“The past events are more remote from our senses than the stars of the remotest galaxies, whose own light at least still reaches the telescope.”[i]
Historic sites are inherited physical places that inform contemporaries about the past. Being able to see and experience historic buildings instills pride in one’s history as well as acting as a place of social exchange between community members, drawing people closer together. Heritage refers to the way history is presented when visiting historic sites. It is dynamic in the sense that elements of the past are added and/or removed to adhere to modern day sensibilities. If heritage is only seen through the eyes of its contemporaries, is it possible to have an authentic historical experience? This post will provide a discussion to showcase how heritage is socially, politically and economically constructed. The argument will be made that heritage only offers a simulacrum of the past; thus an authentic historical experience is not something that can be totally realized.
Intimately Linked: Heritage and the Economy
Historically oriented sites are often created to capitalize on heritage tourism and nostalgia for the past. Sociologist Diane Barthel opined that, “[h]istory is no longer mined for images and ideas that can be associated with commodities. Like the rest of culture, history is being bought and sold.”[ii] Barthel’s statement shows the intimate connection between heritage sites and tourism. Elements of the past are chosen or disregarded, partly as a means for creating “camera-worthy” moments for tourists. Ian McKay felt, quite rightly, that history is presented for the “tourists gaze.”[iii] Heritage construction occurs because people like to imagine a “golden age.” This reality eloquently speaks about “a dependant society confronting the massive cultural changes incorporated in “modernity.”[iv] Cultural changes result in heightened anxieties; heritage offers a window into a “simpler” time.
Presenting heritage as means to appeal to tourists has caused some scholars to criticize heritage experiences. David Herbert states that “as the numbers who visit places increases and the majority of tourists become less ‘cultured’ [and] educated, there are fewer who understand these sites without elaborate presentations such as reconstructions of historic buildings or living history programs.”[v] Similarly, Robert Hewison comments that, “when people who have no understanding of history in depth seek out historically related sites, they are not given actual history, but instead are offered a contemporary creation, more costume drama and re-enactment than critical discourse.”[vi] In his discussion of heritage and authenticity, Michael Kelleher opined that these comments show that, “contrived historical preservations are intended to be tools to educate people who do not have a grasp of history…but are created in an attempt to attract tourists and their dollars.”[vii] Simply put, heritage presentations commodify the past rather than offer intimate understandings of it.
Sanitizing the Past: How Social and Political Factors Inform Heritage
A defining feature of heritage is that it creates important symbolic representations of identity. Heritage can be used to empower or marginalize groups of people by including or excluding them from the meta-narrative. Thus, heritage is politicized when groups struggle for power. For instance, the case of the Sainte-Marie-among-the Huron’s heritage site states that it is culturally important to Ontario because it was the first settlement. This statement discredits the fact that the Wendat First Nation was in the region long before the European Jesuit settlers.[viii] Essentially, it declares that the Wendat do not fit into Ontario’s dominant narrative. This example shows how history is presented (as heritage), and how groups’ views about historic places differ. In this case, Ontario’s heritage is presented within a Eurocentric model.
Heritage is constantly updated to ensure it fits contemporary ideals. David Lowenthal declares, “[w]hat endears the heritage is not the finished form but the long process of forging it. Its potency derives from being both ancient and responsive to present needs.”[ix] As one example, there was a debate about whether Franklin Roosevelt’s Washington memorial should show him as crippled (as is demanded by the disabled) or if his crutches and wheelchair should be concealed (as he usually did.)[x] This example shows how heritage is crafted to enhance admirable aspects of the past while ridiculing parts deemed distasteful. Any history presented has been carefully “refashioned” and only retains a semblance of the past.
Authenticity: [Re]Creating the Past
The concept of authenticity is complex since it can be defined in numerous ways. Heritage scholar Jeremy Wells states that authenticity is traditionally defined “through an objective analysis of extant building or landscape fabric,” i.e. if the building materials of a historic site have remained original.[xi] This logic dictates that if there are newly introduced materials the existing fabric lacks authenticity. Wells offers another way of viewing authenticity. He believes authentic experiences have a connection to ideas or meanings rather than fabric. To offer an example, a one thousand year old temple in Japan has very little of its original fabric, but cultural ideas are embodied in its added construction material.[xii] Thus, it is the ideas and physical space being preserved rather than the original fabric. This definition offers a sophisticated look at the complex nature of authenticity but fails to discuss how ideas change over time. Ideas about historic sites change with each generation and as different groups struggle for position within the narrative. Authenticity, then, is also crafted by public attitudes. Older meanings are cast aside and deemed “incorrect” or “undesirable” to make way for contemporary ideas. These new ideas then become “authentic”, while the old ones are seen as “outdated” and “inaccurate.”
