Submitted by Brian Roulston

The Hamilton GO Centre is a historic transportation hub connecting Hamilton’s past, present, and future. Approximately 192,000 passengers pass through this terminal daily which is located along Hunter Street, between John and James Street. The station is an essential link within the city, the GTA, and beyond, connecting to local transportation services such as the Hamilton Street Railway, Burlington Transit, and Megabus. The facade still has the original TH & B. RY CO. lettering, a reminder of its 139-year history.

In the mid-19th century, railways became increasingly common in Ontario. Prior to this, towns of all sizes relied on slower modes of transportation, such as horses and buggies, and sometimes rivers and the Great Lakes, to move people and goods. However, each town wanted access to the railroads, which were much faster and more efficient. The need for quick access to the United States via the “Buffalo Gateway” became crucial for military and commerce purposes.
Three rail companies served Hamilton in the 1880s: the Grand Trunk Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Northern & North Western Railway. Grand Trunk went on a shopping spree and bought out the latter two rail lines in 1882 and 1884. Because of the Grand Trunk buyout, there were fears this monopoly would cause sharp increases in ticket and freight prices.

On March 25, 1884, the Ontario Legislature passed an act incorporating the Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway (TH & B). The purpose of TH & B was to break the monopoly while providing a link to the US. This act authorized the construction of a line from Toronto to the International Bridge over the Niagara River to Buffalo, New York, via Hamilton. It was a simple enough solution, but many railways of the era struggled with finances, and the TH & B was no exception. The original plans did not materialize, and little was done except for some minor paper shuffling until the original legislation was due to expire in March 1889. New legislation was drawn up, requiring the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway to be built and operational by 1894.

Brantford was quickly becoming an important industrial city, with large agricultural implements manufacturers like Massy-Harris, Cockshutt Plows, and Waterous Engine Works. A line was needed to connect to the American market via the Canadian-Southern Railway, a subsidiary of Michigan Central Railroad out of Waterford. The Brantford Waterloo & Lake Erie Railway was incorporated in 1885; by 1890, there were three roundtrips daily to Waterford with flat cars with side railings for hauling freight and one passenger coach. In 1892, J.N Young from Chicago bought out the line and promised to connect Brantford to another crucial and growing industrial hub, Hamilton. He had planned to build a bridge across the Grand River and run tracks to the ambitious city. Unfortunately, Young could not secure the $75,000 bonus for completing the Hamilton run. The BW & LE Railway went into receivership, and the line between Brantford and Hamilton remained unfinished; the following year, all BW & LE Railway operations ceased.

The Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway saw value in taking over and finishing what the BW & LE Railway could not accomplish; the two rail lines amalgamated in 1892. Because of this, TH & B fulfilled one of its Ontario Government’s requirements by launching its first operational line through the rich farmlands of Norfolk County to Waterford in 1892. By 1894, the railway company had completed the line between Hamilton and Brantford. As a side note, with this merger, TH & B acquired its first steam locomotive, affectionately named ‘Old Betsy.’

On July 9, 1895, the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway ownership changed hands. Canadian Pacific Railway, headed by Canadian rail tycoon William Van Horne and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt who inherited the New York Central Railroad, Michigan Central, and Southern Central from his father, William Henry Vanderbilt, agreed to purchase the TH & B. Railway by an ownership percentage of each of those companies. The Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway played a crucial role in the Vanderbilt family’s plan to create a transcontinental railroad by giving them influential control over Canadian transportation lines between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Until 1899, when their shares were sold to Grand Trunk Railway, the Toronto, Hamilton, and Buffalo Railway remained essential to the Vanderbilt railroad empire.

Construction of the original terminal began in the summer of 1894. It was completed by Christmas of the same year. The following summer, the line towards Welland was completed with over 3000 railway ties for every rail mile. However, this was only the beginning of the project. Work in the lower city was long and arduous, cutting and blasting through rock, but eventually, it was finished. The tunnel through the lower city was considered the most significant undertaking by any railroad in North America at the time.

