Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


Former Grand Trunk Railway Station (now CNR)
Palmerston, Ontario


Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Resource Data, Toronto



The Palmerston passenger station on Main Street at Queen Street in Palmerston, Ontario, was built during a time of rapid branch line proliferation that opened up the formerly remote counties south of the Bruce peninsula (Figures 1-2). The first line to arrive, stimulating the founding and settlement of the town, was the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway (WG & B) operating under contract to the Great Western Railway (GWR). The station was built for WG & B in 1871.1 Palmerston emerged as the junction for three railway companies and eventually had a yard with about a dozen lines that completely dominated the physical, economic, and social characteristics of the town (Figures 3-4, 20). Rail-related employment declined markedly with the introduction of diesel engines in 1957, and rail activity dropped off when passenger service was stopped in 1970. The station was finally closed in 1982.

Historical Associations


As a station built by a small company in thrall to the GWR, Palmerston is symptomatic of the multiplication of numerous independent lines connecting inland territory with cities on the Great Lakes. The decade following Confederation was characterized in Ontario and Québec by the construction of small, usually unprofitable local lines following the shortest line between two bonuses provided by generous municipal and provincial aid policies.2 Frequently short-lived and tapping limited territory, all were dependent on the major systems built up by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and the GWR.

In the atmosphere of intense competition engendered by railway fever, those two systems concentrated on connecting the major port cities with the potential trade of Great Lakes shipping. The GWR raced from Hamilton to Detroit in 1854, while the GTR managed to lay a line from Montréal to Sarnia and thence to Michigan, in 1858. The branch lines in midwestern Ontario linked the main line railways through Guelph and Stratford with the Lake Huron ports of Owen Sound, Wiarton, Port Elgin, and Kincardine, stopping at market towns along the way. With four-fifths of the country's population inhabiting the rural areas in 1870, the cities and countryside benefited mutually from the railway link. The anticipated benefits for farmers and local trade induced most towns and townships to extend extravagant financial offers to phantom companies formed by enterprising businessmen. Of the many companies planned or chartered, few marshalled the capital necessary to commence construction, although six such companies managed to lay tracks in Huron, Grey, and Wellington counties in the 1870s. All looked to the GTR or GWR for financial and operating support.

The Palmerston station was built as a line station by the WG & B consortium, which offered a relatively secure investment by virtue of its leasing arrangement with the GWR.3 In addition to the WG & B, the GWR also supported construction of the London, Huron & Bruce Railway between London and Wingham in an attempt to monopolize traffic in the area and capitalize on their connection with the Vanderbilt-run Michigan Central Railway. Their incursions into territory where the GTR operated aggravated the ongoing disagreement between the companies over apportioning of traffic, and ultimately provoked the GTR takeover of the company.4

The WG & B line turned out to be a poor investment for the GWR. Badly built by Hamilton contractors, the line consumed 81 per cent of its gross revenues in maintenance and reconstruction costs.5 Combined with rate cuts, increasing daily losses and constant drains on capital, the GWR had little choice but to collapse into amalgamation with their rival, the GTR, in 1882. The area was abundantly serviced by railways, with nearly every town the recipient of at least a flagstop (Figure 4). As centres of production consolidated in the later 19th century it became clear that not all towns could compete equally, and the myth of rail-borne prosperity evaporated. Private transportation and trucking undercut the rail business, and the symbiosis between rural towns and the rails finally collapsed.

Local Development

Palmerston was non-existent before the WG & B route was announced. When the exact route became clear, three farmers surveyed their holdings into subdivision lots, the nearby hamlet of Dryden was abandoned in the scramble, and Palmerston sprang up in the fields of Wallace township in 1871.6 The station was already surrounded by a cluster of frame buildings when the first train rolled into town that autumn, and it continues to hold a place at the centre of the town.7 Palmerston's importance escalated rapidly: before 1873 it became a junction point for the southern extension of the WG & B, and the GWR repair shops for the line were located in the Palmerston yard.8

The railways had been keenly lobbied and lured by the local township, which had first petitioned, unsuccessfully, for an extension of the GWR in 1858. Local settlement and development were inhibited by the lack of roads and navigable rivers. When the land was first surveyed in 1853, the Garafraxa Road between Owen Sound and Arthur was the only route to Guelph, the nearest major centre.

