Ian Wilson's blog

Welcome to the blog of Ian Wilson, author of the award-winning books on 1950s Canadian steam railway operations.

Stuck on June 25, 1954

June 26, 2014

Freak trips back in time always start with some kind of incident—a crack on the head that sends a guy into a coma, like on the TV show Life On Mars. Or maybe the guy steps through some kind of portal, like Stephen King’s character in 11/22/63. Other times, it’s just an ordinary dream, a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Owen Wilson stepped into a car every night in Midnight in Paris, whereby he visited Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald in the Roaring Twenties. For me, it was none of those things, and that makes the whole experience maddening.

My name is Radford Harris. I’m 33 years old with a degree in civil engineering. I’m unmarried, because I’ve spent most of my spare time on hobbies. I like reading about history. I especially like building railway models. Matter of fact, this whole escapade started this morning for that reason—my interest in scale models. I decided to call in sick at work because I wanted to explore a setting that Ian Wilson describes in two of his books on Ontario steam railway operations. All of his books are set on the day of June 25, 1954. Today, being the 60th anniversary of that date, was too good to pass up. The place I wanted to visit was called Wyevale, which is about halfway between Barrie and Midland. Wilson describes a neat old railway bridge that crosses the Wye River. The tracks are long gone, but the bridge is now part of a recreational trail. I headed up there this morning to take in the scene with the interest of constructing a scale diorama.

I didn’t get away from my home in North York until past ten o’clock in the morning. That was okay. Better to wait out the traffic. I stopped for lunch south of Barrie, then checked out the restored railway station at Allandale. It was nice. The tower was back on, as it shows in the earlier pictures in Wilson’s books. I followed the old right-of-way of the Penetang Subdivision northward from a place called Colwell. It crossed Highway 26 at Minesing. I visited a trail pavilion there. I picked up the line again where it crossed Horseshoe Valley Road at Anten Mills. Phelpston was a nice little village, with a Roman Catholic church. After grabbing a coffee at the McDonald’s in Elmvale, I finally approached the place that interested me most. And that’s where the trouble happened.

Not too far north of Elmvale, to the right of Simcoe County Road 6, was the scene that interested me. That is where the rails of the branchline to Penetang crossed the Wye River on a girder and truss bridge. I parked my car, consulted Wilson’s books for pictures of a train crossing that bridge in 1958, then walked over to have a look. I’m not a camera guy. I take all my pictures on my Smartphone. I positioned myself in about the same place as the photographers in 1958, and snapped a couple of views.

Then I sat down in the grass, even though it was still damp from a recent rain, to relax and soak up the atmosphere. It was so peaceful that I leaned back against an old tree stump and closed my eyes. It was cloudy and there were a couple of mosquitoes about, so I didn’t expect to stay long. Every little gust of wind that shook the leaves of nearby trees scattered droplets of water on me. The chickadees were raising a racket, maybe over me being there. I remember contemplating how nice it was to be out of the Toronto rat race. I’d grown up in Barrie, and the little communities in the vicinity had appeal. The main reason I’d stayed in the big city was because I wanted to meet women. There were a number of them in my life, none in a serious vein, mostly those I’d met in theatre classes I’d taken to relieve the boredom of consulting engineering. There were probably women in the small towns around Barrie. My friend Trish from the States recommended that I find a farm girl. Maybe, someday. For now, it was enough to enjoy a respite in the tranquility of nature.

I can’t say what happened after I closed my eyes. I remember no great experience of passing through a time portal, like the crew of the USS Nimitz in Final Countdown. Sometime after listening to the distant drumming of a pileated woodpecker, a voice jostled me out of my reverie. I looked to my right at a girl, or young woman.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

I stood up. Before I responded, two discoveries shook my little world. Over my head were the lush green leaves of an elm tree. They were attached to the trunk against which I was leaning. Only, when I sat down it had been a rotted stump. The second sensory detail to rattle my mind was the unmistakeable sound of a steam whistle.

“I’m fine,” I responded to the girl.

“That’s good to know.” She stood and smiled at me. In one hand, she held a fishing rod. It was an old bait casting affair, like the ones stuffed in a corner at our old family cottage. The last time they’d been used was probably in the 1960s, by various relatives. The one she held had a shiny metal rod and a polished reel with ceramic handles. Now you may know why I don’t have a wife, or a girlfriend for that matter. The first thing I studied was not this gal’s eyes, her clothing, her face—but her fishing rod. That’s what an engineering degree will do for you.

