Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
|VIA Rail Station
|M. Carter, Heritage Research Associates Inc.
Cobourg's VIA Rail station (Figures 1, 2, 3) was built by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1911,1 and operated as the CNR's Cobourg station from 1922 to 1986. It was constructed according to a plan originally prepared by GTR architect J.M. Bearbrook in 1896 and adapted by a second GTR architect, L.M. Watts, in 1910-11. As a design, this is a successful example of a railway-inspired public facility.
This station was built by the GTR as it improved its facilities in the competitive early years of the 20th century. The Board of Railway Commissioners of Canada played an important role in assisting in this process as they regulated both the improvements and the conditions under which the railway was permitted to operate.
The Cobourg station has recently been renovated for long-term use as a VIA Rail facility. This renewal was encouraged by the Town of Cobourg which considers the station to be an important local heritage resource.
When the Laurier government approved new railways to the west in 1903, it opened the door to competition in the cost efficient highly populated areas of central Ontario. New railways like the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway (CNOR) (a branch of the Canadian Northern Railway) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) sought to compete with the established GTR for a share of this lucrative market. The GTR, in turn, made a vigorous attempt to defend its territory. The new station built in Cobourg in 1911 was a result of this battle.
Cobourg was a stop on the original 1856 GTR mainline between Toronto and Montréal (Figure 2), and the GTR had a monopoly on rail service to Cobourg throughout the 19th century. As a result, the facilities the GTR built in Cobourg in 1856 still existed at the turn of the century. These included a station and restaurant, an agent's house, freight and car maintenance shops (Figure 4).
Once the Liberals made their point of view on monopolies clear, the GTR rehired its former Vice-president, American Charles Melville Hays, with a free hand to spruce up its line. Under Hays the GTR began to upgrade its dated facilities. The GTR improved the track on its lucrative Toronto to Montréal line between 1901 and 1905. In 1906 it started to regroom the associated services and facilities. Hays replaced the early locomotives with more up-to-date models.2 He also initiated a new car ferry between Cobourg and Rochester, New York3 to enhance service to American markets. His insistence on better passenger service brought renovations to the GTR restaurant at the Cobourg station.4 Under his guidance, the GTR began to consider replacing its existing rail
with 100 lb. steel between Montréal and Toronto in 1907.5 Part of this undertaking included reorganization of the GTR's Cobourg yards6 to facilitate more efficient operations.
This change required planning, and in 1909, the Cobourg World reported that:
A.S. Going has been making a survey of the company's lines between Midland and Cobourg Ont. with a view to securing a route which will avoid the present heavy grades .... One route proposed between Millbrook and Cobourg is to run over the end of Harwood and Rice Lake route which the GTR owns, but which is not in use, for about four miles north of Cobourg, then proceed across country ... .7
This route was known as the Garden Hill-Cobourg cut off, and when the GTR decided to proceed with its construction it revised the route of the 1854 Cobourg-Peterborough Railway which the GTR had acquired in 1901,8 and which ran just to the west of the Cobourg station. These changes required redefinition of the Cobourg depot site and construction of a new station, which required the approval of the Board of Railway Commissioners.
While the Board of Railway Commissioners was reviewing this application, it also received a separate application by the CNOR to open a second station in Cobourg. The CNOR station was to be part of a new branch between Toronto and Ottawa, itself part of a larger scheme to tie Buffalo to Montréal:
No line of Railway could be constructed in any other portion of the Dominion of Canada, which, with the same mileage, would traverse a district so densely populated, and it will provide the Canadian Northern System with a very advantageous route ... .9
The Board's instant reaction was to request that the GTR combine its resources with the CNOR and build one station in Cobourg.10
This proposal was successfully repelled by the GTR on the grounds that
a joint station would greatly interfere with our plans,11 and as a result, two separate stations were built (Figures 11, 5). This decision set a pattern for the duplication of local rail facilities, one often repeated in eastern Ontario. By World War I, the CPR also had built its own Cobourg station (Figure 6) as part of a line from
Toronto to Pickering and along the north shore of the lake to towns like Oshawa, Cobourg and Belleville.12 Both construction and approval of these facilities were characteristic of a time when
Canada's enthusiasm for railways reached heights we were not to see again.13
The folly of this over-confident period was rectified after World War I. In 1922 management of the CNOR and the GTR was consolidated as the CNR. By 1925 the CNOR station had been closed for all purposes other than passenger traffic on the midnight trains.14 The former GTR station had become the sole CNR Cobourg depot.
