We’ve all heard that saying that St. Thomas is the “Railway Capital of Canada” - but have you ever wondered why?
The simple answer is that St. Thomas was located in a crucial location and at its peak was a major hub for a multitude of prominent railways and served as the primary stop on the Canadian short cut between Detroit and Buffalo. By 1914 a total of seven different railways brought in more than 100 trains per day.
But did you know that the railway also played an incredibly crucial role in the development and growth of St. Thomas? To be sure, there were major cities in Canada that also served as booming railways centers. But the railways transformed St. Thomas from a town of just 1700 people in 1860 to a city of more than 39,000 people today.
The gigantic Canada Southern Railway Station (CASO) was built in the 1870s in Millersburg, originally a separate community, located to the east of the Horton Farmers Market. After St. Thomas invested heavily in the Canada Southern line, St. Thomas and Millersburg merged and shortly after transitioned from a town to a city in 1881.
The first train arrived July 5th 1856 on the London and Port Stanley Railway (L&PS). The L&PS ran between London, St. Thomas and Port Stanley and was later electrified in 1915. One of the earliest electric railways in Ontario, it was carrying almost one million passengers a year by 1920. Other railways followed including the Great Western Railway, now CN, in the 1870s.
At the centre of the city where CASO Station was located, many job opportunities arose as more railway infrastructure was built. There was an engine house, blacksmith shop, paint shop, roundhouse, waste shop, freight depot, and a large repair and maintenance shop - the current home of the Elgin County Railway Museum.
CASO Station, at 354 feet long and 36 feet wide, is the largest station of its style left in North America. The building originally was surrounded by a canopy that was used as a vantage point for employees who came out of windows and onto the roof to view any exciting events at the station - such as the arrival of celebrities! Celebrities included Queen Victoria’s son, and Governor General of Canada, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, American Celebrities: Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees.
Even the construction of these buildings spawned growth as many new brickyards formed. Interesting fact: the original bricks of the CASO station were yellow but by the 1900’s the building was covered in a red brick dust compound to change the colour, possibly covering smoke stains, or to match the bricks to the newest fashioned red.
Because of the boom caused by the railway, many businesses needed to accommodate. A local market that has deep roots in our railway past, theHorton Farmers Market opened its doors in 1878 due to the need forproduce 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.