Heritage presents history to its viewers through modern-day lenses. It is carefully crafted to fit contemporary ideals, highlighting what is deemed admirable while disregarding or changing what is considered distasteful. This is done for economic, political and social reasons. Heritage and tourism are intimately tied. History is “mined” for information and images that are considered appealing, to attract tourist dollars. The heritage narrative is powerful and legitimizes or marginalizes certain groups in society. Heritage is often a struggle for recognition in the story being presented. If the story is constantly changing, then it is impossible to capture and present an authentic historical experience. Because of these changes, authenticity is also something presented through modern guises. What is authentic today will be considered “outdated” tomorrow; then a new authentic historical experience will emerge, casting older “truths” to the wayside.
[i] George Kubler, The Shape of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 42-43.
[ii] Michael Kelleher. “Images of the Past: Historical Authenticity and Inauthenticity from Disney to Times Square.” CRM: Journal of Heritage Stewardship 1, no. 2 (Summer 2004)
[iii] Ian McKay. “History and the Tourist Gaze: The Politics of Commemoration in Nova Scotia, 1935-1964.” Acadiensis 22, no. 2 (Spring 1993), 102.
[iv] Ibid., 104.
[v] Michael Kelleher. “Images of the Past: Historical Authenticity and Inauthenticity from Disney to Times Square.”
[viii] Alan Gordon. “Heritage and Authenticity: The Case of Ontario’s Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons.” Canadian Historical Review 85, no. 3 (September 2004), 518.
[ix] David Lowenthal. “The Practice of Heritage.” In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, 2nd ed., 148–172, 273–278. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006., 151.
[x] Ibid., 151.
[xi] Jeremy C.Wells. “Authenticity in More than One Dimension: Reevaluating a Core Premise of Historic Preservation.” Forum Journal 24, no. 3 (Spring 2010), 36.
[xii] Ibid. 37.
Throughout my schooling in heritage, I have been presented differing and sometimes conflicting viewpoints about conservation. Initially, when I started my coursework, I dreaded taking the conservation course. As someone from an arts background, the idea of scientific material intimidated me. However, throughout my learning I uncovered that the science is just one facet of this complicated subject. In fact, there is a philosophical component that has presented itself throughout my readings that has come to intrigue me. This blog post will discuss some of these thoughts to present a more encompassing view of conservation. White Otter Castle will be used to illustrate the points addressed. For historical context, please refer to my blog post True North Strong: White Otter Castle.
For Present and Future Enjoyment
Conservation is an integral aspect of heritage and museum work. Conserving, protecting and restoring objects and buildings allows for their enjoyment by present and future generations. Engaging with historic objects helps to form a strong connections to place. Throughout my blog you will notice my numerous nods to the importance of visible history. Being able to hold an object or stand in a physical space evoke strong sensory reactions that makes it easier for a connection to be made. It also stokes the imagination. There have been many poets, for instance, who have sat on the shores of White Otter Lake recounting Jimmy's myth in verse. To be able to imagine him walking about the property touting 1600 pound logs, is more memorable than gleaning this information from a book. It is also a way of incorporating your own memories into the story, entangling the two into a new personal narrative. And what better way for children to become interested in history! I still remember my first visit to the local museum when I was four. They asked me to brush roving between two big paddled brushes. I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. I remember that for a week afterward I brushed cotton balls between my hair brushes. In my adult life I now spin my own yarn and knit. And it is safe to say I am also a history lover. This experience sparked my interest in both. If the museum did not preserve these artifacts, or this earlier way of life, perhaps I would not be spending my evenings with my drop spindle. Likewise, the standing Castle induces myth, stories, songs and poems. The story may very well have been lost to time, if not for this strong physical reminder.
Change as Part of an Object's Story
When I first stepped foot into White Otter Castle, I was appalled by the numerous signatures and markings throughout the structure. It has become somewhat of a tradition for visitors to add their name to Jimmy's walls. This can be thought of as an irresponsible act, especially considering that lots of money and time goes into periodic restoration projects. Didn't visitors want to help preserve the Castle? Don't they respect the myth the Castle tells? How could they want to deface a structure that has stood proudly in nature for all this time? However, these markings can be seen in a slightly different way. Everything in the world is in constant flux, or in other words, forever changing. This is true of stories, physical objects, ideas and people. If we are to accept that objects have dynamic and multiple layers of meaning, then we must accept that any additions (or subtractions) are incorporated into their story.
