Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Canadian National Railways Station
Peterson Projects, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg
The former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at Atikokan, Ontario (Figure 1) was built in 19231 as a replacement station at a divisional point for an already well-established community. Atikokan is located 130 miles west of Thunder Bay Ontario and 320 miles east of Winnipeg, Manitoba (Figure 2),2 originally part of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) system.
A relatively simple structure very like other stations of its size at this time, the Atikokan station was built a short distance from the original frame station (since demolished) in order to increase the railway's ability to meet the demands of the higher traffic volume along the line. The station now stands vacant and boarded up and the contemporary industrial structures within the yards have all been demolished. There is no plan at present to redevelop the building.
The construction of this replacement station illustrates the early history of the CNR and the optimism permeating the company during the 1920s. This station is one of the early results of this optimism, as the railway moved to replace its older facilities.
The CNoR was incorporated in 1899 as the result of the merging of two small Manitoba branch lines. The railway's backers, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, sought to profit by investing in the growing Canadian railway sector. Their immediate concern was to gain access to the Lake Superior harbour at Port Arthur (present day Thunder Bay), Ontario in order to begin moving western grain crops to eastern markets.
Construction on the line east from Winnipeg began quickly, and the line ran southeasterly from Winnipeg to Sprague, Manitoba, then proceeded a short distance through the state of Minnesota, entering into Canada again at Rainy River, Ontario. This route avoided the difficult Lake of the Woods area, and utilized yet another of Mackenzie and Mann8s acquisitions, the Minnesota and Manitoba Railroad Company, purchased 2 May 1899. Two other lines were acquired to complete the route, the Ontario and Rainy River Railway Company (incorporated in 1886), and the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway (incorporated in 1883). These two lines, together with the Manitoba charters and existing trackage, furnished Mackenzie and Mann with the authority to complete their line to Port Arthur. These charters also included generous provincial and federal subsidies, making their acquisition even more desirable for the CNoR's backers.3 On 30 December 1902 an official ceremony took place at Atikokan, marking the completion of the line.4
With the completion of the line to Lake Superior, Mackenzie and Mann turned their attentions to the expansion of their western holdings and ultimately to the creation of a transcontinental system. The last spike of the CNoR's transcontinental line was driven in January of 1915 and by the end of that year the railway was fully functional from coast to coast.5 But the cost of the CNoR's expansion, stiff competition from other lines, and the war effort spelt doom for the railway. In June of 1919 the CNoR was taken over by the federal government as part of a large-scale rescue effort of the railway industry. Between 1917 and 1923, the federal government acquired five financially troubled railways, amalgamating them as the CNR: the Grand Trunk, its subsidiary the Grand Trunk Pacific, the National Transcontinental, the Intercolonial and the CNOR.6
In October of 1922, Sir Henry Thornton (1871-1933) was appointed chairman and president of the CNR, and given the task of turning the debt-ridden conglomerate into a unified transcontinental railway system.7 Thus began a decade of growth and prosperity for the CNR. Thornton had many ideas to improve the public's perception of the company: securing of a lucrative silk contract with Japan, offering pension packages, providing medical services in isolated areas with Red Cross cars, and using CNR facilities to develop a network of radio stations. By 1928, the CNR had posted a surplus of $58 million.8 This profitability, combined with heightened public support, created an optimism within the CNR that lasted into the 1930s.
Part of the overall expansion scheme of the CNR in the early 1920s was the replacement of old stations with larger depots. The original station had been built in the community ca. 1900 but in 1923 it was replaced by a new frame station, built 600 yards west of the original station. The older depot was demolished shortly after the new station was completed.9 The new depot provided more space for administrative, maintenance, and yard personnel and increased the space for passengers, baggage and freight.
The period after the construction of the new station marked the modern development stage of Atikokan. An increase in population throughout the region augmented the volume of both passenger and freight traffic along the line. Larger shipments of prairie grain also increased traffic, which in turn required more employees throughout the system. For the repair and refueling centres along the line, these increases resulted in more rolling stock and more work at the shops. The Atikokan station, as was the case in other towns, was the focal point of the railway company's services. The increasing numbers of employees used the station for booking in and for office space, and the public's use of the facilities - waiting rooms, baggage and freight departments - likewise rose over the decades. As the only means of transportation to and from Atikokan until the 1950s, the railway and the station became essential parts of the daily life of the community.
The station at Atikokan is a tangible reminder of the days of the economic supremacy of the railways, as they enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the transportation of goods and people throughout Canada. The emergence of the CNR as a well-organized, integrated system led to the growth and development of modern facilities along its lines. A result of the optimism within the CNR was the development of a policy of replacement. Stations, round houses and track were all replaced or refurbished, and the Atikokan station is an illustration of this policy. The station also represents the impetus given by railway development for the growth of communities into towns and cities all across the country.
