Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Grand Trunk Railway Station
Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Resource Data, Toronto
The Prescott station at St. Lawrence Street and Railway Avenue, built in 1855, dates from the first construction period of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), specifically its Montréal to Brockville section which was completed on 19 November 1855 (Figures 1-3)1. It is the largest of nine surviving GTR stations dating from this period in Ontario, eight of which are still owned by the Canadian National Railways (CNR). The others are at Georgetown, Napanee, Belleville, Port Hope, St. Marys Junction, Brighton, Kingston, and Ernestown. The latter four are not in active use, Georgetown is heavily altered, and Napanee is no longer railway-owned.2 The Prescott station is unmanned and largely unused.
The Grand Trunk Railway was not the first steam railway line built in Canada—that honour goes to the 16 mile Champlain and St. Lawrence Railway of 1836—but it was the first to have and to fulfill transcolonial and international pretensions. The Prescott station is a physical artifact from the first phase of GTR construction, which through the changes that have been made to its fabric, use, and environment, represents the waxing and waning of railway fortunes in Canada.
When proposed, the GTR was to be the most comprehensive system in the world, linking the ice-free port of Portland, Maine to Halifax and Montréal, and via Sarnia on Lake Huron, to the fabled riches of the continental interior. In the first challenge to supplant, rather than to supplement water traffic, it was anticipated that all future east-west traffic would use the line, since legislation prevented injurious competition, and revenues of £1,500,000 yielding 11% per cent returns were forecast.3 Initially, it was thought that the GTR could simply link and subsume some existing lines, such as the Great Western Railway (GWR) line then underway between Hamilton and Windsor, which eventually ran between Toronto and Guelph. GWR refused to agree to terms, however, and a duplicate GTR line was surveyed from Toronto to Sarnia as a consequence. As chartered, the project required the construction of 750 miles of new track and the rehabilitation of 290 more miles.4
From the time of its charter in 1852, the history of the GTR was distinguished by increasingly acrimonious disputes with the Canadian parliament over issues of funding and revenue. The connection between politics and railways that coloured the founding, construction, and ensuing operation of the railway has been called a distinctively Canadian phenomenon,5 as were the political interventions in railway operations that attempted to forge strong longitudinal ties to resist the magnetic pull of the United States economy. The first of these was the government insistence on a wide gauge rail to deter cross-border traffic. This restriction inspired engineers to invent a car with self-adjusting axle lengths shortly before the gauge was changed to the American standard in 1873. For the construction of the GTR, government approval of the route, construction method, rail and structure quality, and costs all influenced the viability and future economics of the line. A compromise between lakeshore and inland routes was finally approved along the lake, with an alternate loop from Belleville to Port Hope via Peterborough.6
Symptomatic of the difficulties and notoriety that surrounded the project was the
seductive offer of the English contracting firm of Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts (PBJB) not only to build the line, but also to secure financing for it at favourable terms, with minimal risk to the government.7 The optimistic estimates were soon replaced by recriminations as the Crimean War in Asia and the Reciprocity Treaty in North America adversely affected the world economy. Money was difficult to obtain, either for investment or as revenue, and costs of labour, construction, maintenance and operating were all much higher than the British had expected. Instead of the 40 per cent predicted for operating costs, the real figures were between 58 and 85 per cent in the ten years following the line's completion in 1860.8
In virtually bribing the Canadian officials for the contract, the English contractors were not picking the ripe plum they imagined. They found themselves working with inexperienced foreign labour in unfamiliar geographical terrain. The first difficulty they resolved by importing British workers, to the indignation of the Canadian press, but they were ill-prepared for the Canadian climate, topography, and settlement patterns.9 The Canadian contractors who built the western sections of the line better understood both the political and constructional techniques and the necessary machinery, and men like contractor and manufacturer Casimir Gzowski made fortunes on it, while P W B claimed to have lost millions.10 Even so, they did not fulfill the terms of their contract to build a
first class single track Railway...superior to any American or Canadian Railway now known or used and equal to the first class English Railway.11 British shareholders reported that the line was poorly laid, poorly ballasted, in poor condition, with poor rails (the firm had even rerolled so-called
corkscrew rails, damaged during construction, and relaid them), inadequate rolling stock and, occasionally,
ridiculously extravagant structures.12
One wonders whether the substantial station building at Prescott was one of those structures deemed so extravagant. An attempt had been made by Chief Engineer A. M. Ross, in the interest of saving £29,000, to circumvent the official specifications and substitute buildings of timber instead of stone or brick: an attempt approved by the London Board of Directors at their meeting in February 1855. Ross ruefully reported back that the idea
created at the time so loud a clamour throughout the country generally, participated in by the representatives in Parliament, that the demand for brick or stone had to a great extent to be submitted to ...13 Once built, however, the stations seemed to escape the censure directed against GTR management, policies, timetables, routing, and fares.14
The Prescott station is a large, first-generation GTR station building in near-original condition externally. The circumstances of its siting and the changes that were made over the years to the architectural fabric and its environment reflect the historical shifts in transportation, shipping, and international trade that have occurred in the 20th century. The combination of economic forces and changes in the uses of rail contributed to the retention, alteration, and ultimate near-closure of the Prescott station.
