Cover photo: Canadian National Railways Locomotive No. 5700, a Hudson-type steam engine (4-6-4, class K-5a) built by Montreal Locomotive Works in 1930. On display at the Elgin County Railway Museum.
We’re well into the beginning of the semester at this point—that being my first semester in the MA Public History programme at Western. There’s been a lot of new conversations, thoughts, and experiences over these last few weeks and I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. This past week in particular has been a wild week of heritage and I just wanted to write a bit about it.
On Friday, the Public History programme (including both graduate and undergraduate students) went on a field trip to various heritage sites in St. Thomas. Now, I hadn’t been on a field trip in a good few years, so I was already excited by the principle of it. But I also hadn’t been to St. Thomas before. Frankly, before moving to London, I wasn’t familiar with western Ontario in the slightest. But the first thing any self-respecting student of Public History should do when being somewhere new is visit the museums. And that’s exactly what we did.
Our first two stops were the CASO Station and the Elgin County Railway Museum. And being honest here, who doesn’t love trains? But it was what surrounded the trains that really piqued my interest. It was a great learning experience for me, especially in terms of learning more about building maintenance. The CASO Station had undergone a huge restoration beginning in the early 2000s. Looking at the pictures taken before restoration, anyone can tell that it was in rough shape to say the least. Clearly not irreparable, but an extremely daunting task. As a fan of adaptive reuse, getting a tour of the building as it stands now post-restoration, it filled me with a lot of optimism. I’ve been involved on-and-off with heritage in my hometown of Bowmanville, namely through the ACO and the Jury Lands Foundation. Both organisations are currently working towards saving Camp 30, which currently stands as a rather depressing display of neglect. While the story of Camp 30 is a complicated one of developer and municipality relations, visiting the CASO Station gave me a bit of hope for the future of that site.
Next up was the Elgin County Railway Museum (which, between you and me, was my personal favourite). The challenge of managing such an immense collection really drew me in. The trains themselves provided such an excellent opportunity for exhibition development and public engagement. They certainly provide an array of challenges too, namely accessibility and, again, building maintenance. The museum is housed in the former Michigan Central Railroad Repair Shops, also in St. Thomas. The historic building is rather obviously massive, as it has to house the rolling stock collection. Talking with the Museum’s Operations Administrator, Rudi Smith, I was able to learn a bit more about what it takes to keep a facility like that in shape, and what can be done to improve it in the future.
The windows along the top of the building are often subject to vandalism and pest-control inside such a large industrial building is nearly impossible. This can make it difficult to maintain the building in a way that preserves its historic character, though I think the ECRM have done a fantastic job of balancing maintenance and care with an industrial building and collection. That said, old industrial buildings such as this one were not designed to be long-term museums and you lose many of the luxuries that come with purpose-built structures, such as reliable climate control. Fortunately for the ECRM, the train cars in their collection were built to handle the elements, but smaller, more delicate artefacts have to be stored in the climate controlled sections of the building. Like any other museum, it comes down to funding. But when your building itself is an artefact, that’s a whole new level of maintenance challenges.
I have no shortage of things to share from that day and the various other sites we visited, but I’ll pause here for now. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Maltese Canadian Museum in Toronto…