This replacement station represents the railway company's recognition of the need to accommodate increasing traffic along the line with new and larger stations, and the subsequent importance of the divisional point at Atikokan.
Atikokan10 was founded in 1902 as a divisional point of the CNoR. Divisional points were developed by the railway companies as refuelling and repair facilities, and following traditional railway practices, they were located at 130-150 mile intervals. These centres included a large amount of switching track, as well as a round house, usually with a small attached machine shop to facilitate repairs. Bunkhouses for train crews on layovers, a dining hall, coal and water facilities, and various small storage sheds were also built at the site.
Prior to the construction of the CNoR, human activity in the Atikokan area was limited to migrating native bands and a handful of non-native trappers and woodsmen. In the 1880s and 1890s, however, gold, copper and iron ore finds lured prospectors to the region. To service these mines, saw mills and hotels opened and the area slowly developed.11 But population centres continued to be small, scattered, and isolated until the CNoR furnished a permanent, year-round connection to major centres to the east and west. It was the rumour of a railway through the area that finally convinced settlers to locate in the area that is now Atikokan.
Atikokan was founded by the CNoR, with town lots initially laid out and sold by the company at $50 per lot and $75 for a corner property.12 With the completion of the line and the industrial complex within the yards came the transformation of forest and rock into a modern community. Hotels, restaurants, a post office, a jail, churches, and streets lined with homes were all part of this evolution. The rail line also gave impetus to increased activity in the mining and lumbering sectors, which both became major industries in and around Atikokan.
At Atikokan, however, the railway was still the major source of employment. While many other communities were uneasy as rumours of bankruptcy and ruin swirled around the CNoR in the 1910s, Atikokan saw an increase in the presence of the railway throughout the bankruptcy/amalgamation stage of the CNoR. In 1915 a new restaurant, known as
The Beanery, was built at a cost of $4,000. It was located near the station and included living quarters for restaurant employees and a few hotel rooms on the upper floor.13
In 1918, over $90,000 worth of improvements were completed within the Atikokan yards. A ten-stall round house was built at a cost of $67,850, an $18,000, 86'-6" turntable was completed, and a large 30'-4" x 79' storage facility was built which cost $9,966.14 The new station built in 1923 was another concrete expression of the CNR's continued faith in Atikokan as an integral part of their western Canadian system.
The continuing presence of the CNR and the exploitation of a vast ore vein under a nearby lake15 caused another expansion of Atikokan in the 1940s as the population increased, new homes were built and new businesses started. As late as the 1950s Atikokan continued to be totally dependent on the CNR for its goods and transportation.16
The 1950s marked a turning point in the history of Atikokan, much the same as elsewhere along Canada's railways. The conversion to diesel from steam power meant a fundamental change in the operations of the railway companies. The new engines could travel farther with fewer fuelling stops. With the longer distances between stops came the realization that many of the divisional points were redundant and a large number of them were closed. While the round house at Atikokan continued to operate after the conversion, there was nevertheless an overall reduction in activity and employment at the yards. The second major factor was the completion of Highway 11 to Thunder Bay by 1954.17 This ended the over 50-year monopoly held by the railway on transportation services to and from Atikokan.
The town was intimately connected to the railway as a source of communication and employment into the 1950s. Atikokan's development to the present has been closely tied to that of the CNoR and then the CNR. In the first half of this century, that meant an existence totally dependent on the railway to provide steady employment and as a catalyst for other economic activities. It also meant the railway was a significant part of the social life of the community, and brought visitors and goods into and out of Atikokan. The second half of the century has seen a reduction of the importance of the railway, both economically and socially. Because of the close ties between the town and the railway, the system-wide downsizing of facilities that occurred after 1950 was a serious blow to the community. The CNR is no longer considered a mainstay of the Atikokan economy or an integral part of the lives of the community's 4,000 citizens.18 The station, however, serves as an important reminder of the past, and recalls the early development of Atikokan, based heavily on the railway.
The station at Atikokan is a typical example of the type of structure the CNR constructed in divisional points in the early 1920s. Handsomely yet modestly ornamented, these depots were intended to be efficient and sturdy, and to blend into the rural surroundings through minimal detailing. Most such stations were designed by the railway company's engineering department.
This one-storey, frame depot (Figures 3 and 4) is more sparsely ornamented than most other northern Ontario stations. The lowpitched, bellcast hip roof is uninterrupted by dormers or cross gables, common elements used by the railway to individualize and increase the complexity of the otherwise plain designs. The roof, originally covered with 4-1/2" British Columbia shingles,19 ends in heavy overhanging eaves that encircle the building. This was a common design element which protected passengers and baggage from the elements. The wooden siding at grade was one inch by four inch tongue and groove laid vertically. The remainder of the building was covered in one inch by four inch
Novelty siding laid horizontally.20 The track side projecting window allows an improved view of the yards, platform and track. Window and door openings are simple and unadorned, to match the overall design.
