ImPort Stanley is weekly series about life and discoveries by a recent “import” to Port Stanley, ON.
I grew up in a railway family. My Dad worked for CN for many years before breaking away and starting his own rail-related business. At our house, we didn’t say hello when we answered the phone. We said, “Galaxy of West Lincoln”! I knew the prices and details about railroad ties by heart.
Port Stanley is a railway town. The rail line here is one of the oldest in the province. The London and Port Stanley Railway received its first passenger train in 1856. It’s had various purposes over the years with highs and lows. Highs in the early 1920s when it carried a million passengers a year. Lows from passengers abandoning rail for cars.
As one of the historical plaques on the harbour will tell you, there was another way to get to Port Stanley from London by rail. The Traction Line started operation in 1907. But it was a longer trip. The Traction Line ran alongside roadways and even though it was electrified almost a decade before the L & PS, it couldn’t compete on efficiency. A trip from London took more than an hour on the Traction Line. L & PS could get you here in 45 minutes.
About a hundred years ago, the L & PS built a new station here. And along with it, a bath house I referred to in an earlier post about the legendary Stork Club. You could rent a wool bathing suit (ewwww!), picnic, and play baseball under the lights or catch a band and dance the night away at what was then known as the L & PS pavilion.
While the northerly part of the line continued to carry freight after it was purchased by CN in 1965, the southern part was abandoned in the early 1980s after the line was washed out from a rain storm. Soon after, people from St. Thomas and London formed Port Stanley Terminal Rail Inc, now Elgin County’s longest running tourist attraction. Their first task was to find the deserted line near Union, under brush, mud, and junk.
Port Stanley Terminal Rail runs on weekends beginning in April with 60 minute scenic tours and some special event days. Those include Easter Egg Hunts and Santa Treats Train Rides. Check the website for schedules and fares. There’s a red caboose that holds 22 to charter for birthdays and other occasions. I noticed online that the gift shop has expanded since I was last there. It’s definitely time for a return visit.
Regional Railway History
Nearby St. Thomas experienced a couple of infamous disasters long, long ago on its part of the tracks.
The city’s greatest loss of human life on rail happened on Talbot St., known as The Great Wreck of 1887. A northbound passenger train collided with a southbound freight train from Michigan carrying oil. The resulting explosions, fire, and the collision itself killed 14 people and hurt 68 more.
Two years before that, the storied train accident in St. Thomas made international news in September 1885.
The Barnum and Bailey Circus was leaving town. Jumbo, the “world’s largest elephant”, and a smaller pachyderm named Tom Thumb, were waiting to be loaded onto rail cars. It was 9:30 at night. There are varying accounts that claim Jumbo pushed Tom out of the way of an oncoming, unexpected freight train. Tom Thumb survived but Jumbo was mortally wounded. The circus continued to tour with Jumbo’s taxidermized remains and then put him on display until a fire destroyed Barnum Hall at Tufts College (now University) in 1975.
St, Thomas erected a life-size statue of 12-foot-high Jumbo 100 years later. There have been many local tributes to Jumbo over the years. One came from Railway City Brewing Co in the form of Dead Elephant beer.
Jumbo’s statue is a popular selfie stop on Talbot St. half a block from the St. Thomas Elevated Park. Volunteers have repurposed a former railway bridge and it’s lovely. St Thomas is still Railway City. And a few minutes away is Port Stanley our fun little railway town.