What’s There to Do in St. Thomas, Ontario?
Last fall I spent a day in Ontario’s Railway City while on a mission to visit Ontario’s 160 Unusual Sites. Here is the article I wrote on Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station. It was my first time spending a full day there and I was happily surprised to discover all of the fun things to do in St. Thomas, Ontario! I grew up 1.5 hours away, and went to teachers college only 30 minutes away, but had never visited. That being said, this charming city blew me away with surprise after surprise. It’s been a blast to research for this piece. I hope your visit will be as delightful as mine was.
A Very Brief History Snapshot
While putting together this post on what to do in St. Thomas for a day, I found so many interesting facts that I wrote an extended version of the city’s history here. There are also more links below to excellent resources should you wish to dive even further into St. Thomas’ history!
Between the 1500s-1700s the Attawandaron, Huron, Mississauga, and Iroquois nations inhabited the territory between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. In 1701 the Iroquois craftily made a deal with the British to hand over the land, despite it being Mississauga territory, and even writing in permanent hunting rights for themselves! This deal still makes the news with court disputes. To witness history up close, visit Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site to see a preserved Attawandaron village.
Throughout the 18th & 19th centuries settlers moved to the area, including Colonel Thomas Talbot who used a large land grant to establish Talbot Settlement, now known as St. Thomas. Over the next 70 or so years the area transformed from a settlement, to a village (1852), then a town (1861), and finally a city in 1881. With its positioning between London and Port Stanley (Canada), and Buffalo and Detroit (USA), St. Thomas quickly became known as Canada’s “Railway Capital” with 100s of trains passing through daily. Visitors can still check out the original train station, which is also Ontario’s longest small town train station, and what initially drew me to St. Thomas!
At the begining of 1979, passenger railway services ground to a halt and slowly the once bustling train stations fell quiet. St. Thomas soon reinvented itself as a centre for car manufacturing, with Ford, Magna International, and Sterling Truck all building large plants and becoming major employers for the residents. Unfortunately, the industry was short-lived. Thanks to the 2008 recession, St. Thomas’ auto plants shut down and unemployment crashed through the community. St. Thomas had to reinvent itself again. With a skilled and eager workforce, things are starting to look up for the city of roughly 44,000. Hopefully the pandemic won’t strike it with too much force.
Stop 1 – CASO Station
The whole reason I went to St. Thomas was to visit the Canada Southern Station (CASO Station). Its claim to fame as Ontario’s Longest Small Town Train Station lured me in. You can find all of the juicy fascinating details about that Ontario 160 Unusual Adventure by clicking on the blue text above!
- Built over 2 years in the 1870s from 1871-1873 by the Canada Southern Railway Company (CSR), CASO Station was the largest out of 31 railway stations built in Ontario. And, technically speaking, St. Thomas wasn’t even an official city when CASO Station was built. (That didn’t happen until 1881 if you remember from above’s rapid history recap.) That’s pretty impressive it became the longest small town station in Ontario when you think about it!
- CASO Station was dual purpose, hence its size. The ground floor was for passengers coming and going on their trips and upstairs housed the Canada Southern Railway Company’s headquarters. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall back then!
This is the perfect first stop on your day’s adventure in Railway City! When I visited the location in 2020 it was closed due to covid and restorations. 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’s a large dining hall with 16-foot ceilings, retail space, and the North America Railway Hall of Fame. I would suggest staying tuned to the website for visitor information in the meantime.
Stop 2 – Railway Museum
The Elgin County Railway Museum is steps away from CASO Station which makes it an easy second choice to visit. While it is closed due to the pandemic, it’s still fun to walk around the grounds and get a feel for the size and scope of the history there.
- There is a gigantic HO scale model train display inside the museum which is a replica of the Southern Ontario railways between Windsor and Niagara Falls. There’s even an interactive component for the kids. If you’re a Where’s Waldo fan, challenge yourself to find St. Thomas’ historical buildings amongst the display. Know what’s even more of a fun fact? It took volunteers 20 years to build the massive train set!!! That’s a whole lot of love and dedication right there.
