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The Mystery of the Disappearing Trestle (or Where On Earth Is Barrington River?)

In a recent Toronto Postcard Club auction, I took a flier on the intriguing but mysterious railway postcard that you see below. A real photo postcard (RPPC), it was mailed on 8 April 1911 from Chatham, Ontario to Pontiac, Michigan. That’s maybe 75 miles as the crow flies, but any crow making that trip would not have looked down on a landscape anything like the wild country depicted on the postcard. Nor did the sender’s message offer up any clues as to the location of the image. To figure out what I was seeing, I had to turn to the barely legible caption. With a bit of squinting, all but the third of the five words were pretty easy to make out: BALLAST TRAIN, B——— RIVER TRESTLE. After a while, and with the help of my magnifying glass, I decided that the missing word was almost certainly “BARRINGTON”.

So there we have it: “Ballast Train, Barrington River Trestle”

Google fails me

Knowing the whole caption should make it easy, then! Except it didn’t. Repeated online searches turned up little more than a truss bridge on the Barrington River in New South Wales, Australia. That could in theory be the right general area, but a truss is not a trestle and the part of the river valley around this truss bridge, at least, doesn’t really resemble the landscape of the postcard. Aside from that one faint hope, initial online searched yielded up next to nothing.

But at least my search gave me a “Barrington River” to think about, in addition to two others that are also famous enough to have entries in Wikipedia — rivers in Rhode Island and Nova Scotia. Surmising that Nova Scotia was a promising possibility, I took a look at its Barrington River, which discharges into the Atlantic right at the southeastern tip of the province (east of Yarmouth). There have been railways in the area, so it seemed possible that this trestle might have crossed the Barrington — but if it did, there is no sign of it today on Google Earth.

What’s “Wrong” With This Picture?

Tip for identifying your mystery image: look at it!

At this point, I did the best thing I could have done — I asked the experts of the Nova Scotia Postcard Collectors Facebook group, who include several Toronto Postcard Club members. Before I come to what they told me, I would just say that one thing I had neglected to do was to actually look at my postcard. There are a lot of clues within the image, as became apparent when I looked at it as the image it is — rather than the image I assumed it to be. To back up a bit, I had assumed that the image was of the everyday train-going-over-bridge/trestle RPPC genre. Sure, it’s an undeniably odd-looking little train — its toy-like engine and long row of identical hopper cars bring to mind a fake backdrop from some spaghetti western — but it didn’t strike me as being all that different from other trestle postcards in my collection. 

Something’s not quite right with this picture

Having said that, when I sat down and really looked, there was a lot in this image that — in a series of small respects that “add up” — just felt “wrong”. For ease of reference, I’ve numbered the oddities that struck me:

  1. Unlike other trestles, this one appears to have been built on top of a big mound of earth.
  2. The trestle looks very rickety.
  3. The train has no tender (coal car) and the locomotive doesn’t look very powerful for such a long train.
  4. There is a figure in the second car back from the engine, standing straight up, which is not advisable (and likely not physically possible) on trains speeding across trestles.
  5. Something strange seems to be going on in the car directly in front of the car with the man in it.
  6. Where’s the river?

What’s really going on here?

The first thing that the Nova Scotia experts told me was that the locomotive is a very old wood-burner, as evidenced by the shape of the smokestack and the absence of a tender car. This particular type was in service from the 1880s until the 1920s, at latest, and was not very powerful. From that it seemed reasonable to conjecture that the train on the postcard was likely a working train for a construction or mining project that may have built its own private railway to move goods and product around.

