The Change of Gauge on the Canada Central Railway

April 2005 marks the 125th anniversary of the change of gauge of the Canada Central Railway from 5 feet 6 inches (referred to here as “broad gauge”) to standard gauge (4 feet 8½ inches (at the time this was sometimes referred to as “narrow gauge”).  

Conversion from one gauge to another is carried out in two parts:

   Preparing the track, in this case by moving of one rail inwards.
  Building new locomotives and equipment or converting existing rolling stock to the new gauge.

At the same time, provision must be made to ensure that service is interrupted for as short a period as possible.   


Although the track work was actually carried out over one weekend in April 1880, the story starts several years earlier.  The Canada Central Railway was constructed (originally as the Brockville and Ottawa Railway) from Brockville, through Smiths Falls, Arnprior and Renfrew to Pembroke with branches to Ottawa and Perth.  The dates on the accompanying map show the years in which the various segments were opened.  The line was built to the broad gauge and the only connection with the rest of the railway network was at Brockville with the broad gauge Grand Trunk Railway.  The line was built to the broad gauge in order to be eligible for a subsidy which was not payable on lines built to the standard gauge. 

Most of the line is in operation today, Smiths Falls northwards being the Chalk River subdivision (operated by the Ottawa Valley Railway) while Smiths Falls south to Brockville is used by VIA Rail Canada’s passenger trains, (the Canadian Pacific Brockville subdivision).  The branch to Perth is part of the Canadian Pacific Belleville subdivision.  The section from Carleton Place to Ottawa has been abandoned.

With a connection at Brockville, the Canada Central had quite an advantage over the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, which was standard gauge and was faced with costly transshipment between gauges at Prescott, although this was minimized to some extent by the change-of-gauge cars (see Branchline June 2003).  However, this state of affairs was reversed on October 4th 1873 when the Grand Trunk Railway converted its Montreal to Toronto line to standard gauge.  Not only did this leave the Canada Central as the last major line in Canada running on the broad gauge, but also it exposed it to severe competition from the St. Lawrence and Ottawa, which now had direct standard gauge interchange at Prescott. 

In many minds the Canada Central was a part of the transcontinental railway scheme, which would need to be standard gauge and which would come to fruition in 1885.  Indeed, as early as 1875, there were announcements that the company intended to change the gauge even though it was still extending its line on the broad gauge, reaching Pembroke in 1876. 


Work on the Western Extension from Pembroke started in November 1878 and this time it was done on standard gauge.  In Pembroke itself, a third rail was laid so that trains of both gauges could be run.  Tracklaying on the Western Extension started in April 1879 and a new, standard gauge, locomotive, named “Nipissing” was used.  A second locomotive joined the “Nipissing” and work continued towards Mackey’s Station through the summer of 1879.  However, there was a hiatus in the gauge conversion while the Canada Central came under new management which process was finally completed in October 1879.

The new management planned to change the gauge as soon as possible.  Bearing in mind that standard gauge track was being built west of Pembroke, the plan was to narrow the gauge of the segment between Pembroke and Renfrew in November 1879.  This would allow the two standard gauge engines to be used in revenue service between Pembroke and Renfrew during the winter.  Otherwise these engines would have been very little used during this period because little construction work would be carried out in winter.  To this end, the company commenced to erect a three stall round house and a turntable at Renfrew in early November 1879.  Although accounts do not mention it, this engine terminal must have been constructed with dual gauge trackage.  As soon as the terminal had been constructed the gauge would be changed – in late November.  As an aside, local residents were delighted to get a new turntable as there had been much displeasure when the original one had been moved to Pembroke with the opening of the line to that point.

Then disaster struck, as recorded in the Renfrew Mercury of Friday December 5th 1879.

