St.Thomas – The Railway Capital of Canada

Why do we call St. Thomas Canada’s railway capital?

First, because St. Thomas was an important railway town. At its peak, St. Thomas was a hub for a multitude of prominent railways, and served as the primary stop on the Canadian short cut between Detroit and Buffalo. By 1914 a total of eight different railways brought in more than 100 trains per day.

A more profound reason is the importance of the railways to St. Thomas. To be sure, there were major cities in Canada that also served as booming railways centres. But the railways transformed St. Thomas from a town of just 1700 people in 1860 to a city of more than 35,000 people today. Between 1872 and 1880 alone the population shot up from 2,200 to 8,367. The railways brought St. Thomas jobs and prosperity.

They made St. Thomas known internationally, though the incident that made St. Thomas a household name was an unfortunate one. On September 15, 1885, Jumbo the elephant, star of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, was struck and killed in St. Thomas by a Grand Trunk locomotive. It took 150 men to move the carcass. On the one hundredth anniversary of Jumbo’s death, the city dedicated a monument to Jumbo, a 38-ton statue of the animal some believe was the largest elephant ever in captivity, and certainly the best-known non-human that ever lived.

New York Central Engine #5427

As the railways began to lose their prominence in the mid-20th century, St. Thomas saw its fortunes take a similar turn. There were many years the city did well to hold onto the population it had, and many believe that if not for a concerted effort to diversify its industrial base, St. Thomas might have faded into history altogether.
Magnificentin its heyday, the Canada Southern Railway Station is still one of the largest buildings in the city of St. Thomas.

More recently, St. Thomas has become known as a centre for automotive production, but local residents have not forgotten the mode of transportation on which the city was built. Local attractions include the Elgin County Railway Museum and the North America Railway Hall of Fame. Every August people from St. Thomas and visitors from far and wide come to celebrate the railway influence in the Iron Horse Festival. The current community focus is a fundraising effort to save the old railway station, originally built in 1872. In addition to preserving an important historical landmark, the project also promises to rejuvenate the downtown core and serve as a testament to the enduring legacy the railways have left on St. Thomas, Canada’s railway capital.
Locals take one final opportunity to pose with the animal that gave the English language a new synonym for “large”.