Getting to Peterborough and its environs has not always been easy: after disembarking at the port of Cobourg, early settlers walked the fifteen miles to Rice Lake then boated across the lake and up the Otonabee River; by 1845, when Sandford Fleming arrived from Scotland, there was a “winter road” from Port Hope that entered Peterborough from the west. The Backwoods became much more accessible when the first railway arrived in Peterborough.
The idea of a railway from Cobourg to Rice Lake for shipping timber and agricultural products was initially proposed in the early 1830s, but was not realized until 1854. The Cobourg & Peterborough Railway was chartered on 10 December 1852, and construction began on 7 February 1853 with a sod-turning ceremony in Cobourg.
Tracks reached Rice Lake at Harwood in May 1854, followed within the year by the Rice Lake Bridge which spanned the three miles between Harwood and Hiawatha. The last stretch of line continued to the Peterborough station in Ashburnham Village.
The first train pulled into Ashburnham on 29 December 1854. There was no charge for the “throngs” of Cobourg residents who made this trip, but it was far from luxurious – only open flatcars with rough wooden benches were provided. Imagine that 28.8-mile ride with no protection from cold and wind! Perhaps there was a warmup stop in Harwood, but it is very likely that some passengers brought along flasks of “anti-freeze”. This free trip was truly a case of “you get what you pay for”.
Within a year, ice damaged the bridge. In 1860 it was deemed unsafe for the visiting Prince of Wales to cross Rice Lake by train, so he went by steamer. The Cobourg & Peterborough Railway operated until about 1865 with steamboats replacing the bridge — primarily carrying millions of board feet of lumber and tons of uncut timber to Cobourg — but succumbed to competition from the better-financed Port Hope, Lindsay & Beaverton Railway. Signs of the old Cobourg & Peterborough Railway still exist, however, at Harwood and Hiawatha, and in Rice Lake.
Submitted By Don Willcock
Peterborough Museum and Archives
300 Hunter St. E., Peterborough, 705-743-5180