History from Here: St. Catharines Train Station

A familiar setting of both tearful farewells and joyful reunions. A transportation hub for the arrival and departure of goods, travelers, and even Royalty. Steadfast even as transportation technology evolves and progresses. The St. Catharines Train Station has been a symbol of new beginnings, optimism, and opportunity for generations.

On this episode of History from Here, Sara takes you to the St. Catharines Train Station at 5 Great Western Street, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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St. Catharines’ first train station, a wooden structure, was built to serve the Great Western Railway. Opening in 1853, the Great Western would be the first railway to come to St. Catharines, connecting Windsor to Niagara Falls. However, the location of the train station was a point of contention for St. Catharines residents and business owners. While local leaders advocated for the railroad to track directly through the City’s urban core, railway promoters thought the deep valley of the Welland Canal at 12 Mile Creek was too large an obstacle to overcome. Instead, the decision was made to build the St. Catharines station at Western Hill, on the south side of the canal and away from downtown. The consequence: railroad that inconveniently bypassed the City’s industrial and commercial core, limiting St. Catharines’ economic potential and its growth as an urban centre.

Postcard scene at St. Catharines’ second train station, built by the Grand Trunk Railway c. 1898. STCM 2005.87.1

Though St. Catharines would not become a major railway centre like Hamilton or Toronto, its train station was a lively hub of activity. With rail as a faster, more reliable method of transporting goods, the station enabled increased trade access and accelerating production for industries across St. Catharines. The station also quickly became a travel terminal for St. Catharines’ burgeoning tourism industry, where wealthy tourists travelled by rail from across Canada and the United States to partake in the mineral waters of its reputable spa resorts. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the arrival of St. Catharines’ first train station spurred the development of more extensive urban and inter-urban rail and streetcar networks – providing even greater connection between the people and businesses of St. Catharines and Niagara.

The third, and current, iteration of the St. Catharines Train Station, opened in 1917. STCM 2006.77.1274.

The importance of this transportation hub continued into the twentieth century. In 1917, the Grand Trunk Railway, which has taken over the line and train station, constructed a brick station at this location – not even 20 years after already replacing the first. Such an investment, and the use of more permanent building materials, reflected the optimism held by railroad companies at the time, even as the automobile rose in popularity.

The decision to build a new station was part of a municipal initiative to improve the link between downtown and the railway by laying a branch of streetcar tracks across the newly built high-level Burgoyne Bridge and along St. Paul St. West. Finally, the train station was successfully connected to St. Catharines’ urban centre, further cementing rail’s integral role in moving people in and out of the City.

A peaceful postcard scene of the St. Catharines Train Station after the rail-line was acquired by CN Rail, c. 1935. STCM 2002.130.68.

This new train station was typical to other Grand Trunk and CN stations of the period – a symmetrical, pavilion-like passenger station, a deep porte-co-chere, and a separate express building connected by a single, hipped roof line. In 1923, the rail-line running through the St. Catharines station was acquired by CN Rail, who used it for passenger service. Ownership was again transferred in 1986, this time to VIA Rail. Renovations were made in 1988 and 1994, and in 2012, the ticket agent was replaced by an automated kiosk.

As part of their 1951 Royal Tour, Queen Elizabeth II (then still Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Phillip arrived in St. Catharines by train. STCM S1951.60.3.1.

Despite these modernizations, the appearance of the exterior remained largely unchanged. What we see here was the same setting for soldiers saying farewell to family and friends as they head off to war, and their emotional homecomings a few years later. This very platform also jubilantly received Royal visitors, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939, and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1951 and again 1973. Since its opening, the St. Catharines train station has witnessed thousands of greetings, goodbyes, reunions, fresh starts, holiday homecomings, and both the beginnings and ends of adventures. While its use has ebbed and flowed generation to generation, with focus now returning to the importance of public transit, we can be sure the train station will continue as an important hub for transportation and for memory-making into the future.

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