The idea of protecting our heritage is a noble one; that we preserve or maintain items of historical significance to our respective areas. We do this as a society to honour that heritage, to remember that key item, or in some cases people, that helped build our community. Whether that is at the local, provincial or national level, all history is important. That is the idea. In fact, we let much of our history decay and deteriorate until the cost is so high to fix it, we get rid of it.
That is why the push by Cornwall city councillor Andre Rivette is disconcerting. Rivette is pushing for the city to dispose of the railroad locomotive on the corner of Ninth Street and Brookdale Avenue. The cost to restore the engine is approximately $100,000, something Rivette believes is a waste of money. If this issue was something of historical significance dealing with Le Village, or a hockey rink, or a monument to failed hockey teams in Cornwall, Rivette’s tune would change.
The problem here though is not about a railroad locomotive, but that of priorities. Cornwall is a historic city, over 200 years old. It is a loyalist town that became an industrial hub, and has changed over the decades into what it is today. To ignore or scrap that history because there is a cost to maintain it is irresponsible. The city sends token amounts of money to the Cornwall Museum and has a committee of the city called Heritage Cornwall. Yet, up until last year, both had to beg at the council table every year like Oliver Twist. Respecting ones history and looking after it should be a line item on the budget. It’s no different than looking after arenas, sidewalks or roads. Not at the same scale, but there should be a commitment to fund history. In fact there was one, but it was scrapped.
Look at the history of the locomotive. It was donated to the city by Canadian National Railways at the request of the city, in the 1960’s. Why? The Cornwall Street Railway Light & Power Company is the predecessor to Cornwall Electric. All that lower that the rest of Ontario electricity that Cornwall residents enjoy, do so because the this company starting. The company played a key role in Cornwall’s industrial development. When CN bought the railroad operations in 1971, the company decided to use diesels instead and removed the wires. Meanwhile the city owned the electricity utility until 1998 when it was sold to Enbridge.
The locomotive was kept on Domtar property until the city moved it to the water treatment plant for display in 1981. It was restored by a retired street railway employee, D.R. Seymour, in the early 1980’s, funded out of his own pocket, and from the chamber of commerce. The locomotive was moved to its present location in 2005 and had a historical designation placed on it in 2006. The only time the city has done anything to the upkeep and maintenance of the site is cut the grass and when the group “World Changers” came to Cornwall in 2007, the city sponsored a repaint. Repainting that was done with the wrong materials.
Had the city done proper maintenance on the locomotive, something the city requested to be donated to them, there would not be a $100,000 price tag now. This is systemic of municipalities. Where deferred maintenance of municipal assets comes back to bite the municipality with a large bill.
While Rivette is quick to suggest the cutters-torch, he fails to understand that there are many ways to have that $100,000 paid that will not cost the taxpayer as much, if anything. Trillium grants, fundraising, even sponsorship subscription. There might even be ways of drawing St. Lawrence College’s trades program into the mix by having students learn skills while the city benefits from the preservation of an important piece of history. A teaching moment if you will.
Furthermore, there are many history buffs and groups that would support such an endeavour. Local companies might even pitch in. So long as there was some leadership from the top to champion it. It is a lot easier to fund $100,000 for saving a piece of history, then say the Benson Center.
Failure to preserve Cornwall’s history means a loss of the heritage and identity of the city. That too is also a teachable moment. Yes, it does cost money to maintain history. As it does for roads, sewers, new municipal works garages or hockey rinks. Those things are important, so is heritage. It is a teachable moment that Councillor Rivette should learn from too.