St. Thomas Canada Southern Railway Station

On June 17, 2011, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the North America Railway Hall of Fame unveiled a provincial plaque at the Canada Southern Railway Station in St. Thomas, Ontario, to commemorate the St. Thomas Canada Southern Railway Station.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    The St. Thomas Canada Southern (CASO) Station, financed by American railway promoters, was constructed between 1871 and 1873 to serve as both the passenger station for St. Thomas and CASO’s corporate headquarters. During the 1920s, the station was one of the busiest in Canada. The Canada Southern rail route through southwestern Ontario ultimately linked Chicago and New York City, and was instrumental in the economic development and growth of St. Thomas. Designed in the Italianate style by Canadian architect Edgar Berryman (1839-1905), the impressive building is embellished with classical details such as pilasters, arched windows and passageways, wide eaves and a heavy cornice supported by paired brackets. The building’s design, scale and quality of interior finishes make it unique within Canadian architectural history and it stands as a symbol of the importance of railway development in southern Ontario.


    Financée par des promoteurs américains, cette gare de la Compagnie du chemin de fer du sud du Canada est construite entre 1871 et 1873. L’édifice doit alors faire office de gare de voyageurs pour la ville de St. Thomas, mais aussi de siège social de la compagnie ferroviaire. Au cours des années 1920, cette gare est l’une des plus fréquentées du Canada. Le chemin de fer du sud du Canada sillonne la région du Sud-Ouest de l’Ontario pour relier à terme les villes de Chicago et de New York. Il joue ainsi un rôle clé dans le développement économique et la croissance de St. Thomas. Conçu dans le style italianisant par l’architecte canadien Edgar Berryman (1839-1905), cet édifice impressionnant est rehaussé de détails d’inspiration classique : pilastres, fenêtres et couloirs en arcade, larges débords et lourde corniche soutenue par des corbeaux doubles. La conception, l’envergure et la qualité des finitions intérieures du bâtiment en font un chef-d’œuvre unique dans l’histoire de l’architecture canadienne, symbole de l’importance du développement des chemins de fer dans le Sud de l’Ontario.

Historical background


The construction of the route through southern Ontario in the early 1870s for the American-owned Canada Southern Railway (CSR and CASO1) Company ushered in a period of economic prosperity and growth for the town of St. Thomas, Ontario. To provide the shortest and most economical transportation route between Michigan and New York State, the railway company laid 369 kilometres (229 miles) of track between Amherstburg, Ontario and Fort Erie, Ontario. With connecting lines, the Canada Southern route ultimately provided links between the cities of Chicago, Illinois and New York City. In addition to shortening the distance between Detroit and Buffalo, the grade and quality of track were considered superior: the route had few bends, a good road-bed, heavy steel rails and few bridges. The prospectus for this project proudly noted that 96 per cent of the line was straight and no opposing upgrade exceeded 15 feet per mile.2

Aware of the benefits that would accompany the railway, the city council of St. Thomas voted a bonus of $25,000 to the project in 1870 to ensure that the railway’s corporate headquarters would be located in their town. The CSR opened its eastern route from St. Thomas to Amherstburg in 1872; the western route to Fort Erie was completed in early 1873.3

Canada Southern was the most important railway to come to St. Thomas, and it rapidly became St. Thomas’s largest source of employment. In the span of 10 years, the population of the town almost quadrupled as a direct result of the railway.4 By the 1920s, the St. Thomas CASO station was one of the busiest in Canada and St. Thomas had become known as the “Railway Capital of Canada.”

In the early 1870s, the company purchased 125 hectares (309 acres) of land at the far eastern end of St. Thomas for its enterprise. The enormous site housed the station building, as well as an engine house, blacksmith shop, paint shop, round house, waste shop, freight depot and a large repair and maintenance building (which contained a machine shop, boiler shop and car erecting shop). Nine acres (four hectares) of the site were set aside for the station and its grounds (just to the east of the already existing London and Port Stanley Railway).5 The station’s location caused the St. Thomas commercial district to shift eastward and stimulated construction along Talbot Street.6 A large park was landscaped in the area immediately north of the station (between the station and Talbot Street) and, in 1914, the YMCA constructed a building on the northwest corner of the park. In the 1940s, the park was commercially redeveloped; it no longer exists today.7

