How St. Marys Earned the Nickname of Stonetown

Discover the fascinating story behind this Ontario town's unique architecture—a feature that earned it a starring role in TV's Murdoch Mysteries.

Stonetown St Marys Ontario StreetscapeRoger Simmons

The Origins of “Stonetown”

Welcome to historic St. Marys, Ontario, which was first incorporated as a town in 1863. The area at the junction of the Thames River and Trout Creek sits on a bed of limestone that was easily quarried to be used as a building product. Because of its prolific use, the moniker Stonetown became the town’s nickname. Many of the original limestone structures such as the courthouse, some churches, and the opera house still stand today, making the downtown area a walking tour through history. I fell in love with this quaint city more than 40 years ago when I first visited. I am always in awe when I discover little details that I somehow missed before. While doing a bit of research recently, I discovered that the current Via Rail station that was built in 1907 is actually the third station in St. Marys and not the second as I had previously believed.

Stonetown - St. Marys Ontario Train StationRoger Simmons
St. Marys Via Rail station as viewed while looking towards the water tower at Queen Street and James Street South.

All Aboard for St. Marys

The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was built through the town in 1858, with the original station located 1½ kilometres north of town at the junction of the GTR north/south line from London and the western branch towards Sarnia, which was constructed in 1859. The second station was opened in 1879, approximately 400 metres south of where the current station sits, on the other side of the water tower. Citizen complaints about that location forced the GTR to rethink and move the station to its present-day location.

Grand Trunk Railway Trestle Bridge - St. Marys OntarioRoger Simmons
The original Grand Trunk Railway trestle bridge with its impressive limestone pillars.

A Trail With a View

The Grand Trunk Trestle Bridge makes for a spectacular backdrop in one of the town’s beautiful parks areas. I have used it in more than a couple of my family portrait photo sessions. Its limestone pillars, which have been standing since 1858, are a tribute to the longevity of the material as well as the engineering skills of the people of the day. The bridge was closed to train traffic in 1989 and purchased by the town in the mid 1990s to be converted into a walking trail. The views from the top are amazing.

Discover more historical landmarks every Canadian needs to visit.

Murdoch Mysteries Location Filming in St. MarysRoger Simmons
Actors and extras rehearsing for a background scene, which will be filmed from across the street.

Stonetown in the Spotlight

Thanks to its historic buildings and photogenic backdrops, St. Marys is a regular filming location for the cast and crew of several movies and television shows. It takes very little work for producers to recreate perfect scenes that replicate life and times from the late 1880s to early 1910s. One such television production is the series Murdoch Mysteries. I quite enjoy photographing the film crews and actors as they create 100-year-old scenes in modern-day towns. When viewed after all the editing is done and the production is ready for television or the big screen, you might totally forget about the modern-day hustle and bustle that seemed to continue all around them. Watching the camera crews and directors work with the actors and extras while ignoring throngs of looky-loos pressing for a better view gives me new respect for the stress they must experience while working in a public space.

Water Street in Stonetown - Murdoch MysteriesRoger Simmons
Water Street being readied for filming an episode of Murdoch Mysteries.

One of the episodes of Murdoch Mysteries I had the opportunity to photograph seemed to be set around 1909 or so—they used the current train station as one of their backdrops. Most of the action in that episode was actually supposed to have occurred in St. Marys, which is unusual. Mostly the series films in small locations but presents itself as early 1900s Toronto. Filming for another episode took place behind the opera house and the armouries buildings, which at one time was the White Star Flour Mill.

Filming Murdoch Mysteries in St. Marys OntarioRoger Simmons
St. Marys’ modern-day Water Street is being transformed to resemble the 1900s, while actors work on a final take of this episode’s murder scene!

I captured these images while they were filming an episode featuring a Toronto cop moonlighting as a taxi driver who becomes involved with a drunk fare, and both witness a murder. Six months after the film crews and actors had left town, everyone got the chance to view that episode on television. The transformation from witnessing the filming of it right here in Stonetown, to viewing the episode on TV was mind blowing to say the least.

Most of my affection for the town of St. Marys stems from the love that residents both old and new bestow on newcomers and visitors. It’s impossible to walk down the street without getting a wave or a friendly greeting from passers-by. Shop and restaurant staff are friendly and as helpful as can be. This love for the town and its people has also been expressed by many of the behind-the-scenes crews, actors and directors of Murdoch Mysteries as well as other movies that have been created here.

If you are ever in the area and wish to catch a glimpse of the past with heritage scenery and friendly hosts who continue to be as wonderful as their predecessors, prepare to spend a day or two visiting and exploring Stonetown. It will be well worth your time.

Next, check out more Murdoch Mysteries filming locations.

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Originally Published in Our Canada