Friday 29 November 2013

The Wyndham St. Railway underpass

In its passage through downtown Guelph, Wyndham St. intersects with the Canadian National Railway/VIA Rail line. Rather than meet on-grade, Wyndham Street plunges beneath the tracks, emerging before the Armoury building. Over the last few years, this underpass was closed to traffic so that it could be upgraded to conform to new regulations. After about two years and $8.4 million dollars, renovations to the underpass were recently completed.

Unfortunately, the renovations have not been a complete success in all respects, as a number of trucks have had scrapes with crash beams installed underneath the tracks to protect them. The official clearance is 3.8 meters but the underpass may appear deceptively high, or some drivers may underestimate the height of their trucks. Or, perhaps the underpass is cursed: When the prominent clearance signage was temporarily removed for the 2013 Santa Claus parade, another truck went down the fateful ramp to scrape its way under the crash beams before the signs could be restored.

The Wyndham St. underpass was installed in 1911 in order to avoid scrapes between trains and vehicles on the street. Prior to that time, the intersection between Wyndham St. South—or Huskisson Street, as it was known then—and the Canadian National line—known then as the Grand Trunk Railway—was a level crossing. By the turn of the century, many Guelphites had come to view crossings like this one as an unacceptable hazard. Consider the experience of a Mr. Beaver of Morriston who was approaching the GTR crossing on nearby Gordon St. when his horse startled, apparently at the approach of a train (Guelph Mercury, 8 Nov. 1910). The animal bolted and ran down the tracks, just ahead of the approaching train! At Norfolk St., Mr. Beaver's cart got tangled with guy wires supporting a utility pole. He suffered serious injuries to his face but was able to go home after receiving medical attention. The horse was apparently uninjured. Interactions with trains at level crossings could be painful, or worse.

By 1906, the City and the GTR had reached a tentative agreement. The City would sell Jubilee Park (a small park situated where the current VIA station stands) and perhaps other land to the GTR and, in exchange, the GTR would expand its facilities in the area and construct underpasses—then called subways—to eliminate the level crossings. Unfortunately, the two sides could not agree on the price for Jubilee Park, nor on who would pay for the subways (Globe and Mail, 21 March 1906).

There the situation stood until 1908. The same day as Mr. Beaver's run-in with a train, news broke that the City was filing a lawsuit against the GTR. In part, the indictment denounced the GTR for "maintaining a public nuisance" (Mercury, 11 Nov. 1908). In other words, the GTR had neglected to fulfill its public duty to build safe railway crossings. In fact, the case for the suit was so compelling that the provincial Crown Attorney, Mr. Henry Peterson, filed the case on behalf of the City. Mr. Justice McMahon, clearly also impressed with the case, gave the indictment to a grand jury, explaining the issue to them, in part, as follows:

Another phase of the matter His Worship said was in connection with the dangerous crossings and the need for a subway and he dwelt upon the dangers at the station through the passengers having to pass over tracks to reach their trains as well as the danger of crossing the tracks after leaving the station. It was the duty of the railroad company to protect the public.
The editor of the Mercury was certainly pleased with the news. The entire indictment, with its imposing legal language, was printed on the front page of the paper. I will spare you the full text, but a taste would be appropriate, where the accusation of negligence is made (12 Nov. 1908):
Yet the said corporation [GTR] of the said railway have for many years past and still do neglect to operate and maintain the said line of railway, in and through the said municipality of the City of Guelph and along the line of streets and highways on which their aforesaid line of railway runs and others which they pass and run on with their said engines and passenger and freight cars, with due and proper safety and freedom from danger, as respects the crossings of the said streets and highways, especially as respects the running and operating of the said passenger cars and engines and the safe access thereto and egress therefrom at and in connection with their public passenger station in the said Municipality of the City of Guelph.
What a sentence! Also, I have to include the final sentence of the indictment, which conveys the vexation of the crown at this state of affairs:
The said corporation of the said Grand Trunk Railway by the said acts and neglect and in contravention and in culpable and unlawful neglect of their proper public duty and rights and obligations have committed and continue to commit a common nuisance, endangering and injuriously affecting the lawful safety, comfort and conveniences, privileges, uses and enjoyments, of the said public and His said Majesty's liege subjects in the due and lawful exercise and enjoyment of rights to which they are lawfully entitled, but are now deprived of and interfered with and injured and to the great and general disadvantage and danger and common nuisance of the liege subjects of His Majesty the King, to the evil example of all others in like cases offending, and against the peace of our Lord the King, His Crown and Dignity.
You get the idea.

