ON May 26, the book closed on the 102-year-old life of George Lewis. Blind for two decades Lewis was otherwise perfectly healthy. The man was talkative up to those final hours, before his heart gave out, while sitting on a favourite chair in the porch of his St Vincent Street home overlooking San Fernando.
Lewis was celebrated at his funeral last Monday. It took three eulogists to cover this span, with family recalling his Grenadian birth on Christmas Eve 1911, that boat trip to King’s Wharf, San Fernando, around age 20, and how he came to have seven children by four women, but faithful to his wife of 61 years, Ada, whom he outlived by 12.
He was remembered as a tradesman and welder who retired in his 70s as the watchman over the assets of the Oilfields’ Workers Trade Union’s Paramount Building headquarters in San Fernando, the place where he celebrated his 100th birthday, toasted by union leaders.
However, it may surprise many who knew the man that Lewis was also one of the few surviving employees of that passenger and cargo rail operation known as the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR). The system, vestiges of which can still be seen if you look close enough, operated between 1876 and 1968. The TGR was credited with lofty things like impacting the country’s demographics and development, and equally important events, like lovers finding each other along the line.
The TGR was also the employer of the legendary Ulric Cross, who left the railway to join the British Royal Air Force in World War II, and would be involved in the D-Day invasion of France by the Allied Forces which repelled and ultimately defeated Nazi Germany 70 years ago this month. (Cross, the most decorated West Indian to fight in that war, died last October at age 96).
Lewis was part of the TGR from 1940 to 1965 (on August 30 of that year, the train made its final run to the San Fernando and Rio Claro railway stations as the system began folding). Only family knew of that chapter of his life, said his daughter Sandra. Few knew that his blindness was the end result of the welding done of the rails, which damaged his eyes as a young man. The only evidence remaining is a little black book with the TGR stamp in which Lewis recorded the dates and locations of his shifts as foreman in charge of a gang maintaining the lines.
But there is another TGR man who Lewis worked with, and who preserved many more things from back then. Signal man Paul David, who ended up living a couple streets away from the Jerningham Junction Railway Station where he worked, is 86 years old and can tell the people of the area everything about that once important place which no longer exists. It was where the rails coming from Rio Claro intersected those coming from Siparia and San Fernando. And if you are still doubtful, David has his whistle, pocket watch, and the buttons of the TGR uniform, as evidence.
David will tell you that his early life was tough, simple because nothing came easy. Born near the Caparo railway station, his mother dying when he was four, David, an only child, said he was raised by his seamstress grandmother and woodcutter grandfather. He got his education at the village Roman Catholic school, and ended up a handyman at age 14, trying to supplement the family’s income. He remembered the gentleman from the village, Sahadeo Maharaj, who helped the less fortunate boys “who he hated to see idle”.
“He gave me a letter, to take to the railway office in Port of Spain. My grandparents didn’t even have the money to send me. The station master loaned my grandparents the money for the return ticket to Port of Spain. They had to pay it back”. David said he made the trip alone, and got the job after an interview – to work for ten dollars a month, with a five-dollar allowance.
“Some things you never forget. The day was January 3, 1944. It was like my birthday, the beginning of my life. The officer asked if I have money to get back home. I said yes. That was the last time I ever had to pay. I got a pass to get from Carapo to Jerningham Junction, where I was assigned, as signal student”.
David said the signal man’s job was crucial at Jerningham since three trains met there each day, except Sundays and public holidays. He had to learn to operate 28 colour-coded levers, which switched the rail lines and ensured the trains were on the correct tracks so there was no collision. There could be no mistakes.
David would be reassigned to the St Joseph station, then to San Juan, and California, where the TGR trains crossed paths with the sugar estate locomotives that brought the cane harvest to Brechin Castle.
He became a permanent employee in 1946 and moved into a cabin at Phoenix Park, before transfer to the Pointe-a-Pierre Railway Station, where aviation fuel was pumped into tanks, taken by rail to Caroni and eventually to Piarco.
It would turn out that at that Pointe-a-Pierre location, David would be the boss of his own father, McKinley David, who was promoted from porter to points man at the Pointe-a-Pierre rail yard.
David said he also worked the Union Hall, San Fernando line, Brechin Castle, Exchange, before returning to Jerningham (meeting, along the way, TGR engine driver William Edwards, station masters Monteith Saunders, and Leon Park, and master guard Emmanuel George, all still alive, and featured previously in the Express Remembering the Past articles).
He said he was aboard the train when it took that final trip to Rio Claro on August 30, 1965, the same day the San Fernando line closed. David was transferred to the St Joseph station. He was also on duty at the Port of Spain railway station on December 28, 1968, the final day of the TGR, when a trip was made from the city to the St Joseph station and back.
Sitting on a chair he salvaged from the Jerningham station, David closed his eyes and remembered: “I heard the engine. A single blast of the whistle. I said oh, he coming on number one (line). We coupled up (the carriages). They went out. Came back in. The driver shut down the engine and came out. ‘Well that is the last’ he said. When he closed that door, I started to cry, thinking of all those years I worked the railway doing something nobody needed again. I had a wife, five children. I walked out that cabin. And never looked back”.
English Pioneer for Trinidad Railway
Railway historian Glen Beadon, has amassed an incredible amount of material on the TGR. He said that the signal man was a very important job on the TGR as is still the case on any railway system today. Signals are the means of communication between fixed operating staff (stations staff, signal men etc.) and the mobile staff (drivers, firemen etc.) on the railways. Signals were not only provided for safety reasons, they control the flow of traffic and ensured that two trains did not occupy the same section of railway at the same time. As was the case on roads, the railways first used a police force to control traffic. Communication was first made by the use of flags. As time advanced so did signalling technology and later, on signal men took over the role of governing the traffic. Signal boxes controlled sections of line, communicating between each other via a system of bell codes and electric telegraph. A arrangement of levers controlled signalling and track points (or switches), where two tracks merged. In Trinidad, most of the railway signalling equipment and block instruments were manufactured by Tyer & Co. Ltd. and there is a little known historic association with the engineer who erected the worlds very first semaphore signal. Mr. Charles Hutton Gregory (later Sir Charles) was the engineer responsible in 1841 for erecting the worlds very first semaphore signal at a place called New Cross on the London and Croydon railway, in England. In 1871 the very same Charles Hutton Gregory was selected by the Crown Agents for the Colonies, for appointment as chief engineer in the construction of the Port of Spain to Arima Railway. This would of course become the very first line of the Trinidad Government Railway completed in 1876. Sadly, said Beadon, this man, like so many of our TGR railway men, is seldom mentioned today. Sir Charles was responsible for so many aspects of Trinidad's early railway history and the great legacy it left behind.