Railways were a powerful modernizing force in building the Canada we know today. In addition to connecting the country in a transportation and communication network, railways were central to Canadian life and social development. After Confederation in 1867, many political leaders lobbied for a railway “from sea to sea” to help unite the remaining British-controlled territory in North America. It would take nearly 20 years for that dream to be realized.
The YMCA movement came to Canada earlier, in 1851, with a mission of service for communities and individuals. As railway construction expanded, the YMCA saw a strong need to support railway workers, who worked physically demanding, often dangerous, isolated jobs. Many were separated from their families and had few options other than visiting saloons during their leisure hours.
Railway YMCA – East Toronto, 1900
Railway YMCA – Field BC
By the late 1870s YMCAs were holding Sunday gatherings at railway stations, called “Railroad Gospel Meetings.” In 1897 the first permanent Railway YMCA opened in Toronto. It included a dormitory, baths and a restaurant, as well as a small gym and outdoor space for recreation. Railway YMCAs soon began popping up across the country, providing a “home away from home” for railway workers. Services included everything from first aid (a clear sign of how hazardous railway work could be) and instruction in diesel engineering to table games and concerts to discussion groups and literacy programs.
Many Railway YMCAs served their local communities in addition to railway workers, particularly in remote communities. In some cases residents could access the various programs offered to the railway workers; often it was recreational pursuits like community dances or swim programs or bridge groups that held wide appeal.
Railway YMCA – Mimico-New Toronto
Railway YMCA – Niagara Falls, c1965
In the 20th century, Canada’s Railway YMCAs closed one by one as the need for them declined. Construction of the railway was long complete, and improved technology meant that trains required fewer stops for refueling and service. Communities were also expanding and modernizing in the post-Second World War economy, giving residents more options for recreation. The last Railway YMCA, in Moncton, closed in the early 1990s. Much like the railway itself, each Railway YMCA served a unique and important purpose in the development of the Canada we celebrate today.
Canada’s Railway YMCAs
- BC: Cranbrook, Field, Revelstoke
- AB: Calgary
- ON: Algoma, Allandale (Barrie), Belleville, Carpreol, Cartier, Chapleau, East Toronto, Fort Erie, Hornepayne, Ignace, Kenora, New Toronto (Mimico), Niagara Falls, Port Huron, St. Thomas, Sarnia, Schreiber, Sioux Lookout, Stratford, Toronto Spadina, White River
- PQ: Montreal, St. Henri, Pointe St. Charles
- NB: Moncton