Prescott figured grandly in the GTR scheme, even though few of the plans were implemented. It was to be served by the Bytown and Prescott railway that was under construction in 1850, which expanded the GTR1s potential serviced area sufficiently to figure in the prospectus for the company.15 In 1865 it continued to be
of very material assistance...in sustaining the traffic returns of the road between Brockville and Montréal.16 Prescott was one of the towns securely identified as part of the Montréal to Toronto routing in the first contract between the GTR and the parliament.17 Typically, the rail line passed the outer edges of the towns where it had stations. In part this was to avoid the high costs and lengthy negotiations involved in obtaining central access, but more to eliminate even acknowledging the possibility of water transport. Less officially, it would permit speculation by engineers and contractors.18 It was openly stated in Toronto's Daily Globe that the railway contractors
have purchased large quantities of land at all the important points, which they are now about to sell.19 The general planning principle was defended by esteemed Canadian civil engineers T. C. Keefer and Walter Shanly, both of whom argued that the towns would be more likely to grow out to reach the stations but it was later considered a cause of the company's failure.20 Although Prescott has now been built out as far as the station, it is rare to find an early GTR station that is well integrated into a town.
After its founding in 1810 Prescott had developed extensively as a transfer and forwarding port between Montréal and the western and northern country. By the 1830s it was a reasonably cultured town, with a female seminary, a
social library, a literary publication, a customs house, and perhaps a thousand inhabitants. Strategically sited near the mouth of the St. Lawrence, Prescott was located opposite Ogdensburg, the first American port for incoming shipments from the gulf of the St. Lawrence, and the northern terminus for the powerful industrial complex of the eastern states.21 Decades before the arrival of rail or steamships, Prescott was thought to have a reat future as a depot for all westward travel and shipment.22 1ts central role in the transshipment business was diminished with the construction of the Rideau Canal and the diversion of some of the St. Lawrence traffic, but promoters rallied in 1850 with plans for the Bytown and Prescott Railway to connect to the Champlain Railway from Boston to Ogdensburg. Built as the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway (SLO) in 1856, and later taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), it was a typical feeder line, of much greater interest to most localities than the long-range service of the trunk line. A rail link to Ottawa would provide all-season, year-round transportation for farm produce and lumber, key products for both cities, and it would get timber down onto the Ogdensburg line, which was of crucial concern to American backers.23 For Canadians, the opportunity to increase the accessibility of markets in the United States through Ogdensburg was emphasized, as well as the greater ease of getting goods to American ports for overseas shipment; the local railway offered the possibility for Prescott to resume its lagging importance in the transshipment business.24 It also connected with shipping (Figure 2).
When the first public meetings were held in 1850 to discuss the creation of the railway that would become the GTR, only a short portage line from Montréal to Prescott was endorsed to link
smooth water above and below those points.25 That quickly changed as other municipalities organized railway charters, and Prescott assumed an important role as a mid-point between the Montréal and Toronto divisions. Granaries were proposed in early schemes, and later plans during World War I envisioned regional and international terminal facilities.26 After the construction of the longer trunk line, passengers of the GTR could transfer to river steamers in Prescott, and hotels continued to flourish on the traffic.27 Signs of the prosperity which characterized the 1870s and 1880s are evident in the affluent commercial buildings of King Street, the main avenue of the town, located a block from the waterfront. In those palmy years, the Duke of Connaught first travelled to Ottawa over the SLO in 1869, and the Marquis of Lorne arrived with a retinue in one of the first coal burning engines in 1878.28
The community of Prescott Junction sprang up around the crossing of the SLO with the GTR, but as Ottawa developed more direct connections with Montréal, economic development in Prescott declined, and by the 1890s most of the Junction had fallen into decay.29 Hopes for its growth linked to the railway were not realized, although the GTR line strongly contributed to the development of a flourishing industrial zone north of the town. Shortly after the construction of the line, a large foundry was established adjacent to the tracks. Several important spur lines were built into the town, and even today, functioning factory buildings are lined up parallel to the tracks between Edward Street and the station. In these ways, the operations of the railway and the location of the station have significantly affected the development of the town.
