Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


Former Canadian National Railways Station
Fort Frances, Ontario


Peterson Projects, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg



The former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at Fort Frances, Ontario (Figure 1) was built in 1913, originally part of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) system. This community of 8,700 people,1 is located at Mile 230.5 west of Thunder Bay,2 Ontario, approximately 260 miles southeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba (Figure 2).

The station was built adjacent to the original frame station (since demolished) in order to increase the railway's ability to meet its demands. Currently the building stands within a railway yard emptied of its original industrial complex. The station stood vacant for many years but negotiations are nearing completion that will see the building purchased by a local group who plan to convert it into a multi-use facility.

Historical Associations


The construction of this relatively large station is indicative of the growth Canada's railways underwent prior to World War I. It is also illustrative of the optimism of the backers of the CNoR in Fort Frances, and their confidence in the rail system that tied into lines in the United States.

On 13 January 1899, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann incorporated the CNoR, which grew from humble beginnings into a line that ultimately rivalled the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in western Canada by carrying wheat eastward to the Great Lakes, and people and goods west to the newly populating homesteads and towns. Many westerners actively sought to have the monopoly of the CPR broken, thereby creating lower freight rates. Mackenzie and Mann saw a chance to make money through land and monetary support from provincial and federal government charters, and through the business to be generated on the new line.

As planned, the CNoR was to run from Winnipeg southeasterly to Sprague, Manitoba, then go a short distance through the state of Minnesota, entering Canada again at Rainy River, Ontario. This route avoided the difficult Lake of the Woods area, and utilized yet another of Mackenzie and Mannts acquisitions, the Minnesota and Manitoba Railroad Company, purchased 2 May 1899. Two other lines were acquired to complete the route, the Ontario and Rainy River Railway Company (incorporated in 1886), and the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway (incorporated in 1883). These two lines, together with the Manitoba charters and existing trackage, furnished Mackenzie and Mann with the authority to complete their line from Winnipeg to the Great Lakes at Port Arthur (present-day Thunder Bay), Ontario. These charters also included generous provincial and federal subsidies, making their acquisition even more desirable.3

When the building season began, construction on the new line commenced quickly, and by the end of the season in 1900 the line was completed from Winnipeg to Baudette, Minnesota, across the Rainy River from the town of Rainy River. Temporary tracks were laid on the river ice, allowing the first train to run between Winnipeg and the town of Rainy River on 9 December 1900. By the end of 1901, a newly constructed steel bridge created a more permanent river crossing and the section from Rainy River to Fort Frances was finished on 10 October 1901. On 30 December 1902 an official ceremony took place at Atikokan, Ontario, marking the completion of the entire line from Winnipeg to Port Arthur.4

With the completion of the line to Lake Superior, Mackenzie and Mann turned their attentions to the expansion of their western holdings and ultimately to the creation of a transcontinental system. The last spike of the CNoR's transcontinental line was driven in January of 1915 and by the end of that year it was fully functional from coast to coast.5 But this expansion did not come without a price. By 1913 the railway's debts, partially due to the expensive construction through the Rocky Mountains and northern Ontario, far outdistanced its earnings. Mackenzie and Mann, hoping the completion of the entire system would bring financial stability, continued expanding and improving their lines and building new stations and related structures, In 1914, however, drastic measures were needed to save the company and the federal government interceded with guaranteed bonds. In return, the government was given a mortgage on the CNoR. As World War I continued, the economic situation worsened for the CNoR and in 1917 it was officially acquired by the federal government which ultimately merged it with other holdings to form the CNR.6

The other major railway through Fort Frances is the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railway, originally chartered on 31 July 1901 as the Duluth, Virginia and Rainy River Railway. In 1905 this company was purchased by the CNoR and completed between Duluth, Minnesota and Fort Frances on 16 December 1912, at which time it was renamed.7 It provided a valuable connection between the major centres of Duluth, Winnipeg and Port Arthur, and Fort Frances became a major international customs and immigration point.

