Niagara Falls - Staying on Track
By Jonathan Milner
This article originally appeared in our 2016 Circa magazine.
It seems that everything old is new again, and this is especially with the case of train travel as Niagara Falls will become a terminus of the GO commuter rail service by 2023. This history of rail in Niagara Falls is a long one, starting with the Erie and Ontario Railway (E & O — the first railway charter in Upper Canada), the introduction of the Great Western Railway, Grand Trunk Railway leading to the Canadian National Railway (CNR), and the conversion of the E &O to the Canadian Southern to the Michigan Central and New York Central, and the removal of those tracks in early 2002. It is the after effects of the removal of these rails, especially the changing face of the Victoria Avenue area which will be discussed here.
The opening of the Welland Canal in 1829 brought about a decrease in the use of the Portage Road which ran from Queenston to Chippawa. Purveyors of goods found it more efficient to keep their goods inside the boat as it “climbed the mountain” as opposed to the onerous task of disembarking at Queenston, putting the goods on a sled or cart, having it carted up the escarpment, untying the horses and putting on new ones, carting the goods to Chippawa, taking it off the cart and placing it back onto a boat. Depending on the quantity of goods, long trains of carts could end up scaling the steep escarpment. The Canal allowed the goods to remain on one carrier for the whole journey. In an attempt to bring business back along the Portage Road, and to help bolster the “City of the Falls Project” subdivision, a group of wealthy business owners and landowners decided to charter for a railway to operate from the Chippawa River to Queenston.
What is now called the City of Niagara Falls had its first railroad constructed in 1839; the preliminary section was between Chippawa and the City of the Falls, later the Front and what we would generally call today the Fallsview area. By 1841 this horse-drawn railway, known officially as the Erie and Ontario Railway, extended from the Chippawa River (c. Norton and Front Streets and the River) to the site of Oak Hall (then Clark Hill). Trains were pulled past Loretto Academy (then the Ontario House and Pavilion Hotel), headed along Stanley with a stop at Stanley and Ferry, then continued to the Half-way House at Portage Road (South-east corner of Portage and Stanley intersection). The route passed north to what is today the extension of Portage Road (on the north side of the Hydro Canal parallel to the 405/General Brock Parkway) then crossed the escarpment, partially following the Niagara River Recreation Trail at Queenston Heights, and followed the escarpment down to a wharf located halfway between Brock’s Monument and the Dock.
The horse-drawn railway would continue operation until 1854 when Samuel Zimmerman, Niagara’s Railroad Baron, purchased the rights to construct the Great Western Railroad. At that time he also purchased the Erie and Ontario railroad and upgraded both the trains to steam engines and the rails from wood with iron strips to full iron tracks. Another change which Zimmerman facilitated was that he had the track pass closer to the River and the Railway Suspension Bridge. The change was made north of the Falls View where the route swung east. It followed Victoria Avenue (then Clifton Street), swinging north to Queen Street where it split, part going toward the new Roebling Bridge (completed in 1855) and the other part going beyond Queen Street before swinging westward, crossing Erie Avenue and then along Bridge Street.
It then finally joined the Great Western Railway (to which Zimmerman owned the rights) for travels toward Niagara-on-the-Lake. Here the track continued westward on a plateau along the escarpment (this plateau was near what is today St. Paul Street, it was the outlet for the St. David’s Hidden Ravine); moving parallel to the cliffs, it made the final descent at Concession 2. There is a part of the trestle on the south side and a cairn commemorating the railway. Zimmerman’s expansion of his empire came to a sudden end when Samuel was killed in the Desjardins Canal Accident in 1857. This also meant that the proposed construction of the rail from Chippawa to Fort Erie would be postponed. There were minor name changes with the eventual owner becoming the Canada Southern Railway in 1878 (this rail would later be purchased by Michigan Central Railway).