Although the case was not actually decided at the November assizes, it seems that the indictment moved the GTR, somewhat. By the spring of 1909, the GTR solicitor, Mr. Pope, assured the public that the Railway meant to proceed immediately with a new station and crossings, on certain conditions (22 May 1909, Globe and Mail):

The company ... will install subways at Huskisson and Gordon streets. Neeve street is also to be diverted through a subway [at Huskisson?], the city or the company to pay the cost, according to which had the prior right of way at the crossing. The point has not yet been settled.
It seems that the GTR wanted to build two subways, one each at Huskisson and Gordon Streets. The City, however, wanted only a pedestrian subway at Huskisson St., and full subways at Neeve St. and Gordon St. Naturally, each side thought that the other one should pay most of the cost.

The matter came before the Dominion Railway Commission in October, 1909. The Commission rendered its decision (Mercury, 15 Oct. 1909): The GTR would build two full subways, one each at Huskisson and Gordon Streets. The end of Neeve St. was to be closed off, but Surrey St. was to be extended to relieve any congestion on Neeve. The cost for the Huskisson St. subway was to be split between the City and the GTR. The decision was final.

If you find some of the topography confusing, it may help to look at the map below.

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Of course, when I say that the decision was final, I mean that the dispute merely entered a new phase. Engineers arrived within days to begin surveying and planning the new train station and subways (Mercury, 20 Oct. 1909). Construction began in May 1910. The railway tracks were to be raised from Allan's Bridge (at the Speed) through to Glasgow St. (14 May 1910, Guelph Mercury). At the crossings of Huskisson and Gordon Streets, the tracks would be raised by about six feet. This elevation would help to keep the subways from getting too deep.

At the same time, disputes over plans and money continued. The width for the Huskisson St. subway was set by the Commission at 30 feet. Mayor Hastings suggested that the subway at Huskisson St. should perhaps be widened in order to accommodate a streetcar line that the City wanted to run into St. Patrick's Ward (Mercury, 26 Oct. 1909). The City also continued to press for a subway, if only for pedestrians, at Neeve St. The GTR was amenable, if the City granted it more land and/or concessions on the price of Jubilee Park. The GTR made plans to place switching equipment on City land and to close the end of Freshfield St., whereupon the City ordered the construction stopped (Mercury, 6 July 1910).

This phase of the dispute was not settled until December. After talks with Mr. Fitzhugh, Vice President of the GTR, the two parties settled on a price for the park ($9000) and on the nature of the Huskisson St. subway (9 Dec. 1910):

The subway at Huskisson street will be moved 25 feet further to the east than it is shown to be on the plan and will be built straight instead of with an elbow in the middle of it, as the plans indicate.
I have to say, a straight underpass sounds like the better choice.

Newspapers from early 1911 are not available, but construction seems to have proceeded. For the latter half of the year, the paper carries a series of notices in its "City News" column about the progress of construction. Here are a few examples:

Girders arrive (6 July):
The girders have arrived for the G.T.R. subway at Huskisson street crossing, and will be placed in position as soon as possible. The excavation work is progressing rapidly.

Raising the track (7 July):
Work has been commenced on raising the track between Gordon and Huskisson streets. The G.T.R. Co. have a large gang of men at work. At Huskisson street the tracks have been raised six feet, so that the company has quite a contract ahead of it.

Lavatories closed up (11 July):
Owing to the fact that they were being used by the men employed on the relaying of the G.T.R. tracks, and complaints being made, the Winter Fair lavatories have been closed up, as the Board of Works feel that the men should have one of their own. They will be opened on market days only.

