The municipality of Gravenhurst, ON has created an online survey asking citizens whether the town should sell its historic train station. Train service to Gravenhurst stopped in 2012, and the three connected buildings which make up the station have since been repurposed.
The station’s south building houses a veterinary clinic, the middle building a taxi dispatch office, and the northernmost and largest building—which is the one the town is considering selling—used to house a restaurant and the Ontario Northland bus service depot. Now, it sits vacant.
“[The survey] is really just a checkpoint in the community to see if there’s interest for continued tax dollar investment,” says Jeff Loney, Gravenhurst’s manager of economic development.
The train station has a long and storied history in the town. First built in 1875, the station accommodated the Northern Railway Company line that ran from Toronto to Barrie, through Orillia, Washago, and Severn River, eventually arriving in Gravenhurst, where a 3.2-kilometre offshoot connected the station to the shore of Lake Muskoka— providing access for passengers arriving by boat.
“The train station and the train itself have been so important to the history of Gravenhurst,” says Judy Humphries, a local resident, and chair of the Gravenhurst Archives. In 2012, the station was designated a heritage site under the Ontario Heritage Act, recognizing the notable events it’s played host to.
The original station burned down in 1913 and was rebuilt near the centre of town. It was officially opened in 1919, after the end of World War I, by the Prince of Wales, who would eventually go on to become King Edward. There are pictures of him greeting citizens and wounded soldiers with his left hand, his right hand, Humphries says, was sore from shaking so many others during a cross country tour.
That same year, Prince Fushimi Hiroyasu of Japan arrived in Gravenhurst and was photographed waving to citizens from the back of a train.
A few decades later, the last Canadian steam train passed through Gravenhurst with hundreds of people coming to the station to see it. “There’s an excitement about trains,” Humphries says.
The citizen survey is open on the town’s website until March 31. If enough people vote to keep the train station municipally owned, Loney says that the town will invest in some much-needed repairs, including a paint job and new windows (a new roof was recently installed after the old one started leaking). He estimates that the repairs will cost the town approximately $300,000 over the next five years.
If the municipality sells the train station, Loney says it cannot be demolished due to its designation as a heritage site. It can, however, be renovated. The station is currently zoned for commercial use, meaning it could be used for amusement, education, financial, health, retail, tourist, care facility, veterinary, or commercial recreation purposes.
Gordie Merton, a local Gravenhurst resident, has started an online petition to prevent the sale of the train station. It has received over 350 signatures. On the petition, Merton writes: “We believe the town should not sell our beloved and iconic train station but instead invest our tax money into this building to preserve our heritage and this iconic building so future generations can use and enjoy it.”
Humphries sides with Merton, hopeful that the town will hold onto the station. “It is a really iconic building. It’s one of the few train stations left that has that very iconic train station look to it,” she says. “I think [people] see it as one of the buildings that’s been central to our history.”