“We learn from a private correspondent that on Thursday of last week one of the engines used on the ballasting train of the Western Extension, being without either the engineer or fireman in charge of it, by some as yet unexplained cause, was started off.  The engine ran with great speed about two miles into the gravel pit where several of the men narrowly escaped injury.  The locomotive dashed into the cars on the track, damaging them, and then running into the bank, upset.  The engine will have to be sent to the locomotive works for repairs.”

The Canada Central locomotive shop was located at Carleton Place but, because of the difference in gauge, the damaged standard gauge locomotive could not easily be brought down there for repair.  Because there would now be insufficient standard gauge locomotives available to work between Pembroke and Renfrew, the planned gauge conversion on that section was postponed.  Instead, it was decided to convert the entire line over one weekend in the spring of 1880.

Preparations for conversion went ahead during the winter of 1879-1880.  A number of locomotives were sent to Kingston for conversion, No. 11 going in the middle of November and No.1 in late November.  Additional spikes were driven in the ties at the standard gauge width to make the slewing of the rail a simpler task.  Some culvert work was also carried out.

Two new standard gauge locomotives arrived at Ottawa and Renfrew in early April 1880. No. 12, arrived at the Renfrew round house on April 6th 1880 and was prepared for the gauge change which was set for the weekend of 24-25 April.  New standard gauge rolling stock was also acquired, including about twenty box cars from the Coburg Car Works which were stored in the Grand Trunk yard at Brockville.  Two first class and two second class coaches, baggage, express and mail cars were also acquired in anticipation of the big weekend.

Changing the Gauge

The fullest account of the weekend appears in the Renfrew Mercury of 30th April 1880.

“The change of gauge of the C.C. Railway is now accomplished - the road throughout having been ready to run trains of the National gauge by Monday morning, the 26th inst., starting from all points at the usual time.

“The work of changing the gauge was commenced on Saturday morning at eight o'clock at Pembroke immediately after the morning express left town.  A train with a hundred men from the Western Extension had left Pembroke earlier in the morning and these men were distributed along the "line" to Renfrew in gangs of six for every two miles.  These gangs were supposed to commence work immediately after the express passed their sections.  Thus by ten o'clock the whole line from Pembroke to Renfrew was on the move.  At Renfrew many villagers had collected to see "how it was done."  The line from the West to Renfrew was all changed early in the afternoon, and a narrow gauge train from Pembroke arrived in Renfrew at six o'clock p.m. with the workmen on board.  The 3.30 express south was detained at Renfrew, in order to distribute these men again along the line from Renfrew to Arnprior.  Unexpected delays having occurred on some sections west of this place, it was considered necessary to allow the evening express from Brockville and Ottawa on the wide gauge, to proceed on to Renfrew, instead of, as originally intended, changing over at Arnprior, thereby causing no delay to passengers but a standstill of over four hours to the workmen.  Otherwise passengers would have been delayed at Arnprior some hours.  However, on the arrival of the evening train somewhat behind the usual time at this place, passengers changed cars and proceeded to Pembroke without delay, on a narrow gauge train made up of some eight cars; and about nine o'clock the men went to work again, changing the track from this place to Arnprior, which was accomplished early on Sunday.  The same men were then distributed in sections to Carleton Place.

“The change from Ottawa and also from Brockville to Carleton Place was commenced on Sunday morning, all being completed by Sunday evening.

“The work from Pembroke to Carleton Place was under the supervision of Messrs. James Worthington and Wm. Stephenson; from Ottawa to Carleton Place, under that of Mr. T.A. McKinnon; and from Brockville to Carleton Place, of Mr. Baker.  So far as we have heard everything passed off satisfactorily, the previous arrangements having been thoroughly complete.  Gangs of men were procured from the Q.M.O. & O. and Grand Trunk roads, in addition to those taken off the Western Extension for the occasion.
In expectation of the change of gauge, there were more than the usual number of spectators who on fine days proceed to the Renfrew station to witness the arrival and departure of the morning train; and their curiosity on the point was gratified by the instantaneous commencement of the work as soon as the train from Pembroke drew up at the station. The track shifters at once sprang to their task, and proceeded to carry it out with a degree of vigour and speed which elicited the approval of the bystanders.  There was also a considerable number of spectators to see the start of the first narrow gauge train carrying passengers for Pembroke, on Saturday evening, and notwithstanding, as before mentioned, the train from the south was somewhat behind time, many of them remained till after the change of cars had taken place and the train started northwards.

