Published in The Globe and Mail on June 5, 2007.
Virtually every day of my now well-established morning routine, I pass through the main concourse of this city’s majestic and historic Windsor Station. More often than not when I do so, this now defunct jewel of Victorian urban architecture is devoid of human beings and all mortal activity. Occasionally, but just occasionally, when the grand hall has been leased for an evening gala, workmen will be found configuring the space for that specific happening. This, however, is the exception and not the rule.
Normally, whenever I enter this august expanse from Montreal’s golden past, my pace slows and I meander about the celebrated complex in deep reflection. I always stop for a few moments in front of the venerable brass-framed departure and arrival board which today poignantly displays eight large photos from the edifice’s illustrious by-gone times. My preferred depiction is the one from the period of the Second World War where the concourse is replete with soldiers and sailors, all seemingly about to go off to conflict. I eagerly scrutinize the image, looking intently at the diverse faces present in the black and white representation. Many, aware that the picture was about to be taken, peer resolutely back at me, and into history.
From a personal perspective, my initial (albeit vague) memory of this striking railway station goes back to my early childhood when my mother took my sister and me to the passenger depot to greet my father who was returning, via New York, from a two month business jaunt to England. At that time, more often than not, one accomplished the trans – Atlantic voyage by ship. So it was on June 16, 1953 that my father arrived at Manhattan’s West 50th Street port terminal in the Big Apple. The vessel upon which he had sailed the Atlantic was none other than the Cunard Liner “Queen Elizabeth,” at the time styled “the world’s largest liner,” and conveying on that particular journey some 1,913 travellers. Later that same day, he made his way from New York, by overnight train, to this city’s Windsor Station where the three of us were anxiously awaiting his return. My sister, then eight, remembers our parents’ long embrace.
For my part, a mere child of six at the time, I don’t recall much of what I imagine was a distinctly happy family event. Regardless, little could I have realized that some fourteen years later that same grey limestone-clad rail terminus would, for a brief period of time, become pivotal to my own life. In fact, it was during the summer of 1967, some forty years ago, and I recollect it like yesterday. I was engaged as a garcon de table on Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental run, the origin of which was that same iconic Windsor Station. What better way, I thought, for a poor struggling university student to celebrate Canada’s Centennial than travelling the country while, at the same time, earning ready money !
In all events, as it turned out, I reported to the station once a week to a rather drab-looking office just beyond the security buffers found at the end of each track. Once there, I met up with the other members of my standing crew; we all signed in, then climbed aboard our quaint and dated dining car wagon for its 8:00 P.M. departure, bound for Western Canada. Lucklessly (as we then thought), our part of the run ended in Winnipeg and, consequently, none of us ever got to see the Rockies and, beyond them, Vancouver, about which we had all dreamt. As yesterday!
In so far as the renowned Montreal train terminal was concerned, barely twenty, I was completely oblivious to it and the significance of its history to this city. Indeed, the limitations of advanced adolescence are such that I did not even once recall that joyful family morning in June of 1953, and, without doubt, was totally unaware of the incredible tragedy that unfolded in that very same station some fifty-eight years earlier.
For on that star-crossed St. Patrick’s Day of 1909, several lives were lost when an out-of-control express passenger train from Boston blasted its way through, first the buffers, then the ladies’ waiting room, before finally coming to rest on the main concourse of the station itself, killing or injuring all those who were in its unfortunate way. Both the fireman and the engineer had jumped from the ill-fated locomotive before it careered wildly into the terminal early that morning, all so many years ago. Mr. W. J. Nixon of 143 Ash Street, Montreal, lost his wife and both children – all three meeting death while waiting for him in the Ladies’ Waiting Room, a portion of which was altogether levelled by the force of the violent impact. Intriguingly, in a strange twist of fate, a third child, one Elsie Villiers, a survivor of the infamous 1907 Hochelaga School fire which cost the lives of sixteen pupils and their heroic teacher Sarah Maxwell, was killed instantly when hefty debris fell upon her as a result of that tragic mishap. Sic transit gloria mundi..
Footprints? Tomorrow morning when I next find myself standing well-nigh alone in the salle des pas perdus of the beautiful Windsor Station, I will muse on the above, and the tracks, happy and not so happy, that have been left behind by all who have passed within its historic fortress-like walls.