The Toronto Railway Museum and John Street Roundhouse are located at 255 Bremner Blvd (bordered by Lower Simcoe St, Lake Shore Blvd W and Rees St) in Roundhouse Park.
Situated in downtown Toronto on former railway lands, the 17-acre park is home to the museum and an incredible collection of historic buildings, structures, vintage trains and railway equipment. It’s directly south of the CN Tower.
The Toronto Railway Museum
The museum was developed and is managed by the Toronto Railway Historical Association (TRHA). They present incredible exhibits, tours and educational programs that help us understand and appreciate just how rich Toronto’s railway heritage is.
Visitors can walk around the outdoor park filled with trains, towers, a turntable, railway artifacts and more, free of charge. Tickets can be purchased for entrance to the Toronto Railway Museum inside the historic John Street Roundhouse or for an informative guided tour of Roundhouse Park, or for a mini-train ride. Visit Toronto Railway Museum for more details.
John Street Roundhouse
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) roundhouse, today known as the John Street Roundhouse, was constructed in just over four months in 1929 – beginning in May and opening in October. The complex was designed by the railway company’s Chief Engineer J.M.R. Fairbairn and built to service CPR’s 75 passenger trains that stopped at Union Station daily.
The roundhouse is made from concrete, brick and wood. It features large clerestory windows and a monitor roof to allow for abundant light and initially 28 pie-shaped stalls. To support the weight of the roundhouse, locomotives and railcars, approximately 3,000 cement piles, each 38 cm or 15 inches in diameter, were sunk to a depth of 12.2 m or 40 ft beneath the structure.
The roundhouse featured modern technologies of its time using a Direct Steaming Process, which propelled a locomotive onto the turntable and into a stall to be serviced. Once in the stall, it was attached to a steam line to keep the boiler at a reduced constant pressure until servicing was complete. Before the steam process, a locomotive would have a coal fire in its boiler from the turntable right through servicing. It was smokey and dangerous. The new direct steaming process was safer, quicker and better for the environment.
During its busiest years, from the 1930s to the 1950s, CPR’s John Street Roundhouse employed about 150 skilled, semi-skilled and apprentice workers, including boilermakers, blacksmiths, machinists, pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, engine wipers and cleaners, labourers and more. The locomotives serviced at the roundhouse were so well maintained that they became known in the industry as having the “John Street polish.”
At one point, 43 structures and several kilometres of track were on the property, plus four more stalls were added to the roundhouse, bringing the total to 32.
Around 1960, CPR retired the steam locomotives, so the roundhouse was mainly used to service diesel locomotives until 1982. The John Street Roundhouse closed in 1988, then handed the facility over to the city to be redeveloped as the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre. The complex was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990.
If you’re interested in learning about the restoration of the John Street Roundhouse, see the video below.
The 3-point turntable bridge is 36.6 m or 120 ft long and could easily accommodate the longest locomotive. It was used to rotate and direct a locomotive into a roundhouse stall for servicing, then once completed, turn it in the opposite direction for departure. The turntable was manufactured by the Dominion Bridge Company of Montreal and powered by two compressed air engines. Did you know that this bridge company also made the steel-truss roof of Maple Leaf Gardens?
Vast quantities of water were needed for the steam process, cleaning and maintenance of CPR’s fleet of locomotives and railcars. Sixty thousand gallons of water were stored in the tower, pumped in from Lake Ontario.
From the 1870s to the 1950s, steam that powered the locomotives was generated primarily by coal, so the yard had a coaling plant – a 350-ton elevated silo where sand and coal were stored. The sand was piped into the tower using compressed air. It was used for traction on wet or slippery rails and still is today. The coal was transferred from “hopper” rail cars and lifted by conveyor buckets to the top of the tower. A locomotive would be positioned underneath the chute then coal was funnelled into its tender, a special car to hold fuel for the locomotive.
The Coaling Tower was originally about 183 m or 600 ft to the east, near Lower Simcoe St and Bremner Blvd. In 1995, the tower had to be relocated to its present-day site for the construction of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was one of the heaviest single objects moved in the country.
