For the 24th Unusual Ontario Adventure (out of 160 I intend to check out!), my travels brought me to Railway City. Why? It’s home to Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station where I found St. Thomas’ CASO Station.
A Brief History of St. Thomas
You can find an extended version of St. Thomas’ history here. There are also more links provided to excellent sources should you wish to dive in even further!
Between the 1500s-1700s the Attawandaron, Huron, Mississauga, and Iroquois tribes inhabited the territory between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. In 1701 the Iroquois made a crafty deal with the British to hand over the land despite it being Mississauga territory, and even wrote in permanent hunting rights for themselves to boot. Today visitors can see the preservation of an Attawandaron village at Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site.
Throughout the 18th & 19th centuries settlers moved to the area, including Colonel Thomas Talbot. He used a sizable land grant to establish Talbot Settlement, now known as St. Thomas. Over the next 70 or so years the area transitioned from a settlement, to a village (1852), then a town (1861), and finally a city (1881). With its positioning between London and Port Stanley (Canada), and Buffalo and Detroit (USA), it quickly became known as Canada’s “Railway Capital”.
In 1979, passenger railway services shut down and the once bustling stations ground to a halt. Forced to pivot, St. Thomas reinvented itself as a centre for car manufacturing. Ford, Magna International, and Sterling Truck built large plants and became the citizens’ major employers. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession caused the auto plants to shut down and unemployment shook the community. The city of roughly 44,000 would be forced, yet again, to transform.
Canada Southern Railway
Ontario has a long and storied relationship with trains and railway transportation, both as a popular personal mode of transportation and in its role establishing towns and growing budding economies. The first southwestern Ontario railway was built in the 1850s for trading natural resources with the States via the London and Port Stanley Railway. Today all that remains in action is the tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas.
Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station was built by the Canada Southern Railway Company (CSR) beginning in June 1871 and completed in April of 1873. The town’s council knew a railway could bring a huge economic boost to the area. With this in mind, they enticed the Canada Southern Railway with a $25k ‘bonus’ to set up their corporate HQ in town. CSR was happy to oblige and bought 125 hectares (309 acres) of east end land. They built “a station building, engine house, blacksmith shop, paint shop, round house, waste shop, freight depot, and a large repair and maintenance building”. Four hectares (9 acres) were set aside to build CASO Station close to the L&PS Railway.
The deal couldn’t have been better for St. Thomas because CSR also constructed a province-wide railway line. Southwestern Ontario’s newest and most efficient line was comprised of 2 sections: east (St. Thomas to Amherstburg) and west (St. Thomas to Fort Erie). Thanks to having few bridges and bending tracks, as well as solid railroad foundations, it was the shortest line between Michigan and New York State.
New York Central Railway
Unfortunately, only 1 year after the CASO Train Station was built, CSR declared bankruptcy in 1874. Cue Cornelius Vanderbilt. A powerful American shipping and railroad businessman, he acquired CSR, which then became a part of the New York Central Railway system. Vanderbilt was so powerful that by the time he died in 1877 he was the richest man in the US. And, as often seems to be the case, with a lot of power and money comes a lot of drama and turmoil. (But you’ll have to click the link to his bio above to learn more.)
Michigan Central Railroad
In 1883 the line changed hands again and was leased to Michigan Central Railroad (MCR). Fun fact: the Vanderbilts owned this railroad too. Then, almost 50 years later in 1930, the former CSR bounced back into NYC handling. Another 38 years down the line, the company integrated into Penn Central. Sadly this also signaled the beginning of the end, and Penn Central declared bankruptcy in 1968. Conrail, another American rail company, became a major owner, but then in 1979 passenger train service was cut.
Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway
The early 1980s presented a mixed bag of news. Some bright light lay at the end of the tunnel when the company changed back into Canadian ownership with the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway. Unfortunately it also coincided with CASO Station shutting down and freight trains no longer running. The last change of hands (to date) occurred in 2005 when the North America Railway Hall of Fame bought CASO and remains in ownership today.
CASO Station – Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station
Out of Ontario’s 31 railway stations, despite being built in a small town CASO ended up being the largest. It’s safe to say that the Railway City moniker is perfect.
- CASO Station was designed by Canadian architect Edgar Berryman.
- Even today, the 3,300 square foot building remains one of the city’s largest at 354 feet long and 36 feet wide. It also once had 8 chimneys.
- It was the only station in Ontario that had segregation for train crews (quarters were racially separated).
- There once was a multi-purpose canopy that wrapped around the building, however it was removed in the 1970s. Imagine walking out of your office windows onto the canopy to check out the goings-on below. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall back then! Of course, it also had practical function as a sun and rain cover for the passengers and employees beneath it.
- Ontario’s longest small town train station was also responsible for shuffling the city’s layout and shifting the commercial district further east. Talbot Street became a central hub of activity and a park was created north of the station for guests and citizens to relax in and enjoy.
- What’s the secret sauce to ballooning a city’s population? Build a train station. In only a decade the population swelled to 4x its size because of CASO Train Station! You can imagine how quickly every industry benefitted from the economic ripple effect.
- Small town St. Thomas welcomed up to 30 trains per day passing through CASO Station at its peak in the 1920s.
- A standout in more ways than its size, the station dressed to impress. While the architectural trends of the time for similar buildings embraced the Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, and Second Empire styles, CASO Station was built in the Italianate style.
Names of Note: Dorothy Fay Palmer
Dorothy Fay Palmer sounds like someone I’d want to meet and have the chat with. She was born in 1925 and lived through the history you’re reading about now. A memorial plaque states that Dorothy and her husband John used to enjoy travelling the L&PS line to Lake Erie. She was also a teacher – a woman after my own heart. Since her passing in 2010 she has continued to take care of the Elgin County community. Her estate has helped make many community projects possible, including the Elevated Park on the former Michigan Central Railway’s historic Kettle Creek bridge and Algoma University’s bachelor of arts program expansion in the restored historic Wellington St. Public School. Unfortunately the Algoma program closed 2 years after its inauguration. In her desire to continue contributing to the improvement of the community her estate also made donations to the St. Thomas Public Library, London and Port Stanley Corridor, the St. Thomas campus for Fanshawe College, and the Princess Avenue Playhouse.
When I arrived at CASO Train Station and the adjacent Elgin County Railway Museum lot, came across the sign below. It appears there are plans for the site to be a multi-use park for many generations to enjoy together. It also states that a large donation from the estate of Dorothy Palmer, will help turn ideas into reality.
CASO Station Today
When I visited the location in 2020 it was closed due to covid and restorations (check out the before and in-progress pictures here)! If you’re putting off planning a wedding or event for when gathering is possible again, this might be a location to keep in mind for the future. There are two event spaces in the venue – Anderson Hall and the Farley Waiting Room. The Hall has 16-foot ceilings and can host parties of up to 156 (dinner and dancing) or 180 (no dancing). The Waiting Room holds 120 guests without seating or can accommodate 60 dinner guests. All I can say is, if I were to host an event here, I’d want to make it themed with everyone dressing in attire from the 1920s to recreate the atmosphere!
In addition to the event spaces, Ontario’s longest small town train station is home to retail space and the North America Railway Hall of Fame. I would suggest staying tuned to the website for visitor information.
St. Thomas is located about 30 km south of London, Ontario. When visiting CASO Station, there is a parking lot in front of the station, as well as plenty of free parking at the shopping centre nearby. Public toilets may be available in one of the businesses nearby while CASO Station is under renovations. There are plenty of shops and grocery stores nearby for food since the station is downtown.
How to Get There
- Gardiner Expressway W
- Take Hwy 401 W
- Take Exit 177A onto Col. Talbot Road toward ON-4 S/St. Thomas
- Continue on Sunset Drive/ON-4 to St. Thomas
- At the roundabout, take the 2nd exit onto Talbot Hill
- Take a right at the Food Basics and CASO Station will be on your righthand side
Ontario’s 160 Unusual Places Adventure Continues!
Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station marks stop #24 on my mission to visit Ron Brown’s 160 unusual things to see in Ontario. Next up is dependant on the pandemic, since we find ourselves amidst the 3rd (now extended) lockdown state of emergency in Ontario. Fingers crossed by the end of May things will be looking better than they are now at the end of April 2021. If you’re on Instagram, hop on over to follow along. To check out the first adventure in the series, visit the blog post on Waterloo’s Pioneer Memorial Tower. For more Unusual Adventures, check out this article on the historic Blair Sheave Tower, a favourite scene for many Ontario painters and photographers. Happy reading, fellow adventurers!
Sources and Further Reading
- Wyandotte-Nation.org – On the Survival of the Neutrals
- Archaeology Museum – The Attawandaron Discoveries, Part 3
- Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site
- St. Thomas Public Library
- City of St. Thomas
- Elgin County Tourism
- Railway City Tourism
- Elgin County Railway Museum
- CASO Station
- Canada Southern (Terry Link’s website is bar none the most incredible resource I came across. If you love trains or history, you must visit this website!)
- Ontario’s Southwest
- Globe and Mail – Sterling Truck to axe 720 jobs at St. Thomas, Ontario plant (2008)
- Globe and Mail – St. Thomas Sterling staff OK deal to close plant (2009)
- Globe and Mail – How the economic storm battered St. Thomas, Ont.’s factories (2011)
- Stats Canada Archives
- Charles Cooper Railway Pages