Dan Hokstad is a teacher and author of The Sacred Ash. On the web: www.danhokstad.com
Railroads run through our city like arteries, and they have always been the lifelines of North Bay: the heart of a community built “north of the bay.” Knowing that people traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific or from the Great Lakes to James Bay, and that they passed through our neck of the woods, was like being joyously coupled with the rest of the world. As a child in bed, drifting off to sleep, the resonating train whistles that reached your window would stir enough images of adventures to fill a thousand dreams.
The sheer excitement and anticipation of standing at the C.P.R. Station downtown, waiting to welcome family home or board a train yourself, was blissful happiness. On more than one occasion, I journeyed east; truth be told, I often rode (somewhat surreptitiously) with the conductor in the baggage car. The exhilaration and danger of standing in a freight car, with the door wide open as the Ottawa valley rumbled by, was thrilling and unforgettable.
And, as I helped sort the luggage and packages, he told me tales. One was about the legendary strength of Bonfield native Ernie Foisy. Ernie could single-handedly lift a rail line; he would often tuck a ten-spot under it, and then advise the latest brakeman that it was his to keep – if he could get it. None ever could.
Boarding the train at the C.N. Station on Fraser Street was just as enthralling. For many, it was the anticipation of the Northlander and a spiritual trip north through the Canadian Shield. For me, it meant a direct link to Toronto. As a teenager, nothing could get your blood pumping like seeing the sprawling metropolis unfold outside the window; and to disembark under the vaulting heights of Union Station was akin to stumbling into the dizzying centre of a magical circus.
Hopefully that reverie will be reawakened again one day. North Bay has always been a crossroad and patchwork of highways and railroads; more importantly, it has also been a survivor. The diminished CPR opened up the lakefront. The loss of the CN line sprouted a cleaner panorama and new subdivisions that have reinvigorated old neighbourhoods. The O.N.R. is the latest provocative chapter. The haunting and poignant rhythm of trains echo through the night and, like a dream catcher, will express and continue to deliver hope to our windows in this little corner of the world.
For the original of this column, please go to the North Bay Nugget website: http://www.nugget.ca/2012/11/17/scenes-from-a-carriage-dream