Several fruitless but ambitious projects were hatched between 1912 and 1929 to establish different types of terminal facilities at Prescott, but they were continually derailed by the interference of wars and economic setbacks.30 The town became a port of minor importance for grain shipments in the middle decades of the 20th century, and socially, local excitement was derived from the well-guarded CPR
silk trains that stopped at Prescott to transfer raw silk from Japan onto trains bound for New York. Economically, however, Prescott's reliance on transshipment activities was fated to decline after about 1880 as manufacturing consolidated in the largest centres and transfers of long distance freight occurred at major terminals.
With the general decline and rationalisation in rail services, Prescott is no longer a significant point for the transfer of goods. Although about ten trains pass through daily, the station accommodates passengers at set hours for just two trains a day. Fortunately, the station remains as an important material document of the ground-breaking first phase of GTR development.
The largest of the nine surviving early GTR stations in Ontario, the type A station at Prescott merited a
lst class rating from the railway.31 These classifications did not seem to reflect any written criteria except to express the length, by bays, of the building. Built of rock-faced grey ashlar limestone, its two full-length openings on the west end have been filled in, and its original slate roof has been replaced with asphalt shingles (Figures 1 and 4). It is the only GTR station of this form where all four of the distinctive chimneys survive. Masonry has been repointed, as at all of these early GTR stations, with a hard cementitious mortar standing out from the joints, which was at one time surfaced with a durable black compound, a technique which may date from after 1920. Traces of this substance survive in the less weathered areas of wall, such as on the voussoirs and under the overhang. The unpleasantly sharp textural and colouristic emphasis on the joints, which have been made to project out from their beds, is in contrast to the softer aesthetic of the masonry as built, which is skillfully worked and pleasantly blurry in its surface treatment. Quoins at corners and around openings are very subtle, and like the voussoirs, they are not differentiated from the wall surface by plane. As on the other similar stations, the corners of openings are all sawn or chiselled to a flat, delicate surface.
An operator's bay was added to most stations of the 1856 period, with the exception of Belleville, Ernestown, and St. Marys, about 25 years after construction, when new dispatching methods were introduced. It was built of either brick or wood,32 and centred on the track elevation between two of the triangular eaves brackets. At Prescott, an attractive pattern of V-joint board panels in chamfered post framework has been covered with plywood. The whole slope of the roof overhang has been filled in with a flat soffit, and only the underside of the brackets protrudes from the V-joint tongue and groove boarding. Fenestration is three over three sash under three-light transoms, with characteristic fat, round frame moulding occurring on four of the openings, and regular voussoirs repeating the radius of the window arch. Spandrels under the window sills have clearly been rebuilt to close in larger openings (Figure 5), with two types of stone sill finish: a sawn or a tooled stipple, both of which are typical of the earliest detectable masonry work on the station. All doors have been replaced.
