Since the train first tracks in the 1850s, Toronto’s railways have been a big part of its geography and history. They connect the city and its surroundings, joining neighbourhoods and people. They were also the driving force of industry. Founded in 2001, the Toronto Railway Museum tells their stories. One finds it across the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, and Ripley’s Aquarium in the appropriately named Roundhouse Park.
Operated by the Toronto Railway Historical Association, the Toronto Railway Museum is based in the great John Street Roundhouse and the surrounding Roundhouse Park. The location is appropriate: Toronto’s railway corridor extended east and west of Union Station and was once the nexus of the city’s transportation network. In many ways, it still is.
The John Street Roundhouse was part of that infrastructure. The structure itself was built by Canadian Pacific Railway between 1929 and 1931 as a maintenance and storage facility and to allow trains to, well, turn around.
As an interpretive experience, Toronto Railway Museum is immersive. It starts with an interior space in the Roundhouse’s Stall 17. There are maps and train memorabilia. There’s even a simulator which allows you to conduct a train around historic Toronto.
Outside, it functions as an open air museum. Well-produced plaques are located around park, often near significant landmarks. There are of course some train cars, some of which allow entry inside.
Most notable to me is the marker about the Workers of John Street. Most of Roundhouse Park’s landmarks highlight something physically awing like the Water Tower or a Canadian National Railway train, but this plaque focuses on the easily forgotten human element behind this tough industry.
Of course, Don Station is a remarkable site too. It is part of Toronto’s lost geography of bygone railway stations, companies, structures, and tracks. It operated 1896 to 1967 at Queen Street and the Don River. Then it spent time at Todmorden Mills until 2008 when it was moved to Roundhouse Park and subsequently restored. It also serves the museum’s gift shop and departure point for the park’s own train rides.
John Street Roundhouse closed in 1986. It marked an era where the railways were taking a bit of a backseat in Toronto’s development. Industry within the city was declining as manufacturing moved elsewhere. The physical lands of the railroads shifted too. Tracks were removed and lands — and some remaining sites — were redeveloped for new residential, commecial, and entertainment uses.
The Corridor just south Union Station saw a lot of this transformation. In 1976, the CN Tower was completed. The 1980s saw opening of the Metro Convention Centre and SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). The latter actually replaced another roundhouse. Using the facade of the old Postal Delivery Building, the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) came in 1999 as the new home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and newly created Toronto Raptors. Since then, a condo community has grown up around it since as well as a fan area called Maple Leaf Square in 2010. Most recently, the area got the impressive Ripleys Aquarium in 2013.
The John Street Roundhouse was designated a National Historic Site in 1990. Its heritage value comes from being the best example of a roundhouse in the country — its turntable actually works! Roundhouse Park opened around it in 1997 to further its legacy. In 1999, the roundhouse’s stalls became home to the aptly-named Steam Whistle Brewery and then Leon’s in 2009 (it closed for the Rec Room two years ago).
In 2019, the John Street Roundhouse celebrates its 90th birthday, making it a good time to reflect on its related history and geography. And stories. Lot of stories.