Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways Station


Peterson Projects, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg



The VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at Sioux Lookout, Ontario (Figure 1) was built in 1911, and is located approximately 230 rail miles west of Thunder Bay, Ontario and 220 rail miles east of Winnipeg, Manitoba (Figure 2).1 The station was part of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR)/National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) system that became Canada's second transcontinental railway. It is situated at an important location on the line and the railway developed extensive service facilities near the station.

Unlike many railway stations in other northern communities, this building is Sioux Lookout's first and only depot, not a replacement of an earlier, smaller building. It has stood within a railway complex that for over 40 years was extremely active—crowded with employees, rolling stock, and a wide variety of goods. Time and neglect, however, have exacted a heavy toll on the exterior and interior elements of the depot. The station remains, virtually alone in the yards, serving a community which no longer views the railway as its biggest asset or its only means of transportation and communication.

Historical Associations


The construction of this large station in a remote area of northern Ontario is indicative of the optimistic view held by governments, businessmen and citizens of Canada's prospects for growth, in the years between 1900 and World War I. The railways fostered this growth, which was dependent on large-scale immigration and the burgeoning prairie wheat economy. Stations, repair facilities and trackage were often built larger than necessary, to ensure sufficient service for projected traffic.

The GTPR/NTR system had been created in September 1903 by a complex agreement between the government of Canada and the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), a British-owned railway located in eastern Canada. Then-Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier firmly believed, along with many of his contemporaries, that Canada's growth could support two and even 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 and in northern Ontario and Québec, thereby benefitting all of Canada.2

Tenders for track construction were awarded starting in the spring of 1906 for the NTR, and of the total of 22 contracts, the GTPR tendered on 16 and received five sections.3 One of the more important and controversial was Contract 14, which called for a 200-mile branch line from the NTR at Superior Junction, Ontario (just east of Sioux Lookout) to port facilities at Fort William (present-day Thunder Bay), Ontario. Through its completion, the GTPR would not have to wait for the completion of the NTR to begin bringing its western grain eastward. It could also bypass the route through northern Ontario and Québec and ship grain to its own GTR lines in Ontario.

For obvious reasons, government officials were not anxious for this route to be complete, for they wanted the NTR to take western grain directly to the Atlantic coast and therefore set out to delay the construction of the branch. The contract was cancelled and re-tendered and a number of tactics slowed construction in what was later described as a prize example of skullduggery.4 It was not until April 1911, five years after the original contract was let and with the NTR nearing completion, that the line was completed and GTPR-hauled wheat moved east from Winnipeg.5

The last spike of the GTPR/NTR system was driven in November 19136 and the first through train arrived in Prince Rupert, British Columbia on 8 April 1914.7 Under the agreement, the NTR was built as a public venture, to be leased to the GTPR after a period of grace. The annual fee was fixed as a percentage of the final construction cost.8

Almost exactly a year after the first train arrived in Prince Rupert, the federal government announced it was taking over the operation of the NTR rather than leasing it to the GTR.9 The GTR, due to the financial strain of western expansion, was in no position to enter into such a lease agreement. When the Canadian Northern Railway (Canada's third transcontinental) was nationalized in 1918, it was entrusted with the control of the NTR.10 The GTPR was nationalized in 1920 and when the GTR declared bankruptcy, the federal government added it to its holdings and by 1923 completed the formation of the CNR to oversee operations of all its railway holdings.

The construction of this station represents the pattern of railway development in northern Ontario, in which the requirement for the services provided by a divisional point gave birth to new communities. For Sioux Lookout, the completion of this line—and later the NTR—was crucial. The locale was destined from the outset to be a divisional point on the NTR, and would develop refuelling and repair facilities, as well as being a base of operations for equipment maintenance staff, train crews, and administrative personnel. Work began on the local service complex in 1908 and by 1911 the town was beginning its initial growing phase that saw the influx of workers and families and the development of the many service industries and businesses associated with any modern community. 11

The amalgamation of the GTPR/NTR system into what would become the CNR did not have an adverse affect on Sioux Lookout's development or that of its railway yards. Growth of the railway's presence in Sioux Lookout and of the town itself continued into the 1950s. At the station, the offices, employee work rooms, waiting rooms, and restaurant were filled with staff and citizens, making it the hub of the town. It was not until the late 1950s that work at the shops lessened and then stopped altogether. For Sioux Lookout, it meant an economic setback, the relocation of families to railway jobs elsewhere, and a search for new employment opportunities. This pattern of initial establishment, growth and ultimate decline due to changes in railway economics is repeated in the history of much of northern Ontario.

