Because of the boom caused by the railway, many businesses needed to accommodate. A local market that has deep roots in our railway past, the Horton Farmers Market opened its doors in 1878 due to the need for produce to be close to the station.
Another community spot that’s still widely popular is Pinafore Park. Believe it or not, the park has very close ties to the railway history of our city. In 1880, the mill pond and its water rights were sold to the Canada Southern Railway to supply water for the steam engines and the rail yards that were located next to the CASO Station.
The Railway heralded a golden age for the circus as they used rail cars to carry their wagons and other materials. The most well know story of St. Thomas’ past is a tragic event that put St. Thomas on the map. The date was September 15th 1885 and the Barnum & Bailey circus was in town featuring their star attraction - Jumbo the Elephant. That night as Jumbo was headed to bed, an unscheduled freight train appeared. It surprised both Jumbo, his trainer Scotty, and little elephant Tom Thumb. Try as he might, Scotty could not get Jumbo out of the way in time. He was hit head on and passed away that night.
With Jumbo’s popularity and the tragic nature of his death, this event became synonymous with St. Thomas and influenced the creation of the Jumbo monument unveiled in 1985 - 100 years after his death.
Another tragedy occurred in 1887 in St. Thomas. A Grand Trunk passenger train and a westbound Michigan Central Train collided on the L&PS line. The Michigan Central Train was carrying oil cars and this resulted in an explosion that killed 14 people and injured over 200, in addition to extensive fire damage to many city blocks. The crash site is now marked by the BX Tower, built in 1917. The BX Tower provided better communication between the Michigan Central and L&PS line and is still standing today.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our Railway City history and learn about how though the trains may have left, the rail lives on.
Art Action Comes Alive for 4th Annual Railway City Arts Crawl
City-wide arts celebration sees increase in number of participating artists and host venues
The Railway City Arts Crawl is back for its 4th straight year.
The popular winter celebration of local arts and culture invites people to explore venues throughout St. Thomas and meet talented local artists engaging in the creative process.
A free Arts Crawl passport is available at participating venues and helps arts crawlers locate the venues and artists they'd like to explore over the two-day event on February 24th and 25th.
Arts Crawl Coordinator Megan Pickersgill says there are more artists participating and more interactive projects this year. “There's an ice sculpture in the making at the Elgin County Railway Museum”, said Pickersgill. “Watch a train emerge out of ice while you are surrounded by the big trains of the past”.
“Something neat that we’re introducing this year is the addition of culinary arts. We have a few select venues that are adding a food component featuring some amazing local businesses such as Wildflowers Farm, Seed Confections, Bake Shop Studio and Elgin Harvest.”
For artist and studio owner Katherine Medlyn, who operates Medlyn Studio (an Arts Crawl venue) and works in stained glass, she “loves seeing our downtown come alive with all the people walking place to place with their passports in hand”, something not often seen during the cold winter months.
The Arts Crawl is a great opportunity to continue to do what we do every day in our community, which is encourage and support the practice of visual arts in St. Thomas and Elgin."
An after party is being held Saturday night following the event at the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre at 301 Talbot. Here Crawlers and Artists can come together to enjoy live music, beer and wine from our local Railway City Brewing and Quai du Vin Winery, as well as an interactive photo booth that is an art piece in and of itself.
The passport, containing information on both the venues and the artists, is available at participating venues and downloadable on the Railway City Arts Crawl website (www.railwaycityartscrawl.com). Each venue will stamp the passport and if the participant reaches 10 venues, they are eligible for a prize draw.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24: Crawl runs from 6pm-9pm
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25: Crawl runs from 11am-5pm | Art Centre after-party 7pm
OUR HANDY GUIDE TO THE HOLIDAY SEASON IN ST. THOMAS!
Music & Theatre
Though World War One occurred in Europe, St. Thomas once came close to being on the frontline. The railway was critical in Canada’s war effort; it was needed to move men, equipment, and supplies across the country. As the Railway Capital of Canada, St. Thomas played a huge role in this aspect of the war effort. It was this that made our small Canadian city, an ocean away from the battlefield, a target for a bomb plot!
