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Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa RailwayReporting mark: CNOR, CN

The Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa Railway (IB&O) was a small regional railway that operated in Haliburton and Hastings Counties. Originally known as the Snowdon Branch Railway, it was incorporated in 1879 as a small tramway to carry iron ore from the Snowdon Iron Mines to the blast furnaces at Furnace Falls.

Trestle photo
Remains of the turntable that marked the southern terminus of the IB&O. © Jeri Danyleyko, 2015

The original tramway was built by William S. Myles, a prospector who owned mineral rights on a group of lots around Furnace Falls. Around 1876 he took over the Snowdon Iron Mine Company and built the tramway.

At about the same time Henry S. Howland, an American who had come to Canada about 1840, also invested in mineral rights on a number of lots in the area. Howland was both a businessman and a banker, who was affiliated with the Canadian Bank of Commerce and the Imperial Bank of Canada (ironically both banks merged around 1960). In addition to his business interests which included lumber, milling, and hardware, Howland was active in railway construction.

The tramway was not completed until 1878. Around the same time Myles abandoned the properties which had been partially mortgaged by the Bank of Commerce. Again about the same time Howland formed a partnership with Charles Pusey of Pennsylvania. They took over the leases of both the Snowdon and Howland mines and began shipping ore to the United States. In 1879 the partners incorporated the Snowdon Branch Railway which ran from Kinmount on the Victoria Railway to the mines.

The tramway officially opened in 1880. That same year, the railway was re-incorporated as the Toronto and Nipissing Eastern Extension Railway, by partners Howland and Pusey. Their intention was to exploit new iron resources in the region. Pusey officially took up residence in Devil's Creek (later renamed Irondale) where he was to spend the remainder of the life. Mining exploration lay dormant for the next three years due to a downturn in the iron ore markets.

In 1884 Howland and Pusey officially changed the railway's name to the Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa Railway (IB&O). In danger of losing their charter, they began moving sections of track from other sections of the line to Gooderham so they would have an engine stationed there in time for the deadline. It did not seem to matter that there was no track either in front of or behind the engine. Concurrently they presented an ambitious plan to expand the railway from Orillia to Ottawa, a distance of some 225 miles (362 km). With stars in their eyes they hoped to extend northwest to Sault Ste. Marie and southeast to Brockville.

It never happened of course. Construction resumed in the spring of 1886 with a contract to build from Howland Junction to York River on the Central Ontario Railway. Later that same year, the IB&O purchased the Myles Tramway from the Bank of Commerce which appeared to have taken ownership following a default on the mortgage. Construction continued at a leisurely pace.

By February 1887 the first two miles were opened resulting in a payment of half the subsidy. The next two miles to Wilberforce took seven years to complete. Despite the difficult terrain, the seven-year time frame seems excessive by any standard. The pace began to pick up in 1895 resulting in the completion of another 15 miles to Mud Creek by 1898.

The IB&O could best be described as a rich man's toy. Howland and Pusey, both wealthy men, apparently had plenty of money to burn. Together they spent a total of $1.6 million pursuing their hobbies of mineral exploration and railway building. To offset that, they received $231,000 in subsidies and $450,000 in bond issues, which reduced the total outlay on their part to around $900,000. No new mineral deposits were discovered. The railway was never completed to Bancroft.

Pusey passed away in 1899 followed by Howland in 1902. The mines in Irondale closed in 1900. Z.A. Lash, a distinguished lawyer who was executor of Pusey's estate, took control of the IB&O in 1905. Lash was also a general manager at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, as well as a lawyer for the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR). By 1909 control was transferred to the CNoR.

Mackenzie and Mann built much of the CNoR by picking up depressed and bankrupt lines at fire sale prices and then cleverly stringing them together. The IBO was in a bad state of degradation, likely all too familiar to them.

The railway was severely underequipped. It had three ancient locomotives. One was an old broad gauge rebuilt to standard, another needed major repairs and a third was leased. There were 28 flatcars and two boxcars. Regular freights were not scheduled because there was no caboose. Passengers and mail were carried on mixed trains.

The line had suffered from years of deferred maintenance. Probably the only reasons why there were no serious accidents were due to the speed, which was restricted to 15 miles per hour, and the exceptional skills of the crews.

The line was completed to Bancroft in 1910 where the CNoR established a connection to the Central Ontario Railway (COR), also under their control. The IB&O ended there. The highly respected COR manager George Collins was placed in charge of both lines.

The CNoR lasted until 1917 when it was nationalized by the federal government due to financial problems. In 1918 it was absorbed into the newly formed Canadian National Railway (CN).

Under CN ownership, the IB&O operated like a typical backwoods railway. Schedules were in place as guidelines only. Although it was reasonably certain the train would leave on the day it was scheduled, it had never once been known to leave on time. Travel was slow, restricted to 15 miles per hour, due to the light steel used in construction. CN only had two engines that could make it up the steep grade in Baptiste Hill. Once at the top of the hill, the train made an unscheduled stop so the crew could take on the delectable spring waters regarded by many to be among the finest in the world.

Not surprisingly the party finally ended. Following closure of a chipboard factory owned by Domtar, CN pulled the plug. In March 1960 the railway was officially abandoned. By the end of the year almost all traces of the railway had been removed.

Today much of the old IBO has been converted to a recreational trail for hiking, snowmobiles and ATVs.