Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways Station
St. Catharines, Ontario


Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto



The VIA Rail station at 5 Great Western Street, St. Catharines, Ontario (Figures 1-3) was built in 1917 by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in connection with a municipal transportation scheme to connect the station site, always remote on the southern edge of the city, to the commercial centre. In 1853 the Great Western Railway (GWR) had built a station on this site along its mainline, which was taken over by the GTR in 1882, and replaced in 1898. VIA Rail acquired the present station from the Canadian National Railways (CNR) in 1986.

The station was typical of GTR work of the period, with a symmetrical, pavilion-like passenger station, a deep porte-cochere, and a separate express building connected by a single roof line. Modifications have joined the buildings and an additional structure was built for the tenant of a portion of the structure, a bingo company. The station was most recently modernized in 1988 as part of VIA Rail's accessibility programme, and another renovation is planned in 1994.

St. Catharines and its picturesque setting are steeped in history, but heritage concerns have never been a leading municipal priority, despite citizen activism. As a 20th century building, and a station still profitably operational, the CNR/VIA Rail station has attracted little or no local preservation concern when so many early 19th century structures in St. Catharines are still unprotected.

Historical Associations


The St. Catharines station reflects the pattern of high expectations enjoyed by the railway companies at the beginning of the century, followed by a gradual decline of business in subsequent decades. This station was built just as the corporate structure of the GTR and its Pacific subsidiary were crumbling toward bankruptcy. Artificially and temporarily buoyed by the war economy, railways nevertheless were squeezed by the weight of the enormous debt incurred in their construction; debt that threatened not only individual banks but confidence in the financial foundations of the Dominion. Few lines, especially branches, were able to achieve viability after the First World War ended.1 Freight and express facilities at St. Catharines were expanded in the new station, but during the 1920s road transport would severely undermine rail freight by challenging the very principles that determined railway rates. Where railways charged on the value of the commodity carried, truck operators charged on a cost-recovery basis irrespective of goods carried.2

The company had enjoyed a doubling of its freight tonnage, passenger traffic, and gross receipts in the first decade of the 20th century and shared in the prosperity of the early war years. The disastrous cost overruns of the Grand Trunk Pacific-National Transcontinental project raised the company’s debt to over $220 million in 1912, though, and a Royal Commission was struck in 1916 to ponder the disposition of the Grand Trunk systems.3 In 1920 the Government of Canada formally took possession of all Grand Trunk system trackage.4

Writing of station design, author John Droege noted in 1916 that it was practically impossible to anticipate the exact degree of the growth of business, a dilemma which accounted for a typical station life-cycle of less than 30 years, and for the seemingly enormous size of so many stations then being built in anticipation of future growth.5 The St. Catharines station of 1898 had a life span of barely 20 years, and the succession of three stations on the site indicates the increase and extent of changes in traffic conditions in St. Catharines. Continuing business is demonstrated by the three campaigns of renovation that have been carried out at the station in this century. Its current condition, with about two-thirds of the building rented to commercial tenants, is another barometer of railway economics demonstrating the contraction of rail business. In the period from 1967 to 1990, passenger services were cut by 55.2 percent, and railway stations were reduced by 65.5 percent.6 That a viable tenant has located at the St. Catharines station is something of a success story for a complex of this size.

Local Development

The railway changed life in St. Catharines when the GWR arrived in 1853, and the construction of the subject station in 1917 reflects the railway's ongoing importance in the commercial, industrial, and private sectors of the city. The railway was always symbiotically related to the Welland Canal, whose impact on rail profits was not always positive.

