I walked the tracks yesterday . When I was a teenager, I often walked the tracks, sometimes stepping from railway tie to railway tie, sometimes balancing on the steel rails, sometimes standing at the side of the tracks as a train rumbled past. Canada had a railway system in those days. It was that railway system that joined Canadians from coast to coast.
I had a sense of pride about the railways because my grandfather worked for The Great Northern Railway at the roundhouse in Winnipeg.
As a child, I’d ridden the train with my parents. There was train service twice a day in summer, once a day during the rest of the year. One unforgettable time when my father was taking me to Winnipeg because I had a bad ear infection (no antibiotics in those days), we missed the train. It was pulling out as we got to the top of Centre and the highway. My father, who had stopped to talk to various people as we walked to the station, ran over to a taxi (yes, Gimli had taxis in those days. The war was on and Gimli had lots of single air force men who hired taxis.) and shouted “Catch that train.”
Highway nine was gravel, rutted, we bounced about in the back seat as the taxi driver did his best to get to the Winnipeg Beach before the train. It was like being in a movie. The taxi driver hunched over his steering wheel. My father with his head out the window yelling “Faster. Faster.” There were no seat belts in those days, the gravel surface of the road and the ruts meant slipping and sliding sideways, bouncing up and down. “Faster. Faster,” my father yelled.
I remember the moment we passed the train. We screeched to a halt at the Winnipeg Beach stop. My father said I’ll pay you when I get back, grabbed me and bounded onto the platform. My father hoped my mother wouldn’t hear what had happened but, alas, Gimli was a small town, nearly everyone was related, and hardly before the taxi had raced out of sight someone had stopped at the house and said, “Rae, Dempsey missed the train.”
Traveling by train was comfortable. The click click of the wheels on the rails.. The magic of the passing landscape. Few people owned cars so there were always people on the train that my parents knew so every trip was a chance for a leisurely visit and my thoughtful mother always packed a sandwich along with home made lemonade in a glass sealer.
When I was twelve, I started delivering The Winnipeg Free Press. That meant going to the train station each day to meet the train, to hang around with the other carriers, collect our bundles of newspapers that were thrown onto the wagons that had been pulled up beside the freight car. We filled our canvas bags and off we went, young entrepreneurs at the end of the line of railways that had spread out across Canada.
The railways nearly didn’t come to Gimli. Marshy land and Willow Creek were barriers. It made more financial sense for the railway to be built west of town where the land rose up and formed gravel ridges. This was very serious. There are numerous stories of towns being built on what was expected to be the railway line only to have the railway line built miles away. Entire towns made of frame buildings were moved to where the railway line existed. Goods had to be sent to market. Goods were needed in the towns and farms. Transportation was everything.
The Icelanders of Gimli always had good political connections. It was those connections that got them the only known transportation grant for immigrants within Canada. Faced with no railway, they formed a committee and went to Winnipeg. After a lot of lobbying, they got the railway line extended from Winnipeg Beach to Gimli. Winnipeg Beach had been the terminal point for the cordwood economy that kept Winnipeg houses and businesses warm in winter. Now, cordwood, farm produce, fish, everything that country people might produce and city people, buy, could be sent directly to Winnipeg.
The railway brought people to the village, people who needed hotel accommodation. Some people liked the town so much that they built cottages. Without the CPR line I wouldn’t have been born. My grandparents came to visit friends who had a cottage. They liked Gimli so much that they built a cottage. While my father was helping his father build my mother’s parents’ cottage, my father and mother saw each other through a window and we all know how that worked out.
You could say that I was a CPR kid.
That’s why my walk along the railway tracks yesterday was filled with sadness. Canada used to have a strong, powerful railway system. It was our railway system. It has been allowed to fall into disuse.Clean, cheap, efficient transportation for people and goods has been replaced by the car economy. The profits from making cars, building highways for them, producing oil to fuel them are so great that common sense and the environment have been brushed aside and, in many cases, bribed aside.
Between the ties there are now weeds. The ties are rotten, falling apart. The tracks are being torn up and sold to other countries. The railways made Canada. It wasn’t enough to save them.