Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Canadian National Railways/VIA Rail Station (Former Great Western Railway)
Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto
The Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at Queen and William streets in Chatham (Figures 1-3) dates from 1879. It was built by the Great Western Railway (GWR) company to replace their station of 1854, which inaugurated railway service from Niagara Falls to Windsor.2
Designed by GWR Chief Engineer Joseph Hobson, the present station is representative of his work over a ten year period in southwestern Ontario for the GWR and its subsequent parent, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR). Of nine brick stations with similar massing attributable to Hobson that survive along the through lines between Niagara Falls, Windsor, and Sarnia, three exhibit variations on the unusual Gothic Revival detailing that makes Chatham a notable design.3
Chatham was one of the principal towns in southwestern Ontario to benefit from the development of the rich regional agricultural and commercial potential that the railway made possible. Railway-related commerce peaked 1890-1910, and the communities that emerged then have been sustained by combined road and rail access ever since.
The Chatham station site, originally on the outskirts of the village, is well within the city now, and its location attracted a railway museum which has located across the street. Chatham has an active heritage community whose representatives are actively involved with VIA Rail concerning the stabilization and renovation of the station.4
The Chatham station dates from the second phase of railway expansion in Ontario (1870-90), which was characterized by the architecture of the station, which is typical of GWR architecture of the period (standardization), and in the takeover of the GWR by the GTR (consolidation), which, although it occurred in 1882, had been pending since at least 1876 (Figures 4-5)5. Train service to Chatham began much earlier: with scheduled trains beginning in 1854, Chatham was on the first trunk line in the province. From the GWR terminus at the Suspension Bridge below Niagara Falls, where it connected with New York railways, to Windsor car-ferries and the Michigan Central Railroad, the railway was a classic
bridge line.6 Even more significantly, with the completion of the Suspension Bridge over the Niagara Gorge in 1855, the GWR provided an international, all-rail through-route across five systems.7
The southwestern Ontario peninsula between the Niagara and Detroit-St. Clair Rivers was so critical a bridge route for the movement of people and freight across northern North America, offering such advantages in distance, convenience, and the potential for interconnection, that the GWR was funded by American railway interests, designed by American engineers, and largely built by American contractors.8 From Detroit, the company promoted
the direct, reliable and popular route to Chicago, Milwaukee,[...] Omaha, and all large "Western cities" via the Michigan Central Railway.9 Its completion in 1852 gave backers additional impetus to develop the line. To fully secure that traffic, the GWR laid a third rail in Canada between the provincially legislated wide-gauge tracks so that American cars could interchange freely, thereby gaining a temporary advantage over the GTR in respect to border traffic.
The second phase of trunk line construction in the 1870s, following the close of the American Civil War and the freeing of capital, ultimately led to the collapse of the Great Western. Its first challenge came from the opening of the Canada Southern Railway in 1873 from Fort Erie to Amherstburg (Figure 5). The ripple effects of that railway affected the business of all the lines in Canada. The GWR retaliated with a new direct route between Buffalo and Detroit, its Canada Air Line (formed in 1862 but not incorporated until 1873), a feeder running from Fort Erie to Glencoe, on the main line.10 The Grand Trunk, running from Fort Erie and Toronto to two ports on Lake Huron, responded to the Canada Southern threat by building a new international bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo in 1873. The New York Central transferred its business from the GWR to a southern route through the United States, further diminishing traffic.11 The competition pushed the Canada Southern into the fold of the Michigan Central, which leased the company to free its traffic from the dominance of rival systems.12 Weak economic conditions had prevented the GWR from returning dividends to British shareholders. When the GTR moved to consolidate its already expanded network against the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), then beginning forays into Ontario to drum up traffic for its transnational line, the British GWR board willingly capitulated, and the company was sold to the GTR.13After the amalgamation in 1882, railway construction in southwestern Ontario stabilized somewhat. A flurry of local lines and interurban radials preoccupied Chatham area investors in the 1890s and provided significant alternatives to the trunk lines in freight delivery, but most had been absorbed or closed by the late 1920s. The completion of the St. Clair Tunnel in 1891 allowed the GTR to route more of its business between Chicago and its Atlantic terminal in Maine via Sarnia rather than through Detroit and Windsor. Correspondingly less freight was shipped through Chatham across southwestern Ontario by the company.14 By 1926, a local interurban bus service had begun, the radial was suffering from the increase in private automobile ownership, and rail passenger services were already reduced, from a high of seven trains each way in 1893, when 30,000 passenger tickets were sold in Chatham, to five in 1930.15 Rail traffic in the entire southwestern peninsula contracted considerably in this period.
