Foundations of Construction: Grand Trunk Railway Station a centre of heavy traffic        

kingston train station historic
“Kingston’s graceful Canadian National Railway Station in 1966,” Canada’s Historic Places. Retrieved from

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The countryside was expanding. Surveying complete in the early 1850s, railway labour gangs cleared a wide path into the forests and the meadows, across rivers, and through hills.

With wood ties in position, the iron rails of the Grand Trunk Railroad (GTR) were laid and secured. Smoke billowed from the locomotive as it chugged into the station. Architect Francis Thompson designed the only 1-½ storey station on the eastern Ontario mainline, constructed at Kingston in 1856.

The railway was built simultaneously at several sites, the eastern Ontario portion radiating from Kingston. “Designation of Kingston as a separate headquarters was an afterthought,” stated the “Railway Station Report” for National Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, “but one vital to speedy construction of the line.”

Experienced in railway architecture, Thompson was appointed Architect for the GTR of Canada in about 1852, as well as for St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad. Born in 1808 into a family of builders in Suffolk, England, Thompson was an acclaimed professional who designed railway depots to large complexes, warehouses, and worker houses. He produced plans for 15 stations along the GTR between Cornwall, near the Quebec border, and Stratford, Ontario, and more in Quebec.

The province’s vast wilderness presented architectural problems. Thompson “was concerned with restricting the complexity of construction requirements in a ‘country devoid of all and every flexible appliance for carrying out large works’,” described the Report.

Overcoming obstacles, “he created a company image through the standard appearance of his ‘Way Side’ stations.”

Selecting a Montreal Street parcel north of Kingston’s city limits in 1853, GTR management estimated that the Kingston site would operate on the smaller scale. However, within three years, “Kingston had been identified as a centre of heavy traffic” and an administrative site, too. The depot required more property. “The Contractors at once undertook to supply more, at their own cost,” said the Report.

Opened for passengers and shipping in 1856, the busy Outer Station required suitable facilities. Trains replenished the wood fuel to power the steam engines, and a water tower was needed to fill the enormous boilers, accessed by steam-driven pumps. A turntable was built for changing the locomotives’ direction.

By 1859, Kingston’s depot “contained three large wood sheds, two engine houses, a separate freight house, a station and station shed as well as a separate refreshment saloon,” the Report said, plus “a four door row of cottages known as Grant Trunk Terrace, situated just to the north of the station site.” (The historical limestone row remains as cozy homes.)

The first GTR terminal built in the region, Kingston’s station was constructed to a higher standard than nearby stations at Ernestown, Napanee, Trenton, and others.

Local limestone was quarried to build the rectangular station featuring seven bays—smaller station designs had five—and four capped stone chimneys. The structure had “wide, overhanding eaves along the track and street elevations returned at the ends and supported on curved wooden brackets with a decorative wood frieze,” said Canada’s Historic Places.

Fine stonework accentuated the façade, with a textural mix of ashlar walls and smooth quoins of cut stone, and “voussoirs defining the large arched openings and building corners.” The end façades were equally elegant with arched and keyed windows on the second floor.

Thompson’s interior drawings for the administrative centre included quarters for the Station Master on the second floor. Railway officials decided the other stations did not require as much staff space, and changed the plans to a single storey with less room. With his work completed, the architect and his wife returned to England in 1859.

In 1876, the Italianate-style roof was replaced with a mansard roof; “the stonework on the mansard integrates perfectly to the casual eye because it is a minimal addition to the original one and a half storey station building.”

Twenty years later, a second station building was added. With brick wainscotting, the one-storey building was designed with similar arched windows and end facades. The structure included a recessed hip roof and a wooden telegraph bay on the track-side. Joining the two stations, a platform shelter was constructed in 1939. It was made into an enclosed building in 1989.

From 1987 to 1992, a restaurant brought the second station back to life.

Kingston’s CNR station was replaced by a modern building in the city’s west end in 1974.

Awarded recognition on June 6, 1994 under the Ontario Heritage Act, Kingston’s historical railway station was damaged by a fire two years later. The CNR was unable to afford costs of repairs and maintenance, and the city was also unable to take on the challenge.

The Outer Station has tumbled into ruins. The distinctive mansard roof has disintegrated and the once-beautiful stonework walls decay further with each season. The architectural history is crumbling into rubble before our eyes.

© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.


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