Local Development

The growth of Sioux Lookout was initially based entirely on the railway. For many decades it was the main source of jobs, transportation, communication and goods. Railway cutbacks that emptied other communities throughout northern Ontario also affected Sioux Lookout, although the development of other industries and businesses during and after the railway era buffered the town's economy.

As in much of northwestern Ontario, Sioux Lookout's first human inhabitants were bands of natives that seasonally visited the region to exploit its natural resources: game, fish and vegetation. Railway surveyors arrived in 1906 and in 1908 work began on the repair and refuelling complex. Workers boarded at Superior Junction, approximately 20 miles to the east, and were taken to and from the site each day by rail.12 By 1910, a small community of 150 had developed, named Graham by the GTPR in honour of the minister of railways. Because of a conflict with another community, the older name, Sioux Lookout, was adopted.13

The construction of the present station in 1911 was part of an overall plan of development and expansion at Sioux Lookout undertaken by the GTPR/NTR from 1910 to 1912. A section house, pump house and water tank were built in 1910, the station, round house, boiler room and machine shop were all completed by 1911 and the engineers' bunk house was built in 1912. In total, they represented approximately $90,000 worth of buildings and equipment, and the presence of the shops guaranteed a stable source of employment for the community.14 The incorporation of Sioux Lookout as a town on 1 January 1912 was a partial consequence of the growth of these railway facilities.

By 1914, the town had reached a population of 1,500, with the numerous service industries and businesses that organized to exploit the growing town. The shops were busy and remained the area's major employer for many years. In 1918 a devastating fire destroyed most of the downtown area, and later that year an influenza epidemic struck. The railway helped alleviate the suffering caused by these disasters by shipping in food and supplies. In 1923 the CNR funded a $66,000 Y.M.C.A. in the town (Figure 3),15 another important railway-related facility offered for use by residents.

The monopoly of transportation that the railway enjoyed in Sioux Lookout began to lessen in the 1920s with the beginnings of a network of roads. By the 1940s the Trans-Canada Highway was completed, ending the isolation of many communities throughout the country, and linking small towns to larger urban centres by road. This was the beginning of the period of decline of railways in Canada. A second development, the introduction of diesel engines to replace steam, had a much more immediate impact. Almost overnight, refuelling and repairing facilities were antiquated, and the old system of divisional points made obsolete. The new engines could travel farther with fewer repair and refuelling stops. Major divisional points were refurbished to handle the new machinery, but intermediate stops, like Sioux Lookout, saw the down-sizing and ultimate closure of their shops. The round house was soon vacant, to be demolished in 1966,16 and when the water tower was torn down in 1972, the last of the steam-related industrial complex at Sioux Lookout was gone.17

The station, like the shops, suffered from the development of new transportation methods, technological advances, and a reorganization of the railway sector which centralized many of the administrative activities. The restaurant was closed and much of the other space within the station was vacated. Nevertheless, at the end of 1992 there were still 140 CNR positions in Sioux Lookout, as the town continues to function as a home base for crews and track maintenance personnel; but the railway is no longer the largest employer in town.18

With a population of approximately 4,000,19 Sioux Lookout has made a successful transition from railway town into an era of stability and economic diversification. The railway, although no longer as important, did provide the impetus for the initial stage of development, creating a base from which the modern town of Sioux Lookout could grow.