The Canadian railway trait of acute overbuilding was well demonstrated in southwestern Ontario, and the survival of the station at Chatham is representative of the effects that rationalization eventually had on regional transportation.
The railway transformed Chatham from a small regional village in a remote agricultural area, to an incorporated town with important prospects. Right up to the 1940s, the railway was a major element in the industrial economy of the city. The construction of the new station in 1879, probably as part of company upgrading, enabled Chatham to provide modern, competitive services.
Surveyed by the British in 1795, the area was slowly populated, principally for the advantage of Thames River access, through the 1820s and 1830s. The same advantages of site that made southwestern Ontario a natural bridge for railway traffic nurtured communities at a micro-economic scale. In the 1830s, local business was supported by the flow of American emigrants streaming from east to west by the shortest means, to the extent that Chatham expanded its boundaries in 1834 to accommodate increased population. The principal local industry was ship building, begun around 1832 and lasting into the 1870s, despite competition from the railway. Other river-reliant industries included lumbering, local shipping, and excursion traffic.16
In Ontario, railways typically had a positive initial impact on communities, but expansion tapered off near the end of the l9th century as commerce consolidated in the major centres. In Chatham however a rather different pattern emerged: the basis of the local economy was altered in favour of rail-related activities,17 and over time the availability of four trunk railway lines plus an interurban18 seems to have stimulated much of the industrial growth that occurred, at times when other communities were declining. Chatham incorporated as a town in 1855, a year after the GWR was built.
Enthusiasm over the GWR prompted Kent County council to support the Canada Southern Railway in 1855, but the route bypassed Chatham to the south. Accordingly, Chatham promoters sought out new projects like the Erie & Huron Railway (chartered 1873) to reconnect the town with its local hinterland and tap into other trunk lines.
The location of the station lands outside the town limits and removed from the river traffic that supported Chatham, was the subject of dispute between the town and the railway, and affected the future development of the business area and supporting transportation systems. At the opening of the new GWR station in 1879, Chathamites referred frequently to the
differences between themselves and the GWR, centering on freight rates higher than those charged from Detroit.19 Such objections were commonly directed to the management of the trunk lines, which favoured long distance freight over short-haul, and the GTR was equally blameworthy in that regard. The amalgamation of the GWR with the GTR in 1882 tied Chatham directly into a larger communications network than it had previously, but the local business community was probably no better served than before.
The precise reasons for the construction of this station at that time are not known, and the local histories make little of the event.20 The first station dated from
the early primitive phase of frame shacks, and after 25 years probably needed enlargement, repair, and upgrading.21 Analyzing the chronology of the site is complicated by the paucity of historical maps and company documentation from that period.
Even prior to amalgamation, the rumoured extension of the GWR south to the Canada Southern encouraged a series of innovations in local industry and social agencies that consolidated the process of mechanization in industry, and improved the quality of life in Chatham22. A horse car railway was begun, which would be the precursor of the interurban radials; and in 1889 the CPR extended a line through Chatham in its incursion into eastern territory. That was the final boost Chatham needed to incorporate as a city, which it did in 1895.
Industrial growth stalled during the two great wars, though there were some improvements in the late 1920s.23 The nexus of railway lines at Chatham enabled the city to increase the industry count from 63 to 126 in the six years after 1944. A key draw was the establishment of a joint interswitching area between the CNR and CPR lines, and extending Chatham's boundaries to include the new industrial area (Figure 6).24
The area escaped the first period of line abandonment (1923-43), and the southwest is still served by an extensive, although tenuous, freight network. The station at Chatham, now serving the passengers of VIA Rail, is an enduring component of that long and vital railway history in the region.
The Chatham station is a good example of the brick architecture GWR Chief Engineer Joseph Hobson specified for the railway. The standard elements of station architecture are there: a distinctive roofline; the projecting operator's bay that developed in the 1870s; the sheltering canopy all around the structure; a hierarchy of passenger and business doors.
