Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


VIA Rail Passenger Station
former Canadian National Railways Station
Cornwall, Ontario


Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto



The VIA Rail passenger station at 109 Balmoral Street in Cornwall, Ontario (mile 68.0, Kingston subdivision) was built by Canadian National Railways (CNR) in 1957 when themain line was relocated for construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway canal (Figures 1-4). As the principal local seaway port and expected beneficiary of a major terminal whichnever materialized, Cornwall received the largest of the three new stations in the area. They marked the introduction to Ontario CNR stations of the International Style which had appeared in CNR Québec stations of 1950, and which would continue to characterize standard station design for the next decade of CNR construction. The station at Cornwall remains the best extant Ontario example of CNR modernisation in the 1950s.

Transferred to VIA Rail in 1985, the structure and platform are owned and occupied by VIA Rail, with offices leased to Unitel and CN. The station is open 14.5 hours a day, 11.5 on Sunday, for three daily trains between Toronto and Montréal.

Historical Associations


Built at the end of a decade of corporate and technological modernisation, the CNR passenger station at Cornwall of 1957 introduced a new station style to Ontario, and was a precursor of the company's short-lived strategy to revitalize passenger services.

CNR benefited from the general prosperity following the war. In 1952, the company posted its first surplus since 1928 under a new capital structure authorized by 1951 legislation. Although wage increases pushed the ratio of operating expenses to revenue to a grim 94 per cent, revenues were the highest in history, and prospects looked good for improving the company's economy through efficiency and new technologies.1 By the later 1950s, however, economic decline, drops in freight revenue, and the alarming disparity between material and labour costs and charges for freight resulted in a 1957 deficit of $29.6 million.2 Even recognizing the severe financial stress affecting its operations, CNR executives expressed optimism that the financial health of the organization could be restored by adapting to new technology and greater competition, abandoning unprofitable services, and working toward improved efficiency.3 The dieselization programme of 1952-5, which optimized train performance and car utilization, and computerization of payroll in 1957, are two examples of the numerous system-wide improvements that were undertaken throughout the company.4

Immediately after the war, priority had been given to meeting industrial requirements for freight shipping.5 Long overdue, large scale refurbishments of passenger equipment excited industry optimism in the early 1950s. Adjustments to fare structures, scheduling, car design, and the elimination of unprofitable services in the early 1950s may have contributed to consecutively increasing passenger revenues.6

Ambitious real estate projects such as Place Ville Marie in Montréal, the 45-storey cruciform office tower by I. M. Pel, (approved in 1957) exemplified the company's commitment to modern development.7 The forced main line relocation along the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall gave the company an opportunity to implement highly visible modernisations in a suite of smaller stations. The optimism of the 1950s flowered into a full-scale passenger revival that was later cut back in the 1960s by the pruning of lines and services.

By 1960, CNR public relations officials realized that despite the considerable strides made in technological efficiency, the railway still presented a face of dreary stations, box car red, shabby signs, drab colors, oldfashioneduniforms and so on. To convey the sparkle and pep they felt was appropriate, the company launched a high-profile face-lift as a coordinated effort across the system.8 The livery of engines and rolling stock was redesigned; wristwatches, including the Bulova Accutron, replaced conductor's pocket watches as arbiters of railway time; and the corporate logo was redesigned by Toronto graphic designer Allan Fleming to symbolize the movement of men, messages and materials.9 This last was particularly sensitive, as it marked the company's first visible effort to accommodate the French fact of Canada: the logo could be read as either Canadien or Canadian National, at a time when language issues were dividing corporate and political, life.10 Bilingual timetables and money orders followed.11

Although the creative marketing approach initially brought startling success in attracting passengers, CNR gradually withdrew from its commitment to passenger service. The causes were apparently a combined lack of executive support and, after strong initial results, poor returns over the longer term.12 CPR had cautiously tested the passenger traffic and found it wanting.13 Both companies having clarified to their own satisfaction the unprofitability of passenger service, the Canadian rail and service abandonments began accelerating in 1969.

In service cuts affecting the Cornwall area, CPR stopped its Montréal to Cornwall mixed train in 1952, and its local milk run in 1960. CNR cut railway service to smaller regional centres around Cornwall in 1961, and the city's express office closed in 1980.14 The volume of passengers at Cornwall has declined from 93,741 in 1989 to 65,344 in 1993.15 From four daily trains each way in 1991, reductions in commuter service and express trains have left just one daily out of Montréal, and two from Toronto.

