Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Canadian National Railways Station
Glenn J Lockwood, Ottawa
The former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at 101 Shakespeare Street in Stratford, Ontario (Figures 1 to 4) was built in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR). In design, it was the pinnacle of a number of substantial and picturesque stations built by the GTR in major western Ontario centres between the mid 1890s and the outbreak of World War I. It was the visual crown to Stratford's development as a railway divisional centre and home to a huge GTR motive power repair facility.
As built, with its original tower, the Stratford station well exemplified the signature style for larger significant stations promoted by the GTR president, Charles M. Hays. Though now shorn of this tower, the Stratford station remains a substantial structure, pleasing to the eye. It continues to function as a passenger station and as a yard office for CNR crews. A recent upgrading of the station, and of the well kept lawns and flowerbeds around it, are reminders of the prosperity brought by the railway and of Stratford's importance as a nursery centre supplying GTR station gardens.
The Stratford station is one of the finest examples in Ontario of a railway station built effectively as a piece of railway propaganda. It was meant to offer a confident statement of GTR well-being to the world. It was also meant to stave off Stratford's aspirations to have the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) build through the city. Moreover, it was meant to be a statement of GTR pre-eminence in the western Ontario region, even as construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) to the west coast was leading the company to economic collapse.
The Grand Trunk was the major railway of British North America when it was built through Stratford in 1856. It extended from Port Sarnia at the southern tip of Lake Huron to the eastern ports of Québec and Portland, Maine. The GTR was not the only railway built through Stratford, but it might as well have been. The rival Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railway (BB&GR) was only two months behind the GTR in running its first train through Stratford in 1856, but there all comparison between the two railways ended.1 Backers of the BB&GR hoped that linking Lake Huron with a network of northern United States lines feeding into Buffalo would repay their investment, but its purely local backing and part rail/part water route were no match for the substantial English funding and all-rail route of the GTR. By 1867 the financially embarrassed BB&GR was taken over by the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway (B&LHR) but, despite heavy investment from Stratford, the GTR gained control of it by 1870.2 The GTR later absorbed another railway which ran through Stratford, the Port Dover and Lake Huron Railway (PD&LHR), built in 1877 to link Port Dover on Lake Erie with Wiarton on Georgian Bay.3
From the 1850s on the GTR dominated western Ontario. It used its substantial English capitalization and its status as the sole east-west carrier linking the major cities of Québec and Ontario to gobble up the weak, locally-capitalized, regional railways that aspired to be its rivals. The GTR remained a lucrative operation, even as the CPR was mooted and built as a transcontinental line in the 1880s. But once the transcontinental line was built, the CPR went from strength to strength, conveying immigrants out west to settle its lands and to populate its towns, carrying western grain to eastern mills and ports, and returning manufactured goods from eastern towns and cities to western farmers.4 By the mid 1890s the CPR had extensive capitalization and was the sole all-Canadian carrier linking central and maritime Canada with the Canadian west. The only strength left the GTR was its hegemony over western Ontario, but even this was at risk by the late 1880s as the CPR began building lines into southwestern Ontario.
The GTR determined it must compete with the CPR head to head by building its own line to the west coast, the GTPR. The GTR was not given a charter to build this transcontinental railway until it proved to Ottawa's satisfaction that it was adequately serving existing lines. This posed a major challenge, since cities such as Stratford were highly critical of what they regarded as inadequate service and facilities that were out of date. From 1895 on, under vice-president Charles M. Hays (who became president in 1909),5 a new management structure was introduced and administrative facilities were consolidated, making the GTR more profitable, and enabling it to secure major new funding from British investors. With a portion of this new financing, the GTR began replacing older stations in the major communities it served with more up-to-date facilities. With critics in centres such as Stratford mollified with the promise of better stations, the GTR agreed in 1903 to let the federal government assemble a line, including much of the GTR original route from Moncton to Winnipeg, to be named the National Transcontinental Railway.6 In return, the GTPR as a subsidiary of the GTR was permitted to construct a main line from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert. The western extension was a financial disaster due to a lack of viable branch lines and it was largely responsible for the bankruptcy of the GTR in 1919. The contrast between the original 1910 plans for the Stratford station and the less grandiose structure actually built three years later reflects the dawning realization in the early 1910s that GTR finances were more troubled than ever.