St. Catharines emerged in the 1780s as a milling and warehousing centre at the confluence of two streams, but its urban and industrial importance were the products of the Welland Canal, begun in 1827. Although not the most central location in the Niagara peninsula, itself a strategic transportation route, St. Catharines was the most nodal in relation to the point of conjunction of two major modes of transport: at St. Catharines the north-south canal route met the surface roads traversing the peninsula from east to west.7

While the canal enlarged the town's scope of business, it was the railway that strengthened the industrial focus. Metal manufacturing intensified, and fuel businesses flourished well into this century, as emphasized by the huge coal sheds and oil tanks along sidings north of the station (Figure 4). New sites for industry became available along the track, and those areas without rail service became obsolete.8 Tourism was another growth industry in the mid-19th century as St. Catharines developed a reputation for its curative waters.9

Although the town was neither a railway terminal point nor a junction, the combined benefits of canal and rail access allowed the community to prosper, doubling in size from 1861 to 1911, and attracting many Canadian branch plants of American manufacturers. During those years of industrialization in Ontario, however, St. Catharines was left behind relative to other centres: Hamilton grew over 300% and Toronto by 740%. St. Catharines was outnumbered in population during this era by over a dozen other towns, including St. Thomas, Brantford, and Stratford.10

The industries that characterized the local economy were mostly evident around the rail lands. Electricity from Niagara Falls attracted numerous industries and the number of workers employed rose considerably.11 Agriculture switched to fruit cultivation in the 1870s, partly because the railways were bringing wheat out of the west. Perishable fruit depended on the rail for speedy shipment to markets, and St. Catharines was by 1900 the most important fruit shipping point in Niagara.12 The attendant canning, evaporating, packing, and basket making industries were also supported by rail and steamer services. Grape growing provided a special industry niche; Welch's Grape Juice Factory built west of the GTR station in 1914, which encouraged further grape production and the nourishment of the wine industry. Prohibition resulted in the proliferation of new producers in theSt. Catharines area in the 1920s (enjoying the privileges granted to domestic manufacturers), and Jordan's winery is based just west of the present station.13

Freight increased during the first quarter of the 20th century, but competition from the electric inter-urban railways cut into passenger and short-haul, less-than-carload freight loads. The Niagara, St. Catharines, and Toronto Railway was constructed in 1887 partly to provide an alternative to the GTR freight monopoly, and the St. Catharines Board of Trade resisted vigorously when that option was threatened.14

The electric railway co-existed with steam rail, in some cases running routes the railways were denied. Construction of this station was tied in to municipal improvements to facilitate movement between the station and the city. These included opening a new road as Its commodious and fitting entrance to the cityf1 near the station,15 and extending the electric railway line out to the station, made possible by the construction of the high level Burgoyne Bridge over Twelve Mile Creek in 1914.16 Work on the station began in August 1917 and finished that winter, but it was the opening of the trolley line that received the most local attention.17 The trip from Ontario Street to the station was reduced to three minutes, and made possible connections to Port Dalhousie and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The scheme opened up formerly inaccessible parts of the city for settlement and development.

Investment in the new station was not misplaced. Manufacturing continued to diversify during the 1920s, and the bullish economy was further boosted by construction on the fourth Welland Canal, begun in 1919. Although numerous mills closed during the Depression, the arrival in 1929 of Thompson Products from Cleveland, which built a large plant near the station, introduced an important and long-lived valve machining industry to the station area. The company employed nearly 1400 people during the Second World War, well up from their prewar payroll of around 200.18

The beginning of a Welland Canal by-pass in 1968 provided the impetus for enlargements to the St. Catharines station, and revitalization plans for the canal announced in 1986 coincided with the transfer of the station to VIA Rail. There is little connection between rail and canal traffic now, and the station provides primarily passenger service.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The station is a brick and stone pavilion type that was common to GTR and subsequent CNR work of the late 1910s and early 1920s. The St. Catharines station is exceptional, however for its well detailed materials, and extensive office and freight spaces that extend the building several hundred feet east from the passenger section. Additions and modifications have been carried out with some frequency since mid-century, but the graphic record is not always clear on exactly what happened when.

