Steam Engines and the Sea in Yesteryear

Sunil Wanigatunga, in Sunday Times, 24 JUne 2018, where the title is “Childhood Memories : A time of sea and steam rail engines”

I  was born in Mount Lavinia by the sea into the salt wind, sea sounds and rumbling steam engines. My father was an advocate who made his family nest at Beach Road in a house procured for a princely rent of forty rupees per month in 1938. Born a weak child with a bleak physical future, the weather fortunes of the oceans and monsoonal rains and winds took their toll by way of constant illness, aided by chronic tonsillitis. This, however, built a natural resistance to all adversity and has stood by me through life embedded in my human frame and mind.

Rumbling, hissing, hooting of the steam engines and the ‘clickety clack’ of the carriages plying the sea bordered rail track, disturbed my father’s work and our sleep at night. However, these sounds intrigued my child mind. Touching the fire of imagination which is the birth right of every child. The magnitude of the power and dreadful noises attracted me to these “Yakada Yakas” a brilliant Sinhala substitute term for the Iron Monster.

Blending with the terrain
I can recall seeing the first diesel engine. When as I was waiting for the noise of whistle and steam I suddenly heard a heavy rumbling noise from the sea side and thinking it was something of the sea beheld a huge engine in maroon colour coming along the railway track. I was flabbergasted. The driver was in an elevated position and looked small in the large cab. This was I believe the first diesel engine of such proportions in Ceylon — the M1. I viewed it as an insipid monstrosity and devoid of all the romance of the steam locos which were relegated to the graveyard of time only to be seen like falling stars on fleeting occasions. So my dreams of being an engine driver were shattered and relegated like the engines to the position of fading memories.

The only diesel engine that attracted me was the Canadian engine, a smart blue and silver loco with different names like “Ontario”, “British Columbia,” “Alberta “and looked elegant with the small twin headlights and having a very natural look like a large insect — the M2. To this day, when I see and hear these engines the railway spirit is kindled in me.

It was countless times and hours by the track that gave me immeasurable joy and heart beating, with childhood exuberance waiting in the hope of seeing an engine pass by, too impatient to know time tables. There were many activities available to satiate the burning childhood fire of expectation and desires. The most sedate but ultra pulsating was to watch the “ Monster” pass by at a distance of 25-30 feet from the rusted barbed wire fence imbibing the terrible noise, heat, smoke, soot and charcoal dust sometimes getting into the eye, part and parcel of the total experience . The engine drivers, mostly burgher gentlemen in their khaki “soot” literally and the firemen sometimes barechested virtually steaming with sweat to keep the “Yakada Yaka” going on the track. The engine drivers were seated or standing sometimes looking from a large vent placed the sides of the engine always looking through the glass or side constantly hooting to warn people of the approaching engine. The other was waving hoping for response mainly a hearty wave, stare giving the message ‘who is this imp’ or completely ignoring. The more dangerous pastimes were running with the train or even in childish bravado by putting stones on the rails hoping the train would topple or be derailed.

The rail track and the sea taught me even as a child to see death and life as inevitable facts of life. The sea on the one hand having a great cross section of life in its birds, fish, turtles, jelly fish, fisher folk and their vibrant activities, people who sea bathed and lovers, the list goes on. An ever growing plant life, with unique varieties. One saw death in the fish that were daily killed by drawing nets and fishing boats that had gone out to sea sometimes in the night and others in the day. The night fish catch called ‘Ra Mudu’. To add the fish vendors who carried a variety of fish, crabs, lobsters. Turtle eggs were brought early morning to the house and gobbled up by us children with salt and pepper oblivious to the destruction of the turtles. The rail track had people, (Railway party) the khaki-clad railway workers repairing, bolting, hammering, railing and waving green and red flags for the trains, a motley but garrulous lot. The various vendors of different wares gram, pineapple ‘bombai muttai’ peddling them to the folk especially the lovers in the wetakeya bushes who were forced to cough out money to avoid detection by others.

