Tuesday, December 27, 2011

As Promised, Three Stories by Guest Story Tellers.

When I arrived in Jasper in 1965, I found the majority of the men I was called to work with were quite willing to share their extensive knowledge of, not only railroading, but also all of the local and regional history, color and culture.  At that time, many of the communities west of the BC/Alberta border were accessible only by rail, river or air travel.  The major roads and highways that one finds on today's maps either didn't exist, or were traveled only during the dry months.

Some of those who shared their stories with me were sons of the early settlers who came to the area, either with the railway construction crews just after the turn of the last century or..., were pioneers in their own right.

The following story, as related to you by Ray Matthews, a retired CN conductor, and later, an officer of the railroad is one that was told by one of those early pioneers, a son of an early settler family and CN locomotive engineer named Ken Cook.  Ken's family lived and worked in a small town named Gosnell, deep in BC's central interior.  Ken was born at Gosnell circa early 1900's.

During Ray Matthew's many years of working in the mountain territory of BC and Alberta for CN, he heard many tales from men like Ken Cook, so when a photograph came to me via an email chat group, it stirred up a memory of a story that Ken Cook had briefly described to me forty-six years ago.  It was a tale of high adventure, riveting anxiety and 'seat of your pants' railroading.

CNR T4b Class Steam Locomotive number 4326 at Gosnell, BC   1953
From the collection of Thom Cholowski:  Saskatoon

Feeling that I was rather short on details for this story, I emailed Ray to ask him to fill in with any details he might have at his disposal.  The following is provided by Ray:

Hi Bruce, You’re right on all counts. Ken Cook was born there (Gosnell)  and often talked about the area. I think he had a trap line around there and he told me he had walked up toward the headwaters of the North Thompson river, about 40 miles. I think his trap line ran up that way.

You are right about the runaway log cars as well. I really can’t recall enough to be really sure, but I think the west mixed train, 391, was switching at Gosnell. They had kicked a load of logs onto the train, and went back into the log spur with the engine. The joint didn't make, and the car of logs started to roll westward. It ran thru the spur switch and Ian MacRae, who was the rear trainman found he couldn't get the flatcars' handbrake applied because of the logs overhanging a bit. So away it went with the mixed train’s locomotive in pursuit.

They called the dispatcher, who I think was Arden Dixon. He in turn called No. 4 which was just east of Thunder River. He told them to stop and get off the engine, but the crew figured they could get into clear at Pyramid. The just made it when the car came around the corner at what they figured was around 40 mph. The mixed train’s unit got in touch with No. 4, told him to stay at Pyramid, and continued after the logs. I am not sure whether or not they caught up with the car or if it stopped, but it all ended somewhere west of Thunder River. No idea of discipline, or even the date for sure, but it was certainly after radios were in practice, and ABS in operation. That's all I can tell you for sure, and some may be quite incorrect. After all, it was around 50 years ago.

Ray Matthews - Mission, BC


Our second story is one that is offered by Jim Munsey, of Edmonton Alberta.  Jim's career covered many years with CN where he got his start as a train order operator in western Alberta.  During the course of his lengthy career, Jim rose through management to hold very responsible positions in major CN centers across Canada.  He was the son of a Telegrapher and grew up living in stations where his father worked and spent his own lifetime working for CN Rail. Through his career on CN, he was an Operator, Dispatcher, Rules Officer, Superintendent of Transportation and Manager of Safety and Accident Prevention.
This is one of Jim's reminiscences, about one young brakeman's early experience working on the Alberta Coal Branch.

Setting up retainers on the coal branch was a fairly frequent occurrence and as I remember, it was mostly done on the run. I admired the guys who would brave the dangers of walking along the top with their brake club and I doubt if I would have had the courage to do the same. Your story reminded me of one you might enjoy.

When my buddy Bob Reynolds first hired on as a trainman on the coal branch working out of Edson, he made his usual three student trips and was placed on the spare board. Without much experience, he was called as the head end trainman on a Cadomin turn with Harry Wilson as the hoghead with a Santa Fe engine.    They picked up a full tonnage train for a 4300 at Cadomin which as I remember, would have been about 48 loads of coal.

CNR 2-10-2   CN T4a Class Steam Locomotive Also known as a Santa Fe class engine
From the collection of Bruce Harvey

When they left Cadomin on their way back, it was a New Years eve. In those days you worked when you were called and there was no consideration for statutory holidays. Before starting down the hill from Mercoal to Coalspur, Harry decided he needed some retainers on the head end. Being a close friend of Bob's dad, fellow hoghead Freddy Reynolds, and knowing Bob was a greenhorn, Harry didn't have the heart to send Bob back on the move in the dark so he stopped at Mercoal. With brake club and lantern in hand, Bob started back cross the top and soon heard what sounded like rife fire. He assumed it was firecrackers being set off by holiday revelers. When he got back to the engine they took off and continued their trip home.

A few days later, Don Weeks, who had also hired on as a trainman about the same time as Bob, was having a beer or two with Bob and I.  He told us that while in the beer parlour at Coalspur a few days earlier, he overheard a fellow telling his friends about a wild New Year's party he attended in Mercoal.  Evidently, someone spotted this strange light bobbing up and down moving southward in the pitch black about 20 feet off the ground. Someone offered a bottle of whiskey to anyone who could shoot the light out with a hunting rifle.