Due to the growth in local railway functions, a second CNoR railway station in Fort Frances was required. Passenger and freight traffic had increased dramatically as the CNoR's system had developed, and the connection to the United States markets through Fort Frances had created an important international role for the town. Customs and immigration officials were required for the volume of passengers and freight entering and leaving Canada at Fort Frances by rail. The first station, designed by CNoR architect Ralph B. Pratt and built in 1902 (Figure 3),8 was soon outgrown. The new building provided ample space for the existing local, national and international needs of the company, with a flexible design to allow for future additions when necessary.

Throughout the three decades following the construction of the station, its platform was occupied by soldiers, businessmen, immigrants, and citizens, with their bags and packages. Their only means of transportation during this period was via the railway, and the nucleus of this system was the station. The station at Fort Frances is a tangible reminder of the days of economic supremacy for the railways. There was no shortage of optimism throughout Canada during the first decade of the 20th century, and this was nowhere more evident than in the railway sector. Two new transcontinental lines were completed by World War I, bringing the total to three. Many of the newly created communities along the lines grew rapidly into towns and cities. To these centres the railway was a lifeline, bringing in new citizens, goods and information, and carrying out produce and other surplus materials.

Local Development

Fort Frances relied on the railway for employment, communication and transportation. This dependency was not, however, absolute, and the town's economic development was able to diversify because of the CNoR's construction. Thanks to this diversification, railway cutbacks that emptied other small communities all along the lines were not as severe in Fort Frances.

As with much of northern Ontario, initial human occupation of this area was by seasonally-migrating bands of natives. European contact in the Rainy Lake area first occurred in 1688, and by the early 1700s the Winnipeg to Lake Superior route through this region was heavily used by voyageurs, explorers and other travellers.9 The first permanent trading post, approximately three miles above the present-day town, was built in 173110 and in 1793 the North West Company built a fort at what is now Fort Frances. At about the same time the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) also built a nearby post, named Lac la Pluie. This post was renamed Fort Frances on 25 September 1830, after Frances Ramsay Simpson, wife of Governor George Simpson, who was at the time inspectin HBC holdings in the west with his bride and business advisors.11

The Dawson trail ran through Fort Frances on its way from Lake Superior to the Red River Settlement (present-day Winnipeg). It was established in the late 1860s and early 1870s and became one of western Canada's most important transportation routes. Fort Frances developed into a major stopping point on the route. By the 1890s, steamboats had virtually replaced this trail as the most popular method of travel throughout the region. A canal had been started at the nearby Koochiching Falls to improve the route (ultimately abandoned). Fort Frances organized as a village in 1891. It became a centre of lumber milling enterprises which utilized trees cut on both sides of the border, and floated down the Rainy River.12

Unquestionably, the two main factors in the successful development of the town of Fort Frances (incorporated on 11 April 1903) were the construction of the CNoR and the exploitation of the falls to produce hydro-electric power. A power plant was begun in 1905 after extended negotiations between the U.S. and Canadian governments (the river is international water), and the dam was finished in 1910. It produced cheap, plentiful power for the development of several industries in the area.13

The railway decreased the isolation, provided an all-season method to move people and goods, and helped add a sense of permanency to the entire region. The completion of the link with American railways in the early 1910s consolidated Fort Frances' economic stability. With the completion of the new station in 1913, the CNoR provided citizens and employees with more permanent and up-to-date facilities, underscoring the growth of the entire line and the importance of Fort Frances within that system.

The period after the construction of the new station marked the modern development stage of Fort Frances. Increases in population throughout the region increased the volume of traffic along the line, both passenger and freight. Larger shipments of prairie grain also increased traffic, thereby requiring more employees throughout the system. For the repair and refuelling centres along the line, these increases resulted in more rolling stock and more work at the shops. The Fort Frances station, as was the case in other towns, was the focal point of the railway company's services. The increasing numbers of employees used the station for booking in and office space, and the public's use of the facilities—waiting rooms, baggage and freight departments—likewise rose over the decades. By 1928, the town and the railway had already outgrown the 15 year old station and an addition of over 800 square feet was made to increase baggage and freight storing capacity.

