Two new plaques in the Niagara-on-the-Lake dock area outlining the historical significance of the railway lands there stand as a testament to the possibilities of grassroots community efforts.
The dream of River Beach Drive resident Ron Simkus, the plaques explain the importance of the old railroad turntable and the site of the engine house where locomotives were often repaired after being unloaded.
Simkus got the train rolling down the tracks in early 2021 when, during a Committee of the Whole meeting, he outlined his plans to install a set of original railroad ties and some rail track to commemorate the site of the engine house. Until it was torn down in 1926, the facility sat about 200 feet south of the railroad turntable.
The section of rail was acquired last year from Niagara Falls company PGM Rail Services, whose owner, NOTL native Peter Murdza, donated the cost of labour for their delivery. Dock area residents donated some sweat equity of their own during the installation.
His plans, Simkus says, included a bronze plaque for the site as well as another matching plaque for the turntable, where trains would either be turned around by hand to prepare for a return journey, often to Toronto or Buffalo, or sent to the engine house for maintenance.
Simkus funded the plaques himself, and credits fellow dock area residents Pat Hartman, Jim Reynolds, Tony Poulton and historian and author Peter Mulcaster for their contributions to the efforts.
“We went to Queenston Quarry, and Frank Racioppo got on his loader and moved some rocks around,” says Simkus. “He pointed some of them out and said ‘pick one and it’s yours’. So we chose these, and they were shipped to Burlington, where the masons, Bogdan and Jan (Salyk and Vasu of WJB Custom Stonework) flattened them and routed them out so the plaques could be recessed.”
The castings are the work of artist Andrew Chernak of Erie Landmark Company, a division of Paul W. Zimmerman Foundries of Columbia, Pennsylvania. Each plaque sits neatly and flush near ground level on the Queenston limestone rock that houses them.
“These things weigh about 2,000 pounds,” Simkus says. “Niagara Block came down on June 6 in pouring rain and put them into the perfect spots. They did a great job. Chris Brown from Third Stone Masonry in town came by four days later and set the plaques in place.”
Simkus was floored by Chernak’s work on the bas-relief images on both plates. He points out details, such as facial expressions and wrinkles on the workers, the rivets in the bridge and the texture of the exterior walls of the train shed, that he did not expect to see in the finished product.
He also points out that none of the contributors to the project were named on the plaques.
“It does mention that the turntable surface was reclaimed by local residents who cleared the debris and created this garden,” says Simkus. “That was largely Pat Hartman’s work. She’s so excited by this garden, as it gets bigger and more elaborate. She’s on cloud nine now with the plaque.”
Simkus says NOTL parks supervisor JB Hopkins was also a big help in maintaining the lush garden that surrounds the turntable, and is quick to laud town CAO Marnie Cluckie for her support for the project.
“I truly believe in her,” Simkus says of Cluckie. “None of this would have happened without her.”
Between the turntable and the engine house area a short piece of rail has also been installed. Not part of the original plans, Simkus says it’s there to guide those who stop at the turntable toward the engine house site to complete their journey through the historic rail lands.
“We had this left over, so we put it in,” Simkus says. “We wanted to use all the material we had if we could.”
Remarkably, Simkus says there are no existing photographs of either the engine house building or the turntable. The dock area rail lands were most likely considered an industrial area at the time. As such, few would have thought to have taken any pictures due to the expense of photography in the 1800s.
Up next for Simkus and his fellow dock area denizens is a completion of the turntable itself.
“We want to maintain the momentum,” Simkus states. “Marnie has asked for more details on our next steps, and we’re getting those plans together.”
Simkus explains that Hartman found out back in 2016 that the town had in its possession some of the actual base stones from the original turntable that had been moved off-site in 1990 to accommodate sewer and water lines. Simkus walks behind the turntable garden to point out the seven large stones that he hopes will soon be laid along the original footprint of the circle.
“They were quite ruthless back in 1990 in tearing out the turntable,” he laments. “They literally chopped out 45 per cent of the turntable. We’ve actually documented the location of all of the stones and drew a conceptual reconstruction. I’ve sent it all to the archaeologist.”
Simkus hopes to get approval to reset those remaining seven stones into their original places along the circle, and will work with Racioppo to acquire new, smaller stones to complete the 360-degree footprint. That will require breaking away some of the asphalt that currently forms the intersection of River Beach Drive and Turntable Way.
“It will actually be an improvement of the road,” Simkus says, “We’re not narrowing it, we’ll actually be reinforcing it. We can do most of the work to set the smaller stones without a loader, just with shovels. We want to complete the entire ring.”
Simkus says the archaeologist who was consulted on the plans has fully supported the placement of the historic stones on the grass area of the turntable.
The project has thus far set Simkus back approximately $15,000 out of his own pocket, and he estimates the next phase will cost him another $10,000. He hopes to have it all in place some time this fall.
It’s clearly a labour of love for the retired engineer, who is also known for keeping watch over the water levels around Ball’s Beach. But Simkus says he’s not the only one who feels that way.
“The dock area residents really believe in this area,” he says, “and we didn’t do it for recognition.”