In 1915, the United States of America was not yet in the war, and still maintained a relationship with Germany. With diplomacy continuing between the two nations, the German Consulate in San Francisco had become a hub for intelligence operations across North America. It was here that a plan was decided upon under orders from Consul General Franz von Bopp, to be followed through by Charles C. Crowley and Lewis J. Smith, both of America. Crowley was a criminal with eight fingers, having shot off two of them while cleaning his gun, while Smith was a well-dressed conman.
Crowley and Smith were assigned to target the stockyards adjacent to the Michigan Central tracks near the CASO Station on July 4th, 1915 at 11:00 p.m. The stockyards were full of horses that would be sent to the Allies’ war effort in Europe, and they intended to destroy these vital supplies. Their plan involved the two men boarding separate trains and smuggling dynamite over the border by skillfully switching their identical suitcases, avoiding customs for the one filled with the explosives.
The ruse worked, but apparently Smith had changed his mind, which he had previously done in other plots after growing nervous. He dumped the dynamite out in Detroit and instead filled the suitcase with bricks. When he came to St. Thomas, he merely purchased some clothing then left on a train to New York, thankfully without having carried out the plot.
Following his failure, Smith worked in Detroit at an automotive factory. After feeling as though he was being followed by Crowley, he went to the police and told his story. This revealed the workings of the German spy network to the authorities, leading to the conviction of nearly a dozen German spies. Among those sentenced were Crowley and von Bopp, who were convicted of violating the neutrality of the United States and were jailed for two years, while Smith walked free in exchange for his testimony. The situation resolved itself quite nicely, with no harm done to any horses, humans, or infrastructure in St. Thomas.
But imagine if Smith had not changed his mind – imagine how differently St. Thomas’ past would have played out.
Information courtesy of the Elgin Historical Society. Contact them for more details!
When a town is as historic and old as St. Thomas, its heritage buildings make perfect haunting grounds for ghosts – or at least, tales of them. Our city’s extensive past provides us today with many legends, myths, and stories of spirits, and even a witch, that have been passed on from generation to generation. While they may be mere speculation, they are a part of St. Thomas and its history. Where able, check out some of these locations and keep your ear to the ground and eyes peeled for the paranormal. But remember that many of these places are private property, and should not be trespassed upon – especially with ghosts guarding them!
Alma College is often cited as one of the most haunted locations in our region. Though it tragically burned down in 2008, the girls’ school had stood since 1878. Both before and even after the fire, there have been many stories of supernatural activity occurring on the grounds.
One particular tale tells the story of a woman named Angela, who was rumoured to be a cruel music teacher locked in a closet by students and left to die. The western tower was often referred to as “Angela’s Tower,” as this is where she supposedly remained for many years after her death, haunting Alma College. Her footsteps were frequently heard pounding up and down the tower’s staircase, but despite Angela’s menacing post-mortem behaviour, students celebrated her each year on Halloween. There had also been reports of cries, voices, and other strange noises, along with apparitions of young girls.
An investigation of the grounds by Haunted North America resulted in chilling experiences of young girls allegedly whispering abusive threats, showing the investigators that their presence was unwelcome. Whether or not it was haunted, there is no doubt that Alma College was stunning, but a bit sinister… So much so that it was used in the horror films Orphan and Silent Hill!
Princess Ave Playhouse
The Princess Ave Playhouse, originally built as a church in 1907, is allegedly a hotspot for multiple spirits who roam the building. In fact, multiple documentaries have been filmed there, as teams investigated for paranormal activity. One story speaks of a team of Ryerson students who recorded a video about the haunted playhouse in 2001. When listening back to an interview with an Elgin Theatre Guild member, the group found the audio had inexplicably cut out as they spoke about a particular ghost, then returned as they went to another topic.
One ghost is said to be a young girl named Maisie, whom women have heard around the playhouse. One late night, the women in a cast rehearsal heard a child crying, and refused to leave until they found the source of the noise – which evidently, they never did. A medium who spoke to the Princess Ave spirits confirmed this young girl’s identity. The medium also learned of the spirit of an old female church secretary, seen at the top of the staircase, where people often feel suddenly chilled and hear fake teeth clattering.
The playhouse also hosts a spirit referred to as Mort, who appears to have a sense of humour. Mort has been seen sitting during plays, typically comedies, wearing a top hat. He is often blamed when items go missing in the theatre, but after one crew member yelled angrily and cursed at the ghost to return his belongings, Mort seemingly did so.
The Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society have conducted multiple investigations at the playhouse, resulting in reports and videos which can be found on their website.
Next time you go to see a play at Princess Ave, keep an eye out for these regulars!
Old St. Thomas Church Graveyard
The Old St. Thomas Church and its graveyard are full of fascinating real-life history, along with some petrifying legends. Most famous is the tale of the Witch’s Grave, which belongs to Maria Baldwin. Legend has it, Maria was a witch, which is why her grave has turned an eerie black colour (this is admittedly due to acid rain and other pollutants entering the porous sandstone.) The myth also says that the grave catches on fire on Halloween. Four posts surround the large gravestone, and the legend goes that you will be cursed if you step within those posts and touch the grave.
In actuality, Maria’s story is a tragic one, as she died during childbirth at 22 years old in 1863, and her baby died soon after. Her husband was a reverend at the church, and it is unlikely he would have married the town witch - or that she would have been buried in a Christian graveyard. But the legend is one of the best known in St. Thomas, and has been passed down throughout the years – a testament to our love of mystery.
Another tale of the church’s cemetery is that of the Chisholm Family. The very large and ornamental grave honours seven members of the same family, all having died one after the other in quick succession.
The Chisholms are said to have fallen victim to the “Irish Curse” after a widow warned William Chisholm, a ship captain, to not sail that day because she knew her only son would die out at sea on his ship. He sailed anyways, and the ship was destroyed in a storm, killing the woman’s son. In revenge, she set the Irish Curse on William: “may all of your children die young and not one in their bed.” This seemingly resulted in seven deaths in the family between 1828 and 1835. Legend has it they died in brutal ways, including a runaway horse carriage, a train accident, and a drunken bar brawl.
The family’s story was posted in the London Free Press nearly a hundred years later in 1925, citing Ella Lewis as the source, who learned of the curse from her father. In reality, the family’s story was likely dramatized, with a more probable cause of death being tuberculosis or cholera. But a curse is always a preferable tale, and thus the legend lives on.
The Old St. Thomas Church graveyard is open from dawn to dusk, giving you the opportunity to check out these infamous graves for yourself. While we encourage you to explore the church’s history, please remember that this is an active cemetery and respect needs to be paid to the deceased and their families. Do not vandalize or trespass on the property after hours.
The St. Thomas Courthouse has also been the subject of various local ghost stories. The building dates back to 1853, and it was the site of multiple hangings. One local describes many strange oddities when working there as a teenager, including missing tools and bizarre noises, which he believes could only have been the spirits of those who were put to death on the grounds many years ago.
The last people to be hung in the courthouse were Frank and Fred Temple, a father and son duo who were caught stealing a bike. When police officers Sam McKeown and Colin McGregor went to their home with an arrest warrant, a scuffle began and Frank fatally shot McGregor. Despite Frank being the one to kill the officer, both the father and the son were sentenced to death. Officer McKeown, who testified at the trial, was later buried in the Old St. Thomas Church, while the city’s police headquarters were named after McGregor. Frank and Fred Temple were hung at the St. Thomas Courthouse in June, 1935. Perhaps the tormented spirit of the unjustly sentenced Fred Temple and his angry father still remain...
Wellington Street School
Constructed in 1898, Wellington Street School (now home to the STEAM Centre) is very historic, even designated as a heritage property. It stopped functioning as an elementary school in 2009 but not before many of those who attended were apparently subjected to paranormal experiences.
There have been multiple testimonies of unexplainable and alarming noises in the school, and many claim even today to have witnessed young children peering out of the window and playing on the playground.
Myrtle Street School
Myrtle Street is another century-old elementary school, opened in 1904 and closed in the early 2000’s. At this school, too, people have testified that they witnessed ghostly children in the windows. But even more puzzling, there have been sightings of apparitions appearing to be 19th century soldiers in the hallways.
Though now demolished, disembodied voices on the surrounding grounds have been said to fill the air.
The Sparta Tearoom doesn’t just serve tea; it’s said to be home to two mischievous ghosts. Inhabitants Norma and Ken Roberts say they repeatedly experience various mysterious occurrences, including multiple items flying off of shelves and their bedroom’s latched door frequently being opened and closed.