The Cobourg station is evidence that exuberant pre-World War I competition had an intense and far-reaching effect on the nature of rail facilities in Canada. While it created a host of new lines in all parts of the country, it also stimulated important regeneration on the most established roadbed in central Canada.
In 1910-11 when this station was built, the town of Cobourg had settled into the role of a tranquil backwater with an economy based on tourism and agricultural service, slightly diversified by manufacturing industries. Construction of this station, accompanied as it was by competition amongst the three large Canadian railway systems to serve the Cobourg market, provided new impetus to Cobourg's development.
Cobourg was a thriving transportation centre when the first GTR line was completed in 1856. In the early and mid-19th century era of water travel, it was
a great thoroughfare.15 The town had a natural harbour on Lake Ontario, which offered a convenient stopping point for boats travelling east-west on the St. Lawrence-Lake Ontario route. It was linked north-south by ferry to Rochester, New York, just across Lake Ontario. It was also joined by the short Cobourg and Peterborough Railway to the interior areas directly north.16 In Cobourg, the GTR was unusually accommodating in the arrangements it made for the construction of rail facilities. GTR officials made an exception to their policy of ignoring water transportation routes and built a short line joining the GTR mainline north of town to the harbour.17 The railway initially enhanced Cobourg's role as a busy transportation hub.
Cobourg's early promise was not, however, fulfilled in the decades that followed. As interior connections became increasingly important, control of the developing area to the north was claimed by neighbouring Port Hope. Industrial ventures in the late 19th century were few and seldom profitable. The most lasting result of one, the Cobourg-Marmora Railway and Mining Company, was to attract a loyal group of American industrialists to Cobourg as a summer centre.
As a consequence, by 1910-11 when this station was built, the population of Cobourg was made up of two groups. The first was local, a mix of practical farmers and small businessmen, most of whom were descended from British
half-pay officers and others, who generally consider not whether the locality they fix upon is likely to be profitable, but whether it be beautiful, and likely to contribute to their pleasures.18
This group relied upon the profits of the surrounding rich agricultural land.
The second group were summer residents and the tourism industries that supported them. In the late 19th century, Cobourg had became a popular resort area for wealthy Canadian and American tourists. A Souvenir of Cobourg, which was originally published in 1910, contains a list of summer residents who owned large houses in the Cobourg area.19 Luxurious hotels, in particular the Arlington and the Columbian, had also been established to serve a more transitory group of vacationers.20 The Cobourg World reported excursions from the harbour to the Thousand Islands, Massassauga Point and St. Anne's, all of which were fed by GTR train service.21
The GTR was quite closely associated with the local tourist industry, and its improvements at the Cobourg station before 1910 relate directly to the need to serve it. Although the GTR had built a station and a restaurant at Cobourg (Figure 4) in 1856, the shed-like red brick restaurant building alone survived to serve both purposes by 1902 (Figures 4, 7, 9). This (Figure 9) is the building that received new restaurant fittings in 1906 as the GTR enhanced its Cobourg tourist services. It is also the structure described in a GTR inspection report dated 1909 as
a regular brick building22 with a leaking roof. Apparently, it had a separate ladies' waiting room with a water closet (for women) while men used outdoor facilities. In 1909, the GTR's inspector reported this station was becoming a little tawdry, and the
Waiting room woodwork should be cleaned.23 In 1910, the GTR apparently felt local tourism revenues were sufficient to justify replacement of this station with a new restaurant and station building.
