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The Stratford Edison Legend

This wood-burner was the first locomotive built in Ontario, by James Good Foundry of Toronto in 1853. Also known as the Toronto No. 2, she was the first locomotive in the province to complete a regular run. She was also one of the first to travel the Grand Trunk through Guelph, Stratford and St. Marys to Sarnia after the line reached Stratford in 1856.

Thomas Alva Edison slept here — 150 years ago. Since his brief stay in Stratford and quick departure, the controversy surrounding his life here has never been settled. Thomas Edison was 16 years old when he walked the streets of Stratford, with his inventions and fame still years away. History has still to untangle the threads of legend, rumors, newspaper articles, biographies, personal stories and Edison’s own accounts to discover the facts. Even St. Marys wants a part in the history, claiming that Edison had family there and that he worked in their local train junction. Only Edison really knew what happened here.

Among extravagant claims that experiments in Stratford led to the development of the automatic telegraph, the phonograph, a cockroach trap and motion pictures, lies the threadbare account of a quiet boy, remarkable for perhaps nothing more than a few burn marks on a wood floor and one narrowly averted railway disaster. In fact, if Edison slept here, which some say he did, he couldn’t have left fewer traces. To settle the arguments, sorting history from myth, means returning to Victorian Stratford, four years before Canada became a Confederation (1) and the Gettysburg battle of the American Civil War, during the summer of 1863.

By 1863 the population had reached 3500 souls, to supply whose spirituous wants were fourteen licensed hotels. Thus, Stratford’s commercial supremacy in Perth County was assured. (2)

The view looking from the GTR and Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway depot in 1870 as construction started on the GTR’s new shop facilities. This view is from the corner of St. David and Downie St looking northwest.

Stratford was founded in 1832 and was situated in a great swamp. There was no town in Perth County, nor in the Huron tract, located in a spot so destitute in its surroundings. St. Marys, in this respect, had an advantage over all other places in the county. However, by 1857 two train lines began operating through Stratford’s central location: the east-west Grand Trunk line between Toronto and Sarnia, and the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway south-north line between Buffalo and Goderich.

Most main roads in and out of Stratford were just plain bad. The side roads were impossible. When the spring rains came, the roads north to Blyth or west to St. Marys would give out altogether with mud slides, washouts and crumbling bridges under the onslaught of heavy rains.

The railways had their own problems. Blizzards would come sweeping down into the snow belt and service was often suspended in winter. If a locomotive ran out of wood between stations, the conductor would break out a supply of axes, which he would hand to male passengers with orders to get out and start cutting down some trees. (3)

Upon arriving in Stratford, Edison would have seen the station of the Buffalo and Lake Huron (Goderich) Railway on the south side of the tracks with sheds and a wood yard east to St. David and Nelson St. on the site where the GTR (later named CNR) shops were built in 1870. Then crossing at the junction to the north side of the tracks and walking toward the centre of the town, he would have come to the Grand Trunk Station on Nile Street where he was to work as a telegraph operator. About the station were three or four frame hotels and several frame grain warehouses. To the east, the clang of hammers rang out from the Grand Trunk blacksmith shops on Queen Street. There were very few dwellings south of the tracks and east of Front Street.

The north side of the Town Hall and Market building in 1864. The lovely old “Queen of the Square” was erected in 1857-58 on the site of a burnt-out sawmill. Topped with a cupola and extended flag pole. This impressive building served as the architectural, political, commercial and cultural centre of the village. There were stores on the bottom floor, plus butcher stalls and space for market vendors. The fire and police departments were also accommodated, as was the first library (formerly the Mechanics Institute where Edison with his insatiable appetite for learning would have surely visited).
The south wall of the “Queen” of Stratford’s triangular square. This was the market half of the building, the arcade and stalls can be seen on the ground level and the concert hall on the second floor. The wooden sidewalk in the foreground is on the site of today’s market place. The entire Market Building and Town Hall was gutted by fire on November 24, 1897 and the present City Hall was built on the same site shortly after.

The telegraph had come to Stratford with the railway and the uptown office of the Montreal Telegraph Company was in the Albion Hotel and was in charge of Mr. Winter, with whom Thomas Edison is believed to have boarded.

The outstanding feature of the town was the newly erected town hall, a large brick building with a cupola and bell, which occupied the site of the present city hall. There were several stores on the ground floor of this building with an arcade of butcher shops. The farmers market was outside at the rear, facing the present day market square.

