Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Grand Trunk Railway Station
Heritage Research Associates, Ottawa
The former Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) station at St. Mary's Junction (Figures 1 and 2) is an extremely rare and important building. It was constructed in 1858 and is one of the early buildings of St. Mary's limestone (which the railway later made a prevalent building stone) in southwestern Ontario. It is the only surviving stone station in original condition on the three sections of western mainline built by Gzowski & Co. for the GTR in Ontario by 1860. Seven other such stations in railway ownership exist on the eastern portion of the line. While a few still show evidence of architect Francis Thompson's original exterior design, none has an interior comparable to this station in originality.
This station has always been a
railway rather than a
town facility. It was occupied as a stopping place by Canadian National Railvays (CNR) crews into the 1970s. St. Mary's, on the other hand, bitterly resented the selection of this site outside the town in the 1850s, and the station's site continues to be remote. The town of St. Mary's has, nevertheless, assumed nominal custodianship of this station because it recognizes its historical significance. Unfortunately, without the affection or the watchful presence of a surrounding town, the St. Mary's Junction station is rapidly disintegrating.
The station at St. Mary's Junction, Ontario is the only surviving original station of its type on the western portion of the Grand Trunk Railway built in western Ontario in 1852-60. The GTR was initially conceived as a defensive route which would link the colonies of British North America by rail. When the British government refused to accept this justification for financing its construction, railway promoters turned to diverse sources for financing. They attracted limited investment from British capitalists, the legislature of the Canadas, and many private Canadian towns and individuals.1 By the time the GTR was chartered in 1852, its scope had been substantially reduced to extend from an ice free Atlantic port at Portland, Maine to Sarnia on the Lake Huron-American border.
The GTR main line in what is now Ontario was built in four sections. The first section, which extended from Portland to Toronto, was constructed by the British railway contractors Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts between the years 1852 and 1856. Each of the members of this prestigious British firm had extensive experience in railway construction.2 Indeed, their credentials so impressed Canadian negotiator Sir Francis Hincks that he essentially arranged for the firm to obtain the contract without competition. Hincks' objective was to obtain the best expertise available to create the new Canadian line. If any of the individuals concerned had been more familiar with the experience of the Royal Engineers in British North America, they would have realized the difficulties of importing British cost estimates and construction methods into a North American environment.3 As it was, they repeated a costly lesson. Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts lost both their money and their reputations building the first stage of the GTR. The scope of their original undertaking, 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,4 nevertheless meant that they set the parameters within which the entire GTR was constructed. They established the specifications for its gauge, rolling stock and plant. One of these
plant facilities was the nature of its stations.
All other portions of the original GTR western main line were built by Canadian contractor Casimir Gzowski between 1856 and 1860. These consisted of a line between Toronto and Stratford completed in 1857, another from Stratford to Sarnia finished in 1859, and a third from St. Mary's to London completed in 1860. Gzowski & Co. steered a difficult course as they built the intial portions of this road. As construction began, the GTR's British shareholders were in the process of investigating the reasons for Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts' heavy financial losses.5 Every aspect of GTR construction was examined as the company fought to retain the support of its British investors. From the time work began, Gzowski & Co. was under pressure to demonstrate extreme efficiency and cost effectiveness in its construction activities. The GTR's management was also replaced in 1857, and the company's new officials paid considerable attention to the interests of those whose support was necessary to complete construction of the line.
These factors were important in the selection of a site for the construction of St. Mary's station. St. Mary's was on the GTR's main line route between Stratford and Sarnia. At St. Mary's, GTR officials elected to purchase land owned by London's Mayor Glass to the north of the town. The station was built on this land, despite the bitter objections of the town of St. Mary's. The crux of the matter was that the 1858 station site at St. Mary's was an important pawn in the GTR's bid for railway hegemony in southwestern Ontario. Its major competition, the Great Western Railway, had already established service to London, the lucrative metropolitan center of the region. The St. Mary's deal with London's Mayor Glass offered an opportunity for the GTR to gain influential support for a foothold in the London market.