For White Otter Castle, this means that these markings are seen as adding themselves to the life of the structure; incorporating themselves into the mystique of the story. These names also speak to the idea of evanescence. People are penning their names down on a structure that will most likely stand longer than they will. It is a way for people to become part of Jimmy's story as well as let future visitors know that they have once stood there. Graffiti such as this also gives a physical reminder that White Otter Castle is a lively meeting space, drawing people from all over to share in its story. Seen this way, removing the names would alter the constantly and forever changing story of White Otter Castle. Heritage scholar, David Lowenthal paints this picture when discussing archaeological objects. He states: "Conservation, however careful, may destroy evidence vital to site or artifactual provenance or add taints that subvert authenticity or ambience." He goes on to say, "Marks of age and decay integral to every object need to be seen not just as losses but as gains. Esteeming evanescence can make us wiser and more caring stewards." 
Photographer and writer Clarence John Laughlin also finds life in old structures. When discussing abandoned Louisiana plantations he poetically surmises that:
In houses which are old- the forms of whose very walls and pillars have taken body from the thoughts of men in a vanished time- we often sense something far more delicate, more unwordable, than the customary devices of the romanticist: the swish of a silken invisible dress on stairs once dustless, the fragrance of an unseen blossom over the years, the wraith momentarily given form in a begrimed mirror. These wordless perceptions can be due only, it seems, to something still retained in these walls; something crystallized from the energy of human emotion and the activity of human nerves. And, perhaps, it is because of this nameless life of memory and desire and, correlatively, because of the superior power of suggestion, that, for those who are sensitive, the ruined houses have a fascination far exceeding that of the intact, and inhabited structures. 
His statement attributes a certain mystery and beauty to the abandoned and long-forgotten structures dotting the state. Like those individuals at the banks of White Otter Lake, he too finds poetic vision in the imagined past.
Ultimately, this discussion calls into question:
Conservation and Authenticity
If historical objects pass through various conservation processes are they still considered authentic? For instance, White Otter Castle has undergone various changes throughout its life, including:
Conservation is a more complex concept than just understanding basic scientific tests and principles. This blog post picked out just a few items to discuss amongst a plethora to choose from. Surprisingly, conservation ended up being one of my favourite heritage courses, and the information I learned informs everything I do in my museum work, from working with the collection, doing interpretive programming, or tackling ethical issues. I hope to continue to ponder the more philosophical aspects as well as learn more about the scientific practices in this field.
I will finish on a more contemplative note, with a quote from Lowenthal:
Our successors are better served by inheriting from us not a bundle of canonical artifacts but memories of traditional creative skills, institutions in good working order, and habits of resilience in coping with the vicissitudes of existence.[iv]
[i] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present." In Values and Heritage Conservation: Research Report. Los Angeles: Getty Trust, 2000, 19-20.
[ii] Clarence John Laughlin. Ghosts Along the Mississippi (New York: American Legacy Press, 1988), 7-8
[iii] Jim Mahon, Jim McQuat’s Castle: White Otter Lake, Architectural Report (Ministry of Natural Resources, 1972)
[iv] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present," 20.
I had the pleasure of visiting White Otter Castle, a large log structure on White Otter Lake in Northwestern Ontario. This castle is a gem because it is located in an extremely remote location, not accessible by car. To get there, one needs to either paddle two lakes, or be flown in by a bush plane. My journey involved the latter, as a bush pilot agreed to take the museum staff on a research trip.
The Story of Jimmy McQuat
The story of White Otter Castle begins long before its construction. Its builder, Jimmy McQuat, was born in Argenteuil County, Ottawa Valley, in 1855. While a child, he had an unfortunate encounter with a codger who told Jimmy that he would “die in a shack.” The words haunted him, and perhaps gave him future inspiration to build his very own Castle. As an adult he decided to move west to the Rainy River District to seek his fortune. At that time, there were many men traversing the area looking for gold. However, Jimmy, like many of his contemporaries, was never successful in this venture. In 1903, he built a small shack on the shores of White Otter Lake, the future site of his legacy. There, he worked for several years on the lake as a trapper, canoeing to the nearby town of Ignace to sell his pelts. Denis Mahon, a Historical Architectural Consultant who examined the Castle in 1972, believed that Jimmy’s “relentless struggle for survival which had dominated his life until that time would appear to have been the driving force behind his secluded and hermit-like existence for the next seventeen years.” He sustained himself by trapping, baking bread, growing a vegetable garden, fishing, picking wild berries, and hunting.