An early view looking north from York St. and Lakeside Dr. of the first Court House, built in 1853. It stood between Elizabeth and Williams St and has an adjoining registry office and a jail in the rear. To the left is Hamilton Street.

The business section was chiefly on Ontario and Erie Streets, but at this time, on account of the location of the town hall and the railway station, Downie and Wellington Street were built up. Before the railway, the centre of the town flourished around the millpond.

The Court House and jail were prominently located across the Mill Pond, on William Street near St. James brick church. The other outstanding buildings would be the Albion Hotel; the Central Public School on St. Andrews Street; the Grammar school on Norman Street; Jarvis Block, corner of Ontario and Erie Street which is the present day Festival Square in what was the Bank of Montreal. There were a few more brick buildings, but the majority of the buildings in the business section were of frame construction and, although rebuilt, they were pretty much on the same site as the present day business section.

A view of the Huron Street Bridge looking east. Unfortunately, a particular heavy rainstorm, on the night of June 27, 1883 forced the dam to give way and before it could be repaired, the gristmill, in a separate incident, burnt to the ground.

The two main streets had been recently graveled but were very muddy in wet weather. A few wooden plank sidewalks had been put down, mostly by private parties. The residential streets were mostly unimproved and only a few houses were of brick construction. There were two stone houses, one on Ontario, (gone) and the other, the Seegmillar cottage, now the home of the Canadian Legion on St. Patrick Street. The first shade trees had just been planted. The town had that year received a Russian cannon, which was placed in the triangle of Downie and Waterloo Street, then known as Battery Park, and it is now in Lakeside Park.

There was a large frame flourmill at the Huron Street bridge. The dam and millpond belonged to the mill. There were two sawmills, two cooper shops, a match factory, two asheries and five or six wagon and blacksmith shops. There were several gravel roads in the county on which tollgates operated. Until this time, streets were not lighted, though coal and oil lamps had just been introduced. (5)

William “Boss” Easson was one of the best-liked men in town and would have certainly impressed young Edison. "Boss" was a man who worked hard and played hard. Easson employed as many as 150 men and his lumberyard stretched out on both sides of Waterloo Street (as far as, and including, the present site of Falstaff School).

William “Boss” Easson

Easson built many houses, but his own home “Avon Castle” on Mornington St. has especially magnificent plasterwork within and equally impressive detailing outside. The view looking north across the lake shows his house and his Steam and Saw Mill in the foreground.

Walking downtown on the plank sidewalks, Edison must have noticed how bare it all looked coming into town from the train station. Signs of the old original settlement were everywhere. Edison hadn’t yet invented the light, so no electrical wires were strung throughout the town, no radios or phonographs were playing music, only the sights and sounds of early pioneer life and new construction. Shanties were still squatted beside the new immaculate frame houses.

According to legend, Edison boarded at William Winter’s home at 19 Grange St. In March of 1940, Winter’s sons, James and Blake, both old men, recalled the stories that their mother and father had told of the strange American. James and Blake were born in a little red brick cottage at 19 Grange St. According to the story as told by the Winter brothers, young Edison wandered into the office of their father, William Winter, who was the agent for the Montreal Telegraph Company and the American Express Company. Edison wanted a job and, while Mr. Winter didn’t have an opening, he was impressed with the lad and made a place for him in the office as assistant telegrapher and messenger boy. And because young Thomas didn’t have a home, Mr. Winter gave him shelter at his own place of abode — 19 Grange St. “I can recall my mother speaking about him frequently”, Blake Winter related. “She said he was a very quiet chap and, when he wasn’t working, spent most of his time in his room, experimenting with old batteries and wires. Mother said she often told him she was afraid he would blow the house up”. (6)

Edison’s friend and fellow telegraph operator William Winters’, lived in this house at 19 Grange St. There are tales by William’s and Thomas’s mother, who, at some time may have had to look after Thomas Edison.

Teresa Flaherty and her brother Frank lived in the house after the Winters and were convinced that Edison had lived in that house. She said, “There were burn marks left on the under-flooring from Edison’s experiments and the name of one of Edison’s friends was scratched on a window. Edison’s sister used to come here to visit every summer and Edison himself was later to come for a visit but he died just as he was preparing for the trip”. Recent research shows that the cottage was not built until 1866, three years after Edison worked there, but this does not solve the mystery of where Edison lived in Stratford.