The park features historic structures, including the Don Station, Cabin D and a Watchmen’s Shanty, as well as a carefully curated collection of restored, full-sized vintage trains and railway equipment.
Built by Canadian Pacific Railway in 1896, Don Station was located on the south side of Queen St E and the west side of the Don River. The station was added for the convenience of passengers on the city’s east side so they didn’t have to make the trek to Union Station. In the early 1910s, the Don Station was moved 30.5 m or 100 ft south to make way for the present-day Riverside Bridge. When Don Station closed in 1967, the structure was moved to Todmorden Mills. It remained there for over four decades until it was relocated to Roundhouse Park in 2008.
Built in 1890 by Grand Trunk Railway, Cabin D and the tool shed were originally located in the railway corridor, just west of the Bathurst Street Bridge. The wooden interlocking tower was one of five (lettered A through E) near Union Station that controlled track switches and signal lights.
Cabin D also had switch tenders who rushed around to manually position the tracks using directions broadcast over the tower’s loudspeaker. This old-fashioned method was used at this location until the cabin was retired in 1983. That same year, Cabin D and the tool shed were relocated to the John Street Roundhouse. They were stored for several years before being fully restored and put on display in 2010 for the opening of the Toronto Railway Museum.
Watchmen or gate tenders were stationed in small buildings located where railway tracks intersected with the city’s streets. Many of the shanties were mounted on 4.6 m or 15 ft towers for better views in all directions. When the watchman saw a train approaching, they manually lowered the gates, stopping vehicles and pedestrians from crossing the tracks, then raising the gates once the train passed. The shanties had large windows and were furnished with a stove and bench. The watchmen were employees of the rail company who had been injured on the job and needed less physical work.
Toronto’s first watchman’s shanty was installed in 1885 and located on Queen St W. Eventually, there were several gate tenders and shanties guarding crossings around the city; however, as the train frequency and Toronto’s population increased, these level crossings became more and more dangerous, injuring or killing hundreds over the years. So to solve these safety and traffic issues, underpasses, like the King Street West Railway Underpass, were constructed to carry tracks above the streets.
The watchman’s gatehouse at Roundhouse Park once guarded the rail crossing at John St. This particular shanty did not need to be elevated since the trains passing by it were going at a slow rate of speed, and at the time, there wasn’t too much vehicle traffic.
Locomotives, Freight & Passenger Cars
There are many beautifully restored railway vehicles at the park, including the 1917 Fowler Boxcar, 1920 Caboose, 1906 Porter 0-4-0 Fireless Locomotive, 1967 GO Transit cab car, Pyke Crane and more.
The Canadian National 4-8-4 Northern steam locomotive was built in 1942 by the Montreal Locomotive Works company and used for passenger and freight service. During its 17-year career, the iron horse travelled over one million miles between Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. In 1960, #6213 was presented to the city by Canadian National Railways and put on display next to Stanley Barracks at Exhibition Place. The locomotive was moved to Roundhouse Park in 2009.
Did You Know?
The first passenger train began operating in Toronto in 1853, hauled by a wood-burning steam locomotive.
In the 1850s, there was not enough land to build rail lines in Toronto, so new land was created by filling in the harbour, extending the city’s shoreline south from its original location once near Front St.
In 1929, the CPR (John Street) roundhouse replaced the railway company’s previous roundhouse that was built on the same site in 1897. It also had a turntable; however, at only 26 m or 85 ft in length, it could not handle larger engines.
To encourage travel on its railway, Canadian Pacific Railway built and operated a series of luxury castle-like hotels, including the Royal York, along its rail lines across the country.
The area around the John Street Roundhouse extending from Strachan Ave in the west to Yonge St in the east was once known as the Railway Lands. By the 1980s, this real estate had become some of the most expensive in Canada.
A few of the city’s landmarks on property once used for railway purposes include the Rogers Centre, the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium and Roy Thomson Hall.