Rail­road his­tory in Brome County

Sherbrooke Record - - BROME COUNTY NEWS -

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

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