Opinion Column

Farewell remembered in roads and railways

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Abraham Farewell.

Abraham Farewell.

If you want a glimpse into the role of railways and their importance in 19th-century Ontario, mull on Abraham Farewell.

He was born the first day of winter, 1812, in the hamlet of Harmony, Whitby Township.

He taught school in Whitby Township at Harmony public school (which he’d attended) before joining his father at the family store in Harmony in 1830. In 1837 he built his own large store in the village, and business boomed. He expanded into the grain trade, exporting grain to the United States with a small fleet of freighters in which he had part ownership.

In 1852 Farewell started the Oshawa Manufacturing Company, which made farm equipment. He further diversified by joining William Gamble and James Gooderham Worts in a milling syndicate and by 1860 he’d added banking to his list of businesses and interests.

He was also involved in politics. He was a reformer, although not a hardcore one, thanks to being captured and held by rebels in the 1837 Rebellion. He was more successful in municipal politics than at the provincial or federal levels.

Being such a mover and shaker, he was a big local booster and was constantly pushing for improvements, including roads and railways, to be made in Ontario County.

Farewell believed that the toll road linking Whitby with Port Perry gave Whitby an advantage over his hometown and Oshawa generally. Toll roads were well maintained (relatively speaking), meaning the timber and grain traffic flowed into Whitby because of the toll road and drew business away from the eastern side of the county.

In the 1840s Farewell lobbied to make Simcoe Street a toll road so it could increase the volume of traffic it could handle.

By the 1850s he became a big proponent of railways. He believed that if a railway line to Georgian Bay from Whitby was not built, the area would lose any competitive footing to Toronto for shipping lumber and grain from the interior and the west to American and world ports.

At first, Farewell met with opposition — local ratepayers were not keen to fund an expensive rail line.

It took 17 years for the times to catch up to Farewell. In 1867 the locals realized he was right. Toronto was pushing a rail line north to Nipissing with access to Georgian Bay. In 1868 Farewell helped incorporate the Port Whitby and Port Perry Railway Company, but it was too little, too late. The race was lost and Toronto attracted the majority of the shipping trade, thanks in large part to the Nipissing line.

While the local line failed, Farewell didn’t. His ventures continued. He joined the firm of Sifton, Ward and Company, and with him, they built 210 kilometres of rail linking what would become Thunder Bay and Selkirk, Man., for the Canadian Pacific Railway, helping to finish the link between eastern and western Canada.

He died in 1888 in Oshawa, and in the area (among other tributes) a district, street, park and cemetery were named after him.

Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@historylab.ca