Tracks of time

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CAPTIONS: Above, the danger to be found at the former railway swing bridge in Welland, the scene is eerily similar to its condition in the summer of 2013; a view of the bridge taken from the east side; bottom, the yellow security gate on site to keep out trespassers is seldom closed. (Photos by Joe Barkovich)

By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large

It is time for Welland to engineer a leap from the city’s 20th century image to one for the 21st.

Welland’s motto, Where Rails and Water Meet, is dated, faded and irrelevant. The motto was applicable to the city as it was in the late 1800s and 1900s but it misses the mark in 2014. On the tracks of time, sad to say, it was left behind decades ago.

Thanks in large part to the role played by rail and water ways in Welland’s early industrial and manufacturing development, it conveyed the image of a city on the move. But no more.

Oh, those glory days! As a kid growing up in Welland in 1950s and 1960s, I can attest to some facets of life in the so-called boom times. Back then, according to old-timers’ memories relived in coffee conversations, a worker could leave one well-paying job one day and start at another the next. Industries provided jobs for just about anyone interested in putting in a hard day’s work.

Life in those years led to a high-gloss report in Saturday Night magazine, published Nov. 14, 1950. The piece provided a “travelogue” about communities in this part of the peninsula. Here’s an excerpt from what was written about Welland:

“Welland’s three major plants – Atlas Steel, Electro Metallurgical, and Page-Hersey Tubes – employ 5,000 people and are all expanding. Atlas, pioneer of stainless steel, recently opened a big cold reduction mill while Page-Hersey, making Canada’s only 16-inch seamless weld pipe in a new $5 million plant, provided the bulk of the newly-opened Western oil pipeline.”

Fast forwarding to present day, we know what happened this week at the sprawling, former Page-Hersey (and subsequent incarnations) site on Ontario Road and Dain Avenue. It was reported that current owner Energex Tube idled operations for an unspecified time, casting doubt about the future of 126 hourly and 36 salaried employees.

To many, the city is adrift in the economic uncertainty of the so-called post-smokestack, post-blue collar age. For Welland and Wellanders, an all too familiar pattern of recent years seems to be one of: one step forward followed by two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back. For example, consider the recent economic development plan (presented to the city council Tuesday, March 18, 2014) reporting that Welland’s employment base increased even as old factories were in the process of closing and laying off workers. Then factor in this week’s Energex Tube announcement about idling its mill operations indefinitely. In my perspective, this is example of one step forward, two steps back.

For too many years now, the City has been living behind a motto and image that are from another era. The late, great local historian William H. Lewis makes this a salient point in a chapter in Volume 2 of his Welland trilogy, A History of the City of Welland.  Mr. Lewis devotes 29 pages in the book to Chapter 5, Where Rails and Water Meet. He tells a great story about the association of railways and canals, indeed it is one of the most captivating chapters in his work.

Did you know, for example, that by the late 1800s, “Welland had become the major transportation hub of the Niagara Peninsula for shipping and railway traffic”, that Welland was served by six rail transportation companies and at one time 46 passenger trains stopped at one or another of Welland’s train stations each day?

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But Mr. Lewis also writes (the book was published in 2000 in its first edition) after going to great lengths tracing the decline of railways in Welland: “The railroads, which for so many years were vitally important to the life and prosperity of Welland, have all but disappeared. Only some ruins remain.

“Where Rails and Water Meet is no more.”

This point-blank pronouncement certainly was not made by a shoot-from the-lip irresponsible chronicler; Mr. Lewis knew the Welland story and Welland history after perhaps decades of research and study – some of it gained on walking tours of local points of interest, canal artifacts among them.

Some readers may point to the Townline Tunnel as a modern-day  example of where rails and water meet. Although the configuration is there, the presence of these two transportation modes is barely noticeable among city folk due to the canal relocation project, completed in 1972. The old saw: out of sight, out of mind certainly applies in this instance. And of course the role of the railway is a far cry from what it used to be.

Another figurative example was (and still is though in diminished capacity) is Bridge15, the former railway swing bridge situated between Sixth and Seventh streets on the east-side. Literally in the shadow of the high profile vertical lift bridge at Main Street, Bridge 15 is obscure to most in the city except perhaps neighbourhood residents. Built around 1910, it is a relic and an eyesore, but it’s also much more.

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At best, this bridge, due to unfinished work, is an accident waiting to happen. At worst, it’s a possible death trap in waiting. The accompanying photos (taken Thursday, March 27, 2014 around 11 a.m.) show the gaping spaces in what used to be one side of the decking on which the west-bound line ran. I have photos in my archive that show this bridge in similar condition in the summer of 2013. As of Feb. 26, I know the City and the bridge owner, Canadian Pacific Railway, were in negotiations for completion of the work. One would hope this work will be consummated ASAP, certainly before the start of summer holidays, when cyclists and walkers – many of them children – use the bridge to cross from one side of the waterway to the other. (Regarding rail traffic, the bridge is used only occasionally by a local short line railway servicing the Vesuvius Industries plant on the west side.)

Worth drawing attention two is another reference from Where Rails and Water Meet, by author Lewis. He writes that a design for an official crest for the City of Welland was approved by the town council in 1913. He also draws attention to the fact the crest “was updated” in the early 1950s. For this writer, the question arises: if it was updated about 60 years ago, could it not be updated again – in a way that would make it more relevant to our times? The city motto appears on a banner near the bottom of the crest.

But why so much hubbub about something like a motto? Because Welland needs something positive that can inspire, motivate, challenge, invigorate, uplift us as a community. A new motto and maybe an updated crest could be a vehicle to put that process – and it would be a long-term process – into action. I’m tired of the bile and blather of on-line commentators hiding behind the protection of pseudonyms and anonymity – their rants and ravings take a toll on the community’s psyche, nourish negativity and undermine morale. It’s time this is upstaged. I’m not so naïve to think an updated or new city motto would be the end-all to our problems –  but it could become a platform from which we could build on.

Looking into the rear-view mirror at what used to be is an easy enough exercise. But Welland and Wellanders must spend more time looking ahead – as some grass roots groups are doing on their own initiative, and that’s encouraging, perhaps even promising. Here on the tracks of time, Welland is in need of an elixir, something to replace a dated, faded motto – or is it an epitaph: Where Rails and Water Meet.

(A former reporter and city editor, Joe Barkovich lives in his hometown of Welland, Ont., Canada’s Rose City.)

 

 

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