Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Stratford’s renowned park system – with approximately 100 acres of groomed parkland, more per capita than any city in Canada – would not exist if not for the residents who fought to stop a proposal that would have destroyed much of the land along the Avon River.
In 1904, the Canadian Pacific Railroad presented a proposal to the city and its parks board to place a new track through part of the park system in order to complete the already established Grand Trunk Railway. The route as proposed ran along the south shore of the river from what is today the Old Grove to Romeo Street.
For seven years the politicians and people of the city debated whether to sell the land – for $10,000 – to the CPR. The issue divided the community; the mayor and several businessmen were in favour in hopes of increasing commerce, while those in opposition formed groups like The Board of Park Management and The Citizens Committee to try to save the parkland.
After several delays and debates, city council called for a public vote, and on March 10, 1913 the controversial plan was defeated.
“It’s really a proud moment to be able to stand here and celebrate a victory of 100 years ago,” said Rick Orr, chair of the city’s parks board, at a ceremony Sunday commemorating the centennial of the historic plebiscite.
“Were it not for the 1,044 opposed to the motion, imagine where you would be standing today. Imagine the city you would be in and the scenery that we would have.”
Orr is the fourth generation in his family to serve on the parks board, and said he is proud to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather R Thomas Orr, who was a life-long member of the parks board and famously led the charge to save the land along the river.
“I think he would find it very appropriate that we are standing today in a vibrant park system exactly how he planned,” Orr noted.
The residents of Stratford showed courage saying no to the CPR and turning down a new rail line, added Coun. Brad Beatty, noting, “today we stand here and are grateful for their foresight, and for their vision of what our city parks could be.”
Beatty said the park system not only contributes to the quality of life of its residents, but has been globally recognized as another reason to visit Stratford.
“This is something we can all be proud of, because it makes Stratford special.”
To recognize what Orr described as a “momentous decision” in the city’s history, the parks board unveiled a plaque with a synopsis of the park system’s history and an old photograph of the river and boathouse that was commonly used in materials by the CPR’s opponents during those contentious years.
The plaque was fittingly placed near the cenotaph – a local landmark designed by Thomas Orr – offering a similar northerly view from that in the photograph.