Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Canadian National Railways Station
Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto
The Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at 7 Station Lane, Unionville (Figures 1-2) was built in 1871 for the Toronto and Nipissing Railway (T&N). The line was acquired by the Midland Railway in 1882, and fully amalgamated into the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1893. The GTR was amalgamated into the CNR in 1920, and this station continued in use through the next 50 years.
The CNR planned to close and demolish the station in 1978, but in response to community action and municipal negotiations over several years, the CNR repaired damage and leased the station to the Town of Markham for community use. After restoration, it was officially reopened by the town in January, 1990.
Unionville station is an excellent representative of the cost-effective stations put up by a railway with a policy to minimize capital outlay. The T&N feeder railway was chartered in 1868 by Toronto industrialist William Gooderham with the intention of linking Ontario shipping with the proposed eastern terminus of the Canada Central Railway.1 Gooderham anticipated the importance of connecting the trade of the western part of the province in particular, through the port of Toronto, with a Canada-wide distribution network that could compete equitably with Québec. The company was founded on the principles of a shareholder-owned colonization road that would be free of government subsidies and political interference. In practise, however, its promoters were enthusiastic pitchmen to the provincial government. Construction was undertaken cheaply, with the expectation that improvements would be made when the line began to pay for itself.
The T&N claimed to be the
first Narrow-Gauge Railway opened for traffic on the Continent of America, although horsedrawn working lines had opened in Cape Breton in 1861.2 One of the principal advantages of the 3'-6" narrow gauge was the estimated 35 per cent saving in initial construction costs. Another was the proportionate increase gained in locomotive power that enabled the heavy, low-centred engines to cling to crudely laid track over curves and grades that would have defeated steam engines on conventional, standard-gauge track.
The route was established by 1869, and opened to Uxbridge in July 1871. Access from Scarborough into Toronto was by a third rail on the Grand Trunk line. Surveys were run to Lake Nipissing in 1884, spurred by the construction of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway main line, but the line reached its ultimate length of 88 miles at Coboconk in 1872 while Gooderham waited for returns on the first section. The floating debt ballooned to a large deficit in 1878, and it was probably with relief that Gooderham saw the T&N conveyed to the Midland Railway in 1882.
Unlike the transnational systems represented by the GTR or the Great Western, the T&N was a local line with regional interests. Guarantees to carry farmers' cordwood figured prominently in the charter, and complaints were later made that the railway had reneged on its commitment to supply fuel for urban dwellers at specified prices. Petitioning for provincial funds, T&N directors pointed out that the road would benefit large tracts of Crown land by enabling settlement, thereby increasing land values, the profits of which would greatly repay the exchequer for any bonuses awarded to the rail line.3 Largely funded by Toronto businessmen and municipal bonuses, it drew lumber, grain, and agricultural products into Toronto that had formerly been handled through Port Perry, Whitby, or Port Hope en route to Montréal.4 The line shipped about 100,000 tons of freight annually in its early years, and opened up the townships to commuters, summer residents, and business travellers. In this way, the gradual autonomy of Toronto merchants was achieved, and the prominence of the city in the region was secured. The relationship of the transportation network to this "centralizing tendency" was observed by Toronto commentators in 1885.5
Following the 1882 takeover of the T&N by the Midland Railway, a larger regional line, the system converted to standard gauge the next year to facilitate interchanging cars over shared track. The GTR leased the Midland two years later as part of their ambition to control southern Ontario traffic. With the general amalgamation of Grand Trunk-controlled properties in 1893, all the constituent Midland lines, such as the T&N, lost their identities.6 All of them joined the CNR in 1920.
The survival of the early T&N station at Unionville may have been due to the fluctuations in traffic through the village. In the 1890s, often called the "betterments" phase of Canadian railway building, when many stations were upgraded and replaced, the GTR enlarged the yard facilities without altering the station, and industry in the area continued to expand until the war.7 With the automobile and trucking boom of the 1920s, rail freight diminished, and the activity in the yard lessened. The station was repaired but never had to accommodate shifts in usage, and was thereby spared heavy renovation or removal.