Local Development

The VIA Rail station is a strong element related to construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and associated with the consequent changes in urban boundaries and development that occurred in Cornwall.

Founded in 1784 by veterans of Sir John Johnson's regiment, Cornwall was an administrative centre and transshipment point until the completion of the upper St. Lawrence canals in the 1840s, and the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856. Cornwall developed as a leading mill town in late 19th-century Ontario, producing textiles, pulp and paper, and eventually chemicals, with a pronounced increase in the years 1950-75 in the petrochemical industry.

For upwards of 50 years, Cornwall politicians had staked regional growth and prosperity on the idea of a St. Lawrence Seaway. A joint Canada-United States Seaway Commission had studied the idea in 1895, and the project assumed a status of perpetual imminence for half a century, until the Canadian government moved unilaterally to pass a St. Lawrence Development Act in 1952.16 The project was burdened with many objectives, foremost to provide the Minister of Transport's home town with a deep sea port and the locks of an international transportation system. Minister Lionel Chevrier failed in negotiations for the locks, which went to Massena, New York. Chevrier then insisted on dredging the north channel deep enough for a possible all-Canadian Seaway before his resignation from the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority in 1957. The failure of the Seaway to attract a major terminal to Cornwall hastened the shift of traffic to road from combined rail and water.17

The Seaway construction had huge repercussions on regional settlement, involving the displacement of thousands of residents and compelling authorities to undertake sophisticated planning exercises to cope with the changes. Ontario Hydro acquired and flooded over 20,000 acres of land in Canada for the Moses-Saunders dam and related generating station; eight villages were acutely affected or obliterated. A rescue operation to preserve a sampling of historic buildings that would otherwise be destroyed resulted in the creation of Upper Canada Village at Morrisburg, which itself suffered the relocation of 700 residents18. Planning boards were created to oversee the construction of new towns, and land use zoning, one of the legacies of modernism, was implemented.

Cornwall's one-mile square grid plan created a kind of enforced zoning, because there was insufficient land inside the town limits for industry. Incorporated as a city in 1946, in 1957 Cornwall annexed 29 square miles of Cornwall township, taking in industries, agriculture, residential neighbourhoods, and the railway lands. With the ending of Seaway construction, over 2000 workers hit the local labour force just as a large textile mill shut down, throwing another 1700 out of work in a city of 43,000.19 Federally classified as depressed, the city attempted infrastructure upgrades and diversification of its industrial base, commissioned urban renewal and traffic studies, and improved road links to Highway 401 (opened 1957). In 1965, Cornwall was removed from the list of federally designated areas for tax incentives. Through the 1980s, Cornwall attracted 50 new manufacturing businesses and now boasts a diversified economy with new plastics, electrical, and furniture industries augmenting the traditional textile, chemical, and paper.20

Seaway construction had less immediate benefit to Cornwall than expected: even construction was largely by outside companies that formed the Iroquois Constructors consortium, although this station was by the local firm of John Entwistle.21 Architecturally, the railway station and eight-storey Seaway Authority office building are the principle local buildings of the period.

When a leading modernist planner was retained in 1963, traffic studies focused on vehicular movement only. Both CNR and Canadian Pacific were expected to abandon their lands; unspecified alternative uses were proposed for their redevelopment.22 Rail freight and passenger services continue to be cited among the unparalleled transportation advantages of the city, but it is the diversity of options which continues to attract business.23 The Cornwall VIA Rail station handles only passenger traffic, but is a tangible remnant from the Seaway era, physically linked to the city by a street corridor which was built up largely as a result of annexation.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

Cornwall station is the best surviving example of the introduction of International Modernism to the CNR station portfolio in Ontario. Its distinguishing characteristics are the emphatic horizontal of the thin, flat roof line which projects out from the building to provide shelter; the absence of a central axis in the organization of facades and plan; and the creation of a glazed pavilion demarcating passenger services (Figures 5-6). Modernist concepts are apparent in the smooth buff brick walls with clerestory ribbon windows; the almost total glass curtain walls of the waiting room; and the concealment of structure in the visual effects of floating planes and non-structural walls. The roof is supported by a slender metal pole at the outermost corner of the waiting room, a slightly bravura device recalling Le Corbusier's polemical use of point supports (Figure 7). No original signage remains. A more conservative element is the concrete base around the perimeter of the building, continuing the traditional division of wall into three horizontal registers that had begun appearing on frame stations of the 1850s.

