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History of the Tillsonburg Station Arts Centre

The Great Western Railway/Grand Trunk/CN Station


The cream colored brick train station was built by The Great Western Railway during the spring and summer of 1879 and is one of the oldest buildings in Tillsonburg. It was the first railway station to be located in the town proper - just a stone’s throw from Market Square, the major hotels, and much of residential Tillsonburg.


Major Empson, an employee of the The Great Western, was the builder. He followed The Great Western’s standard Gothic Revival design. Thus, the ground plan of the station was cross-shaped, with many other “churchy” features, such as low brick walls, a steep slate roof, high gables, and tall narrow window, with their tops pointed. Very wide eaves ran around the station on all four sides, providing protection from the elements for passengers who were arriving or departing.


The room to the east was the waiting room, while to the west was the baggage room. The central room was the booking office and telegraph office, and to the rear were the Lady’s lavatory and the Gent’s lavatory.


Restoration started in 1982 by the Tillsonburg District Craft Guild. The exterior of the station was repaired by workmen on a job creation program, headed by Mr. Harry Saelens. Work on the exterior and interior was underway and soon both chimneys were rebuilt and relined, the main floor joists repaired, the waiting room hardwood floor replaced with plywood, wiring and insulation added, and the window replaced. The outside was painted to resemble the original in colour and design. One door was moved from the east room so that both doors to the washrooms would be next to one another.


The exterior of the building has been designated a Tllsonburg Heritage site and in 1983 the Building Improvement Award was presented to the Town of Tillsonburg and the Tillsonburg District Craft Guild (established in 1983) by the Tillsonburg District Real Estate Board.


The Baggage Room was only used for storage so it had never been upgraded. Therefore, the original walls are still intact and have only been refinished. The ceiling was repainted, the brick chimney stripped of plaster and cleaned, the floor sanded and varnished, during this time the Guild spent a great deal of time and energy on public awareness, shows and fund raisers.The room to the east and the central room were entirely gutted in the spring of 1984. The walls were stripped down to the brick so that styrofoam insulation and a vapour barrier could be added, they were then dry-walled and painted.The wainscotting in the east room is original,but has been turned “wrong side out” and refinished.


In 1999 the Guild fully restored the exterior, stripping the paint from the brick, re-pointing the brick,replacing the roof and painting all of the exterior trim it’s original colour.


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The Misspelling of ‘Tillsonburg’

Many have wondered why ‘Tillsonburg’ is missing an ‘l’ on the roof of the Station. Did they run out of shingles?


The area was settled in 1825 by George Tillson and other immigrants from Massachusetts. A forge and sawmill were erected and roads built which led to the establishment of this small community, originally called Dereham Forge. The settlement was on the Big Otter Creek.


In 1836 the village was renamed Tillsonburg in honour of its founder.


When papers were sent to register the new town of Tillsonburg, a clerk in Toronto inadvertently misspelled the name by dropping an ‘l’. Rather than protest, the town adopted the spelling for many years, only to have another council, out of respect for the founding family, re-register with the proper spelling.


The shingling on the roof the Great Western Railway Station reflects the way ‘Tilsonburg’ would have been spelled at the time the Station was first built.

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The CN Caboose

The CN caboose originally ran on the tracks in front of the Station Arts Centre (currently known as Bridge St. W.). When the railway service was discontinued in the late ‘70’s, many of the engines, cars and caboose units were redistributed on other lines.


During the ‘90’s, the Tillsonburg Lions and Lioness Clubs raised funds to purchase the caboose with the purpose of using it as a visitor information site. Originally, the caboose was located by the Clock Tower on Broadway St. Issues arose due to lack of: water, electricity, washroom facilities and staffing. The project had come to a standstill and another concern that the footings were weakening under the caboose would cause it to move or become unstable.


The board of directors of the Tillsonburg Station Arts Centre offered to have it moved and would take on the stewardship of restoring and maintaining the caboose. As approved by Town Council, the Station, along with local businesses, relocated the caboose to it’s present site.

Tillsonburg Lake Erie & Pacific Railway/CP Station

The C.P.R. Station was originally named the Tillsonburg, Lake Erie and Pacific Railway, which was built and managed by Mr. John Teall. The tail line between Port Burwell and Tillsonburg officially opened on January 4, 1896, carrying

passengers, mail and express packages and stopped in stations along the line in Eden, Straffordville and Vienna. Eventually, a line was established to Ingersoll which allowed passengers and freight to make connecting trains to

Toronto via Canadian Pacific Railway.


Although the T.L.E. & P. (Tillsonburg, Lake Erie and Pacific) served the local population, It’s main goal was to establish Port Burwell as a point of entry for American Coal from Conneaut. However, it lacked the financial resources and was unable to achieve this goal. The interest in coal resulted in the T.L.E. & P. being leased to C.P.R. in 1906. C.P.R. built a large coal dock at Livingston’s. Freight trains carrying coal ran twenty four hours a day, seven days a week from Port Burwell to Tillsonburg. Locomotives pulled a few freight cars because of steep hills near Port Burwell.


C.P.R. also maintained four passenger trains and built a platform (near the town fire hall) for the convenience of passengers from Brantford-Tillsonburg line to the C.P.R. line and vice versa. The frequency of freight trains from Port Burwell declined with the conversion from coal to oil and eventually were completely discontinued.


In the 1920’s, the C.P.R. station was extremely busy with daily express trains offering pick up and delivery services of freight and parcels to local industries and residents. Frank Norman was the C.P.R. express and ticket agent and was also responsible for running the telegraph machines located at the station. The onset of the depression resulted in a decline of all rail services; however, in Tillsonburg, freight and passenger service performance peaked during World War II. The major war industry, Livingston’s, was attracted to Tillsonburg because of it’s proximity to the railways. After 1958, the Canadian Pacific lines to Port Burwell ceased to run and were eventually torn out in the past few years, and, as the rail service further declined, the Station was boarded up.


In the mid ‘90’s, the Guild surpassed its capacity and requested from the town, to move the station to its present location to expand on available facilities, galleries and programming.


The Station Arts Centre, a combination of heritage and function, is comprised of two historic train stations that have been refurbished and restored to combine the “old” and the “new”.


The Great Western Railway, the Changing Exhibit Gallery and the Tillsonburg Lake Erie & Pacific Station have been combined to create the facility often referred to as simply  “The Station”.


We are very fortunate that the Town of Tillsonburg and its citizens have supported the preservation of the Great Western and Lake Erie & Pacific Railway Stations. We are the caretakers of these buildings while providing a home for the arts. 

Barn Quilts Trail 'Roads to the Station'

The coming of the railroad was an exciting event!  This block is located at the Great Western Railway Station (1879-1975), which today has been re-purposed to the arts-based, community involved, Station Arts Centre. The design originates from the Railroad Crossing pattern, with each arm representing a function of the Station: arts programming, galleries, in-house groups and visitor information – all coming together at this heritage site.


Members of the Station assisted in the layout and painting of several of the quilt blocks displayed throughout Southwest Oxford County.

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