Teresa Flaherty points to the name of a friend of Thomas Edison’s scratched on a window of the Grange Street home where Edison supposedly lived.

Edison’s first job was as an employee of the Grand Trunk Railway as a night telegraph operator. When he wasn’t experimenting, which he most often liked to do, he was at work, often asleep.

An interesting article on Edison, his work while he was employed as a night operator on the G.T.R and even then engaged in inventing, appeared in the Stratford Beacon in 1878. “One of his devices — an automation to signal the head office every half hour while he slept — led to his discharge from the service of the company. There are still a few employees of the G.T.R. in Stratford, who remember him as a hulking boy, with any amount of ambition and an inordinate desire for sleep, but with very little promise of developing into the wonderful personage he has become of late years”. (7)

Mr. Myles Pennington wrote in his book “Railways and Other Ways” (1894) regarding that Edison incident in Stratford: “Here he applied his ingenuity in a novel way, which shows, at least, how fertile must have been the young operator’s brain. The operators were required to report “six” every half hour to the Circuit Manager.

Young Edison, instead of reporting in person, rigged a wheel with Morse’s characters cut in the circumference in such a way that when, turned by a crank, it would write the figure “six” and sign his office call. The watchman turned the wheel while Edison slept”. (8)

Major R. Larmour, who was also a telegrapher, Assistant Superintendent of Traffic for the Western Division of GTR here in Stratford and inveterate letter writer to the local newspaper, wrote his version of this story in 1906. “Edison was still young enough to be a minor and like all other operators with little to do, found it hard to keep awake and promptly answer his half-hour roll call. His inventive genius found, in this circumstance, a field for operation. He procured the works of an old clock and manipulated the running gear so that instead of recording time in seconds, minutes and hours, it only did business every half hour, and that business was to give the Stratford office signal “i i sd”. The prompt regularity with which this signal came in at the head office at Toronto marked too great a contrast with previous conditions, and thus aroused suspicion that there was some game being played. An inspection followed which disclosed the facts. The clock was confiscated”. (9)

In yet another version, Francis Trevelyan Miller wrote in his book entitled “Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of Mankind”, published 6 weeks after Mr. Edison’s death in October 1931, says in part, “Edison’s first invention was the product of necessity. The orders required that the operator send, every hour, after nine o’clock the signal "6" to the office of the train dispatcher. The “sixing” was to prove that the operator was awake, but the signal proved that this was only “circumstantial evidence”. The report came through from Edison’s station always on the dot, never a minute before and never a minute after, but there was something mystifying about this exactness, as attempts to reach him over his own wire frequently failed.

One night the train dispatcher decided to investigate the conditions at Stratford. He opened the key and called for 15 minutes then, becoming alarmed, he darted out and secured a handcar and hastened to the junction. Rushing to the station window and peering in as if he expected to find the operator murdered, he saw young Edison sleeping soundly in his chair, thoroughly at peace with this world. Still believing that the boy might be dead, he reached out to shake him when he saw a curious bit of mechanism on the table near the telegraph instrument. It was a device which hooked the telegraph instrument with the clock. The inspector decided to wait and see what would happen, believing it was an alarm that would arouse the sleeper. The hand finally reached the moment of the signal—but no alarm went off. The young operator kept on slumbering and to the astonishment of the inspector the mechanism performed the duty for him”. (10)

John Duncan of Toronto recalled the Edison incident when he was hired to replace a certain Tom Edison who dozed one night in the little station at Stratford. When he arrived at Stratford, he was shown a little contraption of cog wheels which had brought about Edison’s downfall. (11)

And finally in 1940, one man who knew Thomas Edison when he resided in Stratford, John Lauder, veteran railway conductor, said, “ I knew Edison when he was the best ‘brass pounder’ on the railway.....Ned Mullens, Joe Baxter and Dave McNabb were also operators at the time and I can remember when they would hang around and marvel at the way Edison would work.....We all thought he was a pretty smart fellow but he was awfully quiet”. Mr. Lauder claimed that he remembered the gadget that caused Edison to lose his job in Stratford. (6)

Meanwhile, Edison slept on. Then one night, according to legend, Edison slept through a crucial signal where he neglected to hold a westbound train at the station until the eastbound train from St. Marys had arrived at the station.