The long, low building measures about 100 feet by 30 feet, and can be divided by usage into fifths, with passenger areas representing two-fifths, or about 40 feet of the total length. A low vertical brick pylon off-centred on the passenger block shelters the passenger entrance (Figure 6). The pylon is faced with stretcher brick, laid in a nonstructural decorative grid.

The long east end steps back from the passenger block, but the whole south front east of the pylon has plain brick walls and clerestory windows. There are two major openings and a third minor doorway on the south wall, with approximately corresponding openings on the north (Figures 8, 16). A significant office entrance on the south, townside (now the Unite1 office) is identified by a boxy projecting canopy, which is an extension of the unmodulated cornice. Faced with aluminum, the cornice is also a thickened alteration of the original (Figures 9-10). Clerestory panels above loading doors and some windows on the east and north sides have been filled, and the Unitel door unit does not fit the proportions of the space as the originals would have (Figure 11).

The Canadian railway companies had been edging towards modernism since the end of World War II, with the introduction of experimental station buildings in Ontario and Québec in the late 1940s.24 Buildings of the CPR, especially the hotels, reflected a sophisticated corporate interest in and appreciation of the potential for architecture to promote the image of the company. In the 20th century, CNR architects tended to be conservative, although major terminals of the 1930s designed under John Schofield's direction represent very good contemporary, even occasionally modernistic, work in the context of Canadian design at the time.25 Many of the more senior employees in the CNR architectural department had been with the company for 30 or 40 years, and had trained under Schofield.26 The company's determination to modernize in the 1950s resulted in a number of ambitious projects, including architecturally progressive stations in an International Modern idiom in Québec at Chambord (Figure 12; designed 1947, built 1957) (RSR-239), and Senneterre in 1953 (Figure 13; RSR-260).27

The one-storey Cornwall station is smaller than Senneterre, a two-storey structure, but includes a comparable approach to modernist expression in massing, structure, details such as waiting room glazing, and materials. Traditional treatments such as the deployment of functional materials to achieve decoration, are updated by a contemporary palette of materials (terrazzo flooring, visibly non-structural brick) and colours; these had also been used in the earlier Québec stations, and continued through the 1960s in such stations as Oakville, Ontario. The pylon signage tower separating the passenger pavilion from the rest of the station emerged in the 1940s modernist stations of both the CPR and CNR.28

Of the three similar Ontario stations opened in July 1957, Cornwall is the only one intact. The station at Iroquois has been stripped and vandalized down to a mere shell, and that at Morrisburg has been altered by large panels closing in the passenger pavilion. Modernisations carried out at Cornwall pertaining to accessibility, maintenance and convenience have not altered the integrity, clarity, or elegance of the design.

Functional/Technological Qualities

Functional areas are clearly demarcated by material, access, and organization of the building, with the passenger area being the most visible, accessible, and transparent, in literal and figurative senses. This strong separation of components, evident in the 1940s CPR stations, marked a clear departure from the historic image of the station as a cohesive, somewhat domestic form with its connotations of shelter and predictable hierarchy. Most iconoclastic, in this regard, is the curving wall enclosing the ticket and train control office (Figures 14-15).29

The waiting room features three zones: the large and bright waiting area, opened by full glazing on three sides to the surroundings; the intermediate through-path and ticket purchase zone, just beyond the glare of the waiting area; and a darker, narrow service end where washrooms are located (Figure 16). New prefinished metal dropped ceiling strips with fluorescent lighting panels respect the original intentions: the metal continues past the glazing curtain right out to the eave as a single plane.30 The thinness of the non-structural wall is emphasised by the supporting posts on the west wall, wrapped in tile, which intrude into the waiting room space. The oblong glazed ceramic wall tile (pale yellow) and terrazzo flooring (green) had been introduced in CNR station designs in the late 1940s, and found favour in other high-usage transportation situations, such as the 1960s stations of the Toronto subway system. Durable, virtually self-cleaning, and colourful, they imparted some of the sparkle designers wanted to convey to the public. VIA Rail renovations of the ticket counter and baggage scale, in dark green laminate with chrome steel highlights, are self-contained and not intrusive.

