Monday, 22 July 2013

A Trail of Two Cities: the Iron Horse Trail

About a month ago, I promised to research and post an article on the Iron Horse Trail, a historic, former rail line that effectively joins at least two local communities (the twin cities of Kitchener-Waterloo, ON) in Waterloo Region. Although this post is coming later than sooner, my intent is that its message will be favourably received and that it will provoke some thought and discussion with regard to both its heritage past and its future potential.

It would seem that historically speaking, we take a lot for granted. Here in the western hemisphere, ours is a culture of choice and entitlement. I say this for a number of reasons but for the purpose of this blog post, I want to focus primarily on notions of connectivity, travel and collective memory in the local history of Waterloo Region. Perhaps what is most important for this 
inquiry is the “as yet to be determined” impact that these notions can and may have on a community’s perception of its heritage (and, in turn, how it evaluates its heritage).

Photo Courtesy of Waterloo Regional Heritage Foundation
Now, the Iron Horse Trail to which I am referring is not THE Iron Horse Trail (as in, it is AN Iron Horse Trail).....Confused?

Specifically speaking,” Iron Horse Trails” are rail trails that have effectively been abandoned (i.e. are no longer being used as railway lines for trains). From a heritage planning point of view, what I particularly like about these types of trails is that they have been adaptively re-used as recreational trails that often bypass busy urban streets that may be crowded with cars, trucks, buses, etc. (not to mention noise and congestion).  Since most of the early rail lines were effectively built to transect the cityscape and connect it to another using the shortest and most efficient route possible, these trails often pass through green belt areas that connect inner city neighbourhoods to one another, sometimes spanning great distances that may run from one town to the next. These iron horse trails, then, offer users a more pastoral, reflective method of traversing their community—at their own pace that is not guided by speed limits. For some lovely photos (and trail information) posted by Patti Kapron-Weber at 

These trails are most commonly used by hikers, strollers (i.e. people like me who saunter and enjoy the sights while we walk), mountain bikers and depending on the season, skiers and snowmobilers.  In terms of built heritage, the key here is that an iron horse trail is a former (i.e. adaptively re-purposed) rail trail.  In other words, there is an intentional “meaning of place” (a rail line) that has changed in purpose over time. It has been adapted and has a specific, traceable history, over time. This is the foundation of my research and purpose in writing this post—to uncover and share the history, heritage and meaning of the Iron Horse Trail that connects Kitchener-Waterloo, ON before it is altered and becomes something different......

Yes, you read that correctly. 

The Iron Horse Trail is about to change its meaning of place again as the city of Waterloo has sold some of its trail holdings (June 10, 2013) to a developer who will, following an urban planning guideline that focuses on inner city core intensification, construct a new condo building in the uptown core of Waterloo. 761 square metres of the Waterloo portion of the trail that runs between Caroline and Park Streets (just south of Allen Street West) will be diverted for the project.  It should be noted that the city’s intent is that the trail will be reconstructed between a condo building and existing parking garage, about 50 metres south of where it is now. For more information, see: