Seeing better days

An onsite workshop was created at the station, employing local youth and teaching them how to restore historic windows.

Photo: An onsite workshop was created at the station, employing local youth and teaching them how to restore historic windows.


Kiki Aravopoulos

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Feb 11, 2010

The St. Thomas Canadian Southern Railway station (CASO) occupies a prominent position on the city’s main street. Perhaps it is the station’s sheer size – many refer to it as a horizontal skyscraper – that contributes to its landmark value. It is easy to see how it would have shaped not only the development of St. Thomas, but also the railways of southwest Ontario, Michigan and New York State. Yet years of abandon, vandalism and neglect led many to believe that its best days were gone.

From 1871-73, 31 railway stations were constructed as part of the CASO project; the one at St. Thomas was the largest. Its status as the international CASO headquarters is reflected in both its scale and construction. The Italianate style, unusual for railway construction at the time, is evident in the station’s tall symmetrical plan and decorative architectural features signifying the importance of the station to this region. St. Thomas was seen as the shortest and most direct route between Detroit and Buffalo and was a regular stop for goods travelling from many American cities. The station became the economic and social centre of St. Thomas.

From the beginning, however, the station was plagued with difficulties. CASO went bankrupt the year after the station was completed and the station was sold a few years later. In 1925, a fire damaged much of the roof and second floor. As the importance of the railways began to decline in the mid-20th century, so did the fortunes of the CASO station. Passenger trains stopped running in the 1970s and, with the last employee leaving the station in 1996, the windows were boarded up and this once magnificent structure fell into a state of disrepair.

The North American Railway Hall of Fame (NARHF), a not-for-profit organization, acquired the station in 2005. They are currently working to adaptively reuse the station by preserving its existing heritage features, while altering parts of the building to allow it to accommodate new uses, ranging from retail and office space to an interpretative centre. Funds secured through a job creation program saw all 160 windows of the building repaired and restored. The Ontario Heritage Trust also committed emergency funds toward a study that focused on repairing the deteriorating soffits and facias.

Restoration of the interior is also underway. The dining hall hosted its first wedding in 2005. The space continues to be rented out for events, allowing NARHF to generate revenue during restorations. Rehabilitating a building of this size is a daunting project, but progress is constantly being made. It now looks as though the station’s best days are still ahead.