The architectural firm of Wm. Stewart & Son were well-known in the area, and his son Walter Stewart acted as project manager. The former home of the Salvation Army and several houses were demolished to make way for a shiny new train terminal. On Victoria Day 1895, before the new station on Hunter Street was finished, the first Hamilton-originating train left Garth Street for Waterford, carrying militiamen heading overseas to London, England. On December 28, 1895, the new Victorian-style building opened. The whistling of the first train’s engine as it passed through the city of 48,500 residents drew people from the side streets, and they stood along the banks to watch it roll in. A thousand people were on hand to see the first locomotive enter the new Hunter Street Station.

The total length of the terminal was 52 metres (170 feet) long by a little more than 15 metres (50 feet) wide. The western front towards James St. had a large circular stained-glass window facing the street. The terminal also had a large circular ladies’ waiting room with stained glass windows. The ladies’ retiring room and washrooms were located in the basement. The center of the terminal was three stories high, and at ground level on the south and east sides were several asphalt aprons for alighting trains. Inside were the ticket agents, telegraph offices, newsstands, telephones, mail and parcel processing. The main waiting area was at the center of the terminal. The Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway terminal had asphalt aprons on the northwest side of the station, and there were carriage ports along the Hunter Street entranceway to offload passengers arriving and leaving by horse and carriage.

The second and third storeys featured the company’s general offices and fireproof vaults, employee washrooms, a reading room and a waiting area, and accommodations for the chief engineer, train staff and conductors.

In 1912, there were several complaints made by Hamiltonians, especially those living or working near the rail lines, about the frequent disruptions caused by trains obstructing the streets and noise complaints. The city of Hamilton attempted to persuade the federal government’s Board of Railways to have TH & B abandon the downtown rail tracks and terminal in favour of the CN Rail Lines that currently run east and west a couple blocks north of the bay. The government and courts dismissed the idea, and the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway immediately started planning to elevate the tracks and build a new modern terminal. A decade-long fight ensued throughout the 1920s between the City of Hamilton and Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway until October 20, 1930, when an agreement was finally reached over the closing of several streets and separating and elevating the tracks, satisfying both parties.

An article published in the Hamilton Herald on September 19, 1931, reported the original plan for the new T. H.& B station was to have 11 storeys. The contract was awarded to W. H Cooper for $200,000, and all of the materials used in the structure were Canadian-made. Hamilton Bridge Works supplied 260 tons of steel for the new building. Three hundred workers from Hamilton worked between James Street and the Hunter Street station. The final structure cost $1 million and was six stories over a two-storey railway station; however, the building was designed to allow additional floors to be added later. According to John Peebles, Hamilton’s 48th mayor (1930-1933), the overall budget for the project was $3.238 million, and the cost of labour alone was $1.25 million. The terminal was opened on June 26, 1933, with little fanfare. On that same day, workers started demolishing the old Victorian-style terminal. There is currently a plaque at the GO Centre honouring the historical importance of the original station.

During WWII, as many as 30 trains a day arrived and departed. Like many other railway stations worldwide, the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway Station was a departure point for trains filled with thousands of military personnel bound for training or overseas service.

Through the 1950s, newly built roads and highways and the increased availability of new manufactured automobiles soon made cars and trucks the preferred mode of travel and moving freight over short distances. Air travel was taking off, and people started dreaming of faraway destinations. Much like when they moved away from steamships to the railroad, people were moving away from the train, making rail travel passè. By the 1960s, the TH & B Station listed two trains daily to Welland, three back, three trains from Toronto, and four returning.

On January 1, 1977, the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway ultimately finished its merger with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The last train to pull out of the station was a daily Via Rail commuter to Toronto on April 23, 1981. Three days later, the station ceased being a passenger terminal, and the remaining corporate and railroad operations were moved to Toronto. The Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway was no more when its board of directors held its final meeting on May 8, 1987.

The Hunter Street Station was abandoned in 1990; CP Rail did not want to maintain it and instead moved its Hamilton services to the CN Rail Station on James Street North. Bus services ran out of the Rebecca Street Bus Terminal. Through the early 1990s, the former TH & B Station became a target for vandalism and neglect. Windows were broken, and break-ins occurred almost weekly. In the early 1990s, the City of Hamilton, GO Transit Rail and Bus services, Greyhound, and Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) merged their operations at the old TH & B terminal.
On July 26, 1994, the City of Hamilton designated the train station a historical site. On April 30, 1996, Bob Morrow, Hamilton’s 56th mayor (1983-2000), and several dignitaries officially re-opened the newly renovated GO Transit Centre that we know and love today.