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Hamilton’s grand Canadian National Railway Station now a banquet centre

October 2020

The former Canadian National (CN) Railway Station on James Street North in Hamilton, dates back to a grand era when the railways were king and their passenger stations were often grand and architecturally stunning buildings.

When CN needed a new station along the former Grand Trunk Railway line in North Hamilton, which they assumed along with other assets from the defunct GTR in the late 1920s, what resulted was a large station complex consisting of three distinct building sections.

Officially opening for passenger service on 20 February 1930, the most striking component is the three-story main station building, done in a Neo-classical style with a cut-limestone exterior, is the station entrance. Four large Doric columns, with several stone carvings of the CNR’s steam and electric locomotives, and shipping fleet, welcome travelers as they enter into the main concourse waiting room, a 60 foot by 140 foot grand hall.

The second building component is a one-story concourse structure, extending perpendicular to the main structure, jutting out above the tracks at the north end of the property, which are one story below the concourse level.

The third component is the one-story express wing, which extends at track level nearly 270 feet east of the main building. Both the north concourse section and express wing feature brown brick with stone trimming exteriors.

This design was done to effectively accommodate both massive passenger traffic and the equally important freight and baggage services.

The official dedication of the new station was held on 27 May 1931, officiated by the Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough.

Improvements in the highway system in Ontario in the post-war years led to a gradual decline in passenger railway traffic on all lines operated by standard and light rail operators throughout the province. In April 1962, most of the passenger trains along the Toronto-London-Windsor-Chicago mainline no longer stopped in Hamilton and by October 1967, none of them would. CN trains on the Toronto-Niagara Falls and Toronto-New York routes would continue until 23 May 1967, when GO Transit took over CN’s Toronto-Hamilton commuter service until 1978, after which Via Rail took over CN’s passenger service. The overall decline in passenger service saw two of the passenger platforms were removed as they were unnecessary.

The end of mail service by rail in the 1960s saw the station’s mail and parcel wing being converted to a railway freight car repair shop. The four tracks closest to the station became repair tracks.

The decline in usage of the station on James Street continued into the 1980s, when cutbacks to Via Rail service in 1989 saw the number of Toronto-Niagara Falls trains reduced to two. In May 1992, Via Rail began operating out of the newly-opened Aldershot GO Station, a little over 6 miles to the north-east.

Go Transit similarly made plans to vacate the aging station, which CN had little interest in maintaining, in favour of a new “Hamilton GO Centre” at the former Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo (TH&B) Railway station on Hunter Street, which was under a complete restoration.

With the loss of one tenant, the impending loss of the other, and a lack of interest by CN Rail in maintaining the station, led to the closure of the building on 26 February 1993.

As an interim measure, GO Transit relocated their ticket booth to a trailer beside the station, and built a temporary staircase from James Street down to one of the platforms. The move to the TH & B station was completed in 1996.

The old CN station sat empty for the next couple of years until Hollywood film director Renny Harlin filmed some scenes for the action movie “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, at the station.

The production company spent around $1 million renovating the station for the movie. In the aftermath of the film shoot, the Labourer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), took an interest in the station.

After spending an additional $3 Million on further renovations, the former CN station officially re-opened in 2000 as LIUNA Station, a banquet and special events facility, with on-site catering services. The land to the south (front) of the station was transformed into a beautifully landscaped garden park, named Immigration Square, with walkways and a fountain in the centre.

Although LIUNA Station no longer functions as a railway station, GO Transit opened the new West Harbour GO Station just to the west in July 2015, bringing back passenger service to the line for the first time in two decades.

LIUNA Station also remains an attractive location for filmmakers, with movies and television shows such as X-Men, Designated Survivor and Stockholm, being filmed at the station.

Sources: http://www.trainweb.org/hamtransithist/LIUNA.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LIUNA_Station, https://liunaevents.com, http://historicalhamilton.com/special-features/favourite-locations/liuna-station, https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=8341, http://www.trainweb.org/usarail/aldershot.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Harbour_GO_Station, https://www.thespec.com/opinion/contributors/2019/06/12/hamilton-s-second-newcomer-day-celebrates-immigration-s-vital-role.html.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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