The railway endowed Stratford with rapid growth, expanded development, massive employment in its shops and yards, and successively made it a county seat and GTR divisional centre. The gains made by Stratford thanks to the arrival of rail service were confirmed and consolidated with the help of the 1913 GTR replacement station.
Stratford originated in the 1830s as a Canada Company mill hamlet in the midst of a fertile agricultural district. A hotel built on the village site came to be called the Shakespeare Inn. A Canada Company official donated a picture of the bard which led to the village being called Stratford and the river being named the Avon.7 As late as 1846 the population of Stratford was only 200 persons.8 The incorporation of Perth County in 1850 (breaking away from Huron and Bruce counties) marked the beginning of significant development for Stratford. It was chosen as county seat in anticipation of its becoming the junction of the GTR and BB&GR railways then being mooted. By 1861 the population of Stratford had jumped to 2800 people.
As the major employer, the railways profoundly shaped the subsequent development of Stratford, and the location of the successive stations both shaped and mirrored the town's growth. The first GTR depot was built in 1856 two blocks east of the current station (Figure 5), located well out from the village on the Avon as part of the larger GTR policy of paying minimum price for land. As expected, development began at Stratford Junction, as the station locale came to be known,9 and even the 1857 town hall was built midway between the river and the station. One of the employees drawn to work at this station was 16 year old Thomas Alva Edison, hired in 1863 as a night telegraph operator.10 After taking over the B&LHR, the GTR replaced its first depot with a small station at the junction of the two railways in 1867, and in 1871 a larger, third GTR station was built at Downie Street just west of the current station (Figure 6).11
In 1871 the GTR built huge repair shops, a large round house, and a woodshed northwest of the Downie Street station, to consolidate GTR facilities from Toronto, Brantford and St. Mary's. The railway repair shops drew hundreds of skilled craftsmen to Stratford, causing the population to jump from 4,313 in 1871 to 8,239 in 1881.12 When the shops became too small by 1888, and other centres tried to lure away the operation, Stratford countered by offering a $120,000 bonus. The GTR closed its Hamilton shops, consolidated and expanded its engine repair shops at Stratford, and moved its lesser car repair shops to London. This brought another 400 families to Stratford in 1889,13 boosting the town population to 10,000 by 1901.14 There was further major expansion of the plant in 1904 and 1909.15 In 1924 it was estimated that the railway payroll represented between 75 and 80 percent of the total paid workforce, and in 1936 the railway running trades and motive power shops were reported providing work for some 1195 employees.16
The construction of the 1913 Stratford station exemplifies the fine balance of railway finances and civic boosterism at a critical point in the fray between three transcontinental Canadian railways fighting for territory and survival. By 1900 the 1871 station (Figure 6), a draughty board-and-batten structure that compared poorly with larger and more durable stone and brick stations in other centres, was showing its age. Any hope that Stratford might benefit from the policy pursued by GTR vice-president Charles M. Hays of building larger, more permanent station facilities was put on hold in 1904; the GTR's arch-rival, the CPR, proposed building a line through Stratford on some cherished parkland, coming in from the northeast and eventually extending south to Thamesford.17 It even appeared possible that the city would be connected to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), and there were calls for a union station to be built and shared by the three railways.18 In 1912 the CNoR chose not to build through Stratford, and in March 1913 citizens voted in a referendum to retain their parkland along the Avon River, effectively bringing CPR interest in Stratford to an end.19 Perhaps in an effort to help sway the vote, the GTR decided to make Stratford a divisional point on 1 February 1913.20
The new GTR station was opened on 17 December 1913.21 It was
the last, and the pinnacle, in the series of upgraded stations
promoted by GTR vice-president Charles M. Hays. The Stratford
station was a re-affirmation of GTR hegemony after attempts by
transcontinental rivals to build through the city were narrowly
averted. With its tower facing the town, the new structure was
meant to be
a handsome and commodious passenger station adequate
to the needs and importance of Stratford and of the business done
here by the company.22 As a blatant appeal to civic pride, it
was meant to fend off further calls for a union station with the
CPR. It was, as a local editor observed,
