Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Canadian National Railways Station/now VIA Rail
Glenn J. Lockwood, Ottawa
The former Canadian National Railways (CNR)/now VIA Rail station at 94 Victoria Street South in Woodstock, Ontario (Figures 1 and 2) was built in 1885 for the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) by the contracting firm of Bickerton, Biggins and Clarkson.1 It was initially designed by the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR), Joseph Hobson, just before the GTR and GWR merged in 1882.
The Woodstock station reflects the volatile years of railway development in Canada, when companies merged or were absorbed with great rapidity. The station is regionally significant as it is the culmination of a tradition of combined agents' residences and stations built by the GWR across southwestern Ontario in the mid-Victorian period. Its substantial size and individual design were typical of GTR efforts to provide signature stations in keeping with the expectations of a medium-size Ontario city that was both a county seat and a growing industrial centre. In its picturesque composition, its eclectic design, and the use of polychromatic brickwork, the building was typical of the era and of southwestern Ontario architecture.
This station testifies to the intense railway competition that took place in southern Ontario during the 1880s. It is a reminder of the transitory nature of railway ownership, a GWR design built by its triumphant rival, the GTR.
The London and Gore Railroad Company, incorporated in 1834, changed its name to the Great Western Rail Road in 1845, and to the Great Western Railway in 1853. Promoted by major southwestern Ontario businessmen and politicians, and aided by government guarantees, the GWR attracted sufficient American and British capital to open its main line connecting Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Woodstock, London and Windsor in January 1854. Rapid expansion gave the GWR some 1280 kilometres of track in southwestern Ontario and a further 288 kilometres in Michigan by 1882, but careless construction and the consolidation of American lines made it increasingly difficult for the GWR to maintain its share of the lucrative through American traffic between New York and Michigan against rival American companies and the GTR.2
The GTR was incorporated in 1852 to build a railway between Toronto and Montréal. But with substantial English backing and with a monopoly on rail traffic between the major cities of Ontario and Québec, the GTR decided to push west to Sarnia by 1859.3 The GWR connected at Hamilton with lines to Toronto, but in the 1870s Woodstock enthusiastically supported the more direct link to the provincial capital offered by the Credit Valley Railway (CVR). No sooner was the CVR built from Toronto to Saint Thomas through Woodstock by 1881, than financial difficulties forced it to amalgamate with the Ontario and Québec Railway (OQR), effectively putting it under the control of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).4 Woodstock encouraged yet a third railway connection, backing the Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway (PDLHR) in the 1870s to place it on a direct route between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. This line was absorbed by the GTR in 1881.5 The GWR also was financially vulnerable, as the rationalisation of American lines drained away profits from the crucial American through traffic, leading to a merger with the GTR in August 1882.6
Woodstock had already been promised a new station by the GWR, even as plans for merger with the GTR were proceeding. The plans for the Woodstock station were prepared by Joseph Hobson in 1882,7 and the station site was selected in July 1882,8 effectively making it the final and among the most ambitious station designs to come out of the GWR chief engineer's office. Amid the bustle of railway construction and mergers, Woodstock envisaged a role first as the headquarters of the PDLHR, then as the location for GTR workshops to service all of western Ontario.9 As baseless as these hopes were, Woodstock was further disappointed in 1882 to have the new rail line project withdrawn.10 By 1885, however, as the CPR was making inroads on southwestern Ontario, the GTR needed to assert its presence visibly in the region. By building a large station at Woodstock, the GTR could demonstrate its own corporate well-being, and it could guarantee its future as the main rail line in town. Construction of this large station temporarily dissuaded the CPR, which had already acquired control of the CVR line through Woodstock, from building a substantial station until 1898.
The Woodstock station reflects the intense competition between emerging railways in southwestern Ontario during the mid 1880s. It was built by the GTR to a GWR design in an effort to stave off CPR business in Woodstock.
