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Kenneth (Jeff) Willsie, founder and past president of the Ontario Southland railway passed yesterday. A legend. One of Canada's railway pioneers.  Very few folks were able to get a Shortline off the ground before 1996, and Jeff Willsie was one of them. I back this claim up pointing toward evidence of Jeff attending Ontario Pariliament where minutes of meetings show him speaking to committee advocating for creation of an act of Parliament to get his railway off the ground (ONTARIO SOUTHLAND RAILWAY INC. ACT, 1994). With the help of the pioneers like Jeff, the shortline railway industry took off, especially after 1996 legislative changes allowing anyone to run a railway.

With legislation in hand, he grew OSR into what it is today handling over 10,000 cars per year on about 50 miles of track. Jeff was also a man of his word, a handshake was all you needed from him and the deal is sealed. He also had a huge heart, and I'll never forget an encounter back in 2015 when the first F unit was being painted. I went to the shops hoping to find someone and a train running, as long as someone was there a friendly invite inside was always an ask away,  but no one was there. Dismayed, I was about to leave when Jeff noticed me at the shop and ripped in. He told me he was driving through to the Church to drop off a cheque for for the Church's building fund (it was a Sunday morning after all) and that you have to be part of the community. After a 30 minute wait, he came back, let me in so I can take a few photos, while talking chit chat about the railway industry, after a bit of time, it was time to part ways but it was far from the last time I'd see him.
Jeff loved his railway and when the F units were out, you'd see Jeff following the train, sometimes even Driving them, as he enjoyed seeing his railway grow, watching his trains, and helping out from time to time. With a cigarette in hand he was always telling stories about the industry, his time at CP, and some of his legendary memories. My last encounter with Jeff was pictured above, in August 2018 where I found myself following the Woodstock turn with the pups. I was heading east on Beachville road I was surprised to see someone walking the right of way, with a train coming - surely they know, right?. I stopped, got out and was surprised to see it was Jeff walking down the right of way inspecting the track for defects the old fashioned way> I told him the train's not far behind him, he turned around to see the headlight, moved aside, the crew had a quick chat with "the boss", then proceeded to Woodstock. He would follow the train on foot inspecting for defects.
Our condolences to the folks at the Ontario Southland Railway, Jeff's family, friends, and persons in the industry and communities that Mr. Willsie has touched. He will be greatly missed by many.
Copyright Notice: This image ©Stephen C. Host all rights reserved.



Caption: Kenneth (Jeff) Willsie, founder and past president of the Ontario Southland railway passed yesterday. A legend. One of Canada's railway pioneers. Very few folks were able to get a Shortline off the ground before 1996, and Jeff Willsie was one of them. I back this claim up pointing toward evidence of Jeff attending Ontario Pariliament where minutes of meetings show him speaking to committee advocating for creation of an act of Parliament to get his railway off the ground (ONTARIO SOUTHLAND RAILWAY INC. ACT, 1994). With the help of the pioneers like Jeff, the shortline railway industry took off, especially after 1996 legislative changes allowing anyone to run a railway.

With legislation in hand, he grew OSR into what it is today handling over 10,000 cars per year on about 50 miles of track. Jeff was also a man of his word, a handshake was all you needed from him and the deal is sealed. He also had a huge heart, and I'll never forget an encounter back in 2015 when the first F unit was being painted. I went to the shops hoping to find someone and a train running, as long as someone was there a friendly invite inside was always an ask away, but no one was there. Dismayed, I was about to leave when Jeff noticed me at the shop and ripped in. He told me he was driving through to the Church to drop off a cheque for for the Church's building fund (it was a Sunday morning after all) and that you have to be part of the community. After a 30 minute wait, he came back, let me in so I can take a few photos, while talking chit chat about the railway industry, after a bit of time, it was time to part ways but it was far from the last time I'd see him.

Jeff loved his railway and when the F units were out, you'd see Jeff following the train, sometimes even Driving them, as he enjoyed seeing his railway grow, watching his trains, and helping out from time to time. With a cigarette in hand he was always telling stories about the industry, his time at CP, and some of his legendary memories. My last encounter with Jeff was pictured above, in August 2018 where I found myself following the Woodstock turn with the pups. I was heading east on Beachville road I was surprised to see someone walking the right of way, with a train coming - surely they know, right?. I stopped, got out and was surprised to see it was Jeff walking down the right of way inspecting the track for defects the old fashioned way> I told him the train's not far behind him, he turned around to see the headlight, moved aside, the crew had a quick chat with "the boss", then proceeded to Woodstock. He would follow the train on foot inspecting for defects.

Our condolences to the folks at the Ontario Southland Railway, Jeff's family, friends, and persons in the industry and communities that Mr. Willsie has touched. He will be greatly missed by many.

Photographer:
Stephen C. Host [1332] (more) (contact)
Date: 08/2018 (search)
Railway: Ontario Southland (search)
Reporting Marks: Kenneth Jeff Willsie (search)
Train Symbol: CEO (search)
Subdivision/SNS: OSR St. Thomas Subdivision (search)
City/Town: Beachville (search)
Province: Ontario (search)
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9 Comments
  1. He was truly a legend and helped create an amazing shortline. He will be missed deeply by all who knew him.

  2. I second that comment

  3. I worked with Jeff many times over the years, including assigned jobs like the Ham Turn & London Pickup. He was a one of a kind. It was suggested to me years ago (1998) at an Operation Lifesaver mtg in Vancouver that he was “rough around the edges”. That was somewhat true, but beneath that gruff exterior lay a heart of gold. Like so many others, I am proud to have called him my friend.

  4. Sad news indeed. My first at the throttle experience was during a cab ride with Jeff in 2005.

  5. When the F units were repainted my daughter and I wanted to see them. She contacted Jeff for me to see when they would run. He gave her the run times and locations, we went down and had a great day chasing them to Woodstock. She really liked his kindness to her, the world will miss guys like Jeff !

  6. I ran into Jeff on a couple of occasions at Guelph Junction over the years. He was always generous with his time and happy to talk shop. I remember one meeting where I mentioned to him how historic the OSR lines were, to which he replied that all Ontario rail lines were historic. Too true. A very pragmatic, down to earth and nice man, I’m glad I had the privilege of meeting him.

  7. Wonderful tribute.

  8. Jeff was straight goods. You always knew where you stood. No nonsense. I recall years ago when he was interviewed by a reporter who asked him what he attributed OSR’s success to. Without pause Jeff said “Ass-kissing great service!” That was Jeff.

    RIP

  9. Was very much involved with South Simcoe Railway in its efforts to start up tourist train operation between Tottenham and Beeton in 1992, and made SSR’s application to the Ontario Municipal Board for operating approval when there was no provincial short line railway legislation in existence. Obtaining such approval to operate fell by way of default to the Ontario Municipal Board as it was the successor of the old Ontario Street Railway Board. Back then SSR, York-Durham and Port Stanley were all involved in obtaining/being given such approval, but they were strictly heritage/tourist train operations and no freight traffic operation was contemplated. Jeff was the first in his attempt to obtain provincial approval for an Ontario freight hauling short line railway. It was his establishment of a provincial freight hauling railway by special act of the Ontario legislature granted in 1994 that helped in the province deciding to hold hearings with respect to creating provincial short line railway legislation. This in turn led to the creation of the Shortline Railways Act 1995 Statutes of Ontario, Chapter 2. We need to remember that in addition to his wonderful collection of motive power, it was Jeff’s pioneering endeavours that helped so much in the creation of this Act. May he long be remembered, may he Rest In Peace. John Freyseng

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