CNR James Street Station/LIUNA Station
The Grand Trunk Railway’s (GTR) Stuart St station had been built in 1875 by the Great Western Railway when the city of Hamilton’s population was 30 000. By the start of the first decade of the 20th century, the population had doubled to nearly 60 000, and the station was seriously overcrowded. In 1907 three proposed sites for a new station were announced by the GTR; a location somewhere between Bay St & Hughson St on the main line, or on the Port Dover line at either Ferguson and Barton or Ferguson and King. Nothing came of these plans due to the panic of 1907, followed by WWI and the decline and bankruptcy of the GTR and its merger into the Canadian National Railway (CNR) in 1923.
In the 20 years that had passed since the GTR’s proposals the population of Hamilton had doubled again to 120 000. In 1928 the CNR decided to build a new railway station at James & Murray Sts. As part of the project an agreement was reached between the city and the railway; the City would permanently close Stuart, Hughson and MacNab Sts at the tracks for the new railway station, while the CNR would build new road bridges over the railway tracks for Bay, James, John and Catherine Sts. (MacNab St would be reopened years later with the construction of a new bridge over the tracks).
The new station was built in the Neo-classical style, with the main section of the station being approximately 90 x 25 m. The station entrance is marked by four large Doric columns, with several stone carvings of the CNR’s steam and electric locomotives, and shipping fleet. The station concourse and waiting room is approximately 18 x 41 m, and had six stairways leading down to three platforms below, serving six through tracks. At track level was a mail and express parcel wing, with access up to John St.
Construction began in May 1929 with the demolition of the existing buildings on the site and grading of the station site and approach tracks. The cornerstone of the station was laid on May 7, 1930 and the first passenger train (a special charter) departed on Febrary 20, 1931. The official opening was performed on May 27, 1931 by the Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough.
Passenger traffic at the James St station would remain fairly constant until the early 1960s. All branch line passenger trains to Port Dover and Barrie were cancelled by 1960, but the opening of Hwy 401 had a major impact on CN’s passenger trains in southwest Ontario. CN’s Toronto-London-Windsor-Chicago mainline bypasses Hamilton to the northwest, along the north side of the Dundas Valley. In the past most passenger trains headed east or west would divert into Hamilton from Bayview Junction, load/unload passengers, and then run in reverse back out to the mainline. This detour would add up to 40 minutes to a train’s running time. The opening of Hwy 401 cut driving time between Toronto and cities to the southwest by so much that CN decided that the only way it could remain competitive was to reduce travel times, and the fastest way to do that was to remove the Hamilton detour. Starting in April 1962, most of the passenger trains along the Toronto-London-Windsor-Chicago mainline would not stop in Hamilton. As of October 1967, none of them would. The only remaining CN trains were the Toronto-Niagara Falls and Toronto-New York trains.
The end of railroad mail service in the 1960s coupled with the drop in passenger service resulted in the station’s mail and parcel wing being converted to a railway freight car repair shop, with the four tracks closest to the station becoming repair tracks. With four fewer tracks and two fewer platforms, CN would remove all but one of the staircases from the concourse down to track level.
On May 23, 1967 GO Transit took over CN’s Toronto-Hamilton commuter service. All CN passenger service was transferred to Via Rail in 1978. This combined with relocations of CN personnel led to maintenance cutbacks in the 1980s.
In 1985 Via Rail leased the James St station from CN, as part of a national program. Government cutbacks to Via Rail in 1989 cut the number of Toronto-Niagara Falls trains to two. This combined with GO Transit’s decision to relocate to the new Hamilton GO Centre and a large maintenance backlog resulted in Via Rail pulling out of the station. Rather than build a new station in Hamilton, Via Rail decided to close its stations in Burlington, Hamilton and Dundas and relocate to the new GO station in Aldershot, which would service both the Toronto-Niagara Falls and the Toronto-London-Windsor trains. Via Rail began using the Aldershot station on May 25, 1992.
GO Transit was left as the only user of the James St station, but as it would only be using the station for a short time before the new GO centre was opened, GO Transit decided to pull out as soon as it could. GO moved its ticket office into a temporary trailer and built a temporary staircase from James St down to one of the platforms. The James St station was closed on February 26, 1993.
A Hollywood Resurrection
The James St station sat empty for several years, as its size and backlog of repairs made it an expensive acquisition. Then Hollywood came knocking. In 1996 the producers of the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight (an action movie starring Geena Davis and Samuel Jackson) gave CN $1 Million to renovate the empty station so part of the movie could be shot there. The publicity from this and the work done attracted the attention of the Labourer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), who bought the station and spent $3 Million for additional renovations. In 2000 the station was reopened as LIUNA Station, a rental hall with catering facilities for weddings, dances, and special events. Other movies have been shot at LIUNA station, such as the railway station fight sequence in X-Men
Trains have also returned to James Street. On July 9, 2015 the new West Harbour GO Station opened, located across James street from LIUNA station. Unfortunately the new station is located on top of the old western track approaches to LIUNA station, meaning that the probability of LIUNA station ever being converted back to an active railway station is now lower, as it would require the demolition of West Harbour GO station.
