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Earliest recollections

Though terrifying at the time, a 1941 encounter with a train remains a treasured memory
“Wee Jimmie” Brown examines a Canadian Pacific switch stand beside the Don Mills Road crossing in North Toronto. His fascination soon turned to fear when a doubleheaded freight came along.
Alvin Brown
Despite his son’s concern for their safety, Alvin Brown managed to photograph an eastbound freight coming and going at the crossing.
Two photos, Alvin Brown
Have you ever wondered what your earliest conscious recollection might have been?

For me, I'm convinced it was a train. The mental image I retain to this day is of complete horror as a great beast of a thing bore down on me, full of sound and fury.

My father was not an avid rail enthusiast by today's measure. But he did possess a keen interest in things mechanical, of which the trains of the day were a readily accessible example. I look back fondly now on the mini-excursions as he arranged for my sister Nancy and me on local trains, and the weekend drives we took, just "to watch trains." As I look back now, for me those outings unquestionably sowed the seeds for my lifetime fascination with railways.

I was probably in my teens when I asked Father about this early recollection, wondering if it really was a train that had so disturbed me, way back then. He laughed, and told me the story.

In June 1941 Grandfather James, Dad, and I had been out for a drive, a few miles from our home near Lawrence Avenue and Yonge Street in North Toronto. We came upon a level crossing, and stopped "to see if anything was coming." Father was a photographer of some skill, and incorporated a nearby switch stand in a couple of pictures of wee Jimmie. I don't recall any of that, but I was familiar with one of the pictures of myself, as a vey young lad.

It was then, he said, that things got exciting. A train was approaching, the wig-wag signal started up, and I screeched and headed for the right-of-way fence to get as far away from the train as I could, taking refuge behind the legs of Dad and Grandfather James. I was not to be consoled, and we retreated to the car and went home.

"Where exactly did all this happen?" I asked some years later (having by then fully recovered from my early terror). At the Canadian Pacific's Don Mills Road crossing, was the answer. We calculated the train must have been a doubleheader, steam of course, heading east to Agincourt Yard.

Fast-forward more than six decades. Not long ago I was sorting through boxes of old family photographs and negatives. Among them, misfiled amid envelopes marked "Summer 1940," was an unmarked envelope containing the familiar image of Jimmie at the switch. But the real treat in the same envelope was a pair of negatives—which I had never before seen—showing a doubleheader approaching and receding. Yes, it was CPR. And yes, it fit the geography of the CPR line where it crosses Don Mills Road.

To me these "new" photos are magic, because of their link to my picture with the switch stand, and my familiarity with the CPR in later years. The photo of the train approaching shows the curve at Donlands (Mile 102.3), where (as I now know) the Canadian National connection to Oriole diverged; the mile sign visible on a distant telegraph pole is positioned properly to be "Mile 102" of the old Oshawa Subdivision. The locomotives are a P2 Mikado and an H1 Hudson, and how I wish I could make out their numbers! The receding shot is a wonderful vignette of 1940s railroading: a string of random car types (mostly boxcars), smoke trailing back from the head end, and a wooden caboose bouncing along at the rear. Don Mills Road was important enough to rate wig-wags, and look at how they're decorated. Imagine that being done today!

There's an overpass there now, carrying the Belleville Subdivision of today's Canadian Pacific over Don Mills Road. And the surroundings are entirely urban. But I have absolutely no doubt that these photos are proof of my earliest conscious recollection . . . when I was just 3 years old!

First published in Winter 2010 Classic Trains magazine.


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