Back to Bathurst Street
The Bathurst Street bridge, that great steel-truss overpass about a mile west of Toronto Union Station, has carried pedestrian, vehicular, and streetcar traffic over of one of the busiest railway junctions in Canada for nearly a century. The signature centre-span truss was built in 1903 as part of a railway bridge over the Humber River, disassembled, and re-used in construction of the Bathurst Street overpass in 1916.
While not an intentional element of the original design, construction of the Bathurst Street bridge created one of the finest places for trainspotting in the country. And on Monday morning I found myself doing just that: leaning on the railing of the grand old structure, watching the sun come up as streetcars darted back and forth over the bridge and GO, VIA, and Amtrak trains roared underneath. I’ve been watching trains here for more than half of the 98 years that the historic bridge has been in place.
Once guarded by Cabin D, a wooden, two-storey tower that probably looked old when it was built, the junction at Bathurst Street forms the confluence of three CN and CP main lines and the western limits of the Toronto Terminals Railway on the approach to Union Station. These days, they call it the “Union Station Rail Corridor.” The landscape, cityscape, and even the track arrangements have changed almost beyond recognition since I first set eyes on the busy junction from a heavyweight CNR coach on a steam-powered local passenger train arriving on what was then the Brampton Subdivision in the late 1950s.
In the intervening decades, the “railway lands” have become a ghetto of soulless steel-and-glass towers. In the old industrial neighbourhoods to the west, construction cranes and condo towers spring up like weeds, crowding out all else in ever-thickening density. Parkdale Yard, Cabin D, Tecumseh Street tower, Spadina, the High Line, the Loblaw’s warehouse, the piggyback ramps, coach yard, freight yards and sheds, telltales, switch tenders — all gone. Everything has changed. Everything but the Bathurst Street bridge.
No matter how much the scene changes, Bathurst Street invariably puts me in a reminiscent state of mind. Boyhood visions of 0-8-0 switchers shunting passenger and freight yards, and Pacifics and Northerns on passenger trains come rushing back. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, and well into the Eighties, Bathurst Street was alive with switch tenders wrestling with hand-throws to line routes for train after train; Alco and MLW switchers of every stripe scooted about with trains of 40-foot boxcars and wooden vans; a squad of CN S13s shuttled passenger consists between the coach yard and Union. There were Budd cars and Tempo trains and GO trains, and 10-20 car trains led by FPAs, FP9s, RS18s and GP9s in solid or mixed sets were the order of the day. Twice a day — seven days a week — The Canadian came calling in all its stainless steel splendour. It all seems like yesterday.
I’ve been long tempted to put together a gallery of images of Bathurst Street through the years, and maybe I will. But the point here isn’t the past. It’s the present. Memories and a sense of history enrich the experience, but with more than 50 years of Bathurst Street trainspotting at my back, the place remains as thrilling as the day I first set foot on the beloved old bridge. I can’t wait to go back.