Railways were crucial to the development of Woodstock from the time of the arrival of rail in 1850 through to the construction of this replacement station. A town was planned for Woodstock by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in the early 1790s, but it was only with the arrival of Rear Admiral Henry Vansittart and other retired military officers in the 1830s that the nucleus of a village emerged. A town site was laid out, with a store, a tavern, a church, a school, a post office, an agricultural society, and even a library.11 These social amenities, together with Woodstockfs location on Dundas Street, made it a forwarding and service centre for a fertile agricultural region. Woodstock was selected as the seat of Oxford County in 1839. The village, with a population of 1085 in 1847,12 was one of the first villages in Ontario to take advantage of the 1849 Municipal Corporations Act. Woodstock proclaimed itself a village with town powers in 1850,13 and built one of the finest town halls in the province the following year. For all the fertility of the surrounding countryside, Woodstock area farmers could not progress beyond a subsistence economy as they were landlocked some 60 kilometres inland in an era ruled by water transportation.
The GWR promised to take the crops of Woodstock area farmers to outside markets and to establish Woodstock as an industrial centre in its own right. This promise of growth was more than fulfilled with the opening of the GWR line at Woodstock on 15 December 1853,14 as Woodstock's population climbed from 2,112 in 1852 to 3,353 in 1861, and then jumped to 5,373 by 1881.15 The GWR built well to the south of the established town plan, so that factory sites along the tracks would sell profitably, and to keep the heavy through traffic away from residential areas (Figure 3). The first GWR station (Figure 4) was built (inexpensively in board-and-batten) on the town or north side of the tracks. Woodstock's continuing growth throughout the late Victorian period, in part assured by the railway, led to the town's incorporation in 1857 and incorporation as a city in 1901, by which time the population had reached 8,833 persons.16
Woodstock enjoyed increasing industrialization in the late 19th century as local foundries expanded and steam engine factories sprang up, but its growth also was due to servicing a growing agricultural hinterland with its railway connection, woollen mills, pork packing plant, feed and flour mills, tanneries and boot manufacturing plants. By the late 1850s it looked as if Woodstock's agricultural hinterland was in trouble, with the soil worn out from repeated
mining in growing grain crops year after year. The salvation of local agriculture came in the 1860s when dairying replaced grain farming, and as cheese factories were established to make Woodstock the centre of the leading dairy region of all Ontario.17
The GTR takeover of both the PDLHR and GWR in 1881 and 1882 closed the PDLHR station in Woodstock. The old and inadequate GWR station needed to be replaced, and it was decided to build across the tracks on the south side (Figure 3), opposite the existing station so that freight sheds and the passenger station would be on opposite sides of the track. The freight sheds, being the major source of local revenue for the railway, were located on the same side of the tracks as the majority of factories and mills. In the 1880s, industries such as an iron works, a foundry producing steam engines and farm equipment, a coal oil plant, an oil refining company, a rope factory, grain and textile mills, and brick and tile manufacturers all clustered near the GTR tracks at Woodstock in a familiar pattern of symbiosis.18
In 1885 the new combined GTR passenger station and residence for the station agent's family was constructed, and soon became afocal point for the community. For the next three generations it effectively became the front door of Woodstock. It was here where royalty was greeted, where troops were sent off to war and officially welcomed back, where official visitors were received, and where domestic guests were met. The station's location on the south side of the GTR's busiest line made it necessary to build elevated bridges over the tracks at Finkle and Bay streets to carry people going to the station safely over the trains hurtling through. Shortly after the station was constructed a hotel was built across from it on Victoria Street (Figure 5), which was the forerunner of expanding industrial and residential development near the station. The new location of the station was shrewdly calculated to place it in a growing section of the town, while making it easily accessible to people coming in from the countryside.
Before 1885 industries already began to cluster along the GTR tracks but construction of the permanent station across from the freight building led to more factories being located along the main GTR line. Factories also were built along the PDLHR line acquired by the GTR in a pattern that remains long after this line finally was torn up in 1972. It is significant that the factories were connected along the two GTR lines, with the area south of the station developing as a residential section. In the generation after its construction a third of the town's area was developed south of the GTR station, making it increasingly central, in contrast to the CPR station across town which remained on the periphery of Woodstock (Figure 3). The boundaries posed by the Thames River to the north and west and the building of the Macdonald-Cartier freeway to the south in the 1960s served to place the GTR station at the exact centre of the city. Rail service continued to play a key role in the economic diversification of this prosperous town until the 1970s.
The 1885 Woodstock station was the culmination of the tradition of combined agents' residences and stations built by the GWR across southwestern Ontario, and it is significant for being one of the first large stations designed by a Canadian-born architect, Joseph Hobson. This station has retained many key, heritage-defining features, materials, forms and details from its original eclectic picturesque design, still appreciable despite overpainting and reconstruction.