The architectural origins of the early GTR stations have so far resisted deft analysis, but valid sources have been sought in English precedents. Generally, railway companies in England strove after architectural monumentality for prestige and respectability while using familiar forms and imagery to reassure the public regarding safety, propriety and the dignity of the new, fast form of travel. These concerns were relevant in Canada, too, where the papers daily carried vivid descriptions of death and dismemberments on the rails in the 1850s. An advertisement for a leg prosthesis was headlined,
Of Interest to Railway Passengers ... in this age of crippling machinery.33 In 1858, 51 people were killed on GTR property, half of whom were considered to be trespassing, but the circumstances did not lessen the public perception of danger.34 For the GTR, based in London with offices in Montréal, and therefore regarded in Ontario as a doubly foreign enterprise, the level of public hostility required exceptional efforts to present a conciliatory face. On a practical level, as J. Knight has pointed out, while buildings are highly visible, few critics would venture down the track to inspect the ballasting.35
English design sources can be specifically sought through a triumvirate of GTR employees. Chief engineer Alexander McKenzie Ross had worked as resident engineer on the Chester and Holyhead, and North Midland railways in England, where he had been in the employ of PBTB. Noted engineer Robert Stephenson had been the chief engineer on the Chester and Holyhead, where Francis Thompson (1808/9-95) had been the architect from 1846 to 1850; and Thompson's first appointment had been as architect to the North Midland in 1835, for whom he built 26 stations, two hotels, and collaborated on a variety of engineering structures.36 All three worked together on the Conwy Bridge of 1845-49, and Thompson and Stephenson made engineering history with their collaboration on the spectacular Britannia tubular bridge over the Menai Straits in Wales (1845-50). Ross is known to have advised Canadian colleagues which pertinent buildings and engineering works along those and other lines to inspect on visits to England, and he worked with Stephenson on the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montréal.37 The work of Francis Thompson is commonly discussed in standard references, and it has been invoked as a possible influence on Ross and others.38 New research indicates that he was chief architect for the GTR in the period 1852-58, and presumably the hand behind the standard station designs (Figure 6).39
Thomson, as the major railway architect of the time had enormous influence. Although his own book of designs, supposed to have been published around 1842, cannot be traced,40 they were adapted for wide circulation by influential English writer John Claudius Loudon whose Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture of 1833 was known in Toronto,41 and praised by Loudon's American counterpart, Andrew Jackson Downing. Thompson's stamp on that phase of station building inspired the London Illustrated News in 1844 to identify the
Italian style, popularly established in Britain and prominent in Thompson's station designs, as
more properly an English railway style.42 The Italianate style had the advantage of being considered by architectural authorities both cultured and elegant, permitting many freedoms in composition and detail, and
formed without difficulty.43 The style drew on the imagery of rural Italian architecture, principally expressed as simple arched openings, strong horizontals, corner quoins, open arcades, picturesque groupings of buildings, and occasionally square towers. Even in England, some small stations assumed the appearance that would characterize the GTR designs. Before his success with the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Joseph Paxton designed a five-bay station whose roof slope, arched openings and general rhythms presaged the GTR examples (Figure 7).
Thompson was in Montréal as GTR chief architect from about 1852 to 1858, and he is credited with designing their terminal building in Portland, Maine, and a complex at Island Pond, Vermont.44 This was his second stint in Montréal; he had spent time there in the 1830s in partnerships with a Mr. Parry and John Wells, returning to England in 1839.45 While there are numerous characteristic and sophisticated design details in the station prototype found among the papers of Walter Shanly, resident engineer on the Toronto to Guelph line of the GTR (Figure 6), notably the French doors in every bay that have survived only at the St. Marys station, clear attribution to Thompson is complicated by references to yet another GTR architect. Thomas Seaton Scott was working for the company out of their Montréal office in the late 1850s, and later provided designs for the Second Toronto Union Station of 1871-73, and Montréal's Bonaventure Station of 1889. It is feasible to propose that Scott, later Chief Architect for the Department of Public Works, replaced Thompson in 1858 after the latter's return to England.46
In the context of Thompson's possible contribution to the GTR, Richard Upjohn's simple translation of the same imagery into a
depot for Norton, Massachusetts, of 1852-53 is intriguing (Figure 8). These are the principal antecedents for some of the earliest North American stations, which emerged from the cultural matrix of local and international currents in architecture, and of sheer utilitarianism.
The remaining early GTR stations in Ontario fit into this process of transfer and transmutation. The sophisticated planar interplay of Thompson's stone and stucco Belper station in Derbyshire is reinterpreted at Prescott as an emphasis on voussoirs, edge quoining, and overall robustness of material, with the quiet dignity of Upjohn's monumental little shed. Besides the tactile strengths of the rock-faced stone walls and the roof slates, pleasant, subdued colouristic effects were also obtained from the combination of materials.
The Prescott station is an exceptional example, in its size and general external integrity, of the confluence of architectural trends that originated with architect Francis Thompson.