On Sunday night the workmen employed from Pembroke to Carleton Place returned to Pembroke, the train being made up of a G.T. first class car, and a second of the C.C., together with the cars used in conveying the men south.

“On Monday morning the train was on time at this place, and the new cars were much admired.  One person describing the grandeur of the cars, declared the light was greater inside than outside of the car.  The cars are fine, surpassing any we have seen even on the American roads.

“At present there is still a broad gauge engine in the Renfrew engine house.  This, we believe, is to be placed on trucks and taken to Mackey's Station, it being the company's intention to run a temporary broad gauge track in constructing the Extension to Mattawa, which place they expect to reach before winter.”

The Carleton Place Herald of 28th April , 1880 described the scene at that point.

“On Saturday evening last, after the  trains came to the junction, a great number of men also came on the train from Brockville, as soon as the track was clear, the men commenced to change the gauge along the track in each direction.  They worked all night and the next day until they got it completed.  A great crowd of men went up to see them commence work, some of whom remained with them until near midnight.  On Sunday three express trains came to Junction from Ottawa, Brockville and Pembroke, all of which were new cars and Engines, that were built lately.  They came to the junction about three o'clock, and remained until about eight, during which time the platform was crowded with people.”

The Perth branch changeover was recorded in the Perth Courier of  30th April, 1880.

“On Saturday night and Sunday last the gauge of the C.C. Railway track was changed to the 4 ft. 8½  in. width.  A large crowd had assembled at the Perth station to see the 'new departure" and criticize the appearance of the new train.  A new and well finished engine and two Grand Trunk cars are used at present until the old cars are changed.  Mr. P. Donegan, engine driver, had taken charge of the new engine, and on the signal being given, sent her off with as much ease as if it had been "The Tay", which had run so long and to which he had become very much attached.”

Canada Central car No. 9 was built by Crossen in 1882, just after the gauge change.  National Archives of Canada photo PA 206145.

The account in the Renfrew Mercury indicates that the broad gauge engine at Renfrew was sent up the line to Mackey’s to work on the Western Extension to Mattawa.  Further broad gauge locomotives were sent up in mid-May and mid-June.  The extension to Mattawa was changed to standard gauge on Saturday 26th September 1881 and the locomotives were sent to Carleton Place shops, presumably for repair and re-gauging.  With this, the broad gauge on the Canada Central was no more. 

On June 9, 1881 the Canada Central Railway was amalgamated into the Canadian Pacific Railway and eventually became part of the transcontinental main line.


From the Renfrew Mercury of 7th May, 1880.

“The corpse of the engine that ran away and smashed itself up on the Western Extension some time ago, was brought down to Renfrew on Monday and remained over night.  It has since been taken further down the line.”


Carleton Place, The Herald:  4/28/1880.
Ottawa, The Citizen:  10/4/1879; 12/6/1879; 12/10/1879; 2/24/1880; 4/14/1880; 4/26/1880; 4/27/1880.
Ottawa, Free Press:  3/9/1876; 10/9/1879; 4/6/1880; 4/17/1880; 4/23/1880; 4/26/1880; 5/17/1880; 6/14/1880.
Ottawa, The Times: 2/15/1875.
Perth, The Courier: 4/23/1880; 4/30/1880.
Renfrew, The Mercury:  11/15/1878; 4/18/1879; 10/10/1879; 10/24/1879; 11/14/1879; 11/21/1879; 12/5/1879; 12/12/1879; 2/27/1880; 4/9/1880; 4/30/1880; 5/7/1880;  6/18/1880; 9/30/1881.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, February 2005.

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