Did you know that until World War II, the only land links spanning Canada from coast to coast were railway tracks? It’s true, the war stimulated the Canadian government to build roads between small towns north of Lake Superior (where I was raised) so motor vehicle traffic could eventually cross the country, too. There were good reasons. Three sets of track stretched over this area. If German saboteurs ever blew up three bridges simultaneously, our country’s only method of land transportation would have been severed, at least temporarily.
Materials, including food, from the west would have had great difficulty reaching the denser populations of southern Ontario and Quebec and eventually crossing the north Atlantic to England and our Allies. Aside from being less efficient, rerouting the trains through the northern United States presented problems. For example, shipping anything resembling war materials early in the war might have been construed as a breach of U.S. neutrality by Germany. Even the seemingly innocuous pulp and paper industry produced materials used for making munitions.
I was raised in two adjacent towns, Geraldton and Longlac. In fact, Longlac was so small it didn’t even rate status as a village. Officially it was an Improvement District. Each town had roads, but from Geraldton you could not drive west to Nipigon and on to Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. From Longlac you could drive east on a logging road for less than a dozen miles but then there was nothing but bush to Hearst. It eventually took 120 miles of new road to bridge that gap. Trains brought in almost everything including the industrial supplies for the gold mines in Geraldton and the logging operations in Longlac.
As the life line to both communities, trains were constantly present in my early life. The tracks ran just behind our house in Geraldton and, on Saturdays in my pre-school years, the teenage daughter of our neighbour would carefully walk my younger brother and me over the tracks to the Strand Theatre. The matinees always seemed to include one film starring Hopalong Cassidy or Johnny Weissmuller. After we moved to Longlac, my walk to public school was often interrupted by massive black steam locomotives pulling long lines of box cars, each car splashed with the name of some remote railroad company operating in North America. My chums and I always waived at the engineers and never once did we fail to receive a reply. My awe of rail became a love affair during the four years of college when I travelled regularly on CNR’s Super Continental to Toronto. The dining car with its white table clothes, polished silver, impeccable service, and ever-changing view set my life-long standard for elegance. Memories of some of the amazing individuals I met over a cut-throat game of bridge have stayed with me for over 40 years.
So, not surprisingly, I spent a few hours last Saturday at Quinte’s 14th Annual Christmas Model Railroad Show in a Belleville secondary school. The show sprawled over a number of rooms and hallways and it was jammed with people and exhibitions. Flu season is a lousy time to spend elbow to elbow, but I was quickly lost in my own fascination with the detail and scope of the tiny miniatures. Little towns, accurate in tiny detail. One exhibit even had a peephole inviting you to see the activities happening underground. Striped railroad caps were ubiquitous, one exhibitor was dressed in the full regalia of a train conductor. No doubt one of his pockets hid his magical ticket punch that grants permission for lofty passage through panoramas that the finest picture books can never capture.
Some day at a model train show, I know I’ll see an engine meticulously labelled The Orient Express. I’ll lean over and check each passenger car for the lilliputian visages of Finney and Bacall, Bergman and Gielgud, Bisset and Widmark, Redgrave and Connery. They will be frozen in time endlessly playing out, at least in my mind’s eye, a murder-most-foul. Such can be your own pleasures, too, and you don’t want to miss ‘em. Here are exhibitions coming up in southern Ontario that I garnered from brochures scattered over one of the tables:
- Woodstock Model Train Show, January 3, www.woodstockshow.com
- 17th Annual Port Hope Model Railway Show, February 6 and 7, contact Dave (905) 885-7190 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cobourg Model Train Show, March 6, Cobourg Lions Centre, 10:00AM to 4:00 PM
- Kingston RailORama Model Train Show, March 30 and 21, contact Brian West (613) 962-7731 or email@example.com
- The 36th Annual Lindsay Model Railway Show 2010, April 10 and 11, contact Don McClellan, weekdays (705) 328-0474, weekends (705) 454-2746 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Midland District Railroad Club’s 21st Annual Model Railroad Show, May 29 and 30, contact Vern Jamieson (705) 527-5307 or email@example.com