At its zenith, the railway's presence in Fort Frances was extensive. It was not, however, Fort Frances' only source of employment, as was so often the case in many railway towns throughout western Canada and northern Ontario. The railway complex included the station and nearby restaurant, a 5-stall round house14 and 70' turntable, a large freight shed and express building, tool houses, storage sheds, a water tower, a 200 ton coal dock, and extensive yards.15 The existence of other major industrial enterprises, and the community's designation as a smaller-scale repair site within the CNoR and then the CNR system, reduced both the railway's local presence and the town's dependency on employment from the yards. Thanks to its economic diversification, Fort Frances was not as severely affected by the decline in railway employment that occurred nationwide after the 1950s. Technological innovations, especially the use of diesel engines, and changes in the management of the industry, caused a reorganization and centralization in both national railway companies in Canada, which reduced the overall number of employees.

In 1936, the highway opened that linked Fort Frances to Kenora and in June of 1965, Highway 11, linking the town with Thunder Bay, Ontario, was officially opened.16 These two projects, together with the development of air transportation, has precipitated the reduction of traffic along the CNR line. Passenger service was discontinued in July 1977 and the railway abandoned the station shortly after.17

While the modern development of Fort Frances and the entire Rainy River/Lake of the Woods area was greatly advanced by the coming of the CNoR, the abundance of natural resources and industrial diversification allowed some communities to expand their economic bases. Cuts in railway employment and services did adversely affect these centres, but not to the same extent as in so-called railway towns where the entire economy was based on railway employment.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

Unusually long, simply massed, and modestly detailed, the Fort Frances station originally measured 147'×24' (Figures 4 to 7).18 Its length and basic plan are common elements in many stations designed by the major railway companies after 1900. Built of red brick, it rests on a concrete foundation and utilizes cut stone accents around structural openings. The elongated rectangular first storey is covered by a low-pitched, bellcast hip roof. The small second storey section is topped with a pyramidal roof, and it is pierced on either side by gable dormers. The heavily overhanging eaves of the first storey roof form a canopy that encircles the entire structure.

As designed, the station incorporates many elements common to railway designs throughout Canada. The eaves supported by overscaled wooden brackets, the elongated plan, and bay window facing the track are typical features of station architecture. The deep eaves provide protection against the elements for passengers and goods, while the large ground floor plan is spacious and flexible in interior organization. The track side bay window allows an improved view of the yards, platform and tracks. The second storey pyramidal roof is also a common feature of CNoR designs and is used extensively in rural settings.

Entrances and windows, like the overall design, were kept uncomplicated. Simple, small-scale doorways are matched by plain, segmentally-arched windows set in plain wooded frames and resting on cut stone lug sills.

The plans for the Fort Frances station were produced by the CNoR Engineering Department in Winnipeg, and designated plan #100-42.19 Total cost of construction was $40,000 and the general contractor was J.H. Simmons of Winnipeg. Subcontractors included: East and Corrin, Fort Frances, plumbing and heating; A. MacDonald, Winnipeg, painting; Zeat and Johnson, brickwork; and H. McConkey, electrical.20 The station fits into a general trend in station design evident throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario from the early 1900s into the 1920s. These station types were built to be large enough to meet future needs, and clearly designed for efficiency rather than for their decorative qualities.

On the former CNoR line through northern Ontario, the station at Rainy River, Ontario (Figure 8) is similar, while the Atikokan station is a severely reduced form of the elongated plan. Many stations on the CPR line compare to this depot, including the Manitoba centres of Portage la Prairie (RSR 109), Rivers (RSR 114), and The Pas (RSR 83). The CPR station at Broadview, Saskatchewan (RSR 131) also fits into this category.

