Opinion Column

Replica iron ore car unveiled at Heritage Centre

By Charles Beale, For Northumberland Today

George Parker’s enthusiasm was unmatched as he unveiled a replica iron ore car at the Sifton-Cook Heritage Centre on Orr Street on Saturday, Oct. 12 during the final weekend of the centre’s season in Cobourg.

Parker’s detective work in creating the replica involves the Crossen Car Works Assembly plant in Cobourg and takes us back to the Peterborough & Cobourg Railway (P&C), established in 1854. Although it met its demise too soon in 1867 and was a costly economic disaster for some prominent local Cobourgians, it is a remarkable story of local ingenuity and skill.

Part of the P & C Railway’s misfortune was the sinking in 1861 of a large section of the 2.6 mile (4.184 km) rail line that spanned Rice Lake, north of here. Ice damage was the culprit and to make matters worse, a rival railway was being built from Port Hope to Peterborough - the Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway (PL&B), robbing the P&C of valuable freight income.

Rivalry aside, local citizenry would not be deterred and looked quickly for some way to revive the rail line authority.The P&C was reorganized in 1867 as the Cobourg, Peterborough & Marmora Railway Mining Company (CPMMC). Why you might ask? History records that wealthy American investors knew the Cobourg area well as some had summered here even in those early days. They hatched a scheme to bring iron ore from the rich vein at Blairton Mine Company near Marmora, Ontario to Cobourg, using the P&C rail line. From there the ore would cross Lake Ontario by barge to Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

This venture was expensive but moderately successful, however to get the ore to Cobourg from Blairton, cars had to be invented to carry the load. Parker’s research uncovered photos of the box cars at the Blairton site that were actually made in Cobourg of hard oak from the abundant forest surrounding what was then a small town.The cars iron wheels and other fixments were made in Montreal and were either shipped up river or sent via the Grand Trunk Railway, then in operation between Toronto and Montreal.The Marmora operation continued until 1873 when a Depression helped ensure its doom, closing the enterprise in 1878. The CPMMC Railway was then transformed again when it became part of the much larger Canadian National (CN).

Parker also followed up information about a rail accident 133 years ago at the Trent River Landing where four Crossen ore cars had fallen into the water and disappeared. He, along with Ken Wilcocks traced the resurrected remains of these ore cars at a storage depot in Cornwall owned by Parks Canada.

Taking all the information he gleaned, Parker built and then presented the model at the launch Oct. 12 along with Murray King who had made the wheels for the ore car replica. Parker’s precise detail impressed the small but dedicated group who showed up at SCHC.

And this is how the scheme worked. Raw ore was loaded on to the cars at Blairton using planks and wheel barrows and unloaded at the Crossen sheds in Cobourg by a hinged panel that lowered one side of each ore car and levering the full balanced car’s load into waiting barges.The concept was unheard of and the execution back-breaking, but in the true pioneer spirit, all was accomplished. The cars had side wall extensions added, and according to John Laskey Aunger, last mine manager at Blairton these cars could actually hold up to five tons of ore per trip.

One of the unique aspects of the invention was that they were joined by heavy chain link that had been used successfully in England. The last car had a brake application to help keep the cars from smashing into one another.

A 250 foot operating model railway on the grounds of the centre brings the story of the P & C Railway and the ore cars’ route to life.

The SCH Centre opened in 2012 under the Cobourg Museum Foundation with extensive restoration to the town’s oldest limestone building, often referred to as the ‘barracks”. A 19th century workman’s cottage was incorporated in the site and is now the visitor’s centre and gift shop.

An expansive multi-media interpretation of the area’s military history was this years theme while the centre will highlight business and industry of Cobourg and area in 2015, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the local Janes Crossen Ontario Foundry.

Charles Beale is a former educator, historian, freelance writer and author of Manly E. MacDonald -Interpreter of Old Ontario. He can be reached at www.charesbeale.ca or on twitter: @OntarioCanuck

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