Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Railway Station Report


Former Canadian National Railways Station
Hespeler (Cambridge), Ontario


Peterson Projects, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg



The present station was completed in 1900 (Figure 1) by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) replacing an earlier, outdated structure1, required because of the heavy use of the railway and its station to supply, ship, and store goods and materials by local industries. The station was specially designed with an extended freight section to accommodate this role in the local economy.

Hespeler is located approximately 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Toronto (Figure 2 and 3) and was one of three communities amalgamated in 1973 to form the City of Cambridge2, which today has a population of 102,0003. The construction of major highways in southern Ontario has meant a shift to trucking for local freighting and passenger requirements, severely reducing the historic reliance on railways by industries and citizens alike. As a consequence, the Hespeler (Cambridge) station has stood vacant for several years.

Historical Associations


The former Hespeler CNR station is representative of three major themes in Canadian railway history: the initial construction of lines and facilities and the increase in settlement in the pre-1900 era; the growth of railways and facilities as the local, regional and national economies boomed because of the railways in the 1900-14 period; and the shift away from railways as a major mover of goods and people in the post-1950 era.

The first theme relating to the Hespeler station is the construction of railway lines in the pre-1900 era. The Great Western Railway (GWR) was incorporated as the London and Core Railroad Company in May 1834 (changing its name to GWR in 1853). Promoted by several prominent businessmen from Hamilton, the main line was completed between Niagara Falls, Hamilton, London and Windsor by January 1854, relying heavily on through traffic between the states of New York and Michigan.4 The railway did increase its branch line system over the next two decades, including the line from Hamilton to Galt (now Cambridge) and ultimately north to Guelph.

While the railway succeeded in bolstering local economies and communities along its line, this reliance on foreign traffic would ultimately cause its downfall. Both it and its chief rival, the GTR, suffered in the 1870s when through traffic rates decreased as a result of railway company consolidation in the United States. Following its corporate strategy, the GTR took over the GWR on 12 August 1882, gaining control of the GWR's 1,280 kilometres (800 miles) of Canadian line and 288 kilometres (180 miles) of track in Michigan.5

The second theme illustrated by the Hespeler station is the dramatic growth of railways and their facilities around the turn of the century. As the Canadian economy began to grow in the late 1890s, so too did the traffic and profits of the GTR. From this period until approximately 1910, the GTR launched an aggressive upgrading policy throughout its eastern Canadian system, including twinning of its Montréal-Sarnia line, improving grades and reducing curves, and replacing old bridges, yards and buildings, including many stations6 The existing station at Hespeler was replaced with a more modern structure to improve the railway's handling of freight and passengers to the busy community. This replacement station is the current building.

The optimism of this era is illustrated by the fact that the backers of the GTR opted to set up a western subsidiary and create the second of the country's three transcontinental railways by 1914. The earlier optimism, however, was quickly replaced by the realization that the country could not possibly support these three ventures, and by 1919 the western expansion had caused the bankruptcy of the GTR. It was taken over by the federal government, and placed under the management of the CNR on 30 January 1923.7

The final theme that the present station at Hespeler illustrates is the replacement of the freight and passenger roles of the railways by highways, automobiles and trucks by the 1960s. This period saw massive reductions in traffic along many lines across Canada, resulting in the closure of many branch lines, the removal of stations and other facilities and the wholesale reorganization of the railway sector. The present dilapidated state of this station is a direct result of this trend towards roads and trucks.

Local Development

The construction of the station at Hespeler in 1900 was part of the expansion and modernization of the community and its transportation facilities. It was a response to the economic and industrial boom that had been supported by the railway for nearly two decades.

Hespeler, like so many other communities in southern Ontario, was settled because of the availability of water for irrigation and power. The area that would become the townsite of Hespeler, on the banks of the Speed River northeast of where it empties into the Grand River, was originally deeded by the Crown to the Six Nations, Native allies of the British during the War of Independence. By the early 19th century, however, much of the land had been sold as the area filled with Mennonite immigrants from Holland and Germany who had originally come to North America in the 1700s to avoid religious persecution. The first of the Hespeler-area settlers, Michael Bergey, built a small log cabin in 1828, calling the hamlet Bergeytown. The name was changed in 1835 to New Hope, and by the 1840s boasted a population of about 100, complete with several saw mills and a general store.8

