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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Early look at classic railway town that Chapleau became by Ian Macdonald


East wall of CPR depot

Here is Part Two of Ian Macdonald's fascinating look into the early years of Chapleau buildings built by the Canadian Pacific Railway when it arrived at the community and it was established as a divisional point. Ian, who worked for the CPR, and attended Chapleau Public and Chapleau High schools, is retired professor of architecture and professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Thanks so much Ian.  MJM
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By Ian Macdonald
The first generation of CPR buildings shared similar characteristics regardless of whether the building was a depot, boarding house, two storey houses or a bungalow. The east fa├žade of the original Chapleau CPR depot illustrates these distinctive architectural features. The station was painted many different colours during 24 years of service. The diagram indicates the final paint scheme before the building was relocated to Monk Street.
Cottage Row 1st Chapleau buildings 1886 CP Corp Archives
The first buildings in Chapleau consisted of a boarding house eventually called “The Pig’s Ear” and six housing units which together became known as ” Cottage Row”. These buildings ranging from a three storey boarding house to single storey bungalows all incorporated the same wood frame construction method, exterior wood siding and distinctive features of the T-1 depots including double hung windows, gable end trusses and window canopies. They were, like the CPR depot, also built on similar types of concrete surface foundations to avoid the cost and time involved in building full basements.
South side of Birch Pig's Ear behind V Crichton collection
Most people would probably expect new buildings to face a street. The buildings on Cottage Row for some odd reason were built facing south towards an open field and the new CPR round house while turning their backs and backyard fences on to Birch Street, which was to become Chapleau’s main street. The result of this was that the south side of Birch Street was lined wth fences extending from Young Street all the way to where the Fox theatre was eventually built. 
This unfortunate condition would last for the next fifty years and may account for the fact that most of the early photographs and post cards of Chapleau’s main street were always of the north side. The Algoma Dairy began to make things right when it was built facing Birch Street on the site of the Pig’s Ear in 1939. Smith and Chapple continued to correct the original planning sin when they expanded their department store to the south side of Birch Street in the 1950’s, and also faced the street.
Standard CPR duplex. Rob Collings collection
Following construction of Cottage Row, the CPR erected a number of standard duplex houses on Monk Street and Pine Street. A second group of duplex houses were built on Monk Street in 1913 that were similar to the originals with the exception of the addition of a front porch. 
These homes were built in the same resourceful manner as other CPR buildings of the era and, although providing adequate living space, were found to be drafty and uncomfortable by most of the occupants. Similar houses of this type were built and still exist in Schreiber and White River.
Chapleau YMCA. G. Collins collection
The last of the first generation of CPR buildings and their distinctive features was the Chapleau Railiroad Y built on Lorne Street in 1908 a few hundred feet from the last bungalow on Cottage Row. The “Y” was a three-storey timber framed building with the distinctive CPR gable end over the main entrance verandah.
The architectural expression of a building is often associated with its social role in the community. This is certainly the case with the Chapleau Y. The social role is described best in the CPR Bulletin of April 1924 as follows: 
“ The value of the organization cannot be fully appreciated by other than those who know its workings.  The engineers and trainmen, after driving through the snow and cold, find an open fire, a good meal and cheerful companionship awaiting them at the end of a journey. They can enjoy practically all the comforts of a home and the satisfaction which this gives them, and the general effect it has on the morale and well-being of the employees generally amply compensates the Company for its rather heavy expenditures.”  
It is therefore not an accident that the Railroad “Y” has many of the characteristics associated with the traditional idea of home. This begins with a carefully manicured front lawn and fence, rambling front porch, a traditional pitched roof, dramatic chalet style roof overhangs and the ever-present distinctive CPR gable ends. These features had mostly disappeared in the latter years of the Chapleau Y but can be seen in many of the early photographs and post cards.

The enduring lesson taken away from the first generation of CPR buildings is that the CPR in those early days had no alternative but to seek solutions that were innovative, cost-effective and functional to get a near-impossible job done. There was no alternative but to yield to the demands of uncompromising climatic and geographical conditions and make maximum use of local materials and common labour skills. This produced a different kind of architecture that was the polar opposite of the fussy and self-indulgent Victorian architecture of the day. This honesty and lack of pretentiousness, however, made it distinctive, important, uniquely Canadian and in some respects ahead of its time. This was then the early look of the classic railway town that Chapleau was to become.

My email is mj.morris@live.ca

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet

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