The Old Trac


99 Empire Avenue

When Shirley Facey and her husband excavated the land around their house, they ended up with a big, ugly, cement wall bordering their lawn. They decided to save their home from unsightliness and save history from obscurity, all in one brush stroke.

“I just thought, ‘Well, you know, why not try to get a picture or a mural or something that meant something to us as family, the history of our family, and also the surrounding area?’” says Facey.

Their cousin, painter Kevin Lewis, adorned the wall with a mural depicting a black train whizzing past the sparse houses that peppered the neighbourhood in the late 1800s.

“We’ve had lots of people stop over the years and look at it and be curious about it,” says Facey. Empire Avenue was built in 1884 as a railway line. Back then, it was known as “The Old Trac,” which is the name on the mural.

“I don’t know if they didn’t know how to spell back then, or what,” Facey laughs.

Empire became a road in 1902 when the train terminal moved to the city’s West End, and soon after, shut down for good. The tracks have since been converted into a walking trail and park, visible from Facey’s front steps.

“All my relatives­—my Grandfather, my uncles—they all worked with the Newfoundland Railway, way, way, way back, as far as I can remember. But that wasn’t why I put the train there,” says Facey. “I just wanted the train there so that people who lived around here, who had been told by their grandparents that this was a railway track—be nudged along and remember.”

Unfortunately, the mural, just like the scene it depicts, will soon vanish. After five years of St. John’s weather, it’s starting to peel, and Facey says they’ll have to scrape it all off and start from scratch with a new painting.

“Whatever we put there, it will most likely be something to do with either this area, or St. John’s. You know, something historical.”

—Sheena Goodyear
Suggestion for a nook? nooks@thescope.ca

89 comments

  1. Dennis · January 29, 2011

    Great piece, Sheena. My girlfriend and I have walked past this mural a lot this summer and have been wondering about the story behind it.

    Kudos to the Faceys for this great idea.

  2. Will · January 29, 2011

    It’s great to hear an acknowledgment of our railway heritage, but there are a couple of statements in the article that I’m puzzled about.

    1. “Empire became a road in 1902 when the train terminal moved to the city’s West End, and soon after, shut down for good.”

    The railway terminus didn’t shut down “soon after” it was moved to the West End — it continued to operate until 1989.

    2. “The tracks have since been converted into a walking trail and park, visible from Facey’s front steps.”

    As I understand it, it’s Empire Avenue itself that used to be the track, not the park. That’s the reason why Empire is on such a steep embankment in this area — it’s the original railway embankment.

    Also, I imagine that Empire was known as “The Old Trac(k)” only AFTER the railway was rerouted via the Waterford Valley — before that, it was the only track we had! (Incidentally, I have an old map of St. John’s on which Empire is called “Old Railway Road.”)