I’ve been generally aware for a while that the fiftieth anniversary of my first railway photograph was imminent. However, I wasn’t aware that the occasion had come and gone until I looked at my notes this afternoon. For years, I’ve mistakenly presumed that first photograph to be one taken of CN No. 658’s GMD1s stopping at Kitchener on a misty 1965 or '66 morning. The calendar may be cruel, but it doesn’t lie. I was wrong.
Oddly enough, I have more vivid memories of when I intended to take my first railway photograph than when I actually did so. The former was on summer Sunday in 1963. We were on a family drive that would include our ritual look at the steam scrap lines outside the CNR shops in Stratford. I was deeply traumatized by the end of steam, but had reconciled enough to want to put it to film; to that end, I’d convinced my parents to allow me to use the family Kodak to record the sad sight of dead Northerns and Mikes gathered at the shops. I was excited by the prospect, and fairly devastated when we arrived to find that all of the engines that had been there for years (and even a few weeks earlier) were gone. I had no delusions regarding their fate, and cursed my procrastination. (Little did I know that at the very time I was mourning at the Stratford gate, U-2-g Northern No. 6218 was inside the shop in the midst of a miraculous overhaul.)
So fast-forward to June 27, 1964, it’s Railway Days in Belleville, Ont., and we’ve made a family outing of it in our '59 Ford, primarily to see CNR 6167 on one of its last assignments under steam. My father had taken a series of family snapshots of us with some of the exhibits — including CN 6400, the streamlined U-4-a I’d hoped to photograph at Stratford — and I convinced him to allow me to take the Brownie for a photograph or two.
I was forbidden to step off the platform, and I recall the frustration as a father and daughter stepped closer to the action. I dared not go beyond the platform edge, but I recall trying to look serious about my efforts to photograph the scene in hopes that the engineer might call me over. He didn’t, but 51 years down the road, I’m pleased with what my nine-year-old-self managed.
Given the newfound realization of the significance of the day, there was but one thing to do. I packed up the cameras and set out into the cold rain to visit one of the principles of that 1964 experience. CNR 6167 has been on display at Guelph since being bumped from the excursion trade by sister 6218. I stop by to visit the old girl frequently, but today’s call was mandatory. I swear I could smell the coal smoke and feel the excitement of that simmer 1964 day, the last time I saw 6167 under steam.
I lingered longer than expected and was soaked and cold when I got back to the car, but it was time well spent. The world would surely be a better place if the old girl were to be brought back to life. Sure, it’s all relative, but I ask you, is there a prettier face in all of steam?