The Toronto Railway Historical Association fights to preserve Toronto's railway heritage.
According to Glenn Garwood of the Toronto Railway Historical Association, two vices and a pollutant formed the backbone of puritan Toronto’s industrial economy in the early decades of the 20th century: “It was beer and liquor, with railroads in between,” he says, referring to the Gooderham and Worts distillery to the east of downtown, the Canada Malting Company silos to the west, and the expansive railway lands—comprising nearly 50 tracks—that separated them on the waterfront.
But that plain of steel and wood was more than just a transportation hub for booze. As Garwood notes, much of Toronto’s history, from the construction of some of our most familiar landmarks, to our long tradition of being cut off from the waterfront, has its roots in the railway industry.*
Garwood doesn’t consider himself a railway enthusiast–or a “railway weenie,” as he calls them–but since joining the TRHA, he says, “I now know more about rail history than I ever wanted to know.”
It’s a history that he wants to preserve and share, by turning part of the John Street Roundhouse into a railway museum. But because of a planning conflict with Toronto Hydro, the electricity provider, that may never happen.
Garwood became a member of the TRHA board two years ago, after working as a project manager for the John Street Roundhouse development, a National Historic Site that currently houses the Steam Whistle Brewery and a Leon’s furniture showroom.
The roundhouse, which was built for the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1929 and 1931, originally served as a maintenance and repair shop for steam engines. The massive structure was capable of accommodating 32 locomotives, which were directed in and out of the complex on a 120-foot turntable. Engines serviced at the roundhouse were renowned for their “John Street Polish,” and with its smoke-reducing “direct steam process” technology, John Street’s was the most modern roundhouse in Canada.
But the decline of the railway industry after the Second World War eventually rendered the building obsolete, and in 1986 the roundhouse and its adjacent machine shop were closed. In 1988, CPR donated the roundhouse to the City of Toronto, expressing its desire to one day see the building reopened as a railway museum.
The TRHA was founded in 2001 to fulfill that mandate. According to Garwood, hundreds of volunteers have put in more than 50,000 hours of work restoring locomotives, railcars, and even old train stations, with the goal of making the John Street Roundhouse and the surrounding Roundhouse Park (built in 1997) top draws for Torontonians and tourists alike. Already, over $22 million has been invested in the site by developers and the City to that end.
The presence of Steam Whistle and Leon’s in the roundhouse has left TRHA with only three train stalls to its name, and these are reserved for locomotive restoration. As a result, the machine shop, which is owned by Toronto Hydro, is the only remaining space available to the TRHA for the establishment of a railway museum.
In 2008, due to an increase in demand for electricity, Toronto Hydro announced its intention to build an unmanned transformer station underneath the machine shop, leaving the shop itself to the TRHA. Garwood says the TRHA fully supported the proposal. In April of 2011, however, Toronto Hydro reversed its position, citing a lack of space underground, and allocated 60 per cent of the machine-shop floor to itself.
The TRHA will be allowed to use the remaining 40 per cent for the railway museum, although Toronto Hydro has said the museum will not be a permanent fixture and will only be open at their discretion.
Such limitations, says Garwood, would make the museum an impossibility. He says the TRHA has already accumulated an extensive collection of valuable railway artifacts that would have to be stored elsewhere when the museum is closed. “What are we supposed to do?” Garwood asks. “Put the museum in a suitcase?”
Garwood says the TRHA has provided Toronto Hydro with a number of alternative solutions that would allow the utility to build its transformer station without putting the hard work of TRHA’s volunteers to waste. For example, he says a patch of land adjacent to the machine shop would be perfect for Toronto Hydro’s purposes, and, as the land is city-owned, it would be easy to acquire. But, according to Garwood, Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines is not interested in discussing any alternatives.
Tanya Bruckmueller, a spokesperson for Toronto Hydro, says that the proposed alternative just isn’t feasible. “It would require more funds, [and] all of our funds come from ratepayers, so we have to be cognizant and prudent when it comes to projects.”
Bruckmueller also says that Haines is “definitely open” to discussing alternative solutions with the TRHA, but that she’s “not sure what would change with a meeting.”
Garwood says that something must change, before another opportunity “to preserve our history and preserve the stories that go with it” is lost. “We need to protect it,” he adds. “It’s meaningful not just for this generation but for future generations as well.”
Garwood notes that Toronto Hydro still needs to approach the City for site plan approval and building permits. It is possible–however unlikely–that the City could reject Toronto Hydro’s proposal. Garwood is encouraging the museum’s supporters to contact their local councillors to remind them of the importance of heritage sites to a city that has already lost so many. He says he wants councillors to ask themselves, “Does an electrical utility have to occupy a National Historic Site?”
“It can be worked out,” Garwood says. “This shouldn’t have to be a game of winners and losers.”
But it so often is, in this city, and so often it seems Torontonians are the losers.
*A brief history lesson: When the Great Toronto Fire of 1904 destroyed swaths of the city’s downtown core, including a large area just south of Front Street West, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway approached the City, hoping to strike a deal to secure use of the land. They offered to build an opulent new union station and a luxury hotel in exchange for the right to construct their railyards and roundhouses in close proximity to the new station.
The City decided that the railway companies would be allowed to build the station and hotel, but that they would have to fill in Ashbridge’s Bay and build their railyards and roundhouses there. The railways refused, and the City threatened to withhold the building permits for the proposed structures.
The railway’s solution to this impasse has been lamented by Torontonians ever since. According to Garwood, the railway companies simply “shipped in dirt from somewhere in Scarborough” and created their own land by filling in a portion of the lake. They built their railyards and roundhouses on this terra nova, forming a massive barrier between Torontonians and their waterfront. They also got their building permits: Union Station opened in 1927, and the Royal York opened in 1929.