Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways Station
Nakina, Ontario


Peterson Projects, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg



The VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at Nakina, Ontario (Figure 1) was built in 1923, designed by the Engineering Department of the CNR's Central Region. Nakina, a community of 600 people, is located approximately 210 miles northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario (Figure 2). Its inception and its initial growth were the result of the CNR's decision to construct a repair and refuelling complex at the site. The station was abandoned by the CNR in 1986, although it continues in limited use as a VIA Rail passenger depot.1

The station is currently being converted into a multi-use facility which calls for an upgrading of the exterior and a redevelopment of the interior, providing a careful blend of old and new. The original restaurant will be recreated, the waiting room will be renovated, and offices and retail space will be added.

Historical Associations


The construction of a relatively large station in this remote setting illustrates the optimism of the newly organized CNR. The Nakina station is also in keeping with the type of depot built at locomotive refuelling and repair sites, which were located at regular intervals along Canada's transcontinental lines.

Between 1917 and 1923, the federal government acquired five financially troubled railways, amalgamating them as the CNR: the Grand Trunk, its subsidiary the Grand Trunk Pacific, the National Transcontinental (NTR), the Intercolonial and the Canadian Northern (CNoR)2 The NTR and the CNoR gave the CNR two lines running eastward from Winnipeg, north of the Great Lakes (Figure 2). The NTR ran to Québec City, while the route of the former CNoR ran south of the NTR through southern Ontario to Toronto. In October of 1922, Sir Henry Thornton (1871-1933) was appointed chairman and president of the CNR, and given the task of turning the debt-ridden conglomerate into a unified transcontinental railway system.3

One of Thornton's earliest attempts to increase traffic was to bid for a lucrative silk contract with Japan. In order to be successful, the CNR had to move the freight from Vancouver to New York faster than any other railway system. The company discovered that it could take four hours off its transportation time if it linked its northern and southern routes above the Great Lakes. Opposition to the cutoff came from Québec politicians and businessmen, but Thornton won their support with the argument that reduced mileage would mean lower freight costs and increased passenger use.4 The CNR ultimately won the contract because of this 30 mile link between the two lines, which was constructed by Foley Brothers and Hervey of St. Paul, Minnesota.5 When the cutoff was officially opened without speed limitation on September 15, 1924,6 the northern end of the line, on the old NTR tracks, became Nakina.7

This cutoff was part of Thornton's new business plan for the CNR. In his words, the CN...had to be merchandized like a department store,8 and had to expand services rather than follow the frugality that marked the early years of the CNR's development. He purchased new rolling stock, improved track throughout the country and built bigger and better structures. In an attempt to make the system more efficient, he shifted 4,000 miles of track, one-fifth of the total, to secondary status and during his first three years cut 9,000 jobs.9 But his cutbacks and changes did not alienate his employees due to another of Thornton's novel approaches.

Employee relations under Thornton were given a high priority and his solutions are still considered ahead of their time. He set up pension packages and established a co-operative movement where management and employees could meet to discuss problems before they escalated.10 To improve the public's perception of the company he provided Red Cross cars to give medical services to isolated areas, and used CNR facilities to develop the first North American radio network, producing thousands of listeners and supporters throughout Canada and the United States. To improve the CNR's profitability, he initiated a policy of immigration, bringing 4,000 families to Canada between 1926 and 1930. As well, he fought and succeeded in keeping the CNR out of the hands of the federal politicians, arguing that the only way to make it competitive with the Canadian Pacific Railway was to keep politics and patronage out.11

By 1928, Thornton's leadership, the effects of the world-wide boom of the late 1920s, and the increased traffic in northern Ontario (mining and lumber) and northern Québec (hydro-electric power) enabled the CNR to post a surplus of $58 million.12 This profitability, combined with heightened public support and increased employee moral, created an optimism within the CNR that lasted into the 1930s.

Nakina, located at one end of the link between the north and south routes, was an important part of the silk transportation system. This gave it increased status within the new CNR system and the construction of a large, two-storey station reflected this status.

Nakina was also suitably located for development as a repair and refuelling facility, being approximately 130 miles east of Armstrong, Ontario, the site of a locomotive repair shop, a refuelling facility and a crew changing locale. Following traditional railway practices, Nakina was similarly developed. A round house and other repair facilities were built, as well as coal and water facilities and crew bunkhouses. In recognition of its important repair and refuelling function, Nakina was given the large station to provide not only the usual passenger, freight and residential space, but also space for administrative personnel connected with the shops and other local railway operations (Figure 3).