The most obvious result of this deal was construction of a branch of the GTR to London in 1860, just one year after the railway completed its mainline to Sarnia.6 These two lines joined at the station site, just outside St. Mary's (Figure 3). By 1860 the primary role of the station at St. Mary's Junction had been defined. It was to serve a co-ordinating role in the GTR system by regulating the safe flow of traffic on these two lines. For this reason it was constantly manned. St. Mary's Junction station was set up as a line house to accommodate crews and provide facilities for the telegraph operator who regulated traffic at the junction.7
In the years that immediately followed, traffic on the GTR lines in the area increased. In 1863 the GTR merged with the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway, its major competition in Perth County. The following year the railway set up locomotive repair shops in Stratford,8 and shortly thereafter built a small round house at St. Mary's Junction to provide accessory storage for it.9 St. Mary's Junction continued in this role as adjunct to administrative requirements at Stratford as traffic increased in the years that followed. The station was frequented by railway crews and staffed night and day by GTR telegraphers based in Stratford.
It is in this context that St. Mary's Junction station may have been occupied by Thomas Alva Edison. Edison was a telegraph operator at the GTR station in Stratford in 1863,10 and several local historians have claimed that he did shift work at St. Mary's Junction as part of his job. While there is no direct evidence to support this contention,11 it would seem probable. This knowledge has been a part of the St. Mary's oral tradition for many years, and in 1933 the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan accepted the desk from St. Mary's Junction (Figure 4) as a legitimate donation. Today it is included among the Edison exhibits at the Edison Institute.
St. Mary's Junction station continued to play an important role in GTR (after 1920 Canadian National Railways) operations as long as switching and traffic remained manually controlled. Over the years it has also been continuously used to provide crew accommodation and rest facilities. This use persisted until the 1970s12 when the CNR substantially refurbished its equipment,13 eliminating company requirements for the station.
The town of St. Mary's on the Thames River in Perth County was originally surveyed for settlement by the Canada Company in 1841. It rapidly became the centre of a small, remote agricultural settlement. By 1845 the town had a population of 100 and boasted a saw mill, a grist mill, a store and a school. It continued to grow, and soon acquired its own post office.14
When news of the GTR's planned route was announced in St. Mary's, the town reacted with a spurt of enthusiasm. This appears to have been typical, as the editor of the St. Thomas Weekly Despatch described in 1853:
It is exceedingly gratifying to witness the spirit of enterprise and progress which has of late sprung up as it were simultaneously in every section of Upper Canada. We hear nothing but Railways, Steamers and Telegraph lines. A few years since it was not so. It seems but yesterday when the projection of a costly line of Railway such as the Grand Trunk l... would have been considered a mere chimera ... This state of things has disappeared, the spirit of improvement is abroad, the march of Canada from end to end is onward, its prosperity is astounding the dormant settlers who were content to live in peaceful retirement enjoying the comforts derived from hard toil and incessant plodding.15
In the spring of 1857 St. Mary's enthusiastically entered into negotiations with Gzowski & Co.
relative to the right of way through our municipality, to the station building and locality of the station.16 A committee previously appointed to look into the finances of the matter reported that the town would need to incorporate and provide a debenture of about three thousand pounds. Few disputed this, and debate centred on the location of the station. By April the council had voted to locate the station on George Tracer's land, about
half a mile from the centre of the village.17 The chief arguments in favour of this site were the low cost of roads to the depot and the convenience of travellers. St. Mary's citizens were concerned that the station be in a central location,
as other places show the inconvenience and positive injury it was to have a station far removed from the business part of town.18 Accordingly, the council passed a by-law to purchase a right of way through the centre of St. Mary's
from limit of Mr. Joseph Smith's farm to the southerly limit of Mr. Tracey's farm,19 and present it to Mr. Gzowski for the construction of the terminal.