In 1845, Jacob Hespeler (1811-1881) (Figure 4) moved from nearby Preston to New Hope, and proceeded to replace an existing dam and build a grist mill, sawmill and cooperage before 1850. By 1861, Hespeler, now one of the community's most prominent men, was also operating a gashouse, a distillery and a woolen mill.9 When New Hope was incorporated as a village in 1858, it was renamed Hespeler, underlining his status in the area (he had lead the movement towards incorporation). It was also Jacob Hespeler who served as the village's first reeve, holding the office until 1862.10

The main reason for Jacob Hespeler's higher status was his leadership role in maneuvering a branch line of the GWR through Hespeler on its way north to Guelph (known as the Galt and Guelph Railway). The line was started in 1855 after months of heated official, public and backroom debate over its route and the location of facilities. Jacob Hespeler had guaranteed service for his village by having himself appointed by the railway's directors to purchase the land necessary for the right-of-way and station grounds (he also assured his own financial future by locating the line and stations on his own property wherever possible).11

When the line was completed in 1858, the local economies began to boom and new business ventures quickly began taking advantage of the permanent, year-round services of the GWR. When the railway company was amalgamated with the GTR in 1882, it increased the market possibilities for Hespeler's businesses. In 1900, Hespeler incorporated as a town and boasted many large businesses, including furniture, textile and even hockey stick manufacturers.12 The rail line would ultimately find its way north to Owen Sound and the Bruce Peninsula (Figure 5).

The railway was a major contributor to the growth of Hespeler, supplying raw materials for the factories and reliable transportation for the completed materials to markets all over the world. Because of this, businesses chose to locate close to the railway and the depot. The current station, because of its heavy shipping/receiving role, was specially designed by GTR officials and was built at the zenith of the status of railways in the economy of southern Ontario and Canada.

The primacy of the railway in Hespeler was not seriously challenged until the construction of modern roadways after the Second World War. New highways and the growth of trucking as a viable and cheaper alternative to trains lead to a shift in traffic away from the railway line. This was especially true with the completion of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway (Highway 401) that runs just south of Hespeler (completed through the area by late 1961).13 With this reduction in traffic came the closure of stations and the removal of lines by the CNR. At Hespeler, this process meant the gradual reduction in weekly trains passing through the community, the cancellation of passenger service after 1959 and the closure of the station nearly 20 years ago.14 The vacant station stands beside a short stretch of active, though underutilized track running from Guelph to just north of Galt (Finnigan) in the midst of a still-busy industrial section.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The 1900 Hespeler station is an example of a GTR "Type A" station, modest in size and ornamentation, functional and efficient in design. It is also a station built during a transitional phase for the railway between the small-scale, plain structures of-the earlier period and the picturesque depots of the post-1900 era.15 The building measures 27 feet by 121 feet and rests on a grade-level foundation supported by cedar piers.16

The 1870-1900 period saw the GTR build many one-storey frame stations with gently pitched gable roofs, slightly overhanging eaves and board-and-batten siding. This type of exterior cladding was popular for many decades because of its picturesque qualities, its strength and its inexpensiveness. Another exterior element common during this phase was a large raised freight platform, often placed on both sides of the depot.17

The platforms on the Hespeler station facilitated the large volume of freight being loaded and unloaded from the five large freight doors, two on both the track- and town-side elevations and one on the west end.

The design of the Hespeler station is typical of many GTR stations (and those of other railway companies of the period), particularly in its elongated plan and gable roof common to the period. Exterior cladding of the station was originally a combination of board-and-batten with panels of diagonal wood siding to animate the exterior surfaces (Figure 6). Other ornamental features on the original façades included bargeboard trim on the gable ends and above the bay window, and ornate pendants supported by delicate ornamental woodwork and topped by finials and lattice attached to the gable ends. A bay window, offering a clear view of the track and platform from the station master's desk inside, is located on the front (north) façade. The overhanging eaves were supported by large wooden brackets, and exterior lighting was supplied by globes attached to delicate metal supports which still survive (Figure 7). This original design lent to stations all along the line a charming, picturesque quality stemming from the varied wood cladding and the delicate ornamentation at the gable ends.

The present structure has been greatly altered from the original, as a result of neglect, age, vandalism, and upgrading by the owners. The depot's foundation is in poor condition, causing uneven settling of up to one foot in some areas (Figures 8 and 9). Exterior cladding is generally in poor condition, and the east end (original waiting room) has been covered by an insulbrick material (although the original board-and-batten siding is still intact) (Figure 10). Architectural trim at the gables is missing from the station's west end, incomplete at the east end but intact above the bay window (Figure 11). The raised loading platform has been removed from the north side and is in a state of disrepair on the south side. The roof structure and cladding also suffer from similar neglect.

