Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Beauty in Railway Junkyard

I THOUGHT Legacy was dead. How wrong I was; the environmental and historical interest group was still up and about. I was just the one who hadn’t taken the effort to look them up, during a chance visit to their office on Boyle Street in January, my membership was renewed.
And then, a notification popped into my mailbox for a visit to Quarter 17 at the Railway Compound, Ebute Metta — now renamed Francis Jaekel House — the headquarters of the Legacy / Nigerian Railway Joint Committee and protem location, where the committee’s Railway Museum is domiciled — as if affirming beyond all doubts, the organisation’s continued existence.

PREVIOUS excursions with Legacy (sometimes, in conjunction with the Field Society) had led at different times and with different mixes of students, expatriates and other professionals to interesting spots like the old pre-colonial relics on the Orimedu beach on the fringes of Epe, the old lighthouse and other fortifications on Tarkwa-Bay, the Osun groves in Osogbo (where we did get to pose for photographs with the late Suzanne Wenger — then in her 80s — in her house on Obokun road); and of course, the immensely enjoyable Lagos walkabouts, where John Godwin , an invaluable backbone to Legacy, no doubt, would take us like intrepid explorers down Broad Street and up the Marina and other side streets on Lagos Island, on a quiet Sunday morning, discussing the architecture and history of the buildings we encountered.
Other visits carried out in the past include to buildings of historical interest in Epe and the famous earthworks credited to Bilikisu Sungbo in Eredo, Colonial and other slave relics in Badagry, and the Nigerian Railway compound in Ebute Metta from which a couple of train rides had been organized to Abeokuta.
Besides the historical and environmental excursions though, Legacy’s main successes lie in their publication of a map of historical sites and monuments in Nigeria and their different restoration projects such as the Lumpkin House — the Leventis Foundation Building in Lagos Island and Quarter 17, also known as Francis Jaekel House in the Railway Compound, Ebute Metta.

THE museum project had come a long way since Legacy’s first visit to the Railway Compound in 1996. According to Mr. Willie Nwokedi; that visit sparked off interest in the store of historical treasures that the Railway Compound had become, those: Treasures lay in the old buildings, locomotives, workshops and other artifacts that had survived from the glory days of the Railway.
Legacy’s interest paid off a couple of years later when in 1998, the Railway authorities officially handed over Quarters 17, 21 and 24, which had been designated as antiquities buildings and all of the 4.38 acres of what was known as the Carriage and Wagon Running shed where the foundation of the Railway Museum was launched by the then Minister of Transportation —Rear Admiral Porbeni in 1999. Ten years since then however, while some preliminary reclamation work had been done to the Carriage and Wagon Shed, which was planned to house the museum, some more mileage had been achieved at Quarter 17 with the exterior of the building and the whole ground floor having been renovated. It thus made perfect sense to have a mini version of the museum up and running there while funds to put the main facility in shape were being sought.
Hence the summons, Quarter 17 was being put to some use, with a mini exhibition of old photographs showing different scenes from the history of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, old uniforms, equipment, first class cutlery and crockery, maps, aprons, buttons, and a documentary film on the Nigerian Railway Corporation.

IN attendance to receive guests were Prof. John Godwin, Mr. Willie Nwokedi and a few other members of Legacy. On the lawn outside the building were exhibited sample tracks with a maintenance trolley on display and a segment of the old Lagos tramway salvaged by Prof. Godwin from construction workers on the Marina recently.
The railway compound is replete with an air of nostalgia, even for those who never experienced the glory days of the Railway Corporation; there is something about trains, rail travel and the infrastructure that supports them that, for want of a better word, is simply captivating.
The New York subway, for example, so captured the imagination of American youths in the 80s to the extent that a whole new artistic sub-culture was birthed on the sides of the train carriages in the name of graffiti.
There is a serenity that pervades the air at the railway compound in Ebute Metta that gives the place the feel of a time capsule and makes you feel like exploring, and if you are a design enthusiast, given the right kind of guided tour, you will find sufficient material to engage your curiosity as suggested in this excerpt from an invite for a visit to the Railway Compound organized by Legacy in February 2001: “We shall be looking at some of the exhibits, which, although dilapidated, will be restored and painted in their original colours.
“These are awaiting the day, hopefully not too distant, when they will be stripped down and repainted by Legacy volunteers with the assistance of the NRC paint specialists. In the meantime, visitors will be able to take the “before” photographs, some of which will be dramatic, such as the large 40 tonnes breakdown cranes or River Class Steam Loco 207 still standing in the “elephant grass”.
“In addition, Railway staff will be showing us the main repair workshops built by Sir Armstrong Whitworth in the 1920s once described as the finest in Africa, and it is hoped to have access to the drawing office, where we will be able to see the record drawings of our exhibits as well as other items of rolling stock. It may be possible to see Mr. Taylor and Mr.Nwakairie, both ex– steam loco drivers, who can tell us more about the days of steam...”
Hopefully, with the Lagos State Government’s plans for putting a metro line in place, our interactions with trains will not be limited to museum visits in the near future, meanwhile, thanks to Legacy, the glory days are not all lost to us just yet.

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