Mr. Myles Pennington in his book “Railways and other Ways”, printed in 1894, retold the story by P.H. Carter, now of the Grand Trunk Railway freight department, who in 1863 was an agent for the Company at Stratford. Carter remembered young Edison, a boy of about 16 or 17 years of age, as a night operator at that station. One night Edison got a message from the dispatcher to hold a certain train. Edison repeated back the message without showing it to the conductor who left, supposing all was right. Edison ran out of his office to stop the train, but it was too late. Luckily the line between St. Marys and Stratford is a straight one, and the drivers of each approaching train saw each other in time to stop and avoid a collision. The case was, of course, reported and Mr. Carter and the operator were summoned to Toronto for an investigation. Superintendent Spicer gave Edison a good talking to, told him that the offence was a criminal one, and he was liable to be sent to the penitentiary. Just then Mr. Spicer was called out to see someone, and Carter and Edison were left alone. After a few minutes Edison put on his hat, saying, “I’m not going to wait here”, and off he went, making as quick a passage as he could to the home of his parents in Port Huron. (8)

The book "Railways and Other Ways" also references an earlier article published on Sept. 1, 1881, as Edison was interviewed in London, Ontario, by a reporter named Mr. A. Brenner for the London Advertiser.

“Mr. Edison, I believe?”

“I’m kind of stuck here.” He continued, “I intended going on to Port Huron to see some relatives, and the trains failed to connect.”

“If I recollect aright,” said the reporter, “you are no stranger to this part of the country.”

“Stranger? Why no, I used to be a Telegraph operator at Stratford, down here. By the way, I ran two trains into each other there.” Mr. Edison then went on to repeat the circumstance of the affair, and he related the facts with as clear a comprehension of them as if they had just occurred. “The trouble was,” he said, “in leaving such a young fellow in charge. I was only sixteen or seventeen; but no accident happened. However, I was summoned before Mr. Spicer, the superintendent and so was the agent, P.H. Carter.”

“I know Carter,” said the reporter; “he is a good friend of mine, inasmuch as he is responsible for me being in Canada.”

“Is that so?” said Edison. “Well if you see him, tell him I recollect him and ask to be remembered. But how is he responsible for you being in Canada? Are you an American?”

“Well, what part of the United States do I come from?” queried the reporter.

Edison buried his head in his hand and thought a while, “You are from New Orleans,” he said. (8)

Mr. Carter and the reporter made a reference to being “in Canada”. Both were from Newfoundland and in those times, his home was not part of Canada. It was a British Colony until 1949.

So the story goes. For more than 100 years, newspapers, historians and generations of citizens have passed on speculation as fact. But there are problems with the stories.

The Albion Hotel as in 1864. The two story Mill Block is to the left of the hotel. The Montreal Telegraph office of Thomas Winter was only the first window closest to the hotel. Notice the telegraph posts in front of the building.

To begin with, the house at 19 Grange St., once considered Edison’s home, wasn’t built until at least three years after the inventor left Stratford. Tax assessment records show the house was built in 1866, but William Winter didn’t move in for another seven years.

The stories of Edison’s stay in the house came from William Winter’s sons, who were born years after the inventor left town. Under their embellishments may lie a few tattered shreds of truth.

Their father, William Winter, worked as a telegrapher for his brother Thomas Winter, local manager of the Montreal Telegraph Office. The Stratford City Directory for 1863 lists Thomas Winter as “Stationer and Montreal Telegraph Office”, Albion Block. Thomas lived and operated a Stratford News Depot, Book Store and the telegraph office in a small building, actually one door west of the Albion Hotel.

It is possible that William lived with his older unmarried brother Thomas above the store (Thomas was married in 1865). The first evidence of William is in the 1867 Stratford City Directory, listed as a “clerk” with Thomas Winter on Ontario St. It’s possible that Edison, a fellow telegrapher, lived with the two men in the small apartment above the store. This might explain the stories William Winter told his sons. The sons just got the wrong place. However, there is an old doorway, now boarded up, that passes between the second floor of the Albion Hotel to the adjoining building, the Winters' living quarters above the store. This passageway could account for the rumors that Edison actually resided in the Albion Hotel, (as many travellers would do), but frequented Winter’s telegraph office, and ran off suddenly from the hotel without paying his bill.