Jimmy began construction on his Castle prior to the outbreak of World War One. At that time, he spent his days cutting down Norway pine, limbing each tree and dragging it to the site. These logs could weigh as much as 1600 pounds, adding to the awe of the Castle, especially considering that Jimmy built it alone. Using a pulley-system he moved the logs into place to craft his dream. In 1912, the Shevlin-Clarke Logging Company commenced work on Turtle Lake; Jimmy was no longer alone in the bush. In the winter, the workmen piled logs into the water with hopes that once the ice thawed they would be driven down to Fort Frances. This event was never realized; instead they needed to rework their plans. Large Alligator boats (or Gator boats as they were affectionately nicknamed) were needed to transport the logs to locomotives waiting for them in the bush. This work was a disruption to Jimmy because it resulted in water levels rising nearly to his front door. Deciding to take action, he wrote the Lands Department to apply for title. The office questioned his right to be on the land, and turned down his request. Years later, he attempted this action a second time. While waiting for a response, Jimmy drowned when one of his jacket buttons caught in his fishing net, pulling him into the lake. He was last seen alive in 1918. Today, the castle stands as it was intended, in the wilderness, as it was incorporated into Turtle River-White Otter Lake Provincial Park in 1989.
White Otter Castle offers a fine example of typical log house construction at the turn of the century. However, the tower’s addition is atypical, resulting in a remarkable building. Mark Denhez, heritage lawyer and scholar, states, “[s]ome structures deserve attention because of the uniqueness or ingenuity of the methods by which they came into existence.” White Otter Castle not only has a distinct addition but its creator also made its history unique. The fact that Jimmy built the Castle alone is a remarkable feat. Although the structure is impressive it “blend[s] with the landscape instead of trying to subdue it,” an impressive achievement considering its size. This sentiment speaks to the importance of nature as the fabric of the building, an important aspect of its history.
White Otter Castle inspires an awareness of the history of our forefathers. This fact not only encompasses knowledge of historical events, but also a “keen feeling for their entire way of life.” Jimmy McQuat’s life is a snapshot of the pioneering world of Northwestern Ontario, where people relied heavily on the land for sustenance. This sentiment can be surmised by Mahon, who states, “in a way the Castle stands as the result and manifestation not only of the odyssey of McQuat but of the countless quests that have driven the discoveries of man for centuries past.” Myths of Jimmy and the Castle have resonated with community members and visitors alike, leading to the creation of myths, songs and poems. Thus, White Otter Castle is considered a remembered history, as its story has been passed down through oral, folk and popular traditions.
The Castle has not yet been formally recognized as a historic site. The Friends of White Otter Castle have been working tirelessly to protect and restore the structure. Throughout the years there have been restoration projects completed to keep the structure vibrant so that it can be enjoyed by present and future generations. Presently, more work needs to be done to preserve the structure, as it has deteriorated over time. The Friends are currently fundraising to see this initiative happen.
I believe that the White Otter Castle should be formally recognized because:
 Lynda Roberts. The Interpretation of White Otter Castle (honours thesis), Department of Outdoor Recreation, Lakehead University, 1984, 2.
 Peter G. Elliott, Nostalgia #7: Dream of James McQuat: The Castle of White Otter Lake (DVD), 2012.
 Jim Mahon, Jim McQuat’s Castle: White Otter Lake, Architectural Report (Ministry of Natural Resources, 1972), 3.
 Peter G. Elliott, Nostalgia #7: Dream of James McQuat: The Castle of White Otter Lake
 Lynda Roberts. The Interpretation of White Otter Castle, 31.
 Peter G. Elliott, Nostalgia #7: Dream of James McQuat: The Castle of White Otter Lake
 M. Denhez. “Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetic, Ethos, 49.
 Peter G. Elliott, Nostalgia #7: Dream of James McQuat: The Castle of White Otter Lake (DVD), 2012.
 M. Denhez. “Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetic, Ethos, 46.
 Jim Mahon, Jim McQuat’s Castle: White Otter Lake, Architectural Report, 23.
