The Last Train to Union Station

31 July 1966

In November 1949, Jacques Gréber, the French urban planner and architect, released his report on the beautification of Ottawa which was then a grimy, industrial city filled with war-time temporary buildings. One of his key recommendations was the removal of the railway lines than ran through the city’s downtown core, and the abandonment of Union Station which stood beside the Rideau Canal across the street from the Château Laurier Hotel.

This was a gutsy call. It was hard to think of a major city that did not have a centrally-located train station. Toronto’s Union Station was, and remains today, but a short walk away from the financial district. Similarly, Montreal’s Central Station is conveniently located in the heart of the city, and today is linked to the city’s metro as well as to hotels, retail and commercial enterprises.

Union Station, the railway tracks, and the chimney to the Power Plant from Laurier Bridge, 1920s, Library and Archives Canada, 3358822. The Château Laurier Hotel can be seen behind Union Station.

Underpinning Gréber’s recommendation was a belief that the automobile was becoming increasingly important, and that Ottawa’s railroads, having been built in the nineteenth century with the needs of the lumber industry in mind, were no longer appropriately sited. As well, the tracks cut up neighbourhoods and were unsightly.

It took more than a decade before the National Capital Commission acted on this controversial recommendation. In May 1961, it announced that a new railway terminal would be built on a 440-acre site near the Hurdman Bridge. The new site was easily accessible from the Queensway, the new cross-city highway which was then under construction and was itself sited on an old railway right of way. The NCC also noted that the new terminal was only two miles from Confederation Square. Other factors behind the decision included a view that the old Union Station, built in 1912, was obsolete, that it had inadequate parking, and that Ottawa’s population was shifting southward. Consequently, it was more convenient for a growing fraction of the city’s residents to have the terminal situated outside of the downtown core. Another consideration was that the land was already largely owned by the railways and the federal government. The NCC claimed that the new station would permit “a harmonious integration of bus, taxi, passenger car and truck movements in the area” with ample parking. It also envisaged the terminal becoming the hub of a new commercial and industrial area. It took another five years before Gréber’s vision became reality. The last train to Ottawa’s downtown Union Station, was the CNR’s “Panorama,” arriving at 1:30 am, Sunday, 31 July 1966 from Montreal. It departed fifteen minutes later on its way to Vancouver. Three hundred people were on hand to wave goodbye to the train and bid adieu to the old station.

Union Station, interior, date unknown, Library and Archives Canada

It was the end of an era. For fifty-four years, Union Station had witnessed the arrival and departure of untold thousands. Its cavernous rotunda had seen tears of sadness and joy as soldiers departed and returned from two world wars. It had greeted world leaders, royalty, sports heroes, and pop stars. Now, all was quiet. Immediately after that last train had pulled out of the station, the building was handed over to the National Capital Commission. The Corps of Commissionaires moved in to re-direct bewildered, would-be passengers who showed up looking for their trains.

The first train to the spanking new Ottawa Station located off of Tremblay Road arrived a few hours later. It was the CPR’s “Rideau” from Montreal. It left shortly afterwards at 9:04 am. The hand-off from the old to the new station, while postponed by a couple of weeks owing to delays in the installation of the centralized control system, was carried out smoothly and without a hitch.

In addition to passengers and friends, hundreds of curious Ottawa residents were on hand to check out the new train facilities. What they saw was a utilitarian, glass, steel and concrete building. Its interior colour scheme was black and cream with touches of crimson. The Ottawa Journal described its architectural design as “airport hangar modern.” It had an exceptional loudspeaker system, far superior to the one at the old Union Station. Finally, announcements could be easily heard throughout the station. The newspapers were impressed. The Ottawa Citizen opined that the new Ottawa Station was far superior to the old Union Station.

Ottawa Station, main entrance, 2013 by JustSomePics

However, the new Ottawa Station was unfinished. Train schedule signs had to be brought in from the old station. The restaurant wasn’t ready. In its place was a temporary lunch counter. The station’s furniture had not been installed so people had to wait on uncomfortable, backless seats. Additionally, the parking lots were unfinished.