Joseph Hobson was a native of southwestern Ontario, the region in which he practised all his life.19 Most of his railway stations were designed while he was working in Hamilton. He showed a special affinity for working in the brick preferred for the relatively large-scale, second generation replacement stations being built at this time by GWR/GTR. The original set of plans and elevations for the Woodstock station (Figures 6 and 7) were prepared at Hamilton in 1882 when Hobson was chief engineer of the GWR, and were executed by draughtsman R.C. Stewart. They were modified only slightly in 1885, after Hobson became chief engineer of the Great Western division of the GTR, by adding a staircase up to the attic from the second storey (Figure 8). It is ironic that GTR funding effectively worked to make Woodstock the most ambitious surviving GWR station design built.
The Woodstock station is a fine example of late 19th century eclectic design, incorporating elements from the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles into a picturesque and asymmetrical composition. The various parts of the station were kept well integrated by a consistent use of polychromatic materials, picturesque roofs and wall surfaces, and consistent decorative details (Figures 9 to 16). The contrast of a variety of wall and roof surfaces, and of white limestone lintels and sills against the main red brick construction of the walls can be seen in Figure 9. Judging from Hobson's use of contrasting red and yellow brick in the Ingersoll station a few years later,20 and from his drawings for the Woodstock station (Figure 6), the use of decorative white brick in vertical bands and in decorative bands helped integrate the long low profile of the public station with the more vertical residence section. Hobson also utilized a multiplicity of picturesque angled surfaces and curving lines to help unify the overall structure.
The station was a picturesque composition seen from any angle (Figures 5 and 17), although the ideal view was from trains pulling in from either east or west. The wide eaves and the large verandah added to the dramatic sculptural feel of the station, usinq light and shadow to silhouette the verge-board and bracket- designs against walls, and using the width and darkness of the eaves as a backdrop against which to contrast the vergeboard. Even the chimneys were sculptural in treatment, with light and shade contrasting among the angled bricks to produce a rich texture. There are quatrefoils cut into the verge-board and a white brick cross in the main chimney stack. A railway station could hardly have spires, yet Hobson managed to crown the various gables and peaks with eight rather splendid octagonal finials. A scallop design on the verge-board of the verandah and over the bay window signified public areas where passengers could wait for trains and purchase tickets (Figures 6 and 15).
The eclectic style was typical of Hobson's designs for stations in the early to mid 1880s for the GWR and GTR, but by the end of the decade he was drawing more heavily from the Gothic Revival for stations he designed for Ingersoll, Chatham (Figure 18) and Niagara Falls (Figure 19), all extant. The use of polychromatic brickwork, open timbers, numerous gables, and designs cut into verge-board were in keeping with the architectural traditions of southwestern Ontario during the 1880s.21
The station retained the original integrity of its design into the early Edwardian years. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century the station exterior had been painted. The subtle hues of the brick were replaced by contrasting tones of paint (Figure 17). Following the bankruptcy of the GTR in 1919, and integration into the CNR in 1923, the express area in the station building no longer was adequate. In 1925 the original customs/express rooms were combined into an express office, with a long low express building constructed ten feet west of the existing station, with a brick platform connecting them (Figure 20).22
After nearly a century of decline, the Woodstock station exterior was refurbished to the plans of London, Ontario architect Patrick Coles in 1992. Budget constraints forced Coles to restore the circa 1910 schema rather than expose the original polychromatic effect of the patterned brick. Painting the stonework is puzzling to say the least, and as admirable as the re-creation of the finials has proven, the overall composition suffers for want of the substantial elaborate chimneys and scalloped verge-board fronting the verandah (Figure 9 and 21). Moreover, the supports for the verandah that have been rebuilt (Figure 22) have neither the dimensions nor the curved shape of the original design, as the dimensions of the surviving original open timber just under the verandah roof (Figure 23) and a surviving original support (Figure 15) suggest. All the same, the Woodstock station after the 1992 restoration has a new lease on life, and it is in much better shape to await the day it is fully restored to the original polychromatic vision of Joseph Hobson.