Of eleven operating structures which existed on the site prior to 1907, only the station and two very small, dilapidated frame sheds are left. Accordingly, the uses of the station have changed considerably over the years and its present condition does not represent its original state as the central component in a busy railway yard.
The interior is divided into three sections, each with doors to the town and track sides, all of them renovated to conceal any original trim or finishes that may have remained underneath. These are devoted to a spartan passenger waiting room finished in mediocre materials, which is opened by a custodian for the arrival of trains; a large control office, which has been abandoned; and a vacant storage room which may at one time have been used for freight or baggage. The typical plan of the 1850s divided the interior into four quadrants, half for gender-divided waiting rooms and half for baggage, freight, and a station agent's office (Figure 9). Without a very detailed and possibly destructive examination of the interior, it is not possible from a visual inspection to determine how it was originally fitted, or when it was changed. It may be assumed, however, that with baggage and freight functions occurring outside the building, the interior was put to office and passenger use. One of these was a refreshment room, which was advertised in 1881. There were 15 of these facilities between Portland, Detroit, Buffalo and Port Huron, but of the surviving stations in Ontario, only Prescott and Kingston offered this amenity.47
Railway stations were a new class of building in the early 1850s, and although both English and American precedents are discernible in the GTR buildings, it may have been the instructions of the preeminent British civil engineer Robert Stephensen that informed their development; these in turn may have developed from his collaborations with Thompson. Writing Railways: an Introductory Sketch, with Suggestions in Reference to their Extension to British Colonies in 1850, Stephenson recommended that special attention be paid to
the simple and economical character of the stations generally on the Continent and in American as
deserving of imitation as structures which can at all times be enlarged, extended, altered, or rebuilt, without interruption of the traffic ...48
With their end-wall access for passengers and agents, the tidy GTR plans, which were presumably adjusted in length during the contract phase according to the relative importance of the stop, could easily be enlarged in just that fashion, without any interruption to the use of the building. What ultimately happened was the abandonment of the end-wall doors in favour of through-access between street and track, and instead of expanding the buildings, they were replaced or augmented by additional structures. At Prescott the station has continued in passenger use throughout its history. The passenger doors in the west end walls have been neatly closed with matching limestone infill, and travellers must now enter and exit the small, rudimentary waiting room from the track side of the platform.
The station terminates the axis of St. Lawrence Street, which crests a small ridge before running down to the river along the western edge of Prescott (Figure 10). The building is located at the base of a slope, and floats in a flat expanse of concrete continuous with the road surface in front of it and forming the platform. Originally, of course, the stations were surrounded by ancillary structures and were not isolated objects in this manner; but a quality of singularity distinguishes the Prescott station owing largely to its siting. In 1907 the complex had a separate wood frame freight shed measuring 37'×121', a frame baggage room and coal shed, as well as a sectionman's house, a barn, stock yards, and a large open platform.49 Now the atmosphere of an operating rail yard is wanly suggested by two tiny nondescript frame sheds on the north side of the tracks that are papered in insulbrick.
The streets leading to the station are lined with single family dwellings or one-storey office and storage complexes. The building nearest to the station is a large two-storey stuccoed house diagonally opposite that is rumoured to have been a boarding house for railway crews (Figure 11). Clearly a building dating from the third quarter of the 19th century, it has the features of a multiple-residence but not the appearance of standard GTR boarding houses. A band of light industrial buildings buffers the mostly 20th-century residential area from the track.
At Prescott the station is no longer set far from the town, which has grown to extend out beyond the tracks. More than the railway, however, it has been the 401 highway that has engendered much of the growth, particularly the characteristic strip development on the vehicular approach from the north.
A Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee was formed in Prescott in 1976 to advise council on matters pertaining to The Ontario Heritage Act, and calls itself Heritage Prescott. Thirty residential and commercial buildings have been designated in the town.50 Several museums enshrine the town's history, including a Forwarding Trade Museum and Fort Wellington, a Canadian Parks Service site.
The station has been a subject of concern for Heritage Prescott for many years, and it is raised annually at meetings; but because the situation seemed stable, with trains continuing to run and limited passenger service provided out of the station, there has been little action. This year, however, with publicity concerning the passage of Bill C-205 to protect heritage railway stations, the committee requested that the building be considered for designation by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.51 Like the early GTR station at Belleville, the building has been recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a site of national historical significance and marked with a plaque.
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