The WG & B was chartered in 1864 by Hamilton interests to divert the Bruce Peninsula's trade to that city. In 1870 the company accepted combined county and township offers of over $300,000 to build the first line from Guelph to Southampton via Palmerston. It was completed in 1873. The town of Listowel secured a southern extension from Palmerston to connect them with Wingham and Kincardine in 1874, securing at the same time Palmerston's importance over near-by Harriston as a junction.

The Palmerston station and yard quickly became the divisional point for three separate railway companies, all of which were eventually bought by the GTR, but which promised an industrial future for the new town. The establishment of WG & B repair and maintenance facilities increased the busyness of the Palmerston yard, and sustained the local work force until the advent of diesel in 1957. Far from streamlining or reducing service, the various mergers contributed to increased activity at Palmerston. The amalgamation in 1882 of the GWR with GTR meant the rerouting through Palmerston of trains which had previously gone through divisional yards at Listowel. Principal GTR shops at Stratford continued in use without diminishing the vitality of the Palmerston yard.9

The second line through Palmerston was the Stratford and Lake Huron Railway, which suffered a financial crisis during construction. The proprietors induced GTR to accept 25 per cent of gross earnings to operate the line in 1880, but in return they were compelled to build an extension from Listowel to Palmerston as a bridge for the GTR to connect with another line, further intensifying Palmerston's centrality.10 In May 1880 the line was leased to GTR for 21 years.

The third and last line through Palmerston was the Georgian Bay and Wellington Railway, incorporated in 1878, which made Palmerston its southern terminus for another route to Owen Sound via Mount Forest and Durham.11 The directors miscalculated in assuming that the WG & B (and its parent, GWR) would be interested in taking over their construction, but in 1880 they negotiated a deal with the GTR to lay the rails and operate the line once the right-of-way was cleared. The last rail to Owen Sound under that deal was laid in 1894.12

The result was hundreds of cars a day moving through the Palmerston yard, and presumably dozens of passengers, although until the WG & B was acquired by the GWR there was no known change to the station building. Expansions of the Palmerston facility in 1900, including the construction of a 3260 square foot freight platform, occurred in a climate of steady improvements and new construction for the railway following the best year in the history of the GTR.13 In 1900 the GTR spent about $550,000 on capital improvements in the division, including the doubling in size of the yards and the enlargement of the station at Palmerston.14 As part of that campaign, the iron pedestrian bridge was built to connect the two sides of town.15

The growth of the town was rapid, surpassing the expectations of the most sanguine,16 and new buildings were reported rising every day. Palmerston was described in 1873 as a village of 350 inhabitants with a steam mill, factories, harness shops, stores, three hotels, a post office, two churches, and, most importantly, a large engine shed and turn table.17 In 1874 the unincorporated village incorporated as a town of over 1400 persons. That number would rise to over 2000 in six years.18 Its boundaries straddled two townships in two counties until the province intervened to redraw the border lines, and Palmerston became part of Wellington County.19

As the major employer and landowner, the railway also yielded to pressure for civic improvements, particularly when instigated by local executives. The implementation of urban amenities corresponded to the sequences of alterations to the station building and yard, reflecting the general prosperity of the railway as much as evolving attitudes. Land was donated for a skating rink, which became the park beside the tracks, and trunk sewers were laid in 1905, years before other towns in the area could attempt similar works.20

Rurally-based industries ultimately couldn't compete with the scale of metropolitan manufacturers, and many of the Palmerston businesses closed before 1900. The one industry to survive the demise of the railroad would be one based on the agrarian economy, a feed mill. Passenger and freight trains were cut back during the Depression, and after World War II, trucking began to displace rail for movement of freight. The introduction of the diesel engine in 1957 further reduced local employment.21 Passenger trains through Palmerston were discontinued altogether in 1970, and the station was closed in 1982.22

The railway was fundamental to the creation of the town, and influential in the development of its social, economic, and political life. That importance is still visible in the pivotal position the station building occupies at the heart of the town.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The original appearance of the station is not recorded, but it is known to have been smaller and simpler in form than the present building.23 A second storey was added in 1876 after the GTR openly assumed management, and the station was remodelled in 1900 to its present form. Photographs and drawings show it to have been an impressive building in its prime, with decorative wood siding, a variety of window treatments, a corner tower and central gable on the town side, and a clerestoried operator's bay (Figures 5-8). Today the exterior is neglected and degraded. The wood siding is covered in flaps of insulbrick, the two towers have been cut down, windows have been boarded up, and the overhanging skirt roof that sheltered customers has been removed.