Local Development

In its origins and early development, Nakina was the quintessential railway town. When the CNR decided to build the 30 mile cut-off line, the route went north from the community of Longlac to a point on the old NTR line approximately 17 miles east of the tiny village of Grant, founded ca. 1911.13 Thornton decided that rather than alter the proposed route, the railway would move Grant. Negotiations with the community followed, and an agreement was struck. The CNR would move the entire town of Grant, houses, buildings and people, and promise never to move the community again.14

The move was accomplished with built-up flat cars15 and the new community was renamed Thornton Junction, in honour of the CNR president. The relocation was completed by 1923 and the name was changed to Nakina, an Indian word meaning meeting place.16

The establishment of the large railway complex in Nakina assured the isolated community an ongoing source of employment. Buildings moved from Grant included a 48'×20' store house, the 12 stall round house with machine shop and 75' turntable, 200 ton coal plant, 1,000 ton ice house, 70,000 gallon water tank, 39'×37' trainmen's rest house and 10 miles of yard track.17 Economic development since 1923 has been based on this initial railway growth. Service industries sprang up to attend to the needs of the new population and the town flourished (Figure 4).

The primacy of the CNR in Nakina has been reduced by two events. The first was the construction of a highway in 1955-56, connecting Nakina with the southern community of Geraldton, which was on the Trans-Canada Highway and a major regional centre. Although the road was hazardous and poorly maintained, it did provide an alternative source of goods and transportation for Nakina, which until then had relied exclusively on trains.18

The second major event, technological evolution within the railway industry, had a more immediate impact on the economy of Nakina. The shift from steam to diesel locomotives meant the reorganization of the CNR's refuelling and repair system. Trains could travel longer distances, requiring fewer refuelling and repair stops. The last steam engine left Nakina in 1958 along with 90 full-time shop positions. The town's population of over 1,000 dropped quickly as men and their families moved away in search of other employment.19 In the early 1960s the shops closed permanently ending 40 years of service on the CNR line.

It was also during this period that the CNR attempted a run-through of Nakina whereby crews would no longer change in Nakina, removing the last source of railway employment at the centre. In 1964 the announcement was made, but a three day national wildcat strike by almost 3,000 railway workers and local picketing of the station ultimately ended the planned run-through.20 Run-through plans were again forwarded in 1969 and 1973 but each time vocal opposition stopped the change. In 1986, however, the run-through finally occurred. The town of 1,100 people saw 44 permanent railway jobs leave, resulting in a decline in population.21 At present, only a small railway staff remains at Nakina, along with VIA Rail personnel. The station is one of the few buildings in town which vividly recall this period of rail dominance.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

Generously proportioned, simply massed, and minimally detailed, the Nakina station measures 27-4"×88-6".22 This large-scale yet simple structure is constructed primarily of wood and sits on a concrete foundation. The expansive rectangular first storey is capped by a low-pitched hip roof, which is pierced by a deeply inset half-storey, also capped by a hip roof. The station is dominated visually by these roof forms, and by the encircling canopy created by the overhanging eaves of the first storey roof (Figures 5 and 6).

The station design incorporates forms often seen in railway station design. The over-scale brackets supporting the eaves and the rectangular bay window on the track side façade are typical of railway architecture. Functionally driven, these features allowed respectively for the creation of the protective canopy under which travellers could shelter, and for a vantage point from which was obtained a clear view up and down the track, over the station platform, and around the yard.

Neither the track nor the town façade of the station is dominated by prominent entrances. The small scale and the simplicity of the doorways are echoed in the plain, rectangular, fixed and double hung windows on both storeys of the station.

The Nakina station design, produced by the CNR Central Region Engineering department, based in Toronto, is not known to have an exact parallel in the CNR system. It fits quite comfortably, however, within the general CNR design philosophy of the 1920s and 30s for rural stations in western Canada and in northerly regions. Built to a generous enough scale to allow for increased future usage, stations were designed with a clear eye to specific functional requirements, and were simply detailed and finished, with little unnecessary ornamentation. Stations constructed by the CNR in northern Manitoba along the Hudson Bay Railway, such as that at Cranberry Portage (RSR 84) while differing aesthetically, may be seen as part of this same tradition. In northern Ontario, roughly similar stations may be found at Armstrong, (Figure 7) and Cochrane (Figure 8), which, although they are built of brick and have a full second storey, share many common features with Nakina station.

Alterations have occurred between initial construction and the major renovations currently underway. The stairway to the second floor, located in the northwest corner of the station (Figure 9), was removed and replaced by an entrance above the boiler room, with access via an exterior staircase (Figure 10). An entrance porch and a small addition to the storage room were also added to the northeast corner of the building.

