After humble beginnings and nearly 20 years in operation, the Iron Horse Festival has grown to become one of south-western Ontario’s largest street festivals and one of the largest annual events in St. Thomas.
The Iron Horse Festival began in 1994, when a group of individuals, business leaders, community groups and government established an organization named On Track. Its goal was to create a tourism industry based upon the area’s railway heritage. It was suggested that a community festival would be an ideal way to bring the public to St Thomas. On Track wanted to combine the elements of a street festival with a focus on railway heritage.
The festival was put together as an event that would be similar to the old St. Thomas Shivaree, (an event held in the early 1970s). Then Mayor Steve Peters suggested the name Iron Horse Festival to coincide with On Track’s railway theme, and thus the Festival was born.
The challenge was to try to combine the already established events into the Festival celebrations while not losing the events’ identity and audience. The ﬁrst organizing meetings took place in the old Michigan Central Locomotive Repair Shops. In the beginning, the organizing committee focused on bringing together events and groups to create the essential ingredients for the ﬁrst festival.
Events from the ﬁrst year included: a family midway, rib-fest, street busker entertainment, car show, golf tournament, hand car races and pancake breakfast. Most have stood the test of time, have grown more popular with each passing year, and remain part of the festivities today.
The ﬁrst two years saw the Festival take place in many locations throughout the city and over ten days. The third and fourth years saw the festival gradually move all of the events to the downtown area. Combining all of the events into the closed street area gave the festival focus and excitement.
During these years several new events were tried that began to bring local, as well as regional media acclaim, and event sponsorship. In 1996 “World’s Largest Line Dance” event, in 1997, the ﬁrst annual outdoor concerts, and the ﬁrst bi-annual “Kelly Miller Circus” are just a few of the exciting events that have drawn the people in. Several annual On Track activities (railway heritage coin sales, and the railway mural paintings and dedications) were combined with the Festival, to provide the public with an even stronger connection to a piece of our past.
Like any new enterprise, especially one run by volunteers, the ﬁrst few years were a struggle. Though the event seemed to impress the public, it was not well promoted. Fortunately, more and more sponsors came on board each year, and the crowds grew. The Iron Horse Festival was featured on CBC’s Newsworld in 1998, when CBC checked out the leading festivals in the country. In 1998, blessed with great weather, more organizations participating, increased fundraising initiatives, and a lot of help from friends at CBC, the event enjoyed the most critically and ﬁnancially successful year to date.