By Mary Smith
On Saturday afternoon, October 16, the Junction Station, now Broken Rail Brewing, was one of a number of locations participating in the 2021 version of Doors Open St. Marys. With a strong northwest wind and frequent driving rain, the weather was hardly ideal for this event. There were a few brief patches of sunshine but the picnic tables on the patio were almost deserted. However, inside the building, the atmosphere was lively, warm and inviting â€“ much more so than it would have been 30 years ago when this weekâ€™s photograph of open doors at the Junction was taken.
Although the brewery is new, the Junction Station has been a stop on Doors Open during the two decades that St. Marys has participated in this provincial event. As well, for a number of years starting in the 1990s and into the 21st century, it was a venue for late-summer open houses, organized and run by dedicated local volunteers, the Friends of the Junction Station. Their aim was to keep this historic building in the public eye so that, in spite of its location on the outskirts of the town, it would not be forgotten. This group was also committed, through research, to show why the building was important in the history of St. Marys.
The Junction has probably had more studies done, more reports prepared, more recommendations delivered, and more suggestions for re-use than any other building within the boundaries of the town. As a survivor from the earliest years of Canadaâ€™s railway history, it deserved this attention. Built in 1858 for the Grand Trunk Railway using St. Marys limestone, it was on the main Toronto-to-Sarnia line at the junction of an important branch-line to London. For more than 80 years it served both passengers and freight, first for the GTR and then the Canadian National Railway when it took over in the early 1920s. In 1941, CN terminated the stationâ€™s public functions, removing all station personnel and shuttering the building. No longer serving its intended use, by the 1960s, the Junction was in rough condition.
But both professional and amateur railway historians were aware of its existence and of its value. When, in 1965, CN announced that it intended to demolish the building, there was strong resistance. With the intervention of Perth Member of Parliament at that time, J. Waldo Monteith, the Junction Station was recognized by the Parks and Monuments Board as having national significance. A bilingual Government of Canada plaque still stands beside the building. Steps were then taken to stabilize the old station. The windows and doors were boarded up and a chain-link fence was placed around it to secure the property.
But CN owned the Junction Station. It was willing to let the town take over the building but wanted it moved to another location away from the live railway line. Junction advocates disagreed. Apart from the logistics of safely moving such an old structure, a major part of its value was its context. It belonged right along the railway tracks where it had originally been placed. In a different location, it would be just another old stone building. As this standoff stretched through the years, the buildingâ€™s condition deteriorated further. There were break-ins and vandalism. The roof was damaged during winter storms.
Still, efforts continued to recognize its importance. In 1993, it was designated under the Heritage Railways Act and then municipally designated under the Ontario Heritage Act (St. Marys By-Law: 55-1993.) Finally an agreement between CN and the Town of St. Marys allowed local intervention to preserve the structure. Thanks to a provincial heritage grant, fundraising and a great deal of volunteer labour, urgent repairs to the soffit, fascia and stonework were completed. A new roof was installed and, in 1997, drainage tiling was placed around the footings to keep the crawlspace under the building dry.
In 1998, the spur line on the north side of the Junction was removed. CN had perceived it as a liability issue in the sale of the property. (The caboose arrived and was put in place before the spur was taken up.) In 2000, a fundraising initiative by the Friends of the Junction Station raised enough money to bring electrical service to the site. Now that volunteers could use power tools, dangerous gaps in the floor were repaired. In October 2002, a work party of several Kinsmen along with Heritage St. Marys members, Glen Millson, Burton Ready and Tom Bishop, removed several layers of rotting, damaged flooring so that a safe sub-flooring could be laid down.
Throughout the summer for several years, long-time volunteer and railway history expert Gord Strathdee opened the Junction Station any time visitors wanted to see inside and learn about its history. Meanwhile, another big project was underway: the restoration of the series of beautiful French doors that opened under a semi-circular transoms along the sides of the building. They had to be repaired and, in many cases, replacement components made. Layers of old paint were sanded off, the wood refinished and painted. This enormous task was accomplished by Glen Millson and Herman Veenendaal. (This weekâ€™s photograph is an example of the double doors in their deteriorated state.)
But there was still a major snag. Although the Town now owned the actual building, it only leased the ground on which the building stood. This property close to the railway tracks was still owned by CN. Negotiations continued and the years passed. A breakthrough came in 2008, the 150th anniversary of the Junction Station. A special event took place on Sunday, September 14, with a barbecue lunch, telegraphy demonstrations and a model train display. MP Gary Schellenberger was in attendance and a representative of CN was supposed to announce the transfer of the property to the Town of St. Marys. At the last minute, the CN rep was unable to attend but Mayor Jamie Hahn announced that â€śthe deed was done.â€ť The Town now owned the building and the land it stood on. Actually, it took several more years before this ownership transfer was officially recorded at the registry office.
But even with these positive developments, a basic problem remained unsolved. What was the future use of the building? Through the years, proposals ranged from a railway museum to a curling facility to meeting space for service clubs. None of these proved viable. Finally, a practical town administration and council decided that the best hope for the survival of the building was to offer it for sale â€“ bearing in mind the conditions of its heritage designations.
This decision had a very happy outcome. Ryan and Erin Leaman purchased the building and through the long pandemic months â€“ and while welcoming their first child â€“ completed the renovations, installed the brewing equipment, hired a brew master, decorated the interior, and in early 2021, began to produce and sell their product. As soon as Covid restrictions permitted, they opened the patio for service and then the taproom inside. Since then, they have welcomed customers â€“ including a number of Doors Open visitors, some of whom made this site their final and longest stop on October 16.
For more information about the Junctionâ€™s history, read the green story plaque in front of the building or contact the St. Marys Museum at 519-284-3556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.