Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Canadian National Railways/VIA Rail Station
Peterson Projects Murray Peterson, Winnipeg
The former Canadian National Railways (CNR) and VIA Rail station, at Amstrong was built in 1932 (Figure 1), replacing an earlier frame structure destroyed by fire.1 As a divisional point, the community had originally been an important part of what was the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) system. Armstrong is located approximately 150 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ontario (Figure 2) and has a population of approximately 500.2 Changes in the railway industry since the 1950s have made much of Amstrong's railway complex redundant. All of this complex has been abandoned and most of it has been demolished.
The station originally served as a passenger and freight depot, and included living quarters for employees and a restaurant. It now stands vacant and has been boarded up for several years. Vandalism has been extensive and the structure is deteriorating quickly.
Canada's second completed transcontinental system, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR)/NTR, played a major role in the development of northern Ontario. Many northern Ontario and Québec centres were totally dependent on the railway, and continue to this day to symbolize the historic importance of the railway.
On 11 July 1896, Sir Wilfrid Laurier became Canada's seventh prime minister. During the next 15 years, Canada took in two million new citizens and created two new provinces. The government of Canada also financially assisted the construction of two new transcontinental railways.3
During Laurierts first years in office Canada prospered, especially on the prairies. Laurier's optimism was fuelled by this prosperity and by his convincing 51 seat majority after the 1900 election.4 Laurier and many of his contemporaries firmly believed that Canada's growth could support three transcontinental railways. Unlike Sir John A. Macdonald, Laurier was not interested in protecting the monopoly of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and saw increased rail service as the only method of efficiently fostering settlement and long-term economic growth in the West.
In Laurier's search for another transcontinental line, he was faced with two possibilities. The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was incorporated in 1899. It had extensive holdings in Manitoba and was looking to develop the northern prairies through expansion. The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was an established, British-controlled carrier which had been incorporated in 1852 to build a line from Toronto to Montréal.5 In the next decade, it expanded through amalgamation and construction, and by Confederation the GTR's network of lines in southern Ontario and Québec made it the largest railway system in the world.6
Laurier felt it best to amalgamate the two rivals, connect their holdings and create a second transcontinental line. After lengthy negotiations, however, Laurier worked out a deal with the management of the GTR which formed the basis of the National Transcontinental Railway Company Bill, passed 2 September 1903. The Bill called for the creation of a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GTR, named the GTPR, which would build, without support, the line from Winnipeg to the Pacific coast (1,743 miles). The line east from Winnipeg to Moncton, New Brunswick (2,019 miles) would be built by the GTR using public funds.7 After a period of grace, the latter section would be leased to the GTR by the government of Canada, and the entire system would be operated as a single entity.8
These new terms were finally agreed to by the board of directors of the GTR by a letter dated 24 July 1903;9 and with Laurier's subsequent election victory, the new transcontinental railway seemed a certainty. It was almost exactly a decade, however, before the route was completed, and its organization was significantly different than originally planned. The eastern half (from Transcona, Manitoba east), which became known as the NTR, wound through the inhospitable territory of northern Québec and Ontario. Construction costs soared and controversy reigned. The GTPR was also experiencing difficulty, partially due to problems related to mountain construction, and partially due to the severe competition from the CPR and the CNoR on the prairies.
The last spike on the GTPR/NTR system was driven late in 1913 and the first through train arrived in Prince Rupert on 8 April 1914, ten months prior to the completion of the CNoR.10 The First World War, the end of Canada's economic boom, and the duplication of lines and facilities ultimately spelt disaster for both systems. The NTR was never leased by the GTR due to the financial strain of western expansion on the parent company. When the CNoR was nationalized in 1918, it was entrusted with the control of the NTR.11 The GTR declared bankruptcy in 1919, and the GTPR was nationalized in 1920. The federal government added both railways to its holdings, and by 1923 completed the formation of the CNR.