The complex comprises five sections from east to west: the porte-cochere, the passenger building, offices, the former express building, and a separate building built recently for bingo (Figures 1, 5-8). The passenger building, defined by a hipped roof with overhanging eaves, is symmetrical around the projecting entrance portico of the south track face. The north and south elevations are each five bays, with a broader centre of four windows, but the south elevation is generally opened up by groupings of three windows per bay, while the north side has just two per bay (Figures 9, 10). The only passenger doors were on the south, where they were disposed on either side of the projecting agent's window, and centred on the east end under the covered shelter. The north and south elevations of the extension are similar, with variations in the alterations each has undergone.

The passenger approach from the east is distinguished by a generous porte-cochere with fine board ceilings and soffits, the frame beams supported on elegant iron columns with Tuscan overtones (Figure 11). Although the original drawings indicate wooden posts on brick piers, with strong strut brackets supporting the canopy, a photograph of 1931 shows the present columns (Figure 12). Diagonally boarded double doors in the west end open onto the present janitor's room. On the south trackside elevation, which can be seen in an open vista from St. Paul Street, a semicircular pediment between square pilasters originally crowned the agent's projecting bay window. In a reversal of that traditional functional and symbolic purpose, it now announces the passenger entrance (Figures 12, 13).

Bays are marked by brick pilasters framing spandrel panels with corbelled bases, Window units comprise grouped triplets of eight-light pivot windows over large fixed single sash, attractively marked by cross mullions and heavy lintels in sandstone, Most of the upper window openings have been filled in with concrete or brick, although in some cases, such as the window unit beside the north passenger door, the frames were removed and the entire wall opening was rebricked (Figure 14).

The mid-section of this very long building is partly clad with vertical barnboard, alternating with brick or concrete bays, indicative of new construction that filled in the covered shelter between the station and the express building. The exposed eaves rafters were not carried across this section, but the chief anomaly is a bow window on each façade, set in a concrete bay (Figures 15, 16). The surface materials are thought to post-date the construction that filled in the shelter space.

The former express building is nearly indistinguishable as a separate section, having received the barnboard treatment to tie it into the rustic theme established for the bingo building. As built, the express building comprised three bays with eight-light pivot fenestration high in the walls of each bay, a single door from the office onto the shelter area, and a double set from the freight area. The loading doors were on the north side toward the siding track rather than the main passenger track (Figure 17).

In its general configuration, the building of 1917 is not that different from the station it replaced (Figure 18).

Operationally, the station recalls the nearly contemporary CNR station at Port Colborne of 1924, a short distance south across the Niagara peninsula, which also had a separate freight building, a covered shelter, but which had two important elevations (Figure 19). The corbelled brickwork and Saginaw brick were not local to St. Catharines, and the portico of the south face is fairly distinctive in the GTR repertoire. A similar station was built simultaneously at Berlin, New Hampshire, a mill town that became an important railway junction.19 At St. Catharines, general principles were adapted from a routine design concept to suit the specific needs of the site and traffic.

Functional/Technological Qualities

The plan of the St. Catharines station has been altered at least three times since it opened in 1917. At present almost the entire passenger pavilion is given over to a waiting room, which makes for a pleasantly open and sunny space (Figures 20-22). On the east side, the current baggage room seems to retain some early finishes, although the space was sectioned off from the original waiting room. Plans proposed in 1988 would have expanded the waiting room by converting the baggage room back to waiting space, but those were not implemented in full.20 The original baggage room became part of the station office in the western half of the building.

Walls are clad in a variety of materials, including painted masonite below windows and Lincrusta-type textured paper on the upper walls. Drawings show the dadoes to have been originally covered in burlap. Flooring is a composite sheet like linoleum over the early wood, and the ceiling has been dropped to carry acoustic tiles with inset fluorescent panels.

The express office has been taken over by the bingo company as a non-smoking room; modern finishes have been installed and the space has no heritage character.

Originally the agent's office projected into the large general waiting room, in defiance of the usual arrangement allowing for connections between the ticket agent, baggage handler and freight agent. Separate waiting rooms for men and women were provided along the north wall, but the delicacy of segregated entrances and movement paths has virtually disappeared in this configuration. This particular plan, with its emphasis on passenger comfort and spatial simplicity, was typical of work in the post-war period, and follows the same organization as the station built at Huntsville in 1924 (RSR-172; designated) (Figures 23, 24).



