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Transportation a huge challenge for early settlers of Esquesing

From navigating swamp land in an oxen-pulled wagon to almost impassable roads and train derailments, the early days of travelling through what’s now called Halton Hills were certainly tricky
A road machine grading a muddy road near Acton in the 1890s.

Compared to today, the modes of transportation that were available to the early settlers of Esquesing were filled with nothing but trials and tribulations - challenges that modern-day commuters are unlikely to face.

Upon the opening of Esquesing Township in 1819, carved out among the dense forest were narrow blazed trails that guided settlers to the land in which they would clear for settlement and agricultural development.

These trails, eventually to become roads, were mostly mud and made travelling very tricky as carts pulled by oxen would often get bogged down, forcing the settlers to do a lot of pushing and pulling in order to keep moving. Where there was low swamp land or a creek, logs were laid across to form corduroy roads, but these were very uneven, making travel by wagon a nightmare with carts getting stuck or tipping over into the water.

Along with the challenge of thick mud and traversing creeks, was the dodging of stumps to avoid damage to axles and wooden wagon wheels. While trees were cut down to make way for the roads, stumps often remained as early settlers were only responsible for the complete clearing of the section of the road that lined their property, leaving for areas that were unmaintained. Steep and rocky terrain also posed a challenge with fears of losing traction and tumbling down hills.

Winter proved to be an easier time to travel as the ground was covered with snow for sledding, and spring was more difficult as the land was often wet due to snowmelt and rain.

A road from York (Toronto) to Guelph was opened in 1828, diagonally cutting through the township to help ease the struggles of moving east to west, but major improvements to roads did not come until almost a century later.

In a diary entry from 1846, Acton merchant John Holgate noted, “The roads to and from Acton are execrably bad, and none of the residents here have a spark of enterprise or public spirit about them.” A downfall to Holgate’s business was , in part, due to the poor roads, which most businesses of the time faced.

A huge game changer that improved travelling and business was the introduction of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856, allowing for the more efficient transport of goods and people to other communities. This track ran east and west, serving the settlements of Acton, Limehouse and Georgetown. Later, in 1876, the Hamilton & North-Western Railway would construct a track that ran through Esquesing, connecting Hamilton to Barrie.

Even though the train was a significant improvement to local transportation, it did have its own set of problems. In the early days of trains, safety standards and regular maintenance were not always up to par, resulting in mechanical failures and derailments.

Historic sketch of 1864 train derailment across the Credit River in Georgetown. Supplied image

One of the worst train-related incidents to occur locally was at Georgetown in 1864. As a freight train entered the large bridge that spans the Credit River, an axletree broke, causing most of the cars to drop 125 feet into the ravine below. As a result of this tragedy, 13 people were killed.

Over time, local transportation would improve towards the 20th century as the government took a greater responsibility of road maintenance and better regulations for train safety.

While we may grumble about present-day transportation, the accounts shared remind us of the difficulties the early settlers of Esquesing faced while travelling through the township in the 1800s.

Article written by Scott Brooks, with information from Dills Collection/EHS/Halton’s Pages of the Past/Halton County Atlas of 1877.