Freeman Station – History and Today

Freeman Station during Canada Day festivities

February 6, 2019

Freeman Station is one of the last surviving Grand Trunk Railway stations, following the loss of the Aldershot GTR station. It’s “the Freeman Station,” after the hamlet in which it stood, but officially the railway signed it variously as the “Burlington Junction” or “Burlington West” Station.

Rail History in Burlington

The Burlington Junction Station was the hub of Freeman community life for almost 100 years.  The personal and commercial comings and goings of the community were centered there — the crisscross of railway lines brought goods and people to the area, and they were the primary mode of shipping goods, especially livestock and produce, to world markets.

From 1854 to 1988 the Burlington Junction Station was Burlington’s railway arrival and departure centre in the hamlet of Freeman, Ontario. Passenger trains connected residents of Wellington Square, later Burlington, directly with Toronto, Chicago, and New York.

Solders in 1917 waiting for train Black and white In wartime, soldiers left from this Station on the first stage of their journey overseas. Marching bands and hundreds of their fellow citizens walked with them to the Station to bid them farewell. After the Second World War, many emigrants from Europe arrived at this Station to make a new life in Burlington.

The predominance of automotive routes reduced passenger train traffic from the 1950’s on. Commuter travel was also transformed by the launch of the Government of Ontario (GO) transit system in 1967.

Freight trains were even more important to the economic success of Freeman, Wellington Square, and Burlington, since they were essential to the successful marketing of the area’s farming produce.

Workers loading fruit on to train black and white

The “Golden Horseshoe’s” reputation as “the Garden of Canada” rested on rapid rail transportation of farm produce to Toronto and Montreal markets, and to ports from which our world-famous fruits were shipped overseas to markets in Great Britain and as far away as South Africa.

Station History

The Burlington Grand Trunk Railway Station was built in 1906 to replace the original two-story Great Western Railroad station (built circa 1850), which burnt down in 1904. The GTR had bought out the GWR in 1892, and in turn, was acquired by the Canadian National Railway in 1923. The CNR Burlington Station became redundant in 1988, when the passenger office was moved to a site shared with the GO Transit station on Fairview Street. A “Save Our Station” committee of volunteers supported relocation and restoration of the GTR Station. Their efforts were stopped abruptly when it was announced that the Station had been leased to a private company and did not have to be relocated after all.

Freeman Station on trailer being moved along city road 2000?In 2005, however, it again appeared necessary to move the station.  The railway needed the Station’s original location for track expansion. They donated the building to the City of Burlington.  Having acquired it and moved it to a temporary location, Council considered the Station’s future.  A period of uncertainty followed, whilst several new location sites were considered.  Ultimately, with no suitable location identified, the prospect of demolishing it loomed.  The new Council, elected in 2010, approved in February 2011 a motion to transfer the task of managing and restoring the Station to a group of community volunteers, now incorporated as the Friends of Freeman Station.

Freeman Station black and white historic image Station Architecture

Built in 1906 for the Grand Trunk Railway, as a combination passenger and baggage depot, the Burlington West Station (formerly Burlington Junction, known as ‘Freeman Station’) exhibits many stylistic features characteristic of GTR stations constructed in that decade: a high truncated-hipped roof [ed. note: also known as a cast bell hip roof] which flares out over very deep sheltering eaves; timber ‘rafter-tail’ brackets decorate the outer part of these eaves. Also characteristic are the decorative elements of the roof: the tall centre chimney with decorative brick detail; the dormer window on the tracks side, whose five-sided flared roof echoes the main roofline; and the small ‘eyebrow’ opening on the opposite side.

The five-panel doors with high transoms and the many large one-over-one double-hung windows are also characteristic of GTR designs. The walls of the Burlington West Station are a rare combination of granite base (black logan block with white mortar) and upper frame walls. The roof structure is supported by a hammer-beam truss system. The Ministry of Culture and Communication report states that many interior features are intact: wood dado, door and window trim, and the entire baggage room.

Red cart with crates and pots outside of stationRestoration Work

A concerned volunteer citizen group in agreement with the City of Burlington, took over the preservation, restoration, and management of the Burlington Junction Station.  They oversaw the relocation of the Station to its permanent foundation, saw to its shoring up, and have since focused on restoring it to its 1906 splendor. Work began in earnest in 2014 and since that time volunteers have scraped, painted, paneled, wired, landscaped and otherwise toiled, some on a daily basis and others on our organized “Work Day Wednesdays” and “Work Day Saturdays.”

Station Future Plans

Freeman front entrance with railroad track and deckingOnce all the work has been completed at the station it will operate as an interpretive centre for Canadians young and old.  The elements will include railway history and railways as a major influence on Confederation, the Station as a community hub of personal and commercial comings and goings, the nostalgia of simpler times (wood, horses,..1920’s, steam locomotives.), World War I & II involvement; and the growth of cities, transportation and communications. It will also tell the story of saving the building for posterity:  our hands-on community involvement & volunteerism, and the cooperation of our government & community joint venture.  In the end, something “fun for all ages” has been created.

Collection of artifacts ticket stubs from Freeman Station 1913The Waiting Room will be available as a meeting space for small groups of 35 to 50 people.  There will be a small gift shop, and the ever-growing collection of historical railway memorabilia will be on display.  On the Lower Level, a historic model railway diorama will depict bucolic life in the Hamlet of Freeman, now part of Burlington, in the early twentieth century.  Groups will be invited to visit, and there will be visiting hours for the public.

Station Diorama model train and teaching toolLower Level Railway Diorama Project

More than three and a half years of research and planning have gone into the Lower Level Railway Diorama project.

Logs from that era record the passage of more than 100 trains a day, so the Station was a busy place, punctuated by the roar of the steam locomotives, the wail of their whistles, the clackety-clack of the railcars.  Numerous first-hand accounts, first-person interviews, and meticulous record searches have thoroughly documented life in the village.  One traveler recalled, catching a train in winter, “It was almost as cold in the waiting room as on the platform!”

“Stage 1” of the project will see the model railway layout built, with the diorama’s features continuing to expand and grow after that.  Eventually, it will include computer-controlled presentation of teaching moments including the automatic movement of the trains and playback of video, audio, and lighting effects.

The model railway in the diorama will be unlike anything seen in this part of North America.  It will showcase a beautifully crafted 1/24th scale model of the Burlington Junction Station.  Matched to the scale of the Station model, the railway rolling stock will feature era-specific Grand Trunk Railway steam locomotives and passenger and freight cars in 1/24th scale (“G” scale).

Cart in front of freeman muralNostalgic Mural

The mural located on the exterior of the stations has been created by artist Claire Hall, and was commissioned by the City of Burlington as part of its public art programme.  Claire worked with restorers to understand the historical importance of the Station as a travel and commercial shipping hub for the hamlet of Freeman, and beautifully captured the essence of the Station’s legacy.

For more information about Freeman Station and to receive notices about events sign up for their Enewsletter.

Alan Harrington Friends of Freeman Station volunteer painting interior of station

Written by: Alan Harrington, Friends of Freeman Station & Burlington Historical Society