The Annapolis Royal train station: Gateway to the wilds of the Maritimes
By Matt LaForge
For ten years the Annapolis Royal train station sat vacant in the centre of town, boarded up, severely flooded, mold infested and utterly neglected.
Annapolis Royal is a tiny 400-year-old coastal town in southwestern Nova Scotia that claims the highest concentration of heritage buildings in Canada. That a structure with a fascinating story to tell and an eye-catching physical form to flaunt could sit neglected smack dab in the middle of Annapolis was considered by the locals to be incongruous at best and egregious at worst.
It wasn’t until Jane Nicholson, a native of Dartmouth and current resident of Annapolis Royal, adopted the cause that the town’s frustration found a coherent and constructive voice. “This station was a place where lives had began, where lives had ended, where folks had gone off to war and to their honeymoons,” Nicholson says. “It was a huge part of the social network of the town for almost 80 years and to see it abandoned and going to rot for so long — it hurt people.”
A recently retired public-relations professional, Nicholson has resided in Annapolis Royal for part of every year since 1980, when she married her husband, a local. By the early part of this decade she stood witness to the rapid deterioration of the local train station. From the functional, if somewhat marginalized, hub of daily activity it was in the early 1980s to the desolate hulk it quickly became after closing in 1992, following severe curtailment of funding to VIA Rail at the hands of Brian Mulroney’s government. In 2002, after ten years of wondering aloud to her neighbors “when the hell was someone going to do something with that train station,” Nicholson began to pursue the idea of purchasing and restoring it herself. She had no experience to speak of in commercial real estate. As to any financial motivations, she says, “I approached this project as a philanthropist, not a speculator, and because — between you and me — I’m a terrible romantic when it comes to buildings.”
After borrowing a key from town hall, Nicholson walked in the station’s front door one day in the summer of 2002 to discover an accumulation of rancid flood water that filled the basement up to the main floor joists. (The building sits on low-lying marshland, which, more than anything else, had deterred potential buyers.) Emboldened where others might easily have been discouraged, Nicholson obtained permission to install a sump pump in the basement and void the station of the pungent water. She performed the task at regular intervals during the following two years while she patiently worked to finalize her acquisition of the building from Canadian Pacific.
In the meantime, Nicholson assembled the locally-based crew that would eventually perform 95 per cent of the subsequent restoration. As befits a town with a heritage building on every corner, Annapolis Royal boasts a disproportionately large community of architects, contractors and craftspeople. “This isn’t a tourist trap or a pastiche,” Nicholson says. “It’s what we like to call a real town.”
It was also during this protracted run-up that Nicholson immersed herself in the history of the station and the stately backwater railway it had served.
Prior to recent developments, the Canadian Pacific Railroad company was the stations only owner, and for that matter, the only occupant, the Annapolis Royal train station had ever known. It had been a jewel of the CP’s old Dominion Atlantic line, which had served as the first link between Halifax, on the eastern Atlantic coast, and Yarmouth, at the peninsula’s westernmost edge. In the years preceding automobiles and highways, Dominion Atlantic trains were what transported pleasure-seeking city- and town-dwellers from various points east through the untamed “wilds” of Nova Scotia. The passengers were often en route to or from any of the dozen or so steamship ferries crisscrossing both the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine.
The Dominion Atlantic was also a critical line of regional transport during both world wars.
Conceived by Canadian Pacific as a strategically important component of its pre-WWI marketing plan, the Annapolis Royal station was intended to be what Nicholson calls a “destination station,” hence its central location within town. CP’s chief railway architect designed the station in 1912 and it was constructed, with no expenses spared, during the winter of 1913-1914 to be a reflection of the inviting beauty of its natural surroundings.
Accordingly, the station’s Arts and Crafts-inspired architecture and premium exterior building materials — namely brick walls, slate roof, and granite corbels — constituted a bold, almost decadent, departure from the modestly utilitarian wood construction of most stations along the Dominion Atlantic line. Inside the main waiting room flourishes such as the oak trim, slate molding, crystal chandeliers and the brass grille above the ticket window contributed further to the station’s designation as “fancy” — a tourist attraction unto itself.
“It makes people happy when things are beautiful, but I also truly believe buildings are like people. They want to be useful, they want to be beautiful and they want to be respected, even if they are old,” Nicholson says. Her painstaking and not-at-all-glamorous restoration process finally received a green light in the early summer of 2005.
Work began in June with the removal of a three-foot-deep cache of sludge (the sediment of the pumped-out flood water) and continued at full-speed for an entire year, ending with final tweaks to the interior in July of 2006.
“By the end, nearly everything was restored: the oak work, the burlap wall-covering, the slate molding, the station master’s oak desk; all of it was salvaged, refurbished and re-installed,” Nicholson recalls proudly. In fact, she says, apart from plumbing, heating and electrical, only the floor joists, birch floorboards and a handful of interior elements had to replaced or outsourced. The interior design, which for the most part had remained as originally constructed throughout the station’s life, was also kept intact. The only major change was the addition of a door to the old luggage room and the conversion of one of the two original bathrooms into a kitchen, changes intended to make the space more conducive to its current capacity as office. Throughout the restoration, the encroaching flood waters continued to make their presence felt. Facilitating proper drainage was the single biggest expense and the most frequent problem. “Thirty-thousand on French drains,” is how Nicholson sums it up.
On June 11, 2006, with the project close to completion, Nicholson held an open house that drew over 200 people (the permanent population of Annapolis Royal is listed at 444 residents). Nicholson tells the story of one elderly lady approaching her with tears in her eyes. “She put her hand and on my arm and said, ‘You don’t know me, but you’ve given me back my childhood.’ And then she burst into tears and walked away. I had to go outside for a minute and collect myself after that one.”
Shortly afterward, Stephen Hawboldt, executive director of the Clean Annapolis River Project, approached Nicholson about the possibility of his group moving in as tenants. An ecological conservation group whose purview includes the Annapolis River and its watershed — not to mention the very marshlands that had caused Nicholson so much trouble — the CARP was a perfect fit. They’ve been working out of the train station for over a year now. “Part of the subtext of us occupying a building like this is that it links natural history with cultural history,” Hawboldt says, “inasmuch as respect for one entails respect for the other.”
“It’s ironic — when we used to be in a strip mall, we got almost no walk-in traffic. Here at the station, I’d say we’ve had ten people wander in this morning alone,” Hawboldt goes on. “From Jane’s point of view, having us here makes her project something of a quasi-public space. If it had become a doctor’s office, you wouldn’t feel like coming in and having a look around, whereas, with us here, people come in, sign the guestbook and take time to admire what Jane’s done.”
Jane Nicholson has already purchased another neglected property, a 180-year-old house near the town hospital, and is excited about doing it all over again. “My husband and I are going to have to be old people in this town, so it’s about doing anything we can do to help out and keep the place beautiful.”