Riding The Rails With Skating Royalty

Vintage photograph of a train on railway tracks
Photo courtesy National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress

In 1804, British Member of Parliament and lawyer Christopher Hely-Hutchinson drew a great crowd of admirers on the banks of the Serpentine River at Hyde Park in London. The London papers raved, "[He] sported an elegant person, and was much admired, both for his agility, and the style in which he executed the graceful figure of the 'detour a la mode'. An unnamed "fashionable gentleman" who joined Hely-Hutchinson performed "his figure to advantage, in describing a heart". Only months prior to the frost that drew Londoners out on the ice that year, the first recorded steam-hauled railway journey took place in Wales. 

The brilliant Emm Gryner's cover of Ozzy Osbourne's song "Crazy Train"

Until and even after commercial flights became 'the norm', railway travel was an often an essential means of transportation for skaters, judges and instructors around the world. Today, we'll explore seven  stories of skaters and trains - some of them very sad and others quite funny!


Advertisement for "America's first" Skate Train

By World War II, taking a train to the famous Swiss skating resorts was old hat in Europe. The first American 'skate train' (modelled after the famous ski trains to Vermont and New Hampshire) left Grand Central Station in New York City on January 25, 1941 bound for Hatch Lake in Woodrow, Connecticut. Those who took the trip, mostly members of the Skating Club of New York, built log fires and had a "gay skating carnival." Ironically, later on in the War the ski trains from Boston to New England's resorts were cancelled due to bans on pleasure driving. Many skiers learned the Waltz and Tenstep at the Skating Club of Boston.


Photograph of John Frederick James 'Icy' Smith
Icy Smith

John Frederick James 'Icy' Smith was the son of a blacksmith; the thirteenth of fourteen children. He was well-known as one of Great Britain's top ice manufacturers in the forties and fifties. He owned an ice factory on the River Wear and the Whitley Bank rink and opened the Durham rink in 1940. That same year, he began his one year term as Mayor of Durham and Darlington. 

During World War II, Canadian Air Force members stationed in the Durham area played hockey at Icy's rink. They weren't just any hockey players either - they were Boston Bruins members Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Corky Dumart. Because of the need to keep the whereabouts of allied forces under wraps, Icy was never able to advertise their exciting demonstrations. 

After the War, Icy constructed the Riverside rink from one of the few materials readily available - coffin wood! An enthusiastic skater himself, he passed the National Skating Association's Bronze Dance Test at the age of sixty. 

On January 17, 1964, at the age of eighty, Icy was struck by a train and killed near the West Jesmond railway station on the North Tyneside line in Newcastle. The January 18, 1964 issue of the "Newcastle Evening Chronicle" reported, "His body was found by a porter 400 yards north of the station on the stretch of line between Lyndhurst Avenue and Brentwood Avenue. No one saw him climbing the four-foot high palings separating the track from the road. No one saw him in the station. A police spokesman said: 'It is a complete mystery how he got there.'... Mr. Smith had disappeared from his home in Hillheads Road, Whitley Bay, hours before he was found dead."  A very sad report from the "Newcastle Journal" the following month confirmed that Icy died by misadventure, trying to cross the tracks because he might have seen a train he thought he was supposed to take. He was suffering from dementia at the time.


Had it not been for her father's success in the railway industry, perhaps Winifred 'Winnie' Tait never would lived the high life and gained membership to the exclusive Montreal Winter Club. Winnie's father, Thomas James Tait, achieved success as one of the most rich and powerful railway executives in both Canada and Australia in the early twentieth century. After serving as the manager of transportation with the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was appointed the chairman of the Commissioners of the Victorian Railways down under. It was at the Melbourne Glaciarium that Winnie first learned to skate. She went on to win a total of four medals at the Canadian Championships in fours skating, including gold in 1920 and 1921. She appeared in skating carnivals in Sherbrooke, Boston and New York with her good friend, fellow Canadian Champion Jeanne Chevalier. Winnie retired from skating after marrying John Wien Forney IV in 1925 and sadly died just ten years later in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick.


