Case study: Brockville Railway Tunnel


Erin Semande

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

Location: 1 Block House Island Road, Brockville
Owner: City of Brockville
Partners: Brockville Railway Tunnel Committee (plus countless generous donors)
Original use: Canada’s first railway tunnel and part of the Brockville and Ottawa (B&O) Railway
Current use: Publicly accessible pedestrian railway tunnel

The Brockville Railway Tunnel runs half a kilometre (525 metres or 1,722 feet) underneath downtown Brockville from the waterfront to Pearl Street. Constructed from 1854-60, the tunnel was a major feat of engineering for its time. The last train passed through the tunnel in 1969 and, in 1983, the tunnel was purchased by the City of Brockville.

For years after its closure, only the first 24 metres (80 feet) of the tunnel was publicly accessible. Then, in 2011, the Brockville Railway Tunnel Committee was formed by city council. With a volunteer committee of nine plus a chairperson, it took six years to see this project come to fruition. Their biggest challenge was raising funds and completing the project on time. A professional fundraiser was hired to help the committee obtain government grants and corporate donations. There were a number of challenges that were overcome with government regulations, building codes, fire regulations and environmental concerns. It was definitely a learning experience for the municipality and volunteer committee.

Brockville Railway Tunnel

Brockville Railway Tunnel

A total of 23 local contractors worked on the project as a proud co-operative team to see the tunnel open. Masonry rehabilitation work was completed, a new drainage system and a smooth concrete floor were installed. New state-of-the-art lighting manufactured by Philips Lighting was installed to highlight the structural and geological features, such as the beautiful mineral formations created by groundwater seeping through the walls and ceiling.

Security systems were added, including video cameras and emergency “help” buttons, along with Wi-Fi and cellular network access. On August 12, 2017 the Brockville Railway Tunnel had its grand reopening and over 25,000 people toured the tunnel during its opening weekend.

The goal of the Brockville Railway Tunnel Committee was to promote tourism and economic development, and make the tunnel a tourist destination and attraction for Brockville. The opening of such an iconic attraction has had a significant impact on Brockville’s tourism draw. It was the top tourist attraction for Brockville on TripAdvisor in 2018 and remains in that coveted spot in 2019. As of July 2019, the tunnel had attracted 92,675 visitors in 2019 alone. Local business owners have noticed an increase in customers and new businesses have opened up in the downtown core, including a craft brewery and restaurant. The tunnel has also been used as a hands-on educational resource for students in the Geological Sciences Department at Queen’s University (Kingston).

The project has received a number of awards: a Canadian Railroad Historical Association award for Preservation (2016), a Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conversation (2017), an Economic Development Council of Ontario award for Physical Infrastructure and Redevelopment, and a Railroad Association of Canada award for induction into the Hall of Fame.

The significant heritage features of the Brockville Railway Tunnel are protected by the City of Brockville with an Ontario Heritage Act designation bylaw. This spectacular and unique heritage resource is free to visit, but donations are greatly appreciated.