Station architecture

The St. Thomas CASO station was built between June 1871 and April 1873. Designed by the Canadian architect Edgar Berryman (1839-1905), the building was the largest of 31 CSR railway stations built in Ontario during the 1870s. The station was also unusually large for a town the size of St. Thomas, as it housed the corporate headquarters of the Canada Southern Railway and served as the town’s passenger station. Unlike most major railway stations in Canada, which were built in the Romanesque (Montreal’s Windsor Station), Beaux-Arts (Toronto and Ottawa) or Second Empire (Montreal’s Bonaventure) styles, the St. Thomas station was built in the Italianate style.8 Its impressive stature was clearly designed to convey a sense of importance to visitors.9 The 1882 publication Picturesque Canada reported that the station was “one of the finest in the Dominion, and reminds one of the large structures in Chicago and New York.”10 The station remains one of the largest buildings in the city.11

The most striking feature of the structure is the extreme length and regularity of its two main façades. The two-storey building is 108 metres (354 feet) long and a mere 11 metres (36 feet) wide.12 The north façade faced the park and Talbot Street, while the main tracks of the station were on the south side. The station was originally surrounded by a wide brick paver platform on the south side and wooden plank platforms on the other three sides. There were service tracks on three sides of the building (there was no service track on the east side).13 The building was originally surrounded by a canopy at the first-floor level. The canopy roof had a very slight slope and was covered in Vermont slate. It was supported by cast-iron columns with ornamental capitals and cast-iron brackets. The canopy provided protection from the elements for passengers and staff, shade for the first floor and was occasionally used as a viewing platform by employees seeking a good vantage point. It was also used as a staff shortcut between upper-floor offices.14 The east, north and west sections of the canopy were removed around 1962; the remaining south section was removed in 1969.15 The main Virginia slate roof of the station has also undergone alterations. There were originally eight tall chimneys on the roof ridge (since removed), and dormer windows were added at a later date (the dormers were removed and subsequently replaced). Two low brick fire-breaks now divide the roof line roughly into thirds.16

The station was constructed using 400,000 buff-coloured bricks. The bricks were manufactured at brickyards in Yarmouth Township, a municipality that surrounded St. Thomas on the east. These brickyards formed to help meet the construction demands of several Canada Southern buildings constructed during the 1870s. The buff-coloured bricks were later tinted red using a rouging technique.

The station was built in the Italianate style, an eclectic style loosely based on the forms of the Italian Renaissance. The Italianate style became popular in Britain during the early 1800s. Its variety, adaptability and flexibility made it an ideal choice for residences and new types of public buildings, such as railway stations, men’s clubs and public libraries.17 Hallmarks of the Italianate style are the regular use of classical elements — such as arches, pilasters and columns, ornamental capitals, brackets and corbels, overhanging cornices, oculi and dentils. The Italianate style was adopted in the United States in the 1830s. By the end of the decade, it was beginning to make its way into Canada, and from 1840 to 1880, was being used regularly in Canada. It was ideal for large-scale commercial, public and industrial structures, but it was not generally used for Canadian railway stations, and certainly not on the scale of the St. Thomas station.18

The Italianate style is most evident on the exterior of the station. The front (north) and rear (south) façades are divided into 44 regular bays, each defined with a shallow grid of pilasters. The roof has wide eaves and a heavy cornice, supported by ornate large-scaled paired brackets at the top of each pilaster. Large dentils fill the spaces between the brackets. Each bay contains a tall, narrow four-over-four double-hung window (on the first storey, some of the bays contain panelled doorways instead of windows). The first-storey windows are topped with segmental arches. The second-storey windows are articulated with round-headed arches surmounted with brick hood-mouldings and keystones. A line of dentils articulates the first- and second-storey line of each bay. A string course surrounds the building where the canopy has been removed. Two broad, 4-metre (14-foot) wide passageways provide access from the north side of the building through the station to the platform on the south side. The passageways are embellished with brick basket arches. The second storey is accessible through stairways leading off the passageways.

The east and west gable ends continue the decorative rhythm and formal vocabulary of the main façades. Each gable end is divided into three bays by pilasters and each bay contains a tall, narrow arched window (segmental arches on the first storey, and round-headed arches surmounted with brick hood-mouldings and keystones). Wood-panelled doors replace the windows in the central bays of the first storey. Each gable end features detailed pediments with an oculus surmounted with an ornamental keystone and brick-hood moulding. The pediments are heavily dentilated and are supported with the same ornate large-scale paired brackets as the rest of the building.