The Chatham station was distinguished by its banded slate roof, three corbelled chimney stacks, and rich iron cresting; by Gothic dormers lit by stained glass trefoils set into the steep roof slope; by heavy wood canopy struts anchored more than halfway down the wall; and by a rather grand provision of three gables punctuating the ends and midpoint of the design (Figures 1, 7-10). Symmetry determines the placement of openings within larger bay units, and an overall symmetry governs the massing, but the placement of chimneys, and of openings within a bay, reflects internal function (Figure 11). Gothic Revival influences are evident in the pointed arches of the door and window openings; the use of polychrome materials (brick and stone) to define architectural elements such as lintels, belt courses, and keystones; and in an overall High Victorian Gothic aesthetic informing the crispness of surfaces, colour, and texture. A small but telling detail is the scroll-sawn incised design on the struts, a motif made possible by technology of the 1870s.
Many of the details have been obscured by maintenance and operating changes in the 20th century: door transoms and trefoil dormers have been blocked, a centre chimney and trackside dormers have been removed, panelled doors replaced with plain slabs or glass and aluminum doors, and the polychromatic distinctions, as well as a brick wash with painted pointing, have been painted over (Figure 12). In 1983 one trackside window was bricked up, and an atypical window was put in where a door was bricked up. Two other door openings have been bricked in, two reduced in width, and one increased in width; none of the original wooden doors remain. As well, when the canopy sheathing, fascia and roof surface were replaced in 1983 with modern materials, no attempt was made to replicate the historical detailing or replace the bargeboard that feathered the edge of the whole structure.25 Cedar shingles found under two layers of asphalt roofing imply that the slate was replaced by cedar sometime after the introduction of diesel in the 1950s, when flying sparks would no longer be a hazard to the roof.26
Colour balances have been further altered by the predilection to paint woodwork white, giving emphasis to the canopy struts, bargeboards, and window sash that would have originally contributed to the overall enrichment through a darker hue. The patterned slate and ridge cresting are gone, although the building is crowned by a telecommunications tower at the junction of the principal roof ridges. This tower is believed to stress the roof and rafters with point load and upward strains not factored into the structure.27
Purpose-built stations of the GWR in the 1870s and 1880s have a character attributable to Joseph Hobson (1834-1917), chief engineer of the company. Hobson trained as a surveyor in Toronto, and acquired his credentials as a civil engineer through practical application with Gzowski and McPherson on the Guelph section of the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1870 he was appointed resident engineer to build the steel arch bridge across the Niagara River replacing the Suspension Bridge. Following that success he was named chief engineer for the GWR in 1873, eventually becoming chief engineer for the GTR system in 1895.28 One of his outstanding accomplishments was the design and construction of the Sarnia tunnel, stretching over two miles under the St. Clair River, completed in 1891 and considered one of the feats of the age. He also replaced the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, at its construction a great marvel, with a double-track structure.29 Under his leadership, the company built a number of imposing brick stations which form a recognizeable body of work: Hamilton (1875, demolished), Niagara Falls (1879; RSR-217, designated), Tillsonburg (1874, demolished), Woodstock (1880; RSR-198, designated), and Chatham. These were followed by several stations for the GTR after the merger of the two companies: Windsor (1884, demolished), Ingersoll (1886), Strathroy (1887), and Sarnia (1890; RSR-241, designated).
Gothic detailing was found at Chatham, Tillsonburg, Woodstock and Niagara Falls, although rooflines and massing are similar among several of the stations, regardless of detailing. Tillsonburg was more domestic in scale, with a single centre gable, and two bays either side of the agent's oriel, much like a standard five-bay house in massing (Figure 13). Niagara Falls and Hamilton were relatively monumental, with a tall central two-storey pavilion and very long one-storey wings (Figure 14). The depth of Gothic detailing was fairly cursory in that the interiors were scarcely affected by it, but the result was externally consistent and easily recognizeable. The Chatham station represented serious business by anyone's standard, and was warmly welcomed by local dignitaries when it opened. It was still regarded with pride as
handsome and commodious 15 years later, when it was highlighted in a local publication.30
Despite the modifications, the original form, structure, and detailing are all appreciable. In 1993 VIA Rail projected a conservation project to rehabilitate many of the obscured features contributing to the character of the station, but funding was restricted in that year, and the scope of rehabilitation work was limited to essential repairs.
As designed by Hobson, the three gables on each long fašade identified a principal functional grouping that ordered the spatial logic of the station in plan, and organized the aesthetic quality of the building in elevation (Figure 11). Each gable corresponded to a business purpose (the express wing, the station master's central offices, and a baggage wing), with public spaces in between. The building envelope was permeated by doors since every space required direct access from the outside.