(All photos © Tom Luton, except where noted)
The south side of the station facing Murray Street
The station entrance. Above the entrance are three stone carvings depicting CNR operations. The leftmost carving is of a CNR Northern-type locomotive passing a mine, the centre one is of a CNR ship, and the carving on the right is of a CNR Hudson-type locomitve passing a grain elevator.
Above the station entrance, with the station's owner and year of construction (1930) set in stone.
More stone carvings to the right of the station entrance. From left to right are: a CNR steam locomotive, a CNR truck, a CNR electric locomotive, and a CNR ship.
The southeast corner of the station, showing the office entrance for workers. Below in light brown brick is the former mail and express parcel wing, later the railway freight car repair shop. Above and behind the mail wing (in dark brown brick) is the station concourse.
The former mail and express parcel wing with the access ramp up to John St.
The station's cornerstone is on the southwest corner next to James St. Unfortunately it's partially blocked by the gas line, but it reads "THIS CORNER STONE LAID BY SIR HENRY W. THORNTON KBE CHAIRMAN AND PRESIDENT CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS MAY 7TH 1930"
The station's northwest corner, showing how the stone and brick sections of the station meet. There are additional stone carvings on the west side of the station, next to James St.
Looking along the station concourse. The light tan walls at the bottom are where the tracks and platforms used to be. This area now serves as offices for the LIUNA Station, and was added as part of the renovations in 2000. The large black squares above the tan walls are the former ramp and staircase locations down to platform level.
The north end of the station concourse. At the bottom of the four columns are the remains of one of the station platforms. The two staircases were not part of the original station, they were added as fire escapes from the concourse as part of the renovations.
Inside the former waiting room looking at the entrance to the concourse.
Inside the former waiting room looking at the station doors
The LIUNA station dining room, formerly the station concourse. This is the 2004 McMaster University Faculty of Engineering Formal, known as the Fireball.
The brand new James St Station in 1930, before opening for passengers. This photo clearly shows the mail wing and the first two platforms. (Photo courtesy of the The Archives of Ontario Visual Database (Canadian National Railway Station, Hamilton , C 7-3, 23360b))
This photo shows an unusual angle of James St station, that of the platform and stairway. The date is June 7, 1939, and this group of VIPs is waiting for the arrival of King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (not the current monarch but her mother, the late Queen Mum) at James St Station. From left to right, front row, 1st Col. Armand Smith, E.D., officer commanding the Hamilton garrison; Mrs. Hepburn and Mrs. Morrison; back row, left to right, General S.C. Mewburn, Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn, and Mayor of Hamilton William Morrison. At the back is Alderman James P. Phin, chairman of the civic reception committee. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)
On December 18, 1939 members of the No. 5 Field Ambulance of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps the and 1st Division Petrol Company of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps departed Hamilton for overseas service. A large crowd gathered to see them off, a scene that was repeated several times during the war years. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)
A streamlined CNR 6400 series U4 Northern locomotive at James St station during WWII. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)
While a CNR Alco-built switcher moves railcars at the James St station on November 29, 1973, City of Hamilton crews are dismantling the Catherine St bridge over the railway tracks. The bridge had been built as part of the construction of the James St station, and by this point was in need of replacement due to age and to improve clearance for railway cars passing underneath. Due to low traffic use, the city decided to remove the bridge and close this section of Catherine St rather than replace the bridge. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives, used with permission)
This photo shows the James St station on May 17, 1986 in its less glamourous role as a freight car repair shop. The freight cars are on tracks 3 & 4. In the background is the white covered ramp down to the still active platform for tracks 5 & 6. The grey cinderblocks on the side of the concourse in the centre of the photo mark the locations of the ramps that used to serve the platforms between tracks 1&2 and between tracks 3 & 4. (Photo by Clayton Langstaff, courtesy of the Railfan.net ABPR Archive, used with permission)
Cooper, Charles. Hamilton's Other Railway The Bytown Railway Society, Ottawa, 2001
Manson, Bill. Footsteps in Time; Exploring Hamilton's Heritage Neighbourhoods, Vol 1 North Shore Publishing, Burlington ON, 2003
Smith, Douglas N.W. "A Tale of Two Stations" Canadian Rail Passenger Yearbook, 1995