Alterations to the exterior of the building have been sensitively carried out. In 1928, a 34'×24' extension was added to the east end of the station for express and freight, making the total length of the depot 180'. Cost of construction was $10,000.21 The station remains a well-designed, pleasingly simple structure suited for both public and business needs and aesthetically complementary to its surroundings.

Functional/Technological Qualities

The ground floor of the Fort Frances station provided a number of services to both the public and railway personnel. The floor was therefore divided into separate yet connected parts reflecting these functional divisions. As with the exterior, this interior organization was typical of most stations in Canada. Because of international traffic it was also necessary to include extra space for customs and immigration services (Figure 9).

The west end of the station contained a large customs office, 14' x 20', and immigration and detention rooms. The customs office was not accessible internally from either of the other two rooms, nor was any of this area accessible from any other part of the station. Next to these offices was the baggage room and lobby, referred to as a bonded wareroom.22 Similar to other larger stations, the waiting room was divided into general and ladies' sections. The area was separated by the ticket office and station master's room, located at the bay window.23 The 1928 addition to the east end became the express room and office and was not accessible from the waiting room area.

The large basement of the building (Figure 10) originally held the heating plant, an employee washroom and storage space. The second floor was originally used as a dispatcher's office.24 1n most cases, a small second storey such as this would have been used as residential space for the station manager or other employee, but this was not the case until ca. 1956 when interior plans detail a two bedroom apartment at this level (Figure 11). The present-day interior of this station bears little resemblance to the original structure. Between 1956 and 1973 several major changes were completed on the interior. The basement (Figures 12 and 13) has remained relatively unchanged, however the main floor (Figure 14) has been severely altered. The customs office was moved to the original immigration and detention room space, with the trainmaster's office locating in the west end. The ladies' waiting room was converted into a machine room and the express department became four small offices (Figures 15 and 16). The second floor was also upgraded and renovated into a kitchen and lounge area (Figures 17 and 18). The interior was finished with quartered oak and walls of a light azure blue, and opal glass shades on copper fixtures lit the interior.25 The blue walls have been painted over on a number of occasions and the original light fixtures were replaced by fluorescent lighting.

Plans for the redevelopment of the station will further alter the interior. The basement is to include a shooting range and the first floor will hold offices, meeting rooms and a coffee shop in the original waiting room/ticket office area. The group presently negotiating the sale and organizing funding to complete the renovations will rename the station the Fort Frances Heritage Depot.26



Changes in the area around the Fort Frances station have been extensive and have diminished the visual impact of the depot. When completed in 1913, the new brick station formed part of a railway complex that occupied a large portion of land that formed the northern boundary of the town of Fort Frances (Figure 19). After the new station was completed, the 1902 frame depot was moved to a position approximately 15' to the east of the new building. Here it was renovated into extra office space for dispatchers (east end) and a restaurant (west end).27 The older building was closed in 1968 and was destroyed by fire soon after.28

The 1913 station, together with the original station and a carefully tended garden, made for a visually pleasing station/restaurant complex (Figure 20). Also located in the extensive yards was an ice tower (built in 1916 and demolished in 1946), a coal dock (built in 1914, demolished 1948), the large turntable (installed in 1920, demolished 1962), and a 1911 ice house which was demolished in 1964, as well as small storage and tool sheds.29

Today, the railway complex has been reduced to the station and yards, the only physical reminders of one of the major components of Fort Frances' early progress. Most of the modern residential and retail development of Fort Frances has occurred southeast of the yards. The major thoroughfare once running in front of the station has shifted south thereby shifting much of the activity and traffic that once passed by the depot. The residential property that has since developed north of this new artery has severely reduced the conspicuousness of the station.

