Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


Canadian National Railways Station
Huntsville, Ontario


Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto



Historical Associations

The Canadian National Railways (CNR) station on Station Road in Huntsville (Figures 1-3) was built in 1924 by the newly created government railway corporation to replace the first station dating from 1886. Originally designed by the Office of the Chief Engineer, the station was internally rearranged in 1947 to reflect a change in the balance between passenger and operating requirements.

The heavy reliance of Huntsville industries on rail support is evident in the landscape, but only one plant remains a significant rail customer. VIA Rail ceased service from this station in 1991, and the trains that use the yard now belong to Ontario Northland. The station was designated by the Town of Huntsville in 1988. An active heritage group stages numerous festivals and media events to maintain historic awareness in the town.


Built shortly after the establishment of the CNR, the practical materials and modest dimensions of the Huntsville station mark not only the change of the line from a local feeder to the CNR transcontinental mainline, but the new, profit-driven business attitude of the company. The first railway through Huntsville was built as a branch feeder to carry resource products and, secondarily, passengers. It was later absorbed into the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR). With the irrevocable amalgamation of the GTR into the already existing CNR, which boosted its trackage to 21,800 miles, Huntsville was connected to the country's new transcontinental rail system.

The government of Canada created the CNR out of the ruins of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1918, followed, among others, by the additions of the Grand Trunk Pacific, and the GTR in 1923. The creation of the CNR was called by participant David Blythe Hanna one of the strangest phases in the history of transportation—to change two great systems of privately projected and privately controlled railway into public ownership properties.1 Gaining financial stability and winning public confidence were two of the new railway's principal objectives.

The difficulties that caused the earlier railways to fail also plagued the new corporation. After 1920, when the spread between earnings and expenses was the worst in the history of the GTR, Hanna had wryly remarked that 1921 excelled it in horror.2 Burdened from its inauspicious beginning with high operating costs and enormous debts, the company was able to change the public perception of railways through the innovative leadership of its president, Sir Henry Thornton (1922-32).

Thornton's progressive approach to labour relations won him the loyalty of employees, with concomitant increases in efficiency and profits. Prosperity in the middle years of the decade, created by peak freight and passenger volumes, enabled Thornton to post a near-miraculous 18-fold surplus over seven years of operations, thereby providing the funds for an array of improvements in equipment, community offerings, and employee pension and cooperative programmes. With new public services that included Red Cross cars, school cars, and a Radio Department, Thornton swept away the image of a grasping, bankrupt railway company with one dedicated to the welfare of Canadians.3

Modernisation projects that had been deferred during the war were implemented during the palmy years of the 1920s, when the devastating effects of the depression and motor traffic were unforeseen. Relatively few new stations were built in Ontario; efforts were concentrated on yard and track improvements. The design of the Huntsville station reflected the renewed energy, pride, and service orientation of the company and its employees.

Local History

For Huntsville, the construction of a railway was the essential link in the steamship-dominated transportation network of the Muskoka area. The railway enabled the resource-based economy of the region to flourish.

Land grants distributed in the 1850s on the mistaken premise of agricultural potential attracted the first permanent settler to the site. Captain George Hunt took up land in 1869, and was instrumental in securing the extension of the Muskoka colonization road and in establishing the community. The failure of agriculture was soon compensated in the area by the development of lake resorts. Hunting, fishing, and water-related tourism began in the area in the 1860s, and at Rosseau the construction of Pratt's Hotel in 1870 introduced the new trend of wilderness resorts.4 Navigation opened on the lakes in 1875, launching both a shipbuilding industry and the popular tourist trade.5 The construction of a local railway in 1885 completed the transportation network, triggered the construction of six saw mills, and helped to swell the population of the town.

The Northern and Pacific Junction Railway (N&PJ) from Gravenhurst to Callendar was immediately successful with loggers, farmers, and the tanning business that was a principal industry in Huntsville and Bracebridge.6 The N&PJ was subsumed into the GTR in 1888.7 The village of Huntsville incorporated in 1886, the year after the railway arrived, and attained town status in 1900.

Economic expansion occurred locally in the 1890s, when the huge, fashionable lake hotels were filled all summer, and wealthy urbanites built sumptuous rustic retreats. This heyday wound down with the onset of war. The increase in automobile traffic paralleled the decline of steam power and industry on the lakes and rails in the 1950s. One phase of lumbering died out with the disappearance of white pines. Only one company made the switch to hardwood, surviving until 1955, and the Huntsville tannery closed in 1960. Traffic to a Kimberley Clark tissue plant, constructed in the 1960s, sustained railway freight to the present time.8

The construction of the CNR station occurred as part of a yard reconstruction during an optimistic period of high ridership and new company consolidations following the austerity of the war. The trains served resource-based industries, hauling timber products, ore, and fuel, in addition to community mail, merchandise, and passengers. The cessation of the daily ore train in 1990 left Kimberley Clark as the principal railway client in the town.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The Huntsville station is typical of new CNR work of this period in its recognizable profile, which conveys an aesthetic teetering between industrial and domestic. It does not adhere to a standard design (Figure 4). The high hipped roof, slightly lifted at the eave, projects over the walls, and extends into a porte-cochère on the north end. The long tradition of bracketed eaves is reduced here to small rafter ends, which give welcome textural relief. Shingles and ridges were originally green asphalt (Figures 5-6).

