WELLER, WILLIAM, entrepreneur and officeholder; b. 13 May 1799 in Vermont; d. 21 Sept. 1863 at Cobourg, Canada West.
William Weller came from northern New York with his father to settle in Upper Canada. In 1829 he and a partner, Hiram Norton of Prescott, purchased the existing York (Toronto) to Kingston stage coach line from Jonathan Ogden. In the summer of 1830 Weller was operating coaches twice a week between York and Carrying Place on the Bay of Quinte, where there was a connection with steamers to Prescott. He bought out Norton in 1830, and in the winter of that year was cooperating with H. Dickinson of Montreal and again with Norton to provide service from York to Montreal five times a week. In 1832 Weller purchased from George Playter the stage line running north on Yonge St from York to Holland Landing, and by 1835 he was offering winter service between Toronto and Hamilton with a branch line from Dundas to Niagara. In the same year he instituted tri-weekly service between Cobourg, Port Hope, and Peterborough and in 1844 began operating the steamer Forester on Rice Lake. By 1837 Weller was the acknowledged king of land transport whose well-established fleet of brightly coloured Royal Mail Line coaches ran from Niagara to Montreal. At his Cobourg base he also operated repair shops and a carriage factory.
Travellers’ accounts and the petitions of local settlers describe the appalling conditions of Upper Canada’s roads in the first half of the 19th century. The crude corduroy roads built by statute labour were infrequently levelled or drained and were often pitted with holes; bridges might be washed out by spring floods or destroyed by fire. Water routes were used extensively because road travel was often impossible except in the dry summer and in winter when sleighs were possible. The trip from York to Montreal took five or six days, and when Weller himself drove Governor General Charles Poulett Thomson* between those two towns in 35 hours and 40 minutes in February 1840, the feat was widely praised and Weller won £1,000 in bets. Success in his enterprises enabled him in 1850 to reduce the stage fare between Toronto and Montreal from $20 to $16. Weller received a regular income from mail contracts, most for year-round service, but some for winter only. Between 1838 and 1852 he had 12 yearly contracts to deliver mail between Kingston and Montreal for which he received £2,625 annually.
Weller was a member of the Cobourg Board of Police from 1837 to 1844 and again in 1847, serving as its president in 1838, 1843, and 1844. Because of his interest in road improvements he became in 1847 a stockholder in the Cobourg and Port Hope Road Company and president of the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company. During the 1840s and 1850s Cobourg and Port Hope were competing as ports of outlet for the trade of the townships inland from the lake, with roads and railways as determining factors. As mayor of Cobourg in 1850, 1851, and 1863, and as a town councillor from 1852 to 1855 and again in 1857, Weller was deeply involved in Cobourg’s attempt to establish its supremacy. The town was to accumulate a debt of $800,000 by 1860 in contrast to one of $2,000 in 1845. Council borrowed $12,000 in 1848 to build Victoria Hall, the town hall, purchased in 1850 the Port Hope to Rice Lake road for $14,400, allotting $6,000 for improvements, purchased the Cobourg Harbour Company for $40,000 and voted $24,000 for its completion, and between 1852 and 1858 bought shares in and made loans to the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway Company in the amount of $671,775. The railway was plagued by construction difficulties and was abandoned in 1860.
Weller himself had been a director in the late 1840s and early 1850s of two railway companies, and the increasing use of railways made his stage routes obsolete by the late 1850s. At the end of his career he owned a 65-acre land grant in Hamilton Township and valuable town lots in Cobourg, one of which was sold to the Grand Trunk Railway.
William Weller was a colourful character, robust, generous, and good-natured, and with a lively sense of humour. He probably had 22 children, 11 by his first wife, Mercy Willcox (Wilcox) who died in 1843, and 11 by his second wife, Margaret McKechin (Mackechnie). His youngest child, John Laing Weller*, was engineer in charge of constructing the Welland Ship Canal beginning in 1900.
A scrapbook of Madelein Marcia Weller, daughter-in-law of William Weller, in the possession of the author, has been useful in preparing this biography. PAC, RG 1, L3, 538a, bundle 3, no.37; RG 11, ser.2, 411, file 153. United Counties of Northumberland and Durham Surrogate Court (Cobourg, Ont.), will of William Weller, 22 Feb. 1864. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1846, I, app.F; Statutes, 1846, c.80; 1847, c.87, c.94; 1852–53, c.40, c.242. Christian Guardian, 12 June 1830. Church, 26 Dec. 1850. Cobourg Star (Cobourg, [Ont.]), 11 Jan. 1831, 22 Jan. 1840, 23 Aug. 1843. Thomas Fowler, Journal of a tour through British North America to the falls of Niagara . . . (Aberdeen, Scot., 1832). Globe, 23 Sept. 1863. [A. B. Murphy] Jameson, Winter studies and summer rambles in Canada, ed. J. J. Talman and E. M. Murray (Toronto, 1943). Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). U.C., Statutes, 1834, c.28; 1836, c.19; 1837, c.74. Valley of the Trent (Guillet). Heritage Kingston, ed. J. D. Stewart and I. E. Wilson ([Kingston, Ont., 1973]). Craig, Upper Canada. E. C. Guillet, Cobourg, 1798–1948 (Oshawa, Ont., 1948); The lives and times of the Patriots: an account of the rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837–1838, and the Patriot agitation in the United States, 1837–1842 (Toronto, 1838; repr. 1968); The pioneer farmer and backwoodsman (2v., Toronto, 1963). Middleton, Municipality of Toronto, I, 225. D. E. Wattie, “Cobourg, 1784–1867” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Toronto, 1949). Howard Pammett, “The steamboat era on the Trent-Otonabee waterway, 1830–1950,” OH, LVI (1964), 67–104.