Thursday, February 4, 2016

CASO's long lost St. Clair branch

Almost as long as the famed Canada Southern Railway was proposed, a branch through Lambton County, south of Sarnia, was on the books. Barely a year after the original CASO was planned in 1868, the St. Clair branch was proposed as a way to connect the railway to oil fields in Lambton and to Michigan via a ferry crossing at the St. Clair River. That river crossing, which was the railway's top priority since it would have allowed for a Buffalo-Chicago connection, never happened. The St. Clair branch kicked off operations with an excursion train in July 1873, followed by the beginning of regular service in January 1874.

Although it was technically known as the Canada Southern Railway, most people came to know the railway by the names of its parent companies. CASO was ultimately owned by the New York Central Railway, but for a time it was part of a NYC subsidiary, Michigan Central Railroad, so either one of these monikers were what people saw on the trains that plied these railways.

This rail line is significant to Lambton County for several reasons. Not only did it spawn towns, industry and other development along its right-of-way, it also holds the distinction of being the first rail line to be abandoned in the county in the 1950s, at a time when most railways had not yet begun to actively shed trackage.

Today, very little is left to actually see. The right-of-way is all but invisible in most places while artifacts from the line are scarce. But the line's history is fascinating, particularly in a few towns that we will examine. Let's begin at the end of the line.

Photo - Moore Museum archives


This photo above is the St. Clair branch's terminus in Courtright, Ontario, a small town on the St. Clair River, south of Sarnia. Courtright is a quintessential railway town, for many reasons including its name. The town's name was a product of gratitude. Those who bought land where the branch line ended were grateful enough to CASO to name their town after the president of the company, Milton Courtright. Not satisfied with that honour alone, the town also named one of its streets Milton.

In terms of its contribution to revenue service, Courtright wasn't a huge source of business for the branch. The town once boasted a grist mill and other small scale industries, but nothing of major importance to the branch. Before the branch's end, Courtright accounted for 80 revenue carloads in 1955 and 225 in 1956. Shortly before the branch was abandoned, CASO's customers in Courtright included the province's transportation ministry (likely for road maintenance salt), the local township and a construction company. All orders were handled through an agent in Brigden, a small town just east of Courtright.

Of greater importance, before the line began to decline, Courtright was CASO's connection with the C&O (now CSX) Sarnia Subdivision. This junction was obviously some sort of diamond since records show that the two railways interchanged cars.

Undated photo of Brigden railway station, which was a typical-looking structure on this branch. The railway agent in this town also took orders from shippers in nearby Courtright.


East of Courtright, another small town was spawned by CASO. The town of Bridgen owes its existence to this rail line, being that it was otherwise in the middle of the wilderness when the railway was built through the area. Over time, Bridgen spawned some small cottage industries that were typical of such towns in the 1800s and early 1900s. By the time CASO abandoned the St. Clair Branch, Bridgen accounted for a handful of shippers, including two lumber companies, a farmer's co-op, a coal supplier and a shipper that appears in numerous railway documents as "Lyle Allen." This name is also listed as a shipper in Courtright, so it might have been a large-scale farmer. Today, there is again little trace of the railway in Bridgen, which was also named (according to Wikipedia) after a CASO official, William Bridgen, who was a railway engineer. Today, Brigden is a farming community and is best known as the site of the annual Bridgen Fair, the premier Thanksgiving event in the county.

Even today, some sixty years later, you can see evidence of this old line near Brigen even though it was last operational in the late 1950s. Other sections farther west are all but indistinguishable from County Road 80, former Highway 80. The orange arrows show you the old right-of-way while the blue circle shows you the old pilings of the railway bridge over Bear Creek. Those pilings can still be seen from County Road 80, for the railway archeologist.

Here's a photograph posted in the Lost Lambton Found history website. For those interested, this history group has largely migrated to Facebook and their photos and conversations can be found there. Some locals call these pilings Lambton's "Stonehenge."


Once east of Brigden, one enters the Oil Discovery district of Lambton County. Few people realize that the site of the first commercial oil discovery in North America was in Lambton County in a town called Oil Springs. Soon afterward, another large discovery was made in Petrolia while another was made in the ambitiously named Oil City, which is little more than a hamlet now. These discoveries were made in the 1850s, but a century later, oil was still being transported by CASO along the St. Clair Branch.


Six miles west of Brigden and two miles west of Oil Springs, you would find Petrolia Junction and the beginning of the Petrolia Spur.