So poor were the conditions, the railways felt obliged to apologize to customers for any inconvenience. Cards were left on train seats saying that it was due to the urgency to complete the Colonel By extension and the Queensway that they railways had been asked by the NCC to vacate Union Station even though the new station and the approaches to the new station were not finished.

But worst of all for travellers was that there was no municipal bus service between the new station and downtown, despite years of foreknowledge that the Ottawa Station was to open in 1966. The only way to get downtown directly from the station was either by private car or taxi, with a fare of roughly $2.00 (roughly $17.00 in today’s money) including gratuity to the Château Laurier Hotel. If somebody wanted to catch a bus, they had to walk a quarter of a mile to the closest #61 bus stop on Alta Vista Drive. So much for the NCC’s talk of a “harmonious integration” of taxi, bus and passenger car service to the station.

The problem was the cost of supplying the buses and drivers to service the new station. The Ottawa Transportation Commission estimated that it would lose $100,000 per year on a bus link to downtown, and that it couldn’t afford to deliver service to “out-of-way places.” The Commission sought a subsidy from the railways. The railways were not amused. They didn’t subsidize buses in other cities, and they weren’t about to start now in Ottawa.

In mid-October 1966, the OTC finally caved in and started a dedicated bus service, 6:00 am to midnight, between the Ottawa Station and Confederation Square downtown, but only at an extra 25 cent per passenger fee. The regular cash fare was 20 cents. No free transfers to the main bus system were allowed. The cost of the service would be paid for out of general revenues but the OTC still hoped for a subsidy.

The special bus route lost money, lots of it, just as the OTC had predicted. On the first day of service, the buses took in only $83.25 in fares on the 35 round trips that costed OTC $300 to operate. In mid-January 1967, the dedicated bus route to downtown service was discontinued with service to the station provided by extending the Cyrville and Trembley leg of route #21. But problems continued. In late November 1968, a New Brunswick senator complained that he and fifty passengers had been left stranded at the station without taxi or buses. He called the transit service “obsolete, inefficient, unbearable and shameful for the capital city of Canada.” He added that when coming in by train, he didn’t want to be dropped off on the outskirts of Ottawa.

Despite complaints about the location of Ottawa’s new train station, it was a fait accompli. Some $35 million had been spent on the new train station, tracks and equipment. It was not about to be changed. As for the old Union Station, its future looked grim. The NCC planned to immediately demolish it along with neighbouring buildings and train sheds to allow for the construction of a national auditorium to complement the National Arts Centre (NAC) then under construction on the other side of the Rideau Canal. In the short term, a park was planned. As well, with the construction of the NAC, the Queen Elizabeth Driveway, hitherto the prime way of entering Ottawa’s downtown via automobile, was blocked. An extension of Colonel By Driveway on the other side of the Rideau Canal to Rideau Street was a necessary replacement.

Within three weeks of the closure of Union Station, some 42,000 feet of railway track and 2,000 railway ties had been torn up to make way for the Colonel By Extension. Controversially, the old department of transport warehouse complex, which was built at the “Deep Cut” shortly after the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832, was also demolished despite pleas to preserve it by Ottawa architects and heritage conservationists. One of the last things to go was the Union Station heating plant with its 160-foot smokestack. Used to heat Union Station, the Château Laurier Hotel and the Besserer Street Post Office, the stack crashed to the ground in May 1967 causing a huge cloud of black soot and dust. In its heyday, the power plant had consumed more than a train car’s load of coal every day.