The Nelles Manor sits proudly along Main Street in Grimsby; nestled amongst other character homes. What makes this particular home significant is the fact that it was owned by Robert Nelles, who many claim to be Grimsby’s founder. Nelles first came to the Forty after fleeing the American Revolution when a bounty was placed on his head. He settled in Grimsby and began to build the manor in 1788, later completing the structure in 1798. This structure is so old that the Niagara Green Belt website claims that it is the oldest inhabited structure between Niagara and Kingston.[i] It is also significant because it showcases late 18th century Georgian architecture.
The home’s contemporary story is just as fascinating as its historical counterpart. In 1963 Barry and Linda Coutts purchased the home. They were the first owners of the property outside the Nelles family, who owned the home for almost two hundred years. At the time of their purchase the home had drywall partitions used to create separate apartments. The Coutts family decided to tear down these dividers in order to restore the house to what they think “is a pretty accurate depiction of how it would have looked just before Robert’s death in 1842.”[ii] In the process of the renovation they uncovered many treasures including original flooring, fireplaces, and even a Red Coat jacket owned by Robert during the War of 1812.[iii]
The Coutts have stated that they are the “keepers of the manor,” only being “one part of its history.”[iv] Throughout the years they have opened the door of their home to welcome community members, allowing them to appreciate and learn about the historic house and Grimsby’s rich history. Currently, they are in the process of turning their home into a public museum that all community members can enjoy. They have sold the house’s rights to a not-for-profit charitable corporation who is working tirelessly to make this transition.
In one of my last blog posts I discussed Toronto’s issue of disposable architecture and how many older buildings are being torn down so that condos can be erected. I decided to write about this story to show the tireless work that many individuals are doing to preserve our heritage. Visible history is important to any community. Being able to see and experience a heritage building instills pride in where one lives as well as acting as a place of social exchange between community members, drawing people closer together. In this case, the museum will become the grounds where history and social interaction intermingle. It acts as a “living, breathing” entity, rather than a place you can only read about in a history book.
I would like to note that my discussion might sound overly simplistic. I understand that there are many circumstances resulting in the destruction of older buildings. In this case, it is very fortunate that the Coutts family has the means to essentially donate their home in order to make it a museum. In many cases, this is not possible. However, I do believe that these actions should be applauded and that perhaps it can inspire others to find ways to keep heritage alive in their own communities.
Niagara This Week. "Protecting Grimsby Heritage," February 2, 2016.
Niagara This Week. "The Nelles Brothers and Their Impact on Grimsby," August 12, 2010.
Niagara This Week. "Making of a Museum: Owners Spent Nearly 50 Years Restoring Grimsby's Nelles Manor," February 2, 2016.
This snapshot of the Toronto skyline crowding the historic Fort York can be viewed as a microcosm of larger developments, showcasing problems the heritage field is facing when it comes to preserving historic buildings. I have grown up in the Greater Toronto Area and like many others have witnessed firsthand the vast changes that Toronto has experienced in the past generation. What was once a picturesque skyline, marked with iconic buildings, now resembles a dystopian science fiction novel. Modernist, large, ubiquitous, and often poorly built condos and corporate towers have sprung out of the earth at an alarming rate, forever changing the characteristics of the neighbourhoods they occupy.
There have been countless examples of Toronto buildings being demolished so that new condos, often built by foreign developers with little care for local communities, can go up in their place. When driving into the city along the Gardiner Expressway twenty years ago, the once prominent Rogers Centre (formerly the Skydome) and CN Tower were on display for all visitors to see, creating a grand but inviting picture of the city, showcasing its reputation for innovative architecture. Now, those landmarks are mostly hidden behind ugly condominiums that resemble prisons or apartment blocks from the former Soviet Union.
What does this trend say about contemporary Canadian culture? Where is the sense of permanence? Where is the pride in our history? Perhaps most importantly, if this trend continues, will our cultural heritage survive at all?
