View of the Hickson trail - old Port Dover to Stratford railroad.

Random History: The Port Dover to Stratford Railroad

So, my dad bought me a book that’s about the old railroads of Ontario that are no longer around. The book is jam packed full of history about Canada’s railroad industry as well as the cities and towns that sprung up, and the ones that failed because of them too. It’s a story about how the rail shaped this beautiful province but more importantly for me, it also has information about where to find landmarks and sections of the old lines.

Today I decided to take a tour with my boy and walk a section of one of these old railroads. And I took a few photos too. I think it’s a cool piece of my countries heritage so I want to share some of it with you today.

Before I dive in, lets gain some perspective and see where in the world I’m located for those of you who are not even on the same continent, that way you can follow along too 🙂

A map view of the area of the world I live in, Soutwestern Ontario Canada.

That red circle is roughly where I am – give or take a radius of 195km… Anyways that’s southwestern Ontario, and the part of the rail I walked today is roughly in the center of that circle.

Port Dover to Stratford

The name of the railroad was called the Port Dover to Stratford. It was originally supposed to connect Port Dover on Lake Erie to Godrich on Lake Huron and would have been called the Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway (PD&LH). The railroad only made it to Stratford, and so it became the Port Dover to Stratford, or PDS railroad.

The line was opened between Port Dover and Woodstock in 1875, and between Woodstock and Stratford in 1876, and then decommissioned in 1965.

The map below shows roughly where the old railroad was. The blue line represents the path it was supposed to take, and the red line used to be the actual railroad. The bottom circle is where Port Dover is, and the center circle is where Woodstock is. You’ll see why Woodstock is important in a second.

A rough sketch of the old railroad from Port Dover to Stratford

As some of you know, I’m currently living in Woodstock right now, and so I started my search for old railroads here, close to home. The old Port Dover to Stratford has large sections that are completely lost forever, but parts of it still remain. One section was purchased by the Ministry of Natural Resources and was then called The Hickson Trail, which is still maintained by a trail committee today.

Southern entrance to the Hickson Trail

The Hickson trail is a section of the PDS that stretches from the north side of Woodstock to Hickson, a small village a few kilometers north of Woodstock. The trail doesn’t actually cover the whole way anymore, as the original railscape is hardly discernible once you reach Braemer Rd, just past Huntingford (between Woodstock and Hickson. Here’s a recent depiction of what the current trail looks like.

A map view of the Hickson Trail

So, for those of you who live in the area, you can find the southern inlet to the trail on Oxford Rd 17. When your heading out of Woodstock north on 59, turn right at the round-a-bout and in a couple hundred meters you’ll see a small parking lot beside a yellow gate.

Google street view of the southern inlet of Hickson Trail.
Google street view of the southern inlet of Hickson Trail.

That image above is from Google Street View, obviously taken in the summer. Here’s what it actually looked like today when I pulled up.

Photo of the Hickson Trail's southern inlet.

That there is my boy 🙂 And of course before hiking down the trail, we had to stop for a selfie!

Selfie - me and my son.

He looks a little unsure of what it is we’re doing in this photo…

By coincidence we ended up running into a man who happens to be on the trail committee. He had a couple of old pups with him, so obviously, being that I had a 3 year old with me, we stopped to say hello to the dogs. As I started chatting up the fellow, he let me know a few things about the trail.

All though the railroad was completely removed in 1965, you can see still find the odd spike, and a couple railway ties too. He even said when the ground is warmer, and you get a snow fall, that you can see where the old railway ties used to be. He said the snow won’t stay frozen on the ground where the ties where.

This is likely due to the creosote that was used to treat the ties. Creosote is a type of tar that recently has been deemed a human carcinogen, and it’s obvious (if what this man says is true) it’s effects on the environment are pretty serious. Just over 50 years later, and it still has it’s effects on the soil. Sad.

Anyways, after bidding farewell, we continued walking along the trail. As I walked I thought about what it would have been like to live in an Ontario with so many railroads. At the time the PDS was in commission there where far, far more lines in service than there are today. So many trips from town to town where possible that are not available today. I feel like Canada really took a wrong turn when we decided to prioritize roads, and cars over passenger trains.

As I was pondering these things, my son was more concerned with making snowballs, so we had a short lived snowball fight, and he decided he was tired of walking. A decision which he knows too well the consequences of…

Shoulder rides!

Shoulder ride on the Port Dover to Stratford.

Yep, he was happy about it.

So we turned around, and didn’t get to walk the whole trail, but I took a drive around and tried to find the other entrances. I started by taking a drive to Hickson to see if there was anything there at all. In my book it says that the trail starts there, but the book was published in 1994. So I actually had no idea how much of the trail would be around when I took off today.

When I ran into the man on the trail committee, I asked him how far it went, and that’s when I learned that it no longer connected all the way to Hickson, but I still wanted to go check it out, and see if you could tell where it used to be. Unfortunately there is nothing.

You can kind of see a bit of a tree line along a creek, but it’s difficult to tell whether or not that’s where the old railroad was or not. It’s around where it should be judging from the rough maps in the book, but there is a community center, and a couple houses built up around where, I’m guessing, the old entrance for the trail once was back in ’94.

Then, I toured back to Huntington where I knew there would be a trail entrance for sure. Here it is:

Southern outlet of the Hickson Trail

This outlet here is where my son and I would have came out of, if we had continued walking long enough. If you cross the road from where I’m parked in this photo, another inlet lets you take the trail further north towards Hickson, but I guess it stops somewhere on Braemer Rd, which is between the two towns. I never found the outlet on Braemer though… I think I had to drive further down the road then I did, but it’s a side road, and the roads were pretty icy today, so I wheeled ‘er around back home.

Today was a cool experience for me. I’d like to go out and see if I can find more heritage trails like the Hickson Trail throughout 2016. I love learning history, especially when it’s local history, and there’s no better way to learn it, than to go out and actually walk on the ground said history took place.

Railways had a major impact on what towns flourished and which towns dived in Ontario, and the PDS Railway is one among 4 lines that helped make my hometown of Stratford what it is today – a gorgeous town bustling with tourists, great eats, and fine people! I’m glad that there is still some of that history left, and that it’s taken care of for people like me to go out and experience it.

Hope you guys enjoyed learning a little bit about my surrounding area, and if you’re from around here too and are interested in this stuff, get out there and walk the trail yourself – now you know how to find it.

Cheers,

Dan

My son walking the trail like a pro!
My son walking the trail like a pro!

4 thoughts on “Random History: The Port Dover to Stratford Railroad”

  1. Just finished walking the trail from the LAKEVIEW condos to the Hickson trail. I have also walked it from the brickhouse brewery to the condos. If this is indeed the old railroad line, it sure make a climb, in railroad terms, in this area. I’m a model railroader and interested in all things trains. Great story.

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