The last half of the 19th century was Canada’s “railway age,” as rail lines crossed the continent and extended into virtually all regions of the country. By 1897, only two Nova Scotian counties—Guysborough and Victoria—lacked rail access.
To Guysborough County’s residents, a branch line would promote its natural resources—fish, timber, farm produce, minerals, and especially Country Harbour’s natural harbour—and stem the outflow of its population.
The first effort to connect the county to the province’s railway network commenced in early 1897, when community meetings at Middle Musquodoboit and Guysborough town discussed construction of a line from Dartmouth through the Musquodoboit valley into Guysborough County. Within several months, however, a consensus emerged in Guysborough County, favouring a route from Sunnybrae—already connected via branch line to Stellarton—to Guysborough town.
Following victory in an April 1897 provincial election, the Liberal provincial government instructed the Dominion & Eastern Railway Company to survey a proposed route from Sunnybrae to Guysborough town. As time passed, however, no contract materialized and the project faded from public discussion.
The project was revived in 1901–another provincial election year—with resumption of plans for a branch line from Dartmouth to Guysborough. The following year, a second line to Sunnybrae was added to the proposal. While both federal and provincial governments pledged subsidies, plans fizzled when Matthew Henry Fitzpatrick, a Pictou County native leading the initiative, passed away in 1905.
A third attempt to construct the line surfaced in 1906—another provincial election year—under the guidance of Sir Montagu Allan, a Montreal financier with connections to Pictou County’s coal industry. The plan called for a route from Pictou County to Guysborough town, with a branch line to Country Harbour, where Allan hoped to establish a shipment facility. Local disagreement over the Pictou County terminus—New Glasgow or Stellarton—and financial problems in the coal industry led to the project’s collapse the following year.
In 1908, the province negotiated an agreement with Alexander Bertram, an Ontario businessman, to construct both Dartmouth - Musquodoboit and Sunnybrae - Guysborough lines. While Bertram received a charter in June 1910, a change in policy later that year resulted in another delay. The federal government accepted responsibility for operating all provincial branch lines—many of which were unprofitable—and constructing new lines. Both political parties agreed to this change and Bertram’s contract was suspended until a new agreement was established.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s federal government worked feverishly to advance the two projects, calling for tenders in early August 1911. While the government awarded two separate contracts in early October, it had suffered defeat at the polls on September 21. When Robert Borden’s Conservative government took office on October 10, 1911, it proceeded with the Dartmouth - Musquodoboit line—located in Borden’s riding—but suspended plans to build the Sunnybrae - Guysborough line—located in a Liberal riding—until further notice.
For a decade, the Guysborough project lingered in limbo, despite continuous pressure from its advocates. While the Liberal Party returned to power in 1921 and announced plans to construct the line in June 1923, a reticent Conservative-dominated Senate consistently blocked the plan.
Finally, on February 10, 1929, the Liberal government announced plans to build a 67-mile branch line from Sunnybrae to Guysborough town, to be completed within three years. Engineering parties arrived in Pictou County in June, and the Dominion Construction Company, under the direction of Henry Falconer “Harry” McLean, was awarded the contract on October 18, 1929.
The Company wasted no time, moving equipment and crews to Sunnybrae before year’s end and immediately commencing work. McLean’s men toiled throughout the winter of 1929-30. By late summer 1930, the entire rail bed, most concrete abutments and wooden trestles were in place. In addition, 22 miles of track was installed from Sunnybrae to the Denver - Newtown area. All that remained was completing several bridges and laying the remaining rails.
Once again, politics intervened. On July 23, 1930, the Liberal government was defeated in a federal election. The Conservative government of R. B. Bennett, facing a major economic depression, immediately stopped work on the line. The rails in place were removed and the project abandoned.
While the Liberals returned to power in October 1935, work on the branch line did not resume. The outbreak of the Second World War overshadowed domestic concerns and the incomplete project was forgotten. While locals attempted to revive the project after the war, a final effort—a series of public meetings held throughout the county in early 1949—fell on deaf ears.
Over the subsequent decades, the rail bed disappeared beneath a covering of brush. In recent years, local recreational groups cleared the line and erected bridges in several locations. The result is a hiking and all-terrain vehicle trail running from the outskirts of Guysborough town to Aspen. While traversing the abandoned rail bed, today’s residents can only speculate how their county’s history might have been different, had the long promised branch line been completed.