An Introduction to LRHD 2017 by Ian Gifford
When I was 8 years old, our family moved from a townhouse in the middle of Sarnia, Ontario to a house in Point Edward. For me it was like moving to a foreign land, though it was really just a few kilometers away.
We were close enough to the water that you could hear the freighter horns bellowing off the lake as they entered the St. Clair river. It was also close enough to the railway tracks that you could hear the rumble of the wheels on the steel and the daily train horns. That year (1978) was the 100th anniversary of the village of Point Edward and a celebration of how it was built.
I remember learning that the Railway was an integral part of building the village, specifically the Grand Trunk Railway. In my new school, our celebrations focused on the history of the village and all that went into building it. Somewhere out there is a picture of me and a school friend in the local newspaper dressed as railway employees at a railway station mock-up. After that I remember that every time I would walk along those tracks I would think about the railway and what it meant to the village.
Later I would learn that Thomas Edison worked the Grand Trunk as a teenager over in Port Huron Michigan, just across the river from where I’d walk the tracks under the Bluewater Bridge as a kid. It was then and there that he lost his hearing when a railway worker attempted to pull him up onto a moving caboose by his ears. It’s stories like that I would think of every time that I would walk near a railway crossing here in my current home town of London, Ontario.
One day walking across the tracks towards my home in east London I noticed a sign in the park I often cut through. “CNRA Park” it read and it dawned on me that this likely was land donated to the city by CN. I went home and did some research and found out that it indeed was former CN land.
Digging deeper I learned about the reach the railway had in this area. I found out that close to where I live was the former terminal point for the L&PS (London/Port Stanley Railway) and the garages mere blocks away were used for repairing rail cars and engines etc.
If you read up even further you will learn that it was the railway that was integral in not only forming these cities that I have lived in, but the entire country. Ostensibly, if it wasn’t for the railway, there would be no Canada at all! This seemed to me a good enough reason to have a celebration of the railway and this park I was walking through was the perfect place for it.
These days I am a band leader of a group I named “Engine 86” after the very train that sits at Queen’s Park at Dundas St. here in London. My life long fascination with trains had turned into a fascination with train songs and so I created this band as a way to celebrate both.
When I started researching songs to play, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of songs that have been written about the railway and its culture. The songs I sing to this day are a mere drop in the bucket as to what is available. The reach of the railway is immeasurable.
Nearly everyone I meet at Engine 86 performances has a story of some sort about the Railway, maybe their grandfather was a Conductor with CN or their dad swung a hammer for CP to lay new tracks. Sometimes folks would tell me they worked or even “hopped” the railway themselves and there’s always a special gleam in their eyes when they talk about it.
The railway has had a profound effect on so many people from all walks of life. It made me realize that a train celebration in London just had to happen. I wasn’t too sure at the time how it might happen, then I got an email from Bethany Innes-Mejia.
Bethany was looking for people to assist with another festival that she helped put together at an area park with London’s Crouch Neighourhood Resource Center and the Hamilton Road Community Association. In talking about that I dropped an idea of my own on her; what about a Railway Heritage picnic or something like that at the park 2 short blocks from the Resource Center? I’m not sure if people can gasp in an email but that’s the sensation I got from Bethany in her response. In meeting with her I immediately learned that her enthusiasm was real. Now I had a partner.
Now here we are, with a partner in the Crouch Neighborhood Resource Center and an equally enthusiastic committee of community members plus we have a date and location. Never in my life have I seen a certain topic create so much excitement from people. Just what is it about trains that brings so many people together? This is something that we hope to find out on Saturday June 10th 2017 when we host the very first “London Railway Heritage Day” as part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
It’s like serendipity for me to be a part of something like this nearly 40 years after that picture was snapped of me in that conductor’s hat back at Bridgeview Public School in Point Edward. On that day in June 2017, I will step into my new-ish Hickory Striped coveralls and cotton Engineers cap and give a hearty “WHOOOOOT WHOOOOO” as London and area comes together to celebrate 150 plus years of an industry that not only connects us but created us as a nation.
We will celebrate with train themed activities, great food and music. I expect to see that old familiar gleam in the eye of other fellow train enthusiasts as we bond over stories about freight car hopping and the like. Just as the railway connects the country I expect this event will connect the community, young and old.
On that day I hope to hear hundreds, if not thousands of folks bellowing out a hearty “Whoooot Whoooo” with my alter ego “Chiefy”, followed by a robust singing of Happy Birthday to the now 150 year old Canada.
See you there?
Chair Person of “London Railway Heritage Day 2017”
(aka “Chiefy” of Engine 86)
This initiative is made possible by the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaboration between London Community Foundation, the Government of Canada and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast to coast. | Cette initiative est rendue possible grâce au Fonds communautaire pour le 150e anniversaire du Canada, qui est une collaboration entre London Community Foundation, les fondations communautaires canadiennes, le gouvernement du Canada et des leaders extraordinaires de l’Atlantique au Pacifique à l’Arctique.