The business spaces in the eastern two-thirds of the station occupy the former baggage, freight, and express areas. Finishes include standard dropped ceilings and drywall partitions. Seven basement rooms under the central office section are used for storage, the heating plant, and three are leased (Figure 17).



Forty miles of main line had to be relocated to accommodate the flooding for the St. Lawrence Seaway; it now parallels highway 401 through the affected part of the United Counties. The station is situated at the end of a spur street above Pitt and Thirteenth streets, four blocks beyond the original square mile boundary at Ninth Street, and directly north of the old station grounds just outside the town limits.

The area south of the station is predominantly residential, with a nearby transshipment warehouse on Balmoral Street. Much of this area would have been built after the annexation of township land in 1957, making it generally contemporary with the station. The undeveloped lands north of the station are the subject of a current plan of residential subdivision development proposal; it is anticipated that eventually the station will be at the physical as well as geographic centre of the city.31 Leading out to the station from downtown, Pitt Street passes through residential, retail, and commercial uses, which largely developed after the Seaway construction and annexation.

The station is especially visible from the Pitt Street overpass, but its location off a side street is not easy to find intuitively in the city. It is situated on axis with Balmoral Street, surrounded by paved parking for 150 cars. The double main line tracks in front of the station are edged by trees and scrub to the north. The platform and an island platform have been repaved in the last five years. Ancillary railway buildings include a transmitter tower, a small wood shed, a portable building, and a concrete block structure (Figures 18-19).

Community Status

Cornwall has an active historical society and a Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC) appointed by council. There is no comprehensive inventory, but intensive inventory studies have been conducted of several areas within the original square mile. Council designates by request. About eight buildings are designated under The Ontario Heritage Act, and the committee is undertaking a plaguing initiative along the waterfront in 1996.

The committee has recently considered the preservation of a 1939 armoury building, but has not dealt with any post-war modern buildings. To date, the CN/VIA Rail station has not been considered of architectural significance, but the LACAC would respond favourably to federal or other outside interest in local heritage resources.32


