The first time I visited the Roundhouse site, I was amazed that what I had once thought of as derelict land lying somewhere between Union Station and the lake, was now a 16-acre green space animated by a miniature passenger train carrying loads of smiling kids. Enclosed by the semi-circular Roundhouse with the CN Tower, Skydome and banking towers looming overhead, I felt as though I was in the cradle of the city. The world of rail history was completely new to me at the time. My kids happily paid the toonie to ride the train that loops for half a kilometre through the park. After the train ride we were able to ride on the turntable, a special treat because it was Doors Open Toronto weekend. A railway turntable, I discovered, is a device for turning railway locomotives (referred to as rolling stock) so that they can be moved back in the direction from which they came. After the turntable ride we were able to actually climb inside the historic locomotive, CNR 6213. It’s a way higher climb into the engineer’s seat than one might think.
This wonderful park is part of the Toronto Railway Museum opened in 2010 and located on Bremner Blvd, south of the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium. Its headquarters and artifact displays are inside Stall 17 of the Roundhouse and it’s well worth a visit. The rest of the Roundhouse is occupied by Steam Whistle Brewing and Cineplex Entertainment is opening its second Rec Room in Canada there this summer.
The Roundhouse, otherwise known as the old John Street Roundhouse was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929 to service the CPR passenger trains using what was then the new Union Station. The last locomotive was serviced in the Roundhouse in September 1982, after which the Roundhouse was used for storage until it was closed in August 1986. It then became the property of the City of Toronto.
I had never really given much thought about rail technology but the sheer size and shape of the Roundhouse — 9,300 square metres contained in a semi-circular building with 32 stalls — made me want to at least get a basic understanding. As a National Historic Site, its history can be found at Canadas Historic Places. When it was constructed, it was considered state-of-the-art because it used a new direct steaming-technology that allowed the engines to maintain their steam pressure while they were in for repairs. Previously they lost their steam pressure because their fire boxes had to be extinguished in the roundhouse. At its peak, it employed 160 people. But with the introduction of diesel locomotives in 1947, the need for the roundhouse diminished because diesels needed far less maintenance than steam engines.
The Roundhouse and park together are one of the city’s most evocative spaces because. And I think it’s because the heritage has been respected and has inspired the new use of the site. The place feels new but it also feels like authentic Toronto.