This station is a tangible example of the early development of Sioux Lookout. It is unique in that it is the town's first and only station, not a replacement of an earlier and smaller depot. That the railway company chose to build such a large, expensive structure at a virtually uninhabited site is a clear indication of the expectations that the line would spur a growth in population, that it would see a substantial increase in traffic in the decades following construction, and that this would warrant an expansion in services for the divisional point.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The station at Sioux Lookout is typical in size and original design of divisional point stations along the three national railway systems throughout northern Ontario. Elongated, simply massed, and modestly ornamented, this two-storey frame station measures 38'×101' 6" (Figures 4 to 9) and rests on a concrete foundation. The most striking aspects are the oversized eaves supported by prominent brackets, and a track side bay window, both of which are features common to railway stations throughout the region.

Certain elements found in this design, catalogued by the GTPR as plan 100-195,20 are unique in the region. The main town side entrance was located in a projecting, pedimented porch, supported by unfluted wooden columns. Another interesting feature of the north fagade is the arched openings which lead to an open space or arcade.21 From here, several areas of the station could be reached through small doorways. The track side façade offered protection from the elements for waiting passengers with a canopy formed by the projecting eaves of the first floor that ran the entire length of this elevation and a short distance on both sides. The station was covered by a medium-pitched, hip roof with eyelet dormers on its four slopes. The roof is further varied by pedimented, projecting gables. All of these features provided interest and variety to a relatively plain design.

Windows and doors on the original design were plain, to match the overall ornamentation of the structure. To keep costs down, simplicity of design was the policy for stations throughout the railway sector during this period. Ornamental shingling was used in several areas to give variety to the frame walls of the station, which were otherwise covered with clapboard. As constructed, the Sioux Lookout station was large but not visually overpowering, an important consideration for the GTPR. This design balanced the need to project an image of stability and success to citizens and travellers, with economical construction costs. The result was a handsomely finished, aesthetically pleasing design.

Changes to the station have been numerous and have radically changed its appearance. In 1937, the CNR insulated and stuccoed the structure, at a cost of $1,430.22 This was part of a system-wide policy to renew their stations and at the same time, to cut operating costs. The original clapboard finish was replaced by stucco and half-timber embellishments. The effect is appealing, although very different from the original. Alterations to the windows, which created multi-paned openings, is another expression of this stylization (Figures 10 and 11). The half-timbering of second storey elements, including alterations to the pedimented ends, was also completed in 1937.23 The most severe alterations which negatively affected the design occurred on the town side façade. Here, the ornamented entrance at the west end was removed, and two of the three arched openings of the arcade were closed.

There are numerous similarities between this and other northern Ontario stations located at divisional points. The size of the building and the general scope of its ornamentation is repeated at Hornepayne (RSR-154; Figure 12), Armstrong (RSR-156; Figure 13), and Cochrane (Figure 14). Tudor Revival details, although not part of the original design, do set the Sioux Lookout station apart from others across northern Ontario.

Functional/Technological Qualities

The general scheme of interior organization of any railway station is to provide ample space for the variety of services offered at such a building. Public waiting rooms, often divided into general and women's areas, a ticket office, a baggage room, a station master's office, usually including a bay window, and general office space would all be included in such a scheme. The system of interior partitioning separated the public from company areas, keeping the undesirable noise and dust of the baggage area away from the waiting rooms and ensuring privacy for the station master and other employees. This station's interior is similar to the majority of other stations in the type of amenities that it housed.

The arrangement of these amenities is somewhat out of the ordinary. The original projecting entrance porch (Figure 15) led to a large general waiting room. Opposite this entrance was the ticket counter, the station master's office, and a conductor's room. A short hall lead to the centrally-located women's waiting room. Two doors in the arcade area gave access to a washroom and to the general waiting room. The arcade also led to an enclosed passageway, which cut the first floor into two parts. This was an unusual feature which allowed for separation between the kitchen/restaurant facility, which occupied the remainder of the ground floor space, and the main building.

Also unusual in this original design was the lack of space provided in the main building for baggage. Although a separate building for express and baggage departments was not rare, it was usually built as traffic warranted, sometime after original construction. At Sioux Lookout, it was deemed necessary to provide separate facilities from the beginning.