Map of the town of Stratford 1857, shows the survey brought about by the coming of two Railway Lines in 1856. Edison working for GTR station No. 4 neglected to hold the westbound train waiting at the B&LHR station No. 3 from the incoming eastbound GTR train.

Recent research indicates that, according to the city assessment rolls, in 1860 an addition to the Albion Hotel was completed by Peter Wood, owner of the Albion. This addition was built to tie into the two-story Mill Block with access to the second floor from the Albion Hotel. Thomas Winter is listed in the 1863 assessment roll as a merchant, in the space known as 46 Ontario St., lot 10, a 15 ft.-wide section beside the Mill Block. According to the City Directories of 1863, Thomas Winter is listed as a stationer and Montreal Telegraph. By 1864, Thomas had expanded his stationer business to the remainder of the building, lots 5 & 6 of the Mill block.

Years later, Harrison Corey, son of the owner of the Albion Hotel in 1864, charged that Edison ran off without paying his last bill, suggesting that the inventor had been living in the Albion Hotel and was in a hurry to leave Canada.

As for the story of the near disaster, there is no record of the event in city newspapers during 1863 or '64. Edison was a notorious storyteller and practical joker and, later in life, liked to pull the legs of gullible biographers. Sometimes, he jumbled bits of several stories together, creating a strange blend of fact and fantasy.

A photo from around 1880 shows little of the Port Dover & Lake Huron Railway line station but lots of the train platform (No. 3 on the map). The view is from the present day CNR platform looking south.

One biographer, Robert Conot, suggests in his book "A Streak of Luck", that Edison was working late one night on Dec. 11, 1863. However, the only news to be reported in the local Stratford Beacon of that week was that a switching error derailed a westbound freight. “Accident at Union Station (Stratford Beacon 1863, 18 Dec.)

“Last Friday night while cars were in the Buffalo Line of the station, the switch having just previously been changed to allow them to come in, a freight train on the Grand Trunk going west came slowly along, and the “signal arms” being lowered in place of being elevated, the train ran off the track where the switch is situated. But saving injury to the car (cab?) of the engine and to the train and one of the other cars which were all run off where the Grand Trunk crosses the town limits opposite to Mrs. Pitts, no further damage was done. However, if additional attendance at the “signal arm” were provided to lower or elevate as the west and other switches are altered, no such accidents would happen”. (13)

The present Stratford railway station was built in 1913 on Shakespeare Street by the Grand Trunk Railway, in prairie style, and is well preserved on the exterior, although the original tower was removed in the 1950s (no.6 on the map).

The Old Railway Depot in the 1880s showing Union Station and the GTR station, both located on the triangular piece of land at Guelph and Downie Streets (No. 4 on the map). The view is looking southeast.

However, Stratford had five earlier railway stations prior to the present one. The first two were built in 1856, one for the Grand Trunk Railway line (Edison's employer), running east and west from Toronto to Sarnia, and the other running north and south for the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway line from Fort Erie to Goderich. Unlike later stations on these two lines, these were not near the junction. The original GTR station was located on Queen Street at Regent Street (well east of the present station), while the B&LHR station was at Nelson and St. David Steets, (at the west end of the later shops) (no. 1 and no. 2 on the map).

In 1861, the Buffalo line built a new station, “Union Station”, near the junction of the two lines, between the tracks east of Nile Street, in order to facilitate the transfer of people and luggage from one railway line to the other. Pressure was on the GTR to do the same, but in 1863 the GTR took over the operation of the B&LHR and its Union Station, the same year Thomas Edison was working for GTR as a telegraph operator (no. 3 on the map).

Finally, in 1870, a new frame Union Station was built at the corner of Guelph and Downie Streets (across from the Dominion Hotel which still stands today). It was enlarged with a baggage room in 1872. Another building (for the dispatchers) was added between the two lines by 1882 (No. 4 on the map). These buildings were removed after the present building was erected in 1913.

Annie and Georgia Winkler in front of their home at 145 Wellington Street. Georgia wrote poetry and short stories and they took in boarders to make ends meet. Their father was a skillful house painter.

The other station which existed in Stratford was on Falstaff Street near Nile Street and was built in 1875 for the Port Dover Railway and its extension which ran north to Palmerston (No. 5 on the map).

