With historical sites re-opening for the summer and Doors Open events throughout Ontario, it’s a great time to enjoy local history and the wonderful stories that museums, archives and historical societies have to share.
Housed since 2007 in the smartly re-purposed old train station in Prescott, the Grenville County Historical Society offers visitors a chance to research local families and the history of the area’s old houses. A Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque marks the Station’s designation, in 1972, as a national historic site.
Key factors that led to the designation include the Station’s limestone exterior walls, its late 19th century operator’s bay built of wood, its pairs of chimneys at each end – the only mid-century station in Ontario to have its chimneys still standing – and its Italianate features (regular arched openings on all sides, voussoirs and heavy eave returns).
Prescott figured prominently in early Grand Trunk Railway plans, and the Prescott Station was built in 1855 during the first construction period of the line between Montreal and Brockville (1852-1855). It was a standard design prepared for the new line by English architect Francis Thompson.
The Grand Trunk was incorporated in 1853 to run from Sarnia to Portland, Maine. Although it took over existing lines, new ones had to be built, including sections of the Toronto to Montreal line. From the time of its charter, the history of the GTR was distinguished by caustic disputes with Parliament over funding and foreign workers, and the Government’s insistence on a wide gauge rail to deter cross-border traffic. This restriction inspired engineers to invent a car with self-adjusting axle lengths shortly before the gauge was changed to the American standard, in 1873.
The noted English engineering firm of Peto, Brassey, Jackson and Betts (PBJB) was contracted to build the line and secure financing with minimal risk to the Government. Owing to a post-Crimean War economic downtown, money was difficult to obtain and the costs of the project were much higher than the British had expected. Instead of the 40 per cent predicted for operating costs, the real figures were between 58 and 85 per cent in the ten years following the line’s completion.
Shareholders reported that the line was poorly laid and complained about overly extravagant structures. In order to appease them, the London Board of Directors approved, in 1855, the use of timber for many of the early stations, but the decision met with an uproar in Canada and it was overturned in favour of using stone and brick.
The station in Prescott was the largest of the nine GTR stations built mid-19th-century. Similar stations exist at Georgetown, Napanee, Belleville, Port Hope, St. Marys Junction, Brighton, Kingston, and Ernestown.
At the height of its use in the early 20th century, the Prescott Station included a separate wood frame freight shed, a frame baggage room and coal shed, as well as a large open platform, a barn, stockyards, and a section man’s house. The section man (or section gang) was responsible for maintaining the track, looking for loose spikes, replacing rotted ties and tightening bolts.
In Fall 2001, VIA Rail announced that stops at Prescott, Maxville and Trenton were being discontinued, ending a 150-year tradition of passenger rail service in the Fort Town. At an earlier time, an eastbound and a westbound train made daily evening stops.