The Way Freight And Related Memories

by Jim Monkman; originally published in Heritage on the Hill, the newsletter of the Richmond Hill Historical Society of March/April 2010.

The Richmond Hill Historical Society was saddened to learn of the passing of Jim Monkman. Jim supported any and all initiatives regarding history and heritage in Richmond Hill and was always willing to lend a helping hand. He was a member of the Society for many years and served as President. Along with his wife Avonelle, they were dedicated to the preservation of the history of our community.

As part of our 50th Anniversary, as we look back at our own history, we thought it appropriate to share one of Jim’s many contributions to our newsletter from 2010.

Recently, I was enjoying a cup of coffee with John Flood, an old friend. We are both no longer young, indeed, we are well past “middle aged” and if we are not discussing our ailments our conversation is probably about “old times” That particular day we were talking about the era when Richmond Hill was known for the roses grown in the three greenhouses.

The rose growing industry moved from the Bedford Park – Lawrence Avenue area of old North Toronto about 1915 when real estate in that area was increasing in value. Four rose growing greenhouses relocated to Richmond Hill. Mr. Lawrence bought a large acreage bounded by Roseview Avenue, the Railroad Tracks, Markham Road (Major MacKenzie) and Church Street. He built his home, number 114 Roseview, at the corner of Roseview and Pugsley and his greenhouses on Roseview Avenue between his house and the railroad tracks. Harold Mills’ home, number 114 Centre Street East, was built on the north side of Centre Street East and his greenhouses on the west side of Pugsley, north of Centre Street. The Dunlop house was on the north side of what is now Dunlop Street, east of Church Street and his greenhouses ran east from Pugsley to the railroad property. I can’t remember the name of the man who established the fourth rose growing business. It was known as Bedford Park Greenhouse and was at the east end of Bedford Park Rd and east of Pugsley. The Dunlop Greenhouses were later sold to H. J. Mills, which made it the largest greenhouse business in the village

The rose growing business was the main employer in the Village. Men were needed to look after the rose plants, water them and cut the flowers as they grew. The flowers had to be graded and packaged for shipment, some by truck to Toronto and others by train to cities and towns across Canada. Men were also needed to maintain the glass buildings and replace the soil and fertilizer in the raised benches in which the roses were grown. Roses require a lot of heat and stationery engineers were employed to run the high-pressure steam boilers required to heat the greenhouses in our cold climate.

As John and I recalled these long gone days, I mentioned that the coal, which heated the greenhouses, was brought in by the train carload. Our memories and conversation turned to the part that railroad and trains used to play in our lives before the trucking and airline industry took over a lot of their business.

Richmond Hill railway station was a busy place. A great deal of materials arrived by train including coal and lumber.

Spur lines ran from the main railroad track to each of the greenhouse so that the car of coal could be delivered virtually to the boiler room door. John then recalled that another spur line ran to Johnnie Burr’s Mill and Jones coal yard which were located on the east side of Yonge Street almost opposite Levendale. Immediately, my memory took me back through the years to a bright sunny fall day in 1944.

I was fourteen years old, a student in grade 10 in the High School on Wright Street. We lived on Roseview Avenue and I always went home for lunch. This particular day, I didn’t really want to get back to school in time for the first period. I can’t recall why but as I left home I thought I would drop by the Railroad Station first to see if any of my compatriots who felt the same way would be there. The railway station was a gathering place for many of us boys and Y. B. Tracy, the station agent, kept a supply of sports equipment for our use. Not of course when we were supposed to be in school. This day I would keep out of sight of his office. The station was situated at the foot of Centre Street East. It was a fairly big property on which were the Station building, which contained the Station Agent’s Office, a waiting room for passengers and living quarters for the Agent’s family. A plank platform ran between the building and the main set of tracks north to the freight shed and the big water tank. The steam engines usually needed to fill up their tanks after pulling a load of box or passenger cars uphill from downtown Toronto. Water was pumped from a dam the railroad had built on the nearby tributary of the Rouge River to keep this big tank full.

East of the main line was a “siding” which a northbound train could switch onto and wait to allow a fast south bound passenger train to pass. West of the station buildings was the station work yard where spur lines ran to the greenhouses and coal yards.

A work train called a Way Freight would come once or twice a week to deliver full cars of coal or lumber etc and take away empty ones. The Way Freight would call at stations between Toronto’s marshalling yard and other stations on the line to do this. The next large marshalling yard was at Allendale adjacent to Barrie.

There wasn’t anyone at our usual meeting spot but the Way Freight was hooking onto an empty hopper car on I. D. Ramer’s coal yard siding. I stopped to watch and to my surprise the engineer called down to me from the cab of the steam engine “ Would you like to come for a ride. We have to pick up a car at Jones’ Coal Yard”. I leaned my bike against a nearby shed and hastily climbed up into the cab.

What a thrill. I had never dreamed of having such an opportunity. I told the Engineer and the Fireman my name and thanked them for letting me accompany them. Then, I carefully looked around.

The engineer sat on the right hand side of the cab and the fireman on the left. There were some gauges, which I guessed were showing such things as the water level in the tank above the firebox, the steam pressure, the air pressure for the train’s braking system etc. At the rear was a coal tender containing the coal to heat the water for the steam. The throttle to make the train move was by the engineer’s hand and there were some levers beside him which I assumed were to control the direction the engine would travel, the air brakes etc.

The engineer proceeded to move the train away from Ramer’s building and we travelled backwards to where there was a switch which took us onto the main spur line and then over to another switch which directed us onto the tracks which went westward to Burr’s Mill and Jones’ coal yard.

The fireman stepped on the treadle in the floor in front of the firebox. This opened the firebox door. He looked in and then motioned me to stand aside a bit and with a big coal shovel in his hand positioned himself so that he was facing the left side of the cab. Then swinging his body to the left toward the coal tender he scooped up a shovel full of coal and in one continuous motion he swung around on his left foot while raising the shovel of coal and simultaneously stepping down on the treadle with his right foot which immediately opened the door of the fire box and as he completed his swinging turn the coal flew off the shovel into the fire. He lifted his right foot off the treadle causing the fire box door to close, swung back around on his left foot to the coal tender his shovel coming down to the floor scooping up another load of coal which he lifted up and repeated his previous action until he was satisfied no more coal was needed. He did this so easily and gracefully it was as rhythmic as if he had been accompanied by music. I never forgot how he did such a backbreaking job so gracefully that it looked as if he was dancing to music and enjoying it.

In a couple of years, I had a summer job working in John Sheardown’s coal yard. I remembered that fireman’s action and found that if, when I was unloading a load of coal from the truck I could imitate that fireman’s swinging motion the work was so much easier.

How our world has changed. As well as the roses being grown in Richmond Hill there were other large rose growing business, Dale’s in Brampton and Miller’s in Concord. Now the roses we buy for our wives are flown in from South America. Coal, once used to heat the greenhouses and our homes and factories is seldom if ever seen. The coal yards have been replaced by oil trucks and gas lines. The Grist Mills, also as farmers have their own tractor powered equipment to turn their oats into food for their cows. The spur rail lines are long gone and the railway station rests at Richmond Green. And those splendid steam locomotives with their lonesome whistles which warned of their approach are very few in number and used only to give entertaining rides on long abandoned railway lines.

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