The current plan retains some of the relationship between the interior and its external representation, but changes occurring over the century in the relative importance of various functions have considerably altered the balance and division of space.
Most notably, spaces are no longer symmetrical geometries coordinated with the external proportions; instead, spaces are partitioned as needed, with a clear separation between public space and railway use. Baggage and express offices are no longer required, so both their access and internal uses have changed. Baggage is the only room to retain its original boundaries, but it is now segregated as commercial rental space; the express office was torn down for washrooms (Figure 15). The former baggage area has been completely modernized internally, with no visible early detailing remaining. In the waiting room, a sequence of materials indicate successive renovations: dropped ceilings and pressed wall panelling from the mid-20th century; red quarry tile flooring and the typical moulded VIA ticket counter, both fairly typical of work carried out in the 1980s. The original window trims, which have been left intact, are accentuated by turquoise paint against the neutral tones of the walls.
Accessibility concerns were addressed in work carried out in 1983, which renovated the building and site without regard for its historic character: the old express room doors were bricked up, the ticket counter was replaced, exterior ramps were installed, interlock brick was laid, and landscaping efforts were put into place.31
As a busy station, Chatham would have been regularly updated to offer the latest in passenger amenities. It is known that a lunchroom served hundreds of meals a day in the 1890s, for example, and the GTR introduced a water cooler, lavatories, and a baggage captain's office.32
The historic plan, while representing the building's functions in the 19th century, fittingly gave centre place to the station master, with the most decorated gable announcing his office on the track side. His large office was balanced by the booking office on the street side, flanked by a generous ladies' waiting room on the east, and by the general waiting room on the west: an arrangement that permitted one agent to supply tickets to passengers in both waiting rooms.33 The waiting room was the largest single space, constituting three bays between the gables on each elevation. The end pavilions enclosed baggage services on the east, customs and express on the west. The separation of express, baggage, and customs from the agent's office indicates that the station supported individual staff for each purpose. In 1894 seven railway staff worked in the building, plus night staff; twelve men worked in the yard and freight shed; and the refreshment room, apparently a separate structure, was staffed by a manager and five assistants.34
In its logic, legibility, simplicity of use and predictability, the Chatham station would have been a familiar and comfortable depot for passengers. It remains familiar and comfortable for contemporary travellers, for the same reasons.
Documenting the evolution of the Chatham rail yard is limited by the absence of two key documents: the 1907 GTR description of physical assets, which is missing for the section (pages are blank in the original binding), and fire insurance plans, not available before 1959. These would be particularly useful in establishing the location of the refreshment room, since descriptions of the station did not include that purpose within its walls, and in dating the brick freight shed.
Outbuildings consist of a small metal shed between the station and a one-storey brick freight shed. The freight shed seems to be l9th century but has an incongruous flat roof. It is distinguished by lancet windows, and has an extension with standard rectangular fenestration. An open timber frame on the west side, presumably roofed at one time as a shelter for standing freight, connected the shed to the station until 1994, when it was removed (Figures 16-18).35 The station precinct would have been augmented by cattle pens, coaling stations, sheds and sidings.
The station site is south of the city centre (which was extended to incorporate the station lands), and perpendicular to Queen Street, which gives the station an integrated appearance. The immediate area is mixed commercial, with open spaces and building set backs that break up the street frontage.
Chatham has a very active LACAC (Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee) advising council on heritage matters, and at present a mayor who is sympathetic to heritage conservation. The inventory of historic buildings and sites is approaching 150, of which about eight structures have been designated. The VIA Rail station is on the inventory, and the chairperson of the LACAC has been involved in discussions with the architects who conducted the building assessment for VIA Rail.
The station has a visibility in the community literally and metaphorically. Awareness of railway heritage is boosted in the area by a rail museum across from the station, and the station was featured on a print produced by the museum as a fundraising project. The building is not perceived to be threatened, and if VIA Rail proceeds with a sympathetic rehabilitation, it could have positive effects for conservation across the city.36
of no historic importance and should be removed where they cut through the canopy. Alan Zeegen Associates Ltd., Via Railway Station Chatham Structural Assessment", (21 September 1993), n.p., "Historical Data" section.
[Image not reproduced.]
[Image not reproduced.]
[Image not reproduced.]
[Image not reproduced.]
[Image not reproduced.]
[Image not reproduced.]