The second floor of the station (Figure 16) featured a series of small offices on both sides of a central hall that ran the entire length of the building. There were eleven offices in total, and access to the floor was gained by a staircase off the passageway, in the northeast corner of the station (located between the kitchen and restaurant on the ground floor). This office space was required because of the administrative personnel headquartered at the divisional point.

A basement was built under part of the main building and under the kitchen/restaurant area, and was used for storage of material, equipment, fuel and food. Changes to the interior on the ground floor and neglect of the second floor have eliminated or damaged interior elements and substantially altered the organization of this station. By 1961 the women's waiting room was converted into an employees' room (Figure 17). Seven years later the arcade was closed off and made into a booking-in room. The kitchen/restaurant area was converted into office space (Figure 18). Renovations undertaken in 1975 created locker rooms, offices and a small eating area out of the original kitchen and restaurant. The women's waiting room space was made into a baggage area and the former arcade became storage space (Figure 19). By 1986 an electrical shop was located in the bay window and several small offices were located throughout the ground floor (Figure 20).

At present, the basement is empty and flooded (Figure 21), and the ground floor has been completely redone (Figures 22 and 23). The upper level, although it has not been renovated or altered, has suffered severely from neglect, chiefly due to a lack of heat (Figures 24 and 25).



Changes to the setting of this station have been extensive, resulting from the changing nature of Sioux Lookout's role within the CNR system. The rail yards, which marked the southern boundary of development, were the focal point of the town for several decades (Figure 26). The railway influenced many facets of life in Sioux Lookout, and its facilities were conspicuous. They included: a section house built in 1910, sold in 1964 and demolished; a 360 ton coal dock built in 1923, demolished in 1966; an 18 stall round house completed in 1911, extended in 1923 and demolished in 1966; an 85' twin span turntable built in 1923; and the Y.M.C.A., built in 1923 and demolished ca. 1990.24 Other buildings such as duplexes for employees, storage sheds, ice houses and other bunkhouses were located both in and around the yards.

Beside the station, an express building, measuring 26'×50', was built at a cost of $6,000 in 1923. It was sold in 1970 and demolished. The original plank platform was replaced by concrete in 1957.25

Today, the railway complex has been stripped of its original structures. The station, along with the extensive yards and switching tracks, stands as the last reminder of Sioux Lookout's initial development stage when the railway supplied the town with transportation, communication and employment. Located at the end of the wide Fourth Avenue and south of Front Street, one of the town's main roads, the station continues to be conspicuous despite its reduced role within the community.

Community Status

The station still functions as a VIA Rail waiting room; ticket sales and other transactions are handled elsewhere. The remainder of the first floor is virtually unused, as is the entire second floor. At present, VIA Rail is in the midst of negotiations to sell the station locally. Preliminary plans call for the repair and redevelopment of the station into a multi-use facility which would include a VIA Rail waiting room.26 There appears to be general community support for the survival of the station.