a building which is
attractive, and will convey a favorable impression of the city
and of the railway ... to the many people who come to or pass
through Stratford over its numerous lines which converge
here.23 The second floor of the station was the nerve centre
of the Stratford CNR Division, an area covering 811 miles of
track, 135 stations, and a payroll of 3,000 employees.24
The development of furniture, textile, packing, metal, rubber and shoe industries came to employ over half the city's population by the mid 1930s,25 yet Stratford retained the unmistakable appearance of a railway company town. This was evident in the sheer size of the locomotive shops, in the fire brigades, in the investigation department, in the pay trains, in the generations of men from the same families em loyed by the railway, and in the late store hours on GTR paydays.26 The atmosphere of a company town was apparent in the extensive GTR apprenticeship programme, the GTR employeest library and the GTR brass bands that flourished from the 1870s on. The GTR put up a third of the cost of the new YMCA building in 1902, with heat for the indoor pool supplied by the adjacent railway shops. The GTR successor, the CNR, built National Stadium in 1934 for the various leagues of sports teams mostly drawn from its employees, and in 1953 there was a local CNR professional male chorus. Even as the diesel engine spelled the end of the railway as the city's leading employer in 1958, the early success of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival was due in part to crowds brought in from a distance by train.27
War and conversion to diesel boosted the stock of the motive power shops briefly in the mid 20th century, for the drive to economize produced a growing demand for the repair and refurbishing of old locomotives. Staff and machinery were brought in from other CNR shops, and additions in 1949 and 1950 made the local motive power facility the largest in the entire CNR system. Work increased during the 1950s as Stratford handled the work of other shops across Canada being converted to repair diesel locomotives. Closure of the Stratford shops was announced in 1958 and completed by 1964.28 The shops were taken over by the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation of Mount Vernon, Ohio, builders of heavy diesel and natural gas engines and compressors; they hired a fraction of the CNR work-force, and less than a generation later the great complex of shops was empty.29
The growth of automobile travel reduced the number of passenger trains passing through Stratford in a day from 44 in 1913 to seven by 1975.30 Passenger and freight service both plummeted in the 1950s and 1960s, the station deteriorated to the point of losing its tower and even its ticket agent by the mid 1970s.31 The divisional staff working on the station's second floor fell from 50 in 1945 to only two when Stratford ceased to be a divisional centre in 1980.32 Nevertheless, the number of daily passenger trains increased to nine in 1976, the ticket agent was subsequently re-instated, the facility was purchased by VIA Rail in 1986, and the entire structure was renovated and made accessible for the handicapped in 1989-90 to be shared by VIA and Gray Coach Lines as a travel facility worthy of a major tourism centre.33
When the new station was opened in 1913, its handsome design fully satisfied the desire of the community for a station that represented their aspirations (Figure 7). It was less ambitious than the original station proposed in 1910 (Figures 8 and 9) , but since railway companies did not have to obtain municipal consent for their station designs until 1911,34 it is unlikely that Stratford officials knew of the downscaling. It was built in only four months by GTR construction crews, with as many as 100 men at a time working on the site in the autumn of 1913.35
As originally constructed, the station was representative of design trends of the period. It was two full storeys, with a frontage of 151 feet, and 60 feet wide at the widest part in the centre, connected by a 75 foot length breezeway to an express building measuring 57 feet long by 32 feet wide. The site was such that the tracks were only one step down from the ground floor of the station (Figure 10), whereas the main entrance at the base of the 60 foot high tower on the town side was ten steps up from Shakespeare Street (Figure 11). The tower, since removed (compare Figures 11 and 12), was the most prominent visual feature of the station, crowned with battlements, as if to announce to Stratford that the GTR would ultimately tower over its transcontinental rivals. Much less prominent was the simple gable with three blind arches that rose above the bay housing the ticket office at the middle of the track side of the station (Figures 13 and 14). The surviving important exterior visual elements are the trackside gable, the deep eaves, and the unusually large windows set between narrow brick piers.
