Parks Travels

How two Ontario cities are re-imagining abandoned railway relics

Brockville and St. Thomas are two small Ontario industrial cities that wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But both communities are working on remarkable projects that re-purpose former railway infrastructure to create interesting public spaces that don’t just lure out-of-town visitors, but add a significant asset to be enjoyed by the entire community. The St. Thomas Elevated Park and the Brockville Railway Tunnel are the type of local, community-driven projects that I can get excited about.

St. Thomas likes to call itself the Railway Capital of Canada. One hundred years ago, five separate railway companies served the city. The Canada Southern (CASO) Railway, later purchased by the Michigan Central Railroad (which became part of the New York Central empire), built its headquarters and shops here; its double-tracked corridor was the fastest route between Buffalo and Detroit. St. Thomas was a stop on the London and Port Stanley Railway, a busy electric railway that ran regular passenger services until 1957. On the edge of town is the Jumbo monument, near the site where the famous Barnum and Bailey circus elephant was killed during a train stop.

IMG_1330-001Jumbo Monument, at the westerly entrance to Downtown St. Thomas

IMG_1310-001The 1873 Canada Southern Station. The tracks it once served have disappeared.

Today, most lines into St. Thomas are abandoned, including the once-mighty Canada Southern; major rail customers such as Ford Motor Company closed local factories. The last passenger train, Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow, departed from St. Thomas in 1979. The Port Stanley Terminal Railway runs tour trains along part of the old L&PS route, but its trains — for now — only board in Port Stanley.

Despite the loss of the railways, St. Thomas has retained much of its railway heritage. The Elgin County Railway Museum has made its home in the old Michigan Central shops. The station building still stands too — built in 1873, it is one of the longest stations in Canada, extending 108 metres. It was recently renovated and houses offices and retail businesses. A replica of the LP&S station was built downtown, with the hopes of accommodating Port Stanley-bound tour trains. Just west of Downtown St. Thomas is the Kettle Creek Viaduct, which is slated to become a new signature park.

IMG_1326-001Kettle Creek Viaduct, the future St. Thomas Elevated Park, in August 2017

Intercity Rail Travels

Cuba’s Hershey Train: the last interurban railway


Last week, my partner-in-crime and I escaped to Cuba for a short vacation. Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, we decided to spend our time in Havana instead.

Havana is a fascinating place that’s worth exploring beyond the popular spots such as the picturesque Old City, Revolution Square, and the Cristóbal Colón Cemetery; like any great city, it is best explored by foot.

One of our highlights was getting an impromptu tour of the José Martí National Library of Cuba in Havana. The library, named for the Cuban national hero, is adjacent to Plaza de la Revolución. The Plaza also holds the seat of the Communist Government and is famous for the towering monument of Martí and the metal mural of Che Guevara.

We met a wonderful guide, who with great pride described the library’s programs, but also the effects of the 55-year American embargo on obtaining educational materials, up-to-date computers and access to the Internet and other digital resources. We were fortunate for experiences like that, where we met interesting people and learned a bit more about the country. These were experiences that tourists staying at beachside resorts, perhaps visiting Havana on a bus tour or to see a cabaret show, sadly miss.

But, being on vacation, we made sure to spend some time to relax and enjoy the hot — yet pleasantly non-humid — weather. So we decided to go to the beach for our last full day in Cuba. But instead of taking the tourist buses, we decided to hop on the Hershey Train, probably the last true interurban railway in the Americas.

Interurban railways once existed all over Canada and the United States. Electrically-powered trains linked towns and cities together, providing passenger and local freight services and filling a niche between urban streetcars and long-distance steam railways. Improved roads, and increased car and truck ownership resulted in the closure of just about every interurban railway in North America, the last to close in Canada was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway in 1959. A few remnants of North America’s interurban lines survive as modernized commuter services, such as the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. But Cuba’s Hershey Train still looks, and operates, like the electric railways that once crisscrossed much of southwestern Ontario and the eastern United States.