Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Right Side of the Tracks

"Watch the curves, the fills and tunnels
Never falter, never quail
Keep your hand upon the throttle
And your eye upon the rail." ~Life's Railway to Heaven
Have you ever heard the expression “growing up on the wrong side of the tracks”? I never could make sense of that saying. To me, there is no such thing as the wrong side of the tracks; both sides are equally wonderful.
Tracks leading to White River
I grew up in northern Ontario; in a tiny, whistle-stop town called White River, where life was simple and everyone knew everyone else. We spent thirteen years in the “big gray house” on the corner of Winnipeg and Monck, which means the greater part of my childhood was spent living “on the tracks.” Our house was directly across the road from approximately 9 tracks and just up the street from the station. Trains were perhaps the most faithful things in my childhood; winter or summer, rain or shine, snow or fog, you could always count on those big engines roaring by.
As a child, I spent hours in my parents’ bedroom with its two big windows that overlooked the tracks. The steady routine of the railway does become part of you after a few years, and I soon learned to recognize the various trains, trucks, and signals like the back of my hand.
This photo was taken from my parents' bedroom window; you can see how close we were!
The train always blew its horn for the Road 500 crossing just behind the sawmill, about two miles from our house. Those lonely whistles were both my lullaby and my alarm clock, the first thing I heard in the morning and the last thing I heard at night. I remember one evening, though, when something went wrong with one of the train horns. When the engineer sounded the horn before the crossing, I believe the switch must have gotten stuck in the “on” position, because it kept sounding one long, continuous blast for the entire time it took for the train to travel the two miles from the sawmill until it passed our house, and up until the engine came to a stop at the far end of town. Needless to say, we were nearly deafened!
Check out this video of a great train horn!
As a child, the trains fascinated me. If I was out playing in the yard, I stopped everything to wave at the engineer when those engines rolled through town. Often, I was rewarded by a hand fluttering in greeting from the cab, and often a short blast of the horn. Then, I would lean on the fence and watch those railcars lazily rocking through town, heading west or east to all sorts of places. Apparently I also became a familiar sight to the men who made their living driving the big locomotives. I’ll never forget walking with my parents alongside the tracks one day when we stopped to wave to a VIA passenger train going by. To our astonishment, the two-car train slowed down and came to a halt right in front of us. The engineer poked his head out the doorway and hollered to me, “Are you the little girl who always waves to the trains?” When I replied in the affirmative, he shouted back, “Come on down to the station sometime when we’re there, and we’d be happy to take you for a ride!” Sadly, we never took him up on that offer. I’ve regretted that ever since.
Watching the trains was always an interesting pastime; you just never knew what would go by. Besides the ordinary mix of grain cars, tankers, flatbeds, boxcars, vehicle decks, and loads of hydro poles (like those above), some trains consisted entirely of loads of metal rails, stretching from car to car the entire length of the train. One day an old-fashioned steam engine passed through, on its way to a museum somewhere out west. Another day a circus train went by. I always liked to see the “army trains”; trains carrying army equipment. Flatbeds were filled with tanks, army jeeps, and lorries of all shapes and sizes.
Of course, the most fun part of daily rail life was watching the “machines” go by. All sorts of yellow equipment for doing everything one could imagine to the tracks; building, repairing, maintaining, and plenty more that I know nothing about. They came rolling quickly, heading from one worksite to another and making various hums, roars, and funny honks as they passed by. Sometimes a crew would set up in front of the house and stay there for a while; they could have a track practically taken apart and pieced back together in a matter of hours.
Some of the sights were pretty odd, like this smiling outhouse going for a ride! I guess he was a welcome sight wherever he went, hence the smiley face!
Sometimes when a snowstorm blew up, the machines had to be shoveled out before they could leave. It wasn’t unusual to see an army of workers wielding shovels walking along the tracks to free some piece of equipment or another.
I spent a lot of time at this station. I remember as a little girl, walking hand-in-hand with my father down that very platform to watch the trains come in. We could always hear the grumble of the engine long before we saw it. We would keep watching, and finally a cloud of black smoke would roll above the trees and the engine (or engines, sometimes as many as nine or more) would come huffing into view. The ground would shudder, and the noise of the train would increase to a deafening pitch. We’d have to scream to be heard as the airbrakes were applied with an ear-splitting shriek. Then the locomotive would glide by mere feet away, shaking the ground until I didn’t know what was vibrating more, the ground or my legs! Finally, the train would slow down and come to a rumbling, snorting stop.
Since our house was just opposite the railway, we became accustomed to noise at all hours. It was especially difficult during the sweltering summer nights when all the windows were thrown open, and a freighter would snarl past at 4:00 a.m. Or sometimes, a train that was parked quietly would suddenly start off with a crash and a clang loud enough to wake the dead. I remember one time when a freighter, for some reason, got delayed and parked its engine directly in front of our house. I’m not sure why it was necessary for the motor to keep running the entire time it was parked, but needless, to say, after three days of hissing and clicking we were nearly insane!