The various architectural components of this competent, if unambitious, design are not difficult to trace. The use of rockfaced stone up to the base of the lower windows (Figures 15 and 16) and in all window sills, the long sweeping hip roofs and broad roof planes, the deep overhanging eaves, and deeply recessed doors and windows all indicate the lingering influence of 19th century station design. The large windows that almost completely fill the walls, and the piers set between the windows to give added depth and texture to the walls, show some adaptation of contemporary commercial design emanating from Chicago. The tower rising above the main entrance on the north facade and the gable above the ticket booth on the south side emphasized the different roles performed in different areas of the building.36 What brought the various components together was the play of light and shade under the deep eaves, under the wide skirt roof and breezeway, and through the large recessed windows. The play of light and shade over the piers and subtly receding volumes of the roof and over the rich natural colours of the rock-faced purple granite base, the brown clay brick walls, and the green slate roof, further unified the structure visually. While many features of the design of the Stratford station represented current trends in GTR design, the building is larger and more ambitious than most of its contemporaries. The pleasing individual design and ample proportions of the station, built at a time when the GTR was facing major financial difficulties and when two-thirds of its western stations were built to a single plan,37 reflected the company policy of relaxing its rigorous standardization of station design only for divisional centres and major western Ontario centres.38 Between 1896 and 1914 the larger stations in western Ontario were each built to an individual design; yet each had certain standard features, such as towers and a great length, which made these stations readily distinguishable to passengers looking out the train windows, in turn promoting a GTR identity in the region.39 Stratford was the latest in a series of GTR stations that included Kitchener (RSR-146; 1897; Figure 17) and Brantford (RSR-5; 1905; Figure 18), built to impress civic officials and to promote a sense of GTR prosperity.
The demise of passenger travel was apparent when excursion trains to the Stratford Festival could not compete with better highways and charter buses,40 and the station began to deteriorate visually by the 1960s. The slate roof was replaced by asphalt shingles, the tower was taken down in the 1960s, and the tongueand- groove ceiling beneath the skirt roof was replaced with plywood. The gable above the ticket booth was removed, and the brick platform was paved with asphalt. Only the deep projecting eaves and the granite and glazed brick construction of the walls prevented further exterior deterioration. In 1989-90, VIA Rail upgraded the station, installed a new heating system, repaired exterior masonry, doors and windows, and made the building accessible to handicapped people. VIA installed cement curbing and still more asphalt over the brick platform, and removed four ornate cast iron light standards (despite local protests).41 The gable above the ticket booth was rebuilt (albeit with details missing), and the flight of steps up to the main entrance was replaced with a wheelchair ramp, stepped flowerbeds, and steps at the side (Figure 19).
The Stratford station was the product of a specific railway and a specific region, and it also embodied the particularity of Stratford. Ultimately, before the tower was dismantled in the 1960s, it seemed a singularly suitable structure to welcome crowds attending the Stratford Festival. The appropriateness of entering a city hosting productions of Shakespearean drama through the portals of a train station with a dramatic, mediaeval-style tower crowned with battlements was not lost on cartoonist Duncan MacPherson (Figure 20).
The Stratford station is, in layout and in finishing materials, a typical although very large example of the large divisional stations built by the GTR in the pre-World War I period. The layout of the main station block was specifically designed to accommodate large numbers of passengers, to house the nerve centre of the division, and to handle baggage and express business with a logical flow of traffic and a minimum of disruption among these various functions. The incorporation of a breezeway between the baggage section and the express building appeared in some railway stations in Canada, and it was a more common feature in contemporary American designs.42
A full basement was excavated under the east end baggage section, with the area under the rest of the station excavated to a lesser unspecified depth below grade. The basement was used for storing coal and operating the boiler. A coal chute was still in place in November 1992.
