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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

REFLECTIONS ON POSTCARDS: CLUES TO LOCATIONS

One of the great challenges that comes with collecting postcards, particularly the often uncaptioned “real photo” type, is figuring out what exactly you’ve got a postcard of. Like personal photos from family albums, postcards of unidentified people, places and events are common, but inherently less interesting than similar cards whose contexts are known. At the same time, a lot of the fun of collecting — particularly in this information-rich Internet age — lies in solving such mysteries for fun and profit (realistically, 99% for fun).

Of the journalist’s “five W’s” (who, what, when, where, why) the “where” is most often the key that unlocks a postcard’s mysteries. When there is no caption or postmark to tell us anything at all about the location of the image, the first and best clue is often the postcard itself, as a physical object. Is it a Canadian, a U.S. or an English card (or is it from somewhere even farther afield)? With experience, we can learn to tell when a postcard back is Canadian … most of the time. Knowing the country of origin definitely helps.

Another clue that is often lost before we think to take advantage of it is other cards that were associated in some way with the one we’re looking at. Often the seller will have taken our card out of an estate-sale album with similar cards that are captioned — sometimes a helpful dealer will even note likely locations on postcards that, while not identified, are clearly from the same place as others in his or her stock. But it’s pretty rare that we as buyers think to examine (let alone have the time to examine) a dealer’s other cards for clues about one we’re intending to buy. There can also be hints about locations in the card’s message, if there is one. But more often than not, we are reduced to staring, wistfully, into the world of the image itself, hoping that something will tell us where-oh-where this wonderful scene from a hundred-odd years ago could have been.

As an example, take this excellent real photo postcard (RPPC).  

S. C. Parks Fine Shoes, 1224 1/2 Something Street, Somewhere

Here we have no problem with country — it is a “MADE IN CANADA” real photo card of a design that tends to date from about 1915-20. But Canada is a big country, and there is no message, no postmark and no caption to help us. The shot is close-in, so all we get is one shop with one generic name, “S.C. Parks Fine Shoes”. We could try Googling it, but — realistically — the right “Parks” is going to be hard to find, given the inevitable proliferation of “Park” street names, let alone all the “Park” park names. The initials “S.C.” are another blow to our hopes — a given name would have been so much easier to find.

So what else do we have to work with? The products in the window display, for one. On several occasions, the brands of goods in a shop have helped me narrow down a location. For example, the card below, which could in theory have been anywhere in Canada or the U.S., was definitively placed on this side of the border because of the distinctively Canadian brands on offer, e.g. Royal Crown Oatmeal Soap and Squirrel Peanut Butter. A closer consideration of where these products were produced led to the tentative conclusion that the card came from Western Canada, possibly Vancouver (that’s as far as I ever got: if anyone has any thoughts, please tell me — one of the best ways to figure these things out is to join your local postcard club and let your knowledgeable colleagues do the work!)

Squirrel Peanut Butter (remember the peanut on top?) in the big tub at lower right … only in Canada.

However, in the case of the shoe store, the products don’t get us beyond what we already knew — that this is somewhere in Canada. What else do we have? A house number — 1224 1/2 — that could really be just about anywhere, although the “1/2” may come in handy down the road, since there will have been far fewer 1224 1/2’s in Canada than 1224s. 

But here’s where not losing patience, and owning a magnifying glass, can come in handy. One thing about shops is that they had plate-glass windows. And one thing that plate glass does is reflect. More than once, I’ve found an answer, or at least a clue, in the form of something across the street that is faintly reflected (in reverse, of course!) in a shop window. And exactly that turned out to be true of the S.C. Parks Fine Shoes postcard. At the very top of the window, on the left side, is a dark patch which turns out to be the reflection of a sign across the street. With some squinting, we can make out what it says … R-O-S-E-D-A-L-E (space) G-A-R-…! A likely answer is now clear. This has to be Toronto — not all that far from me, in fact. Surely (fingers crossed) it can be nowhere else than the commercial strip of Yonge Street, where that famous road runs past Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale neighbourhood.

With the tentative address “1224 1/2 Yonge Street, Toronto” in hand, we head to the deltiological Batcave and call up the Toronto city directory (known as Might’s). But wait … which year should we start with? Well, we’ve already noted that the card itself is of a type common from 1915-20. But even if we didn’t know that, we have a clue to a second “W” (when?) in the form of the poster at the far left. While partly blocked by the gentleman, enough of it is visible to see that it is advertising a contest sponsored by a shoe manufacturer. Looking more closely and reading what can be read, we can conclude that the contest, whatever exactly it was, had to do with the First World War. So we can surmise that a good year to try would be 1918. Looking at the Might’s Directory for that year, we find 1224 1/2 Yonge, just north of the Summerhill train station on the west side of Yonge (a couple doors up from Alcorn Avenue). And, sure enough, the occupant of that address was one Charles S. Parks, although (unusually) the nature of his business is not identified (it is mentioned in the personal directory listing for his nearby home at 32 Summerhill Avenue). Further investigation shows that Parks was Ontario-born, was 41 in 1918 (and thus is almost certainly the man in the photo), was married to Bertha, with whom he had one child, George, born 1908. The shoe store seems to have been in business from 1914 until about 1920, after which Charles appears in the directory as an insurance agent. Further investigation showed that the Rosedale Hotel stood across the street from the shop at 1145-1151 Yonge. What the G-A-R stood for — “Garden”? “Garage”? — can safely be left for someone fussier about completeness than I am.  

