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.
Jumbo Monument, at the westerly entrance to Downtown St. Thomas
The 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.
Kettle Creek Viaduct, the future St. Thomas Elevated Park, in August 2017