I don’t know if I was born on the wrong side the tracks, but I have spent much of my life sitting almost on top of them.
It all began when I was growing up in Toronto back in the 1950s. My parents had rented a green and white duplex at the end of Dowling Avenue.
The house sat near the end of a huge ravine, through which all the main railway lines ran into downtown Toronto.
Despite the proximity of the tracks, our Parkdale neighbourhood was one of the nicest in Toronto and could have been a real-life set for the Father Knows Best TV show, about the world’s most perfect dad.
From my window on the second floor, I could see the tracks going in both directions, as well as cars whizzing by along Lakeshore Drive on the other side of the ravine. Beyond that, I could see the edge of Lake Ontario.
Our location at the end of Dowling Avenue was halfway between the Sunnyside Amusement park in one direction and the Canadian National Exhibition in the other. One of the CNE’s main attractions was an annual auto show, featuring all the experimental models from Ford, GM and Chrysler. Sunnyside had an outdoor dance floor and Canada’s oldest roller-coaster.
When we were having dinner, the trains were so noisy we couldn’t hear what the person on the other side of the table was saying, which is why whenever one came by everybody automatically stopped talking and stared into the middle-ground.
One of my sister’s girlfriends lived in the wilds of North Toronto, which were even wilder and more remote than the wilds of North Surrey. She occasionally stayed overnight with my sister after a weekend at the movies.
The first night she stayed with us, nobody had mentioned the trains to her. She said she bolted upright in her bed and almost hit her head on the ceiling.
This happened over 40 years ago and she still hasn’t quite gotten over it.
Shortly after this, she became my girlfriend, and a few years later we got married. In an odd twist of fate, we decided to move to B.C. in the early 1970s and wound up buying a small house in Crescent Beach, still the prettiest and most popular beachfront in Surrey.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the BNSF Railway ran right through the centre of Crescent Beach like a not-so-silent serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Many of our residents worried about the potentially dangerous cargo that ran through our neighbourhood at all hours. Especially scary were the black tank cars filled with liquid gases and God-knows-what-else.
A number of people were killed on the tracks through the years, mostly in White Rock several kilometres to the south.
Hundreds of residents and non-residents alike signed petitions opposing trains that were hauling American coal to the Fraser River for transhipment to points in the Far East. Dozens of signs sprang up in front yards from one end of Crescent beach to the other, urging: No U.S. Coal Exports
But the thing that seemed to worry people the most was the loudness of the horns and whistles that were liable to pierce the air at any time in the middle of the night.
As a lifelong lover of trains, I preferred to think of them as encouraging signs that all was right with the world, and that no poor soul was going to get maimed or killed on our tracks this particular night.
It was a comforting thought that helped me go back to sleep more quickly and peacefully than you might think.
Jack Hartline is a retired newspaper man who spent over 30 years in Crescent Beach before recently moving to White Rock.