Besides the typical shippers you would find like local farm co-ops and other small commercial shippers like hardware stores, Petrolia's main contributions to this branch included Reliance Petroleum and National Steel Drum Company, two companies that were still in the oil business. Amazing as it may sound, there is still oil being steadily pumped out of the ground in Petrolia. A few companies in this area still regularly supply oil to energy companies, including Fairbanks Oil, which has been around since the boom days and is still family owned.

The other key element to this spur was the fact that it provided CASO with an interchange point with the Grand Trunk Railway, later the Canadian National. The railway line paralleled Albany Street and met up with the GTR/CN once it crossed what is now known as Petrolia Line. CASO even had a station in Petrolia. That little station, which had a witch's hat turret, was moved to Bright's Grove, north of Sarnia, and now sits as a private residence near Lake Huron. Here's a shot of the station now, taken from public property. Thanks to my brother for grabbing this shot. Can you see the lake in the background?

Below is a map of where the rail lines once made their way into Petrolia's downtown. I have not been able to access historic maps to figure out exactly how these lines connected, but as you can see below, CASO, in red, made its way up Albany Street while the GTR/CN, in yellow, made its way to the town's main station where its spur off the Strathroy Subdivision ended. Somewhere between the red and the yellow, there was some sort of junction where CASO and CN interchanged cars. I'm guessing on the property now occupied by the Scotiabank.

Below is a shot of a CASO 4-6-0 engine working along Albany Street in this undated photo. I found another photo of a 4-6-0 working in Courtright, which you can see here. The photographer of the Courtright engine mentioned that it was taken in 1956 and, by that time, the water towers were gone, which explained why there was an extra tender behind the engine to ensure it had enough water. My dad tracked down the photo below at a photo shop in Petrolia. You can see a tank car behind the tender, which may mean this image was taken as late as the 1950s, when steam locomotives still prowled this branch, but without the use of water towers. This image was the first I had ever seen of CASO operations in Petrolia. As you can see, CASO always operated under the name of its parent company, New York Central, or for a time, the Michigan Central Railway, which was a subsidiary of NYC. You can see a small piece of the town's United Church to the far right. That church is still standing.


Oil City was a relative flash in the pan when it came to the oil boom, with a brief boom and a quick bust. The town still provided a few shippers to CASO, mostly small scale agricultural customers as well as local government.

As you can see from the photo, the railway was listed as "MCR" since the line was essentially a Michigan Central operation by all appearances. The one interesting note about this town is that its main rail customer was the Canada and Dominion Sugar Company. It should be noted that sugar beets were once a major staple of railway operations in Lambton County at one point, although I can't say if that was the source of the traffic.


Travelling west from Petrolia and Oil City,  you would encounter the Eddys junction near the Oil City station. First stop on the Eddys spur would have been Oil Springs.


When this St. Clair branch was built to Courtright in the 1800s, it was done so with the oil fields in mind, no doubt. Oil Springs was the site of the birth of Canada's oil industry and the town continued to pump and ship oil well into the twentieth century. When CASO discontinued operations on the St. Clair branch, Imperial Oil (Esso) was still listed as a shipper from Oil Springs. Given that CASO had a connection to CN close to here in Petrolia, I'm sure there were a number of tank cars interchanged in Petrolia that originated in Oil Springs.

Today, those interested in a glimpse of this old line would find it at the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs. Besides telling the story of Canada's first oil discovery and the related industrial development, the museum also features the town's 1895 CASO railway station and an old tank car, which was typical of those used on the line up until it was removed.


Today, Eddys Mills is little more than a place name on the map. It is located a few kilometres due south of Oil Springs on the spur. Two customers listed for this spot include the county and the local township. There was a siding here and all freight orders were handled through Oil Springs, a little east of this spot. Most of the freight originating here was based on local farms.


Back on the main branch, if you remained on the main line at Oil City, your next stop east would be another town created by the railway, Inwood. At this point in the line, CASO's operations took on more of a rural feel, with most shippers being local hardware and construction concerns, not to mention the farmers' co-operatives. When looking at the documents for this line, most customers in towns outside of the oil district fell under three categories: farming, construction/hardware and local government.


Before leaving Lambton County, you would travel through Alvinston, another town created by the railway. Its primary shipper on CASO before the line closed up shop was a feed mill. At one point, there was a GTR/CN crossover near Alvinston where the Strathroy Subdivision crossed over the St. Clair line. Here's a shot of the junction, undated.

So, as we leave Lambton County, the St. Clair Branch served two more rural towns, Melbourne and Muncey. There it served feed mills and other agricultural customers. From there, it was on to St. Thomas, where the branch originated.

Along the way, the branch crossed the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National main lines to Windsor (due to the path of the CN line, the St. Clair Subdivision actually crossed CN's line twice).

