The Passing of One of Canada’s Foremost Railway Entrepreneurs

August 6, 1889

Railroad promoter and builder George Laidlaw died at the age of 61 near the community of Coboconk in the south-central region of Ontario, Canada. Laidlaw, who was born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1828, had an irrepressibly adventurous approach to life. This was in large part the driving force for him to settle in California during the late 1840s to mine for gold.

Laidlaw moved to Canada a few years later, settling in Toronto and soon prospering there as both a grain merchant and wharf-owner. By the mid-1860s, Laidlaw had turned his attention to railroads in his adopted homeland. His involvement in the grain trade made him all too aware of the deficiencies of the inland transportation system throughout Ontario. In 1867, Laidlaw published pamphlets in which he advocated for cheaper railroad lines built to the narrow gauge of three feet and six inches (one meter) that could serve as competitive alternatives to the monopolistic Grand Trunk Railroad and its lines built to the more expensive standard gauge of five feet and six inches (two meters).

The high-energy Laidlaw successfully pushed for the establishment of two Ontario-based railways — the Toronto, Grey & Bruce Railway, which would run northwest from Toronto to Lake Huron and what was then the community of Orangeville; and the Toronto & Nipissing Railway, which would run northeast from Toronto to Lake Nipissing. Both railways proved instrumental in both breaking the Grand Trunk Railroad’s iron grip on that mode of transportation in the area and enhancing the growth of Toronto as a major metropolitan center. Laidlaw also helped bring about other such other independent railroad lines as the Credit Valley Railway and the Victoria Railway to likewise operate in that region of Canada.

After Laidlaw passed away, obituaries hailed him as “far and away the boldest railway promoter” and the “life and soul” of efforts to improve the trains-and-tracks network in that part of Canada. His transportation legacy and its positive impact on the quality of life in Ontario is still appreciated. “Laidlaw had a natural ability to see the plain problems,” noted writer Tom Villemaire in a 2016 article published in the Toronto Sun. “His rail solutions helped a young province to grow in population and industry.”

For more information on George Laidlaw, please check out and the 27 June 2016 Toronto Sun article “‘Cheap and Cheerful’ Scot a Railway Visionary” at

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