Construction of the NTR in northern Ontario led to the construction of a large maintenance and refuelling facility at Armstrong. This decision followed traditional railway practices of locating major facilities, known as divisional points, at 130-150 mile intervals. Armstrong became the third divisional point east of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The complex included a round house, storage sheds, bunk houses, switching track, a three-storey ice house,12 a coal dock and a water tower. Extensive livestock pens were also built for cattle and Armstrong became the feeding centre for animals travelling to eastern markets.13.
The divisional point was also an administrative centre for the railway, and the station would often be constructed to include a large second floor for offices and living quarters for station managers and other employees. The large, two-storey depot built in Armstrong is of similar plan to that of other Ontario divisional point stations built by the CNR (Figure 3).
The distance from the southern population centres and the barrier of the rugged terrain hampered the development of northern Ontario before the coming of the railway. The transcontinental lines opened the land, making it accessible to miners, lumbermen, farmers and settlers. Given its promise and the permanent and stable transportation system crossing it, the area became known after the turn of the century, not surprisingly, as
New Ontario. Towns grew quickly along the rail lines, fuelled by the promise of resource wealth. Centres like Armstrong, created purely through the necessity of the steam engines, also developed because of the resources but more importantly because of the jobs in the rail yards and shops.
The establishment of the large railway complex in Armstrong assured the isolated community an ongoing source of employment. The construction of this station also reflects Armstrong's continuing role within the CNR as an administrative, service and refuelling centre in northern Ontario and is indicative of the optimism prevalent throughout the CNR system in the early 1930s.
There was little in the way of permanent settlement in this area of northern Ontario prior to railway construction. The route through northern Québec and Ontario was surveyed by late 1908,14 the selection was made of this site for a divisional point, and it was named in honour of T.S. Armstrong, Chief Engineer on the NTR from 1905 to 1912.15 With the shops came permanent employment which guaranteed the community an economic base on which to grow. All subsequent development, including service industries, timber companies and retail businesses, was based on the railway and the money earned by railway employees.
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.16 Thus began a decade of growth and prosperity for the CNR. Thornton had many ideas to improve the public's perception of the company: securing of a lucrative silk contract with Japan, offering pension packages, providing medical services in isolated areas with Red Cross cars, and using CNR facilities to develop North America's first radio network. Together with the new public opinion of the government-owned railways was an increase in morale among employees, an increase in traffic along the northern Ontario and Québec routes because of mining, lumber and hydro-electric developments, and an overall increase in traffic due to the world-wide boom of the late 1920s and heavy immigration to Canada.17
By 1928, the CNR had posted a surplus of $58 million.18 This profitability, combined with heightened public support, created an optimism within the CNR that lasted into the 1930s. This in turn led to a more expensive and grandiose station construction program throughout the entire CNR system.
The increased volume of traffic along the line meant that in many areas railway facilities were too small. While the replacement of the original frame station was necessitated by a fire, the construction of a much larger building was also a response to the increased need for company space at this location. The new structure included a restaurant, living quarters and larger passenger and baggage facilities.19
The primacy of the CNR in Armstrong has been diminished by two events. The first was the construction of Highway 527 north from the Trans-Canada Highway near Thunder Bay. This reduced the community's isolation and its dependency on the railway for transportation.
Technological evolution within the railway industry had a more immediate impact on the economy of Armstrong. The shift from steam to diesel locomotives in the 1950s meant the reorganization of the CNR's refuelling and repair system. Trains could travel longer distances, requiring fewer refuelling and repair stops. The complex, which had once provided more than 130 jobs,20 was down-scaled and ultimately closed. For Armstrong, it meant that many long-time residents left in search of employment, thus affecting the overall population and the community's long-term viability.
