WHEN Emmanuel Brown was a child, his view of the world extended no further than the distance he could walk, run or ride a bicycle.
The son of “hill rice” farmers living at Watts Trace, Brothers Road, Tabaquite, Brown, born in 1918, was raised on provisions and porridge, hoeing the fields alongside siblings and parents who worked in cocoa plantations that were then as important as the sugar cane crop.
Brown didn’t squander his chance at Sisters Road Anglican Primary School and used that bicycle to set off on his own, when old enough. He got a job picking cocoa at $3 a day, then as a fitter on the water pipeline-laying project, at $30 a fortnight. But the moment that changed his life came during a visit to the Brothers Train Station, then an important terminal between Jerningham Junction, Chaguanas and Rio Claro.
“A railway station master, Mr Noriega, called me over and asked if I wanted a job. I said yes. And right there I became a scale man, weighing the produce that people were bringing to the station on their donkey carts to sell,” said Brown during an interview with the Express last week.
Brown, who is a month shy of his 96th birthday, is likely the oldest surviving employee of Trinidad Government Railway (TGR). The TGR, between 1876-1968, laid down 170 kilometres of line that extended from Port of Spain to Sangre Grande, Rio Claro and Siparia, creating a transportation network that railwaymen will tell you moved people and cargo far more efficiently than what exists today.
Brown would stay with the TGR until it folded, moving through the ranks to retire as an assistant Master Guard. He travelled every metre of that rail line and remembers every significant moment, including the famed last train to San Fernando on August 30, 1965.
A video of the train’s final trip, produced by railway historian/researcher Glen Beadon and available on YouTube, captures Brown standing outside the train in Port of Spain, examining the tickets of passengers lucky enough to be on that final run.
Brown would also work as a porter at the Penal railway station before getting a letter asking him to report to Port of Spain.
“I was told there I would be a brakeman. My job was to turn a big wheel (on an individual carriage) to slow the train when it was coming in to the (terminal) platform. I was a big man, tall and strong, so I could do that job easy.”
Brown, who has worn a beard all through his life, said he earned a promotion to guard, supervising the embarking and disembarking of passengers, with the duty of signalling to the engine driver, with a lantern, when it was safe to set off.
It was a time when the TGR uniform was as sharp as that of a military man, with Brown supervising his train in cap and black jacket with big silver buttons shined with Brasso to match the sheen of his leather shoes, lily-white handkerchief hanging rakishly from back pocket.
By then, he was a taken man, having attended a christening in Chaguanas (in buffed white shoes and grey suit) where he met and wooed Stephanie Llanos, becoming father to her five children and with whom he lived until her death in May 2011 at age 89.
A sixth child would be born and all would share memories of a father often away from home and riding the rails, but providing everything they needed to be content.
And what stories he would return with. About the man who came home to find his wife with another man and killed her before lying on the track and being cut in half by the steel wheels of the 6.30 a.m. train out of Port of Spain.
“The engine driver saw him and blowing the horn and tried to stop. I looked out to see him. He had thrown himself on the track. I will never forget that. One (severed) leg in a dungaree pants. He died with his boots on,” Brown told the Express.
And of approaching the Princes Town railway station located in a valley which he remembered being called “Marjorie’s Bottom”, to see smoke coming from the Chinese shop set on fire by arsonists hired by a woman who would later be imprisoned for her crime.
Of allowing those who couldn’t afford it to sneak on to the train and buying tickets for others, and of the last train to San Fernando in ‘65.
“That was an exciting, joyful day. The train was packed to capacity. People were all on the footboard, but you couldn’t tell anybody anything that day. You just had to take it easy, so I told the driver (Weston Rock) look for my lantern signal. Green mean it safe to go, red mean stop. And that is how we did it. It was almost night time when we reached.”
Of Mr Heru, the basket seller, who missed the steam train and had to run after it as it gasped out of the San Pedro train stop.
“I heard the fella saying stop! The engine driver slowed and I leaned out, held on to Mr Heru’s hand and pulled him inside. But the train didn’t go ten feet when Mr Heru died right there, leaning against me, from a heart attack. The fellas who were with me disappear one time! I had to carry Heru all the way to Jerningham Junction, and back to Rio Claro to the mortuary. By that time, the whole line knew and people kept peeping in to see every time the train stopped.”
And of that day back in the 50s when he left on a “special train” to collect cargo in Cunupia, a man short, and got two fingers of his left hand crushed as he connected two wagons.
“I told the station master, I get damaged, boy. He look at my hand and nearly fainted. Plenty blood. He said if I wanted to go to the San Fernando Hospital. I said no, Port of Spain. I remembering getting in a taxi, lighting a cigarette, and on that trip the driver kept looking at me. I thought he would crash. I told him ‘drive, boy’! Talk about pain? But I stood strong, and when the doctor came and start stitching, I grab Nurse Stephens, who was fanning me. I hook her around the waist and hold on.”
Brown worked for 27 years in the TGR before the government decided it was not worth it. He found work as a foreman on a State housing project in Piarco, before coming full circle and moving into the abandoned old station master’s house overlooking what was once the Brothers Railway Station, where he returned to planting the land.
He has since moved to Siparia to be closer to the children (Polina and Angela) who now help care for him.
And it is there that, during that interview with the Express last week, Brown was asked if he ever heard of a railwayman named Monteith Saunders, who worked up to the final day the TGR operated in 1968, and who was the subject of last week’s “Remembering our Past” article.
Brown was startled.
“What? Monty? That was my very good friend, my real partner. When I was at the Penal station, he was a student. Ah boy. We had real good times.”
Brown said he last met Saunders, who is now 89 years old and living in Marabella, at Saunders’s new job at the Port of Port of Spain in about 1970. Neither knew the other was still alive.
Last Friday, the Express arranged a meeting between the men.
The moment of their reunion was one you wished could go on forever. All who saw it choked back a tear.
Saunders greeted his friend by his railroad nickname, “Mannie”. The two embraced, then went off on a conversation about times past—lost friends, important events, unforgettable characters—rolling back the years to a time most citizens forgot existed, when, the railwaymen said, Trinidad was a more decent place. They have promised to remain connected now, until the end.
NOTE: There are other TGR employees with stories to tell. The Express intends finding them.