Gravenhurst Mayor Paisley Donaldson unveils a heritage plaque at the Gravenhurst train station to commemorate its 93rd year in the community on Sunday, June 24. (Photo by Louis Tam)
Having served as a gateway to Muskoka for nearly a century, the Gravenhurst railway station’s heritage was celebrated in a bustling party this past weekend.
Braving a sudden downpour of rain, about 50 onlookers gathered at the Second Street train station on Sunday, June 24, as Gravenhurst Mayor Paisley Donaldson unveiled a new plaque commemorating its 93rd year in the community. Coinciding with the town’s 125th anniversary celebrations, the event was held as part of Doors Open Ontario, an annual program that encourages the public to explore significant landmarks in their local communities.
The station is one of the few early railway stations remaining in central Ontario. It came close to demolition under CN, but was saved from that fate as concerned locals rallied to its rescue.
“The threat that the Gravenhurst station was going to be demolished by CN several years ago because they didn’t need it anymore led to a group of citizens saying ‘we can’t lose this, we can’t lose our railway station that’s been a kind of gateway of entry for people coming to town for nearly a century,’” said Gravenhurst heritage committee member Richard Tatley. “Many of us have had fond associations with it.”
The town bought the station in 1986.
Preservation of the station’s heritage was particularly close to the heart of “railroad mom and grandma” Phyllis Wardman, who spoke about her family’s connection to the station across four generations.
Her husband began his railroad career at the station’s office in 1947, after following his father into the industry.
“His father had been a mechanic in the shops in Gravenhurst,” said Wardman. “He repaired steam engines, and once the diesels replaced the steam engines he had to take an early retirement.”
Her husband’s grandfather was a locomotive engineer, while her son started his railroad career as a brakeman and engineer out of the Gravenhurst station.
“I think it’s very special that this station is being recognized because it has a lot of memories for our family and many other families,” she said.
Sylvia Purdon remembers the town having worked especially hard to preserve the station’s distinctive appearance during restoration efforts.
“When we restored this building, the whole inside design had to be really looked at to try to get the railway station function noticeable as soon as you came in,” she said. “There were lots of ideas — to turn the whole thing into a dining room or something — but we were able to successfully get the whole idea of a station, so it doesn’t lose its station character.”
The station has been at the centre of many historic events in Gravenhurst’s history. It was built in 1919 to replace an earlier building that had burned down in 1913, and its official opening was attended by the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. During the First World War, the site was used as a transfer point for troops on their way to Camp Borden for training.
The station was also a junction for work crews headed into other areas of northern Ontario. At one time, it featured a roundhouse and marshalling yards, and according to the Municipal Heritage Society, was at one point part of the busiest trans-shipping port in the province.
The heritage plaque has no financial implications for the town as the town already owns the station. However, Gravenhurst heritage committee president Hank Smith has said the heritage designation will give the station more prominence in marketing and promotions, while also protecting its distinctive and historical character.
Gravenhurst Mayor Paisley Donaldson thanked local volunteers for their support to the station and to the community.
“Gravenhurst is blessed to have so many community-minded people who have given their time and talents to be true ambassadors to the Town of Gravenhurst,” she said. “The backbone to any successful, healthy community is a strong volunteer corps, and to see so many dynamic individuals who have come together to celebrate this special milestone is an inspiring sight.”