Almost immediately, people began to have reservations about demolishing the grimy Union Station, at least right away. Heritage advocates, who were the founders of Heritage Ottawa, argued strenuously for saving the historic building. Topmost among the concerns of politicians was the possibility that its demolition would leave another unsightly mess in downtown Ottawa just in time for Canada’s centennial. In the end, the NCC decided to postpone its destruction until after the 1967 centennial celebrations. In the meantime, it was renamed the Centennial Centre and used to host special events, exhibits, a tourist bureau, a St. John’s Ambulance station as well as a day nursery. In early, February 1967, the renamed Union Station was swamped by teenagers for the Winter Carnival’s “Hopsville” to hear the rock bands, “Deuces,” “Beau Gestes,” and “Eyes of Dawn.”

In late 1967, the old station received another stay of execution until 1970. In a time of government austerity, the estimated $500,000 in demolition costs were seen as too high. It was more economical to spend a small amount of money and repurpose the building. Consequently, the federal government spent $43,000 on minor renovations to provide meeting rooms for federal government offices as well as offices for the Privy Council. Eight private offices and two conference rooms, one for 80 people and the other for 120 people plus a lounge were created on the fourth floor. Other offices were used by staff of the Eastern Ontario Children’s Hospital. The lower levels of the old station continued to be used for social events and public meetings. The City of Ottawa’s tourist bureau also moved into space on the ground floor.

A short time later, the reprieve became permanent when the federal government announced that it would spend a further $600,000 to make the old Union Station suitable for meetings between Pierre Trudeau and provincial premiers as the West Block’s Confederation Room was deemed unsuitable as it lacked adjoining office space.

The remodelled station, now called the Government Conference Centre, was ready for the December 1969 federal-provincial meetings, with the main conference room in the old rotunda able to accommodate 500 delegates and 150 observers. There were also facilities for simultaneous translation into five languages. It was estimated that the plush new facility would last at least another ten to fifteen years. Demolition was off the table—permanently.

In 1989, the old Union Station was classified as a federal heritage building. In 2006, the building was added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

In 2014, work began on a $269 million project to remodel both the exterior and interior of the old station to transform it into the temporary home of the Senate of Canada while the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is renovated. The work was completed by heritage architects ERA, along with Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects. In 2020, the building received the international Civic Trust Award that recognizes “outstanding architecture, planning and design in the built environment.”

The Senate moved into its new quarters in 2019 and is expected to stay there until the Centre Block renovations are completed in 2030.

Despite the passage of more than 55 years since the last train left Union Station, the lack of a downtown Ottawa inter-urban train station remains a bone of contention.

Sources:

ERA, 2020. Senate of Canada Building receives international recognition with 2020 Civic Trust Award.

Heritage Ottawa, 2022. Union Station, Government Conference Centre.

Ottawa Citizen, 1961. “New Station “Gateway To Capital” – NCC Chief,” 17 May.

——————, 1966. Ottawa Station, 15 July.

——————, 1966. “Union Station Closing,” 30 July.

——————, 1966. “Smooth Station Switch, 2 August.

——————, 1966. “How To Get To The New Station,” 2 August.

——————, 1966. “Ottawa’s new railway station,” 3 August.

——————, 1966. “Avenue to heart of Ottawa to follow lifting of rail line,” 19 September.

——————, 1966. “Bus to Ottawa Station to run twice an hour,” 14 October.

——————, 1967. “Government economies hit Ottawa area,” 31 November.

——————, 1968. “Govt. spending $43,000 on doomed Union Station,” 10 July.

——————, 1968. “Govt. to spend $600,000 on old station,” 3 September.

Ottawa Journal, 1966. “Saving the Union Station for Centennial Year?”, 9 March.

——————-, 1966. “Union Station to Stay?”, 4 July.

——————-, 1966. “Curious Crowds Jam New Rail Station,” 2 August.

——————-, 1966. “It’s Called Planning,” 3 October.

——————-, 1967. “Teeny-Boppers Swamp Union Station,” 4 February.

——————-, 1967. “One Last Angry Belch of Black Soot,” 23 May.

——————-, 1968, “Stranded Senator Blasts Ottawa Station Transit,” 22 November.

——————, 1969. “An Old Station Gets a New Life,” 5 December.

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