View of the John Street Roundhouse from the harbour, Toronto, Circa 1930. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Central Heating Plant, Toronto, Circa 1936, image by William James. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Don Station, Queen Street, September 12, 1910. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.
Roundhouse Park, Toronto, June 25, 2022, Image by Brandon Corazza.
A roundhouse at John Street
The John Street Roundhouse was the heart of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Toronto maintenance facility. Built by the Anglin-Norcross Company in 1929, the complex was in constant use and serviced the Canadian Pacific steam locomotives and railway cars. The complex was the second built on the site by Canadian Pacific. The original roundhouse was destroyed in the 1920s to build a railway viaduct.
The current roundhouse features Canada’s longest twin span turntable. The turntable, which is over 36 metres long, allowed locomotives to easily move from one repair stall or track to another. The John Street Roundhouse was also one of the first in Toronto to use a direct steaming process to move locomotives in or out of the building. The building’s wood sash windows also allowed light to continuously fill the space during the daylight hours, reducing the company’s electricity costs and making it brighter than other Toronto roundhouses.
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The direct steam process
The direct steam process used at the roundhouse was revolutionary for the railroad industry. Most conventional roundhouses at the time used a locomotive’s existing boiler to move it into the building. Since the boiler used coal fires, roundhouses were smoky and hazardous places for employees to work.
Rather than using coal, workers at John Street would empty the locomotive of coal and pump steam directly into the boiler. The pressure in the boiler created the energy to move the locomotives. A nearby heating plant on York Street provided the steam necessary to complete the process. The process was much cleaner than using coal and improved workplace safety for the roundhouse’s employees.
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The roundhouse closes
As locomotive technology advanced, the roundhouse moved towards servicing diesel locomotives. The roundhouse officially closed in 1986. Although designated a national historical site in 1990, the roundhouse buildings fell into disrepair in the 1990s.
In the early 2000s, Steam Whistle Brewing moved into one of the spaces of the former roundhouse: it was the first time the building had seen use in over a decade. In 2009, after extensive renovation, Leon’s Furniture also opened in the former roundhouse complex. At the time, the roundhouse was hailed as one of the best examples of adaptive reuse of a historic building in the city. More recently, other businesses have moved into the roundhouse. In 2019, Toronto Hydro completed the Copeland Transformer Station, located partially under the roundhouse’s former machine shop. Built underground, the station supplies electricity to Toronto’s highly populated downtown core. Following the completion of Copeland Station, the roundhouse’s historic machine shop was reconstructed. Additional landscaping and a rail-themed parkette are planned for the space above the Station in upcoming years.
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New life for Roundhouse Park
In 2001, the City of Toronto issued the Toronto Railway Historical Association a mandate to open a railway museum in the downtown core. After extensive restoration of a portion of the Roundhouse complex, the museum opened in May 2010. The museum also makes use of Roundhouse Park to its north, which features many historic locomotives as well as the relocated Don Station, built in 1896.
The John Street Roundhouse has become a destination for tourists and Torontonians alike. Like at many of the landmarks in Toronto’s rail lands, the roundhouse blends its connection to Toronto’s railroad history with the changing needs of the neighbourhood around it.