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Roundhouse ‘Round the Clock

Black and white vintage aerial photograph showing a roundhouse building and railway tracks. There is a highway in the background and two rectangular buildings in the foreground.

An aerial view of the CPR John Street Roundhouse complex in the mid-1970s.

In the middle of downtown Toronto, a strange small building stands among skyscrapers. This is the John Street Roundhouse, home of the Toronto Railway Museum. A roundhouse is a building used by railway companies for cleaning and maintaining locomotives (the engine of a train). This roundhouse was built between 1929 and 1931 by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), one of the largest railway companies in Canada. The roundhouse has stalls for 32 locomotives. When they arrived at the roundhouse, the locomotives were moved onto a big turntable. This turntable would spin to position the locomotives towards the correct stall.

Modern colour aerial photograph showing a roundhouse building and railway tracks. There is a highway at the top of the photo and many rail cars and small buildings around the roundhouse. There is a park to the left of the roundhouse.

An aerial view of the John Street Roundhouse, c. 2008.

At the roundhouse, the engineer inspected the locomotives for any damage. The roundhouse foreman talked with the engineer about repairs. The foreman then told the workers to make the repairs and wrote a report about the train’s condition.

Black and white architectural drawing of railway facilities. There is a roundhouse in the bottom left corner and several railway tracks and buildings. A box labeled “Union Station” is drawn in the upper right corner.

An architectural drawing of the John Street Roundhouse complex, 1931.


The workers of the John Street Roundhouse had many different jobs. They included machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, electricians, pipefitters, oilers, and wipers. Up to 150 people worked in this facility, 24 hours a day. It was after finishing repairs that the John Street Roundhouse set itself apart. The wipers were known for their polishing skills that were used when they cleaned the engines. They earned the nickname “John Street polish” for the way they treated the locomotives.

For over 30 years the roundhouse serviced CPR steam locomotives. The company retired the last of its steam-powered locomotives in 1960. After that, John Street continued to service CPR and VIA Rail diesel-powered locomotives. In 1986, CPR decided to close the facility as they moved their maintenance work outside the city. They donated the facility to the City of Toronto for use as a railway museum.

Colour painting of the cityscape shows many small buildings in the foreground. There is a roundhouse and railway tracks in the centre of the painting. The background shows the cityscape with taller skyscrapers including the Royal York Hotel.

Cityscape of Toronto featuring the John Street Roundhouse and the Royal York Hotel, c. 1930.

In 1997, the area around the John Street Roundhouse became Roundhouse Park. By this time, only the water tower, coal tower, and the John Street Roundhouse survived. In 2010, it became the home of the Toronto Railway Museum. The museum features a small railway ride and outdoor exhibits. We are proud that the John Street Roundhouse was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. This designation was given because the John Street Roundhouse is the best surviving example of a roundhouse in Canada.