I was born in North Bay, Ontario, “The Gateway to the North!” in 1943. North Bay has one spectacular feature – it is bordered by, not one, but two lakes. I always felt that geological fact made us special. Canoeing, swimming, boating, hiking, fishing, ice fishing and ice huts, skiing, snowmobiling, are all part of the lives of North Bay residents.
Trout Lake curves along the city’s eastern border of the small city. It is spring-fed, cold and deep, even reputed to be ‘bottomless’ but It is quite small – only about five miles long. My parents owned a cottage on it’s south shore. We had 100 feet of waterfront, with a large U-shaped dock, two boats and water skiis. Gatherings with family and friends was a constant in our lives. Now, some sixty years later, the city has surrounded the lake.
Lake Nipissing cradles North Bay all along its western boundary from the southernmost to the northern edge. Lake Nipissing is large, comparatively shallow and warm. It is part of the historic trail of the voyagers and it was home to the Nipissing tribe of First Nation people before the area was inhabited by white settlers.
Development of the area began along the ‘north bay’ of Lake Nipissing in the 1880’s(?) when trains encroached northward from southeastern Ontario. My great grand-father, John King, was one of the labourers who laid miles of train track, allowing the influx of settlers by rail.
There was an excitement to a Rail Road town – the coming & goings, the friendly rilvallry of 2 national railways, the Canadian Pacific (CPR) and the Canadian National (CNR), as well as the Ontario Northland Railroad (ONR). Tracks of all three railroads intersected our city. We had railway lines going every which way and the soothing sounds of the trains a few streets from our home cold be faintly heard in the still of the night and lulled me to sleep.
Male ancestors on both my maternal and paternal family lines, worked on the railroad for several generations. Grandpa King, my Mom’s father (photo above), worked on the ONR. My Dad and my Grandpa Robertson both worked on the CPR. Several uncles on both sides of the family worked on all three railroads.
A boilermaker on the railroad.
Dad was a boilermaker who wore the protective iron mask for protection against welding sparks. The biggest bonus to being a Rail Road employee in the days before global restructuring and drastic cutbacks was having a ‘Pass’ that allowed you to travel on the railroads free of charge. Imagine the luxury.
These were happy, magical times with my father and mother. We lived, worked and loved in North Bay which, despite being ‘only’ 400 miles from Toronto, was an eight-hour train ride in the 1950’s. The train had to stop at every town and village between ‘The Bay’ and Toronto. Extended family lived south in Mimico, a suburb west of Toronto. Others in Chapleau, northeast of North Bay and in Montreal, Quebec. Those trains connected us. My Robertson grandparents wintered in Vancouver, British Columbia and spent summers in Prince Edward Island. Grandpa’s railway pass allowed them to transverse the country every six months. Along the way, they stopped off in towns and cities in several provinces to visit family. I cherished those twice a year visits.
Overnight train trips were wondrous – the romance of train travel could be attributed to its excitement, glamour, and the relaxation it provided once you were settled in.
A Red Cap (Porter) on a CPR train
White men were engineers and linemen involved switching, driving, and repairing the trains. But, in the forties and early fifties, Red Caps on the Ontario trains were nearly always black men. The dignified and neatly uniformed Red Caps greeted you and helped you on the train.
The name, ‘Red Caps’, came from the porters’ uniforms – sturdy black wool garments with gold buttons and on their heads, bright red caps with round peaks over their eyes. Passengers benefited from the warmth, nurturing and humour of the Red Caps. Books could be written (and undoubtedly have) on the prejudices that created that system, and of the good-natured, hard-working black men in their roles of servitude. Every Red Cap I met over the years, conducted himself with a quiet, calm and competent dignity. It was palpable. They loved their jobs, respected themselves and the passengers, and were respected in turn. It is not an overstatement to suggest there was a pride, a nobility to their demeanour.
A walk through and between the train cars to the dining car was exhilarating. Opening a door to venture to the next car meant crossing a connecting bridge of iron slats that moved zig zag under your feet. Added to that, the train itself was swaying back and forth, and when you looked down, you could see the ground rushing between the slats under you.
The Dining Car was a visit to another world. It was a formal world of starched, white, impeccably ironed table cloths and napkins; heavy, silver, flat wear; white china and glass goblets. A Red Cap with a folded napkin over his arm, there to take your oder and serve you. It was a glamorous other world for a child.
The sleeping cars were magic to me. In the daytime they resembled ordinary passenger cars with seating compartments. But while you were at dinner in the Dining Car, the Red Caps came, converted the facing seats into a bed. Then he would lower the upper berths with their concave metal bottoms that formed a ceilings over the lower berths. When all the sleeping compartments folded down, the beds made, the sleeping cars were comprised of long, narrow aisles bordered on either side by heavy, dark grey curtains, ceiling to floor. They were sturdy, unbendable, private almost like folding doors.
Bedding was the best quality – the whitest white, meticulously ironed cotton sheets. The pillows were plump and inviting. The entire scene was picture perfect.
Another duty of the night Red Cap was to shine passengers’ shoes. Before snuggling into bed, you placed your leather shoes or boots on the floor in the aisle just outside your curtain. In the morning, they were as shiny as a brand new Canadian loony.
Bedtime in a berth was a wondrous adventure – the soothing, rhythmic, clicketey-clack of the huge steel train wheels rolling on the steel tracks; the sleep-inducing swaying of the train car; and the womb-like comfort of the so-clean, so-ironed bedding. As a young girl, I loved to raise the heavy window curtain a few inches off the window sill so I could peer out. I loved watching the shadows and occasional twinkling lights of towns passing by. Happy memories to last a lifetime.
My imagination soared.