Station history

As befitting its status as the corporate headquarters of the CSR, the station’s original interior was as impressive as the exterior. The interior featured exceptionally high ceilings (5.5 metres/18 feet) on the ground floor; 5 metres/16 feet on the second floor) supported on columns with decorative capitals, wooden floors (some later covered with terrazzo) excellent millwork, plaster work, heavy wooden trim around all the windows and interior doors, wooden wainscoting and tongue-and-groove panelling in some areas. The ground floor rooms were embellished with plaster crown moulding and panelled soffits on the ceiling. Other significant features included wooden chair rails, baseboards, newel posts, staircases and balustrades.19 As one of the town’s most important buildings, the station would have been among the first to benefit from gas lighting and, later, electricity.20

The entire building was planned to accommodate its function: every major room on the ground floor was accessible through doors on both the track and town sides of the building and, as the main floor rooms opened directly onto one another, there was an ease of circulation. The lack of corridors maximized the width of the ground floor rooms.21 The station also had an attic and a cellar with a tunnel that led to the railway tracks.

The public ground floor contained separate gentlemen’s and ladies’ waiting rooms, and a ticket office, barbershop, washrooms, refreshment room, dining room, kitchen and baggage room. The spacious gentlemen’s waiting room also functioned as a library and a smoking and reading room. Railway travel was considered a respectable method of travel for unescorted women in the late 1800s. In order to maintain a safe and genteel environment, the ladies’ waiting room was supervised by an attendant of the Station Master’s staff who assisted passengers and announced arrivals and departures. The 5.5-metre (18-foot-high) ceilings of the gentlemen’s and women’s waiting rooms were supported on cast-iron pillars on plinths with capitals. The decorative capitals of the columns consisted of female Greco-Roman heads, lead acanthus leaves and lead and wood jack-in-the-pulpits.22 The original plan also provided an office for the railway detective. Shortly after 1914, a small holding cage that served as a jail for unruly passengers or lawbreakers was constructed out of a portion of the gentlemen’s waiting room.

For many years, one of the most celebrated features of the St. Thomas CASO station was its spacious formal dining room, staffed by uniformed waitresses who served meals on fine china. The waitresses were young women who lived and worked at the station (they were boarded in sleeping quarters upstairs and closely chaperoned). Passengers could place their orders ahead of time from the train and their meals would be ready on their arrival. Meals were served through a hidden hatchway from the kitchen; breakfast, lunch, tea and supper were available.23

The dining room was also used to host dinners for visiting dignitaries. In 1914, a grand dinner was held to honour Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Arthur (Governor General of Canada, and Duke of Connaught and Strathearn). Over the years, various American celebrities — Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields and Babe Ruth — visited the dining room. It was also used regularly for local church and service club meetings. The large and elegant room featured the same architectural details seen in the waiting rooms: columns with ornamental capitals, wooden shutters (some of them with louvers), wainscoting and high ceilings. By the 1930s, dining cars on the trains replaced the demand for meals at the station, and the dining room was reduced to a lunchroom. Over the years, the dining room underwent several alterations; it is presently being restored to its original state.24

The second storey of the station housed the corporate offices of the Canada Southern Railway Company. It was also carefully planned to accommodate its function. Access to the second storey was restricted to senior employees of the railway company and female dining room staff. The second storey contained the offices of the general superintendent, assistant superintendent, treasurer, paymaster, engineer, solicitor, draughtsmen, freight agents and chief clerk, as well as bedrooms for the waitresses and matron. A 2.4-metre-wide (8-foot-wide) passageway ran along most of the south side of the building, providing access to all the second-storey offices and rooms. Exterior windows ran along the north side of the building and interior windows on the south side allowed light to enter many of the offices from the corridor. Reflecting the status of the railway company, the second floor was finely appointed — the floors were carpeted and the décor was luxurious. Over the years, as the ownership of the railway changed, the offices were used for different purposes.


The Canada Southern Railway Company was short-lived. In 1874, the company declared bankruptcy and two years later, the railway was taken over by the Vanderbilts, owners of the New York Central Railway (NYC). In 1883, the railway was leased to Michigan Central Railroad (MCR), which was also owned by the Vanderbilts. In 1930, it was subleased back to the NYC and in 1968, the line was amalgamated into the Penn Central Railway. When Penn Central went bankrupt in 1976, Conrail bought the controlling interest in the company. In 1983, the railway finally passed into Canadian hands when it was purchased jointly by the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway.25 On January 31, 1979, passenger traffic ceased. Freight traffic through the station ended in the 1980s and the station building was gradually shut down.26