Answering my questions

What the train was doing is actually fully illustrated in the image, if I had cared to look at it and use my little grey cells. To go through my points above, the reason that the man is able to stand straight up (4) is that the train isn’t moving. Why isn’t it moving? Well, because it’s already where it’s meant to be … on the job. But what job? Thanks again to my Nova Scotia colleagues, I learned that it was on the job of building a huge earthen embankment for this very railway. We can actually see this happening, as the first car behind the engine (5) is dumping its load of earth (the “ballast” of the caption) over the side of the trestle, where it is visibly falling into place underneath. The trestle hasn’t been constructed on top of the earthen embankment (1) — instead the earth has been painstakingly dumped around a trestle that was built from the ground up, in order to create an embankment. At the moment in time that my postcard has preserved, this process was about half complete. One reason for using the old locomotive (3) was probably that it didn’t weigh very much and was therefore safe for the trestle, which wasn’t really a permanent trestle at all but a sort of skeleton used in an ingenious method for building a very long and high earthen embankment. That’s one reason that searches for “Barrington River Trestle” turn up nothing — it was only a temporary structure and only those few who were present during the construction period ever laid eyes on it. 

From sea to (almost) sea

Admittedly, none of this solves the mystery of where this was all happening. The Nova Scotians were pretty sure it wasn’t anywhere near them. So, on the assumption that this was most likely a Canadian scene, I took a deeper dive into Google and found that there is also a small Barrington River in northern British Columbia and that, moreover, that very area has been the site of gold mines, on and off (mostly off), for more than a century.

While the few photographs of the area that Google grudgingly provided were no help with the “trestle”, this topographic map proved a lot more interesting. If you open it up and zoom in just a bit. you’ll see that just to the northeast of the river (answering point (6) above!), in the broad valley through which it flows, there is an almost ramrod straight road named (tellingly) “Iron Road” and that there is a section of that road where the mapmaker shows it flanked by two thicker lines. My guess is that those lines represent the embankment whose construction is depicted in the postcard and that “Iron Road” is just the old rail bed from 110 years ago.

Additional evidence: a plausible camera angle and a telltale sign from above

The aerial image below shows the very same section of the Iron Road as a feature that stands out from the surrounding landscape. It looks like it could well be an embankment. Now, if we imagine a photographer standing on the hillside to the northeast of that spot about 108 years ago, looking back across the Iron Road (or railroad as it then was) toward the river, what he or she would have seen would have corresponded quite closely to our postcard image — particularly inasmuch as the card doesn’t seem to show any of the mountains that encircle most of the site. In this rugged area, only a photo looking southward toward the Chutine would be as devoid of mountains as the postcard image appears to be.

The Barrington River is a short tributary of the Chutine River. It is found in a remote and mountainous area of northwestern B.C., between the Alaskan boundary (to the west) and the small settlement of Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River (to the northeast).

Conclusion

I’ll be the first to admit that my evidence is circumstantial. Perhaps my postcard is really from New South Wales or Rhode Island. For the moment, pending any comments or complaints from our readership, I will conclude with as much certainty as is needed in such an investigation that, with vital assistance from the Nova Scotia Postcard Collectors, I’ve managed to put my postcard in its proper place. And a significant place in Canadian mining and railroad history it would be, as images of such engineering feats in such remote locations so very long ago must by now be quite rare.

  • Andrew Cunningham
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6 Comments

  1. Further to the above I should have noted that the link to the BC map page takes one only to the general area. To look at the specific area under discussion search for “Mount Barrington” and then look south east to find a broad flood plain. You can then toggle back and forth between the topo map and the aerial photo of the area. Another topo map of the same area can be found at http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/dmf-viewer/?siteid=5628311639164388216 but IU was not able to find a way to zoom in on that version.

    • Card Talk Editor

      That’s odd. It may leave a cookie or something once you’ve looked at it once because, for me, it takes me to the area, with the locations being easily recognizable if you have the map I included in the article as reference.

