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The Little Train Station That Could

by Renka Gesing

The Old Michigan Central Station, Essex, Ontario, built 1887, partially blown up August 10, 1907, fully restored and now operated by Essex Heritage, Inc.

Over the past decade, the Essex Railway Station has the repository for historical documentation of the area’s heritage, and is an ideal location for a cultural centre. The station was built in 1887 by The Michigan Central Railway, although it nearly didn’t make it past 1907. On Saturday August 10, 1907, the station just missed being levelled by explosives which were being shipped by train to Amherstburg for dredging operations on the Detroit River (see The TIMES, Oct. 2003 for the full story).

Thanks to Heritage Essex Inc., which operates the Centre on behalf of the Town, the station will continue to play a very important role in Essex and area history. Heritage Essex Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the history of Essex and area.

The group fundraises 80 percent its budget required to operate the building and for its activities, while the town funds the rest. The group’s major fundraiser is the annual Great Train Lottery, with four vacations valued at $8600 as prizes. First prize was a Rocky Mountain rail trip. The draw was held January 31st.

Their other big event is the “Toy Trains Show” at Essex District High School, February 28-29. This is one of the most popular train shows in southwestern Ontario. In past years, attendance has reached 2,500 over the weekend.

“We operate on a budget of $80,000 and have to raise $60,000,” explains Bill Gay, secretary for the group. “It’s not a problem.” As a result, this not-for-profit organization has its own building, and a staff, which includes station co-ordinator Larry Kirk, promotion/events manager Cheryl Skilton, and site manager John Andary.

Each summer, the group advances the cause of heritage with audiovisual interviews with long-time citizens, or anyone who can contribute. The Centre now has 10 years of interviews feeding a growing historical archive for the benefit of any researcher. Heritage Essex has also catalogued the artifact collection from Essex District High School, the oldest operating secondary school in Windsor and Essex County. In 1985 part of the school’s 100th anniversary celebrations included gathering a collection of artifacts.“They collected a lot of things at that time; at least they know what they’ve got now,” Bill assures.

Heritage Essex Inc. is starting its own collection – cabooses. “We restored the historic Essex Terminal Railway caboose,” explains Bill, “which we bought from the Town of LaSalle.” They also have a 1942 CN caboose donated by MacDonald’s restaurant in Chatham, valued at $50,000.

Essex Heritage Inc. also looks to the future, while preserving the past, and would like to see that future make good use of train transportation.

“CN ripped up 85 miles of railway that could have been used to alleviate cross-border traffic,” says Bill. He feels that the line running past the Essex Station – the only one that connects to the rail tunnel under the Detroit River – could have been used to alleviate cross-border traffic.

“We went to Essex council and got a resolution in favour of maintenance of the line, and were supported only by Tecumseh and St. Thomas,” he adds. “History is showing us the future, but we refuse to listen.”

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