The Woodstock station design was as much a holdover as a culmination of the GWR tradition of combined agentsf residences and stations. By the late 1880s these combined stations ceased to be built in established communities with adequate housing. The 1882 plan was used at Woodstock because no housing was available on the south side of the GTR tracks. It was designed to provide minimum disruption for the station agentfs family. The larger, picturesque composition of station and residence also gave the GTR a more visible presence on the southern outskirts of Woodstock than a single storey station facility would have done. While it is possible to get a general sense of the original disposition of spaces, the original finishing materials are largely gone.
There were three separate functional spaces in the station. First, there was the passenger depot. Passengers arriving on the south side of the station found a baggage wicket at hand to receive luggage directly off the carriage. A set of double doors opened to the general waiting room (Figure 8) where men purchased their tickets, while ladies could purchase their tickets at the separate wicket in the smaller ladies' waiting room. The ticket and telegraph office to which the wickets opened was connected by a doorway to the station agentls office. Both of these offices had doors opening onto the station platform, and the station agent's office also had a door opening to the residence behind. The bay window in the ticket and telegraph office afforded an uninterrupted view up and down the tracks east and west, and across to the freight sheds. The general waiting room was large, with windows and doors which afforded a full view of the tracks. Passengers went out the north general waiting room doors, sheltered from wind and rain by the verandah roof, in an alcove created by the projecting main section and express wing. In the corner beside the ticket office door was the Royal Mail letter box mounted on the wall, from which mail was gathered to send in to Toronto every morning.23
The second functioning space was the express and customs section located at the west end of the station, conveniently away from passengers, yet close to the track. The customs/express offices were placed forward to channel passengers away from express loading and to facilitate access to the tracks. The lack of communication with the rest of the station interior enforced this division between passengers and express freight.
Third, there was the station agent's residence on the southeast corner, with its parlour, kitchen and outside entrance on the ground floor, and four bedrooms upstairs, as far away from the public area of the station as possible. The bedrooms were plastered; the original baseboard and mouldings on the bedroom doors survives but the configuration of rooms upstairs has changed (Figures 8 and 24). The two attic rooms were finished in tongue-and-groove boards on the walls and ceilings (Figure 25), but there is no evidence that they were used for other than storage purposes. The entire structure was heated by a series of wood stoves feeding stovepipes into the four main chimneys until 1954 when central heating was installed.24
Various extensive renovations were proposed in 1946 to relocate offices upstairs, but these were not carried out.25 In 1954, several alterations were made. A furnace room was excavated beneath the original kitchen with entry provided by an exterior set of steps. The 1925 express building, which previously was an adjacent separate structure, was connected to the express office on the west end at this time, adding to the visual progression of high to low rooflines from east to west. Inside (Figure 26), one general waiting room was created, with a corridor leading to washrooms where the ladies waiting room had been, and to a general office carved out of the old parlour and the north half of the original agentrs office. The stairs were torn out, a new agent's office and file room were carved out of the kitchen, and a lobby in the north half of the original agent's office provided CNR train crew members and others with ready access to the general office and to the ticket office. The double windows on the north wall of the express office were turned into a doorway, the waiting room ceiling dropped in height from 14 to 10 feet, and the original waiting room double doors, benches and ticket wicket were all replaced.26 By the 1960s the upstairs windows were boarded up, the general office became a waiting room with double doors replacing the old parlour windows, the finials were removed, and the entire exterior save for the stonework and verge-board was coated with grey paint.27
The station was purchased by VIA Rail Canada in 1986. After persistent lobbying from the city of Woodstock, in 1992 the interior was modernized and the exterior was restored by architect Patrick Coles to resemble the late Edwardian painted schema. The 1925 express building was removed. Inside the station, all was new, save for the mouldings on upstairs doors and windows, and the continuing basic configuration of this waiting room and the ticket office from the time the station was built (Figure 24). The partition between the old baggage room and express office was torn out to create a large space that could be leased out. Similarly, the kitchen area and the upstairs were connected by a new staircase to provide more revenue-generating leased space. A menrs washroom, entered from the waiting room, was carved out of the southwest corner of the old baggage room, while the former men's washroom became the staff washroom. The area that originally had been the parlour and the agentrs office continued to serve as a baggage area.28
The VIA Rail station at Woodstock today, as in the time it was built for the GTR, is located on one of the busiest passenger and freight lines in Canada. On the railway site itself, only the foundations of the freight sheds built to replace the original freight shed that burned in 190229 survive across the tracks (Figure 27). Nearby factories continue to line the railway in the immediate vicinity of the station, and the hotel across Victoria Street continues to function as a tavern. The nearby overpasses built at the turn of the century over the railway at Finkle and Bay streets remain in use. The area south of the station has developed as a residential area, expanding so far south as to place the station at the centre of the city. Even the triangular junction to the east (Figure 28), which no longer leads north along the old CVR line, survives as a siding for local factories.
