All Aboard! Bancroft's station still brings people together after all these years
I should have worn practical shoes. Don Koppin takes my hand to help me as I awkwardly climb up the dusty little ladder, clutching my camera, and step into the raised doorway of the Bancroft Train Station. The entrance is a foot and a half higher than it was the last time I visited. Just a few months ago, hydraulics lifted the entire century-old structure off the ground, inch by inch, to make room for a full basement where before there was only crawl space.
Still in the process of being renovated and restored, the station won't be open to the public until early 2013. Don has agreed to take time out of his busy day to give me a sneak peek of the station's interior. As Construction Manager of the Bancroft Train Station Restoration Project he knows the building intimately.
Everyone's busy in August. Bancroft, celebrated for its arts, and known world-wide as the mineral capital of Canada, is a tourism hot spot, and August is high season. Events like the Rockhound Gemboree bring thousands of visitors, turning the downtown into a bustling hive. Families stroll along the sidewalks, enjoying ice cream and window shopping. The streets fill with backed up traffic. But no one seems to mind the grid lock. Car windows are down: letting the warmth of the day gently breeze in, and letting tunes from the local radio station tumble out onto the street. It's the height of summer. The blackflies are long gone. School's out. The sky - an idyllic infinity of blue, broken only by the occasional billowy white cloud - looks as though it has been photoshopped. Even in the middle of downtown the air is fresh and smells faintly of flowers. People can't help but smile.
Visitors walk easy. Shoulders relaxed. This is where they come to embrace summer vacation, spending lazy days at the cottage, and warm evenings on pub-patios or catching a live show at the theatre or outdoor band shell. But the locals are in full gear. You ask anyone how their summer is going, and you get the same friendly but hurried response. “Busy.” And they mean it.
Yet, when I ask for a tour of the train station, Don makes time for me. Kim Browne, General Manager of the Chamber of Commerce returns my phone call immediately. Chris Drost, the Station Restoration Project Coordinator meets me for coffee. And Chamber board member and station PR rep Greg Webb finds a few minutes, somewhere in his packed agenda, to answer questions via e-mail. And they all do it for the same reason. Steady, unwavering dedication to the town, its history and its culture.
Once home to the Chamber of Commerce, art gallery, mineral museum, and visitor's centre, the Bancroft Station has sat vacant since it was condemned in 2006 due to structural problems caused by dry rot. Situated just a couple blocks west of downtown, steps from the York River, its dark windows were a constant stinging reminder of loss to community members who drove or walked past its closed doors each day. After four years of ongoing grassroots attempts to finance the station's restoration, volunteer efforts finally culminated in a successful grant application to Heritage Canada's Legacy Fund, and the station's restoration became the town's official 150th anniversary project. Everyone was on board.
“In 2010, around the same time we were completing our North Hastings Cultural mapping, a number of community minded individuals came together to talk about how we could take a more positive approach to achieving goals in the community, by concentrating less on what we don’t have, and more on what we already have and can build on,” says Chris Drost. She explains how residents were unrelenting in their dedication to save the station from demolition.
“We had been reading about ABCD, Asset Based Community Development, using existing assets: physical assets, people assets, organization and institutional assets, and the connections between them... We reached out to others with the areas of expertise we did not have, and to others with the connections to organizations that would help drive the project. We included municipal representation, people with organizational skills, grant writing skills, construction, design, connections to the mineral community and three representatives from the Bancroft and District Chamber of Commerce, the organization that agreed to take the lead for the project. The Municipality, unable to financially afford to restore the building itself, was able to provide the property towards the project, which in turn was used to leverage funds from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. This political decision made the project possible.”
Once that happened, and the grant application was accepted, the project was in full force. Everyone got involved. Fundraisers were organized, along with work bees at which volunteers of all ages worked side by side. Some people had read about upcoming work bees in the paper, others just happened to be walking by and stopped to join in.
“People play a very important role in an ambitious project such as this one,” says Chris. “Countless hours of work go into making something like this happen.”
Don shows me the station's new layout and construction, and how it has been married to the original features, such as the supporting walls, mouldings, wainscotting, and beautiful tin ceiling. As he speaks about the restoration, it is obvious he, and the whole restoration team, have a deep respect for the building and its history.
In the basement, he points up to the unfinished ceiling where we can see the new joists supporting the main floor. They have been designed with the weight of mineral display cases and groups of tourists and students in mind. They are built to support whatever may come, and they are built to last. They replace wooden joists that bolstered the weight of the station for over a hundred years. Joists that supported the building that supported the town.