Headline of the murder of Simone de Ridder

Simone de Ridder wasn't just any skating coach. She was the fifty one year old mother of 1948 Olympic Gold Medallist and two time World Champion Micheline Lannoy of Belgium and in her day, an excellent skater as well. She met her end in a bizarre incident on a Brussels bound train in Kitzingen, Germany in November of 1953. An article from the "Spokane Daily Chronicle" on November 18 of that year noted that "police sought a tall, thin man who was believed to have pushed Mrs. de Ridder from an international train before dawn yesterday after robbing her. The woman died without regaining consciousness. Hospital aides said she had suffered a skull fracture and internal injuries. The Kitzingen sttaion master told police that as the train rolled slowly through the yards he saw a woman clinging to a window ledge while a man tried to pry her grip loose. Trainmen found Mrs. de Rudder alongside the tracks." The saddest thing about it all? Lannoy was on her way to meet her mother at the time. A Yugolavian refugee named Stefan Matusic was charged with her murder. His defence? That he was acting under "secret orders" from British intelligence officers.


Barbara Ann Scott and Sheldon Galbraith
Barbara Ann Scott and Sheldon Galbraith. Photo courtesy Library And Archives Of Canada.

Sheldon Galbraith, Barbara Ann Scott and her mother flew via London to Switzerland, where Barbara Ann was to compete in the 1947 European Championships. They made the mistake of not changing their money to Swiss francs and used almost all of their English currency to pay for Sheldon's lunch on the plane. When they arrived in Zürich to board the first of two trains to Davos, two Swiss passengers took pity on them and explained to the men at the station that they hadn't any money because they couldn't get their traveler's cheques cashed. When they switched trains, they had the awkward experience of being told off by the porter who thought them quite rude for not tipping him. In her book "Skate With Me", Barbara Ann recalled, "Then the conductor had to be dealt with. Fortunately he could speak English and he must have decided that we had fairly honest faces, for he accepted our promise to pay him at another time. Thus we reached Davos. We couldn't have done that, I suppose - travelled halfway across Switzerland in first-class compartments with no money - if I hadn't been a skating contestant, for everyone in Switzerland is interested in the skating - everyone except that porter, I guess. We've seen that same porter several times since then and have enjoyed tipping him well. Three of his front teeth are missing and when he gets the right tip he gives a great toothless grin and says, 'Yah, yah,' very cheerily. We like meeting him when we're not at a disadvantage."


French figure skater Jacqueline du Bief in Ice Capades
Jacqueline du Bief in Ice Capades, 1953

When Jacqueline du Bief decided to turn professional, she was inundated with offers to skate in shows in England and France. The offer she ultimately accepted came from an American - Ice Capades mogul John H. Harris. In her book "Thin Ice", she recalled, "He described his show to me, with all the ardour and blind love of a father-creator... The hours passed. J.H. Harris continued to talk - and every hour he picked up the telephone and called through to his secretary: 'Put back Mademoiselle du Bief's sleeping car ticket till the next train! The trains left, the hours went by and when at length - subjugated, groggy, my head buzzing with new names, figures, plans and imaginings - I signed my first contract with a trembling hand, it was 4 o'clock in the morning. Famished, we went down to the drug store on the corner and there we sealed our agreement with a hot dog and a Coca-Cola - and I caught my train." Though she'd become an Ice Capades principal, du Bief still had to adhere to the Ice Capades strict rules regarding train travel - not to be noisy or boisterous and to refrain from bringing alcohol of any kind on board. She recalled that cast members frequently played poker and Canasta on the train and got around the 'no booze on the train' rule by passing around whisky... in bottles of Coca-Cola!


Photograph of Olympic Figure Skating Champion Dick Button
Photo courtesy Dick Button

At the 1947 World Championships in Sweden, the train Dick Button, his father, Eileen Seigh and Gustave Lussi were taking to the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb broke down in the fields far from the outskirts of Stockholm. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Button recalled, "Like characters out of a melodrama train robbery, we clambered out one of the windows in the baggage department and fled across a stubbly frozen field, ignoring the shouts of the other passengers. Fortunately, a truck [drove] into view as we reached a road. The driver had to jam on his brakes when we planted ourselves firmly to the middle of the road, with expressions on our faces that would have stopped clocks, if not trucks. We had come over five thousand miles for this competition and being run over by a truck was not to stop us now. The driver knew no English and we no Swedish, but by showing our skates and making with sign language, we convinced him it was urgent for us to reach Stockholm... We roared off at a speed that had my father holding on to his high fur hat, and Eileen clinging desperately to the rattling door as though their lives depended on it - which they did!" The American foursome arrived late and were initially told that Button was disqualified, but the mess was soon cleared up and he was allowed to compete. Dick won the silver medal behind Hans Gerschwiler; Eileen finished just off the podium in fourth.

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