Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The St. Clair Branch's Last Vestiges

This past summer, I was lucky enough to visit a unique community museum that tells a fascinating story in Canada's history. And it just so happens to be the site of the last vestiges of a long-gone railway line with an interesting history. You'll be forgiven if you haven't heard of the Oil Museum of Canada. Or Oil Springs, where the museum is located. You'd also be forgiven if you didn't realize that the North American oil industry first started in Oil Springs in the 1850s. This fact is disputed by those in Pennsylvania, where oil was discovered around the same time, but historians in the Oil Springs area do have some documentation that strongly points to Oil Springs being the site of the first gusher, in oil parlance.

I'm talking about the St. Clair branch of the Canada Southern Railway, which once connected St. Thomas with Courtright through a swath of southern Ontario forest and swamps. The rails are now long gone, and the areas it served now encompass some of our country's best farmland. You can read about this line's history in this post.

The short version is the Canada Southern, an extension of the New York Central Railway, built a rail line from St. Thomas to Courtright, with spurs into Petrolia and Oil Springs. The line opened in 1874 and was active until around 1960, when it was pulled up. The St. Clair branch was a secondary route off the main CASO line, which acted as a short cut for NYC traffic from the Niagara Region to Windsor, where trains would ultimately proceed under the Michigan Central Tunnel in later years and onto Detroit and Chicago. CASO's purpose was very much to act as a bypass of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie for NYC traffic to Chicago.

At the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs, not only do you get a glimpse of what it was like to discover, capture and refine oil in the industry's early days, you also get an idea of how railways benefited greatly from this discovery in innumerable ways. 

Local history buffs know that Oil Springs, a town now of less than 700, once boasted a population of 4,000 or more, with the streets jammed, several hotels jockeying for oil drillers, churches, saloons, makeshift schools and all the other assorted amenities of a boom town. That boom didn't last long, but the oil kept flowing in smaller quantities, which meant that there was business for a railway that could get there.

This is basically all that is left of the St. Clair branch, the Oil Springs train station, which was itself on a spur that originated in Oil City at the Eddys Junction. I've seen the spur referred to as the Eddys Spur and the Oil Springs Spur. The museum uses the latter term.

The museum once had a length of track between the station and an old tank car further up the line, but much of that trackage has been removed, although the old roadbed is clearly visible, although sinking into the ground slowly.

Even in the grass, the old line is still visible. I'm not sure why the museum disconnected the line, but I would assume it's a lot of work to maintain the roadbed, much of which is sinking into the ground. It's a bit of a shame for a railfan not to have this short stretch still intact. I am thinking of the way they use a short stretch of track to give rides at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. But the staff for this museum likely has its hands full with the many historic structures it already maintains.

Sitting on the last piece of the St. Clair branch is an old tank car, likely in use in the last days of the St. Clair branch operations. You can see that the museum attached a wooden rail worker on the car who would have been the person to help fill the cars in Oil Springs, which the museum points out was a common occurrence until the rail line's later days. All oil brought up from the ground here was bound for the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia. To this day, oil from this area and Petrolia is still sold to Imperial Oil in Sarnia, although it arrives by truck now.

The station itself is a treasure trove of railway history, with many preserved pieces of rail equipment, like this sign, which was attached to the rail and acted like a chock when a car needed to be protected from any possible movements.

Some of the line's old station signs have been preserved, including the sign for Eddys, which was the end of the Oil Spring Spur in Eddys Mills, a tiny farming hamlet that once required rail service for loading crops.

The Petrolia Junction sign is also preserved, and its story is fascinating. The Petrolia Spur was very much CASO's me-too answer to Petrolia being served by the Grand Trunk Railway. At the time, Petrolia was flush with cash and much of the oil discoveries were focused in this town. Rich oil merchants paid out of their own pockets to build a spur to connect to the Grand Trunk Strathroy Subdivision (later CN). That spur proved lucrative to the Grand Trunk, so the Canada Southern decided it wanted in on the action, as it opened its own station on the other side of the town's main street, today called the Petrolia Line. 

The CASO Petrolia Station survives to this day, although it is a private residence in Bright's Grove, a northern suburb of Sarnia along Lake Huron. You can see the distinctive witch's hat turret facing the water. The railway did do some bustling charter and passenger business in the age before cars, which made this station a fairly busy spot in its heyday. This picture was taken from public property in March of 2022. I didn't want to go any further, as I didn't want to disturb the homeowner.

An old steam engine's number plate also adorns the walls of the Oil Springs Station. 

My wife found this sign highly amusing. It was at a time when women were not expected to be travelling alone all that much. Interesting to see how society has changed in a relatively short period of time.

I would kill to have access to some of these historic photos, but many were simply placed on the walls behind a laminate, which made them hard to photograph. This shot seems to be of a doodlebug, likely in the 1930s or 40s. Passenger service on the St. Clair branch ended long before most passenger service on secondary lines was ended. The date of this photo is unknown.