Despite its strong rectangular volume, the station is fundamentally asymmetrical, with lively town and track side elevations and numerous devices used to break up the volume (Figure 9). The more substantial of these elements survive. In overall form, the two-storey height is now starkly demarcated by the nailing board that remained after the removal of the projecting skirt roof around the building at the first storey level. The roof is hipped with end peaks. Its lines are repeated in the composition of the projecting one-storey semi-circular bay on the south end. That roof line has been changed from the original, which crowned the bay with a parapet above the continuous skirt roof (Figure 7).

Of the three elements that elaborated the roof line, one survives as the upper gable of a two-storey projecting bay over the town side entrance. More picturesque was the square tower intersecting the southwest corner of the station, which has lost its prominence with the removal of a full storey. Most fanciful was the tall extension to the operator's bay window on the track side, now reduced to a nearly imperceptible lift in the roof.

Plain gabled hoods supported on lumber struts have been built over the three town side doorways and over the track side openings to replace the skirt roof. Doors and windows have been broken, replaced, or boarded over, and all vestiges of the original external materials, colours, textures, and surfaces are concealed.

This sorry exterior encloses an extraordinary interior that has been little altered since its renovation in 1900. Original pressed metal walls and ceilings, V-jointed tongue and groove dadoes, panelled ceilings and fittings, hardwood floors, and intact trim grace spaces that have been only minimally adapted to changed conditions of use.

The largest single space is the passenger waiting room, a high open room said to have had a vaulted ceiling, now obscured by dropped panels. It became much more interesting in 1900 with the construction of a Palladian arch-and-opening composition framing the low, semi-circular women's waiting room, a space that would have been flooded with light through four two-over-two sash windows, providing exciting views of trains splitting off on the rail lines around the station (Figures 10-11). The rectangle of the main waiting room is violated by an inept partition on the town side that abuts a square pier of the arch (Figure 12). From remains inside the partitioned space, it can be seen that the side openings of the arch were originally fitted with moveable, glazed sashes.

The conductor's office had pressed tin ceilings and walls, with extravagant moulded cornices which largely survive. Well-preserved early finishes in the station operator's rooms include dignified ornamental wood tongue and groove ceilings and wainscotting, and built-in counters and cabinets (Figure 13). The former agent's office has been completely renovated.

The progressive evolution of the station over three phases can be compared to standard station types for each of its periods of growth. The first, one-storey building may have been shorter in footprint than the present, which is 30' by 65',24 and simple in execution. WG & B used two standard designs: a larger station measuring 40' by 96', and a smaller type at 30' by 60', but almost as many were built to other designs as to these standard ones.25 The enlarged station of 1876 probably resembled the station built by the GTR in Lindsay in 1890, and dismantled in 1963 (Figure 14).26 Lindsay had been the headquarters of the Midland Railway before it, too, was acquired by GTR in 1883. The same plain volume is enlivened by roof slopes, peak gables, pronounced canopy struts, and contrasting paint colours.

The remodelling of the Palmerston station in 1900 added a first-class baggage and express room measuring 24' by 50' by 12' (demolished after a fire in 1973), a first-class freight platform, coal chutes, sand house, freight platform, turntable, and an open shelter (second-class).