  1. ^ Sioux Lookout Community Profile (Sioux Lookout: Town of Sioux Lookout, 1992), p. 4. Below as Profile.
  2. ^ The Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, l988), Vol. 2, p. 1184.
  3. ^ G.R. Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973), p. 212.
  4. ^ Royal Commission Report, quoted in Ibid., p. 215.
  5. ^ Dale Wilson and Gordon D. Jomini, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific in Northern Ontario (Calgary: Calgary Group of The British Railway Modellers of North America, 1984), Volume One, p. 1.
  6. ^ Canadian Railway and Marine World (hereafter CRMW), (December 1913), p. 578.
  7. ^ C. Bohi, Canadian National's Western Depots (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1977), p. 13.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 55.
  9. ^ Canadian Railway and Marine World, (June 1915), p. 211.
  10. ^ The Canadian Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 1433.
  11. ^ Sioux Lookout, Ontario—50th Anniversary (Sioux Lookout: 50th Anniversary Committee, 1962), p. 35. Below as 50th Anniversary.
  12. ^ Tracks Beside the Water (Sioux Lookout: Sioux Lookout and District Historical Society, 1982), Volume 1, p. 13.
  13. ^ Ibid., p. 11; and 50th Anniversary, pp. 37, 39. The name Sioux Lookout remembers a battle that is believed to have taken place between rival native bands. An Ojibway band, fleeing west from Lake Superior came upon a height of land where they set up a camp and a lookout to watch for the coming Sioux war party. When the Sioux finally arrived, they were ambushed by the Ojibway warriors, ending the Sioux practice of looting and raiding Ojibway camps in the area.
  14. ^ CNR records, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ Tracks Beside the Water, op. cit., p. 38.
  18. ^ Profile, p. 48.
  19. ^ Ibid., p. 3.
  20. ^ CNR records, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  21. ^ Quoted from Plans of the Sioux Lookout station, dated November 1923.
  22. ^ CNR records, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.
  23. ^ Ibid. Figure 8, taken in July of 1948, shows the second floor with half-timbered areas. As no other alterations are listed in CNR records between 1937 and 1948, it can be concluded that this alteration was completed during the stuccoing process.
  24. ^ Ibid.
  25. ^ Ibid.
  26. ^ Mike Woelcke, VIA Rail, Winnipeg, in conversation with the author, 26 April 1993.


  1. VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways (CNR) station, Sioux Look, Ontario; built 1911, designed by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Engineering Department, Montréal; track side (south) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  2. Railways in Northern Ontario, arrow indicating Sioux Lookout. (Reproduced from Dale Wilson and Gordon D. Jomini, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific in Northern Ontario [Calgary: Calgary Group of the British Railway Modellers of North American, 1984], Volume One, p. 2.)

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  3. Sioux Lookout, Ontario, July 1948, taken from the roof of the round house. To the right of the station stands the express/baggage building and the two-storey Y.M.C.A. Note the wooden platform which runs out of the picture in both directions. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, Negative Number PA-114436.)

  4. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, plans dates 5 December 1907; track side (south) façade. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  5. GTPR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, plans dates 5 December 1907; town side (north) façade. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  6. GTPR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, plans dates 5 December 1907; west end elevation. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  7. GTPR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, plans dates 5 December 1907; east end elevation. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  8. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) station, Graham (Sioux Lookout), Ontario. Although undated, this picture must have been taken shortly after construction due to the use of the name Graham. (Courtesy of Peter Mitton, Sioux Lookout, Ontario.)

  9. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, ca. 1978April 1974. Note the change in windows to multi-paned openings. (Courtesy of the Western Canada Pictorial Index, Negative Number 1465-44363; also CN Photo Collection / CSTM / Image 1156.)

  10. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; track side (south) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  11. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; town side (north) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  12. Former CNR station, Hornepayne, Ontario; built 1921, designed by the CNR engineering department; track side (north) façade. (Murray Peterson, 1992)

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

  14. CNR/Ontario Northland Railway union station, Cochrane, Ontario; built 1909-10, designed by John M. Lyle, Toronto, O'Boyle Construction Company, contractors; south façade. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  15. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1923; Ground Floor Plan. The original drawings were altered and the later plans show the original layout. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  16. GTPR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1907; Second Floor Plan. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  17. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1961; Part of Ground Floor Plan. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  18. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1968; Main Floor Plan. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg. Brian J. Schindler, VIA Rail, Winnipeg.)

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  19. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1968; Main Floor Plan—Rennovations. (Courtesy of CNR, Engineering Department, Winnipeg.)

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  20. CNR station, Sioux Lookout, Ontario, 1986; Main Floor Plan.(Courtesy of Brian J. Schindler, VIA Rail, Winnipeg.)

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  21. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; basement. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  22. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; main floor waiting room. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  23. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; main floor, original women's waiting room are. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  24. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; second floor office. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  25. VIA Rail/CNR station, Sioux Look, Ontario; second floor hallway. (Murray Peterson, 1993)

  26. Sioux Look, Ontario; ca. 1930; arrows indicated the station 91), round house (2), and coal chute (3). (Courtesy of the Western Canada Pictorial Index, Negative Number 1386-41381.)