Surprised,  Bob realized that what he heard was real gunfire!  He thanked his lucky stars that nobody was good enough, or was too dunk to hit his lantern or any part of his body.

Harry Wilson was a real character. He had a brother living in Jamaica and every Christmas, his brother would hollow out two loaves of bread, shove a bottle of 100% over proof rum into the each cavity and wrap them up as Christmas presents. Bob and I decided to pay Harry and his wife a Christmas morning visit and I recall Harry taking the lid off one of these bottles, walked to the back door and after opening it, he threw the lid as far as he could onto the snow in his back yard. Bob and I had a couple of swigs and left to attend a 11:00K church service as he had promised his mother he would do . We arrived late and the church was nearly full so the usher took us down the aisle to the front row. Bob's dad was sitting on the aisle near the front and was we passed him, he was winding his railway pocket watch. He was so surprized to see us;  with a startled look in his eyes, he immediately quit winding his watch and put it in his vest pocket.

Jim Munsey - Edmonton, AB


Beginning in 1974 and 1981, (W.C.) Butch Whiteman worked as a Trainmaster for CN in the Mountain Region.  In 1978 I went to Red Deer as the Trainmaster as I said. From there I went to Prince George in 1981 as Ass't Supt. for the Northline. Then I spent 2 years in Montreal as a system operations control officer, coming back to Edmonton in 1984.

I've either personally worked or have had responsibility on virtually every subdivision on the Mountain Region including Vancouver Island. And there isn't a subdivision that I haven't been over - either by train or on a hi-rail. Some of it is a little more familiar than others, but I've been on them all - including a lot that have been abandoned for years.

Butch Whiteman writes the following for our third story:

This story dates back to the Fall of about 1960 when CN still had wooden cabooses. It was just after radio was installed in the Dispatching offices and equipped on engines. In the wooden caboose days, each train crew was assigned a caboose as it became their home at the turn-around point. My father was a Conductor working out of Kamloops Jct. at this particular time and was assigned to the Freight Pool on the Ashcroft Sub.

Kamloops Jct. is located about 5 highway miles from the city of Kamloops. Because of the distance and because few people owned cars at that time, CN operated a bus service from the CN Station on Lorne Street in Kamloops to the Junction where crews reported for duty. The Dispatching office was located in the Station on Lorne St. and if a person walked to the station and was there ahead of the bus, it was common practice for road employees to drop into the office to see what was happening on the road, and get an idea of when they were coming back home.

Business was not all that brisk on CN in 1960. This was a time before any type of unit trains like lumber, coal, sulphur or potash were running. There was the odd long train of grain and grain empties operated, but we didn't have long sidings yet to accommodate long trains in both directions on the same day, so they were infrequent. Intermodal traffic was still years away and not even a pipe dream at that time.

CN operated about 4 - maybe 5 - trains a day each way in addition to the two transcontinental passenger trains. Our eastbound speed train was called No. 420 and it followed passenger train No. 4 out of Vancouver everyday except Monday.

I was a young brakeman still living with my parents at home at this time. I was called one morning for No. 420 and was going to be on the crew going on the Clearwater Sub. from Kamloops to Blue River. I walked down to the Station and because the bus still hadn't arrived from the Jct. to take us there to work, I went into the Dispatching office to see what was going on. When I entered the office, I recognized the Ashcroft Sub. Dispatcher standing in the middle of the front office talking to the Asst. Chief Dispatcher.

As soon as I entered the door, he looked at me and said: "This is the Conductor's kid.... we better tell him what's going on." I didn't know what the problem was, but I knew my Dad was coming from Boston Bar to Kamloops on the Ashcroft Sub. this day and no doubt whatever it was, had something to do with him.

They told me that the R.C.M.P. had received a report that fish were seen being loaded "into the cab of the hot-shot" at Boston Bar. Fishing of salmon going upstream to spawn is illegal except for the Native population for their own use. The purchasing of such fish is illegal. The Fisheries Dept. wanted the train stopped, the caboose searched and to confiscate any fish found, and charge the employees with poaching. Of course, the Railway was obligated to comply with whatever instructions the police gave.

When this report was given to the CN Dispatching office, the train still had not reached Lytton which is about 25 miles east of Boston Bar. As Lytton was the closest place from Boston Bar where the train could be stopped and the search done, the police wanted the train stopped there so they could make their inspection. The Company complied with the request by giving the train a red train order board which requires the train to come to stop for orders. The R.C.M.P. intended to get on the caboose at the moment the train stopped and instruct the crew not to leave until they completed their search.

Because the Dispatcher didn't have any orders for the crew, the Clearance showed 'orders nil'. Now by rule, only the engine has to stop at the train order signal..... not the caboose. When the Engineer read the Clearance and saw that there was no restrictions to his train at that location, he released the brakes and pulled out of town, picking up speed as he departed.

