The meadow developed on the St. Thomas Elevated Park has lessons for the home gardener with a heart for sustainability

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Steam punk style is coming soon to a railway bridge near you.

If fact, the mash-up of technology and aesthetics is already taking shape at the St. Thomas Elevated Park.

A crew of volunteers has been working hard to preserve history and nature and to provide a gathering place.

“I had the idea when the railway abandoned the bridge permanently in 2009-2010,” said Serge Lavoie, president On Track St. Thomas.

Spanning 30 metres above Sunset Drive on the west edge of St. Thomas, the bridge offers panoramic views of Kettle Creek ­valley.

On Track St. Thomas, the volunteer organization that was formed in 1994 to promote the city’s railway heritage, wants to celebrate those views and develop the bridge and surrounding area for recreational use.

“The grand vision is for this to be a trail where you can come and ride your bike or walk all the way to Tilbury,” Lavoie said.

The vision also includes developing an economically and environmentally sustainable park. For home gardeners, that vision may be quite different from how they see their yards. But there are many ways they can be inspired and motivated to change their thinking.

“It’s the idea of working with nature rather than against nature,” said Lavoie. “It’s like creating a backyard meadow, letting so-called weeds grow. It is nature tamed and trimmed so it looks attractive. It may never be conventionally pretty. If you love manicured lawns, you won’t like this. But if you love nature, this will be beautiful.”

The effect of a meadow will be achieved by seeding more than 40 types of wildflowers along the edges of the bridge, between existing railing and new ones designed specifically for safety at the site. All the flowers have been selected to tolerate the harsh climate of hot sun, drought and wind.

Home gardeners take note: plant for your site.

Down the centre will be hiking and biking paths. The bridge is broad because it was built for side-by-side tracks to carry trains travelling on opposite directions.

The group looked at the example of High Line in New York City, where a railbed was scraped down and new soil, plantings, boardwalks and planters were installed. After consultation with Ron ­Koudys, London landscape architect, and Kees Gover, of Ontario Live Roof in Mt. Brydges, they decided to work with the existing soil.

“The bridge has 10 inches of gravel, and was built in sections to support the force of two trains,” said Lavoie. “Each section is like a big pan with its own drainage. We looked at planters, but you need very big planters for trees. There is a lot of soil under the gravel and it’s original.” A locust tree growing alongside of the tracks inspired a solution. It seems to be growing miraculously in the gravel. On closer examination, the roots go through the gravel to the soil below. There will be some planters, but they will be filled with soil from the site, and left bottomless to allow roots to grow down and out.

Using everything from the site has been a priority, a good example for home gardeners. Don’t pull everything out and toss it. Consider creative reuse.

A small access bridge was taken down and the wood ties and steel trusses will be reused. A second small bridge remains and will be a plaza area with benches made from old limestone blocks.

Gravel from the tracks is also being repurposed. A rock scree garden using the gravel was planted along a new ramp. All the soil has been redistributed. “About 50 per cent of the soil is cinders from the steam days. The rest is organic from plants.” The St. Thomas Horticulture Society chose perennials, such as black-eyed Susan, cone flower and sedum, for the scree garden to attract pollinators. Another model for home gardens.

“We’re not too fussy. Many are what would be considered weeds, such as milkweed, in yards, but they are natural to Southwestern Ontario.”

The scree adds to the “industrial age meets nature” look said Lavoie. It may look a “bit scrubby now but next summer it will be really full.”

Lesson for home gardeners: don’t overplant at the beginning. Wait for your plants to mature and fill out.

Another type of garden will harken back to a time when settlers cleared their land. Called a stumpery garden, any fallen trees, and some contributed by city parks crews, will be fashioned into planting beds. It echoes the stumpery garden’s origins, mostly in Britain when steam railways transformed the countryside. As a type of protest against the industrialization, some people took the uprooted trees tossed when the lines were laid, and used them as fences and gardens.

“It’s all part of the aesthetic,” Lavoie said.

Upping the ante on appeal are sculptures by blacksmith artist Scott McKay, of Strong Arm Forge: Mixed Signals at the east end by the ramp, and Fear Not the Wind, a working weather vane on the bridge. He is the fifth generation of his family to be involved in the area. In fact, Mixed Signals casts a shadow on a house built by his ancestors.

“They built a home opposite the tracks,” McKay said. “My great, great, grandfather built it when he came around 1834 with his brother. They started a mercantile business.”

Later relatives established a publishing business, and served as county clerks.

“We have a long history. We’re part of the history of the community. This used to be the downtown before it migrated.”

As the sun hits the red glass in Mixed Signals, it shines as if electronically lit. “It’s the real deal,” said McKay of the glass. “I got it from a guy who was in charge of train signals from Windsor to ­London.”

Kettle Creek Village arose after the War of 1812. Mill Creek and Kettle Creek supplied water and power for a brewery. There is evidence of a black slave Baptist chapel and old aerial shots show the vestige of streets below the bridge. “We’re not just standing on a rail bridge, we’re standing on a village,” Lavoie said.

St. Thomas cropped up on the other side. When the first train engine chugged through in 1871, it was a town of 2,500. “It more than doubled within a year, and kept doubling,” Lavoie said.

Honouring that past, the project is 100 per cent volunteer and community built, a “crowd-sourced park” Lavoie calls it. Cycling tournaments, a skywatch with the Royal Astronomical Society, and On Track’s annual picnic are all planned.

“I hear a lot of stories from people who used to play up there and climb down the ladders when the trains ran. Everybody has a story about trespassing on the bridge when they were a kid.”

Once the park opens Sunday , it will be free to everyone, no trespassing needed. And On Track hopes it will create new stories for new generations.

Janis Wallace is a London writer.

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