The plans for the station were produced by the CNR engineering department in Winnipeg, and designated plan #l00-193 (Figures 5 to 8).21 Cost of construction was $9,995.22 The station fits into the trend in station design evident throughout the CNR system from the 1900s to the 1920s. The replacement stations were large enough to meet future needs, and clearly designed to be efficient rather than ornamentally complex. The elongated floor plan is similar to two other stations on this line, at Fort Frances, RSR-170 (Figure 9) and Rainy River (Figure 10), Ontario (both extant), although the scale and the scope of the ornamentation of these latter stations is considerably greater. In Manitoba, similar stations have been built by the Canadian Pacific Railway at Emerson (RSR 112), and by the CNR at Rivers (RSR 114) and at The Pas (RSR 83), Figures 11, 12 and 13, respectively.
The major alteration to this station occurred in 1949 with the addition of an approximately 40 foot long section at the east end of the station. It was likely at this time that the eave bracketing was removed (Figure 14). The addition was similarly finished and did not adversely affect the aesthetics of the depot. Doorways have also been altered on both the north and south elevations. The wooden platform that once encircled the station was replaced on the south side with concrete in 1956.23 Overall, changes to the design have been minor and have not greatly altered its original appearance.
The interior organization of the Atikokan station, like the exterior, followed the trends prevalent throughout the railway industry during this period. The basic floor plan, which measured 61'-6" x 30', was divided into three separate areas, to serve railway personnel and the public as efficiently as possible. Changes to the interior have been extensive.
The partial basement (Figure 15) was used as storage and for the boiler and fuel. The ground floor (Figure 16) included a large office in the east end measuring 20'-7" x 30'. The central area was given to a general waiting room which measured approximately 18'-5" x 30'. Located in the west end of the station were the baggage and express rooms, separated from the waiting room by a room to be used as either a hot room24 or an express office. The baggage/express room featured large double doors on both the track and town side facades to facilitate loading and unloading. The entire interior was sparsely finished, matching the overall design of the depot.25
The large addition completed in 1949 drastically changed the floor plan of the station (Figure 17). The west end was converted into ladies' and general waiting rooms, and occupied nearly all of the original building. Offices for yard clerks and the station agent were moved into the eastern part of the old station. The new east end was divided into a large baggage and freight shed and four small offices for yard and station personnel.
The 1949 alterations, and the effects of neglect and vandalism, have negatively affected the interior. Wood panelling was installed in much of the interior (Figure 18) and walls have been added, substantially changing the original layout (Figure 19). The general waiting room appears to be in the most original state, although some renovations have occurred (Figures 20 and 21).
The town of Atikokan and the yards have changed drastically since the construction of this station, although the station and yard continue to mark the southern boundary of Atikokan (Figure 22
In 1923, the station was part of a large and active industrial complex that included switching track, refuelling facilities and a number of small storage sheds. The main buildings (Figure 23) of the complex were grouped together and included a round house built in 1918 and demolished in 1963. Interestingly, the round house was located close to the station and the town, not on the other side of the yards as was the usual arrangement. Another building close to the station was the restaurant (Figure 24), Today, the railway complex has been totally emptied of all its original buildings except for the station and extensive trackage (Figures 25 and 26). It stands virtually alone, at the edge of an extensive open space that was once busy switching track. Because practically all activity around the station has ceased, the station no longer holds a prominent place in the social and economic life of Atikokan. After the station had stood empty for several years, a group of residents entered into negotiations with the CNR. It was the plan of this heritage group to redevelop the station, thus restoring some of the local prominence the station had enjoyed. These protracted negotiations were suspended recently; because of a railway stipulation that the building be removed from its present site, the redevelopment plan has been abandoned at present.27 There are no other plans for the building under consideration either by the community or by the railway company at this time.
The Beanery, which was built in 1915 and demolished in 1967.26
In 1923, the station was part of a large and active industrial complex that included switching track, refuelling facilities and a number of small storage sheds. The main buildings (Figure 23) of the complex were grouped together and included a round house built in 1918 and demolished in 1963. Interestingly, the round house was located close to the station and the town, not on the other side of the yards as was the usual arrangement. Another building close to the station was the restaurant (Figure 24),
Today, the railway complex has been totally emptied of all its original buildings except for the station and extensive trackage (Figures 25 and 26). It stands virtually alone, at the edge of an extensive open space that was once busy switching track. Because practically all activity around the station has ceased, the station no longer holds a prominent place in the social and economic life of Atikokan.
After the station had stood empty for several years, a group of residents entered into negotiations with the CNR. It was the plan of this heritage group to redevelop the station, thus restoring some of the local prominence the station had enjoyed. These protracted negotiations were suspended recently; because of a railway stipulation that the building be removed from its present site, the redevelopment plan has been abandoned at present.27 There are no other plans for the building under consideration either by the community or by the railway company at this time.