I lead a professional life that necessitates frequent trips to Toronto. But I’ve recently sworn off road travel—even if Louis is driving. Intimidating tractor-trailers barreling down on us, consistent traffic backups and mayhem have convinced me that the only (if expensive) option for my piece of mind is train travel.
And from my home in south central Ontario, all train trips lead to Union Station. On a recent journey to “the Big Smoke” I took the time, for once, to look around, up and down and all around the Station. This “old “lady” dazzled me.
So come along for a visit to National Historic Site, Union Station– the one- time centre of the Canadian transportation universe. We’ll cover a bit of its storied history, as well as its regal and elegant “face.”
You’ll be glad you came!
Today’s Union Station is actually the third incarnation of Canada’s largest train station. Begun in 1914—mid-way through “The Great War,” it was complete in 1920, two years after the War ended.
The main station was not officially opened to the public until 1927. Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales used a pair of gold scissors to cut the ribbon. Among other dignitaries at the event was the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon MacKenzie King. Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom dropped by too. This was one BIG DEAL!
The seven-year interlude between the end of construction and the official opening saw new train tracks being laid and the original builder, the Grand Trunk Railway going bankrupt. It was reborn as the Canadian National Railway (CNR).
So by the beginning of the Great Depression, train stations as far west as Oakville were now connected to Kingston and Belleville in eastern Ontario. Union Station was the hub of the Canadian transportation universe.
The Subway Comes to Toronto
The next step in modernity came with the opening of the Toronto Transit Commission (subway) in 1954. Union Station was to be the southern terminus to the great underground people mover.
The fortunes of Union Station suffered a blow during the early 1970’s when competition from airports and improved highways caused multi-million dollar losses to Canada’s two major railways, the CPR and CNR.
As a result, passenger service was reduced to the bare bones and both railways looked for ways to stave off bankruptcy. The solution came when a significant portion of railway property was sold to the City of Toronto for the construction of the Gardiner Expressway.
In a move to increase traffic round Union Station, CN began an ambitious project to build a state of the art communication centre –today’s CN Tower. With the rapid expansion of GO Transit, which saw traffic at Union Station rivalling that of Toronto airport, the grand “old lady” was saved from the wrecker’s ball.
With no agenda to follow, no appointment to meet, I’m free to wander Union Station at a leisurely pace. And what a vision she is. “The best word, I think, to describe it is ‘monumental,’” I offer to Louis. He agrees.
Taking up the entire block between Bay and Front Streets of Canada’s largest city, Union Station’s size is not the only evidence of “monumental.” The shoe fits too when considering architectural style, materials and artistic statement.
The Grand Beaux-Arts
Few architectural styles are more grandiose and opulent than the Beaux-Arts. Named for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, it had its birth after the French Revolution of the late 1800’s.
Beaux-Arts influence was felt more heavily in the United States than in Canada. The San Francisco Opera house is one of Beaux-Arts’ most luminous examples.
Taking its inspiration from classical Greek and Roman architecture as well as the Italian Renaissance, buildings of the Beaux-Arts style stressed symmetry and grandeur.
The heavy use of balustrades and pilasters lend classical elegance to Beaux-Arts buildings like Union Station. Its colonnaded Front Street “porch” features 22 Roman Tuscan columns made from limestone. Each measures 40 feet (12 m) high and weighs 75 tons.
Beaux-Arts windows are invariably massive and arched, letting the maximum light inside. And reminiscent of a Roman palazzo, its peaked, hipped roofs create the illusion of flatness.
Union’s Grand Interior
Union Station’s front entranceway opens onto the “Great Hall,” the building’s expansive ticket lobby– 250 feet (76 m) long and 88 feet (27 m) high at its highest point. Its vaulted ceiling is two-stories.
Each end of the Great Hall shows off four-story tall windows, based on the model of the Roman baths.
The Interior Touches
The Beaux-Arts staircase is always a grand one. The image of Scarlett O’Hara making her appearance at the Wilkes party of Gone with the Wind flashes immediately past my eyes.
Interior decorations match the grandeur of the exterior with a generous helping of statuary, sculpture, mural work and mosaics.
Only the finest of materials have been used to create Union’s testament to longevity and permanency. They include bronze, limestone, marble, porcelain tiles, and translucent glass.
Below the cornice (where the wall meets the ceiling) of the “Great Hall” are carved the names of many Canadian railway destinations, from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. Sault Ste. Marie is mis-spelled.
Before modernization came to Union, the cavernous building was fuelled by coal which produced 150,000 kg/330,000 pounds of steam per hour.
Over the years, Union Station has filled several non-transportation needs. Until 2000 the CN Railway police maintained a shooting range there. The film industry has added revenue as well. Union has appeared in various films and television series, often representing settings in other cities.
In 1975, Union Station was designated as a National Historic Site. In 1999, it was inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame as being a significant building in the railway history.
Today Union Station remains Canada’s busiest public transportation structure, handling an average of 200,000 passengers each day, 65 million passengers annually.