St. Mary's citizens were stunned and understandably bitter when the GTR announced the following spring that it had acquired London Mayor Glass's land a mile and a half outside the town for the construction of its station. A contract for construction of the building was awarded to a local firm in May.20 Shortly thereafter, the town's council petitioned to have the company halt construction and reconsider a more convenient location.21 Within weeks, St. Mary's ratepayers announced
it is the duty of the Grand Trunk Company aided by those who paid so dearly for the station to make the road to it, and gloomily considered improving its freight roads to Stratford. When the station was completed in 1858, the St. Mary's Argus concluded it would
stand as a monument to the stupidity of some and the cupidity of others ... for ages.22
Despite this inauspicious beginning, St. Mary's did prosper as a result of the railway. Lovell's 1871 Ontario Directory describes St. Mary's, with a population of 4500, as
an important station on the GTR, ... rapidly growing in wealth and size23 (Figure 5). Although the town briefly served as a shipment centre for grain from the region until the GTR network was complete in 1860,24 the industry which profitted most from the introduction of the railway was building stone. According to The Building and Ornamental Stones of Canada, prepared in 1912:
The most important building stone quarries in western Ontario are situated at St. Mary's. Two companies produce cut stone, while a third, operating primarily for lime, disposes of a small quantity of rough building material. The St. Mary's stone is of close grain and fine texture, it can be chiselled with reasonable facility and it presents a pleasing light grey colour. Most of the cities and towns in southwestern Ontario have made use of these quarries.25
This export earned St. Mary's the nickname of
Over the years the GTR did attempt to make its peace with the community. Between 1858 and 1871 the company invested heavily in the development of local rail facilities. It built a round house and two viaducts, one on each branch of the line.26 In 1912 (when the Canadian Pacific Railway built a branch line to St. Mary's to accommodate the major quarry),27 the GTR constructed a new station (Figure 6) on the site the community had selected in 1858. With construction of this station in the centre of town, St. Mary's lost any serious interest in the building at the junction.
The station built at St. Mary's Junction (Figure 7) was an
A First Class Way Side Station similar to the one constructed by the the GTR at Prescott (Figure 8). As Anne de Fort-Menares remarks in her paper on the Prescott station, the classification of these early GTR stations
did not seem to reflect any written criteria except to express the length, by bays, of the building.28 The
A First Class stations that have survived at Prescott and St. Mary's are six bay buildings. Smaller five bay
C Second Class stations remain in Ernestown (Figure 9) , Napanee (Figure 10), Georgetown (Figure 11), Belleville and Brighton (Figure 12).
All of these stations originally were perfectly proportioned gable roofed rectangular buildings with repetitive, equally spaced arched openings on their long façades. On these surfaces, the roof edge extends over the face of the building to form a platform cover. Two similar apertures break the centre of the end façades, embellished by a high centred circle in the gable apex. All apertures were once enclosed by distinctive pairs of shuttered doors surmounted by split glass window lights in the curved portion. Two balanced chimneys break the roofline at each end. Each station had a slate roof: each is built of stone. At St. Mary's Junction (Figures 13-18), the stone is the town's grey limestone which has been cut but not tooled (Figure 19). Its distinguishing features are capped chimneys, raised arches over the apertures and skillfully cut and keyed round window surrounds (Figure 20).
The design for these stations (Figure 21) is Italianate in inspiration, characterized by rounded openings, a shallow roof pitch, wide overhanging eaves and detailed chimneys. It was prepared under the direction of the GTR's British Chief Architect Francis Thompson.29 Thompson had had considerable experience in the design of railway structures on the North Midland and Chester and Holyhead Railways in England before he came to work on the GTR in Canada.30 It would have been his responsibility to determine the strategy used by the GTR in constructing its stations.
He opted for a single standard design that could simply be expanded by the addition of bays and built of local materials. The design itself was based on the most utilitarian of British railways station forms, the goods station. A
goods section comprised the functional rear portion of many British urban railway stations of the period (Figures 22-24). In aesthetic terms, it was a simple yet tasteful complement to the main part of the station. To create these GTR stations, Thompson simply took a well known form and added balanced end features, door and window fitments, and a simple roof that extended to provide some platform cover.
The result suitably complemented the GTR's expressed intention to build a
First Class English Railway in that it reflected contemporary British standards in railway station design. As expressed by one 1853 commentator, the purpose of station design was
to erect everything in a plain but handsome way. Without anything of elaboration, ... a uniform effectiveness of appearance, with comparative economy of expenditure.31 In their exceptional balance and fine proportions, the Canadian GTR stations articulated this philosophy well.
These are still the outstanding characteristics of the former GTR station that survives at St. Mary's Junction today. Despite the fact that the roof has been covered with green asbestos shingles, and the doors and windows are either boarded or blocked shut, the form of the building continues to project its clean, handsome, original image.
It is worth noting that while the St. Mary's Junction is one of the largest of the GTR stations that still survives, its detailing may originally have been among the simplest.32 Indeed, St. Mary's Junction station is the only surviving Canadian example of this design on the original GTR main line in western Ontario. Neither of these facts is accidental. It is well known that the western portions of the line constructed by Gzowski & Co. managed a profitability not evident on the eastern section built by Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts. One of the reasons for this was the nature of its stations.