Present exterior repairs and renovations have included the covering of the raised cement foundation with decorative wooden shingles, and the replacement of several of the wooden brackets, although care was taken to imitate existing elements. The station has also been painted. The one-storey addition adjacent to the boiler room and chimney has been removed. The chimney is slated to remain, while that portion of the boiler room above grade will be removed, including the staircase and entrance added to the design after construction. The canopy, which originally ran along the track side and east elevations and 'partially along the west façade, will be extended to encircle the entire structure. There have been some alterations to the fenestration. These changes have not adversely affected the aesthetic merits of the station and it remains an attractive, modest structure, well suited to its rural surroundings.

Functional/Technological Qualities

The original ground floor of the Nakina station was divided into three distinct sections, reflecting the different uses of the interior space (Figure 9). The western end of the station held the 14'-2"×27'-4" baggage room which had only one door opening, towards the tracks. This would suggest that much of the freight unloaded was removed directly from the large platform, rather than being stored in the baggage room, and then taken away from a town side loading door. The central section contained the general and women's waiting rooms, washroom facilities, a small conductors~ room and the station manager's office (with bay window). The eastern end, 36'-4"×27'-4", consisted of a restaurant and kitchen. This facility included a long, curved counter and 23 stools. The inclusion of a restaurant was not uncommon for centres with repair shops and refuelling facilities and often became the social centre of the town.

This station boasted a full basement including space for general storage, kitchen stocks, the large boiler, and coal storage (Figure 11). Added support was furnished by four 10" steel I-beams. Full basements were unusual in stations, while partial basements were much more common.

The second floor measured 59'-6"×27-4" and was divided into two separate sections (Figure 12). The eastern end served as living quarters for the station manager and his family and was 37' long. The suite included two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and a bathroom, all running off a central hallway. The western 22'6tt of this level was divided into three bedrooms and a bathroom, again running off a central hallway and used for train crews or other employees. This interior organization was not unusual for stations of this size and function, in that it provided residential space for both the manager and other workers and that there was a definite division between the two areas.

There were many strengths to this common pattern of interior functional division of space. It allowed the station manager easy access to all areas of the main floor and provided ample space for all functions within the station. Public and business areas were sufficiently separate as were the residential suites on the upper level. The latter space provided ample quarters for both management and other employees.

The first and second floor interiors have been substantially altered over the years. On the first floor the women's waiting room was replaced by a bathroom, the office space was reorganized and the restaurant was converted into storage space (Figure 10). The upper level was redeveloped into a combination of office and residential space, without a clear cut interior division into two sections (Figures 13 and 14). Four bedrooms, two offices, a kitchen and a bathroom remain, and, as stated previously, the stairway at the northwest end has been removed. The basement was not substantially altered during this time (Figure 15).

Current alterations will further affect the interior (Figures 16 and 17). The ground floor will eventually contain a retail area in the west end to be known as The Baggage Room, a VIA Rail waiting room, an office and The Beanery, a restaurant located in the same area as the original restaurant (Figure 18). The second floor will consist of a reception area, a meeting room and offices. The northwest staircase will be rebuilt (Figure 19). To accommodate these new uses, all building systems will be replaced. This will necessitate the removal of all interior wall, floor and ceiling finishes and their replacement, although the redevelopment plan specifically states that:

New wall finishes in the Beanery and Baggage room areas should replicate the original patterns. Ceilings in some areas should be constructed as replicas of the original.23



The railway tracks and the station mark the southern boundary of Nakina. The station itself is located on Railway Avenue (Figure 20). The original railway complex included a round house, a water tower, a coal dock, switching track and small tool and storage buildings. Only the station remains. A number of crew houses still used as residences (Figure 21) and a few smaller buildings in poor condition are the only remaining contemporaries of the station left in Nakina.

As with other stations across Canada, the Nakina station was surrounded by a large platform. Built of wood, it stretched along the front of the station, extending past the ends of the building. Freight was unloaded onto the platform and either put in storage or taken away by the owner. The original planking was removed, and replaced by a cement pad of considerably smaller proportions.

The station is located at the base of the hill on which the town is situated. Its location, in conjunction with the large open space which surrounds it, makes the station visually prominent.