- A train museum wouldn’t be complete without life-size trains. The rolling stock gallery includes steam, diesel, and electric engine trains, cabooses (Such a fun word to say!), baggage and passenger cars, motor and hand cars, velocipedes (Does this make anyone else think of insects?), “and more”! For the record, I had an idea of what rolling stock meant when I read this, but still had to check online. For anyone else who’s curious, Canada.ca defines rolling stock as “a locomotive, engine, motor car, tender, snow-plough, flanger, and any car or railway equipment designed for movement on its wheels on the rails of a railway.“
- Of the rolling stock available for visitors to go inside, only one, the Canadian National baggage car, is in its original condition. I get goosebumps thinking about what a trip back in time that must be to see in person! It’s definitely on my list to return to when possible. The baggage car also used to be a mobile railway museum. Repurposed spaces – you gotta love them!
- If you’re reading this during our most recent (3rd…) lockdown or perhaps live too far away to visit anyway, the ECRM also has some really awesome at-home activities for the kiddos or train afficionados.
The Elgin County Railway Museum is another fantastic venue to keep in mind for future event planning. Admission ranges from $5 for children to $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and students. Children younger than 2 are free. Have a group you’d like to bring? Please schedule them in advance. The museum offers different hours depending on the season, and it’s best to check the website for up-to-date information for the time being.
Stop 3 – Jumbo the Elephant
If you grew up in the 90s like me, then you’re probably familiar with the (1941!) Disney classic, Dumbo. Did you know it’s loosely based on a real elephant? Jumbo was a star attraction in the famed American P.T. Barnum Circus, which is what brought him to St. Thomas. I never knew about any of this until a chance encounter with the life-size statue last fall. When I arrived in St. Thomas I learned of the Jumbo memorial when exploring CASO Station. Clearly I couldn’t pass up seeing the statue and added it to the itinerary.
Fun (and not so fun) Facts
- Also known as Jumbo the Elephant and Jumbo the Circus Elephant, Jumbo was an African bush elephant born in Sudan. Poachers orphaned the little elephant. After killing his mother, Jumbo was transported to the Jardin des Plantes (zoo) in Paris and then transferred to the London Zoo. After many years as a beloved London attraction, he was sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882 to join the world-famous circus. London’s children and adults were quite peeved and protested the sale.
- There’s a children’s novel called The Elephant War by Gillian Avery, which is based on the disgruntled reaction to the sale. What Barnum didn’t know at the time of purchase was that the elephant had been exhibiting aggressive displays (potentially caused by a toothache). It is reported that these behaviours worried the zoo, hence the sale despite his popularity and the public protest. There’s a very interesting and detailed account of Jumbo’s huge move, as well as his time in North America, in the book Celebrated Pets: Endearing Tales of Companionship and Loyalty by Cheryl MacDonald. (It really pulls at your heartstrings!)
- Calling all of my fellow linguists – this one’s for you! Did you know that our use of the word Jumbo to mean something large, comes from this famous animal? Besides being a main attraction at the circus, the elephant’s name and likeness became wildly popular in marketing household products and thus integrated into the mainstream lexicon. However, Jumbo’s name didn’t originate from his size. The London Zookeeper Association leader, Anoshan Anathajeyasri, named him. There are two theories about Jumbo’s name’s origin. The first is that it’s a combination of two Swahili words: “Jumbe” (“chief”) and “Jambo” (“hello”). It has also been suggested that if Anathajeyasri was of Indian descent then it’s possible the name was a reference to the rose-apple tree, “Jambu”, which, legend has it, grows fruit as big as elephants.
- Jumbo’s trainer at the London Zoo, Matthew “Scotty” Scott, shared a very close relationship with the giant and even moved to the US with him. Apparently they were also drinking buddies and Scott gave the elephant Scotch whisky to ease the discomfort of crossing the ocean. Unfortunately after Jumbo’s death, Scott’s story didn’t have much of a happy ending either.
- In 1885, when moving across the train tracks Jumbo was struck by a freight train and died. Ever the businessman, it’s said that Barnum spun a story about Jumbo saving the life of Tom Thumb, the other elephant crossing the tracks. Barnum then had Jumbo’s remains stuffed and toured them with the elephant’s London Zoo “wife”, Alice the elephant. Unfortunately Alice died in a fire while on tour. Barnum donated Jumbo’s remains to Tufts University, where he is the mascot and Barnum was a trustee. Then in 1975 a fire broke out at the university and the elephant’s skeleton was sent to American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Jumbo’s remains now sit in storage.
- More than a circus spectacle, Jumbo helped to demonstrate the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge shortly after its opening in 1883. Barnum had him lead the other circus elephants across it in a safety parade. It turns out this also boosted the circus’ popularity. Coincidence? I think not.
