It was the railway that made Stratford. Two lines — The Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich (later the Buffalo and Lake Huron) Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) — arrived in Stratford in 1856, the beginning of its history as a railway hub. Engineers, brakemen and conductors began to relocate to Stratford. Thirteen years later the GTR took over its competitor.
Romance and the railway combined to shape the future of the small community. When railway director T.H. Roberts arrived in Stratford looking for a potential location for new GTR locomotive repair shops in 1870, he was smitten with the mayor’s daughter, Sarah Daly. They were married and the shops came to Stratford. The shops had a commanding influence on the town for 100 years.
By 1871 close to 400 families moved to Stratford because of the opportunities offered by the GTR. The census of that year showed that many citizens had taken in boarders who were employed by the railway; many of these associations developed into family bonds. Often, more than one generation in a family would be employed in the shops.
Shortly after the shops opened two more railways arrived — from the south, the Port Dover and Lake Huron in 1875 and, to the north, the Stratford and Huron. By 1881 they had also been absorbed by the GTR.
The shops buildings, situated on an 18 acre site, were massive. By 1907 they were capable of housing and repairing as many as 22 locomotives at one time. High up in the main building rolled a two hundred-ton gantry crane, running the length of the building and capable of lifting the largest steam locomotives into the air for dismantling and servicing their undercarriages.
Among the largest buildings in Canada, the shops were an outstanding example of state-of-the-art ironwork and engineering. While the locomotive turntable, outside the northwest end of the building, is gone, its 85-foot diameter location is well marked on the site, and many full gauge and narrow gauge service tracks are still in place.
The economic spin-off of the shops and railways was profound. Stratford hotels and taverns flourished to serve railway passengers. Among those remaining today are the Dominion House, the Avon and the English Parlour. The Dominion House continues to be a popular spot with local citizens, the Avon will soon be under reconstruction as a condominium and the Mansion House, built in 1871, is now part of Vintages hotels, serving tourists and locals as The English Parlour.
With easy access to rail lines, Stratford businesses were able to expand their markets. Whyte Meat Packing Company eventually became part of Canada Packers. Alexander MacLaren developed a new product known as MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, which was a soft, processed cheese sold in porcelain containers and became phenomenally popular. By 1892, MacLaren established a branch factory in Detroit and within the decade had established offices in Toronto, New York, London, Chicago, Detroit, Mexico, China, Japan and Africa. He eventually sold to the Kraft Brothers from Chicago. The building that housed The Mooney Biscuit and Candy Co. on the corner of Falstaff and Downie Streets had its own spur line and produced up to six tons of biscuits and chocolates daily. Today, the building is being reinvented as student housing.
Again, thanks to the railways, the furniture industry emerged as a major force in the economy, accounting for nearly one-sixth of total furniture output in Canada. George McLagan was the first of the furniture manufacturers to build a large, yellow brick factory on King Street. Others, including Kroehler Furniture, followed, and the industry flourished from 1913 to 1956. Today, a number of these factories still stand and have been repurposed as arts facilities and office furniture suppliers.
In addition to being a major employer, the GTR shops became an important cultural and sports centre for the Stratford area, including everything from hockey and ball teams to choirs and a marching band, and euchre clubs. Stratford citizens today enjoy baseball games in National Stadium and hockey in the Allman Arena. These facilities were originally funded with help from the railway workers.
Today’s YMCA is built on the site donated by the GTR for the first YMCA. The original was heated by steam produced in the GTR shops.
When Stratford became “The Festival City” in the 1950s, actors and patrons alike relied on the railways for transportation to the city. Even Stratford’s iconic swans are a legacy of the rail industry; they were first introduced in 1918 by J. C. Garden, a master mechanic with the GTR.
Many of the houses in the central core date from the early days of the railway. They were homes to engineers, dispatchers, conductors and men of the shops.
In 1923 the GTR was amalgamated with other railways to form the Canadian National Railway. Following a major expansion in 1949 the Stratford shops were better able to accommodate the larger new engines. However, the eventual introduction of diesel locomotives resulted in the demise of the shops, as diesel work was done in Montreal. In March 1964, the remaining workers left the shops for the last time.
Today, while the shops building is in semi-derelict condition, the magnificent iron superstructure remains strong. The building and site are now owned by the City of Stratford, which continues to examine options for their rehabilitation and reuse. The shops have amazing potential to help revitalize Stratford’s downtown core while proudly commemorating the city’s remarkable railway history.