Community Status

The town of Nakina began negotiations in 1985 with the CNR for the possible transfer or purchase of the station. This was a major component in a plan developed by the local council and concerned citizens to increase tourism, thereby improving the economy of Nakina. The station was chosen for redevelopment because it was in good condition, but more importantly because of its historical significance to the town. Both the CNR and VIA Rail have been active in these negotiations which are currently nearing completion. Station renovation costs are estimated at over $700,000,24 and are scheduled to be completed by early 1993.25


  1. ^ W. Kuch and J.K. Stephenson, Nakina CNR Station—Redevelopment Feasibility Study (Thunder Bay: Kuch and Stephenson, Architects, 1990), p. 8. Below as Redevelopment Study.
  2. ^ The Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, l988), Vol. I, p. 345.
  3. ^ R.F. Legget, Railroads of Canada (Vancouver: Douglas, David and Charles, 1973), pp. 134-35.
  4. ^ Canadian Railway and Marine World, Volume 26 (January 1923), p. 11 and Volume 26 (February 1923), p. 71.
  5. ^ Ibid., Volume 26 (February 1923), p. 71.
  6. ^ Ibid., Volume 27 (December 1924), p. 611.
  7. ^ B. Swanson, Nakina, the Fightingest Town in the North (Geraldton: Times Star Publishing, 1984), p. 1.
  8. ^ Donald MacKay, The People's Railway (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1992), p. 52.
  9. ^ Ibid., pp. 53-54.
  10. ^ Ibid., p. 54.
  11. ^ Ibid., pp. 55-58.
  12. ^ Ibid., pp. 59, 65; and G.R. Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 331-32, 343.
  13. ^ The Times-News (Thunder Bay), 1 March 1985.
  14. ^ B. Swanson, op. cit., p. 1.
  15. ^ Ibid., p. 1. The flat cars were built to over four feet in height because of two narrow bridges with four foot sides that had to be crossed on route, the buildings going over rather than between the sides.
  16. ^ Ibid., p. 2.
  17. ^ Canadian Railway and Marine World, Volume 26 (July 1923), p. 343.
  18. ^ B. Swanson, op. cit., p. 31.
  19. ^ Ibid., p. 33. Some of the shop workers were able to find employment elsewhere and thereby remained in Nakina, primarily at the Kimberly-Clark lumber mills.
  20. ^ Ibid., p. 34.
  21. ^ The Chronicle-Journal (Thunder Bay), 22 August 1986.
  22. ^ Redevelopment Study, Appendix I b.
  23. ^ Ibid., pp. 46-47.
  24. ^ Ibid., p. 50.
  25. ^ Linda Grieve, member of the Nakina Heritage Committee and Councillor for the Township, and Bill McKillip, long-time resident and member of the Nakina Heritage Committee, in conversation with the author, 30 September 1992.


  1. VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways (CNR) station, Nakina, Ontario; built in 1923, designed by CNR engineering department, Central Region; track side (south) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  2. Canadian railways around the Great Lakes, arrow indicates Nakina, Ontario. (Reproduced from R.F. Legget, Railroads of Canada, [Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1973], p. 116.)

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  3. CNR station, Nakina, Ontario, 1923. (Courtesy of Dave Rudyk, Cochrane, Ontario.)

  4. Nakina, Ontario; ca. 1923, station at extreme left side of photograph. The seven large buildings at the arrow were the CNR company houses, also built in 1923, which housed many of the employees. Several of these still stand in Nakina. (Photograph courtesy of Bill McKillip, Nakina, Ontario.)

  5. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; track side (south) façade and east end. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  6. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; town side (north) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  7. Former CNR station, Armstrong, Ontario; built 1932; track side elevation. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  8. CNR/Ontario Northland Railway station, Cochrane, Ontario; built 1909-10; town side elevation. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  9. CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Plan of Ground or First Floor, 1923. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990, Appendix I a)

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  10. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Existing Main Floor Plan. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990, Appendix I b)

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  11. CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Plan of Basement, 1923. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990, Appendix I a)

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  12. CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Plan of Second Floor, 1923. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990, Appendix I a)

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  13. CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Existing Second Floor Plan, (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990, Appendix I b)

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  14. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; second floor, looking west from the stairs. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  15. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; basement. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  16. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; view of the condition of the original restaurant space. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  17. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; view of the condition of the waiting room and office areas. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)

  18. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Main Floor Plan—Redevelopment Plan. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990 Appendix I.)

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  19. VIA Rail/CNR station, Nakina, Ontario; Upper Floor Plan—Redevelopment Plan. (Plan reproduced from Redevelopment Study, Thunder Bay, 1990 Appendix I.)

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  20. Map of Nakina, Ontario, arrow indicates location of the station. (Map courtesy of Nakina Town Office.)

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  21. Crew houses in Nakina, Ontario, built ca. 1923. (Murray Peterson, 1992.)