The on-going tension between Cobourg's farm and tourism associated populations is evident in the 1909-10 debate surrounding construction of new station facilities. Records of the Board of Railway Commissioners' hearings show that the town's merchants were initially opposed to any new railroad development at all. They argued:
the GTR [trains] and the autos of American summer resortists were keeping many farmers out of the town, and if the C.N.R. were added, the farmers would stay away altogether.24
This attitude changed as the astonished resident population realized that not only the CNOR but also the CPR was anxious to build local depots. The GTR, it seemed, also was ready to court its Cobourg customers through construction of a new station. This inspired Cobourg's citizens to rethink its future potential.
By the time its soldiers left to fight in World War I, the town of Cobourg was advertising sites for factories, inducements offered to all potential investors passing by rail. As Figure 10 shows with a sign stating Cobourg ... 3 Railways ... Nearest Place in Canada to Coal Fields ... Open Harbour Winter and Summer, the town's industrial ambitions were fed by these extended railway systems.25
Unfortunately, all of this came to nothing. A new era dawned when:
World War I upset the entire social structure. Changing ideas and economic conditions made it impossible to maintain the house staffs for such a [summer house] life style ... the summer colony declined drastically in numbers during the twenties. By the thirties, only those who owned summer homes remained ...
During the 1930's and 1940's the summer colony dwindled, dying a slow death as families eventually sold out or died.26
The town was thrown back upon its farming and its relatively static industrial base for survival. Since World War II Cobourg has acquired a multi-national population, and become an industrial service centre and long distance bedroom community for Toronto. Most of its new development has been associated with automobile rather than rail travel since Highway 401 was completed in 1957.
Plans for construction of a new GTR station and restaurant in Cobourg were
not quite ready27 in June of 1910 when the GTR reported to the town and to the Board of Railway Commissioners on the nature of the new facilities. The problem was not the complexity of the design required, but rather the fact that the GTR was uncertain of the nature of the station needed. Discussions were still pending on the site to be used and the issue of whether the GTR would share a depot with the CNOR.28 These problems had, however, been resolved by 28 June 191129 when a design for a GTR station was approved.
The plans approved (Figures 11-14) were an adaptation of plans prepared by J.M. Bearbrook of the GTR's Buildings and Bridges Department in Toronto, and presented to the City of Guelph in 1896 (Figure 15). In 1911 L.M. Watts of the GTR was adapting these plans for construction of the new station at Guelph. He was probably responsible for tailoring them for use in Cobourg at the same time.
Bearbrook's original concept still guided the design of both 1911 adaptations. It is most faithfully presented in the central bay of the Cobourg station (Figure 16). This is a balanced five-bay configuration with a recessed hipped roof centrally broken by a small peak. As articulated in Cobourg this design (Figure 17) was complemented by such ornate details as an ornamental roof ridge, curved and keyed stonework, and rich contrasts in texture.
The excellence of the design, however, is in its rhythmic massing. While generally the proportions of this station respect the horizontal balance of roof and wall traditionally used for railway stations, its features are sub-divided into articulated segments which combine to create a balanced and unified pattern pleasing to the eye.
This rhythm is followed in the massing of the roof, with the lower peak over the extended entrance on one side (Figure 18) marking one side of the mid section, and the telegrapher's bay marking the other. The same rhythm is also evident in the vertical massing of the station's body. Here, five bays are defined by the counterbalance between the apertures and the solid portions between them (Figure 11). The solid walls assume pillar-like qualities on the outer bays. On the second and fourth bays, the arched apertures provide the core forms. The building's central bay is enclosed under the portico. Here, protrusion of the solid walls blurs their definition, and the recessed aperture has a softer form.