As mentioned previously, the former Erie and Ontario (E & O) was not the only rail in town, there was the Great Western Railroad (GWR), a Canadian company, which enjoyed a shortcut through southern Ontario in an effort to connect Detroit to New York State. GWR arrived in Niagara Falls in 1853 and brought immediate and exponential growth to the Town of Clifton, whose population rose from 100 in 1853 to 2000 by 1857. The railroad station at Bridge and Erie was the site of the original clapboard structure. This burned down in 1879, in the same year the new GWR train station was built. The new building, a lovely brick gothic revival structure, would later become known as the Grand Trunk Railway Station and finally Canadian National, VIA and GO train station in more recent years. In 1884 the Great Western Railway became part of the Grand Trunk Railway system; they would later merge with Canadian National Railway in 1923.
Canadian Southern Railway and later Michigan Central enjoyed growth during the railway boom as well. They decided to build several stations along the path from Chippawa to Niagara Falls, focusing on providing views and stops which would be important for visitors. The four constructed, from south to north, were the Falls View Station, located adjacent to the Falls and providing a viewing platform with a scheduled ten-minute station stop for tourists who could enjoy the view whether inside or outside the train car. Victoria Park was located atop Clifton Hill at Victoria Avenue and is arguably the most famous. Wesley Park Station was constructed for the Wesleyan Methodist retreat in Epworth Circle; this station remained until the founding of Niagara Falls Collegiate in 1893. Finally the Clifton Station was located opposite City Hall at a spot which would later become the King Edward Hotel and later still a parking lot.
One of the things about removing railroad tracks is that they are not easily covered over. This means that even when the tracks are removed they are still easily followed. An example of this is along the former MCR/CPR tracks which are easily noticeable with satellite imagery. From the ground, they are seen as paths with very little vegetation growing on them due to the creosote which was used in the railway ties; also no buildings have been built on them since they were removed in 2002. The reason that the Canadian Southern, Michigan Central and later Canadian Pacific Railways are intriguing is that they travelled through what would become heavily trafficked tourist areas. These areas included Clifton Hill, the Ontario Power Corporation building (later the Fallsview Casino and Resort) and Queen Street. Trains continued to travel on this route until alternative track usage arrangements were made in the early 2000s to bring Canadian Pacific freight on to the Canadian National tracks. These alterations modify the track usage north of the Casino Fallsview Resort, where the track has been removed, to the Canadian National Railroad north of Bridge Street. This seems fit as the Casino Fallsview was one of the buyers responsible for having the CP rail removed. The Canadian Pacific’s track between Clifton Hill and Queen Street’s downtown has been repurposed as a walking path called the Olympic Torch Run Legacy Trail in 2009; this was in time for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. This path starts after the railway bridge which went over Bender Hill at Palmer, then along Palmer through the Epworth subdivision (where the Wesley Park station used to be located), across Ellis Park, to Downtown Park (by City Hall, and where the Clifton Station was located).
Niagara: Ontario-New York. 1908.
Niagara Falls (Ontario) City Directory for 1916. Lockport, New York: Roberts Brothers Company, 1916.
Topographic Map of the Niagara Gorge, 1913., Geological Survey of Canada, Washington DC.: Geological Survey, 1913.
Vantrigt, Nadeen. Niagara Falls Map 1825-1900. Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum, 1989.
Morden, James. “The Horse-drawn Railway”. In Niagara Falls, Canada: A History of the City and The World Famous Beauty Spot. Kiwanis Club of Stamford: Niagara Falls, 1967.
City of Niagara Falls. “Via Railway Station”. Niagara Falls Heritage Properties. https://www.niagarafalls.ca/living/heritage/273340-via-railway-station.hp.
Jackson, John N. and Burtniak, John. Railways in the Niagara Peninsula. Belleville: Mika Publishing Company, 1978.
Zavitz, Sherman. Then and Now: Niagara Falls. St. Catharines: Looking Back Press, 2005.
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