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St. Thomas – The Railway City proudly displays its heritage

September 2021

The moto for the south-western Ontario city of St. Thomas is “The Railway City,” a moniker earned from it’s history as an important railway junction, dating back to 1856.

A total of 26 railway companies have traveled in and out of the city on the numerous railway lines that once disected the city.

As Canada entered the 1950s, improved roadways and motor vehicles led to the decline of the railways as the primary mode of transportation for goods and people.

In the 1950s and 1960s, with the decline of the railway as a mode of transportation, other industry began to locate in the city, principally primary and secondary automotive manufacturing. As a result, railway mergers and bankruptcies saw fewer and fewer trains traveling through the city. Railway lines all across Canada were abandoned, and stations and roundhouses were demolished or left to rot.

Preservation efforts have seen several relics of St. Thomas’ railway legacy retained and restored to their former glories, finding new uses as museums, office space, walking trails, and in the case of the Port Stanley Terminal Railway (PSTR), a tourist attraction.

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Port Stanley Terminal Railway

While the Port Stanley Terminal Railway (PSTR) doesn’t operate from St. Thomas, it’s presence is firmly entrenched in the city.

Traveling along the tracks of the former London and Port Stanley Railway, the PTSR takes around 25, 000 riders each year from the port town of Port Stanley, northward on a 14-mile scenic tour, to the southern edge of St. Thomas, and back to Port Stanley. Passengers ride in restored period cars, both open and enclosed, pulled by 1940s & 50s-era diesel electric locomotives.

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BX Tower

Built around 1910 to regulate traffic where the Canada Southern Railway and the London & Port Stanley Railway lines crossed. The tower was run by the Operator or Leverman, who controlled the track switches through the rail yard and intersection area. The tower’s design allows an elevated 360° perspective for the operator inside the building.

The BX Tower was decomissioned in the mid-1980s and today, it’s owned by the City of St. Thomas, and maintained by the nearby Elgin County Railway Museum.

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Canada Southern Railway (CASO) Station

The Canada Southern Railway’s (CSR) station in St. Thomas was once one of the busiest train stations in Canada, sitting alongside the CSR line from Detroit to Buffalo.

Known as the CASO station, it opened for service in 1873. This station was unique, in that it was designed in an Italianate style. This went against the common styles of the day; Romanesque, Beaux-Arts and Second Empire architectural styles.

It’s thought to be the only station in an Italianate style in Canada. At 354 feet long, 36 feet wide, with 20 foot ceilings and boasting two storeys, it’s size is what you would typically find in only in large cities. The ground floor served as the passenger station, with a waiting room, an elegant dining room, the station master’s office and the railway detective’s office. The uppers floors served as the corporate headquarters of CSR, along with modest living quarters for the dining room cook and servers.

Over the next one hundred years, the CSR went through several ownership changes, all American companies, until it was purchased jointly by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways in 1983. Passenger service was discontinued in 1979, after briefly serving as a station stop for Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow route.

By 1990, the line and the station had been closed and abandoned.

After sitting vacant and deteriorating for 15 years, the grand old station was bought by the North American Railway Hall of Fame in 2005, who began hosting special events in the station to generate funds for the complete restoration of the building.

Both the dining room, now called Anderson Hall, and the Ladies waiting room, are available for weddings, wedding receptions, ceremonies, luncheons, dinners, teas, conferences and corporate events. All revenue generated helps fund the restoration and maintenance of the grand old station.

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Elgin County Railway Museum

The Elgin County Railway Museum is a rail transport museum, housing railway artifacts and documents in the former Michigan Central Railway locomotive shops.

Built 1913 for the Canada Southern Railway, by their parent company, the Michigan Central Railroad (MCR), the shops served as the regional repair depot for locomotives, rather than sending them to the MCR facilities in the United States.

When the last owners of the shops, Canadian National Railways and Canadian Pacific Railways, sold the facility in 1988, the Elgin County Railway Museum acquired the building.

In 2009, 15 acres of railway land next to the shops was added to the museum, along with the tracks that once allowed the locomotives to shuttle in and out of the building. These tracks are used by the museum for their annual Day Out with Thomas event.

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London and Port Stanley Railway Station

The London & Port Stanley Railway (L&PS) was one of Ontario’s first railways, beginning operations in 1856. The railway line, which ran from London to Port Stanley, was a major trade route in southwestern Ontario for trade with America, particularly wood and coal.

The L&PS also operated passenger service between the two cities, transporting people to Port Stanley’s beach and summer resort hotels.

When the City of London began leasing the railway line in 1915, the steam locomotives were replaced by electric locomotives.

By the 1950s, passenger traffic was down significantly, due to competition from private automobiles. In February 1957, passenger service was terminated.

The rail line was bought by Canadian National (CN) Railway in 1965.

The London to St. Thomas portion of the line from is still operated by CN, while the St. Thomas to Port Stanley portion is operated by the Port Stanley Terminal Railway.

The passenger station in St. Thomas was abandoned by the L&PS and eventually demolished. In 2010, the Elgin and St. Thomas Homebuilders’ Association built a two-thirds scale replica of the old station, relocating to its original location near the intersection of Talbot Street and Moore Street. It’s now the offices for the Railway City Tourism Centre.

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Also read my other articles about the railway heritage of St. Thomas:

St Thomas Elevated Park – A unique use for an abandoned railway bridge – Canadian Military History (militarybruce.com)

Take a scenic ride on the historic Port Stanley Terminal Railway – Canadian Military History (militarybruce.com)

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Sources: ECRM – Elgin County Railway Museum, Elgin County Railway Museum – Wikipedia, St. Thomas, Ontario – Wikipedia, Canada Southern Railway Station – Wikipedia, CASO Station – St. Thomas Ontario (railwaycitytourism.com), North America Railway Hall of Fame (casostation.ca), Self-guided tour of the CSR Station (casostation.ca).

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.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/st-thomas-the-railway-city-proudly-displays-its-heritage/

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