The stone stations originally built by Gzowski & Co. were restricted to populated centres like Guelph and Berlin, primarily on the eastern edge of this area. There is an official reason for this. When the GTR attempted to reduce the cost of its stations by changing to wood in 1855,33 the move was blocked by public protest in the legislature which was in the process of issuing the charter permitting construction of the first of the portions of the western main line built by Gzowski. When the charter for the second portion of this line (from Stratford to Sarnia) was granted in 1858, the GTR was under new management, and its financial losses were well known. Permission was obtained to construct wooden stations in less populated areas, as the plan for such a station was completed in April 1858 (Figures 25 and 26). The station at St. Mary's Junction was built just as this transition occurred. Its stone material reflects the proximity of St. Mary's stone: its simplicity mirrors the tight fiscal management of GTR construction on the western line.
Thompson's dilemma as he prepared the original design for stone wayside stations was an interesting one. It highlights the different functions of British and American railway stations of the period, and the GTR's uncertainty about what would be required of station buildings in the new Canadian environment.
When the GTR was originally planned, specifications called for:
The Road Stations to consist of a house with two upper and two lower rooms for the use of the Station Master, with out-buildings and other conveniences, together with a Ladies' reception room, booking office, and open shed for General passengers complete with urinals and water-closets, and also a platform for loading and unloading cattle, carriages, ... The buildings to be brick or stone and covered with tin or slate at the option of the Contractors.34
The station described is similar to the country stations run by the British railways which, in the words of one American observer,
look for the most part like comfortable homes of favored and stalwart station- masters.35 In the 1850s, such stations housed the station master and provided some waiting room and booking facilities. They had no baggage facilities,36 and little in the way of freight accommodation. For one thing, in Britain, freight handling at the station was not the responsibility of the railway company.
The railway companies provided nothing more than the railway line, yard and sidings.37 In large centres, freight was handled by private carriers who worked from general
goods sheds constructed both by the railway companies and by private clients. No such sheds existed in small communities as
there was very little goods traffic of any kind at the roadside stations, and, in consequence, no sheds were erected at those places.38
Imagine the surprise of the British engineers associated with the early GTR line when they realized they must construct facilities to compete with American-built railways with extensive freight and passenger service. American railroads had special facilities for the shipment of passenger baggage, and operated their own freight services. Every station included freight facilities. Clearly, freight transport was one important reason the GTR was being built in Canada, and so the concept for its station design had to be adjusted accordingly. Thompson did so, using the only model he had for the accommodation of unspecified quantities and qualities of freight, the goods station. It should also be noted that the design he prepared left open the possibility of converting the entire station into a freight facility because it left many full, high openings on the exterior.
By the time the St. Mary's Junction building was constructed, GTR engineers had presumably arrived at a better idea of the type of facilities that were required. This is reflected in the wooden and brick
GTR Way Side Station plan dated 1858 (Figures 25 and 26). In fact, it is worth noting that the overall features of these stations are almost identical to their stone counterparts even though they appear much more modest. In fact, this would appear to be confirmed by a set of generic station details (Figure 27) which contain the doors of the St. Mary's Junction station. The same woodwork is still evident on an exterior window closing of the station (Figure 19).
The interior layouts of these plans must also have been similar. Although the layout shown in Figure 25 is one bay shorter than the St. Mary's Junction station, aspects of its allocation of space are still evident in the relatively original interior of the St. Mary's Junction building today. A two bay configuration identical to the Waiting Room and Ticket and Telegraph areas on this plan still exists on the east end of the St. Mary's Junction station. The Ticket and Telegrapher space (Figure 28) on the north façade is roughly finished with wood from floor to ceiling, while the Waiting Room area contains a wainscott surmounted by plaster walls (Figure 29). While both areas have wooden floors, the floor in the Waiting Room area is of narrower (higher quality) boards.