The station at Armstrong is a fairly utilitarian, two-storey red brick structure (Figures 4 and 5) having only a few decorative features to lessen the plainness of its design and the bulkiness of its form. It rests on a concrete foundation that rises to the level of the first floor window sills. Windows on this level are rectangular, unadorned and set in plain wooden frames. A canopy roof, supported by large, paired wooden brackets, runs between the first and second storey along the front and at both ends of the station. A rectangular bay facing the track allows the station master a more complete view of the platform and yard. The rear faqade includes a one-storey entrance porch at the east end of this elevation. The second floor features several rectangular windows in plain wooden frames, embellished by concrete lug sills. The roof above is medium-pitched and hipped. It is interrupted on both the front and back slopes by small windowless dormers and is two-tiered, lower at the east end.
Alterations to the exterior, which have not affected its appearance, have occurred on the north or rear façade. An exterior staircase was added to allow access to the second floor without having to enter the station itself.
The elongated plan of this station, measuring 64'×28',21 is a common design, used throughout northern Ontario and western Canada. The complete second floor is also not uncommon; other examples of this type of station on the CNR lines in northern Ontario can be found at Hornepayne (Figure 6, RSR-154) and Cochrane (Figure 7, RSR-196). It should be noted that all three locales are divisional points, and therefore required larger stations. What remains at Armstrong is a simple structure with clean lines and modest ornamentation. Its scale has made it compatible with the other railway structures, while the scope of its ornamentation is comparable with buildings in the community. It stood between the small residential development and the industrial complex beyond, and yet had aesthetic elements common to each area's building stock.
Complete original plans for the station are unavailable but descriptions of the interior have been provided by local residents. This structure, like most Canadian railway stations, offered a variety of services to both the public and employees. Interiors were divided into separate areas in order to simplify this delivery of services.
As at many other divisional points, there was a restaurant
The Beanery, as the Armstrong restaurant was called, included in the first floor layout.22 It was located at the east end of the station. Other space on the ground floor was given to a large waiting room, an office which included the bay window and a baggage/express room at the west end. The office separated the dirt and noise of the baggage room from the waiting room.
The original second floor was divided into two suites, one for the station manager and his family, the other to house local employees including restaurant staff.23
Alterations to all interior elements have been severe and little of the original material or floor plan remains (Figure 8). The original restaurant/kitchen area has been converted into small bedrooms and a living room (Figures 9 and 10). The waiting room continues to occupy the centre portion of the floor, although a new ceiling and panelling have changed its appearance (Figure 11). The office still includes the bay window, but has been similarly renovated (Figure 12). The baggage room was divided into two parts and renovated (Figure 13). What remains is a floor plan virtually devoid of original fabric and less open than originally designed.
The second floor has also been altered significantly (Figure 14). The original interior division has been opened and much of the space has been renovated (Figure 15). The lack of heat combined with some vandalism has hastened the process of deterioration of both the interior and the exterior.
The station formed part of a large railway complex (Figures 16 and 17). Because of reorganization within the railway business, the shops and refuelling facilities were unnecessary within the CNR system by the 1960s. With no use, the buildings were vacated and ultimately demolished by the company. The station continued to be used as a VIA Rail waiting room and as office and storage space for CNR employees. These functions were also curtailed in the late 1980s,24 leaving the building empty.
The station and main line of the CNR mark the southern boundary of the community; the modest commercial and residential development that occurred took place immediately north (Figure 18). The station is located on King Street at the bottom of Second Avenue.
At present, the station is one of the community's oldest surviving structures and other than switching track, is the last reminder of the era of primacy of the railway in Armstrong.
Since the closing of the shops, population and employment in Armstrong have declined. Timber operations, hunting and fishing camps, a Ministry of Natural Resources post and a radar base have provided enough jobs to support the community. The town is run by a group of volunteers organized into a Local Services Board. The community has neither the funds nor any plans for the redevelopment of the station, and there is no longer a railway use for the station, as VIA Rail has built a small waiting room to the west of the building.
Northern Ontario, arrow indicates Armstrong, Ontario. (Reproduced from M. Bray and E. Epps (eds.), A Vast and Magnificent Land, [Thunder Bay: Lakehead University, 1984], p. 205.)
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