After Edison died in 1931, as one of the world’s greatest heroes, the faded memories recounted by old men filled new history books. The more stories were told, the more exciting and less accurate they became. History became legend. The sleep-saving device that Edison invented in Stratford was described by several contemporaries and could well have inspired the automatic telegraph, the phonograph and even the motion picture camera.

Edison also invented a cockroach trap in Stratford, though it was never marketed. Robert Koolakian, keeper of Edisoniana at the Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan, states, “ The roach trap evolved from Edison’s stint as a telegrapher in Stratford in the early 1860s, where young Edison found the telegraph office infested with roaches and mice. He cut concentric circles out of sheet brass, one larger than the other, and then connected one to the positive pole of a zinc battery and the other to the negative pole. A morsel of food was the bait inside the smaller circle. When the hungry roach came for dinner, its body closed the electrical circuit and it was electrocuted. Slightly larger devices were used for mice. The idea worked, but was never patented or manufactured”.

The panoramic view of St. Marys was taken in 1864. The view looks east from Ontario St.

There are even stories that Edison experimented with a primitive telephone in Stratford.

Thomas A. Edison experimented with sound effects as early as 1863. One of his simple devices remains a prized possession of Miss Georgia Winkler, 145 Wellington Street, a sister of the late Robert Winkler, with whom the famed inventor spent many hours of his stay in this city.

The instrument which Miss Winkler owns consists of two round tin and parchment cylinders, open at one end and linked together by a long string. Miss Winkler does not remember Edison’s life in Stratford but recalls her mother, the late Mrs. Fredrick Winkler, telling of Edison’s association with Robert. The two would talk to one another by means of the cylinders and string from different rooms of the brown-coloured cottage on Wellington street, a home that stood on the site of the present Winkler dwelling.

“Whatever you do, never throw that instrument away”, Miss Winkler says her mother warned her many times as they discussed the inventor. “It was given to Robert by Thomas A. Edison”. Miss Winkler added that when Edison gave her brother, a lad of eight or nine years of age, the tin can and string phone, he had not achieved any fame. Years later, when his success was assured, the plaything of the early days, for that is all it was to Robert Winkler and the other boys of his own age who used to gather at the Winkler home in the evenings, was carefully laid away. (14)

A Winkler descendent, Violet Russell, in 1985 stated that the “relic” was protected by her auntie who even took it with her to a nursing home, keeping it under her bed. When she died, it was the first thing the nurses pitched out. When asked what it looked like, Violet said, “I can’t really tell but it sounds something like a tin-can telephone. Anyway, it had a long wire between two tin cone-shaped ends”.

One mile northeast of the town of St. Marys, Ontario stands a cut-limestone depot of Gothic design which was built during the year of 1859. This picture shows the station as it appeared in 1933 delivering Edison’s desk to the Henry Ford museum.

A controversy surrounding Edison’s time here exists between two neighboring cities, St. Marys and Stratford. St Marys has always claimed that Edison spent time in their city as well. The earliest reference to Edison, which indicates he worked in St. Marys, is found in a 1907 inventory of the physical capital of the Grand Trunk Railway. It contains a notation to the effect that Edison worked at St. Marys junction. (15)

In the July 6, 1933, edition of the St. Marys Journal Argus it states, “William Jacobi, telegraph operator at the St. Marys Junction station of the Canadian National Railway (subsequent company after Grand Trunk), informs us that he has an Edison relic in his office at the station there. The desk that Will throws his legs under each day of the week, while he sends those little dots and dashes over the wires, is one that the late Thomas A. Edison used while he was a night operator here in 1859”.

In August, 1933, the venerable telegraph table once used by Thomas A. Edison, the electrical wizard, was presented by J.S. Hungerford , acting president of the Canadian National Railways (C.N.R.) to Henry Ford, motor car magnate, for inclusion among the Edison exhibits at the Edison Institute, Dearborn, Michigan. (15)

A search of << Ancestry.ca >> reveals that a first cousin, Martha Edison, was married in Vienna, Ontario, on March 12, 1862 to William McIntosh from St. Marys. At that time, William was living in St. Marys. It’s presumed that the couple moved to St. Marys after the wedding. The census of 1871 shows William, occupation merchant, in St. Marys. This record shows him as head of the household with wife Martha and 3 daughters. (16)

Edison developed this vertical style of writing while working as a telegraph operator having to transcribe incoming telegrams before relaying the message on to the next operator and if messages came in quickly, he simply wrote smaller.