  1. ^ Small Surplus for CNR in 1952, Canadian Transportation (April 1953) , p. 184.
  2. ^ Progress Last Year and in 1958, Keeping Track (February 1958), p. 2; "Highlights of - Annual Report 1957," Keeping Track (July-August 1958), p. 3. Results swung wildly: CNR posted a profit of $10.7 million in 1955, $26.1 million in 1956, and a deficit of $29.6 million in 1957.
  3. ^ Highlights of - Annual Report 1957, Keeping Track (July-August 1958), p. 7.
  4. ^ Small Surplus for CNR in 1952, Canadian Transportation (April 1953), pp. 184-5, and ibid.
  5. ^ New Passenger Equipment on Order, Canadian National Magazine (December 1952), p. 15.
  6. ^ Progress Last Year and in 1958, Keeping Track (February 1958), p. 2.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 4. In the first extensive below-grade retail development in Canada, the tower was linked through its shopping concourse with the hotel and railway station. Harold Kalman, A History of Canadian Architecture (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 804.
  8. ^ Citations to this point in the text were made by an unnamed official in "A new look for the CNR", Keeping Track (September 1959), p. 4.
  9. ^ Canadian Transportation (February 1961), p. 19; Canadian Rail No. 151 (January 1964), p. 21. On Fleming, see Robert Fulford, "A large talent with a passion for small details", Globe and Mail (13 March 1996), p. C1.
  10. ^ CNR President Donald Gordon was lambasted in the trade and popular press for stating that no French Canadian would ever get a promotion on anything but merit in his company. At the same time, a mayor of Moncton was creating embarassment over his antagonism to the Acadians in New Brunswick.
  11. ^ Donald Gordon, "What the National Did During 1962," Canadian Transportation (January 1963), p. 14.
  12. ^ rogress Report on a Gamble, Keeping Track (April 1960), p. 3, took a positive view of passenger innovations; passenger sales manager Pierre Delagrave announced further improvements in Canadian Rail (October 1963), p. 148, and was made Vice President for passenger sales and service in 1964, but resigned in 1965.
  13. ^ Speaking of the removal of fare reductions in 1964, a CPR spokesperson indicated that the increase in passenger traffic after a 10-month trial was not sufficient to offset fare reductions on local runs. Canadian Rail 159 (October 1964), p. 225.
  14. ^ Clive Marin and Frances Marin, Stormont Dundas and Glenaarrv 1945-1978 (Belleville: Mika Publishing Company, 1982) , p. 243.
  15. ^ VIA Rail "station profile" data, p. 39.
  16. ^ The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority Act was passed late in 1951. Marin and Marin, p. 15.
  17. ^ Ibid., p. 205.
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 18.
  19. ^ Ibid., p. 223-
  20. ^ Cornwall: Community Profile (City of Cornwall, 1991), pp. 5, 143. The largest employer and a major industrial rail customer remains Domtar.
  21. ^ Marin and Marin, p. 222.
  22. ^ E. G. Faludi and Associates, "City of Cornwall Central Business District Renewal Scheme" vol. 1 (1968), p. 128.
  23. ^ Cornwall Community Profile, p. 45.
  24. ^ In Ontario, CPR opened new stations at Owen Sound, Leaside (Toronto), Smiths Falls, and Marathon 1947-48; in Québec. CNR opened Senneterre. "Canadian Pacific New Station at Owen Sound", Canadian Transportation (January 1948), p. 7.
  25. ^ Schofield's department produced good classicizing designs for Hamilton, Ontario 1929; St. John, N.B. 1931; and moderne for London, Ontario, 1934; Saskatoon, Sask. 1938; Montréal, 1938-43.
  26. ^ The men behind the building, Keeping Track (May, 1958), p. 6. Included in the 66 employees of the architectural department were draftsmen, specification writers, construction supervisors, electrical and mechanical engineers and assistants, and ten clerical staff.
  27. ^ Susan Bronson, "Canadian National Railways Station Senneterre, Québec", RSR-260, p. 186, includes references to the similar CPR Québec station at Farnham of 1950 (RSR-238) and Marathon, Ontario (demolished) .
  28. ^ CPR stations at Leaside, Marathon, and Owen Sound, Ontario, and Farnham, Québec; CNR at Chambord and Senneterre, Québec. Ibid., passim, and Figure 11.
  29. ^ At Iroquois, a much smaller station, the ticket office had a short diagonal wall interfacing with the waiting room.
  30. ^ At Iroquois, the ceilings are acoustical tile with individual square, recessed lighting boxes aligned axially.
  31. ^ Cornwall planner Ken Bedford in conversation with the author, 7 March 1996.
  32. ^ Cornwall planner Ken Bedford in conversation with the author, 7 March 1996.


  1. Canadian National Railways/VIA Rail Station, Cornwall, Ontario. Built 1957. South front elevation. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  2. Cornwall station. South front elevation and waiting room from the east. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  3. Location of Cornwall. (Railway Max, of Southern Ontario [Guelph: Clyde Publishing Ltd., 1984].)

  4. Map of Cornwall, showing location of the station relative to downtown and the original square mile, lower right. (A Map for the City of Cornwall and the Seaway Valley [1995].)

  5. Cornwall station, south entrance to passenger end. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  6. Cornwall station, west end. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  7. The free standing corner pole at Iroquois station, in ruins. Decorative grid brickwork is evident in the foreground, with the same concrete masonry base as at Cornwall. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  8. North trackside, eastern three-fifths. (Heritage Research Associates, 1995.)

  9. South elevation, view along centre section . New entrance unit to Unitel, centre left. (Heritage Research Associates, 1995.)

  10. South elevation, east end with carefully aligned clerestory. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  11. East end, transoms filled in. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  12. Canadian National Railways station at Chambord, Québec, where the company introduced what would become a standard in modernism. Designed in 1947, the station was not built until 1957. {Bergeron-Gagnon, 1994.)

  13. Canadian National Railways station at Senneterre, Québec. Built 1953. (Susan Bronson, 1994.)

  14. Cornwall station, curved wall on front of ticket office. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  15. Interior, looking east. (A. M. de Fort-Menares, 1996.)

  16. Plan of Cornwall station. (Courtesy VIA Rail.)

  17. Basement plan of Cornwall station. (Courtesy VIA Rail.)

  18. Portable shed east of station. (Heritage Research Associates, 1995.)

  19. Cornwall station, transmitter and outbuildings east of station. (Heritage Research Associates, 1995.)