I have entrenched memories of the upcountry train ride specially the Kadugannawa railway station and railway yard. The train journey was full of pleasant and inner life generating greenery of paddy fields, trees, buffalos plowing the muddy fields driven by shouts of the white turbaned paddy cultivators, sometimes lucky to see the beautiful ‘nil goyama’ of the infant paddy plants, the enchanting forest cover that bred a multitude of visions and dreams, including the hideout of ‘Saradiel’ the Robin Hood of Ceylon.

The wonderful and memorable experiences of the Kadugannawa railway yard are by itself fit for a story. My father had a friend who owned a tea wstate above the Kadugannawa railway station and we spent many a holiday there. We stayed in a bungalow overlooking the Station from the hillside, a quaint house with wall paper which was alien to us sea lubbers. There were many Kitul trees and we imbibed the maiden unfermented sap of the Kitul flower called “Thelijja” the delicious nectar. Invariably I and my younger sibling went to the railway yard and watched the engines being made ready and the boilers started, oiling and such work which were essential part of my railway dream. There were several types of steam locos from the shunting up to the majestic Garrets. I loved the Garrets and watched them at close quarters absorbing their power and gigantic proportions compared to the other engines.

Garret at full power
These Garret engines had a special place in my tiny mind. The drivers and fireman were quite friendly and tolerant towards me and my brother and explained to us some of the workings, levers, meters, hooter, more so the firing of the boiler which we saw in situ and the coal which was an experience to touch and feel.

A Garret at Nawalapitiya
The elevated signal box was another target for us; with luck we found our way in and watched in amazement. The “turntable” by which the steam locos were turned around was a masterpiece modelled on simple basics. My greatest joy was when I was offered a ride in a steam loco which was turned around at the “turntable
The restaurant car had a special place in my father’s railway journey, for he loved to be seated there enjoying a “British” breakfast with ham, bacon and eggs with tea or coffee served by smart white coated and brass buttoned waiters, always at service with cordiality and concern, very unlike the present set.

The next interesting place was the sleeping berth. My father travelled by train sometimes to Badulla or Bandarawela by Night Mail when he went for cases. We were entertained as children in the berth for a while to bid him farewell. The brass wash basin which was opened by pressing a button was an item that endeared to my railway dream. The step ladder to the upper berth would be climbed by me if my father got it for his journey.

The railway guards formed the smart elite of the service. Dressed in black coats, with silver buttons, white trousers, and black caps and well polished black shoes. Always, a flag or lantern in hand they played a vital role both for the safety of the travellers and the train itself. This was a severe contrast to the khakhi gentry who were with the ‘grit and dust’ of the Railway service. I used to admire an uncle of mine, a Railway head guard whom I met in my trek to school when we had shifted out of the sea and rail track environment. From what I heard from my uncle, it was a lonely and energy-sapping life.

A KV Line steam locomotive
The Narrow Gauge line has a history of its own. The information available refers to an early line 2’6” that plied the hill country and known as the Uda- Pussellawa line that ran from Nanu-oya to Ragala, a distance of 32 kilometres with steep gradients as 1 in 24 — started in 1902-4 and closed in 1940. The Uda Pussellawa had one Garret imported in 1930. Classed h1H1 and numbered 293, it toppled over in 1942.

I have been greatly inspired to write this after reading the books of Hemasiri Fernando, a vibrant force in the preservation of steam rail and its glorious memories. I am indebted to Vinodh Wickremeratne and Niroshan Panapitiya and J.F. Tours & Travels (pvt) Ltd.

The writer is an attorney-at-law and a steam railway enthusiast.

1 Comment

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One response to “Steam Engines and the Sea in Yesteryear

  1. Patrick Rodrigo

    The wash basins were chrome plated brass.The night mail to Trincomalee was my favorite as a kid, I also was proud to get a ride on one of the first Diesel Prime Movers on the up country tracks.

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