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Great Railroad Stations - Essex, Ontario

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

 

Essex, Ontario

One of only two fieldstone stations still remaining in Ontario, Essex is a gem of a station restoration. Constructed over 100 years ago by the Michigan Central Railroad, Essex remains one of the most architecturally prominent depots in the province. The station was built in 1887, but the story of the railroad in Essex goes back more than a decade subsequent to 1873.

 The Michigan Central in Ontario traces its roots to the Canada Southern Railway where John Milne set up a tiny wooden station, and installed the first telegraph equipment. In 1880, CSR was leased to the Michigan Central as it eyed a shortcut route north of Lake Erie between Detroit and Buffalo. Even today, the arrow straight tracks of what remains of the MCRR mainline in certain places in southwestern Ontario testify to the line's importance as a trunk route.

In 1910, the railroad embarked on a modernization program, and upgraded the line between Tilbury and Essex with 100 lb. rails. Double tracking had existed from 1882 to Windsor. In 1930, the line received new colored light signals. These became the standard for signaling throughout the New York Central System. Automatic Train Stop (ATC) was also installed on this racetrack of a railway. Passenger service in the golden age of steam utilized the beautiful and speedy NYC Hudson locomotives.  A number of depots still exist along the old MCRR. In addition to Essex, these include Hagersville, Waterford, Tillsonburg,  St. Thomas and its shops, Ridgetown, and Comber.  These and an old concrete coaling tower near Canfield, Ontario are vivid reminders of the once and glorious role played by the Michigan Central as a part of New York Central's corporate empire.  (Note: this was written in 1996 and some of the structures listed may have since been removed.)

The Essex station is built of Saginaw Michigan field stone with split faces (called "hard heads") and is trimmed with Credit Valley cut stone. Similar to other depots on the MCRR (Niles, Michigan probably being the most significant) it features a tower at the main entrance way and a carriage porte cochere. Large divided light windows compliment the spacious waiting rooms which are elegantly paneled. Only minor interior modifications have been made to the station to accommodate its present use. The fact that this station is with us today is no small miracle.

On August 10th, 1907, an explosion rocked Essex. A boxcar containing some 5,000 lb. of highly explosive trinitroglycerin was waiting to be moved to Amherstburg. This material was being used in the dredging of the ship channel in the Detroit River. The "nitro", improperly packed, began to leak onto the tracks. Railroad workers heard what they thought were rifle shots, and then realized that it was the leaking explosive. The leaking boxes were fixed, and thought to be safe. Later, when it came time to make up the train, the boxcar was struck by another car. The resulting explosion was felt in Detroit and Windsor. The blast killed two railroad workers and created a crater 20 feet across and 12 feet deep. Damage to the station and surrounding buildings was extensive, but the massive stone walls stood firm. Miraculously, no one in the station was killed. Its waiting rooms had been full of passengers waiting to board a train.

In 1996 the Essex depot housed a gift shop, an art gallery featuring local residents of southwestern Ontario, and is operated by the town. Future plans proposed incorporating a museum and archive center in the building. Adjacent grounds and gardens are meticulously maintained, enhancing this landmark. Although no longer in use as a passenger or railroad related station, this building remains a beautiful monument to the Golden Age of Railroading. It is a tribute to the proud and glamorous New York Central, and a superb example of what can be accomplished with a station preservation project.

Photo 1, street side, Michigan Central RR, Essex, Ontario, July 22, 1996

Photo by John C. Dahl

 

Photo 2, waiting room interior. Note fireplace and ornate windows.

Michigan Central RR, Essex, Ontario, July 22, 1996

Photo by John C. Dahl

 Photo 3, west  facade, looking across the tracks

Michigan Central RR, Essex, Ontario, July 22, 1996

Photo by John C. Dahl

 

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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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