The ground floor of the station interior, serving passengers, had a typical, functional arrangement (Figure 21). People in town were directed to the main entrance by the tower, which served as a signpost, and once in the lobby, or loggia as it was referred to, found themselves drawn straight ahead to the ticket office. While separate waiting rooms for men and for women were becoming a thing of the past by 1913, the Stratford station still had a men's smoking room and a ladies' parlour on opposite sides of the lobby, with accompanying washrooms.
The lobby opened to the main waiting room measuring 81 feet long by 30 feet wide, with a tile floor and walls covered with burlap dado and oak panelling. The ticket office was highlighted by an elliptical arch above it, and it was set in a projecting bay that gave the ticket agent a complete view of the tracks east and west. Doors opened to the track on either side of the ticket office. The ticket clerk, from his booth, and dispatchers in the office above on the second floor, could see trains approaching from the north and east. The 12-foot high ceiling was covered with tinted stucco applied to a metal lath. At the west end of the main waiting room doors opened to a lunch room measuring 26 by 30 feet, with a kitchen and storeroom adjoining. At the east end of the main waiting room a baggage wicket was served from the baggage office, beyond which in turn was the larger baggage room.
The baggage room and the express building were separated by a breezeway to help keep the functions separate, while both areas shared the platform between them under the protective cover of the breezeway, an area for the transfer of goods off railway carts on the south side and onto town vehicles on the north side. The interiors of the baggage and express areas were finished in Milton red pressed brick. The high windows in the baggage and express areas facilitated extra storage without blocking light and, being above eye level, mitigated against vandalism.
The second storey of the main station block was devoted entirely to divisional offices, all of them opening from a central hall running the length of the building which was reached by a stairwell in the southeast corner (Figure 21). All the offices were finished in Georgia pine save for the divisional superintendent's office in the northwest corner in which burlap covered the walls. No services or quarters were intended for the attic of the station, or for the upper two floors of the tower. Two roughly-finished rooms in the attic of the breezeway appear to have been used as additional storage space.
Changes to the interior before the 1989-90 upgrading included the installation of wood panelling in the waiting room; the removal of the baggage office; construction of a new partition in the baggage room, and installation of a second floor kitchen and staircase up to it above the parcel area (Figure 22). By the time VIA Rail obtained ownership, the CNR yard office operations were confined to the west end of the ground floor where the lunchroom and kitchen had once been. Only here have the original indoor trim and doors survived.
Apart from the removal of the tower in the 1960s, there was little change to the station exterior until a major upgrading was undertaken in 1989-90 by the new owner, VIA Rail. The original doors have all been replaced with ones made of aluminum and glass, except in the baggage and express areas, where one set of original, tongue-and-groove double doors has been replaced with plywood. The original chimneys survive and the original oneover- one-over-one pane sashes with their built-in, pulley-raising mechanisms all remain in place. The original station signs are no longer to be found. Plastic illuminated VIA Rail and charter bus signs have been placed up above the north main entrance. A large sign with the Stratford swan logo, illuminated by hanging floodlights, is perched on the south side of the breezeway roof.
The 1989-90 upgrading of the station interior included tearing out all of the non-structural partitions and completely renovating the second floor for rental to the Victorian Order of Nurses and other tenants (Figure 22). The original menfs smoking room on the ground floor was turned into a main stairwell leading up to these offices from the lobby. The menfs washroom on the ground floor became an expanded women's washroom, and a new, larger men's washroom, also accessible to the handicapped, was carved out of the southwest corner of the waiting room. What had been the ladiesf parlour and washroom was turned into bus depot offices and baggage room, with the bus ticket counter out in front of them along the north wall of the waiting room. The VIA Rail ticket office was moved from beneath the central arch along the south wall to the east end of the waiting room (Figure 23). A new, white ceramic tile floor was installed, the walls were covered with a coral burlap paper, and in both the lobby and the waiting room a handsome, five-inch high red oak moulding was introduced as a heritage-style decor accent approximately seven feet up from the floor. The original stucco waiting room ceiling survives intact, covered with white paint. Only one original oak bench remains, located in the lobby ,(Figure 24), but there are 20 comfortable modern wooden benches in the waiting room. Despite these numerous changes, one can still capture something of the original qualities of the interior spaces.