Work on lower end (31 August):
The gang on the Huskisson street subway is to-day at work on the lower end of the subway, laying the storm drain and making the excavations for the retaining wall. Steps will be laid from the road leading to the Armories.

Grand Trunk officials (20 September):
An official of the Grand Trunk passed through the city this morning, staying here for a few minutes while they looked over the subways.
And so on. The subway appears to have been completed and open for the opening of the new train station on 22 November.

At the same time, dispute over the width of the subway continued. In the end, the GTR had agreed to build a subway 32 feet in width, with four feet for a sidewalk and 28 feet for vehicles (4 August 1911). In July, a number of local residents argued to City Council that the Huskisson subway should be widened by eight feet to better accommodate pedestrians (12 July). The City solicitor, Mr. Donald Guthrie [father of local MP Hugh Guthrie?] advised that the GTR was under no obligation to agree to the alteration [nor was it likely to]. After much debate, the city decided to appeal to the Railway Commission to have two pedestrian underpasses ("foot subways") built, one at Huskisson and one at Norfolk Streets (8 September). These were to be eight feet wide and high, which would leave a commodious 32 foot roadway for streetcars and vehicles, and prevent pedestrians and vehicles from having to share a single space. The Council hoped to persuade the Commission to have the GTR share the extra cost. The GTR had no objections to the extra subways (1 September) but declined to pay for them. It seems that the GTR got its way: The City decided to proceed with the two subways at its own expense (26 September). The Huskisson St. foot subway was completed concurrently with the street subway (14 October).

At last, the GTR finished the subways and all was well. Almost. It was the responsibility of the City to pave the roadway in its new subways, but different City departments had different ideas about who was liable for that work. It was expected that the Board of Works would proceed immediately with the paving (23 October). The Board recognized the something must be done about the "troubles" with the unpaved condition of these roadways but thought that the Street Railway was responsible:

Bed roads in subways (12 Dec. 1911):
The Chairman of the Board of Works claims that the Street Railway management is responsible for the keeping of the roads through the subways in condition. Whoever is responsible should do something to improve matters at once as the roads in both subways are in wretched condition.
I am uncertain who, in the end, paved the subways, or when it was done. It is interesting to note that it was the final layer of paving on the Wyndham St. underpass in 2013 that, by raising the level of the roadway, seems to have precipitated the clearance crunch experienced by some truckers downtown.

Printers of the Edwardian era did not celebrate the new subway on a postcard. However, a good image of the subway can be found in this photograph spectators sending off a troop train at the new station in 1915. Although important to the safe conduct of civic affairs, underpasses do not attract the same sort of attention as churches or bridges, perhaps because they plunge into the ground rather than soaring into the air. So, the appearance of the Huskisson Street subway is registered in only the margins of contemporary postcards. Consider the following pair, taken of the old City Hall square. The first card shows the square shortly before the subway was built.

(From the The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., Ltd. Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.)

Now, have a look at this second card, from a photo taken probably around 1915.

(From the Warwick Bro’s & Rutter, Limited, Printers, Toronto; Courtesy of John Parkyn)

Notice the difference? The retaining wall on the west side of the subway is visible in the latter picture, along with the railing for the foot subway closer to the viewer. Overhead is the new hydro wire strung over the tracks following construction.

The arrival of the railways in Guelph brought many opportunities but also many challenges. The railway connected the city to the rest of the province in a way that the contemporary road system could not. However, it also bisected the downtown core, once defined by the open Market Square designated by John Galt. In so doing, it placed a sometimes dangerous obstacle in path of Guelphites. New technologies, especially concrete and electricity (the foot subway was wired for nighttime illumination in February 1912) made it feasible to address this danger with an underpass. Introducing the solution was not simple, however, because of disputes over control of the design and funding of the structure. As recent experience suggests, the adoption of the truck brought new opportunities and challenges, and those have, once more, touched off similar disputes concerning our centenarian subway.

Here is the underpass in its form before recent renovations:

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