A few months ago I was reading an article that M. Denhez published in 1978 called “Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos.” In the article he had very prophetic insights when discussing the transient nature of contemporary culture. He explained that we have entered the age of disposable architecture, stating that this trend was a product of consumer society where things have become “mass producible, mass usable, mass disposable.” He went on to state: “The heritage movement stands for the principle that man has consciously attempted to bring lasting improvements to his environment. A society which is not capable of appreciating that effort is not capable of understanding the meaning of initiative and creativity in particular, and lasting values in general. Such a society is consequently not likely to produce any lasting achievements of its own.”[i]
These statements were meant as an encompassing account of Canadian culture and what could happen if we are not more careful with our heritage. I believe that Toronto offers a perfect example of what can occur if we invest in “disposable architecture” at the cost of historic buildings. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that there are many institutions and individuals who work towards preserving Toronto’s heritage, and they should be applauded. We can only hope more like them will pop up, and hopefully at a faster rate than the condominiums that now threaten to destroy the beautiful character that once defined Toronto’s downtown core and surrounding areas.
CBC Video, New Condos Rise from Historic Toronto Facades
A list of demolished Toronto buildings
CBC, Growing List of Potential Heritage Buildings Threatened by lack of funds and Maintenance
A List of the Oldest Toronto Structures
[i] Denhez, M. Defining the Canadian Heritage: Existence, Aesthetics, Ethos. In M. Denhez, Heritage Fights Back. Heritage Canada. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978, 66-67.
A modest lighthouse and keeper’s cottage sit on the banks of Hamilton Harbour, unnoticed by the thousands of cars that cross on the bridge above it each day. The lighthouse was constructed in 1858 as a means for directing steamers along the Burlington Canal, a throughway connecting Hamilton Harbour (formerly Burlington Bay) with Lake Ontario. Before the Burlington Bay James N. Allan Skyway Bridge was erected in 1958 the lighthouse sat as a visible reminder of the past. Now, the bridge hides the building beneath it, and unless you take the less popular underpass (Eastport Drive) as a route on your journey, it sits largely forgotten.
George Thomson, a retired sailing master, was the first lighthouse keeper, serving until 1875. I had the pleasure of spending approximately thirty hours transcribing George Thomson’s journals (1858-1863) for the Burlington Museum. These diaries were significant because he meticulously described the weather, and his recordings have become important historical documents largely for this reason. Working with Thomson’s journals was a delight because he described a time and a place that feels foreign today. This area is now bustling with large residential neighbourhoods to the east and west, heavy industry to the north and voluminous traffic resulting from the Queen Elizabeth Way. In his writings, Thompson often spoke of walking across the Bay during the winter to reach Hamilton, and how he could hear bells ringing in downtown Hamilton while he lay in bed. The serene, simple environment that Thomson described was a strong contrast to the frenetic and noisy scene that greets one when standing at the lighthouse today.
Currently, the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group (BCLG) is working to get the lighthouse protected under the Lighthouse Protection Act (2008). This Act prevents the unauthorized alteration or disposition of designated lighthouses. Any alterations must be in keeping with the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. Lastly, it facilitates sale or transfer to promote new uses for the lighthouses while ensuring their protection.[i] Once BCLG reaches an agreement with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to acquire the structure they can move ahead with the designation.[ii]
Beach Canal Lighthouse Group
Lighthouse Friends, Burlington Canal Main, ON.
A very interesting video entitled, Berwick and the Beach Canal, featuring Sandy Thomson, great grandson of George Thomson and member of the BCLG.
The historic Great Western Railway Station may face difficult times to come. This station was built in 1885 and since its inception has been a vibrant fixture in downtown Grimsby. The owners, Marsha Cox and Daniel Brenner, have run a successful pottery studio inside the station for the past eighteen years. They have taken care to keep the station’s integrity, making as few changes to the structure as possible. This has benefited the community because it attracts tourists, adds character to the downtown, and makes Grimsby’s history visible. Recently, Cox and Brenner have decided to sell the old railway station due to the high costs of running their business out of this structure. I fear for the station’s future because it is not a protected building. The Grimsby Heritage Advisory Committee has recognized the historical significance of this structure, although it has not been designated a heritage property. The Great Western Railway Station, located at 53 Ontario Street, has been added to the Municipal Heritage Registrar (MHR) on February 4, 2008. The MHR offers no protection to heritage structures but notes what buildings are worth saving.
