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Heritage Railway Stations

The Romance of Railway Station Design

Canada's railway stations have impressive and appealing architectural designs, and our growth as a nation wouldn't be the same without them.  Most stations were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) constructed a transcontinental railway and when other competing companies built their own lines to carry passengers.  At one time, railway stations were the first buildings passengers stepped into when they arrived in a small town or large city.  Railway companies, therefore, designed stations to attract attention, not to mention potential customers. McAdam Station, McAdam Historical Restoration Committee / Gare McAdam, McAdam Historical Restoration Committee

Many Canadian railway stations are truly eye-catching.  One popular architectural style seen by travelers in the early 20th century was the Château style, which exhibits the fanciful and grand aspects of French castles from the 14th and 15th centuries.  Railway stations in this style are recognizable for the use of steep and lively rooflines with dormers, gables and turrets, impressive continuous façades as well as rich materials such as brick, stone and copper.  One of the finest examples is the former CPR station and hotel in McAdam New Brunswick, built in 1900-01.

In some of Canada's large urban areas, such as in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Hamilton, another design used by railway companies was the more formal Beaux-Arts style.  Stations of this kind are monumental in scale, have classical detail, and follow rational, ordered plans.  Both the exterior design and the interior organization of the building were carefully planned, with monumental colonnades to define the design's focus, immense ticket lobbies or great halls, and rational layouts and circulation routes to accommodate large volumes of passengers.  One of the finest examples is Winnipeg's Union Station, prominently located on Main Street, with a formal placement at the foot of Broadway Avenue. 

These stations evoke the romance of rail travel, and were built during Canada's "golden age" of travel that reigned for many decades.  With the rise of car and air travel, however, many stations across Canada fell into disuse, were neglected, and eventually demolished.  By the late 1980s, there was growing concern that railway stations were not being properly protected. 

Safeguarding our History: the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act

Responding to concerns from the public, in 1990, the Federal Government adopted the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act, allowing for many stations to gain some measure of protection through designation by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). 

The Act specifies that railway companies were subject to fines of up to a million dollars if they removed, demolished, altered or sold a designated station without proper authorization. The Act also authorizes the HSMBC to recommend stations for ministerial designation.  To be eligible, a station has to be at least 40 years old, be owned by or under the control of a railway company, and be built or used for purposes connected with the transport of passengers and goods.

Railway stations are evaluated according to criteria such as historical associations, architectural merit, and the environmental relationship of the station to other structures and to the values of the community.  Information about the stations was obtained through meticulous inventories, followed by detailed research papers called Railway Station Reports (also known as RSR's).  In the past 20 years, over 300 stations were evaluated with over half receiving designation. 

The intention of the Act is to protect railway stations and related buildings, allowing the HSMBC to monitor and provide advice where necessary as to their rehabilitation.  At the moment, the Act protects just the station buildings. Though the Act has its limitations, it nevertheless provides for certain control mechanisms to ensure interventions are carried out in a way that respects the heritage values and character of the place.  The Act grants authority to the HSMBC to: advise a railway company of the appropriateness of alterations done to a station; review proposals for the sale of a station; and, play a major role in determining a station's future use. 

Before a change in ownership occurs, potential new owners are required to agree to obtain provincial or municipal heritage designation to ensure the future protection of the station.  New owners are also encouraged to agree to rehabilitate and continue using the station in a meaningful way.  Finally, even though ownership may change, the federal commemorative designation does not disappear, ensuring that railway stations continue to be important landmarks and recognizable cultural resources for Canadian communities.

Conservation Success Stories

Some railway stations have fared better than others.  Four success stories illustrate different methods of protection. The first case is the former McAdam Station (1900-01), a rare surviving example of a combined railway station and hotel.  Neglected for many years, this interesting building is currently maintained by the McAdam Historical Restoration Commission Inc.  Happily, the structure is now protected by two pieces of provincial legislation: the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act, and commemorated as a National Historic Site. 

York Street Station, private collection / Gare ferroviaire de la rue York, collection privéeA second success story is Fredericton's York Street Station, designated in 1991 and abandoned in the late 1990s. Over the past 10 years, through increasing public interest - including being placed on Heritage Canada Foundation's list of the most endangered historic buildings in Canada in 2007 - and mediation by the HSMBC, a solution was found.  The owner agreed to restore the building with the help of government funding, and a 20-year lease was granted for commercial use.  As of 2010, the station received additional protection under provincial heritage designation.  With restoration work almost complete, the community of Fredericton is excited to see such an iconic historic place becoming a community hub once more. 

Another success story is Brandon's former CPR Station.  Sold in 2010, the new private owner has agreed to retain and restore the historic features of the structure, and the provincial government recognized the place with a heritage designation in 2011.

Finally, the imposing and beautiful station originally built by the Canada Southern Railway in St. Thomas, Ontario has been protected and rehabilitated.  Designed by Canadian architect Edgar Berryman (1839-1905) in the Italianate architectural style during the early 1870s, the station's long 44-bay façade exhibits simple classical detailing.  Until the 1920s, this was one of the busiest stations in Canada. The Canada Southern rail route through south-western Ontario linked with Chicago and New York City, and was instrumental in the economic development and growth of St. Thomas.  Although it became a heritage railway station in 1990, the station fell into disuse and deteriorated during the 1990s.  In 2001, the company On Track purchased the building, and in 2005, the North America Railway Hall of Fame assumed ownership.  The Ontario Heritage Trust placed a heritage conservation easement on the property in 2005.

Various fundraising and awareness initiatives - including a Facebook page - have helped restoration efforts.  Once more a focal point of the community, the town of St. Thomas promotes the station as a tourist attraction.  In June 2011, the Ontario Heritage Trust held a plaque unveiling ceremony at the station to commemorate these efforts and the historic importance of the station.  These success stories show that the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act works in helping to give historic railway stations new life.

Additional Note: Where to Find Information on Federal Heritage Railway Stations

If you search the Canadian Register of Historic Places, you will find records for 164 Federal Heritage Railway Stations.   Since 1990, some stations have been sold to new owners, and currently the HSMBC describes this process as "delisting."  The term "delisted" indicates when the HSMBC has authorized a railway company's sale of a station to a new owner.  This does not mean, however, that the station is taken off any list or is no longer appreciated for its heritage value.Brandon CP Station, Murray Peterson, 1992 / Gare ferroviaire de Brandon, Murray Peterson, 1992

Moreover, it should be stressed that while ownership changes, the HSMBC commemorative designation does not disappear.  So while 84 stations have been "de-listed", they still remain Heritage Railway Stations.  In some cases, stations are designated separately as National Historic Sites.  In most other cases, stations have gained new legal protection under provincial or municipal designations, which is generally a requirement for authorizing their sale or transfer of ownership. 

The Canadian Register of Historic Places and the HSMBC are currently working together to update the list of heritage railway stations, and to improve information about them. To that end, soon Heritage Character Statements for federal railway stations will accompany all existing records on the Canadian Register.