Monday, January 26, 2009

scenes from a shuttered 401 service centre

401 Eastbound Tilbury Service Centre (1)
Driving along 401 between Windsor and London is rarely a pleasurable experience. The long, straight drive and flat landscape quickly induce highway hypnosis and leadfootitis. Toss in impatient truckers and seasonal hazards like black ice and the matching sets of service centres at Tilbury and Dutton/West Lorne come as a welcome break to ease one's nerves...

...well, they were a welcome break.

The province is overhauling the service centres along the freeway, many of which date back to the 1960s. While some have been razed and reconstructed in the past decade, such as Ingersoll westbound, others have not seen major renovations since fast food chains moved in back in the 1980s. The problem for any driver passing through southwestern Ontario is that all service centres west of London are either fully closed or have limited facilities (washrooms/telephones). No gas is available, requiring drivers to make significant drives off 401 to find a fill up—signs erected by the province recommend exiting at the west end of Tilbury or waiting until London or Windsor.

Temporary services have been set up at the Tilbury service centres. As the main structures haven't been razed yet, I snapped photos of the eastbound complex, which housed Tim Horton's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Shell gas bar.

401 Eastbound Tilbury Service Centre (2)
The skeletal remains of the Shell gas signs.

401 Eastbound Tilbury Service Centre (3)
The main building. Stops here were rare, as we waited until Dutton or Ingersoll to take a break. One factor that didn't work in Tilbury's favour was its cafeteria. Until fast food chains arrived, a variety of cafeterias reigned along 401. Each oil company either operated their own mini-chain (such as Esso's Voyageur restaurants) or partnered with an existing hospitality company (as was the case with Texaco, who linked up with Scott's, best known for their chicken villas). Tilbury and Dutton had 1867 restaurants, which I only remember for being the butt of family jokes/eye rolls and for almost always being stuck behind the smelliest person in line on the rare occasions we dared to eat at one.

Most early childhood trips along 401 did not involve a trip to a cafeteria. Dad loved to eat outdoors, so we took advantage of the picnic areas adjacent to the service centres and brought our lunch. The fare was sandwiches, cheese, the odd pickle and a jug of lemonade. The government later closed off most of the picnic areas during a round of budget cutbacks but several later sprang back to life.

The only cafeteria I recall eating at regularly was at the Wayfare at the westbound Gulf at West Lorne during trips back from Toronto. That service centre was one of the first to host a major chain (McDonald's) and is currently rubble.

401 Eastbound Tilbury Service Centre (5)

401 Eastbound Tilbury Service Centre (6)
The current extent of services, reopened in August. I failed to summon up the courage to check out the state of the temporary facilities, which I imagined to be the Three Bears of public restrooms. - JB

UPDATE: Link to a postcard of one of the Texaco/Scott's service centres. If it's slated to go, I'll miss seeing the dome at Ingersoll (referred to as "Woodstock" on the postcard).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The one time I was down this road 401 westbound. I remember seeing a building that had a tall sloped roof with black/brown shingles. It was either a McDonalds or some kind of restaurant. It resembled the old 400 King City service centre - except that it wasn't orange. It was an old design and had block letters on the roof. I have not been able to figure out where that was. I'm pretty sure it was on the eastbound side of the road though.

This was in summer of 2003 and the place was somewhere between Cambridge and Chatham-Kent.

I suspect it's long gone now, but it's strange that I can't find head nor hair to show of its existence. None of the service centres that were refurbished at any of the major locations seemed to have this elusive structure on them previously.

I would almost think I imagined it, but I definitely know I didn't.

A very nice article too. I love the quaint designs with the spaceships, log cabins and wacky stuff along the 401 and 400. I regret to say I didn't appreciate them when I was younger and that they are now passed into history.

We here in Durham Region had the last surviving 1867 log cabin. It was abandoned for almost 25 years and unfortunately development, vandals, and the ravages of time finally caught up to it and it was demolished sometime between July 2013 and August 2014. It can be seen on Ontario Abandoned Places as "401 truck stop".