VERNON SMITH – GLIMPSES OF A PIONEER BUILDER (June 7/02)

In a cabinet at the Kings County Museum – the history files – is a one-page document saluting Thomas Timmis Vernon Smith, the man who played a major role in building the railway through the Annapolis Valley.

“Vernon smith was the son of an iron founder who built some of the first steam engines in England,” the document begins. “Before coming to Canada, he worked with the London Southwestern Railway Company until 1847.

“Dr. Charles Tupper appointed him Chief Engineer of the proposed Windsor and Annapolis Railway, and he took up residence in Kentville… Vernon Smith was a vigorous, impatient man and he planned not only to develop the railway, but also steamship facilities at Yarmouth and Digby. He personally surveyed the sites for the railway and the construction of the bridges over the Avon and Gaspereau Rivers.”

Except to add that the railway was completed in 1869 and he moved on to supervise the building of the railway to Yarmouth, there is little else about Vernon Smith in the document. Much more could be written about a man who was the driving force behind the building of the railway. Smith hasn’t been entirely ignored by railway historians, but recognition of the role he played as a pioneer builder is practically non-existent.

No date is mentioned in the document on Smith’s appointment as Chief Engineer of the fledgling railway. However, Marguerite Woodworth gives the date as May 21, 1867, in her history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway. From this history we learn that Smith was involved from the beginning in efforts to finance the railway, which had a rocky start and was stalled for a long time when an economic depression struck England.

Woodworth’s book has numerous references to Vernon Smith and while they paint a skimpy picture, there’s enough to reveal his personality and some physical characteristics. Of his physical presence, for example, Woodworth writes that “the short, stocky figure of Vernon Smith… became a familiar one to the people of the Valley in the winter of 1868. Daily he was to be seen, alone or in company with one of the engineers, walking the section of the staked right-of-way. Snow and sleet had no terrors for him. He would drive with horse and sleigh to a point near the sections he wished to inspect, then with coat collar turned up, his stick swinging, walk from eight to ten miles over the rough roadbed.”

On his personality, Woodworth reveals that he was an energetic man who was often “at odds with his colleagues over details of the work,” but who had a dream. That dream was the building of a railroad system that “would one day reach through Nova Scotia, opening up resources, developing agriculture and populating the vacant lands – a line that would own branches and its fleet of steamships.”

Smith’s dream was to be eventually realised but not before many trials by weather and financial problems. Woodworth documents the disastrous effects the Saxby Gale of 1869 and the winter of 1870 had on the progress of the railway. These climatic quirks were costly and a railway that was already underfinanced felt the strain. While the Windsor & Annapolis Railway was up and running in 1870 and had overcome many operational and financial problems, the strain had proved too much for Vernon Smith. He resigned in 1872, moving to the newly formed Western Counties Railway.

More on railway builder Vernon Smith in a future column.

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