When the station was built at the turn of the century, it changed everything. It put Bancroft on the map, so to speak, as a hub - a junction of the Central Ontario Railroad, and the former Irondale, Bancroft and Ottawa Railroad. It made the transport of supplies, farm equipment and livestock possible. It supported the mineral and lumber industries that allowed the town to flourish. It brought together families.
Saying life was hard in Bancroft in the early days before the station, is accurate, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. Life was exhausting. Heartbreaking. Isolating. Settlers romancing land claims had to clear the rugged terrain and build homes without machinery; sustain themselves with whatever they could grow, hunt or barter; endure the long cold winters, as well as illness and injury, without electricity or running water. Many farms were abandoned in those early years - too swampy or rocky to support the settlers. Irish immigrants, at first passionate and determined, grew thin, weary, and many were eventually defeated by the land. They cut their losses and left. The Old Hastings Road became known as 'the trail of broken dreams.'
Those that stayed managed to eek out a meagre living. Medical fees and taxes were paid in chickens rather than dollars. Even those considered 'well off' were just getting by. Their bellies were full, but their pocketbooks were hollow. And they were malnourished.
“They just didn't grow as tall as they should have. They ate a lot of potatoes, but vegetables and fruits weren't readily available,” says Maggie Shannick, Assistant Curator of the Bancroft Heritage Museum. “They probably ate a lot of moose meat, which is filling but not very nutritious.”
The museum, just steps away from the Station, is a heritage building and the structure itself reveals the settlers' malnutrition. One of the young tour guides demonstrates. She stands in a doorway. It is barely high enough to accommodate her. Anyone taller has to duck to fit through.
“The people were small,” says Maggie, “even the men.” She shows me a tiny pair of aged vintage gloves. Surely they were for a child. “No,” she says.
Upstairs, in one of the display rooms, she shows me vintage clothes from the late 1800's and early 1900's. They, like the other relics in the museum, have mostly been donated. We laugh for a moment at a pair of crotchless long underwear. But of course they were practical for settlers who had to pee in the middle of a cold winter's night. Like the gloves, the underwear are noticeably small. Maggie lets me touch the material. It is utilitarian and rough. Looking around the room, I am suddenly struck by two pieces of needlework hanging on the wall. On the first, embroidered flowers are accompanied by the words, I slept and dreamed life was beauty. On the second, the same detailed flowers are joined by, I awoke and found life was duty.
I ask Maggie about the needlework. She knows they're at least a hundred years old, but she doesn't know who made them. Likely someone used to know, but the people who remember the early days of Bancroft, who have stories of the railroad and the station are dying off.
Maggie is kind enough to pull out old framed photographs of the town, including one of a crowd of people standing outside the station, waiting for the arrival of the very first train to Bancroft. She takes it out of the frame and lets me photograph it with my Canon DSLR. It is marked November 2, 1900. Later I am able to use photo software to enhance and zoom in on the image. Little details I didn't notice before emerge. A trumpet tucked under a tall man's arm. A bemused expression on a young boy. A proud lifted chin and smiling face under a fancy hat.
By 1975 many of the mining operations along the rail line were long gone, and the communities that once flourished were dwindling. The rail line, and stations, were closed. Suddenly isolated from other centres, many of the small communities along the tracks became ghost towns. Bancroft carried on though, and through community support, the station was renovated. No longer a transport centre, it evolved into a cultural hub, housing the chamber, art gallery and mineral museum. In the 1980's it was restored, and again the community rallied around the station in 1995, when fire ravaged the building. Volunteers worked together to save art from the gallery. Decade after decade the community has rallied around the Station, protecting it, honouring its place in the town's collective heart. The tradition of the community embracing the station is just as historically significant as the station itself.
When the old floor joists were removed, the crew was careful not to damage them, and they will still have a place in the restored station, which will once again house the Chamber of Commerce, a tourism office, and a state of the art Mineral Museum, as well as offices on the upper level, and community and educational facilities, including a board room, in the basement. The old floor joists are being repurposed into a custom made board-room table, as well as a wall of honour, with plaques of gratitude and distinction for the many donors that made the train station's restoration possible.
When the station doors reopen in spring 2013, it will certainly be to fanfare. Despite the construction and fundraising that still need to be done to complete the project, plans for a celebration are already in the works. Maybe like that November day in 1900, someone will bring a trumpet. Surely there will be proud expressions and smiles. There may even be a fancy hat or two. Over the years much has changed. And much has stayed the same. Once an industrial mining and lumber town, Bancroft is now a quaint tourism destination. It's station once brimming with hurried business people and travellers, will again be open, once again bringing people together, as it has throughout its well-loved history