That remodelling upgraded the station to the more flamboyant style that characterized flagship GTR stations like Portland, Maine or the smaller but ambitious Goderich building, both of 1902 (Figures 15-16). Those buildings adapted elements from the Romanesque Revival, specifically, corner towers, dormers, canopy roofs, and asymmetrical massing which were integrated into the central waiting room volume. The important adjectives were convenient and up-to-date27 which would also have been the principal intent in the enhancements at Palmerston. With so little extant exterior material visible or surviving, and the loss of its most distinctive elements, it is now difficult to attribute a style to the station, but the tonal contrasts, emphasis on window areas, use of diamond lattice glazing, and classicizing allusions apparent in early photographs suggest an aesthetic in the Queen Anne Revival style (Figure 8).

The alterations that simplified the profile were carried out before 1958. Photographs from that year show the corner tower already cut down, but the building still well inhabited, with one-over-one upper and two-over-two lower fenestration that may have been original; striped awnings on the upper floors, and rows of small square windows on the upper floors which are now completely obscured (Figure 17).

Functional/Technological Qualities

Of wood frame construction, the building sits on cedar post foundations above a shallow crawl space. Although this was standard construction for the stations of the line,28 inadequate venting of the crawl space has contributed to the decay of the foundation sills and weakening of floor joists.

Even though the station interior survives essentially intact, it is difficult, in the stillness of the present setting, to appreciate the extent of traffic and activity that would have enlivened the station twenty-four hours a day. In the logical, simple, and generous layout, passenger traffic flow through the station was direct across the axis, and internal finishes corresponded to the use of space (Figure 18). Functionally, the offices for conductors, agents, and railway business occupied the north end of the building. Other offices and employees' spaces filled the second floor, which was reached from a door and straight stair on the northmost end of the town elevation. More than half the ground floor was filled by general, smokeing [sic] and women's waiting rooms. The women's waiting room and toilet were contained by the semi-circular bay and the tower, added in 1900. The baggage room, demolished ca. 1973, was a small building adjoining the open shelter on the north end.29

At a comparable station in Lindsay the dispatchers worked out of the second floor, along with the trainmaster, roadmasters, and the Grand Trunk Library, even though the operator's bay projected only at platform level.30 It seems possible that the view afforded over the tracks by the bay at Palmerston would have been exploited for the same purpose.

At present, only the ticket office and former agent's office are kept in use for the regional engineers, while the rest of the station provides random storage on the ground floor. The second floor, comprising about five minimally-detailed rooms plus closet-like rooms, is abandoned. There is a finished stair to the attic, which may have been used for storage. This minimal usage has undoubtedly contributed to the survival of the many remarkable elements which so eloquently express the feeling of the early interior.

Representative Qualities



Running through the center of town and crossing or terminating several of the principal grid streets, the track yards in Palmerston determined the plan of the town that grew up to either side of them (Figures 19-20). Given the vast open vale in front of it, the station enjoys long sight lines and a distinctive setting. Most of the tracks have been removed, and the many associated buildings have been demolished, leaving a green swath in the landscape where thousands of ties have been bundled and stacked. Consequently the whole deserted yard area is extremely evocative. Tall weeds grow where the rails ran, and all is silent where hundreds of rail cars, travellers and workers converged.

At its peak the yard had nearly forty structures, including dwelling houses, kitchens, coal chutes, car and engine houses, a fire hall, and offices. Most of them dated from GTR construction campaigns of 1876, 1880, and 1900-1904. Expansions continued into the 1920s, when additional land was secured for a car repair plant.31 The outstanding element in the landscape is the extraordinary iron pedestrian bridge dating from 1904 that angles across the tracks between the station and the residential neighbourhood on the continuation of Queen Street (Figure 21). Well screened by vegetation and occupying higher ground, that side of town was developed over a period of time from settlement until about 1920. With open metal stairs, a thin concrete deck and suspended illumination, the bridge is easily distinguishable from later 20th century work by its delicate, spidery quality.

The area fronting the station, formerly planted as a small formal garden,32 has been built upon and a private paved parking lot incongruously dominates the approach, which is now necessarily oblique. A prominent federal post office and customs building facing the station lands from nearby on William Street attest to the historical importance of this section of the town.

Striking views of the station occur along track lines from Main Street, William Street, and past a shed still standing near James Street. Evidence of the railway permeates the town, from the tracks on the outskirts to the Canadian National Railways Association & Senior Citizens Club at the centre of town. The club is in a small house on Main Street beside the yard right-of-way, with tennis courts and recreational facilities for former railway employees behind. A locomotive built at the Kingston works in 1910 has been preserved along the side of the rail yard.

