Jeff Green | Aug 19, 2015

It's a curious title for a book, “In search of the K&P”, as if the one time 112 mile rail line from Kingston to Renfrew (it never made it to Pembroke as originally intended) was some kind of mythic entity.

The title is explained in the preface to the book, which was published in 1981. The writer, D.W. McCuaig, recalls that when he first moved to the Ottawa Valley in the 1950s he was taken for a drive on a back road in Lanark County and came upon a train pushing though the bush.

“I vowed I would travel on that train,” he recalls, but never got the chance because the line closed down shortly thereafter. The book was written as an attempt to recapture the reality of a train that had attained a kind of ghostly status for him.

In the almost 25 years since “In Search if the K&P” was written, those who remember the line, which has now been gone for over 50 years and was in its heyday long decades before that, are also becoming a vanishing breed.

Building a rail line to link Kingston to Pembroke was just an idea in the minds of some businessmen in Kingston in the late 1860s. It was only mentioned publicly in newspaper accounts in 1870 and by April of 1871 it was chartered. Unfortunately the enthusiasm over the line did not translate into instant success when it came to building it. It took 12 years to complete 112 miles to Renfrew.

But in the beginning there was wild enthusiasm in the business press of the day over a rail line that would be able to deliver goods from Kingston to far-flung markets, and bring ore and lumber to Kingston for processing.

An editorial in the Kingston Daily News, published on January 7, 1871, saw opportunity: “The prospect of a railway to Pembroke is so promising to the interests of Kingston that it deserves to be well agitated and considered ... If we can by means of railways communicating with the interior, feed the commerce of the harbour, Kingston would grow and prosper, and might not only become a great commercial but also a manufacturing centre.”

Then first step was to secure the support of the community of Pembroke for the K&P over a line that was coming that way from Brockville, which was accomplished, and the second was to convince the communities along the line that a train would be of benefit. Public meetings were held in many of the communities along the Frontenac route, including: Harrowsmith, Hartington, Verona, Godfrey, Parham and Sharbot Lake. Business leaders from each town talked about the potential benefits for trade and the communities; all supported the K&P. Frontenac County even put $150,000 towards the line.

However, there were a number of setbacks as the line was being built, mostly because of finances and geography.

The first contractor that was hired was GB Phelps and Co. who were also investors in the company. Work proceeded slowly, and a worldwide economic depression that started in 1873 did not help matters at all. Phelps defaulted and disappeared and four years after that rosy editorial, there were tracks in place but no train had ridden them.

In 1875, GW Flower from New York entered the picture, and by June of that year the first train had travelled from Kingston to the Glendower mine near Godfrey. By the following spring, the line had reached Sharbot Lake, and by 1878 it had made it to the Mississippi River.

A series of setbacks, including labour disputes, vandalism, accidents causing serious injuries and death to workers, steel rails sinking in the St. Lawrence, and other problems caused problems for the construction of the line as it progressed through more and more difficult terrain towards Calabogie and beyond.

Somehow, however, by 1884, the K&P had reached Renfrew, which was destined to be its farthest reach.

Over the next 30 years, while it was still an independent railroad, the K&P fulfilled, in some measure its promise as an economic driver for the communities along its route, bringing goods and services from the south and delivering iron and other minerals as well as lumber to Kingston and beyond.

And in 1891, on June 11, the K&P delivered its most famous cargo, the remains of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from Sharbot Lake Junction to his home in Kingston. Macdonald had been involved in the building of the K&P, in a discreet way, and his law partner in Kingston, Sir Alexander Campbell, was very public in his promotion of the line in the early 1870s.

“In Search of the K&P” describes that ride in the following manner: “The train travelled very slowly, as it passed through Parham, Verona, and all the rest of the locations along the K&P. Farmers working in the fields stood 'at in hands with bowed heads' as the train passed them, and the Kingston Whig of the day tells us that 'crowds at all the stations begged vainly for flowers from the funeral car as a memento. They had to rest content with breaking off scraps of similax from the outside of the car.'”

(End of part 1. In part 2 we look at the CPR years)

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