On the right track: St. Thomas Elevated Park is open and thriving
Towering 30 metres above the Kettle Creek Valley and taking in expansive views of the Ontario countryside, the newly opened St. Thomas Elevated Park, which is built on an old railway bridge, is the only trail of its kind in Canada.
However, the park might not have been developed without a TCT-supported engineering study at the beginning of the last decade.
In the past, the bridge carried the Michigan Central Railroad through St. Thomas, which was once a major depot for several North American rail firms and lines. However, the bridge had been abandoned since the mid-1990s.
The drive to rehabilitate the bridge was the brainchild of Serge Lavoie, who first pitched the idea of saving it from dereliction. With support from TCT, he carried out an engineering study to determine if it was suitable for redevelopment as a recreational trail.
A greenway for St. Thomas
When the engineering study found the trestle could be converted to greenway, Serge’s idea started to become a lot more ambitious.
Inspired by New York City’s High Line Linear Park and the Coulée Verte in Paris, he set out to create a non-motorized elevated park, which would replace the roadway section of the Trail in St. Thomas.
“Before then, The Great Trail in St. Thomas was in a really awkward place along a nearby roadway. People would have had to walk one kilometre along a busy roadway with no shoulder,” Serge says.
“An elevated park would make the Trail more attractive for people,” he adds.
To bring his idea to life, he reformed On Track St. Thomas, a non-profit community organization that had saved historic railway infrastructure from demolition in the past.
New hope for the community
At first, not everyone believed in Serge’s dream. The community was in the throes of economic uncertainty, and many were skeptical about the potential benefits of trail.
“In 2012, the city’s population would have been 36,000 and we had lost 4,000 manufacturing jobs. That was a huge blow to the community,” Serge recalls.
Serge and On Track St. Thomas knew that a trail wouldn’t solve all of their neighbours’ worries. Nevertheless, they believed that it would give new hope for the future by rejuvenating part of the city’s thriving past.
Thanks to local fundraising efforts, On Track St. Thomas bought the bridge – not only to create the park, but also to protect it from possible demolition.
“We thought that if we didn’t save it, someone would buy it for scrap value, strip it and we would be left with the concrete pillars,” Serge says. “It would have been a reminder for everyone in St. Thomas that our city had seen better days.”
With the growing determination of local volunteers, work began on the bridge. Local artists donated sculptures and artworks, which were installed along the bridge while development was in progress. According to Serge, the new artworks sparked community interest and helped “to get the conversation going” among residents.
As momentum grew, local companies came on board and offered to donate their time and money towards the project. Their help led to the addition of benches, safety railings, wheelchair-accessible ramps and landscaped gardens.
Regular picnics and events on finished sections of the bridge helped to both raise funds and to allow residents to experience the potential of the elevated park for themselves.
By the time the elevated park officially opened in September 2019, it had a special place in the heart of the community. Over 1,500 people attended the opening, and Serge estimates that 200 to 300 people use it every day.
It’s also making waves nationally, and has already featured in the travel section of the Toronto Star.
A path to the future
In the years since that first engineering study, St. Thomas has benefitted from another booming industry – railway tourism. The city’s former train station now houses its tourism office, which welcomes guests who come for rich railway history, natural beauty and outdoor pursuits. Today, the elevated park is “another jewel in the crown” of the city’s offerings, says Serge.
Serge is excited about what the future will bring for the Trail in their community, and credits TCT for supporting the engineering study that made it possible.
“We needed a proof of concept. We needed to prove that it was solid. We also needed proof that it was an important heritage site. That engineering study was critical,” he says.
“TCT essentially made the whole thing possible. If they had not supported the engineering study, it would have been impossible.”
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