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William Armstrong, the Grand Trunk Railway, and the Breslau Bridge

Grand River Bridge, 1856 by William Armstrong

Grand River Bridge, 1856 by Armstrong, William, 1822-1914 (Local Identifier: P1335 Waterloo Historical Society collection)

Hello readers! My name is TJ—a graduate student from University of Toronto’s iSchool, currently completing a co-op placement here at the Grace Schmidt Room of Local History. Throughout the past few months, I’ve been re-organizing GSR’s framed artwork and photograph collection, digitizing them, and slowly uploading them onto Our Digital World. During this time, I came across a particular watercolour painting that struck me as rather interesting, and through some research, it became apparent that it may actually be a piece by acclaimed Canadian painter, photographer and engineer, William Armstrong (1822-1914). This entry explores a little bit about the painting, Armstrong’s life, and the history and development of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR)  in the Waterloo Region.

The supposed Armstrong painting depicts a scene in front of the Grand River Bridge in 1856 at what’s believed to be Breslau, ON. This bridge was built in that same year as a part of the Grand Trunk Rail system that was making its way from Toronto through to Southwestern Ontario. Using a fairly dark and muted colour palette, the painting shows the Grand River with two canoes on the water. Seen in the background is the train bridge, with a steam engine passing on the left and several figures walking across. Seated in the canoe in the foreground are three indigenous figures. Perhaps their presence in the painting is an intentional nod to both the changing natural environment in the wake of industrial progress and the negative effects that colonization has forced onto the indigenous communities that were long established along the Grand River.

Interestingly, a very similar image painted by William Armstrong can be found in the collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. This one too depicts the same Grand River Bridge from a similar vantage point, although several elements differ slightly: including a more vibrant colour palette and a richer level of detail. In comparing these two images, it occurred to me that perhaps the painting held in the Grace Schmidt Room at the Kitchener Public Library was created as the initial study that later became the finished piece seen at the LAC.

Railroad Bridge over the Grand River. [Grand Trunk Railway]. by William Armstrong, 1822-1914

Railroad Bridge over the Grand River. [Grand Trunk Railway] by William Armstrong, 1822-1914. Library and Archives Canada, ACC. R9266-8 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

According to the Waterloo Historical Society’s annual volume of 1917, the painting was donated to them in that same year. While no artist credit was provided, or any donor information for that matter, a red signature in the lower left corner of the painting, reads “Armstrong ‘56”. While this does not provide definitive proof of it being a genuine Armstrong piece, the similarities between the two images are quite remarkable. And if we dig a bit deeper into Armstrong’s work as an engineer and photographer, surely his work with the GTR brought him to the Waterloo Region.

William Armstrong was born in Dublin, Ireland, and immigrated to Toronto in 1851. Having previously studied art, he also trained in engineering by apprenticing with the Midland Railway in England. Once he arrived in Toronto, he combined his engineering and drawing skills as an employee of the Grand Trunk Railway where he created a series of watercolour paintings depicting railway bridges and other landscapes.

During this time he also developed an interest in photography, and by 1855 he had established the firm Armstrong, Beer & Hume, with his two partners, Daniel Manders Beere (1833-1909) and Humphrey Lloyd Hume (1833-1903). This firm became prominent in the Toronto area for their work as civil engineers, photographers, and draughtsmen. Below are two images taken by Armstrong, depicting the Breslau Bridge from two vantage points. These images are a part of a collection held at Library and Archives Canada, and was generously provided to us by them.

Grand Trunk Railway bridge over the Grand River, ca. 1858

Grand Trunk Railway bridge over the Grand River., ca. 1858. Photo credited to William Armstrong, 1822-1914. Library and Archives Canada.

In 1854, the first railway service came to Waterloo County, but it was not until 1856 that the Grand Trunk Railway line was built westward from Toronto through to Waterloo County, reaching Sarnia by 1859. The Grand Trunk was the only railway providing a direct link from Montreal and Toronto to Chicago and the American Midwest. The construction took over two years, but by mid-1856, the bridge over the Grand River at Breslau was opened to traffic. July 1st, 1856 marked the date of the first train to run between Toronto and Berlin. After the rail line opened, the population of Breslau began to grow. Children would use the rail bridge to get to the Breslau school located on the Kolb farmstead on the other bank of the river, but dangerous conditions crossing the bridge later prompted Waterloo Township to construct a passenger bridge over the Grand River.