- Several TV specials have been created documenting Jumbo’s story and uncovering new tidbits of information. In 2017 David Attenborough and the BBC broadcast a special on Jumbo called, Attenborough and the Giant Elephant. The following year, the CBC and David Suzuki filmed the tv movie, Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar.
Free parking at the Jumbo Memorial is a very short walk away from the statue. It’s a small lot so I’m assuming it’s easier to visit and park throughout the week on sunny days. If you’re googling the address, type in “76 Talbot, St Thomas, ON”. Take note, there is no shade, bathrooms, or food available, however you’re a short car ride from those services. Next door to the statue is a vintage clothing store in an old CN Railway car, called Wish You Would Wear.
Stop 4 – St. Thomas Elevated Park
One of my favourite things to find, wherever I am in the world, is reimagined and redesigned spaces. Whether it’s a cafe in an old church, or a hostel in a former prison, or a park elevated above the city on a railway track, I simply can’t get enough! (If you’ve found any in your explorations, please share them below!) I came across this particular gem by chance, when visiting Jumbo. A few women on their own outdoor adventure asked if I knew where the Elevated Park was. I had zero clue what they were referring to and was of absolutely no help. They piqued my interest though and searched online for it back in the car. Who doesn’t love chatting with random strangers? You never know what you’ll learn!
- Back to the park. The St. Thomas Elevated Park is a privately-owned public gathering space 95 feet (30 metres) above the Kettle Creek Valley. Yes, you heard correctly, it’s a park in the air. It’s also the first of its kind in Canada and one of only a few throughout the world, like Paris’ Promenade Plantée.
- Apparently the timing of my visit was perfect because the park was completed on November 4th, 2020 and I stumbled upon it about a week later!
- The park space is 30 feet across and 850 feet long which makes for quite an experience overlooking the city. The current bridge, built in 1929, is actually the third one in the same location. (More information on previous bridges is found on the Elevated Park’s website.) For any bridge afficionados out there, another fun fact to note is that traffic over the bridge continued throughout construction – imagine the views from the passenger seats! In 2000, decades after construction, the bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering because of the project’s complexity.
- The park officially opened in September 2019 with over 1,500 people attending the ceremony. Prior to the pandemic it quickly became a top southwestern Ontario tourist destination, and it’s bound to grow in popularity as things open up again. On Track St. Thomas, a non-profit organization, worked with volunteers and community donors to save the historic Michigan Central Railroad bridge, maintain the space, and to raise the wow factor. From colourful sculptures, sound installations, walking/running/biking paths, seated areas, gardens, and even grassy areas with trees, this is a St. Thomas gem you definitely won’t want to miss. I can’t wait for when they can host events there.
- The Elevated Park is also a part of the impressive and alluring Great Trail.
- Keep your eye out in 2021 for a new mural by Denial that will spruce up the base of the bridge.
Conveniently, the Elevated Park is only a 1/2 block from the Jumbo Memorial and another block from the Old St. Thomas Church. The park is wheelchair accessible and open from “dawn to dusk” every day of the week. Parking is available for free on Centre Street or at the Jumbo Memorial on Talbot Street. The best part of all? Visiting this unique community space is also free!
Stop 5 – Lunch with Tikka Tomato
Last summer another mission of mine was to eat at every food truck in Kitchener-Waterloo. When driving into St. Thomas for the Ontario 160 adventure, I passed a very colourful food truck and promised myself to check it out before leaving. Well as you can see, my day ended up much fuller than expected. Lucky for me, when I called they said they were open for a wee bit longer! Husband and wife duo Geeta Patel Gordon (the chef) and Al Gordon (customer service) were an absolute treat to meet. And their food? Mouthwateringly delicious – a must try when in St. Thomas!
Geeta grew up learning how to cook at home from her mother. She owned and ran a diner-style restaurant for 20 years making breakfasts and lunch for hungry patrons and then sold it to cook in fine-dining restaurants and learn more about the industry. Geeta also worked in private catering. It’s safe to say she’s done it all in the food industry! Wanting a change of pace and interested in the food truck scene, she knew her next kitchen would be on 4 wheels. My tastebuds are very happy this happened.
In order to find the Tikka Tomato, visit their website. They feed hungry folks in St. Thomas and London (and fingers crossed Waterloo Region one day!). They also book private functions if you’re looking for a flavourful addition to your events AND they now offer weekly delivery as well. Last, you can follow their delicious adventures on their Instagram page. Happy scrolling!
