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Jul. 31, 2021 | Saturday
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Residents push town to restore historic train repair pit in dock district
Ron Simkus stands atop the old train repair pit down by the NOTL docks. (Evan Saunders)

Niagara-on-the-Lake is on track to restore a piece of railway history in the heritage dock area.

Resident Ron Simkus, together with PGM Rail Services of Niagara Falls, wants to rebuild a historic section of railroad track known as the repair pit, which was decommissioned in 1926.

After several delays by town staff and councillors, the project is finally seeing the finish line.

It likely would be the only rail remnant in town, which has a mighty history as an important railway centre, says Simkus.

“The community, led by Ron, is looking at bringing back a little bit of our heritage to the dock area. I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero told The Lake Report in May.

Simkus, together with volunteers from PGM Rail Services, are offering their labour free to get the project done. PGM Rail Services is even donating the rail for installation, an authentic rail dating from 1900.

“All it’s going to cost me is a few beers and hamburgers,” Simkus said in an interview.

But the threat of bureaucratic delays loomed over the project.

“For some reason, we have to keep updating the plan because we can never implement it,” Disero said.

During a municipal heritage committee meeting on June 8, Kevin Turcotte, manager of parks and recreation, recommended the project be delayed until the fall so the town could gather public opinion.

This led to some specific fears for Simkus.

He felt “we need to move very quickly, because PGM are very generous and are supplying all the material and labour for nothing,” Simkus said.

He was worried they would lose the donation.

Simkus rallied residents to voice their opinions on the plan directly to town council. By June 21, the town had received over 90 emails from 124 residents supporting the proposal.

“There has been a fair amount of community support through those many emails,” chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie told council.

Councillors approved Simkus’ proposal but added the condition that archeological assessments be done site before the work is implemented.

That was no problem for Simkus.

“I knew there was an obligation regarding archeology. Bring it on, we’ll do it,” he said.

The dock master plan aims to create a waterfront heritage trail starting in the dock area and extending west along the waterfront. A costly repair of the old railway turntable is part of this plan.

The turntable is a massive circular rotating platform north of the repair pit near the shore of Lake Ontario. Much of its original outline can still be viewed.

Trains would come down to the dock area along the west bank and park on the turntable. The engine would be detached from the cargo and parked on the turntable, which would then be rotated so the engine could back into the repair pit.

The repair pit itself was part of a larger structure called the Engine House.

The rail pit itself functioned much like a modern-day grease pit in a mechanic's shop. The area immediately underneath was dug out so engineers could service the locomotive. Because the dock area is a heritage site, Simkus doesn't want to dig out the original pit.

The repair pit won’t be returned to its original working condition, but the original rail ties will be reinserted into slots in the concrete walls and the authentic rail will be put in place on top.

The long-standing mystery of what the repair pit really was didn’t get solved until Simkus called in professionals from PGM.

“When the guys from PGM got here they said, ‘Oh, the rail ties go here and the track goes over here.’ They brought out a couple of old photographs and they looked at it and quickly said it was an 85-pound rail,” he said.

Once the original purpose of the repair pit was revealed, Simkus began putting together a plan to showcase it in a meaningful way.

“I asked them if they had any vintage rails and they said, 'Oh yeah.' ”

PGM, a railway salvage company, works with railway companies to salvage old sites and equipment, and has done restoration work for historic sites in Ontario.

"People at PGM are quite keen on collaborating with us here to do a historic sight that they would be proud of and more local to them," Simkus told councillors during a presentation in May.

PGM Rail Services owner Peter Murdza used to live in NOTL and he wants to give back to the community, Simkus said.

As of now the tracks will be a stand-alone installation on top of the repair pit. But the project leaves room for future restoration of the turntable and dock area.

Since PGM and Simkus will be spearheading the operation, costs and work for the town will be limited to oversight, saving NOTL taxpayer dollars for other projects.

The town will be there to “ensure that whatever is put in place is safe for people and that whatever gets done matches up with our plan for the dock area,” Disero said.

But it is not pure altruism for Simkus; he has an admittedly personal reason for taking on the project.

“I’ve got two granddaughters now and I would love to be able to say to them in five years, ‘Do you know who did this?’ Being able to have my grandkids say, ‘Grandpa had a big part in this’ means a lot to me.”

Digging on the sight will be limited to the removal of a few bucketfuls of soil to make space for the ties to be installed, Simkus said.

The retired mining engineer said he frequently is asked why he’s taking on these projects.

“And I say, 'We’re all COVID sick. I don’t want to hear any more statistics about case counts. I want to hear about something good. We’re not dead yet.'”

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