The Grand Trunk Trail - St. Marys (Ontario, Canada)


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Grand Trunk Railway - St. Marys
by Mary Smith, Curator, St. Marys Museum

The site for the Town of St. Marys was selected in 1839 by surveyors for the Canada Company, an English land development company. By the early 1840s, the first settlers were living in the new community.

The natural attractions of St. Marys included two rivers flowing through its centre with water power to run several mills and limestone, close to the surface along the river banks, ready to be quarried for building materials. By the mid 1850s, St. Marys was an established village with the basic industries and services essential for a growing community.

The Grand Trunk Railway System

But, by 1857, a new source of prosperity seemed to be at hand; railway fever gripped the little town as the Grand Trunk Railway pushed its way through Ontario westward from Montreal and Toronto towards the American border and ultimately Chicago. The railway promised to put back-country settlements, isolated by distance and bad roads, in touch with the rest of the world.

And St. Marys was chosen to be an important part of the Grand Trunk Railway's grand scheme; it was to be the site of a junction.

The St. Marys Junction Station today.  Photograph courtesy Stonetown Books, St. Marys, Ontario.Photograph courtesy Stonetown Books, St. Marys, Ontario.
The St. Marys Junction Station today.

At St. Marys, the railway was to split into two lines (see map). The main line would go west to Sarnia; a secondary line would go south to London. The junction of these two lines was located just within the north-easterly limits of St. Marys and a limestone station was built on that spot in 1858. This station, although no longer used by the railway, is still standing and is still known as the Junction Station.

Excitement must have risen steadily in St. Marys as the railway line came closer and closer. By late summer, 1857, contracts were called for two elevated bridges on huge limestone piers to carry the tracks across Trout Creek on the London line and across the Thames River on the Sarnia line.

Replacing the girders on the Sarnia Bridge, 1905.
Replacing the girders on  the
Sarnia Bridge, 1905

George Weir from Merrickville, a Scottish-born. self-taught civil engineer who had made his reputation working on the Rideau Canal, was awarded the project. The two bridges immediately became known as the London Bridge and the Sarnia Bridge.

Newspapers ran advertisements calling for stonemasons and quarrymen. The limestone was, of course, quarried locally and hauled to the construction sites. Railway construction proved a boon to the local labour force and newly arrived workers augmented the town's population.

The London Bridge was completed first, the London - St. Marys line finally opening in September, 1858. Townspeople must have lined the tracks for this occasion.

The Sarnia Bridge crossing the Thames River -  (Fall '99)

The Sarnia line took longer to complete. Tracks were being laid eastward from Sarnia to join the crew working westward. In November, 1858, this article ran in the St. Marys Argus:

"The Sarnia Branch of the Grand Trunk Railway was opened for traffic on Monday last. St. Marys is thus placed in connection with Detroit, and all points west, by two lines of railway - an advantage which will doubtless tell upon the place very favourably."

Aerial view of St. Marys heading south-east.  London Bridge (background) - Sarnia Bridge (foreground)  <CLICK> for larger image.tiger-aeroplane-v.gif (108 bytes)
<click> for larger imageLondon Bridge (background) - Sarnia Bridge (foreground)

Since the 1850s, the two trestle railway bridges have been an integral part of the  St. Marys landscape, emphasizing its river valleys, marking its borders, giving it a context with the rest of the province and reminding the community of its history.

But, as the 20th century developed, the place of the great 19th Century railways became less certain. Losing money as a private enterprise, the Grand Trunk Railway was nationalized in the early 1920s to form part of the the Canadian National Railway complex. 1

As other modes of transportation gained popularity, railway use declined. In 1989, the last freight train crossed the Sarnia Bridge - passenger service on that line had been discontinued years earlier. Shortly after, the rails were taken up and the future of the wonderful old bridge structure was threatened.

Fall 1998.  Photograph courtesy Stonetown Books, St. Marys, Ontario.Photograph courtesy Stonetown Books, St. Marys, Ontario.
Fall 1998

However, in 1995, the Town of St. Marys purchased the Bridge from the Canadian National Railway, as well as the right of way within Town limits along the abandoned line approaching the bridge. A citizens' committee was formed in June, 1996, to work towards transforming this old railway line into a trail for everyone to enjoy - residents and visitors alike. The highlight of this Grand Trunk Trail will be a pedestrian walkway over the old Sarnia Bridge.

The Grand Trunk Trail - St. Marys.