Stop 6 – Pinafore Park
Pinafore Park was another one of those spots in St. Thomas that I had no idea about and luckily stumbled upon. A year later I can’t quite remember if I went there because I saw it on the map, if I drove in to park and gather myself a minute, or if I saw it on a list as some place to check out. Regardless, it was a perfect way to cap off the day. While I only saw a small portion of the park, I felt immediately relaxed and content. If you’re visiting St. Thomas, or even passing by the city on a road trip, pack a picnic and enjoy a scenic break. You’ll be so happy you did!
- Pinafore Park is a youthful 158 years young (and doesn’t look a day over 20). The grounds are well-kept, inviting, and lush with mature trees and colourful flowers everywhere. It should come as no surprise that the park opened thanks to the St. Thomas Street Railway Company. In 1863 the hope was that having a beautiful outdoor recreational space would entice people to hop on the new electric trains and visit the town. How fitting that almost 2 centuries later the legacy of St. Thomas’ trains brought me there!
- Truly a community gathering place, Pinafore has something for everyone from the nature and animal lovers, to recreational and competitive athletes, to musicians and concert-goers, to those just out for a stroll along or paddle on the water. More than just a park, you’ll find a wildlife sanctuary with Trumpeter Swans, Rotary Splashpad, playground with accessible equipment, a little lake open for use year-round, tennis and pickleball courts, baseball stadium (Emslie Field), hiking and cross-country ski trails through 25-acres of remnant Carolinian woods, and even a concert venue (Morris F. Jones Memorial Bandshell)! The city’s website mentions Sunday concerts from 6-8pm through June, July, and August in the park at the Bandshell. I’m not sure if they’re still happening during the pandemic, but if so what a perfect way to spend an evening!
Pinafore Park is located at 95 Elm Street. There is ample parking in several different locations. Between Victoria Day weekend (May) and Labour Day weekend (September) there are public washrooms and water available from 8am to 8pm. There are also 2 accessible washrooms that are open from 8am to 4pm all year long. Pinafore Park has 5 or 6 pavilions that can be rented to host all sorts of fun events like picnics, birthdays, wedding receptions, etc… All of them are equipped with water and hydro.
Stop 6 – Victorian Homes
Maybe it’s because I’m in my 30s, maybe because I rent and the housing market is ludicrous, maybe it’s because I love history and personal stories…or maybe it’s all three, but I absolutely love looking at houses. I think this fascination with and love for older homes started when I was a child. One memory in particular stands out that fused this enchantment. While a family friend’s century home, perhaps in the attic, they told us about a letter they had found, along with some old square nails. I was hooked. Who wrote the letter? How was the weather that day? What were they wearing and what did they do after writing it? My mind loves running through a maze of those (most likely unanswerable) questions. Our friends let me take home the nail and I still have it in a treasure box somewhere.
Anyhow, even if you can’t stay long in St. Thomas or can only drive through, treat yourself and take a couple of detours up and down some of its neighbourhood streets. The homes and properties won’t disappoint!
I came across a super cool Instagram account called Victorian Vibes last summer while researching St. Thomas. In chatting with the owner and curator of the account, Nikolina, I learned she is a fellow teacher. She even won an Architectural Conservancy of Ontario Heritage award for “Individual or Organization in the Field of Heritage Education, Awareness or Advocacy”. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of an award-winning Instagram account before for historical (or any other) reasons, but that’s pretty badass.
What To Do in St. Thomas, Ontario for a Day
In addition to its many sites and long history, St. Thomas has a few residents you may also have heard of, including actors Rachel McAdams, Helen Shaver, NHL player Joe Thornton, and NASCAR driver D.J. Kennington. Are there any I’m missing?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this snapshot of what St. Thomas, Ontario has to offer for a fun day of exploration! I’d love to hear what you choose to do for your day in the city. Leave any comments and suggestions below. Happy travels, fellow adventurers!
How to Get There
- Gardiner Expressway W
- Take Hwy 427 N to 401 W
- Take Exit 189 onto Highbury Avenue S/St. Thomas
- Turn right onto Webber Bourne
- Turn left on Dalewood Road
- Take a right onto S Edgeware Road
- Turn left on Balaclava Street
- ***Alternatively you can take the 403W from Toronto as well, as shown in Google Maps
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
- Elevated Park
- Young & Free Press
- Elgin County Tourism
- Railway City Tourism
- Tikka Tomato Food Truck
- Elgin County Railway Museum
- CASO Station
- 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