This branch has been gone for more than half a century and there is precious little to see along its former right-of-way now. However, the importance of this line to swath of Lambton County is undeniable. The same can be said for a number of former rail lines in any part of this country. That's why I am fascinated by the history of these old branches. Revisiting history helps us understand just how important railways were in the building of this country.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great post. I learned many things about the area.

Michael said...

Thanks for your comment. This post spent a long time in development. Glad you liked it.

Lost Lambton, Found! said...

Nice post!

I'm the founder of Lost Lambton, Found!... I have some info and images and a couple of questions for you on this post. Feel free to contact me.

Amboyduke said...


Nice post. I am an HO scale modeler and am modeling the St. Clair branch in the summer of 1953.

A couple of things...the interchange with CASO/CNR at Petrolia was farther north than the Scotia bank property...and as far as I have been able to ascertain, not many tank cars were interchanged in Petrolia with the CN.

When I first became interested in modeling this little line, I was always perplexed why the photos of the 1290/1291 leaving or arriving in St. Thomas had almost no tank cars in their consist...maybe 1 or 2, but not nearly as many as should have been if the oil production in and around Petrolia/Oil Springs was viable enough to warrant a 6 day a week train.

The reason was that, other than a few tank cars with finished products heading up the line to local oil dealers, the bulk of tank car activity was between Petrolia/Oil Springs and the interchange with the Pere Marquette/Chesapeake and Ohio at Courtright.

The crude from the Petrolia area was not the best quality oil with a lot of sulphur and mud particulate in it, and as far as I cold discern, the refineries in Petrolia would do a "preliminary refining" to remove as much of the suspended "crap" as possible with settling pits and other ways to remove the paraffin from the crude, then they would refill assigned service cars that would be shipped to Sarnia for the final, cleaner refining. These cars would head to Courtright to interchange with the C.& O. to be hauled to Sarnia.
I would hazard an educated guess that the tank cars that ran between Oil Springs and Petrolia were also in assigned service...just bringing the "dirty oil" from Oil Springs to Petrolia, and returning to Oils Springs empty, back and forth.

My layout is operation oriented and this is the way I have set up the Petrolia end of the branch to function.
There are good photos on Terry Link's Canada Southern page that show as many as 6 to 8 tank cars heading into Courtright on the obviously they were going there to be interchanged and sent to Sarnia. I also rather imagine those cars were also assigned service between Petrolia and Sarnia.

The picture of the 1290 in Petrolia would have to be after 1948, as that was the year the CASO changed the number on this old locomotive from it's previous number of #880. I rather imagine that pic is from around 1955 or 1956.

I can't explain my fascination with this old line, but it really has a hold on me. I have been up and down the line about 15 times in the last 25 years and met a nice old gentleman in Alvinston who used to be a fireman on the line during World War 2, and he took us into his father's old machine shop and fired up an old "hit and miss" single cylinder gasoline engine and set all of the line shafts turning. Mr. Patterson was his name and he has long gone. But he was a really nice old fellow and shared a few local memories with us about the line.

I actually have several wooden ties on my layout that I made from real pieces of ties that I found on some of my adventures up and down the trackwork is mostly hand laid.

By the way, the Lost Lambton site is a great one to check out...he has some good info on that site...worthwhile stuff to be sure.

Eric Roth

Brian Hurdle said...

A 1st cousin of my late grandmother, by the name of Ross Sherwood, was employed by NYC to keep the steam locomotives fed, watered and steamed up at Courtright. The location of which is where Marshall's had the gravel dock on the St. Clair River. Also the abandoned line ran through the backyard of my aunt and uncle's property right in Courtright on its way down to the dock.

Many of my great uncles were MOW Section on CNR Chatham subdivision amongst others, so I have a railroad background. I very much enjoyed reading your presentation as it contained data that I didn't know about.

Well done,

Brian Hurdle

Anonymous said...

Petrolia Jct. Is 6 miles east of Brigden, not west. I'm not sure there was ever a connection between the CASO and GTR in Petrolia. Alvinston was on the "Kingscourt Cutoff" between Kingscourt (west of Watford) and Glencoe not on the Strathroy sub.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if this line crossed the 401 or it was already abandoned by then?

Michael said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. Concerning the question about the 401, given that the branch was torn up in the late1 1950s or early 1960s and the 401 through London was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is possible that the line did run beneath the highway. I did a quick check and the stretch of highway near London appeared to have been done in 1956 while a stretch in southern Middlesex County appeared to have been finished in 1962.

Tom Cowan said...

The interchange would be roughly between the firehall and duststop