Aerial view of Breslau and the Grand River Trunk Bridge, 1952 - from Waterloo Trust calendar (P9073)

Aerial view of Breslau and the Grand River Trunk Bridge, 1952 – from Waterloo Trust calendar (P9073 WHS collection)

Above is an aerial photograph of Breslau that appeared in the 1952 Waterloo Trust and Savings Co. calendar . Both bridges can be seen in this image. Below is an image of group of men standing in front of a train wreck in Breslau from around the 1890s .

Train wreck near Breslau, ON, 1890s (P1499 WHS Collection)

Train wreck near Breslau, ON, 1890s (P1499 WHS Collection)

And lastly, below are two GTR-related images found in our collection. The first is a postcard of the Grand Trunk station in Berlin, ON dated 1908  and the second is a hand written, first-class ticket stub issued from Waterloo, date unknown.

Postcard of the Grand Trunk Railway station, Berlin, ON (P5081 KPL Collection)

Postcard of the Grand Trunk Railway station, Berlin, ON (P5081 KPL Collection)

Grand Trunk Railway ticket - issued from Waterloo, ON

Grand Trunk Railway ticket – issued from Waterloo, ON

Although, Armstrong was known for his photography and engineering work, it was through his paintings that he gained most of his recognition. By the 1880s he began painting full-time, winning several awards and had pieces belonging to many prominent collectors. Up until his death in 1914, he devoted himself almost exclusively to travelling and recording landscapes, the monuments of the industrial age, and the effects that the pursuit of progress had on both Native populations and the scattered communities of settlers across Canada. His paintings today can be seen as a testament to his efforts in capturing Ontario before it changed through the wake of rapid development and colonial advancement.

If anyone has any further information, corrections, or clarifications regarding the painting held in the Grace Schmidt Room, please leave a comment to let us know.

For further information about Armstrong read: William Armstrong, 1822-1914 by Janet E. Clark, Thorold J. Tronrud and Michael Bell (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1996).


Tronrud, Thorold J. “William Armstrong, 1822-1914, Artist and Engineer.” Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

“The Grand Trunk Railway.” Walter Bean Trail

Who Were the Photographers?City of Toronto.


8 thoughts on “William Armstrong, the Grand Trunk Railway, and the Breslau Bridge

  1. Art Taylor says:

    If you can find when L Seargenet (compare the “ger” of “Manager” with the “genet” of the signature) was a Gen[eral] Manager on the GTR, you should be able to establish at least a range of dates when the ticket shown was issued. Is there a legible date, possibly a post mark, on the other side of the post card showing the Berlin station?

  2. David Lamb says:

    Thank you for posting these images. The 1917 Historical Society description suggests that the two original central spans (“old style tubular girders”) were a tubular bridge (tubes through which the trains passed), but the images clearly show that this was not the case.

    The GTR’s bridges at Montreal and St Anne de Belleview were Stephenson tubular bridges, and “Lines of Country” (Christopher Andreae, 1997) suggests that the GTR line may have had as many as 11 of these tubular bridges. The Breslau bridge was likely built in The Canada Works in Birkenhead, England. This was the factory build by the GTR’s contractor, Thomas Brassey, to produce the locomotives, bridges, and other metallic components of the GTR.

  3. David Schofield says:

    I grew up in Breslau. Both the train Bridge and the road bridges today have evidence in the river and on the banks that there was previous bridges. The footing of old Vertical supports. Two under the current train bridge closer in to the river. basically at the river bank. In the Picture above the road bridge in 1952 may be newer. If you look to the left of it there is power line and just to the left of them and old road. possible some old stone work from a bridge. In the middle of the river is a grey long object. When you stand on the current bridge today and look in the water that is where the footings of an old bridge are. How ever to eat my own words here on the train bridge today. The pillars have dates on them. I have not looked at them for some time but the are 18??. I will have to walk down and look when the weather improves. Maybe the footings at the edge of the water are from construction of the train bridge (temporary). But the road bridge was definitely to the left of the current one.
    Another interesting thing to me is my Child hood home is in the 1952 picture. To the right of the lumber yard/train station. The oldest part of the house was one of the original home stead houses. We don’t know the exact date but based on the type of construction and some records we have found around 1800. It was the millers house. Pond is in the picture to the left of the tracks. Mill dam was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. The road used to cross the dam to get into town. The newer part of the house is built in 1860. After the GTR came through. The miller built a new house closer to the pond as the property was split by the tracks. Likely were the money or new owner came to build onto the house in 1860.
    Thanks for posting this. helps us build a picture of the house and what happened.


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