Anyway, the girl wore a light blouse with a flowery pattern. She had a dark skirt with a white leather belt. On her head was a white hat, like those I wore as a kid on summer vacations in the Maritimes. Locks of somewhat curly brown hair protruded from the hat. She had a pair of red earrings and wore matching lipstick. Her brown eyes were friendly, her smile enchanting.

“Going fishing?” I asked, pointing to the creek. I carried on the conversation outwardly, while inwardly I tried to figure out what was happening. A mirage, maybe? A dream?

“Bass season just opened.” She shook a coffee tin. “I picked some night crawlers last night.”

A chuffing sound became louder. “That’s…” I just pointed down the tracks, in the direction of Elmvale. Tracks. “That’s—”

“That’s our little train.” The girl laughed. “Now I’ve got some fishing to do.” She stepped down the slope toward the river. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, but my main gaze was on the wisps of black smoke and steam curling around the trees on the approach to the bridge. The girl turned and looked at me. “Haven’t you seen that train before?”

“No.” I stood transfixed as the pilot of a steam locomotive came into view. “It’s number 1322.” I heard myself shouting at the girl. “It’s at the museum.”

“What museum?” She stepped back toward me.

“Oh, somewhere near Barrie. But I’m mistaken.” I watched the steam engine as it crept over the bridge spanning the Wye River. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. This locomotive, as I had known it, was a rusted museum piece in a place outside Barrie called Midhurst. But here it was, shining and black, moving, breathing, pulling a train. The fireman and brakeman smiled and waved at the girl and me. The tender was piled high with coal, steam drifted from the dynamo in front of the cab. The panel emblazoned with the lettering CANADIAN NATIONAL shone bright red in the sunlight. That sunlight was another issue. It had been cloudy when I’d sat down against that tree stump which was now a live and thriving elm tree.

“You like trains, don’t you?” The girl looked at me as I watched the drive rods of that little engine moving over the bridge. “My name’s Annaliese.”

“Radford,” I said, still mesmerized.

“How did you get here? I didn’t see a car.”

I looked around. Sure enough, no car. I patted my pockets. No wallet, either. But I had a set of keys for a Mazda that hadn’t been built, and a Smartphone with a number that hadn’t been issued. Aside from that, I wore jeans and black walking shoes, and a Toronto Blue Jays T-shirt with the name Adam Lind on the back. I looked at the girl.

“This may sound strange, but what day is it?”

“Friday. Don’t you know that?”

“I do now. And it’s June 25, right?”

“I sure hope so.” Her face clouded. “You’re not with Lands and Forests, are you?” I shook my head. “Good.” She pointed to the river. “Bass season opens tomorrow, but I wanted to get an early start. I’m going to throw back whatever I catch.”

I laughed. “It’s okay with me.” I watched the two green passenger cars of the mixed train disappear into the grove of trees north of the bridge. A car drove by on the gravel road—which had been paved when I parked. It was a small British one, called a Morris Minor I think. The driver beeped the horn as he went by, and the girl waved. “Is that one of the newer ones?” I pointed to the car.

“You mean a 1954?”

I nodded. So it was as I thought.

“I think so. Mr. Williams down the road just bought it.”

“Can I ask you one more question?”

Annaliese tilted her head and smiled. “Yes?”

“Can I come fishing with you?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” She beckoned with her head. “Hurry up. We have a couple of hours before that train comes back. The one you like so much.”

I followed her down the slope. “How old are you, anyway?”

“I turn 20 in August.”

“Not married?”

“Not yet.” She laughed. “Is that a proposal?”

“No. I’ll have to see if you’re any good at catching fish first.”

And that’s how that day went for me, Radford Harris. I spent the afternoon fishing with Annaliese. We caught several largemouth bass. Toward suppertime, the train with locomotive 1322 came back down the branchline. I studied every boxcar and the wooden passenger cars intently, making mental notes of their numbers and types. I convinced Annaliese that my car had been stolen—which wasn’t altogether a lie—and her parents were good enough to put me up for the night in the room that her elder brother, now in the navy, had occupied. I fully expected to wake up the next morning in the year 2014, but that’s not what happened. That’s a story I’ll tell in a few day’s time.

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