In the work of CNR designers in this period, the handling of the masonry reveals a preference for a treatment of brickwork characteristic of industrial design. Here the brick is glazed, its gritty surface giving an industrial quality. It is laid in stretcher bond for the brown paver brick dado, and in a decorative Flemish cross for the buff upper walls, even though the brick was veneer. The belt course and voussoirs are all soldiered in crisp formation, contributing to the hard-edged quality of the surfaces. The mortar technique is the most surprising element: joints are raked to emphasize the horizontal line, with red mortar pointed on to the upper slope of the rake, and in the vertical joints.

A brick-on-edge sill course capping the dado provides an organizing feature for the walls, like a horizontal register. Most of the window ledges rest on it, and wainscotting on the interior corresponds to its height (Figure 7). The projecting operator's bay (Figure 8) is recognizable by its hipped roof rising above the curve of the eaves, but it lacks the concentration of ornament that characterized this element in earlier stations. Three two-over-two windows in the bay open onto the track, but the south window in the side wall was converted to a door when the bay lost its original purpose.

None of the façades were or are symmetrical, although windows were disposed in groups of two or three with some attention to rhythm. Small, four-light windows placed high in the wall of utility spaces were an original feature here around rooms at the north and south ends of the station. Trackside doors on either side of the bay, flanked by sidelights with transoms, were the only access to the waiting room. Although the east side of the station was technically the townside, in practise it was the backside until 1947, when a new door was broken through one of the paired window groups on the axis of the waiting room (Figure 9).9 The cessation of steamer traffic in the 1950s meant that the station's orientation to the lake was no longer essential.

Recent alterations are few: the boarded baggage door has been replaced with a folding lift type, and the panelled waiting room doors shown on 1924 drawings were probably replaced in the 1940s with partly-glazed wood doors, which are well proportioned relative to the opening. Successive changes at the south end of the trackside saw the small windows bricked in and a large freight door cut through, which was then narrowed with ribbed aluminum and a single door installed (Figure 10).

Architecturally the station recalls vestiges familiar from the legacy of Ontario railway architecture, principally the expression of shelter under the high hipped roof and the projecting eaves with wooden detailing: stylistically it reflects the evolution of a prosaic house approach in the CNR Engineering Department. In a decade when the company developed specific plans to meet the requirements at different communities, its closest comparison was built at Port Colborne in 1925, where a station with similar massing and use of brick still stands.

Functional/Technological Qualities

Through a neat and rational plan, the various depot services were accommodated while maintaining clear and separate paths for passengers, baggage, and freight. The north end of the station, closest to the town access but farthest from the freight and express sheds, was the baggage room, which provided access to the basement. Over half the overall interior was occupied by the general waiting room, with the operator's office and ticket counter inserted on the central axis like a small pavilion. The south end was divided almost equally into a smoking room and men's toilet, and a women's rest room, with adjacent toilet (Figure 11).

This configuration is no longer appreciable in the building. A re-arrangement proposed in 1947 to incorporate a freight office and record room was at least partially implemented (Figure 12). The rest areas were reduced, and a records room was inserted across the entire south end (Figure 13). Subsequently, by pushing the men's toilets into the former smoking room, an irregular office was obtained which is used by the Newmarket subdivision maintenance crew.

The main waiting room is now an L shaped space with the detailing of its outer perimeter largely intact, including one track door, the principal east windows, and the doors in the south wall. The floor is terrazzo in the lobby and part of the offices, with composition tile elsewhere, and wood in the baggage room.

Other recent alterations include the enclosure of part of the waiting room for use as offices (Figures 14-16). The insensitive way this was done, with knotty-pine pressboard partitions above the counter and through the offices, suggests that short-term security may have been a concern. Dropped fluorescent lights hang throughout the building, with earlier incandescent ceiling fixtures in the baggage area (Figure 17).

The superstructure for the train order signal semaphore devices outside the operator's bay is still in place, although the flags are gone.



The situation of the station along the lakeshore, which is somewhat inconvenient for road traffic, demonstrates the importance of connecting rail traffic with water routes at the time the railway was established in Huntsville. The rail line follows the edge of Lake Vernon, and a long covered platform once intersected the juncture between a siding and the dock (Figure 18). The porte-cochère provided additional shelter between the point of disembarkation and transfer to the town. Travellers were greeted by what had been a lakeview hotel at the top of the hill, which operated as a workers ' boarding house in the 1920s.10

Located south of the central business district, the station is reached by a steep drive off the main street (Figure 19). The grounds around the building are reserved for staff parking; but, there being two freight and two passenger trains a day, there is relatively little traffic. A parkette overlooking the tracks was landscaped by the Huntsville Horticultural Society as a Centennial project.