The historic railway station should be protected under the Ontario Heritage Act so that present and future generations can enjoy the heritage structure as well as feel pride in their municipal and provincial history. This matter requires immediate attention because we do not know if the new owners will provide the same level of care for the structure. The community would not benefit from large changes made to this building, or even worse, its demolition. If demolished, I fear that the impact will be similar to the Salmoni case. The Salmoni building in Amherstburg, Ontario, much like the Great Western Railway Station, was an important symbol in municipal and provincial history. Its destruction in 2004 devastated the community and resulted in it being added to Heritage Canada Foundation’s list of top five losses in 2004.[i]
Placing The Great Western Railway Station in Heritage Policy Context
If the station is designated there are many existing legislations that would benefit both the owners of the building as well as the community. The most important piece of legislation used for the building’s protection would be the Ontario Heritage Act (1975). The Act was developed as a means for giving both municipalities and the provincial government powers to preserve Ontario’s heritage. The Great Western Railway Station falls under Section IV of the Act, which specifically addresses the conservation of property with cultural heritage value.[ii]
The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport states that the, “designation of heritage properties is a way of publically acknowledging a property’s value to a community. At the same time, designation helps to ensure the conservation of these important places for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”[iii] The Great Western Railway Station has already been acknowledged as historically significant within the community. For instance, the station has been a participant in the yearly Doors Open Festival. This festival offers tours of historical and cultural sites in Grimsby.[iv] The Niagara Greenbelt website also lists Forks Road Pottery as a popular tourist attraction, and notes the impressive historic railway station it is housed in.[v] Dorothy Turcotte, journalist for the Grimsby Lincoln News, has also commented that, “We can’t afford to lose any of them [Grimsby’s historic buildings] if we want our town to be considered interesting and historic…people come from out-of-town now to visit Forks Road Pottery. We need to build on that to create the Ontario Street tourist district for Grimsby.”[vi] It is clear that the Great Western Railway Station is important to the Grimsby community for historic, cultural and economic reasons. Thus, it should be enjoyed by both present and future generations because it adds considerable value to the city.
Additionally, under the Ontario Heritage Act, municipalities can pass a by-law offering tax relief to property owners under the Municipal Act (2001). In order to be eligible for tax relief a property must be designated under Part IV or V (heritage conservation districts) of the Act and be subject to a heritage conservation agreement. This agreement can be made in three ways. The first entails a heritage easement between the property owner and the Heritage Trust. The second is an easement between the property owner and the municipality. The last consists of a non-easement agreement made between the property owner and the municipality.[vii] This conservation agreement operates to protect the heritage attributes of the property. Municipalities can set the amount of tax relief they wish to offer an owner (between 10 and 40 percent).[viii] In many instances, tax relief has aided owners of heritage properties with the upkeep of their structures.
How this will Help
If this structure becomes protected the community would benefit from increased tourism to its downtown. This region is especially popular in the summer due to its proximity to the Niagara Wine Route. Historic structures, much like the Great Western Railway Station will aid in Grimsby being a tourist destination in its own right, instead of a throughway en route to vineyards.
Protecting the station is also important because it creates a visible history. This is significant because it reminds community members of Grimsby’s history and helps foster a stronger municipal and provincial identity. It binds the people of Grimsby together in space and time because it offers a reminder of the town’s origins. Visible history is also important because it can foster a love of history in the younger generation. Being able to step inside the railway station during the Doors Open Festival is much more impressive and memorable than reading about a railway station that no longer exists.
Lastly, I recognize that the federal government has issued a Heritage Railway Station Protection Act in 1988 to protect historic railway stations across Canada from demolition. This Act stipulates that a railway company must currently own the railway station being considered for protection.[ix] I propose that this Act be amended to include any railway structures once used as railway stations but no longer owned by a railway company. Railway stations are important symbols of Canadian identity because they were once important social and economic centres. It should not matter if the structures in question are operational, or if railway companies currently own them. These factors do not alter the structure’s meaning and importance within Canadian history.
This structure should be protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. This station is an important symbol of municipal, provincial and national history, and deserves to be enjoyed by present and future generations. The station’s protection will result in continued tourism to Grimsby and the Niagara region, bringing economic benefits and increased appreciation for the region’s history within a larger national narrative. The station will continue to interest both local citizens and tourists in Grimsby, and Niagara’s dynamic history.
[i] Don Proctor, Halting Demolition: Does Ontario Now Have a “Binding Law?” Heritage Magazine (Summer, 2005)
[ii] Ontario Government. Ontario Heritage Act, R.S.O. 1990, c.o.18.
[iii] The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. "The Ontario Heritage Act," (accessed June 20, 2015)
[iv] A. Cooper. "Doors are opening in Grimsby," (accessed June 22, 2015)
[v] Niagara Green Belt. "Forks Road Pottery/ Grimsby Train Depot," (accessed June 15, 2015)
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