Much of the original historical context of the station has somehow survived (Figure 25). The railway yards and round house remain in place, although the water tower across from the station was dismantled in 196443 and only a small part of the freight building at the east end of Shakespeare Street remains. Shakespeare Street itself retains the same residential profile it had when the station went up in 1913, there still are hotels nearby at the intersection of Guelph and Downie Streets, and the empty motive repair shops still bulk large in the distance east of Downie Street. Passenger and freight traffic continue to ride the tracks past the station.
Railway station gardens were introduced to Canada on a widespread scale by the CPR in the Edwardian period. By 1913 a CPR forestry department had been supplying and promoting the development of station gardens along CPR lines for six years.44 So successful were the CPR gardens as a public relations campaign that the GTR could ill afford to let a divisional station such as Stratford suffer for lack of attention to landscaping and gardens. The new station was graced with the finest landscaping to be found on any GTR station property. The landscaping pleased local citizens, who had signalled their devotion to horticulture by voting against letting the CPR build through parkland along the Avon River. The angled lawn along the north wall of the station echoed the slope of the roofs while the lawn at the east end was subtly terraced to make it a gentle slope of lawn.
In 1922 a CNR greenhouse was built beside the motive power shops, providing as many as 80,000 plants every spring for CNR station gardens as far away as North Bay. Railway and city employees worked to create and maintain Station Park on the block extending east from the station to Downie Street, with walkways, flower beds, hedges and flowering bushes providing CNR employees with a park near their workplace (Figure 26).45 Tennis courts were placed in this park by 1940. The greenhouse closed in 1943 when the war effort called for conservation of manpower and resources, and was later dismantled. The station garden and adjacent Station Park have been maintained consistently as an integral part of Stratford's image as a major tourism centre.
A long brick platform ran along between the station and the tracks, illuminated at night by two ornamental iron electric light poles at each end, each with a cluster of three lights, and six ornamental poles with single lights spaced along the platform between the tracks. The finishing touch for the exterior was the brick paving of Shakespeare Street, done by the city. The addition of a poorly-integrated wheelchair ramp, the removal of the original decorative light standards, and the paving of the brick platform with asphalt have been the only major changes to the immediate station setting.
The railway station proved an enduring source of pride to Stratford inhabitants. In 1919 a fine brass war memorial was unveiled, listing the names of 71 GTR employees from Stratford who died in World War I. In 1940 another plaque commemorating Thomas Edisonts brief sojourn in Stratford was also placed in the waiting room.
The pride that Stratford's inhabitants had in their fine train
station was diminished visibly in the 1960s with the cancellation
of special excursion trains to the Stratford Festival, with the
dismantling of the station tower, and with generally decreasing
ridership on trains. Hopes that ridership would grow on the
direct line between Chicago and Toronto prompted the CNR to
increase the number of dail passenger trains through Stratford
from seven to nine in 1976,46 but from the mid 1970s to the late
1980s there was no ticket agent in the station.47 Rumours that
the station would close were only dispelled when VIA Rail
purchased it in 1986.48 The diminished pride in the station was
voiced by mayor Ted Blowes:
It's kind of embarrassing. We have
a world class tourism centre here. It (the train station) had
really deteriorated.49 In 1988 the city designated the station
a heritage structure under the Ontario Heritage Act. The
designation covered the missing tower and brick platform.50 The
alterations in 1989-90 destroyed some of the heritage features
such as the original outdoor light fixtures, drawing a chorus of
protest from outraged local inhabitants.51
The railway had played too major a role in Stratford's history for the citizens to allow the fine old railway station to fade away. City officials could not readily ignore Stratford's railway heritage in a council chamber where a locomotive was carved atop the back of the mayor's chair. Two recent publications, Floodtides of Fortune by Adelaide Leitch and Railway Stratford by Dean Robinson, discuss the building at length. As recently as 1992, when a promotional booklet was prepared to celebrate the 40th season of the Stratford Festival, Roberta Maxwell, the first apprentice actor hired by the Festival, asked to be photographed at the train station (Figure 27).52
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