Title: Former Canadian National Railways Station

Hespeler (Cambridge), Ontario

Source: PETERSON PROJECTS, Murray Peterson, Winnipeg 


The present station was completed in 1900 (Figure 1) by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) replacing an earlier, outdated structure, required because of the heavy use of the railway and its station to supply, ship, and store goods and materials by local industries. The station was specially designed with an extended freight section to accommodate this role in the local economy.

Hespeler is located approximately 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Toronto (Figure 2 and 3) and was one of three communities amalgamated in 1973 to form the City of Cambridge, which today has a population of 102,000. The construction of major highways in southern Ontario has meant a shift to trucking for local freighting and passenger requirements, severely reducing the historic reliance on railways by industries and citizens alike. As a consequence, the Hespeler (Cambridge) station has stood vacant for several years.



This station is representative of three major themes in Canadian railway history: a continuation of pre-1900 needs and facilities provided by the area’s first railway; an acknowledgement of its continued importance within the railway system of southern Ontario by the line’s 1900 owners; and the shift away from railways as the major mover of goods and people in the post-1950 era.

The Great Western Railway (GWR) was incorporated as the London and Core Railroad Company in May 1834 (changing its name to GWR in 1953). Promoted by several prominent businessmen from Hamilton, the main line was completed between Niagara Falls, Hamilton, London and Windsor by January 1854, relying heavily on through traffic between the states of New York and Michigan. The railway did increase its branch line system over the next two decades, including the line from Hamilton to Galt and ultimately north to Guelph.

While it succeeded in bolstering local economies and communities along its line, this reliance on foreign traffic would ultimately cause its downfall. Both it, and its chief rival, the GTR, suffered in the 1870s when through traffic rates decreased as a result of railway company consolidation in the United States. Following its corporate strategy, the GTR took over the GWR on 12 August 1882, gaining control of the GWR’s 1,280 kilometres (800 miles) of Canadian line and 288 kilometres (180 miles) of track in Michigan.

As the Canadian economy began to grow in the late 1890s, so too did the traffic and profits of the GTR. From this period until approximately 1910, the GTR launched an aggressive upgrading policy throughout its eastern Canadian system, including the doubling of its Montreal-Sarnia line, the improvement of grades and reduction of curves and the replacement of old bridges, yards and buildings including many stations. The older station at Hespeler was replaced with a more modern structure to improve the railway’s handling of freight and passengers to the busy community.

The optimism of this era is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the backers of the GTR opted to set up a western subsidiary and create the second of the country’s three transcontinental railways by 1914. The earlier optimism, however, was quickly replaced by the realization that the country could not possibly support these three ventures, and by 1919, the western expansion had caused the bankruptcy of the GTR. It was taken over by the federal government, placed under the management of the Canadian National Railways on 30 January 1923.

The final theme that the present station at Hespeler illustrates is the replacement of the freight and passenger roles of the railways by highways, automobiles and trucks by the 1960s. This period saw massive reductions in traffic along many lines across Canada, resulting in the closure of many branch lines, the removal of stations and other facilities and the wholesale reorganization of the railway sector. The present state of this station is a direct result of this trend towards roads and trucks.

Local Development

The construction of the station at Hespeler in 1900 was part of the expansion and modernization of the community and its transportation facilities. It was a response to the economic and industrial boom that had been supported by the railway for nearly two decades.

Hespeler, like so many other communities in southern Ontario, was settled because of the availability of water for irrigation and power. The area that would become the town site of Hespeler, on the banks of the Speed River northeast of where it empties into the Grand River, was originally deeded by the Crown to the Six Nations Indians, allies of the British during the War of Independence. By the early 19th century, however, much of the land had been sold as the area filled with Mennonite immigrants from Holland and Germany who had come to North America in the 1700s to avoid religious persecution. The first settler, Michael Bergey, built a small log cabin in 1828, calling the hamlet Bergeytown. The name was changed in 1835 to New Hope and by the 1840s boasted a population of approximately 100, complete with several saw mills and a general store.

