Komoka Railway Museum Opens
by Lorene C. Waugh
(July 1986 – with minor revisions by J. Kanakos in April 1991)
Komoka is a small village of approximately 1100 people, located just west of London. Since the very earliest beginnings of the railroad system in southwestern Ontario, the railroad has played a very important role in the development and growth of the community. At one time, it was thought that the coming of the railroad would make Komoka a thriving major city in the area, even bigger than London. As a result of this, speculation was rampant and land prices rose alarmingly. Because of the greed of a few, many new settlers were scared off and it became cheaper to settle in nearby London. Komoka grew for a few years but progress slowed drastically and London became the major city of the area, while Komoka remained just a small railroad settlement.
The history of Komoka revolves around the railroads. The community contains the junction of the Windsor and Sarnia branches of the CNR from Toronto, while the CPR Windsor-Toronto line slices through its northern end.
The first railroad through Komoka was the Great Western Railroad (GWR) which opened for traffic in 1854. It took 7 years to build the GWR line from Niagara Falls to Windsor. On March 27, 1856, the Sarnia branch was opened (after 1882, the GWR was merged into the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada). It is interesting to note that the railway fare from Komoka to London in 1857 was 37 1/2 cents.
Employment opportunities abounded during the days of railroad construction. Men were hired for the actual construction and when operation commenced, new opportunities arose. Cordwood had to be cut and stockpiled for the steam engines. Land on the south and north sides of the Windsor tracks was cleared and used for this purpose. Much of the labour was done by black railway workers who stacked the cut wood in piles near the water tanks located at the junction. At one time the repair shops of the Great Western Railroad were located in Komoka and a small roundhouse was built for the accommodation of locomotives running on the Sarnia branch – Komoka being the terminal. These shops gave employment to a number of men and those were the days of promise for Komoka.
When the CPR line from London to Windsor was under construction in 1881, tracks were laid across Main Street in the north end of the community and a small station was erected. This modest facility was replaced in 1890 by a 10-room structure. The last CPR station was demolished in 1969 following the cessation of passenger service to the village.
The Komoka area abounds the finest running springs to be found anywhere and the quantity of water which comes from them daily would supply a very large city. Indeed, the city of London draws much of its water from the Komoka wells. From some of these springs, the trains were supplied with fresh drinking water each day. One area resident, George Blanchard, used to fill no less than 40 five-gallon jugs wrapped with reed containers amd then meet the trains at the CNR station every morning and afternoon where the jugs were loaded on the dining cars on the Montreal-Chicago run. It has been reported that he received the sum of 25 cents for each jug of water he supplied.
For a long time, mail was delivered daily on the trains. A man was contracted to meet the 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. trains to handle it. If he failed to fulfill his daily assignment, he was subject to a $10.00 fine.
The community has also witnessed several serious railway accidents. On December 29, 1886, six persons were injured in a serious incident. In 1874, tragedy struck again in an accident killing eight people and injuring twelve others when an oil lamp set a train on fire. On September 2, 1914, Lehigh Valley train #4 – running over the Grand Trunk Line from Sarnia – met a GTR freight head-on at the crossing of the Windsor and Sarnia lines and a score of passengers were injured. On a more current basis, 34 cars of a 102 car westbound CP freight were derailed on June 9, 1980. Fire broke out and several families had to be evacuated. The most recent incident took place on June 7, 1986 when 2 diesels and 7 cars of a CNR train were derailed near the CN/CP diamond crossing just to the west of the village.
The CNR served the Komoka area with an express service in transporting goods and materials for the two main industries – Master Feeds Grain Elevators and McCutcheon Lumber (the latter operation is now closed).
The first station in the community was built in 1858 by the Great Western Railroad on the south side of the line to Windsor and was situated on the site of the present siding to Master Feeds. It was a large building, measuring 29 feet by 32 feet and boasted sleeping and living accommodations on its second floor. On its west side was a large waiting room with a big potbelly stove in the centre and benches along three walls. On the east side was a storage area to store wood and coal for heating it. The facility remained in use until the 1940’s when it was sold and a smaller, single storey, three room station was brought from Gobles, east of Woodstock, as a replacement. This rather modest structure measured 12 feet by 45 feet and served Komoka until it was closed in 1974.
A few railroad buffs – urged by Ron Davis, a former CN express agent who also happens to be our local historian – decided that this piece of Komoka history had to be saved. With the help of a few friends, Ron formed the Komoka Railway Committee and in 1977 arranged for the purchase of the station for the token fee of one dollar. It was then moved to Komoka Park.
To date, much renovation work has been done inside and outside the station and many railroad artifacts have been collected for display purposes. Most of the labour has been volunteered and many hours have gone into the project. The semaphore tower has been erected outside and an old jigger now rests on the rails on the front lawn. This artifact is a great hit with the kids. Horseshoe pits were soon constructed and visitors can now participate in an activity once indulged in by the railway crews after working their fourteen hour shifts.
On Canada Day, July 1, 1986, The Komoka Railway Museum was officially opened. On hand to help out with the opening ceremonies was Senator Charlie Turner, a former railroader from the London area. Great plans are in the offing for future renovations and additions, more displays, and perhaps even a locomotive and some railcars to sit alongside the museum. Lastest projects include the restoration of a 1913 “Shay” logging locomotive and construction of a pole barn for its protection. As well, the museum has acquired a pre-1939 Canadian National baggage car that will soon be on display.
Komoka’s railroad history is alive and thriving in the small village and the museum will be a lasting heritage of an important part of Canada’s history and progress.