One spirit is said to be a woman in a dress and bonnet, while the other is a man in a dark coat. These identities were confirmed when a medium visited the house, who was supposedly able to communicate with the spirits. The Sparta House's spirits were also featured on the television show Rescue Mediums, which can be watched online.
Every year from May to October, communities across the province open doors to hundreds of historical buildings, museums, private homes, and other interesting venues. Many of the participating sites offer special activities, such as tours, exhibitions and demonstrations – all free of charge!
St. Thomas’ Doors Open is coming up Saturday October 15th from 10am-4pm and will feature some unique sites and activities.
This year, Doors Open St. Thomas will feature heritage landmarks. From the Old St. Thomas Church built in 1822 to the future Elevated Park (Michigan Central Railway Bridge), you will get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into St. Thomas' amazing built heritage and the sites celebrating that heritage.
“Since it began, Doors Open Ontario has allowed millions of people to glimpse into some of our province’s most fascinating cultural sites. Not only does the program boost local economies, but it also raises awareness of and interest in heritage conservation. I encourage Ontarians and visitors to get out and discover the unique story and experience waiting behind every door.”
Culture Days is a not-for-profit organization that aims to build a "national network of cultural connections devoted to providing Canadians with opportunities to participate in, and appreciate, all forms of arts and culture.” For the past seven years, the last Friday of September has kicked off a three-day national celebration to increase Canadians' “awareness, accessibility, participation, and engagement” in their communities’ vibrant cultural life.
Culture Days celebrations return this year from Friday, September 30th to Sunday, October 2nd, and there are tons of free, participatory arts activities happening across Elgin County for you to participate in!
The two signature events of Culture Days in Elgin County that you do not want to miss are Culture Talks and The West End Arts Mingle.
Culture Talks launches the all-weekend event on Friday night from 6:00-8:30 at the Port Stanley Library and Festival Theatre, beginning with a reception. The evening will feature two prominent speakers, including Former Director of Scotiabank’s Fine Art Collection, Co-Chair of the Scotiabank Photography Award, and Canadian Art Champion Jane Nokes, who will be speaking about corporate sponsorship of the Arts to support growth and economic development. Paul Roth, Director of the Ryerson Image Center, will also attend, discussing the power of image and the growing photography sector in Canadian culture. The event will have local speakers as well, with the goal of celebrating our region’s cultural assets and creative potential.
The West End Arts Mingle will take place on Saturday from 9:00-7:00 at the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre, with tons of fun and free art activities all throughout the day. The event will also consist of an opening reception for the Art Centre’s newest juried exhibition, “In the View of the Artist,” from 1:00-3:00. There will be lots going on for both kids and adults, including crafts, displays, refreshments, and live music, making it the perfect community celebration of St. Thomas’s amazing artistic culture.
Check out all of the other Culture Days activities happening around Elgin County!
Friday, September 30th:
Saturday, October 1st:
Sunday, October 2nd:
The Michigan Central Railroad (MCR) Bridge is an icon of St. Thomas, and has been since 1929. It has been recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Site – and it’s no wonder why: the construction of this structure was an incredible engineering feat of its day.
At 855 feet long, with 13 concrete piers which rise 90 feet above the valley floor, the MCR Bridge is a marvel of Southwestern Ontario. At its peak, as many as 47 trains crossed the bridge daily, which contributed greatly to St. Thomas’s status as the Railway Capital of Canada. The railway was vital in the development of the city, which is why the bridge is so important to St. Thomas even today.
Because the Michigan Central Railroad Bridge is so significant, a community organization has taken on the ambitious task of transforming the bridge into Canada’s first elevated park, similar to the Highline in New York.
The vision takes shape in the St. Thomas Elevated Park Project, undertaken by On Track St. Thomas. The purpose of the project is to preserve this asset of our railway heritage for future generations to enjoy, while providing locals with an excitingly unique park for recreation.
On Track envisions the bridge to have flower beds, trees, benches, public art, and a trail for walking, running, and biking. This will be a huge draw for tourism, with a dramatic entrance to the city and a rare attraction, which will contribute to the economic revival of the Railway City. It will also be a perfect venue for a variety of community events.
Imagine the views!
The organization has accomplished lots in its first phase, including purchasing the bridge and lands surrounding it. The plan also involves environmental studies, insurance, initial stabilization, and surveys, which all require substantial funding. Thus, On Track is seeking donations, and in return, they will create bronze plaques on the bridge in gratitude of founders.