By the late 1980s, efforts were underway to obtain heritage status for the station and to effect the restoration of the building. Although the building became a heritage railway station under the National Railway Stations Protection Act in 1988, the restoration progressed slowly. In 1996, the Canadian National Railway abandoned the station and, from 1996-2001, the building deteriorated. On Track purchased the building in 200127 and feasibility studies concerning the restoration of the building were carried out. The building was protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust heritage conservation easement in 2002. A new roof was installed in 2004, funded partly by a Trillium grant and a loan from Community Futures. In 2005, the North America Railway Hall of Fame assumed ownership of the building and fundraising and restoration began in earnest. The work continues today.28

As the North America Railway Hall of Fame notes, the Canada Southern Railway Company’s project was “part of a North America-wide trend to promote railway construction as a cornerstone to economic development and settlement.”29 In addition to fostering local economic and cultural development in St. Thomas, the railway improved transportation and communication systems between Canada and the United States.30 The impressive St. Thomas CASO station stands in testament to the important role that the railway played in the history and development of southern Ontario and the city of St. Thomas.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Katie Cholette PhD in preparing this paper. She is an Assistant Professor of Fine Art History at Carleton University.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2011, 2012

1 These abbreviations appear to have been used interchangeably. Over time, however, the St. Thomas Station has come to be known, and referred to, as the CASO or the CASO Station.

2 Canada Southern Railway Company, Prospectus, Reports and Other Documents (New York, 1871), 9.

3 Douglas N.W. Smith, The New York Central in Canada: Southern Ontario Lines, Vol. 1. (Ottawa, ON: Trackside Canada, 1998), 10.

4 Population increase of approximately 2,200 to 8,400. Paddon, Wayne, Glimpses into St. Thomas Railway History. Vol. 1: The Canada Southern Railway (St. Thomas, ON: (St. Thomas, ON: Paddon Books, 1989), 120-123.

5 Canadian Home Journal, (St. Thomas), April 28, 1871.

6 “Statement of Significance, St. Thomas CASO Station,” Ontario Heritage Trust Easement Files, p. 1; “Tour of the CASO Station,” 3.

7 “Tour of the CASO Station,” 5.

8 Robert Hunter, “Former Canada Southern Railway Station,” (Hull, QC: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Railway Station Report, ca. 1889), 29.

9 Hunter, “Former Canada Southern Railway Station,” 29.

10 G.M. Grant, (ed.), Picturesque Canada: The Country As It Was And Is. Vol. II (Secaucus, New Jersey: The Wellfleet Press, 1988. Originally published: Toronto: Belden, 1882), 512.

11 Hunter, “Former Canada Southern Railway Station,” 29. St. Thomas became a city in 1881.

12 Canadian Home Journal (St. Thomas), 24 March 1871, 6.

13 Email correspondence between the author and Laurence Grant. 12 April 2011.

14 “Tour of the CASO Station,” 4, 11.

15 Ibid., 11. At the time of writing, it is anticipated that a reproduction canopy will be added to the structure.

16 Hunter, “Former Canada Southern Railway Station,” 29.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 30.

19 “Statement of Significance, St. Thomas CASO Station,” 1 and 2.

20 A gas plant was built in St. Thomas in 1874-75. By 1881, the community had gas streetlights and electricity was being used for some street lighting by 1887. Electricity generated by Niagara Power arrived in St. Thomas by 1911.

21 Canadian Home Journal (St. Thomas), 25 November 1873, 4.

22 “Tour of the CASO Station,” 6.

23 Ibid., 8.

24 Ibid., 8-9.

25 “The Canada Southern Railway Station,” The Railway Capital of Canada: St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. St. Thomas, Ontario: North America Railway Hall of Fame, 2008. Smith, New York Central in Canada, 15, 18, 19, 29, 32, 33, 35.

26 “Station Timeline,” The Railway Capital of Canada: St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. St. Thomas, Ontario: North America Railway Hall of Fame, 2008.

27 On Track is a not-for-profit St. Thomas-based community group that has had a number of railway-themed projects. They commissioned a feasibility study of the CASO Station by Commonwealth Historic Resource Management that was completed in January of 2003. On Track turned over ownership to the North American Railway Hall of Fame by early 2005.

28 “Station Timeline,” The Railway Capital of Canada: St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. St. Thomas, Ontario: North America Railway Hall of Fame, 2008.

29 “Tour of the CASO Station,” 2.

30 Ontario Heritage Trust. “Statement of Significance, St. Thomas CASO Station,” 2.