At the turn of the century, the yard comprised 11 buildings, including the agent's house and stable, section dwellings and tool houses, a freight shed, stock yard, and a slightly Gothic Revival, two-storey timber station.11 That industrial landscape has been extensively modified, replaced by a metal trailer, a storage tank, and a telecommunications tower.

The raised, shiplap freight shed was built on the site of the old express shed south of the station in 1924 (Figure 20), and another express shed was located at the end of the freight shed. At that time, the locomotive house was demolished to permit track rearrangements, the laying of track to the dock, and the construction of a shed 300 feet long over the platform.12 The siding that ran behind the freight shed and the station has been lifted.

Community Station

The community indicated its support for retaining the station in 1988 when it was designated a historic building under Part IV of The Ontario Heritage Act. Heritage Huntsville is the advisory committee to council that evolved from the Friends of Muskoka Pioneer Village, a museum site operated by the town. The committee is undertaking research for an inventory of several hundred buildings; buildings of interest in high visibility areas are plagued; walking tours are given in the summer: public schools are involved: and a heritage festival is held in the summer with cooperation from the Chamber of Commerce, Business Improvement Area owners, and local merchants. The district relies on tourism, and the importance of capitalizing on local character deriving from historic development is recognized.13


  1. ^ Hanna wrote this in his memoirs, cited in Donald MacKay, The People's Railway: A History of Canadian National (Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1992), p. 22. Hanna moved from being manager of the CNoR to restructuring the new CNR.
  2. ^ MacKay, op. cit., p. 30.
  3. ^ G. R. Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 325-29.
  4. ^ Age of the Steamship video, Muskoka Pioneer Village Museum (Gravenhurst: Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society, 1992).
  5. ^ Research Committee of the Muskoka Pioneer Village, Pictures from the Past (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1986), p. 25.
  6. ^ Pictures from the Past, p. 81.
  7. ^ Stevens, op. cit., p. 507.
  8. ^ Pictures from the Past, p. 62; Geraldine Coombe, Muskoka Past and Present (Toronto: McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1976), p. 203.
  9. ^ Proposed Re-arrangement of Men's Smoking Room and Rest Rooms to Provide Freight Office and Record Room at Huntsville, Ontario, Canadian National Railways Central Region, Huntsville Sub-Division, Drawing No. C12786 (June 2, 1947). Courtesy Ken Rose, VIA Rail.
  10. ^ Pictures from the Past, p. 71.
  11. ^ Grand Trunk Railway System, Bridges and Buildings Northern Division, (Montréal: Public Affairs, 1907), p. 143. The station is illustrated in Pictures from the Past, op. cit., p. 80.
  12. ^ Canadian National Railway Construction, Betterments, Etc., Canadian Railway and Marine World (CRMW) (July 1924), p. 357.
  13. ^ Information courtesy Diane Bickley of Heritage Huntsville, in conversation with the author 29 November 1992.


  1. Canadian National Railways (CNR) Station, Huntsville, Ontario. Built 1924. East front elevation. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1993.)

  2. Location of Huntsville. (Untitled map, Northern Ontario file, Metropolitan Toronto Public Library)

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  3. Current plan of the Town of Huntsville, with location of the CNR on Hunter's Bay. (North Bay & Parry Sound, Huntsville. [Oshawa: MapArt, n.d.].)

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  4. Huntsville station, ca. 1930. (Ontario Archives ACC 13889-3.)

  5. West track elevation (top) and east town side elevation, Canadian National Railways New Station as Constructed Huntsville, Ont., October 1924. (National Archives of Canada National Map Collection 96735 and 96736 [hereafter NAC NMC].)

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  6. North (top) and south elevations, Canadian National Railways New Station as Constructed Huntsville, Ont., October 1924. (Courtesy VIA Rail.)

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  7. Section thro [sic] Gen[eral] Waiting Room, Canadian National Railways New Station as Constructed Huntsville, Ont., October 1924. (Courtesy VIA Rail.)

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  8. Operator's bay. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  9. Door to waiting room on town side, ca. 1947. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  10. Window opening converted to a freight door, then narrowed, on south end of track side. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  11. Ground Floor Plan, Canadian National Railways New Station as Constructed Huntsville, Ont., October, 1924. (NAC NMC 96734.)

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  12. Ground Floor Plan , Proposed Re-arrangement of Men's Smoking Room and Rest Rooms to Provide Freight Office and Record at Huntsville, Ontario. June 2, 1947. (Courtesy VIA Rail.)

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  13. Former record room. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  14. Part of passenger lobby to track doors. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  15. Passenger lobby, looking towards back of station. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  16. Office in Huntsville station created by enclosing part of lobby, ticket agent's spare, and operator's bay, on right. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  17. Former baggage room, with door to track, and stairs on left to cellar. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  18. Huntsville station yard in 1954, with covered platform adjoining dock. (Fire Insurance Plan of Huntsville [Toronto: Underwriter's Survey Bureau, 1954], plate 1.)

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  19. View down the drive to the station. Main Street is on the left. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)

  20. Freight shed south of station. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1992.)