The magic of McKinnon on Ontario

If there’s any part of the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway that speaks most strongly to me, it’s the operations on Ontario Street in St. Catharines.

I spent my formative teenaged years living just a couple of blocks south of the General Motors plant on Ontario Street, and I would regularly see CNR switch crews working the complex. GM spanned the street, with plants to the east and west.

CNR on Ontario Street, 1993

CNR on Ontario Street – 1993, author’s photo.

In the distance, a CNR crew with an SW1200RS is returning from switching the east plant of General Motors on Ontario Street. The trains and tracks would disappear in a year or two.

Auto traffic was regularly stopped for in-plant carts and workers on foot. And, at shift change time, by an end-cab switcher shuffling boxcars up and down the street. While locals knew this, and might seek an alternate route, there was always some driver on Ontario Street who would be surprised by a few hundred tons of metal taking over their lane, complete with ringing bell and squealing flanges. For a train-mad teenager, it was delightful.

And for decades it had the same effect on the kids of previous generations – like the one in this view:

NST - switching McKinnon on Ontario Street

NS&T train, Ontario Street – 1951, C.N. Riehl photo.

That kid? Look just ahead of the two cars parked on the curb. He’s on a bike, and I know exactly how he feels – because in 25-30 years, that would be me.

There’s so much to explore in this image. McKinnon can be seen on the right, above the second-last gondola. On the east (right) side of the street, a number of small businesses are ready to serve hungry plant workers.

The McKinnon foundry is the tall dark building ahead of the locomotive (over the dark auto that’s driving towards the photographer). Here’s a closer look:

NST - switching McKinnon on Ontario Street

NS&T 14, Ontario Street just south of Carleton Street – 1951, C.N. Riehl photo

One thing I notice in comparing the two NS&T images to my own photo is that by the time I encountered the CNR on Ontario Street, the track had been relocated from the west side of to the centre. I suspect that was to prevent the additional chaos of having two-way traffic all squeezed into the northbound lanes. A train makes a very effective lane divider.

This large factory has an interesting history, which you can read about on the Vintage Machinery website. Unfortunately, this company – the major employer in St. Catharines for decades – is a shadow of its former self. Here’s what the area looks like today:

Ontario Street - Google Streetview

Ontario Street, north at Beech Street – 2014, Google Streetview

The Family Recreation Centre at right is the building with the Coca-Cola sign in the first Riehl photo. And of course, there are no tracks in the street anymore. Also, no wide-eyed kids on bicycles…

What I did not appreciate when I grew up near the plant was how much busier this area was for the railway back in the NS&T days. The above photos provide some clue to this: I only ever remember seeing boxcars for General Motors, yet here are tanks and gondolas. Consulting various sources, I’ve learned there were more spurs for the GM plant, plus other rail-served industries such as WS Tyler, a coal dealer, and – across 12 Mile Creek – the Welland Vale Company:

McKinnon aerial photo - 1955

1955 aerial photo showing McKinnon on Ontario Street, from the Brock University online collection

The NS&T line to McKinnon was part of the Port Dalhousie division. It left the terminal area downtown and headed west along Welland Avenue before jogging over to Louisa Street. (I’ll write more about the terminal and about Louisa Street in future posts.) At the Parnell & Garnett coal dealer, the NS&T swung northwest, slipping between houses at an angle to reach Ontario Street. There was a run-around track here called Woodruffs, where passenger trains to and from Port Dalhousie could meet. There was also a spur to the RM Stokes coal dealer.

The main track crossed Ontario Street and slipped behind the west plant of McKinnon. Spurs snuck in behind this plant, and over to WS Tyler. Meantime, the main track dropped downgrade and crossed the creek before continuing on to Port Dalhousie. On the far side of the creek, a switchback paralleled the water to reach Welland Vale.

Back at Woodruffs, a switch took the track into Ontario Street and up to the foundry at Carleton. Zooming in on the original aerial photo shows a spur swinging back into the McKinnon building on the east side of Ontario Street (in the middle of the large structure just above Pleasant Avenue). At Ontario Street, spurs pointing north and west crossed each other to serve the foundry. Meantime, the line turned east, along the south side of Carleton Street and then south alongside Haig Street to a couple of spurs at the back of the east plant.

And if you look just south of my label for Ontario Street, the arrow points to the house I grew up in.

Between the two plants at McKinnon, two coal dealers, WS Tyler, and Welland Vale, there’s a lot of switching potential here. (If I model the era in which passenger service still ran up Ontario Street – crossing the Port Dalhousie line with a level crossing at Woodruffs to join the spur to Carleton – then I could also model the passenger extra trains that delivered and picked up workers. Because yes, McKinnon was large enough to warrant its own, daily, special movements.)

This area is very high on my list of places to model – providing I can fit everything in. The challenge will be, I know the area so well that I may have trouble selectively compressing it. But that’s an exercise for another day. For now, I can enjoy thinking about the possibilities of switching an auto plant – under wire!

4 thoughts on “The magic of McKinnon on Ontario”

  1. In the photo of the engine and tank car, the man on the back, maybe a brake man, is my friend’s father. My friend is Jim Thurston, quite a painter and modeler as well. Cheers Ross Oddi

    1. That’s really cool, Ross. Thanks for sharing it.
      I know Jim! He used to work at Niagara Central Hobbies. I haven’t seen him since the store closed…

  2. I can almost here the wistfulness in your voice as you describe the area of your youth. A great arrangement of industries and tracks. I visited McKinnon industries as a grade 12 machine shop student to see some of the jobs available. Didn’t see any trains, but remember how big and noisy the plant was.
    Cheers, Gord

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