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“Entrance to Union Station looking north from Laurier Bridge,” 1920s. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Capital History: Ottawa’s Union Station

By Ashley Newall on September 14, 2021

Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has been chronicling outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colourized photos and accompanying factoids. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once a month, a more in-depth piece delving into the stories behind these pics will be published here on Apartment613. 


Alright, let’s put this long-running debate to rest once and for all: it was absolutely the right move to relocate Ottawa’s train station out of the downtown core. There, I said it. It was the right thing to do just for the alleviation of rush hour traffic snarls caused by railway crossings alone, never mind the beautification of the Rideau Canal that also resulted.

As a rail enthusiast, I feel some license to make such an incredibly bold and no doubt highly controversial declaration (er, fifty-five years after the fact), one which some of my fellow rail enthusiasts may find objectionable. It’s a moot point anyways, since there’s now a train to the train, which is to say we can now take the O-Train from the Rideau Centre to the Ottawa Train Station, and what’s more it only takes about 5 minutes. And so, as legendary Ottawa indie band Good2Go so eloquently put it, “Get on, GET ON, get on the Ohhhh-Traaaaiiiin!”

(Full disclosure: I was one of those ubiquitous red-vested O-Train Ambassadors manning the station platforms not so long ago.)

“Central Railway Depot and Corry Block building, Ottawa,” between 1905-1909. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

In all honesty, I’ve wrestled with this dilemma – mightily, one might even say. Mainly because I can’t afford planes, the Greyhound bus was terrible, and I didn’t used to have a car, and so trains were – and still are – my preferred mode of transport. How convenient it would have been to saunter the few blocks from my old Rideau Street apartment and hop on a train to Toronto, Kingston, or Montreal. But no!

Anyhow, they also cited noise pollution plus a great big dirty downtown rail yard as other very reasonable reasons for moving the train station from the downtown core. And so overall, while I may not like it, I get it. End of sermon.

Since this is a photo essay, I (once again) won’t be getting into the finer points regarding the building but will rather (once again) be sticking to the basics.

Ottawa’s Union Station was originally called the Grand Trunk Central Station, and it replaced the Central Railway Depot which opened in 1895. The Central Railway Depot was constructed by Ottawa lumber baron John Rudolphus (J.R.) Booth for his Canada Atlantic Railway. (The main building was pre-existing – Booth’s Canada Atlantic rather converted the building and added the infrastructure.) Construction on the new building began in 1909, and the Grand Trunk Central Station opened on June 1, 1912. On the same day, the Chateau Laurier hotel also opened across the street. (The Chateau Laurier was built at the same time and was designed by the same architectural firm, Ross & MacFarlane (and later, Ross & MacDonald). After the Grand Trunk Railway faltered in 1919, the name was changed to Union Station in 1920. Nowadays, and for a limited time only (while Parliament’s Centre Block undergoes renovations), the former train station is home to the Senate of Canada. And there you have it.

We all know exactly what Union Station looks like, since it’s still there, and so the below colourized photo essay focusses more heavily on the construction plus the inner and outer workings of the iconic building.

And now, without further ado, said photo essay!

“Construction of the Grand Trunk Railway Station,” ca. 1910. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

”G.T.R. (Grand Trunk Railway) Station side view – during construction,” 1911. (Original photo by William Topley from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“The Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ont.,” ca. 1912. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Locks on the Rideau Canal, beside the Chateau Laurier,” ca. 1912. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Chateau Laurier and G.T.R. Station from Bates Warehouses,” 1916. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Entrance to Union Station looking north from Laurier Bridge,” 1920s. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Union Station Departure Hall, bannered for Royal Visit,” 1939. This is the room where the Senate of Canada currently sits. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Union Station showing interior of train sheds, decorated for Royal Visit,” 1939. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Union Station Yards, Ottawa, Ont.,” 1927. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Rideau Street and Union Station,” 1936. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Top of Corry Building” (looking south over train sheds and down tracks), ca. 1938. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

“Rideau Canal East Side. C.N.R. (Canadian National Railway) yard,” 1929. (Original photo and caption from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

The former Union Station is now called The Senate of Canada Building, following a major transformation of the iconic structure in order to house our Senate. The architects of that overhaul just won an International Architecture Award for their design, the award having been presented last Friday, Sept. 10.

The current Ottawa Train Station (ie. the VIA Rail station) opened in 1966 on the outer rim of downtown, on Tremblay Rd, replacing the grandiose downtown version. The “mid-century modern” architectural style of the new building became passé rather quickly, however if you watch as many home reno shows as I do (and there’s a good chance that you do), then you’ll know that ‘mid-mod’ is back in style with a vengeance. (I may be among the first to refer to the design as mid-century modern, but it was designed by a modernist mid-century, so it stands to reason.) Further, the fact that ‘mid-mod’ is back similarly bodes well for all the many other such buildings in O-town.