As the original station on the site, the building testifies to the determining influence the railway had on the form and growth of the village. Unionville emerged as a hamlet on lands granted in 1794 to William Berczy and his German settlers from Pennsylvania. The building of mills on the Rouge River in the 1840s established the commercial basis for the community. Main Street evolved from the lane to Ira White's Union Mills, and the post office that opened in 1849 took the name Unionville ostensibly from the mills, although in local legend the name commemorates the 1840 Act of Union.8 By 1851, the town had two inns, and an array of village trades: smiths, carpenters, a tailor, shoemaker, wagonmaker, and weaver. Twenty years later, the numbers of tradespeople had multiplied and included two cabinetmakers in the ranks, the inns had increased to three, and the community boasted six stores.9
Obtaining a depot that altered the railway route was a coup attributable to the local M.P.P. Hugh Powell Crosby, incidentally the owner of the Union Mills, who vigourously lobbied the Board of Directors of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway. Although Unionville never even rivalled its sister town Markham for commercial supremacy, the railway assured prosperity for the Union Mills, and convenience for local farmers. Its influence changed the shape and image of the village. Two grain elevators were built beside the station by the Matthew Grain Company; they were bought by the Stiver family in 1916 and a new elevator complex constructed which still stands, with the subsequent addition of the company offices on the site.10
The political structure of the village was not greatly changed by the railway. Unionville acquired three trustees as a Police Village in 1907, and that status continued with Markham Township enforcing education, police, and zoning matters.
The present form of the town has been shaped by successive developments in transportation. Until the railway came through in 1871, the town was concentrated north of the mills. Railway business drew development south of the mills, and the tracks now read as a physical and temporal dividing line. The concentration of subdivision lots around the railway property is explicit in a town map of 1878, and the difference in architecture and landscape is instructive (Figures 3-4). The earlier buildings north of the station are typically frame or board and batten, and Gothic Revival in form or detailing; the southern buildings which postdated the railway are brick, and impose a distinctive scale and presence through the Queen Anne Revival style and other later, less ornate architecture. In the 1920s, the construction of Highway Seven drew commerce further south still. The movement of the business centre, and the eventual construction of a highway by-pass, contributed to the preservation of the historic village centre.
Train service declined commensurately with the rise of road travel. Smaller spurs on the old T&N line were closed in the 1920s. "Mixed" passenger and freight services to the Coboconk terminus were discontinued in 1955, and freight trains stopped running to Coboconk in 1965.11 The Unionville station served VIA Rail commuter traffic into the 1970s, as trains stopped at Unionville even though the station was closed. GO Transit took over from VIA Rail in 1982, and a new shelter was built south of Unionville.
Unionville station characterizes the simple rural combination depot, in this case recently adapted to use by the local Board of Trade. In form a long gabled shed, its cedar shingle roof and board and batten siding have been restored and an early paint scheme (sage green base, grey walls) has been replicated on the basis of early photographs and physical investigation. It is divided roughly in half between passenger and agent use of the space, and the baggage, freight, and express functions are at the east end. The roof projects only on the trackside, where it is carried by simple diagonal struts. The logic of the frame construction contributes to the neat finishes: exposed rafters under the canopy, projecting ridgeplates in the gables, and batten strips trimming the gables. A board platform, securely fenced from the track, has been reconstructed.
Internal spaces are externally expressed by the organization of openings and materials. Three bays on the track side south elevation define the passenger area (accessible by a door with sidelights and transom); the office (indicated by a large eight-over-eight sash window); and the freight section (with its loading door) (Figures 5-8). The east and west ends each have a different window: the domestic, six-over-six of the waiting room, straightforwardly centred on the wall, and the high, horizontal 12-light window of the shipping end. Functions can be read on the north elevation (figure 8) by the same means: the loading door opening has been glazed, although the door and mechanism are intact inside; the lobby door is narrower, with a tall transom; and two windows define the lobby and office area.
The lobby is a single space finished with beaded tongue-and-groove boarding and a cornice which may be a later refinement. Ticket windows have been closed, although there are two locations in the wall where patching is apparent (Figure 9).
