Railroad history in Brome County
TSubmitted by Jeremy Reeves Brome County Historical Society
he history of railroad expansion in Canada has a narrative that often centers around a march towards modernity. However, in telling the history of rail transport in Brome County, we prefer to tell a story of bankruptcy, economic sabotage, and daring prison escapes.
The first major wave of railroad expansion began in the early nineteenth century and by 1840, businessmen in Quebec and Ontario plotted schemes to control rail transport. One of those businessmen was Asa Belknap Foster who was born in Vermont in 1817 but moved to Frost Village with his family as a child. A grown man, Asa headed back to the United States in 1837 to develop railroads in New England. Fifteen years later, Asa returned to Canada fresh from his experience in New England and incorporated the South Eastern Counties Junction Railway (SECJR) in 1866 to connect Farnham to Richford, VT – a link that he completed in 1871. By 1873, the SECJR (renamed the South Eastern Railway) linked Brome County to Montreal in the east and Newport, VT in the south.
Like most railroad entrepreneurs, Asa dreamt big. After completing the link to Newport, the South Eastern Railway bought railroad tracks throughout Eastern Quebec. However, this stretched the company’s assets too thin. By the mid-1870s, Asa owed $2,000,000 to his creditors (over $45,000,000 today) and his financial troubles would only get worse when one of the American companies leasing access to his rail network cancelled its lease due to the poor state of the rails.
Facing a dire financial situation, Asa tried to leverage his position as a link between Montreal and the Eastern US to generate further revenues through lease agreements, but his rails quickly became the target of sabotage. The railway was even forced to post armed guards along the network to protect its investment. Asa’s tactics ultimately failed and in 1877, he was arrested in Vermont for unpaid debts. In dramatic fashion, Asa was freed when two South Eastern Railways employees got the men guarding Asa drunk and helped him escape to Montreal by train. Celebrations were short-lived however as Asa died soon after returning to Montreal.
Following Asa’s death, the rail company all but collapsed and in 1983, the company was sold to the CPR. Ultimately, while the South Eastern Railway certainly represents a stepping stone in Brome County’s progression towards modernity, it also speaks to the darker side of industrial expansion.
A 19th century return ticket from Montreal to Newport, VT on the South Eastern Railway