St Thomas, Ontario is a fairly old city that has stood the test of time. A history built through the revolution brought about by the rise of the locomotive industry. The city has that unique charm of a modern city that is still quite in touch with its roots. A great place to spend a laid back and relaxing vacation away from the hustle and bustle of big city life. But before you book any Airbnb vacation rentals check out these activities to try.
A Note From the Station: The L&PS Line (London and Port Stanley) is where we find Railway City Tourism located. We operate out of the historic replica L&PS Railway Station in St. Thomas and thus have a vested interest in the history of the area.
An Historic Look at the L&PS Rail Line from the desks of the Elgin Heritage Centre
The route of what was the London and Port Stanley Railway is one of the oldest in the province. The northerly portion, now owned by CN, from St. Thomas to London has been in almost constant use since 1856. The southerly portion, from St. Thomas to Port Stanley, was put back into service by the Port Stanley Terminal Rail in 1988.
The origins of the line lie in the extensive use of lake transportation for freight in the pre-rail era and the need to bring the freight up to London. In the 20th century it gained a new lease on life as the flagship for Ontario Hydro’s planned province-wide electric rail system. Today, its two functions, as a freight hauler and as a tourist line, reflect the uses to which it was put from earliest times.
A large part of London’s growth came about as the result of being near a lake port. The lakes, as late as the 1850s, were still a key means of shipping goods. London was connected to Port Stanley by a plank road, one of the best in the province by the 1840s as the local MPP was chairman of the colony’s Board of Public Works. But, like all roads at the time, it was a slow, cumbersome means of shipping with the potential for damage to man, beast and cargo.
The railways were an attractive alternative to ships and roads bringing about a boom in rail line construction at the beginning of the 1850s. The province’s largest railway, the Great Western (GWR), passed through London in 1853 linking it with Hamilton and Windsor. Its key function was the transfer of US goods from the mid west to the Atlantic seaports. With a link to the continental rail system in place London businessmen looked for an alternative way to bring goods to the city partially to provide competition to the GWR and keep freight rates low.
Their link to the lake was chartered as the London and Port Stanley Railway in 1853 and after nearly three years of construction the line opened for traffic on October 16, 1856. A majority of the stock was held by the City of London, the Counties of Elgin and Middlesex, and a lesser amount by St. Thomas then a small village of about 2000 persons.
During its early years the line had only two locomotives, about 40 freight cars, and, by 1870, six passenger cars. Lumber, grain and produce were shipped to “Port” and imports brought up to London and St. Thomas. By 1870 the road was beginning to haul coal from the US, a trade that would grow significantly in the decades ahead. Another growing business was taking vacationers to the lake. By 1870 almost half the business of the line was in passenger traffic and passengers had more than doubled over the preceding 10 years to 44,000 a year. Many passengers stayed at a large three-storey Fraser House Hotel perched on the bluff overlooking the lake and built by a former L&PS conductor named William Fraser. It would be the pre-eminent hotel in the village for the next 30 years.
After years of operation by the original Board of Directors, the line was leased in 1874 to the Great Western Railway (later owned by the Grand Trunk) for twenty years. The L&PS became a very small part of one of the largest railways in Canada. Regularly on the verge of bankruptcy, the GTR survived as a transfer service for American goods crossing Ontario on the short route to the Atlantic seaboard and had little time for the L&PS eventually giving up the operation of the line in 1892. In December 1893, the Lake Erie and Detroit River Railway took over the lease. The LE&DRR, built by Hiram Walker, a distillery owner located near Windsor, was already taking vacationers to the lake on its two routes: one from Walkerville (Windsor) running along the north shore of Lake Erie as far as Ridgetown and the other from Sarnia running south to Blenheim and Rondeau. By 1900 the line had a series of ferries running from Port Stanley and Rondeau to Conneaut and Cleveland. Known as car ferries, they were designed to allow entire hopper cars filled with coal to be rolled onto the ferry and rolled off at the receiving port. Passengers were accommodated on the upper deck.
The LE&DRR made several improvements at Port Stanley. The rail line was extended along the beach to the foot of the bluffs where a rebuilt incline railway took passengers to the top, 50 at a time. By the 1890s trains were bringing cottagers down at night and returning them in the morning to St. Thomas and London.
Coal was to be the line’s main business and the company intended to make Port Stanley the main entry point. Here they planned to build a huge coal dock conditional on an extension of the lease. However when they applied in 1902, London’s then mayor, Adam Beck, refused the extension. The dock was built at Rondeau and the next year the line was sold by the Walker Family to the Pere Marquette Railway a line out of Michigan looking for a route to run freight between Chicago and Buffalo.
Also prone to bankruptcy, the Pere Marquette’s line ended at St. Thomas where it built shops and an engine house on Elm Street in 1904. It had to obtain running rights over the Michigan Central to get to Buffalo. The PMR’s main business meant little capital was left for upkeep on the L&PS. But the line’s white knight was waiting in the wings for the lease to run out. When it did so in 1913 it was quickly turned from an old steam powered “coal drag” into one of the most efficient electric railways in the province.
The man now at the controls was Adam Beck. Since denying the Walker Family an extension of the L&PS lease in 1903 he had become MPP for London and had also been chairman of Ontario Hydro since its founding in 1906. Beck had been waiting out the lease planning to rebuild the line into a model of what a radial railway should look like. The radials would link cities and towns across the province with efficient, quiet, inexpensive electric passenger trains. Beck’s gruff, acerbic personality didn’t do much to advance his cause and the railways were not inclined to give up the passenger traffic in populous southern Ontario. What finally did the ambitious project in however was the change in government in 1919 which saw the United Farmers of Ontario take over. The party actually asked Beck to be premier but he declined. The conservative minded E. C. Drury became premier and wouldn’t support the project. While Beck’s province-wide plan was never built, electrification of the L&PS proceeded as soon as the lease expired.
Between January 1, 1914 and July 22, 1915 when it reopened the line was completely transformed. A commission was established to oversee the rebuilding and operation of the line. Beck, knighted in 1914, forecast a total of 450,000 riders following electrification. Stations were either rebuilt or replaced. The St. Thomas station was replaced with a new one opening April 23, 1920. The most extensive redevelopment occurred in Port Stanley where the railway built a huge bathhouse where one could even rent a bathing suit. The baseball fields between the tracks and the hill were improved, walks and lights were provided on picnic hill.
The ridership increased even beyond Beck’s estimate with over a million rider-trips a year by 1921. Much of the traffic was from cottagers and from large picnics organized by schools, clubs and businesses. Among the largest were the Irish Benevolent Society’s and the Commercial Travellers’. Both would see 10,000 to 12,000 people flood the picnic areas on the bluffs and the flats near the incline. Races, baby contests and band concerts entertained the picnickers. In 1926 the L&PS built a huge dance pavilion right on the lake front. Later known as the Stork Club, the dance floor could accommodate 5,000 dancers. Dozens of well-known bands and orchestras played the Stork Club into the 1960s.
After WWII, as the automobile became pervasive, passenger rail traffic declined. This was the case with the L&PS as well and in February of 1957, the passenger cars made their last run. Freight operations continued until 1966 when the line was given to CN by the city of London in return for a large property near Western Fair which had housed the railway’s car shops. CN abandoned the tracks south of St. Thomas in 1982 and while it continues to run freight into London from factories in St. Thomas, those days could well be numbered.
Mike Baker is the curator of the Elgin County Museum (now the Elgin Heritage Centre).