and social gatherings. Nothing from such a rich railway heritage survives today. The erstwhile busy railway node is now a dormant stretch of land between Muncipal Township Office and a quiet junction of Oxford Roads 59 and 8. The 20th century Methodist Church on this junction still stands as a reminder of the bygone days of railway grandeur.

Opened in 1902 as a Wesleyan Methodist Church and joined the United Church in 1925. Three years following the construction of the Church, Grand Trunk built Hickson's first Railway Station
Hickson developed from Harwood Corner, a PD&LH flag-stop established during late 1870s. The construction of Methodist Church at the corner of County Road 8 and Highway 59 further attested the rise to prominence of Hickson

Retracing our steps from Lake Erie, as we walked past the small and modest communities of south western Ontario, we tried our best to follow the route that was once taken by the tracks of Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway. Our journey took us from Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie to Hickson in the Township of East Zorra-Tavistock. The tracks of PD&LH Railway travelled north of Hickson towards Tavistock and further to Stratford. No trace of that line exists beyond Hickson, although some railway remnants are found between Stratford and Tavistock, but that dear reader, is altogether a different railway line. In Stratford, the remains of PD&LH tracks are marked by the ‘end of a spur line’ near the corner of Norfolk Street as our beloved author Ron Brown tells us. Stratford, that once was a railway hub also sports a remarkable building of Grand Trunk Railway Station and other landmarks from a rich railway heritage. We shall talk about Stratford in a different post as we further explore Ontario’s forgotten railroads. In doing so, we will discover some fascinating stories, told and retold across ages, for railway is a storyteller itself, and dear reader, what a magnificent storyteller it is!

Books & Authors
Ghost Railways of Ontario, Ron Brown, 1998
Rails of Change: The Hickson Trail Cultural Heritage Landscape Study, Kenneth Paul Yeoman, 2011, a study submitted at Queen's University Kingston Ontario
Official Website of Lynn Valley Trail
County of Oxford Archives
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author bio

Imran Saeed

I am a teller of old tales. History, folklore, military, and more. Mostly covering Pakistan, my homeland, but also the Great White North, where I am currently settled.
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Keith Hekker

Wonderful work. Well done.