So there you have it. A postcard that seemed to show only one small business with a frustratingly generic and hard-to-search name actually turned out to show more than that when we looked hard enough. Incidentally, the shop at 1224 1/2 Yonge is still standing today, albeit in somewhat altered form and under the new identity of “1224A”. It houses a vintage furniture store — which would probably have seemed like a futuristic furniture store to Charles — called Decorum.

Andrew Cunningham (TPC #1424)

FIRESIDE READING – CARD TALK’S WINTER EDITION

Our annual Seasonal Party this past week was a great success. In addition to delicious food, the TPC served up the latest edition of Card Talk to all attendees, thus saving some postage costs. Retrieved from the printers only hours earlier, the Winter edition of our flagship (well … only) publication contains its usual 24 pages of deltiological news and analysis.

Following up on an article in the Fall edition, TPC member Lorne Smith contributed additional information on the use of Esperanto in postcards, including an account of his visit to the Esperanto Museum in Vienna. Among the postcards in Lorne’s collection is one of Prague’s Old Town Bridge Tower (Figure 1), with a message in esperanto and an Esperanto sticker on the front. The postcard’s caption has also been translated by the sender. 

Figure 1. “Malnova Ponta Turo”, according to the sender.

We had a response to our call for early Canadian RPPCs (real photo post cards) — “early” being 1904 or prior. Member Rick Parama submitted a photo card of a cow and calf from Bowden, Alberta, N.W.T. (as it then was) from the summer of 1904. Generally speaking, RPPC production in Canada seems to have gone from almost nil in the spring of 1904 to a significant trickle in the later months of 1904. By mid-1905, it was a veritable torrent that did not die down for several years thereafter. Real photo cards from 1904 and earlier are rare in Canada and we continue to solicit members and the general public for examples to illustrate the early days of this important photographic genre.

Another of our members, Joe Rozdzilski, contributed some examples from his collection of west-end Toronto postcards, focusing on the life and times of Sunnyside Beach and its amusement park and bathing pavilion, the latter of which could accommodate 2,000 swimmers and was, on opening in 1922 (Figure 2), the largest heated outdoor pool in the British Empire. The amusement park was a wonderland of food and attractions that are brought vividly to life in Joe’s story.

Figure 2. Sunnyside Beach Bathing Pavilion on Opening Day.

In 2016, we discussed the postcard photographer Lewis Rice, who worked first in his native Nova Scotia but more famously, after around 1907, in Saskatchewan, where he carried on business in the boom town of Moose Jaw. In this issue of Card Talk, the TPC’s Barb Henderson and Vancouver Postcard Club’s Gray Scrimgeour recount the events of June 1, 1912, which was declared to be “Postcard Day” in Moose Jaw. This was a Board of Trade effort to promote the new city by having its citizens send out Lewis Rice postcards with pre-printed boasts on the back. Through years of diligent searching, and with the help of fellow collector Don Kaye, Gray has found cards bearing nine different slogans, such as:

  • FIFTY THOUSAND more CITIZENS WANTED who are law abiding and can stand prosperity for it’s sure to get you if you come to MOOSE JAW. 
  • Some towns are afraid to see new people come in, fearing that there will not be enough for all. That’s not Moose Jaw.
  • Welcome Nobles [i.e. the Duke of Connaught and his family] to Moose Jaw — the Minneapolis of Canada.

This edition’s cover story shows some of the many ways in which postcards take us inside Canadian buildings of the early 20th century. From the old Centre Block of Parliament  (Figure 3) to the elegant Vice-Royal Suite of Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel (Figure 4) to the interior of the ill-fated Great Lakes passenger vessel Noronic (Figure 5), postcards offer views of interiors that are invaluable to our understanding of the history of everyday life as experienced in ordinary houses, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and factories.

Figure 3. Entrance to Houses of Parliament, Ottawa

Figure 4. Empire Room, Vice-Royal Suite, Royal Alexandra Hotel, Winnipeg

Figure 5. The Noronic

An item of special interest in this issue is a checklist of Halifax Explosion postcards, compiled by our member Terry Robbins and included in Card Talk in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of that tragic event — the most devastating man-made explosion in history prior to the atom bomb. Lithographic cards by Cox Bros., H. H. Marshall and Novelty Manufacturing & Art Co. are included in the listing. In addition, Barb Henderson has contributed articles on an amazing postcard relating to the aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and on pyrography, the art by which leather postcards — including the example shown in Figure 6 — were created.

Figure 6. An attractive leather postcard

In addition, there are the usual features: a message from our President, reminiscences about Card Talks past (1982 this time), advertisements from our advertisers, our TPC meeting schedule and the round-up of upcoming postcard sales and shows. If you’re not already a member of the TPC, join our coast-to-coast (and U.S. and overseas!) membership and receive the whole Card Talk story three times annually, attend our informative (yet fun!) meetings and get special deals on our show admission and our exclusive members-only auctions.

(Andrew Cunningham, editor)

 

Card Talk, Winter 2017-18.