In 1845, Jacob Hespeler (1811-1881) (Figure 4) moved from nearby Preston to New Hope, replacing an existing dam and building a grist mill, sawmill and cooperage before 1850. By 1861, Hespeler, now one of the community’s most prominent men, was also operating a gashouse, a distillery and a woolen mill. When New Hope was incorporated as a Village in 1858, it was renamed Hespeler, underlining his status in the area and it was Jacob Hespeler who served as the Village’s first reeve, holding the office until 1862.

His status had risen because of his leadership role in maneuvering the branch line of the GWR through Hespeler on its way north to Guelph (known as the Galt and Guelph Railway). The line was started in 1855 after months of heated official, public and backroom debate over its route and the location of facilities. Jacob Hespeler had guaranteed service for his village by having himself appointed by the railway’s directors to purchase the land necessary for the right-of-way and station grounds (he also assured his own financial future by locating the line and stations on his own property).

When the line was completed in 1858, the local economies began to boom and new business ventures quickly began taking advantage of the permanent, year-round services of the GWR. When the railway company was amalgamated with the GTR in 1882, it increased the market possibilities for Hespeler’s businesses. By 1900, Hespeler incorporated as a town and boasted many large businesses, including furniture, textile and even hockey sticks. The rail line would ultimately find its way north to Owen Sound and the Bruce Peninsula (Figure 5).

The railway was a major contributor to the growth of Hespeler, supplying raw materials for the factories and reliable transportation for the completed materials to markets all over the world. Because of this, businesses chose to locate close to the railway and the depot. The station, because of its heavy shipping/receiving role, was specially designed by GTR officials and was built at the zenith of the status of railways in the economy of southern Ontario and Canada.

The primacy of the railway in Hespeler was not seriously challenged until the construction of modern roadways after World War II. New highways, especially the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway #401 that runs just south of Hespeler, and the growth of trucking as a viable and cheaper alternative to trains lead to a shift in traffic away from the railway line. With this reduction in traffic came the closure of stations and the removal of lines by the new owner of the property, the CNR.

At Hespeler, this process meant the gradual reduction in weekly trains passing through the community, the cancellation of passenger service after 1959 and the closure of the station nearly 20 years ago. The vacant station stands beside a short stretch of sparsely used track running from Guelph to just north of Galt (Finnigan) in the midst of a still-busy industrial section.


Aesthetic/Visual Qualities

The 1900 Hespeler station is an example of a GTR Type A station, modest in size and ornamentation, functional and efficient in design. It is also a station built during a transitional phase for the railway between the small-scale, plain structures of the earlier period and the picturesque depots of the post-1900 era.

The 1870-1900 saw the construction of many one-storey, frame structures with gently pitched gable roofs, slightly overhanging eaves and the use of board and batten siding. This type of exterior cladding was popular for many decades because of its picturesque qualities, its strength and its inexpensiveness. Another exterior elements common during this phase were large, raised freight platforms, often on both sides of the depot.

The design of the Hespeler station follows the basic tenets of the period, its elongated plan and gable roof common to the period. Exterior cladding of the station was originally a mixture of board and batten, as well as panels of angled wood siding to animate the elevations (Figure 6). Other ornamental features on the original fašades included bargeboard trim on the gable ends and above the bay window, ornate hip knobs supported by delicate ornamental woodwork and topped by finials and lattice attached to the gable ends. A bay window, offering an improved view of the track and platform for the manager’s desk inside, is located on the front (north) fašade. The overhanging eaves are supported by large wooden brackets. Exterior lighting is supplied by globes attached to delicate metal supports (Figure 7).

Long, raised platforms facilitate the large volume of freight being loading and unloading from the five large freight doors, two on both the track and town side elevations and one on the west end. The building measures 27’ by 121’ and rests on a surface foundation supported by cedar piers.

The original design created a very unique station, its charm and liveliness stemming from the varied use of wood cladding and the delicate ornamentation of the gable ends.

The present structure has been greatly altered from the original, both as a result of neglect and age, vandalism, and upgrading by the owners. Structurally, the depot’s foundation is in poor condition causing uneven settling, up to 1’ in some areas (Figures 8 and 9). Exterior cladding is generally in poor condition, the east end (original waiting room) has been covered by an insul-brick material (although the original board and batten siding is still intact) (Figure 10). Accents at the gable ends are missing from the station’s west end, incomplete at the east end but intact above the bay window (Figure 11). The raised loading platform has been removed from the north side and is in a state of disrepair on the south side. The roof also suffers severely from neglect.