The station site presence affected the urban form of St. Catharines to an unusual degree, while conversely the construction of the subject station was in fact determined by changes to the urban form. Great Western Street leading to the station still commemorates the name of the earliest company to build a railway through St. Catharines. Permilla Street was the more commodious approach to the commercial core that the city councillors opened by expropriation in connection with other municipal works projects designed to facilitate traffic movement into the downtown. A sense of the railway corridor as a strong continuum, in places paralleling the road network, is evident from a photograph of 1931, that also shows the embankment made into a station garden (Figure 25).

Topographically, St. Catharines is distinguished by ravines, the strong line of the canal, and natural slopes. Its emergence from aboriginal trails bequeathed an unusual legacy of meandering streets and irregular street patterns which impact on the legibility (low) and visual character (high) of the city. As it was in 1853, the station still seems remote from the city, and its route is difficult to discern in relation to the urban pattern. The railway corridor occupies a swath along the southwestern edge of the city. The surrounding area has the dispersed quality of rather amorphous industrial and commercial enterprises, much of it representing small non-core type businesses. The railway line itself and the arched bridges that pass over it are the principal evidence in the landscape of the station presence.

The railway yard has been converted to commuter parking. The warehouses, fuel storage tanks and sidings that comprised the yards north of the station have been eradicated, and the elements indicating the industrial nature of the station have been removed or, in the case of the architecture of the station, domesticated.

Community Status

Heritage concerns have not been a strong priority for the St. Catharines city council. Since the planning department became involved in municipal heritage work in 1991 the Queen Street—Montibello Park area has been designated a heritage conservation district, and another study is underway. The railway station has no profile in the city administration as a conservation issue.21


  1. ^ Gerald Bloomfield, The Railway Life-Cycle in Ontario (Guelph: University of Guelph Occasional Papers in Geography No. 17, l992), pp. 41, 43.
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 296.
  3. ^ G. R. Stevens, History of the Canadian National Railways (New York: Macmillan Company, 1973), pp. 282-88.
  4. ^ Ibid., p. 296.
  5. ^ John A. Droege, Passenger Terminals and Trains (1916, rpt. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing, 1969), p. 1.
  6. ^ Bloomfield, op. cit., p. 76.
  7. ^ John N. Jackson, St. Catharines, Ontario Its Early Years (Belleville: Mika Publishing Company, 1976), pp. 214, 236.
  8. ^ John N. Jackson and Sheila Wilson, St. Catharines. Canada's Canal City (St. Catharines: St. Catharines Standard Limited, 1992) (hereafter St. Catharines, 1992), p. 93.
  9. ^ Robert Shipley, St. Catharines: Garden on the Canal (Burlington: Windsor Publications [Canada] Ltd., 1987), p.113.
  10. ^ John N. Jackson, St. Catharines. The Contribution of the City to Two Hundred Years of Ontario Life (St. Catharines: Historical Society of St. Catharines, 1984) pp. 22, 19.
  11. ^ Shipley, op. cit., p. 70.
  12. ^ John N. Jackson and John Burtniak, Railways in the Niaqara Peninsula (Belleville: Mika Publishing Company, 1978), p. 220.
  13. ^ Jackson, St. Catharines, 1992, p. 230.
  14. ^ Jackson and Burtniak, Op. cit., pp. 119, 134. The line was owned by the Canadian Northern Railway.
  15. ^ City Council Will Help to Cover the Bottom of Coal Bins at Once, Standard (St. Catharines), (18 September 1917), p.1.
  16. ^ Jackson, St. Catharines. 1992, p. 217. Newspaper accounts indicate that the formal opening was after the opening of the new station: Work on New G.T.R. Station Commenced This Morning, Standard (14 August 1917), p. 1.
  17. ^ Work on New G.T.R. Station Commenced This Morning, Standard (St.Catharines), (14 August 1917), p. 1; Trolley Line to Hill Opens Monday, Standard (St. Catharines), (17 November 1917), p. 1; Trolleying to Western Hill, Standard (St. Catharines), 26 November 1917, p. 1.
  18. ^ Jackson, St. Catharines. 1992, pp. 265-68.
  19. ^ Jeff Holt, The Grand Trunk in New England (Toronto: Railfare Enterprises Limited, 1986), pp. 90, 111, 115. The station was said to be of Saginaw stone (Saginaw usually referred to a brick company) dressed with Vermont pink granite, had a Ludowici tile roof, and oak interiors. Holt's text footnote number 156 exceeds the notes actually printed in the book, so his sources cannot be confirmed.
  20. ^ Haverty & Rankin Limited, Architects (Hamilton and Brantford), VIA Rail St. Catharines Station Renovations, August 1988. Courtesy Ken Rose, VIA Rail.
  21. ^ Kevin Blyzowski, Planner, Special Projects, City of St. Catharines, in conversation with the author,16 December 1993.