Community Status

The station is recognized by the town council and citizenry as an important component in the history of Palmerston and its inhabitants, but community action is complicated by the familiar inhibitors of railway ownership and limited resources. Palmerston has no Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee to advise council under the terms of The Ontario Heritage Act, but a Palmerston Historical Society was formed to pursue two objectives in preserving the iron pedestrian bridge, which they believe to be the longest in Canada, and the 'Old 81' mogul locomotive, displayed near the employee club house. Fund-raising and rescue rehabilitation are proceeding concurrently with respect to the locomotive. The Society has twice requested consideration of the station under The Heritage Railway Station Protection Act by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. CN has informed them that the land will be put up for auction.33

Inspections by councillors experienced in building indicated that the station suffers from a rotten foundation sill and joists, but no reports have ever been prepared documenting the station's condition. Undated notes in CN Real Estate files concur with that assessment, which has deterred would-be occupants.34 Local Kinsmen have considered renting the building, a railway museum has been considered, and the council would like to encourage a financially self-sustaining use, but to date no definite positive developments have occurred.


  1. The present station configuration dates from 1900 and later, but there is conflict concerning the date of its core. Some secondary railway documents place it at 1876 (when Grand Trunk took it over and added not only a second story but many other buildings to the yard), other histories say 1872; but there was a station of sorts to greet the first train, and Palmerston is mentioned as a prototype in WG & B tenders dated 1871. Grand Trunk Railway System: Bridges, Buildings, Water Stations. Fuel Stations etc. on Middle Division (hereafter GTR Buildings) (Montréal: 1907), p. 221, courtesy Margo Teasdale, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communications; Elizabeth A. Willmot, Meet Me at the Station (n.p.: Gage Publishing, 1976), p. 63; Ontario Archives (hereafter OA), Shanly Papers, MU 2719, file Wellington, Grey & Bruce Southern Extension, General Specifications of Work, 27 November 1871.
  2. Oscar D. Skelton, The Railway Builders (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook and Company, 1916), p. 103.
  3. Robert McEachern, Legacy of the Adam Brown (hereafter Adam Brown) (n.p., n.d.), n. p. The lines were leased to GWR even before construction began; agreements dated from 1869, 1870, and 1871.
  4. Gerald Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973), p. 118.
  5. A. W. Currie, The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), p. 217.
  6. Clifford M. Harrison, The Way it Was...A History of Minto Township (hereafter, Minto) (Township of Minto, 1978), p. 136.
  7. Harrison, Minto, p. 136, the station master is mentioned in February, 1872, which suggests the construction of a station the season before; McEachern, Adam Brown (n.p., n.d.), n. p.
  8. Beacon (Stratford), 2 May 1873, cited in McEachern, Adam Brown, n. p.
  9. PaulPeter Bowers, Two Divisions to Bluewater: the story of the CNR to the Bruce (hereafter Bluewater) (Erin: The Boston Mills Press), 1983, p. 134; Charles H. Heels, Railroad Recollections (hereafter Recollections) (Bloomfield, Ontario: Museum Restoration Service, 1980), p. 6.
  10. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 19. The Georgian Bay and Wellington Railway, which GTR had agreed to operate as well.
  11. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 21.
  12. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 22.
  13. The Grand Trunk's Semi-Annual, The Railway and Shipping World (November 1898), p. 227; GTR Buildings, p. 220.
  14. Grand Trunk Betterments etc., The Railway and Shipping World (November 1899), p. 322, and (March 1900), p. 71.
  15. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 134.
  16. Beacon (Stratford), 12 April 1872, cited in McEachern, Adam Brown, n.p.
  17. Beacon (Stratford), 2 May 1873, cited in McEachern, Adam Brown, n.p.
  18. McEachern, Adam Brown, n.p.
  19. McEachern, Adam Brown, n. p.
  20. Harrison, Minto, p. 142.
  21. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 135.
  22. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 135.
  23. The Ontario Heritage Foundation and Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, in cooperation with Canadian National Railways and VIA Rail, Planning for Heritage Railway Stations Inventory, Vol. 2 (1987), Palmerston. The report cites various secondary sources from their files.
  24. GTR Buildings, p. 221.
  25. Bowers, Bluewater, p. 23, classified eight as the larger A buildings, seven as B and six as other.
  26. Heels, Recollections, p. 11.
  27. Grand Trunk Ry. Betterments, Etc., The Railway and Shipping World (October 1902), p. 341, and (December 1902), p. 403.
  28. Ontario Archives, Shanly Papers, MU 2719, Wellington, Grey & Bruce Southern Extension. Thomas Ridout, Chief Engineer, General Specifications of Work, dated 27 November 1871, revised to 27 January 1872.
  29. Bob McArthur, CN Real Estate, Toronto, in conversation with A. M. de Fort-Menares, 6 September 1991.
  30. Heels, Recollections, p. 57.
  31. Grand Trunk Railway Betterments, construction, Etc., Canadian Railway and Marine World, (September 1920), p. 490.
  32. Illustrated in McEachern, Adam Brown, n.p.
  33. Berenice Arkell, Secretary of the Palmerston Historical Society, in conversation with A. M. de Fort-Menares, 16 September 1991.
  34. Larry Adams, Town Clerk for Palmerston, in conversation with A. M. de Fort-Menares, 30 August 1991; and Bob McArthur, CN Real Estate, in conversation with A. M. de Fort-Menares, 6 September 1991.