Although the building is in very poor structural condition, good examples of all of the exterior materials still exist. In terms of uniqueness, this is the last GTR-built station of this type on this extensive subdivision (see Figure 5) still standing on its original site. The only other stations standing are Palmerston (1872, 1876 and remodeled 1900), Wingham (1906), Harriston (1905), Owen Sound (1932) Southampton, and Gilford (relocated).

Functional/Technological Qualities

This station represents both a continuation of and a departure from accepted practices regarding interior layout design.

The use of the elongated plan was a common method of separating the public areas of the station, the ticket counter and waiting room (located at the east end), from the dust and noise of the freight and baggage areas (west end). The centrally-located office divided these two sections as well as giving the employees easy access to all areas of the station.

Interior finishes throughout these stations were marked by their durability and ease of maintenance rather than on aesthetic considerations.

At the Hespeler station, the baggage/freight area was extended beyond the usual length to afford more space for materials and manufactured goods being shipped on the line. The raised loading platforms, the inclusion of five loading doors and the raised floor of the baggage department, while not unique features, do underline the importance given this function by the station designers. The station was also fronted by an extensive wooden platform, another familiar element of Canadian train stations.

Many stations built from the 1870s to 1900 included large living quarters for the stationmaster and his family. At Hespeler, this was not necessary because local development had provided ample residential space nearby.

Much like the exterior, the interior of this station has suffered from vandalism, neglect and unsympathetic alterations, although the basic layout has remained unchanged.

The entrance on the north side to the west of the bay window leads to a short hallway which ends in an unusual double door (Figure 12). There is no evidence of a staircase to the upper door, suggesting that access to the small room was gained by a ladder. It is possible that this room was used for storage of the large amount of shipping paperwork that has been found throughout the depot.

To the left of the hallway is the office, with the stationmaster’s table nestled in the bay window (Figure 13). An arched doorway, used for the ticket counter, leads to the large, undivided waiting room (Figure 14). These spaces have suffered greatly from neglect and the addition of heating ducts after the station’s closure to the public when it was used as a shop. The presence of a large amount of locally-produced pressed tin covering walls and ceilings is an unusual interior element (Figure 15).

To the right of the hallway is the large, open freight/baggage room with its raised floor. Interior finish in this area would have been sparse and the space has suffered from several deliberately set fires (Figure 16).

Similar to the exterior, the originality of the interior space of this station has been compromised by several factors. There are, however, examples of the original interior still intact and in relatively good condition.



The location and early development of Hespeler was well underway by the time the railway crews arrived in the community. Early industries located on both banks of the river. The railway ensured these businesses of a market for their goods and access to raw materials. Non-industrial development took place on both side of the Speed River, further back from banks. The site chosen for the railway (by leading industrialist Jacob Hespeler) was on the north bank, close to his own mill complex. Personal advantages aside, however, the choice was made to locate the yards in a central location, and the north bank offered flatter, more appropriate land for the main line, switching tracks, spur lines and related railway structures.

Today, the station, located at the southwest corner of Guelph Avenue and Sheffield Street (Figure 17), is surrounded by large industrial structures of all ages. Its size relative to these neighbours reduces the visual impact of the structure, although open space around the depot does increase its conspicuousness.

Community Status

While the three communities brought together to form the City of Cambridge work together every day, many facets of live continue on separately. The former Town of Hespeler has an active heritage community which has worked diligently to preserve, protect and publicize its many unique heritage sites and structures. A walking tour has been produced and includes the former CNR station.

In August 1996, a public meeting was held to gage support for a scheme to renovate the Hespeler station. The Hespeler Heritage Railway Station Association was formed shortly thereafter and today boasts and membership of over 200. The Association hired an architectural firm to do a complete analysis of the structure and to draw up renovation plans. The final cost of these renovations was estimated at $450,000 and fund raising projects are well underway. As well, the Association has entered negotiations with the CNR to purchase the station. This ongoing process is regularly reported on in the local newspapers and television and is a topic of much conversation throughout the community.