  1. VIA Rail/Canadian National Railways Station, St. Catharines, Ontario. Built 1917, South Front elevation from the east. (A.M. de Fort-Menares. 1994.)

  2. Location of St. Catharines. (Railway Map of Southern Ontario [Guelph: Clyde Publishing Ltd., 1984].)

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  3. Map of St. Catharines and Thorold Area, showing location of the station. (Ministry of Transportation, Ontario Transportation Series Map 5: South Central Ontario [June 1984].)

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  4. St. Catharines station area in 1962. (Insurance Map of St. Catharines [Ottawa: Underwriter’s Survey Bureau, 1962], plate 146.)

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  5. St. Catharines station, north side from west. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  6. St. Catharines station, north side of passenger pavilion. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  7. St. Catharines station, south trackside of express building. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  8. St. Catharines station, south side of bingo building elevation. (A.M. de Fort-Menares. 1994.)

  9. Grand Trunk Railway system, St. Catharines New Station, rear elevation, Revised July 16, 1917 (north). (National Archives of Canada [NA] Visual and Sound Archives Division [VSA], NMC 96861.)

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  10. St. Catharines New Station, south side of station elevation. (NA, VSA, NMC 96861.)

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  11. St. Catharines station, one of two iron columns carrying canopy. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  12. St. Catharines station before alterations, photographed in 1931. (Courtesy CN Public Affairs.)

  13. New pedestrian entrance, formerly the operator's bay, south track front of St. Catharines station. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  14. Corbelled bases and stone lintels, sills, and mullions in closed-in window beside north passenger door. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  15. New bow window, north side, St. Catharines station. (A.M. de Fort-Menares. 1994.)

  16. South side, new construction between express building and station. (A.M. de Fort-Menares. 1994.)

  17. St. Catharines station, express building. (NA, VSA, 96856.)

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  18. St. Catharines Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) station of 1898, photographed before 1917. (St. Catharines Historical Museum, N6024.)

  19. New Station as Constructed, Port Colborne, November 1925. (NA, VSA, NMC 96851.)

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  20. Schematic plan: Demolition Plan, VIA Rail Station Renovation for the Handicapped. (Moffat Kinoshita Partnership, March 1983. Courtesy Ken Rose, VIA Rail.)

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  21. Interior of waiting room, view through former operator's bay. St. Catharines station. (A.M. de Fort-Menares, 1994.)

  22. St. Catharines station, interior of passenger lobby with ramp to north entrance. (A.M. de Fort-Menares. 1994.)

  23. St. Catharines New Station, plan. (NA, VSA, NMC 96861.)

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  24. St. Catharines New Station as Constructed at Huntsville, Ont., Oct. 1924, plan. (NA, VSA, NMC 96734.)

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  25. St. Catharines station and garden, viewed from the railway bridge ca. 1931. (Courtesy CN Public Affairs.)

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