Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part III)

Note: Although my time right now is dominated by a move, I have found some time to blog. This is the final entry in my reminiscences of taking the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s. The route between these cities on opposite ends of Ontario is filled with memories and items of interest for me. - Michael

In the second post of this series, I focused on a few points of interest between Union Station and Kitchener. Once you pass Kitchener on a westbound train, you get into the smaller, more pastoral stops that speak to railroading from another era. 

St. Marys

One of these stops is found in the beautiful community of St. Marys. The town is located in Perth County, has a population of 7,200 and boasts a few historic curiosities. It is the resting place of Canada's ninth prime minister, Arthur Meighen. It is also home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which I have visited. Finally, it is home to an historic stone railway station. The station is situated on a hill just beyond a large trestle crossing.

The station itself has been well maintained and still hosts daily Via Rail service. That additional platform you see is the Metrolinx platform that was used when GO Trains were run between Toronto and London in a pilot project. That service has since ended. Just beyond the station sits an impressive trestle that crosses a creek that wends its way over Rotary Park. This bridge shows you the impressive geography that had to be forded to operate railways through this terrain.

The last time I was in St. Marys, I made sure to walk beneath the bridge just to get some perspective as to how high it is over the valley. This view below gives you an idea of the size and height of this railway structure. This town is known for its limestone deposits, which explains the stone piers holding up the metal girders. Now you also know the origin of the St. Marys Cement company name. It's this town.

When I took the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s, I always made a mental note to look out my window when crossing this bridge. It was cool to see people from my perspective atop the bridge. It always filled me with a sense of comfort to see people going about their business in this small town when the train passed through. As a small town guy at heart, I have a soft spot for this town. Also, there's an ice cream store near the station that has a dairy free option, which makes me happy. 


I won't dwell on Stratford too long, as I have blogged about this town many times. I now have family living here, so I have made many trips to this station, which is one of the nicest in Southwestern Ontario. It really does suit the town, which has one of the richest cultural scenes of any community in Canada. The impact of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival cannot be underestimated.


London is the big city in Southwestern Ontario. If you are from Sarnia, it's the easiest big city to get to, as it is only an hour east. My first-ever train trip was between Sarnia and London when my Dad had an appointment in London. I remember travelling on a classic blue coach to London when I was quite young. I could not have been much older than 4 or 5, but I remember the excitement I felt as a train obsessed little kid. When I travelled between Sarnia and Ottawa, London was either the last major stop before I came home or it was the first major stop as I settled in for a long day en route back to Carleton University. 

Via's station here has been well maintained. It was not always this way, before the station was renovated in the early 2000s. This is not the station I remember from my travels in the 1990s. You can just make out an HEP silver streamliner to the right of the picture. As London is at the junction between rail lines going to Sarnia and Windsor, this station continues to host both Toronto-Windsor and Toronto-Sarnia trains in both directions. 

London's station has a small yard, which at times has hosted some oddities over the years. Here's an undated shot shared with me of the old GM Diesel switcher at the old London station. The last I saw, this old unit resided at the Lambton Diesel shop in Sarnia yard.


Between London and Sarnia, Via makes two stops, although in the 1990s, it made three. Heading west, the Via corridor trains stop in Strathroy and Wyoming. Just east of Wyoming in the 1990s, Via also made a brief stop in Watford, but that service has since been discontinued.

The Wyoming stop is a throwback to earlier days in railroading, when railways served small towns. Wyoming's former CN train station is long gone, as are the rails of the old rail yard, but there is still a tiny station just off Broadway Avenue, Wyoming's main street.

When I took the train in the 1990s, there always seemed to be someone who either got off in Wyoming in the evening or boarded the train in the early morning. It's somewhat of an anomaly that this town has Via service still, but given the population growth in this part of the province, the station might see more activity in the coming years. In my time on the train in the 1990s, Wyoming again was one of those stops where I was either itching to get off the train after a long day or it was where I was settling in for a long trip east. I have visited this spot a number of times to train watch. It's a great spot to watch mainline freights roar by.

Here's one of my meets with a passing freight in 2022.

Okay, here's a shot of the power. A shot of an autorack seems like a bit of a rip-off, I'm sure.

Last stop: Sarnia

I've disembarked on the Sarnia platform many times, always late at night when my train pulled in at the end of its run. My clearest memory of this station was when I returned home in October 1996. It was the first time I had visited my family after moving away to attend journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was homesick, as my first year hadn't gone all that swimmingly to start. My roommate and I didn't mesh. He was a good guy but I couldn't live with him. When the train pulled into the station, I had a window seat overlooking the station platform. I had already gathered my bags and was beginning to stand up to stretch my legs, as I was eager to get home. I recall my brother on the platform, jumping up to see where I was in the train, as he was excited to see me. I have never forgotten that moment.

As brothers, we don't often need to say anything to each other. We know we are each other's best friend. My older brother has been a great influence on me all my life. I have always looked up to him. When I saw how excited he was to see me, it reminded me of what family is all about. When people ask me why I am so sentimental about trains, that moment in 1996 is one of the reasons. Trains have brought people together for generations. That is what keeps me fascinated.

Thank you to everyone who has sent along their best wishes as my family tries to navigate through the last portion of a very difficult year. We're close to being free of this situation. I can't guarantee when the next post will appear, but I'm hoping it will be soon. All positivity welcomed.


Anonymous said...

I think that old GM diesel is currently on duty at Imperial Oil, switching hopper cars at Area 3 (Plastics). Nice write up!

David said...

No Strathroy?

Michael said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. David, I know I didn't do Strathroy justice. The truth is, I have no photos or memories of Strathroy, at least on the train. I have been to the town a number of times and I like it. I will say that, when I was a child, I often associated Strathroy with trains in my mind, but I can't seem to remember how that all started. I should make an effort to get some photos there the next time I am in SW Ont. And it's good to know, Anon, that the old GM Diesel switcher lives on.

Steve Boyko said...

Lots of positivity coming your way, Michael. I'm glad to hear you'll soon be free.

I love that memory you shared of your brother being excited to see you again. That's awesome.

Michael said...

My interest in trains is very much a sentimental attachment, as I'm sure you have figured out by now!