I have an absolute fascination with defunct infrastructure. I’m not precisely sure why that is, unless it has to do with the people. Yes, I think it’s the lives – the feelings that the infrastructure engenders.
Take this old rail bed, for example. Here we are in southern Alberta, just off of what is today’s Highway #2, a little south of Cayley. Without knowing precisely when it was built I can surmise that it was one of the branch lines between the main lines of the Trans-Canada railroad. (I’m actually learning about this in school right now.)
Being one of the branch lines it was probably built between about 1890 and 1900, although it might have been a bit later. Regardless, when I look at this old rail bed I think of all the work, all the sweat, tears, and blood it took to pull it all together. I see a wagon over on the right perhaps, where meals were cooked. I see hordes of men wielding tools for digging and shovelling and laying gravel. I see ties being brought in and fastened to the ground, and rails being fastened to the ties.
I think of the families – the support networks behind these hard-working men – the wives and children back in town, dependent yet supporting. I see all the hardships of breaking a new land, of breathing new spirit into a phenomenally old place. Then I ponder the purpose of the infrastructure – was it for carrying coal from the Crowsnest Pass, or grain from southern farmers’ fields? Was it a passenger route, or was it a combination of both? And when I’m finished thinking about the place and the people and the purposes, I consider the conditions on board for the people who took that train. Was it comfortable, or were they packed in tightly, with barely any room to breathe? I speculate on all these things and they really bring this area’s history alive for me.
But the noise of these ghosts, the clanging of metal on metal, the dropping of gravel beds, the shouts and cries of frustration and pain, ends quickly the moment I contemplate how far we’ve come in such a short time – how in the last hundred years the developed world has exploded, technologically, into the unrecognizable place we see today. Can you picture any of these railway workers putting down the shovel, and taking a cell phone break? Or, can you picture yourself actually being on the end of that shovel, hucking slag and slamming spikes to build your own world?
You can go to historical villages if you like – places like Heritage Park here in Calgary – and you’ll see a lot and learn a lot about the way things were. But to find a little scrap of reality like this rail bed, or an old tunnel or bridge abutment, or perhaps even an abandoned town, just seems to be a far more legitimate connection with our historical past. Somewhere between your eyes and your imagination lies a world that used to be. It lies beneath your feet, and even now you’re standing on the labour and toil of the people who came before you.
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