Sifting through the endless reminiscences and anecdotes produces few grains of truth. Edison did live here, for a while. The real story may never be known. But while the facts are sparse and speculation runs rampart, there’s nothing to prove that his stay in St. Marys wasn’t as exciting as some claim.

In the Perth County Archives, a carefully preserved application to the "Old Time Telegraphers Association" bears Edison’s unmistakable signature. This historic document, the application of Thomas A. Edison for membership into The Telegraph Historical Society, was written by his own hand at Orange, N.J., USA, December 5th, 1904, and was presented to the City of Stratford (in which he was a telegrapher on the Grand Trunk in 1863) on the occasion of the centennial of the celebrated inventor, February 11th, 1947. The application says that he worked in Stratford in 1863. How long he was there is unknown. He could have come in the spring and left in 1864. Or he might have fled after the minor derailment in December 1863.

Whatever the circumstances of Edison’s departure, it seems that the Grand Trunk failed to pay him. Eighteen years later, in 1906, R. Larmour, General Superintendent of the railway, recounted this story of his meeting with Edison’s father in 1888:

"Twenty-five years after Edison’s adventure, I had become well acquainted with his father, residing at Port Huron. One day, while discussing some new invention of Tom’s which was then startling the world, the old gentleman suddenly said to me, 'Do you know, sir, that the G.T.R. has been owing me a sum of money for a long time?'

"I begged him to explain the circumstances. And with a half humorous smile he said, 'When Thomas resigned his position with G.T.R. at Stratford he was a minor. There was part of a month’s wages due him to which I think I am justly entitled.'

"I admitted both the injustice and legality of the proposition and promised that the matter should receive immediate attention. Writing to Mr. Hickson, then general manager, I recounted the circumstances connected with the return of the money due Edison, as unclaimed wages. Mr. Hickson promptly sent a cheque for the amount and instructed me to personally deliver the cheque and

A small bronze plaque on the north wall of the present CNR train station waiting room stands today as a permanent memorial to the late Thomas A. Edison.

to make such ample apology for the company’s seeming neglect. It is needless to add that I carried out these instructions to the full extent, taking with me some dozen leading citizens of Port Huron as witnesses, that the ceremony might not lack any of the dignity and impressiveness, which the circumstances warranted. It is also needless of me to add that (the senior) Mr. Edison, in acknowledging the receipt of the cheque and apology of the G.T.R. Co., did full justice to the occasion, afterwards entertaining the visitors in a style befitting the father of a son who had, by his own genius, perseverance and application, made himself one of the most famous men living, in the world, one whom this city will always be proud to remember as a “Stratford Old Boy” and to honour as one of the world’s greatest benefactors." (12)

The Grand Trunk could afford to forgive its own oversight and to forgive the world’s greatest inventor. Stratford was equally forgiving and in 1940 erected a plaque for Edison in the railway station where it remains today reading, “In commemoration of Thomas A. Edison – Employed In This City As A Telegraph Operator In 1863-4 — Erected By The City Of Stratford — April 1st, 1940”.

Perhaps, the sign should be changed to the more accurate but less flattering statement, Thomas A. Edison slept here.


  1. The Beacon Herald, May 15, 1982, by John Roe
  2. The History of the County of Perth
  3. Floodtides of Fortune, 1980, Adelaide Leitch
  4. Stratford Railway book
  5. The Stratford Beacon, March 30, 1940, by R. Thomas Orr
  6. The Stratford Beacon , March 30, 1940 by reporter
  7. Beacon Herald, Nov. 1878
  8. Railways and Other Ways, 1894, Myles Pennington
  9. Beacon Herald Old Boys Special, Aug. 1906, Mr. R. Larmour , GTR
  10. Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of Mankind, 1931, Francis Trevelyan Miller
  11. Beacon Herald, Aug. 4, 1934
  12. Beacon Herald Old Boys Special, Aug. 1906
  13. Stratford Beacon, Dec. 18, 1863
  14. Stratford Beacon, special edition celebrating "Edison Day" March 30, 1940
  15. St. Marys Journal Argus by Ted Rowcliffe, Nov. 21, 1979
  16. << Ancestry.ca >>