With overpasses dominating the eastern and western horizons, a parking area for customs/express customers at the west end of the station, and passenger parking along the south façade, there was only one small space left for lawn and trees beside the station. The distance between the eastern wall of the residence block of the station and Victoria Street suggests that this space was intended to serve as the standard, late Victorian pockethandkerchief size urban garden. It was not until the 1910s that the GTR included landscaping as part of the design of its new stations, and it was not until the early 1920s that the company systematically promoted gardening at all of its stations,30 years after the CPR had established a forestry department in 1907 to create permanent gardens along its lines.31
Still, Woodstock in the early Edwardian years managed to boast one of the earliest GTR station gardens, apparently as a promotion for a local industry. An undated catalogue from this period of the Canadian Fence Manufacturing Company at Woodstock contains a photograph showing the Woodstock station with the caption,
The Grand Trunk Railway use [sic] the Canadian Wire Fence as shown in above illustration enclosing their beautiful flower garden.32 This garden was simply a fence-enclosed rectangle at the east end of the residence block of the station, filled with decorative shrubs and flower beds, effectively a pocket-sized garden replacing a pocket-sized lawn. By the 1960s the garden was again replaced by a lawn, the only spot of green in the asphalt terrain surrounding the station on all sides. The 1992 upgrading of the station included minimal landscaping. An island of coniferous shrubs and flowering bushes on a lawn is now on the site of the earlier station garden (Figure 12) while raised banks of flowers and shrubs appropriately encased in railway ties form a visual screen and traffic barrier between the parking areas and the tracks at either end of the station (Figure 21).
The value of the Woodstock station to the community has been demonstrated in the past generation by the sustained campaign of civic officials to have it upgraded and restored.
The fleeting hope in 1904 that Woodstock might divisional centre33 contrasted with the general be made a GTR decline of rail service during the 20th century, as the advent of the automobile reduced the number of passengers, and superhighways competed for freight traffic. The reduction of rail operations locally was evident in the removal of the freight office staff from across the tracks to the station in 1954, then the relocation of the freight section in the east end of the station, before the freight sheds were torn down in the mid to late 1960s, and the freight service altogether discontinued by 1970.34 In 1969 there were some 40 sidings in the larger Woodstock vicinity contributing freight to the CNR,35 but in 1972 the old CVR spur line north to Hickson was closed, eliminating some 13 level crossings and sidings as well.36 In 1977 CN Rail relocated the four remaining local employees keeping area tracks in repair to other locations in western Ontario.37
Woodstock was left with only the CN passenger agent, and a station the deteriorating condition of which was embarrassing rather than welcoming. The local editor fumed:
Although I have nothing but praise for this city, the CNR station is a disgrace and I was ashamed when our visitor commented on it. The platform looks as if it hadn't been swept for months. It was covered with a yellowing layer of old newspapers, cigarette butts, chocolate bar wrappers and a lot of other debris. The waiting room was swarming with flies and the one man on duty seemed to have half a dozen jobs to do. Twice while discussing ticket details with my relatives, he had to dash madly out to make contact with passing trains... We need more train travellers and dirty railway facilities won't win them. It's time the act was cleaned up.38
Hope for a revitalized station seemed close at hand with the creation of VIA Rail, which promised as early as 1980 to renovate the Woodstock station extensively.39 This proposed renovation did not materialise, but in 1982 VIA and Amtrak co-operatively reintroduced direct passenger service between Chicago and Toronto through Woodstock,40 marking a resurgence of interest in train travel among a public tired of congested highways. Proposals were drawn up for a $93,000 facelift in 1983,41 but only after the station property was purchased by VIA Rail in 1986 did restoration become a firm priority. The architect's plans were drawn up in 1991, the work was done in 1992 at a cost of $300,000, and on 15 December 1992 some 350 people attended the official re-opening of the refurbished structure.42
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