Can’t wait for the St. Thomas Elevated Park to open?
We have good news for you in the meantime!
The 2nd Annual Elevated Picnic is happening on Sunday, August 28th from 12:30-2:30. This picnic will allow you to experience an elegant lunch with a breathtaking view of the region, all while enjoying musical entertainment.
All proceeds from the event will go to funding the Elevated Park Project, making it not only an amazing experience but a great cause, too!
The St. Thomas Elevated Park Project is an inspiring display of local dedication to not only the past but the future of our city. We are so excited for the day in which we can take in the beauty of Central Elgin from a park in the sky, a day which is planned to come in Summer 2017.
Check out their website for more information on the project, and get your tickets to the Elevated Picnic before they’re gone.
St. Thomas’s favourite festival is back! Iron Horse Festival takes place Thursday, August 18th to Sunday, August 21st on the Elgin County Railway Museum grounds. There is so much going on at the festival this year – here are all of the amazing events and activities that you won't want to miss!
There will be a Midway full of carnival rides for everyone from the extreme daredevils to the little ones! Take a spin on the festival’s many thrill rides, including Round Up, Scrambler, Frolic, Dragon Wagon Coaster, Hampton Cars, Funni Farm Fun house, Zoo Affair Spin ride, Merry go Round and more!
One of the best aspects of Iron Horse Festival is its continued roots to St. Thomas’s railway heritage. This will be displayed proudly as always, with free train rides running throughout the festival! There will also be access to the Railway Museum, BX Tower, and CASO Station, so you can fully immerse yourself in our railway history!
The Kids’ Junction is the perfect spot for families, with tons of fun activities like crafts, photo sessions, playdough, finger puppets, mother/daughter facials, and lots more! There will also be awesome entertainment from Billy the Magician and Studio Dance Pointe, so be sure to bring out the little ones for a day of play! The Kids' Junction runs August 20th and 21st in the Elgin County Railway Museum.
Returning to the Iron Horse grounds is the Psychic Fair, with incredible booths performing tea leaf and tarot card readings, plus tons of other fascinating spiritual activities! The fair takes place August 19th-21st, inside the beautiful CASO Station.
Each year at Iron Horse Festival, the Main Stage blows crowds away with astonishing live musical performances, and this year will be no exception. Every night of the festival will feature three performances from exceptionally talented musicians, which you can enjoy at just $5 a night. Performers include Hogwild, Mudmen, Bayou Boys, Point Taken, Doghouse Rose, ZED, Stanley Brown Blues Band, Dave's Not Here, and Thunderstruck!
Iron Horse's Community Stage allows you to enjoy live music from local artists, all for free! Check out the stage everyday for fantastic performances from Chris Casserly & the Keepsakes, Justin Maki, Kerri Manning, Nimway, Butch Haller, Counting Down Hours, Last Highway, The Shangles, MCGF, Jetfighter, Black Frame Spectacle, The Outcasts, Jerome Thomas, and John Milles.
Kicking off the festival on August 18th, FreshFest is a celebration of Elgin County’s culinary finesse. Find bliss in the taste of appetizers produced by stellar local sources like Cafe Siam, Salt and Pepper, and Rail City Bistro, while sipping craft beer from Railway City Brewing, wine from Quai du Vin, or coffee from Las Chicas del Cafe - to name just a few of the choices! The night will be paired beautifully with great live music and the unique environment of the Railway Museum, creating the perfect night for every food-lover.
Roots, Brews, and BBQ helps to wrap up the festival on Sunday, August 21st, and there’s no better way to do so. Listen to live Roots music, taste the refreshing creations of regional craft breweries, and watch amateur bbq teams! There does not exist a more perfectly paired fusion than what Roots, Brews, and BBQ brings.
There is something for everyone at this year’s Iron Horse Festival, so come out and be a part of making it the best one yet!
Get your tickets for the Main Stage, Fresh Fest, and Roots, Brews, and BBQ online at www.ironhorsefestival.com
OR from the following locations: CASO Station, Elgin County Railway Museum, Railway City Brewing, Railway City Tourism, or The Wine Station. Tickets are also available at the door.
See you there!
Win big this summer with the second addition of our Summer Contest Series!
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