The remainder of the St. Mary's building was divided into two two-bay sections. This means it had considerably more space than is evident in the plan for a five bay station shown in Figures 25 and 26. The middle bay is one large open space which does not appear to have been sub-divided. This may have been used for freight. The west area was approached from two doors into the middle room, and may have contained a kitchen and bedrooms at one time. It had been sub-divided. There is no indication the St. Mary's Junction station was ever occupied as a residence. Three years after it was built, the station master lived at a boarding house in town. Within five years of that, Edison is said to have been the
night telegrapher. The station is known to have served as a passenger station, a crew depot, a freight storage and shipment centre and a telegraph office. All of these functions would appear to be capable of accommodation within the configuration that can be seen today.
It is probable that St. Maryts Junction station has the most original interior of any of the original stone GTR stations. Although it was used as a station between 1858 and 1912, it served no public purpose after that time and was therefore not subject to the many alterations brought about by the installation of services and continual up-dating. Unfortunately, the building is in a very fragile state from lack of adequate protection or maintenance, and the important evidence it has to contribute to our knowledge of 19th century Ontario railway stations may not survive long without substantial intervention.
Today, the station at St. Maryts Junction still sits apart from the town in the midst of farmers' fields (Figures 2 and 30). The major rail junction it was built to monitor continues to be used and visible from the station site (Figure 30).
The associated sidings that once occupied the ground to the south of the station site have disappeared under a junkyard. The six stall cut limestone round house39 built to the north of the station in the 1860s is also gone (Figure 30). The entire building has been surrounded by a high wire fence to protect it from vandalism (Figure 18).
Despite the simple features of this description, it should be noted that the setting of this station is one of its most outstanding characteristics. It is most unusual for a station in southwestern Ontario to have been deliberately built outside a community to suit railway interests. As research on other southwestern Ontario stations has shown, the region's railway companies were usually all too anxious to accommodate community interests to establish and maintain their position in a highly competitive transporation market.40
In fact, there is no indication that development adjacent to the St. Mary's Junction station was ever encouraged. This may have been deliberate. One additional reason for building this station so far from the town may well have been its function as monitor of the intersection of two busy through tracks. At the time it was built, such intersections were rare in Canada. The telegraph system that controlled
the getting of traffic over the road, the delays, collisions and accidents of all kinds41 was relatively new, and so imperfect that Edison spent a considerable part of his subsequent career improving it. GTR officials probably recognized that the junction at St. Mary's posed a safety hazard whose potential for destruction was best restricted.
The significance of the St. Mary's Junction station has been abundantly recognized. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized this station's importance as a site of national historical and architectural value in 1973, re-affirmed the recommendation in 1976, and plaqued the building in 1982. The Ontario Heritage Foundation provided a grant to assist in securing the station's condition in 1980. This grant matched $2500 in private donations collected by the St. Mary's LACAC from local citizens and railway personnel. The Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Culture has ranked St. Mary's Junction station as a Class A resource in its review of heritage rail facilities in the province. The station features prominently in both railway and local tourism literature, and is visited frequently by the travelling public.
Indeed, the St. Mary's LACAC was responsible for stimulating much of this recognition when it drew attention to the historic character of the station as it was threatened with demolition. With the assistance of local MPP Bill Harris, St. Mary's successfully forced the CNR to
relent in 1980. For its efforts the Town of St. Mar Is was permitted to lease the station for $1
for restoration,42 and several groups expressed interest in redeveloping it.
Now, over a decade later, none of these plans have come to fruition, and the St. Mary's Junction Station sits isolated and decaying. It is worth noting that in the interim the 1912 station inside the Town of St. Mary's has been declared surplus by the CNR, leased by the town, and restored as a community facility. Although this second station is of much less historical importance, it nevertheless has a vital place in the community. The Town of St. Mary's continues to retain custodianship of the Junction station by default and out of respect for its antiquity. As the curator of the St. Mary's Museum says,
Its location was always an obstacle in its relationship to the community.43
The American's earliest experiences in England with his baggage provoke him. He wants to 'check it' and he can not do it.
towerphenomenon that characterized the railway stations of southwestern Ontario at the turn of the century.
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A First Class Way Side Station. (NAC PA 112557.)
C Second ClassGTR stations, in Ernestown, Ontario, built 1855-56.(Environment Canada, Canada Park Services. CIHB 1973.)
C Second ClassGTR station at Napanee, Ontario, built 1856.(Environment Canada, Canada Park Services. CIHB 1973.)
mothballedfor preservation by the town. (M. Carter, 1992)
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New High Level Station at the Crystal Palace, London, 1865.(Illustrated London News, 20 October, 1865, p. 305)
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