Community Status

In 1991, faced with the possibility of the demolition of the station, a number of concerned citizens organized the Save of Station Committee. This committee led negotiations with the CNR to preserve what they felt was one of the town's most valuable heritage resources. As a result, an agreement is nearing completion that will see the station sold and the land leased to a local board that will oversee the renovation and reuse of the station.30


  1. ^ Fort Frances Community Profile (Fort Frances: Fort Frances Economic Development Commission, ca. 1992), p. C-1.
  2. ^ Charles Bohi, Canadian National's Western Depots (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1977), pp. 97-8.
  3. ^ Railway files of the Fort Frances Museum.
  4. ^ Fort Frances Times, 23 October 1977.
  5. ^ The Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988), Volume 1, p. 346.
  6. ^ Railway files of the Fort Frances Museum.
  7. ^ Fort Frances Times, (4 February 1987).
  8. ^ J. Edward Martin, The Railway Stations of Western Canada (British Columbia: Studio E, 1980), p. 56.
  9. ^ A History of Fort Frances, unpublished booklet produced by the Fort Frances Public Library and Museum, 1977, n.p. Below as History.
  10. ^ Manitoba Free Press, (25 January 1908), p. 14.
  11. ^ History, op. cit., n.p. The post remained in operation until ca. 1898 and was destroyed by fire in 1903.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Canadian Railway and Marine World, (February 1921), p. 72; and the Rainy River Record, (1 April 1920), p.1. The round house replaced an earlier structure destroyed by fire.
  15. ^ Information from CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  16. ^ History, op. cit., n.p.
  17. ^ Aage Rude, member of the Save Our Station Committee, Fort Frances, in conversation with the author, 15 March 1993.
  18. ^ Information from CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  19. ^ C. Bohi, op. cit., p. 88.
  20. ^ Fort Frances Times, (4 February 1987).
  21. ^ Ibid.; and CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  22. ^ Fort Frances Times, n.d., 1913, located in the files of the Fort Frances Museum.
  23. ^ Ibid.
  24. ^ Ibid.
  25. ^ Port Frances Times, (4 February 1987).
  26. ^ Aage Rude, op. cit.
  27. ^ Fort Frances Times, (n.d., 1913), located in the files of the Fort Frances Museum.
  28. ^ Information from CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  29. ^ Ibid.
  30. ^ Fort Frances Times, (23 October and 30 September 1992); and Aage Rude, op. cit.


  1. Former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station, Fort Frances, Ontario; built in 1913, designed by CNoR engineering department, general contractor, J.H. Simmons, Winnipeg; track side or north façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  2. Northern Ontario, arrow indicating Fort Frnaces. (Reproduced from M. Bray and E. Epp, eds., A Vast and Magnificent Land [Thunder Bay: Lakehead University, 1984], p. 205.)

    Image Not Available.

  3. CNoR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, ca. 1910; built in 1902, designed by Winnipeg architect Ralph B. Pratt. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum.)

  4. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; town side or south façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  5. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; track side or north façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  6. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1979; drawing of town side or south façade. (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  7. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1979; drawing of track side or north façade. (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  8. Former CNR station, Rainy River, Ontario; built in 1918, designed by the Engineering Department, CNR, contractor, Claydon and Company, Winnipeg; town side or south façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  9. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1956; "Ground Floor Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  10. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1956; "Basement Floor Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  11. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1956; "First Floor Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  12. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1973; "Basement Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  13. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; basement. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  14. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1973; "First Floor Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  15. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; ground floor looking east from the bay window. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  16. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; ground floor looking west through the original waiting rooms. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  17. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario, 1973; "Second Floor Plan." (Plans courtesy of CNR Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

    Image Not Available.

  18. Former CNR station, Fort Frances, Ontario; second floor kitchen. (Murray Peterson, 1993.)

  19. Fort Frances, Ontario; arrow indicating location of former CNR station. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances town offices.)

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  20. CNR station/restaurant complex, Fort Frances, Ontario, ca. 1927. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum.)