  2. Your observations as regards the method of trestle building are spot on. What is interesting is there were dedicated ore cars used to transport the spoil/soil to fill up the trestle and provide a firm base for the final road bed. On PEI this method was frequently used for small gullies and streams but in those cases the earth was loaded on to flatcars and the engine pulled a wooden plow along the length of the train shoving the earth off the cars on both sides. While you have the technology right I have a great deal of difficulty with the locational analysis. Mount Barrington and the Barrington River are north of the Stikine River near Telegraph Creek. How an engine (however small) and railcars were transported to the site is beyond imagining although there was service of small steamboats on the first 200 miles or so of the Stikine. Telegraph Creek was not even connected to another community by road until well into the 20th century. An earlier delivery of railway equipment would have been a noteworthy accomplishment. Examining the aerial photos of the area there appears to be no other evidence of any sort of rail line or improved corridor with which the supposed embankment would connect. The BC topographical map found at http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/dmf-viewer/?siteid=5628311639164388216 shows that the visible slash on the surface is located on level ground within the valley bottom or flood plain and no trestle or embankment would be necessary even if there was a rail line. A BC mines exploration report for the Mount Barrington area dated 1968 fails to mention any prior exploitation of mineral resources and notes only an abandoned trail accessible only by 4 wheel drive vehicles. If a track bed had existed in the area it is probable it would have been noted. Unfortunately your link to a “topographic map” brings up an aerial photo which does not contain the “Iron Road” notation you mention. Perhaps it is a wrong link? However the location could be a red herring and I think the key may be in the location name. While “Barrington” could possibly be interpreted from the photo I think there could be other locations beginning with “Ba??”. I don’t think there are enough letters to spell Barrington. Finally it seems beyond belief that there would be a photograph from back of beyond BC, which would be turned into a postcard sent from Chatham Ontario in 1911. While it was certainly common for postcards to be mailed some distance from the location pictured, the distance from, and remoteness of the suggested location make it extremely unlikely. I think a different name but one a little nearer Chatham would be more likely. Given that this was an period of railway expansion both in Ontario and in the development of transcontinental routes there should be a number of possibilities. Finally, the name may be a barrier to identification as it might have been a temporary one long lost or abandoned as a place name. Once the embankment was finished the site might no longer have warranted a name at all and the location may simply have had the moniker ” Mile 37 on the Upper Rubber Boot Branch Line.” However this is a fascinating exercise. The answer is out there somewhere.

    • Card Talk Editor

      The “Iron Road” label took me a little while to find again, but it’s at the Mapcarta link (in the article) if you switch the view to “Map” (the little blue-and-white flag icon in the upper left corner. The name “Iron Road” and the fact that the road is so straight are both at least somewhat suggestive of this having once been a bed for a railway. The map also shows what looks like a symbol for an embankment on either side of the Iron Road in exactly the spot in question, as well as showing a contour line that would suggest at least a mild elevation at the west end of the (hypothesized) embankment. If it is an embankment, it looks consistent with the size one might expect, given the image on the card.

      Exactly why a trestle would be required at that exact spot was something that also seemed to me to be a weak spot in my otherwise airtight case (well, not quite airtight!). But that looks to me like an embankment symbol on the topo map, which is a lot more evidence than I expected to find a century later.

      Anyway, thanks for the analysis. It could be somewhere else, for sure. Anything is possible – I’ve not been to Barrington River to check and it doesn’t seem from looking for photos on line that very many people have! It looks like the sort of spot that it would be wonderful to find oneself at but probably not so wonderful a place to have to try to get to.

      Although postcards did tend to be posted in proximity to the scene depicted, there is no reason in principle that any card couldn’t have been mailed from anywhere – and one does sometimes see such mailings. All it would have taken in this case is for some guy working on this mine site to send a pile of them to his mom in Chatham and for her to grab one of them a couple years later when she was hunting around for a postcard to send a note to her friend in Pontiac. So that aspect of it I’m not so concerned about.

      Thanks for your contribution to the mystery. We’ll see what the verdict of history turns out to be…

  3. I am surprised that your google search did not turn up Great Barrington in Massachusetts, USA.

    • Card Talk Editor

      Well now, that wouldn’t have done for the postcard since Gt. Barrington is on the “Housatonic” River (as I of course knew long before Googling it 8 seconds ago — as a former Bay Stater myself … ).

      Andrew

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