Although the building appears to be in poor structural condition, an architectural firm has determined that the station is not beyond restoration, with good examples of all of the exterior trim and materials still existing.18

In terms of uniqueness, the Hespeler station is the last GTR built station of this type on this extensive subdivision (see Figure 5) still standing on its original site; the only other stations still standing on this subdivision are at Palmerston (1872, 1876 and remodelled 1900), Wingham (1906), Harriston (1905), Owen Sound (1932), Southampton and Gilford (relocated),19 and none is a GTR "Type A" style station. Stations similar in style exist at Aurora, Ontario (Figure 12) and Newmarket, Ontario (Figure 13).

Functional/Technological Qualities

This station represents both a continuation of and a departure from accepted railway practices regarding interior layout and design. The use of the elongated plan was a common method of separating the public areas of the station, the ticket counter and the waiting room (located at the east end), from the dust and noise of the freight and baggage areas (at the west end). The centrally located office divided these two sections while giving the employees easy access to all areas of the station. At the Hespeler station, the baggage/freight area was extended beyond the typical length to afford more space for materials and manufactured goods being shipped on the line. The raised loading platforms, the inclusion of five loading doors and the raised floor of the baggage department, while not unique features, do underline the importance given this function by the station designers. The station was also fronted by an extensive wooden platform, another familiar element of Canadian train stations.

Much like the exterior, the interior of this station has suffered from vandalism, neglect and unsympathetic alterations, although the basic layout has remained unchanged. The north-side entrance west of the bay window leads to a short hallway that ends in an unusual double door (Figure 14). There is no evidence of a staircase to the upper door, suggesting that access to this small room was gained by a ladder. It is possible that this room was used for storing the large amounts of shipping paperwork that has been found throughout the depot. To the left of the hallway is the office, with the station master's table nestled in the bay window (Figure 15). An arched doorway, used for the ticket counter, leads to the large, undivided waiting room (Figure 16). These spaces have suffered greatly from neglect and the addition of heating ducts when it was used as a shop, after the station's closure to the public.20 The presence of a large amount of locally produced pressed-metal panels covering walls and ceilings is an unusual interior element (Figure 17). To the right of the hallway is the large, open freight/baggage room with its raised floor. Interior finish in this area would have been sparse, and the space has suffered from several deliberately set fires (Figure 18).

Many stations built from the 1870s to 1900 included large living quarters for the station master and his family.21 At Hespeler, this was not necessary because local development had provided ample residential space nearby.

Interior finishes throughout these stations were marked by their durability and ease of maintenance rather than their aesthetic merits. Similar to the exterior, the condition of the original interior space of this station has been compromised, though examples of the original interior finishes are intact and in relatively good condition.



The location of Hespeler had already been determined and early development was well underway by the time the railway crews arrived in the community. Early industries had located on both banks of the river, and the railway ensured these businesses of access to markets for their goods, and to raw materials. Nonindustrial development took place on both sides of the Speed River, farther back from the banks. The site chosen for the railway station by industrialist Jacob Hespeler was on the north bank, close to his own mill complex. Personal advantages aside, his choice to locate the yards in this central location offered flatter, more appropriate land for the main line, switching tracks, spur lines and related railway structures.

Today, the station, located at the southwest corner of Guelph Avenue and Sheffield Street (Figure 19), is surrounded by large industrial structures of all ages. Its size relative to these neighbours reduces the visual impact of the structure, although open space around the depot does increase its conspicuousness (Figures 20 and 21). The station is compatible with the setting—its industrial nature suits the nearby warehouses and factories. Because of the importance of the railway to the industrialization of Hespeler in general and the immediate vicinity in particular, the station is a crucial part of the landscape.

Community Status

While the three communities brought together to form the City of Cambridge work together every day, many facets of life continue separately. The former Town of Hespeler has an active heritage community which has worked diligently to preserve, protect and publicize its many unique heritage sites and structures. A walking tour brochure includes the former CNR station.

In August 1996, a public meeting was held to gauge support for a scheme to renovate the Hespeler station. The Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association was formed shortly thereafter and today boasts and membership of more than 200. As mentioned previously, an architectural firm has made a complete analysis of the structure and drawn up renovation plans. The final cost of these renovations was estimated at $450,000, and fund raising projects are well under way. As well, the Association has entered negotiations with the CNR to purchase the station.22 This ongoing process is regularly reported in local newspapers and television and is a topic of much conversation throughout the community.