On a typical day, upwards of twenty trains could go by. Sometimes there were more and sometimes less, depending on circumstances. If there happened to be a derailment somewhere along the line, we might have seven or eight trains parked on the sidings, only keeping the main line clear. I can only remember a few times when the trains stopped running; for instance, during the forest fire of ’99 when half the town was evacuated. The trains didn’t run for more than a week, but the town was miraculously saved by a wind that blew steadily from the south for a full week, keeping the flames away from the community. (A real miracle, considering that our winds almost always blew from the north!) I can also remember a few blizzards that stopped the lines for a couple of days. Other than that, they stayed on schedule.
During the summer, the air would be filled with the scent of melting tar and rust from the rails and ties baking in the heat. Shimmering heat waves would dance over the tracks, and you could see wildflowers poking up between the ties. Crows and ravens would hop along the lines, eating grain that was spilled from the grain cars. Occasionally, a grain car would develop a “leak” of sorts, and then you could see the tracks dotted with small golden heaps of wheat. I remember my father bringing home a bucketful of barley grains he had collected while walking home from work (A rail worker gave him permission, since the grain would have rotted anyway). I liked nothing better than to slip into my fathers’ dark shed and run my fingers through those icy-cold, dusty grains. We planted some that year, and my mother made dried-flower arrangements with the stalks that grew.
Check out this video of a rail grinder like the ones that passed in front of our house!
My favorite summer occurrence was the passing of the “grinder train” (Rail Grinder). I could always hear it approaching, not only because of its higher-pitched “nasal” horn, but also because of the buzz-saw-like sound of the grinders. I always loved to watch the smoke-enveloped rail grinder go back and forth in front of the house, with sparks shooting from below and a steady stream of water pouring over the rails to prevent fires. Even in the evening, when it was too dark to see, the grinder would continue to work with the orange sparks lighting up the night.
Canadian Pacific Holiday Train
In the winter, you could always count on the snowplows running through, flinging plumes of snow (and often rocks) in the air. We were always thankful that no rocks ever came through our windows; some of them came pretty close!
And then, of course there was the “Big Event”: the Canadian Pacific Railway Holiday Train. We just called it the “Christmas Train.” It came every year around Christmastime, raising money for the local food banks. The whole town would gather near the station, bundled up against the 30-below weather. The air would be filled with talking and laughing, then someone would shout, “Here it comes!” and the Holiday Train would come sweeping through the darkness, ablaze with over 100,000 lights. As a young child, it was usually too cold to stay for the entire outdoor concert performed from one of the boxcars, but the best was yet to come anyway… when the concert was over and the crowds had gone home, the train would slowly pull a little ways away from the station and park directly in front of our house for the night. Mom and I would scurry upstairs and poke our heads through the window into the breathlessly cold air and admire the train sitting silently on the tracks, with its lights twinkling and flashing and soft Christmas music coming from its speakers. If you squinted through the whirling snowflakes, you could sometimes see Santa Clause walking through one of the antique cars, on his way to bed.
Check out this video of the Christmas Train passing through Illinois!
There are lot of things I miss about my childhood; growing up in a time of innocence, in a safe little town where a kid could be kid, and where life was slow and as lazy as the freighters that rumbled by. I’m still young by most people’s standards, but sometimes I feel like the years are flying past like a passenger train on the run, and I miss the “old days.” Now that I live in Newfoundland, where there isn’t a train on the island, I find myself longing to be woken up by one of those loud diesel engines once again. Every so often I imagine that I hear that lonely, far-off whistle, and then I get a little lost in nostalgia and promise myself, “One day, I’ll be back.” And until then, I’ll say a prayer for the folks that ride the rails from coast to coast. Drive safely, rail warriors, and when you see a little child standing alongside the tracks, wave and blow your horn, because you might give wings (or wheels) to a dream.


  1. I loved this post. I, too, grew up near railroad tracks. Trains would pass my house all through the night, and I never realized it until I moved away and couldn't sleep because they were no longer there.

    You've brought back so many childhood memories I'd long forgotten: running alongside a speeding train with my friends close behind, placing coins on the tracks (the first time because we'd heard you could derail a train with a nickel, afterward because we liked having the squished coins...they were an art form unto themselves, and every one was unique), walking up and down the track searching for uprooted hand-made spikes and, later, riding my bike up and down them (never with a "banana" seat - that hurt!). Crossing them to get to the sand quarry on the other side, where we would sift through mountains of sand looking for "sand dollars."

    I remember when I was around 10-years-old my father taking me to a train yard, where the conductor put one of those engineer's caps on my head and let me "drive" the train a short distance! I had a picture of me in the engineer's seat, but it disappeared years ago.

    Thanks for bringing these memories back to me. What a lovely post! :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your memories! I remember those big metal spikes as well... our old house was made with 10 in. square bridge timbers fastened together with those spikes. It was a solid house, that's for sure... over 100 years old and not a sag to be found.

  3. I've never heard of a house being put together with railroad spikes, but I can certainly understand why it's still standing...those things were made to last!