Here's another photo behind laminate of a steam engine bringing in a passenger train to the station, although in an unothodox fashion as trains had to back onto spurs before getting back on the main line. This shot appears to show a steam engine backing into the station with the tender in the lead and a passenger car in tow behind the drawbar of the cowcatcher. It was hard to make out, given the lighting and the lack of information. I would imagine there would have been some wye to ensure the train was in the right configuration on the main line. 

Curiously, although the Oil Springs station was completed in 1885, crude oil from the area wasn't hauled to Sarnia on tank cars until 1915, when a crude oil receiving station was built for Imperial Oil. So even though the oil boom was a big motivating factor behind the building of the St. Clair branch, local oil producers still had a tough time bringing their product to market, so to speak. 

The railway did still serve a purpose, as it hauled goods into isolated towns for local businesses. In the case of Oil Springs, the railway also transported children to school in Petrolia. That would have been some experience, I would imagine. Nothing like a school bus.

Of course, the St. Clair branch never really lived up to the initial promise. It was never a major player in hauling crude oil, as much of that business had already been taken by the Grand Trunk, which reached Petrolia first. 

Initial plans to have a through connection to the United States via a St. Clair River crossing at the end of the line in Courtright never materialized either. The timber that was harvested and generated initial business on the line soon thinned out, as the area became farm land. In the end, the St. Clair branch barely made it to 1960, when it was officially pulled up.

The Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs was recently renovated and refurbished. It is a real gem out in the countryside, which tells an important story in Canada's history that few people really know. The railways of course get their due here, even if they aren't the main attraction. It's still worth a visit, if you are a rail buff and want to see some rare mileage.


Kevin from Windsor said...

An excellent story which evokes some interesting, but somewhat less than fond, memories. March 1977. There's still snow on the ground. Our Grade 7 social studies (aka history and geography teacher) decides it would be a cool idea (both figuratively and literally) to take a field trip from Windsor to the Oil Museum, followed by a panoramic drive through Sarnia and the chemical valley. Not that the museum wasn't interesting, but we took the long way through Canada instead of the faster route through Detroit, Port Huron and Sarnia. So the better part of the day was a bus ride on a school bus in the dead of winter with no heat. We toured the chemical valley after lunch and the sulfur smell made several kids bus sick. The ride was so bumpy that we held our pens to the back of our notebooks and made graphs like you might see on a seismograph. Add to that the bridge at Kent Bridge being under repair, or maybe the bus was too heavy to cross it, so we had to detour from one part of Farmville through an even more rural part of Farmville. To top things off, the bus - which was on its last legs (which we should have figured out by the lack of heat) - broke down on the side of 401 between Chatham and Tilbury. No cell phones back then and no radios on the bus. You'd have thought that someone would have pulled over to help. The driver fiddled around under the hood for what seemed like an eternity and somehow got the engine started. We finished the trip back to Windsor driving 15 MPH along the shoulder of 401. I know it sounds like the script of a Simpsons episode (Bart Visits the Box Factory comes to mind), but truth is stranger than fiction and I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. So your wonderful story about the Oil Museum has triggered late trauma and PTSD. :) But seriously, excellent write up. If I recall correctly, there is also a preserved train station at the Moore Museum in Mooretown. Was it part of this operation? And was there ever a car float operation between Courtright, ON and St. Clair, MI. Good ol' Google Maps shows RR tracks leading right to the edge of the river by the Cargill plant on the U.S. side. Did I read something about that in Trains magazine a while back? Something is ringing a bell, but I'm too lazy to look through my back issues to check.

Steve Boyko said...

This is very cool! Thanks for sharing this obscure branch line.

Kevin from Windsor said...

Hi Michael - Please check your eMail for another interesting MCRR remnant from here in Essex County. - Kevin

Michael said...

Thanks for the comments, Kevin and Steve. To answer your question, Kevin, yes, there is a preserved station in Mooretown on the grounds of the Moore Museum. That station is the former Pere Marquette/C&O station that served the town along the C&O Sarnia Subdivision between Sarnia and Chatham. The station was moved to the museum grounds after serving as a house for years after it was decommissioned. Your stories about the Chemical Valley remind me of the awful sulphur smell, which I can still clearly remember. There were days when the wind blew those fumes over my hometown (Corunna). I am glad to breathe fresh air in Ottawa! To your other question, yes there were plans for a MCR car float between Courtright and Michigan, but it never happened. The nearest river service was at the end of the C&O/CSX Sarnia Subdivision at the foot of Clifford Street in the Chemical Valley. CN also had a ferry service in Sarnia to accommodate oversized cars that could not fit in the old St. Clair Tunnel.

Matthew Mclaughlin said...

Great article. I was surprised to see the date of this, not to many modern write ups on this branch line. To answer one question you had, the o ly wye on the line was in courtright, which today would have been behind the lumber yard. That picture leads me to think that was probably a school train which would have reversed from Petrolia and then forward back. I don't recognize that Loco number, I'll have to look into it and see what I can find.