  1. Grand Trunk Railway (hereafter, GTR) station, Palmerston, Ontario; constructed 1871, addition 1876, modified 1900 and after 1973; view of west, town side elevation. (A. M. de Fort-Menares. 1991.)

  2. GTR station, Palmerston, Ontario; view of east, track side elevation. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1991.)

  3. Location of Palmerston, Ontario. Heavy lines indicate part of the railway network. (The Atlas of Canada and the World [Milwaukee: George Philip Raintree, 1979].)

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  4. Palmerston junction in the Middle Section of the GTR system. (Bowers, Bluewater, p. 11.)

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  5. GTR Palmerston station, Plans of Proposed Additions, East Elevation. No date or architect. (National Archives of Canada (NA) NMC 51542 item 487.)

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  6. GTR Palmerston station, Plans of Proposed Additions, West Elevation. No date or architect. (NA NMC 51544 item 486.)

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  7. GTR Palmerston station, Plans of Proposed Additions, South Elevation. No date or architect. (NA NMC 51544 item 486.)

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  8. GTR Palmerston station, view ca. 1903. (Bowers, Bluewater, p. 135.)

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  9. GTR Palmerston station, south end from southeast. The railway bridge is visible on the right. (A. M. de Fort- Menares, 1991.)

  10. GTR Palmerston station, Plans of Proposed Additions, Section showing arch composition. No date or architect. (NA NMC 51544 item 486.)

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  11. GTR Palmerston station, three of the four windows in the semi-circular former women's waiting room. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1991.)

  12. GTR Palmerston station, view of general waiting room looking toward women's waiting room, with new partition on the right abutting arch. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1991.)

  13. GTR Palmerston station, interior of agent's office. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1991.)

  14. GTR Lindsay station, rebuilt 1893. (Heels, Railroad Recollections, p. 57.)

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  15. GTR station at Portland, Maine. (The Railway and Shipping World, [December 1902], p. 403.)

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  16. GTR station at Goderich, Ontario. (The Railway and Shipping World, [October 1902], p. 341.)

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  17. GTR Palmerston station in 1958. (Bowers, Bluewater p. 138.)

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  18. GTR Palmerston station, Plans of Proposed Additions, Plan of first floor. No date or architect. (NA NMC 51544 item 486.)

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  19. Plan of track yards at Palmerston, Ontario, ca. 1950. (Bowers, Bluewater p. 134.)

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  20. Plan of Palmerston, Ontario, 1906. (Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington, Ontario [Toronto: Historical Atlas Publishing Company, 1906].)

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  21. Railway bridge at Palmerston, Ontario; built 1904. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1991.)