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Freeman Station: The little train station that almost wasn’t becomes the little train station that could

There’s a saying in political circles: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” When the motive is community building, crisis becomes opportunity.

There’s no question that three years ago, the Freeman Station was in crisis. There’s also no doubting that the community has stepped up to turn this crisis into an opportunity to preserve Burlington’s train heritage for future generations.

Freeman Station BurlingtonThe Freeman Station, formerly the Burlington Junction Station of the Grand Trunk Railway, was constructed in 1906 and is considered a fine example of buildings of that era. It has been recognized for its architectural and historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Heritage Burlington.

The latest chapter in this inspiring story of hope and perseverance came last week with the sod turning ceremony in preparation to move the station from the Burlington Fire Department property to adjacent vacant land owned by Ashland/Hercules on Fairview Street. It’s been quite a journey to get to this day.

Saving the station from the wrecking ball

In the 1990s, the city of Burlington acquired the station from a private owner who had no further use and was planning to demolish it. Residents rallied, forming the Save Our Station group, to raise money and urge preservation. The station was saved and relocated to the Burlington Fire Department property on Fairview, which was intended as a temporary relocation until the future of the station was determined.

However, by 2010, city council could not agree on a location or use for the station, and the clock was ticking. One million dollars in combined federal, provincial and city money was at risk due to a fast-approaching deadline, and the station itself was at risk of further deterioration or demolition by neglect. A formal Request for Proposals for a private owner or community group to take over the station didn’t attract compliant bids; community groups couldn’t meet the requirement for liability insurance.

The station’s demise seemed imminent, with staff sending a report to council early in 2011 seeking permission to demolish. As soon as the report became public, my phone and email filled with residents – many of them part of the original Save Our Station group – urging me to do something, anything, to stop the wrecking ball.

Forming Friends of Freeman Station

With Ashland reps, Freeman president at sod turning
With Ashland reps, Freeman president at sod turning

To buy time, Councillor Blair Lancaster and I worked together to bring a motion to council to defer the demolition in order to allow a community group to form that would find a location and use. Council agreed, and the Friends of Freeman Station was born.

Under the wise advice of heritage advocate the late Jane Irwin, the Friends sought incorporation through the Ontario Historical Society. Special thanks to Rob Levertyof the OHS for guiding us through this process, and to George Curran for submitting the incorporation papers. I wrote a personal cheque for $450 for the incorporation fees. Jane and Les Armstrong, another long-standing heritage advocate in the community, agreed to serve as co-chairs on that first board, both their bringing their experience and stature. Pam Freeman Wilkinson, a member of the Freeman family for whom the station is named, joined the board as secretary. Special thanks also to continuing board members and active volunteers, including James Smith (president);Ron Danielsen, Brian AasgaardReg CookeJay BrownAllan Harrington,Sarah ThomsonJacquie Gardner, and John Mellow.

These folks along with dozens of other volunteers stepped up. Everyone had a role and they played it with enthusiasm.

Donations roll in

Once incorporated, the Friends sought charitable status so it could issue charitable receipts for donations of cash, goods or services. Thanks again to George Curran for successfully guiding us through that in record time.

Even before charitable status was obtained, fundraising had begun, with community members giving their time and money to protect the future of the station. In just six months, $30,000 was raised. Special thanks to Don and Wendy Smith of Smith Funeral Homes, and Rob and Laura Freeman and the entire Freeman family for their generosity in donating $5000 each. Their early and substantial donations inspired others to give. The City of Burlington redirected the money it would have spent on demolition to the relocation/restoration project (roughly $20,000-$30,000); the city also secured $25,000 in community benefits dedicated to Freeman Station, in exchange for height and density on the Molinaro Group project on Brock Street.

More recently, thanks to the Burlington Historical Society for their pledge to match donations of its members up to $5000.

You can donate

Fundraising continues. Residents can “move” the station 6 inches for $20; buy a T-shirt for $25; buy a framed William Biddle print of the station for $225; buy an annual membership for $10, or contribute any other amount. Donation information is available online here.

Donations can also be made to honour the late Jane Irwin, by giving in her name. More information is available here.

Local organizations have also been incredibly generous with donations of goods or services, including architecture, planning and engineering services, soil testing, and more. Special thanks to the following groups for their contributions to this effort:
Ashland CorporationBranthaven HomesThe Biddle GalleryBurlington Auto WorksCity of BurlingtonCogeco Cable  Systems; Focus EnvironmentalKing Paving and MaterialsMillington Associates Planning ConsultantsThe Molinaro GroupPhillip H Carter, ArchitectMorrison HershfieldRFB ConstructionSWD HostingTamarack LumberUtter Morris Insurance BrokersMcCulloch Building MovingSoil Mat; and Mackay Mackay &  Peters  Land Surveyors.

Thanks also to Cogeco CableThe Burlington PostBurlingtonBeat and Our Burlington for ongoing coverage & publication of Freeman events and milestones.

Long term vision: Beachway Park

The move to Ashland/Hercules land facing Fairview, just east of where the station sits now, will allow work to begin on the restoration and preservation of the station, to avoid further deterioration due to weather.

Many thanks to Ashland for stepping up to offer this space.

The long term vision is to eventually relocate the station to Beachway Park, perhaps near the historic Pump House, or elsewhere in the Beach area. There was an old CN rail track through the beach, where the bike path is currently, so moving the station nearby fits with the rail history of the Beach. A review of the Master Plan for Beachway Park is currently underway, and representatives of Friends of Freeman Station have attended those public meetings and advocated for the relocation of Freeman Station to the Beach as part of the long term vision for the park.

Members of the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee of city hall (now the Burlington Waterfront Committee) have also advocated for the relocation of Freeman Station to the beach as a way to enhance this unique waterfront area.

For more information visit the Freeman Station website or follow them on Twitter @FreemanStation or Facebook.

My Take: There have been bumps on the road to reach this significant milestone in the relocation and restoration of Freeman Station, and many wondered if it was ever really going to happen. But the people mentioned here and many more took a leap of faith and stepped up with hope and optimism that if we worked at it together, it would happen. And it has. Freeman Station will be preserved for future generations to see and enjoy, and learn about Burlington’s early rail history.

With Pam (Freeman) & Al Wilkinson at Freeman Stn.
With Pam (Freeman) & Al Wilkinson at Freeman Stn.

It’s been an honour to join in these efforts. Watching the community come together over the years, culminating in yet another milestone – the sod turning event last week – represented one of my proudest days serving the community as councillor. Your resilience, creativity and perseverance in the face of daunting odds inspires me and propels me forward to continue to hope and dream for great things for our city. Thank you all!

Your view: Where would you like to see Freeman Station located? Do you support the long-term vision for it to go in Beachway Park area? Leave a comment online below.

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

One Comment

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  1. Seems a natural solution to move it over near the Canal bridge. Why not make it a tourism/Burlington ‘history’ kiosk? One consideration is ‘moisture’ & elemental impact. As a wood structure it will not last ‘forever’.

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