  1. ^ Peter Bowers, Two Divisions to Bluewater: The Story of the CNR to the Bruce (Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1983), p. 31. The author would like to acknowledge the assistance given by Paul Langan, Chairperson, Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association, towards the completion of this report.
  2. ^ Information from City of Cambridge: Profile (http://www.city.cambridge.on.ca/profile/history/index.html).
  3. ^ Corporation of the City of Cambridge, Cambridge Facts and Figures (June 1997 edition), p. 5
  4. ^ Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition (Edmonton, Alta.: Hurtig Publishers, 1988), Vol. 2, p. 935.
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 935.
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 925.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ The Great Hespeler Reunion (Hespeler, Ont.: Hespeler Reunion Committee, 1996), pp. 4-5.
  9. ^ Community: Hall of Fame: Jacob Hespeler (http://www.city.cambridge.on.ca/comty/hfame/hespeler.html), p. 1.
  10. ^ Ibid., p. 2.
  11. ^ O.S. Eby, Hespeler, Canada: A Souvenir of the Factory Town (Hespeler, Ont.: The Author, c. 1900), p. 2; and Kenneth McLaughlin, Cambridge: The Making of a Canadian City (Windsor, Ont .: Windsor Publication, 1987), pp. 45-49.
  12. ^ Dominion Textile grew, by the Second World War, to become one of the largest firms of its kind in the British Empire. Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, 1997 Discovery Guide (Cambridge, Ont.: City of Cambridge, 1997), p. 4.
  13. ^ John Shragg, Ontario Department of Transportation, in conversation with the author, 30 September 1997.
  14. ^ Paul Langan, Chairperson, Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association, in conversation with the author, 11 September 1997.
  15. ^ Mathilde Brosseau, Second Group of Grand Trunk Railway Stations: Original Eastern Section Stations and Stations from c. 1870 to c. 1920, Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings Report, no date, pp. K.2-K.3.
  16. ^ Mike Moyer, Historical Touch Carpentry Company, in conversation with the author, 11 September 1997.
  17. ^ Brosseau.
  18. ^ One of the original glass light globes has been recovered. Moyer; and Report by CA. Ventin Architect Limited, submitted to the Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association, copy courtesy of P. Langan.
  19. ^ Langan; and Planning for Heritage Railway Stations: Inventory, Vol. 2 (Toronto, Ont.: Ontario Heritage Foundation and the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, 1987), n.p.
  20. ^ Langan.
  21. ^ Brosseau.
  22. ^ Ibid.


  1. Former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station, Hespeler [Cambridge], Ontario; constructed 1900, designed by Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) staff, contractor unknown; track-side (north) elevation. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  2. Part of map of southern Ontario, Cambridge in centre. (Official Street Map of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, 1997.)

    [Image Not Reproduced]

  3. Map of Cambridge, showing location of the former separate communities of Hespeler (northeast), Preston (west) and Galt (south).(Official Street Map of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, 1997.)

    [Image Not Reproduced]

  4. Jacob Hespeler (1811-1881), no date. (Community: Hall of Fame: Jacob Hespeler, http://www.city.cambridge.on.ca/comty/hfame/hespeler.htmlhttp://www.city.cambridge.on.ca/cs_pubaccess/hall_of_fame.php?aid=22.)

  5. Branch lines of the GTR-CNR in southwestern Ontario. (Reproduced from Peter Bowers, Two Divisions to Bluewater: The Story of the CNR to the Bruce, n.p.[Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 1983])

    [Image Not Reproduced]

  6. GTR station, Hespeler, ca.1900. (Courtesy of P. Langan, Chairperson, Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association.)

  7. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], metal light support, track-side elevation. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  8. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], looking north through main door showing the difference between platform and floor levels. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  9. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], west and trackside (north) façades. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  10. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], east and town-side (south) façades.(Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  11. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], bay window, north façade.(Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  12. CNR station, Aurora, Ontario, during restoration, 1992. (RSR Report, 1990-0131992-138, Figure 14)

  13. CNR station, Newmarket,, Ontario, 1992. (RSR Report, 1992-138, Figure 1)

  14. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], interior hallway. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  15. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], office, looking into bay window and station master's desk (note the heating ducts). (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  16. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], waiting room and arched ticket counter doorway. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  17. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], close-up of pressed-metal cladding on walls and ceiling. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  18. Former CNR station, Hespeler [Cambridge], office, looking west into baggage/freight area. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  19. Present-day Hespeler (part of City of Cambridge), 1997; arrow indicates location of former CNR station. (Official Street Map of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, 1997.)

    [Image Not Reproduced]

  20. Hespeler CNR yards, looking east from station. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)

  21. Hespeler CNR yards, looking west from station. (Murray Peterson, 1997.)