BY TESS BRIDGWATER
For the last few years, we’ve heard about Waterloo Region’s light rail transit system, ION. But in fact, there’s nothing new about it. Preston was one of the first towns in Ontario to have an electric rail system, which operated from 1894 until the 1920s.
The small town of Preston was founded around 1834 on the banks of the Speed River, but it was not until a half century later, in 1891, that it really began to thrive. The reason was the start of the electric railway system connecting Preston with the larger community of Galt. The system grew during the next 20 years to include the surrounding communities of Hespeler and Kitchener/Waterloo in 1911, and by 1916, it had expanded to offer a Brantford/Port Dover line.
Preston was the centre of operations for the Galt and Preston Street Railway (which was incorporated as the Grand River Railway Company in 1914). It was the first of several privately operated companies that flourished in the region at the turn of the 20th century. The driving force behind it was local resident, Matthew Kirkwood, a renowned railway man, who spearheaded development as the general manager.
Construction began in 1894 with the first electric line running up Water and King Streets from Galt to the Mineral Springs Hotel across the Speed River in Preston (the original tracks on the King Street bridge have recently been unearthed during construction). Next, the train line extended north of Kitchener and a spur line ran into Hespeler. This included a stop at Idylewild Park on the site of the Knights of Columbus property on Speedsville Road.
Preston was also a major centre for building railcars from 1907 to 1927. Most electric rail companies used rolling stock built by the Preston Car and Coach Company until streetcars began replacing electric lines. The company closed after a fire, and was sold to a US company in 1927. A train built in Preston in 1915, car #55, can still be seen at the Halton County Radial Museum in Milton, and others are displayed in railway museums throughout the US.
The Galt and Preston Railway was eventually absorbed into the CPR, but a scenic section from Paris to Brantford remains and the Grand River Railway still runs from the Toyota factory on Fountain street, to Galt where it connects with CPR. There are a few other relics of the old railways, but these bygone days have mostly been replaced by the “new and improved” of the 21st century.
In 2018, will see the completion of stage 1 of the ION light rail train system in the Region. It has been designed to replace the era of the automobile, which coincidentally spelt the end of the last electric system. In time it will come to Preston and Galt again. In stage 2, the new route will jog over on Eagle Street to Highway 24, which is now the demographic and commercial heart of Cambridge, Ontario. Of important note, ION officials have stated that the cultural heritage of the existing historical railways and bridges will be respected and preserved as light rail transit construction continues in Waterloo Region.
ION Route Map