The former general store©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Although residents might take exception to Proton Station being called a ghost town, this once thriving commercial centre is now little more than a rural backwater. At its height it boasted a hotel, several stores, a couple of small mills, and two churches. Today there are no businesses to speak of and only a small handful of residents.
First settled in the 1850s, Proton Station had its real beginnings around 1872 with the arrival of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway (TGBR), a small, narrow gauge railway running from Toronto to Owen Sound. The little hamlet jumped to life after the railway chose this spot for a small flag station.
Proton Station was a curious choice for a railway stop. Although the land is fairly flat rendering it ideal for track placement, the area is prone to spring flooding which has led to considerable damage and recurring problems over the years.
Religion played a big part in these new settlements. Beginning in the early 1860s, services began taking place in peoples' homes. They had to wait until the mid 1870s, before they got a real church. Built on land donated by Hannah and William Ludlow, the first Knox Presbyterian Church (later Knox United Church) was a small white frame building. It was used for a number of years and then replaced with a more substantial brick structure. Sunday school was packed. There were 170 children and 14 teachers.
The Ludlows figured prominently in the community's growth. Besides the church, they donated land for an Orange Lodge, LOL 244. This lodge relocated from further south along the Saugeen River to Proton Station.
The TGBR was not financially successful. After a couple of ownership changes, it ended up in the hands of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1884. The CPR immediately began the process of converting from narrow gauge to standard. From the very beginning the CPR offered telegraph service in all their stations, followed by telephones around 1910.
There was no post office in Proton Station until 1886. Residents picked up their mail in nearby Inistioge. The closest school was SS No. 2, Proton (the Acheson School), also located in Inistioge.
Eventually a post office, under the name Proton Station, was opened in a new store owned by Frederick Freeman. Freeman, a new arrival from New Brunswick, was a former Methodist minister who took up storekeeping after a leg injury left him moderately disabled. The store was a welcome addition to the small community. It quickly became a popular gathering spot for residents to socialize and chat about the days events.
In those early days, incoming mail was brought in by train, picked up at the station and delivered to the post office. Outgoing mail was handled with somewhat less formality. The mailbag was hung on a pole alongside the track and grabbed by someone on the passing train as it rumbled through. The situation improved after the railway added mail cars.
By the early 1890s, Proton Station had grown into a small industrial community with a population of about 75. The presence of the CPR, with its telegraph office, gave the settlement a major boost. There was a sawmill, run by the Boyd Brothers and two saw and lath mills, run by James Carnochan and the Neilson Brothers. The Neilsons also added three houses to accommodate their workers and opened a small general store. Another important source of employment was the brick works, first owned by William Irwin and the J.C. Wright. It operated until 1932.
Other businesses besides Freeman's store included a hotel, owned by Neil McLean and later William Brignell, Trelford's hardware store, and the Blakely woodworking and Pollock blacksmith shops. Blakely and Pollock frequently pooled their talents to produce a varied assortment of farm products. The community took on added prestige with the opening of a branch of the Bank of Hamilton (later part of CIBC).
In December 1896, plans were put in place for construction of a schoolhouse. It opened in June the following year. The small brick schoolhouse, built at a cost of $700, was built on an acre of land purchased from William Ludlow for $75. Students attended classes in the Presbyterian Church until the school was completed. The Atcheson School in Inistioge closed shortly after that.
Tragedy struck in August 1901 when a CPR engine jumped the track and rolled. A group of men with five teams were in the midst of installing a new siding just as the train approached. Three people were killed and 15 cars smashed to smithereens in the horrific accident. Many that survived barely escaped with their lives.
Freeman, who suffered from ongoing health problems, finally gave up the store and post office 1902. He passed away in 1904 at the age of 52. The post office was taken over by Neil McCannell. McCannell left the area in 1912 but returned in 1923, taking over as postmaster once again until his retirement in 1948. In later years the post office was located in his home.
Another store that left its mark was owned by Herman Becker and later his son, Herman Becker Jr. The big attraction in the Becker store was ice-cream cones, a rare delicacy at the time. Later on the store was purchased by the Dever family, who were big promoters of local produce. They bought from or bartered with local farmers for produce, eggs, and dairy products, which were stored in a large shed with elevators across from the railway tracks. A small spur ran from the main track to the shed so the goods could be easily loaded.
Like Freeman's store many years earlier, the Dever store quickly became a popular community haunt. The Devers were the first to introduce electric lighting in the store. They also owned a radio, said to be the best in the village. On Saturday nights residents would congregate in front of the old potbelly stove listening to Foster Hewitt's broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. If the game ran past closing time, the party would move into the Devers' living quarters behind the store. After the store burnt down in 1933, the Devers set up shop in Neil McCannell's old store.
By the early 1900s, Pollock's and Blakely's shops had been taken over by Alex Hergott, who was both a blacksmith and mechanic by trade. At first he operated a blacksmith shop and built sleighs and wagons. As automobiles became more prevalent, he converted the shop to a garage and installed gas pumps. Buggies, cutters, and later on farm implements, cream separators, and lightning rods could be found in Ted Rutherford's shop.
The brickyards turned out to be an ideal venue for other purposes besides brick making. The large clay holes were always filled with water. After flooding and preparation they provided an excellent surface for a winter ice rink. Skating and hockey quickly became popular winter activities. Matches were arranged between the students at USS No. 15 and the school in Shelburne. Not to be outdone, the girls formed a hardball team around 1917. Although the hockey team was not in an organized league, the team felt up to the challenge when the MacDougall Trophy was being offered. They formed a small league and called themselves "semi-pros" and went on to win the trophy in the 1934-35 season.
In 1915 Proton Station acquired a second church, the Trinity Anglican Church. This handsome red brick building had a tall spire with a bell and stained glass windows in the chancel. The church only lasted until the late 1930s however the building did not remain vacant for long. In 1941 it was purchased by a Wesleyan congregation and under the Reverend Frank Hobbs, one again began holding regular services. Membership in the Orange Lodge got a boost in 1940 after the Inistioge Lodge disbanded. Those that remained moved to the Proton Station lodge.
In January 1947 a decision was made to close the school after the building was deemed to be unsafe. A new site was purchased and construction began on a new schoolhouse. Classes were held in the United Church until the new school opened in January 1948. The new building included modern amenities such as running water and an oil furnace. The school remained in use until centralization of the school system in the mid 1960s.
By the latter half of the 20th century Proton Station, like many other small hamlets, was fading away. In 1971 the Wesleyan congregation closed its doors and moved to a new church building in Dundalk. The United Church followed suit in 1976, merging with the congregation in Dundalk. Both of these buildings were eventually demolished. The Orange Lodge lasted until 1973.
Today a small number of people continue to call Proton Station home. The railway tracks were lifted during the 1980s and the rail bed converted to a recreational trail. The old store still stands along with a number of older homes and a few newer ones. Interestingly one institution that continues to function is the post office, which operates out of the postmaster's home.