The 1896 Guelph design provides an extra bay which extends the roof to one side. The Cobourg interpretation is a more satisfactory statement of the original concept in that it extends on both ends to house additional functions (Figures 19, 20). These wings are not parallel, but they are treated in a balanced way, retaining the essential quality of the massing while permitting visual variety.
The importance of massing as the central feature of the design is underlined by the end elevations (Figure 12) of the Cobourg design. These are defined and balanced in the same proportions as the body.
This concept is strongly balanced, yet its disciplined definition is tempered just enough to remove any hint of rigidity. The two exterior wings, for example, contain different apertures. The chimneys are also not placed in parallel. This irregularity is reinforced by the variety of two dimensional stonework shapes on the building. Its quoins and surrounds are squared and keyed, while its arches and upper rail are rounded thin lines (Figure 21). The design is also supported by the richly textured contrasts of the materials. The stone below the wainscott is rough, while that of the details is smooth. The brick surface of the building has depth of texture, while the original metal on the roof had none. The design of Cobourg's station has been called "Romanesque Revival".30 This designation is supported by the station's roof form, richly contrasting materials, and gracefully balanced round-arched apertures.
The design of Cobourg's station is at once imposing and appealing, impressive and welcoming. The Guelph station (RSR-145, Figure 22) exists today as a clear comparison for the Cobourg station's design. The Cobourg station has stood the test of time, and is an excellent example of the GTR's early 20th century design capability.
Cobourg's station appears much as it did when it was built, although its roof is now covered with red asphalt shingle rather than metal. Recent renovation has lifted covers from the leaded arched windows and refreshed the rich contrasts of the façade materials.31 This project, by Jed Jones Architect Ltd. and Jill Taylor, Architect, also repaired the station's wooden doors and windows, and corrected deterioration around its foundation. Cobourg's station has been renewed for a long and busy future.
Cobourg's 1911 GTR station was built on an impressive scale for the size of the town. As its original floor plan (Figure 14) shows, the central area held a large general waiting room flanked by smaller waiting rooms for ladies on the west and gentlemen on the east. The east wing of the station contained separate express and baggage facilities, while the west wing housed a restaurant. This station, therefore, housed all the functions necessary to accommodate community railway requirements as well as meet the needs of long-distance rail travellers.
The station was efficiently organized and impressively decorated. The central waiting room was arranged around a ticket wicket which extended in front of the telegrapher's bay. Drawings for this wicket (Figure 13) depict ornate wood lower panels topped by arches in a configuration similar to those found in contemporary bank counters. The same drawing shows that wood wainscott with ornate mouldings was once used as a decorative feature on the interior walls, suggesting that the general waiting room of the station was once a rich example of Edwardian interior design.
This is perhaps not surprising, since the restaurant in the previous station shared these characteristics. Cobourg's 1856 GTR depot originally contained a restaurant because passengers detrained to eat. Dining cars did exist, however, by the time the Cobourg restaurant was refurbished in 1906. By 1906, restaurant and snack bar facilities like those built in the Cobourg station (Figures 23 and 24) were a feature of long distance travel stops. The turn of the century design of the counters in Cobourg's station (Figures 23 and 24) suggests they were new when the former station was demolished. In shape, they are very similar to those described in the floor plan of the 1910-11 station (Figure 14), and it is likely they were re-used. They are completely in keeping with the elegant Edwardian tone of the 1910-11 facility.
Most of this rich woodwork has disappeared, although many details of the walls and ceiling of the original station interior remain today (Figure 25). The entrance vestibule which once protruded into the waiting room has been set back, and the ticket area has been modernized and moved into what was once the ladies' waiting room (Figure 26). The former wicket area is now a seating alcove. The station interior, nevertheless, continues to have cast iron radiators, elegant leaded window arches, and wooden benches from a later era. The former express and baggage rooms have been joined (Figure 27), yet still retain their original finishes (Figure 28). The gentlemen's waiting room has been closed off as lockers, and the former restaurant and bar on the east extreme have been covered with gyproc to create an airy open space waiting for a tenant. This area is used from time to time for public meetings.
