As mentioned before in this column, one of the earliest historical books written about Nova Scotia railways was penned by William W. Clarke, a Kentville railway man who for 50 years worked on the trains. Other more scholarly and detailed histories of the railway have been published since Clarke’s book came out circa 1925, but none of them have as many nitty-gritty tales of early railway days as his does.
I’ve often wondered what affect the railway’s arrival had on people here in the Valley. Clarke’s history chronicles some of those reactions – his story for example, about a railway locomotive storming into Kentville for the first time. In her History of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, Marguerite Woodworth also tells us what affect the railway’s arrival had on Valley residents, and on Wolfville people in particular. Clarke’s is the more humorous tale (see below) but first, here’s Woodworth report on how Wolfville responded to the railway’s arrival.
On describing the arrival for the first time of railway locomotives, Woodworth writes that they “were as yet strange, unknown monsters to the Valley people as witnessed by the report of a Wolfville correspondent in November 1868 of the three Bristol engines, the Evangeline, Gabriel and Gaspereau.” Most likely the “Wolfville correspondent” was a reporter working for a Halifax newspaper since at the time the town had none. Whatever the case, here are the correspondent’s observations as quoted by Woodworth:
“The railway whistle has been heard for the first time in our village; a railway engine has unquestionably made its appearance in our midst. The first locomotive of the Windsor and Annapolis Railway has visited Wolfville, puffing and snorting after the usual manner of such monsters and causing a general excitement amongst those not familiar with such sights and sounds. The iron horse referred to, Joseph Howe, had come from Kentville where it had been performing service for the past months in railway construction.”
William Clarke writes about a similar reaction when a railway locomotive was first heard in Kentville. “Am amusing incident is told concerning the appearance of the first engine of the D.A.R. which was landed at Elderkin Creek (on the eastern edge of Kentville). A citizen hearing the shriek of the engine whistle was seized with fear and fell into the culvert near the jail, shrieking, ‘Oh Lord, have mercy! I hear Gabriel’s horn’.”
Not quite in the same vein but humorous anyway is Clarke’s comment on the train’s reputation for being notoriously slow. This is an exaggeration, Clarke says in effect, but was it? Clarke contradicts himself by relating the following train incident.
“A male passenger was moved to pity by the incessant wail of a baby and the frenzied attempt of the mother to console the child. In confidence the mother told the sympathetic passenger that the child was hungry and she had forgotten to bring a supple of milk with her. A few minutes later the train made a stop; the kind-hearted passenger alighted and vaulting a fence, proceeded to milk a cow grazing in a neighbouring pasture. He returned triumphantly to the train, bearing a generous drink of milk for the child, the crew holding the train while he committed the humane act.”