July 03, 2013

Train display recreates Credit Valley landscape

As published in Caledon-Erin Sideroads

The locomotive glides smoothly through the hills of Caledon, hauling a precious cargo of memories along the banks of the Credit River.

The model Credit Valley Railway display that Steve Revell has built in his garage captures an era when trains were still a vital service for passengers and businesses in Caledon, Orangeville and Erin – complete with people, cars and the Niagara Escarpment terrain.

A model train crosses the river on the Credit Valley Railway, approaching Forks of Credit Station just east of Belfountain, headed for Orangeville. Just to the north at Cataract, a branch line was opened in 1879, providing rail service to Erin, Hillsburgh, Orton, Fergus and Elora. Those rails were lifted in 1988 and it is now the Elora-Cataract Trailway.
Steve bought his first train set when he was 12, with earnings as a paper boy, though the hobby was soon surpassed by his interest in cars and girls. After he got married, his wife Donna knew of his previous interest, and bought him a train engine.

"That led to a railroad, in our first apartment, taking over the dinette," said Steve. "In our second place it took over a bedroom, and in our third place it took over the basement."

After moving to Erin in 1986, it was decided that no cars would occupy the double garage. It was to become the stage for an extravagant train and miniature landscape creation that would encompass Steve's interest in history, trains, classic cars and the natural environment.

Steve shows off his multi-level model train display, which has scenes from the 1950s depicting the industrial section of old Brampton, rural Caledon and the town of Orangeville.

"I use inexpensive materials and recycle them," said Steve. The viewing platforms are built out of bi-fold doors, and the hills and valleys out of foam and paper towel.

Basswood bark can be made to look like limestone outcroppings. Weeds and pickled lichen come in handy for greenery, though they can be improved with glycerine and green dye. And whiskers no longer needed by his cat serve as fishing poles for little people by the river.

He has built in "O" scale, which is 1/48 of actual size. A figure of six-foot-tall person is 1.5 inches tall, and rail cars are big enough to look inside. He has separate sets of trains, so he can portray the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s.

He uses old photos of historic buildings to learn their details, and if they still exist, he'll show up with a tape measure to make sure he gets the dimensions right.

"It's almost finished," he said, showing off the barn he had just added to his countryside. More than just an ongoing project, the display has become a meditative place, where the hum of remote-control engines helps him reflect on his explorations of the real world.

"It's a very soothing sound. I've been here. I've hiked here. I've explored these buildings. I've seen trains climbing these grades. It's re-creating good times."

Living in Mississauga and Brampton he was always close to the Credit Valley Railway, which had been part of the rail boom of the late 1800s, so it was an obvious choice for an ambitious modeler and history teacher.

"It goes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Southern Ontario," said Steve. A walk in his garage proceeds from Orangeville, though Cataract and Forks of the Credit, and into the industrial area of Brampton. It is something he has created for his own enjoyment, and he does not offer public tours.

Steve retired from the Peel Board of Education in 2002, after 17 years at Alloa Pubic School and 14 at Caledon Central Public.

"I'd take kids out for hikes to Cataract, through the Forks park, down to Forks of the Credit, and then up the escarpment," he said. It's a nature walk, a taste of local history and a lesson on the evolution of Canada's economy.

One of the many quarries in the Forks area that provided business for the CVR, and distinctive pink sandstone for construction of the Ontario Legislature building.
"Through the Credit Valley, you have the farms, the quarries, the bricks, the mills, the logging, the power generation. It's Ontario history, the succession of it, and that's why I love the Elora-Cataract Trailway."

Steve was part of the group that worked with conservation authorities to establish the trailway. He has also chaired the Erin trails committee, helping build the Woollen Mills Trail and expand the local hiking network.

"I always felt that I was fortunate, and that I should be giving back," he said.

He has a favourite bit of poetry by Alexander McLachlan (also known for an ode to Erin founder Daniel McMillan), who in 1874 wrote of the railway:

"And from Chinguacousy's fertile plains
We hear the thunder rally,
To open up wealth's thousand veins,
Throughout the Credit Valley."

Figures of Steve playing with a cat beside the tracks, along with his father Gerry and daughter Peggy. The train display allows him to enjoy his interest in vintage car models.
Rail fans have a fascination with the human drive to harness technology, undertaking high-risk ventures and altering the environment in hopes of making a profit. In an era without trucks and good roads, trains provided an efficient alternative to boats for the movement of freight, providing access to inland areas of Southern Ontario.

In the 1870s, entrepreneur George Laidlaw built the CVR to compete with established rail lines. He had a $3,000 per mile government subsidy and huge investments from businesses and municipalities wanting reliable transportation. Wellington County pledged $135,000 and Peel $75,000.

"The CVR was already in serious financial trouble by the time it reached Erin in 1879," said Steve, in a booklet on Erin history he published in 2007.

Fraxa Junction, north-west of Orangeville.
"The arrival of the railway did facilitate travel to the outside world, but for the village itself the railway was more of a convenience than a stimulus for economic growth. Passenger service was limited after the Crash of 1929 and abandoned in 1958."

The CVR had a line west from Toronto to St. Thomas, a branch north from Streetsville to Orangeville and later to Georgian Bay, plus the Elora sub-branch.

The business collapsed under heavy debt in 1883, with its valued routes scooped up by Canadian Pacific, but the culture of the project is still admired.

A model of the old Orangeville station with its distinctive "witch's hat" turret and pointed roof as it looked in the 1950s. The real building was sold and moved in the early '80s, becoming a restaurant in downtown Orangeville.
Freight continues to move up and down the valley on the local CVR route, now used by the 55-km Orangeville Brampton Railway. The Credit Valley Explorer offers scenic train tours out of Orangeville and spectacular bridges remain as monuments to a bygone era.