Structurally, the Cobourg station has masonry support walls. Its dimensions are approximately 150 feet by 27 feet, with a high attic and full basement.32 The basement is made of stone, and is sound and dry today.
Cobourg's 1911 station sits high on a hill, isolated from traffic both on Division Street to the east and on George Street to the west (Figure 30). It is located at the level of the track, which crosses above both of these streets, cut off from the adjacent land to the north and to the south by its elevation.
The present station is situated to the south of the track, on land acquired by the GTR to build its original depot. In 1856, this site was half a mile north of the harbour, and as a result the station site is removed from the centre of Cobourg today. It sits midway between the historic downtown and the strip malls associated with Highway 401 to the north.
For most of the 20th century, the area immediately to the north of the station has been industrial, while that to the south has been residential. One neighbouring industry was the Crossen Car and Manufacturing Company which built railway cars.33 This factory sat on the Harwood Branch line just to the west of the station site. Its roadbed was the original Cobourg-Peterborough Railway line rerouted by the GTR in 1911 when this station was constructed.
The 1856 station and restaurant was located to the north of the early track, under the area that comprises the track today. Figures 4, 7, 8, 29 depict the early station site. The first shows a freight shed and agent's house on the south side of the track, with the station and restaurant to the north.
The danger of this location was one of the reasons a new station was built. In 1909 James Ogilvie, a GTR inspector, reported to his superior that:
I understand arrangements have been made to build new station. Present location very bad. Passengers have to cross yard track to reach station. Accidents happen to people crossing these tracks.34
Town access to the station was changed when the new station was built. GTR lands around the station were considerably enlarged as part of this undertaking:
the new Grand Trunk station [will be located] about forty or fifty rods west of the Agricultural grounds and south of their present line. The Company will likely appropriate the lands east as far as D'Arcy St. for their yards and buildings, thus obtaining full control of a strip of land from Division St. to D'Arcy St. This will necessitate a new street being opened up from Division St. east to the new station. These changes will likely mean the removal of some residences and buildings, probably Mr. Buck's residence, the round house, and Mr. Hibbert's houses, in order to straighten the track.35
Along with station plans the Board of Railway Commissioners also approved the re-arrangement of GTR facilities in 1911. This included enlargement of the GTR yards to include eight tracks, a new freight building and a subway on Division Street. The relationship of the initial site configuration to the 1911 arrangement is marked on Figure 29. The 1911 configuration alone is described in Figure 30. A comparison of these two plans shows that the 1911 station was built over the former 1856 freight shed on the GTR property.36
Figure 30 also shows the dispersement of the grounds surrounding the 1911 station. There was a tramway on George Street, as well as stock pens and tanks to the west near the existing Harwood branch line. The station site has always had telephone and electric light since this station was built.37 Access to the station was from the east, just to the south of the new subway off Division Street. It is still there today at the bottom of a steep hill.
A record of the busy mainline activities on the GTR grounds in Cobourg survives in photographs like Figure 31. It illustrates that by the 1950s Cobourg's station grounds were more utilitarian than groomed. As Figure 32 shows, this is not the case today. The station sits between patches of green lawn, with a parking lot on the south and tracks to the north. Its light standards have been renewed, and it is an active public facility.
The present VIA Rail station is the only railway station from its period remaining in Cobourg. The CNOR station was demolished long ago, and the CPR station was torn down in the late 1970s.38 The station has not been designated as a heritage resource by the Cobourg LACAC, although Cobourg currently has three heritage districts and is actively aware of the importance of the past to its community profile.39 The Cobourg station has been described as a Class B building by the Ontario Government in Planning for Heritage Railway Stations because it is a very good exam le of Romanesque station style. Locally significant building.40
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