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The term "Riding the Rails" is rather synonymous with "The Great Depression" of the 1930's.  A short distance from the tracks that ran through the McCowan farm in Scarborough was a woodlot which, one day, caught the attention of a transient sitting on a box car...


By Bill McCowan

The Canadian National Railway running from Montreal to Toronto, being double tracks, was a very busy line before transport trucks and super highways became popular. When we were in the fields we could tell the time by the whistles of the Passenger trains - one in the morning going to Montreal at 9:40. The 12 o'clock whistle at the Ford assembly Plant on Danforth at Victoria Park told us it was dinner time. There was a 4:20 Flyer to Montreal and a 4:55 Flyer from Montreal as well as a Flyer around 9:30 at night.

At our farm the Scarborough Bluffs were over 300 feet high -- the highest point on Lake Ontario.  Union Station in Toronto and Port Union near the Rouge River mouth were both at lake level. In either direction, it was too big a climb to our farm for one steam engine pulling between 80 and 100 freight cars, so an extra engine stayed at Port Union to help pull the train up the hill to Brimley Road (just past our place) where there was a siding. There the extra engine was often taken off, and the train was let run down the hill to Union Station. There was, of course, an extra engine at Union Station to pull freights up to Brimley from Toronto.

The freights going up past Scarborough Golf Club Road and Scarborough Village were not going too fast, and some of the boys would jump on and off the cars. One boy, Len Orr, slipped and had his leg cut off. He was quite young at the time -- I always remember him at S.S. #9, Scarboro Village School, using a cane and having a wooden leg. Later he mastered the walking and didn't need the cane. He played and skated with everyone else.

Scarboro Village had subdivision Plans and some houses were built. There was to be a Train Station, but due to the hill the trains had too much trouble starting, so the station was never built.

During the Depression many unemployed men rode the rails going from place to place looking for work. The siding at Brimley Road was a good place to embark and disembark. Our farm was the first outside the city, so we had many overnight guests in the barn. There were also many Kingston Road travellers sleeping in the barn too. We gave out many free lunches. We never turned anyone away who wanted food.

In 1933, plus or minus a year or two, one such rail traveller was Mike O'Brien, an Irish, one-eyed sailor who was laid off the lakeboats in the fall. One day my brother, Bob, and cousin, Walter, went to the bush to cut catapult crotch. They found Mike in the bush where he had spent the night under some shelter. He asked them if he could stay the winter. Then Uncle Ashley and Dad apparently said that he could.

In about 1927 or 28, the CNR had bought the land south of the tracks down to the bush just about where the roadway went into the cemetery. They also bought some land on the west side of McCowan Road, the Baird farm. The CNR dug into the side of the hill to level the ground for a marshalling yard where they could make up freight trains. We were told that what they dug out of our place and Bairds was used as fill in the Toronto waterfront near Union Station. As a civil engineer for the CNR, uncle Jack Heron was involved with the marshalling yard. However, the project was stopped when the Depression came along. The marshalling yard was never put in, but some sidings were. Old wooden box cars were stored there - for anybody who wanted the wood it seemed. Mike built a shelter using wood from the box cars and, by digging down, he survived the winter.

The next spring he couldn't get work, so he asked if he could stay longer. He was given permission to build a log cabin. My brothers, cousins and I  helped carry the logs. The cabin was on the south side of the bush so he got shelter from the wind as well as heat from the sun.

Mike also used a bit of land north of the bush for a garden. He made breadboards, wooden fans (some of them double - top and bottom), built a ship inside a bottle and a crystal set radio. He had chickens for a while but had trouble with wild animals from the bush. The next year he built a root cellar on the side of the cabin for his vegetables.

We used to play hockey in "The Pit" (as we called the marshalling yard area) and if we got cold we would go to Mike's to warm up. We always paid him a visit going to and coming from skating anyway. One day when we were haying, the hay fork rope kinked and got caught in the pulley. The horses broke the rope. Mike, being a good sailor was called upon to splice the rope. There was a Jewish cemetery behind the bush, and Mike had a few graves to dig for them. We would visit Mike quite often to listen to his stories. We would quite often take him a Sunday dinner and apples or vegetables.

There were a lot of choke cherry trees in the bush. Mike started making wine and got to like it too much, becoming a bit of a hazard. He also found it easier to collect relief than to work. However in 1939 he just up and left - a good thing because he had been there almost seven years which could have become a problem very soon with Squatters' Rights. With the War starting and then the post War re-establishment, and starting new families of our own, Mike's stay was just a small blip of life soon forgotten. However, I have from time to time often wondered where he went and how he made out in life. I often wished he'd come back for a visit.

Bob told a story about Mike ordering something to be delivered. To identify where he lived he said "McCowans", and put up a wooden sign at the corner of Kingston Road and our sideroad.  This was the very first "McCowan Road" sign.

From The Scarboro Heights Record V6 #1