Of the 21 stops along the T&N to Coboconk, many of the buildings did not even survive GTR ownership. Their small size and frame construction made them vulnerable to expansion and fire. Of the 19 stations (and two shelters) on the line to Coboconk, 11 were rebuilt or remodelled by the GTR before 1907. Several combined a dwelling with the station. Of its type, the Unionville station was the biggest. Like its sisters at Markham and Goodwood, it was built on a sill foundation measuring 25 1/2 feet by 61 feet, but at over 18 feet its roof ridge was several feet higher than either of the other two. Of them all, only the Unionville and Markham stations (Figure 10 (RSR-137) survive from the first period of T&N construction.12 At the time they were considered
pretty and based on economy combined with thorough efficiency.13
The fine appearance of the building is due to the vicissitudes of time rather than continuous care. During its decline in the 20th century it was clad in insulbrick; it suffered a fire in 1978 and in 1987 the process of resurrection for community use began. Consequently it is the most vividly sited and architecturally the most representative of the early T&N stations.
Unionville station dates from the second period of railway construction in Canada, which saw more sophisticated structures and services provided to the public; despite this, a rudimentary station building was erected at Unionville because of the basic function it served, and because of the straitened circumstances of the T&N. Having been built economically to a simple standard plan, nearly half the T&N buildings were enlarged or remodelled as needs warranted. The Unionville station lacks a projecting operator's bay, for instance, at a time when the Grand Trunk was modifying its 1850s station buildings to incorporate this feature. The baggage room on the east end was barely finished: the lofty roof structure is exposed, and there is no evidence that the room ever had a ceiling.
Traffic flow was straight through the building from the street to the platform. Like the first-generation GTR stations, just one waiting room was provided. The agent would have managed train movements and ticketing from his central office, with assistance from a handler working the freight end.
The restoration and rehabilitation of the station in 1989 led to the modification of the central section with the installation of a barrier-free washroom and a small kitchen, leaving original materials and surfaces relatively intact. Internal doors and trim were replicated as required for consistency. The waiting room serves as a board room, and the undivided baggage room acconunodates offices. The semaphore equipment was left by the agent's window, and the diagonally-boarded rolling doors have been retained inside the freight docks. The fire-damaged west wall was replaced, and a new concrete and concrete block foundation was provided around the perimeter and under the chimney.14 In general, contemporary needs have been fit into the building, rather than adapting the building to new needs.
The location of the station, and its relation to the village, visually demonstrates much of the history of local development (Figures 11-12). Tracks cross Main Street at grade, and the angle of the station makes it easily visible to all northbound traffic. The Dominion Coal and Wood elevators directly west of the building are an eloquent testimony to the commercial importance of the railway. The varied styles of domestic architecture north and south of the station give a sense of the temporal scope of growth. Above the river valley to the east of the station, across Main Street, was the Unionville Planing Mill, which would have relied on the railway to ship out its products. After the mill burned in 1987, it was rebuilt as a bi-level retail complex complementary to the heritage character of the area. With the exception of the elevators, which are closed, there is no other industry in the vicinity. An agent's dwelling was built in 1873, but it has disappeared from the site, along with the stock yard and the section tool house.
The Unionville station was "saved" from demolition and restored for community use through public sup ort, municipal commitment, and the full cooperation of the CNR.15 Through a Save Our Station campaign in 1982, involving letter-writing and a newspaper petition, community support succeeded in saving the building after the CNR made public its intention to remove it. The Town of Markham provided $130,000 toward the restoration of the station, boosted by a $45,000 grant from the Ministry of Culture and Communications, and negotiated a 20 year lease with CNR. The station is used by community organizations: the Olympic Committee was the first post-restoration occupant, and the Markham Board of Trade currently has its offices there.
The railway station and adjacent elevators are two of the three buildings most closely identified with the town by people who live there. The CNR seems to be applying new market assessment criteria for its lands, however, and may try to increase the lease for the elevator land from $3500 to $53,000, which would almost certainly provoke Dominion Coal to withdraw from them entirely.16 In February 1993, the owners applied for a demolition permit to avoid municipal work orders. The town cannot designate the elevators because they are on railway land.
Unionville was identified in the 1975 Markham Official Plan as a heritage study area, and the station is within the boundaries of a Heritage Conservation District Study that has been conducted by town planning staff since 1989. Planning and building applications are handled as if the area were already designated, so that signage is reviewed, all alterations proposals are screened by LACAC, and development is closely monitored. Unionville has a strong community identity, and is the best preserved of the towns in Markham township. The annual Unionville Festival capitalizes on the heritage character of the town, and most of its mainstreet commercial viability depends on its tourist appeal.
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