The Dorchester. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
The first steam engine used in Canada was the Dorchester, built by Robert Stephenson and Company of Newcastle upon Tyne, England in 1836. It was purchased by the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad. The Railroad was conceived as an overland rail link in a waterway system between Montreal and New York. The rail line was intended to replace a rough 16.5 mile portage road. The engine was named the Dorchester after the Town of Dorchester, later called St. Johns.
The Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad Company was established in 1832 but did not proceed until 1835 with the involvement of Jason Pierce, a St. Johns merchant , and John Molson, Montreal brewer and steamboat operator.
The engine was brought to La Prairie by barge where it was reassembled for use. The Dorchester was about 13 ft. in length with a weight of 11,275 pounds. The wood-burning engine had a short wheel base and a high centre of gravity which created stability problems and required extensive modifications. The original four 48” diameter wood wheels were replaced with a 4-2-0 wheel layout. The railroad consisted of a 14.5 mile track originally made of 6” pine rails with a 4’ 8.5 gauge width.
The Dorchester started operation between St. Johns to La Prairie, Quebec on July 21, 1836, in conjunction with the Princess Victoria, a steamboat providing a connection to Montreal. Prior to this time initial test runs were held at night so as not to frighten people, and likely to avoid embarrassment if the train failed. Despite some early operating problems, the railway became a popular attraction, as well as an important transportation service for both passengers and freight. The railway was eventually expanded and other steam locomotives were added. The track right-of-way remains in use as part of the Canadian National Railway system.
The Dorchester Operated on the original railroad until 1849, when it was sold to the Lanoraie and Industry Railroad. The engine was used until a boiler explosion and derailment in 1864 near St. Thomas, Quebec, caused extensive damage. No original photographs of the engine have survived. The only remaining artifact is the brass nameplate, which was found in a farm field.