The police were not in position to get on the caboose when the train stopped and as it picked up speed too quickly for them to get on while it was moving, they lost their chance to make their inspection there. The Police Officer did yell at the tailend crew on the caboose as it passed him (presumably to stop), but they thought he was just yelling hello, so they yelled hello back to him and continued on their way.

The CN rail line is not all that accessible to any roads on the Ashcroft Sub, so the police decided to wait until the train got to Kamloops Jct. to make their inspection. 

Showing inaccessibility of CN's Ashcroft subdivision
Photographer not known.  From the collection of Bruce Harvey

When this part of the story was related to me in the Dispatching Office, I naturally wanted them to get in touch with the crew on the radio and tell them what was going on. But at that time, radio was brand new to us, and no one was sure just how much monitoring was being done by the Railway Transport Committee or even the R.C.M.P., so nobody would take a chance on 'going public' with a warning of this nature. However, they did tell me that they had tried to get a warning to my Dad via the Engineer on Passenger Train No. 1.

Like me, the outgoing Engineer on No. 1 that night had stopped in to talk to the Dispatcher while waiting for the bus. After the situation was explained to him, he said he would call the crew on the radio and tell them that the machinist had left a monkey wrench on the engine at the Jct. and he was going to throw it off to them at the switch, and ask them if they would take this wrench back for him. But instead of it being a monkey wrench, it would be a fusee with a note attached to it advising the crew that the police would be waiting at Kamloops to inspect the caboose for fish. They told me that this was the very best they could do.

Shortly after being advised of all this, the bus arrived and I got on to ride over to the Jct.

At the Jct., the bus stops at the Engineers booking-in room before it goes on down to the Yard Office where I was going. When the bus stopped there, I glanced across to the yard and saw that No. 4 had just arrived on the main line and the outgoing Engine crew was climbing up into the cab of the engine. This told me that the train had just arrived.

After I got off the bus and walked over to the yard office, I saw two uniformed R.C.M.P. constables standing near the beanery door watching the passengers move about. They looked inconspicuous enough, but I knew the real reason of why they were there. My Dad's train still hadn't arrived at that point in time.

I decided to walk down the yard and around the curve toward the west switch where the train entered the yard, and where the police couldn't see me get on the caboose. I did this and when I got on, I told my Dad that the police were there to take any fish you might have. Dad looked at me strangely and said "we haven't got any fish".

With that exchange, I detrained from the caboose and walked back toward the yard office, watching as my Dad and his tailend brakeman got off the moving caboose opposite the yard office. The police jumped on as both the tailend brakeman and my Dad got off, but they couldn't get in as the caboose door was locked. I was in the yard office when the police came in and made the Brakeman go back with them to open the caboose and wait for an inspection of it. I had to attend to my duties going out on the outbound train, so that was the end of it as far as I was concerned.

When I got back from my trip to Blue River, I found out what really happened: It was true that neither my Dad nor any of his crew knew what was going on. The police turned that caboose upside down looking in every cupboard, the coal bin, the water tank and under the mattresses for fish, but of course, couldn't find anything.

My Dad told me that when their train started moving at Lytton, the tailend brakeman was on the back step and in position to retrieve their orders on the fly at the station. Both my Dad and the brakeman had seen the police at Lytton and heard him yelling at them, but with the noise of the moving train, they thought he was just yelling hello, so they yelled hello back and carried on.

The message attached to the fusee thrown off at the switch at the meeting point was meaningless to the headend brakeman on Dad's crew. He knew they didn't have any fish on either the engine or the caboose so he didn't even pass the message back to the tail end, leaving my Dad and his tailend brakeman totally in the dark about what was going on.

At this point, I started thinking about the passenger train and what was going on with the engine crew trading off opposite the Engineers booking-in room at the Jct.   No. 4's out-going engine crew was climbing up the ladder into the cab of the engine which is normal, but the incoming engineer and fireman were back at the doorway into the engine compartment of the engine which is not so normal. 

Photo credit Bruce Harvey

My uncle happened to be the Engineer on the in-coming passenger train.

The Fireman was passing down garbage bags which turned out to be bags of fish that my Uncle had obtained from the Natives at Boston Bar. This was going on right on the mainline and in plain view of everyone including the police, but their focus was not directed to anything on the passenger train. What turned out to be "the cab of the hotshot" wasn't the caboose of No. 420, but rather the Engine of No. 4.

My Mom ended up with a sockeye salmon to bake and I have to admit, this one did seem to taste especially good! 

Butch Whiteman - Edmonton, AB

Great stories gentlemen!!   Thanks for sharing them with us.



LOU said...

Finally got back to finish all 3 & MUST-ADMIT ALSO, it was more 'EDGE-OF-THE-CHAIR' time. Bruce, your 'GHOST-WRITERS' did-you-proud !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unknown said...

Hi All;

To add to Ray Matthew's events about the run away car. Yes, it was my father Arden Dixon who was the train dispatcher for the runaway car. I was old enough to remember my dad telling us the events at the time. And then again years later in Montreal.

Dad was pulled out of service after the event but with the strong support of the union he was fully exonerated and returned to service. This left a strong impression on my father about the importance and usefulness of unions that carried on for the rest of his career.

Richard Dixon