Saturday, July 14, 2012

Trouble in River City

CN Photo circa 1964
Lorne Perry - Photographer

The Conductor is in charge of the train and will place his crew as he sees fit.  Such was the case in the late fall of 1967.

I had been working the infamous “Rupert Rocket”, CN’s passenger train that ran between Jasper, Alberta and Prince Rupert, on BC’s remote northern coast. Due to having very little seniority for freight assignments at the time, I bid the Baggage Car hoping that I might be able to hold the job over the winter.  Passenger service didn't pay as much as freight, and most brakemen and conductors tended to avoid working passenger trains as much as possible.  However, I reasoned that working nights on the Rupert Rocket's baggage car was far superior to working a midnight assignment as a yard helper in Jasper. 

Besides being well known as the “Rocket”, the train has experienced many changes in the number by which it was shown in Employee Time Tables, CN travel brochures and, on the blackboards on the front of the train stations along the route. 

It had “made a name” for itself as 195 and 196; as 9 and 10, and as 5 and 6 in the space of a very few years.  In 1966 it was 9 and 10 in the Time Table, but everyone knew it as the Rupert Rocket.

Between Jasper and Prince George, the Rocket looked like many other passenger trains.  It had a recognizable locomotive, a steam generator car to provide heat for the train, a baggage car or two, up to four day coaches, a diner and two or more sleepers.

Photo Credit Doug Wingfield
Train #10 about to arrive at Jasper
September 3rd, 1967
The Rocket continued on from Prince George looking much different, however.

Just to start off with, the train number changed (in 1963, for example) from 195-196, to 695-696.  The conventional train and locomotive remained in Prince George while 695 left with a consist that was made up of Budd-built stainless steel Rail Diesel Cars, or RDC's.

Don Jaworski Photo

The man who had taken the “Flagman’s” position on the tail end of the train had only recently arrived from Northern Ontario Area and had worked for years in and around Capreol, my home town. 

He had hired in Capreol on August 12, 1950 when I was four years old.  When he showed up in Jasper, I was astounded that he had given up more than sixteen years of service in Ontario to begin all over again in Jasper.  The man’s name was Al XXXX.

I was helping the station agent to load express on the baggage car when I spotted our conductor, Marvin “Tiger” Swartz striding along the platform with Trainman Al in tow.
Neither man appeared very happy and I was soon to learn why.

Trainman Al was making his first trip as a Mountain Region brakeman and he didn’t know the territory.   Marvin told Al he was to work the head end cars, helping the conductor and the baggageman with the loading and unloading along the way.  While this wasn’t the most strenuous job on the crew, it must have been damn close to it.  The head end brakeman was required to wear the prescribed uniform and keep himself looking presentable to the public, while at the same time he might be required to help load and unload passengers, freight, heavy cans of milk and cream, clean up washrooms, and assist the conductor when he had to break up fights or take weapons away from belligerent passengers. Such was the scene on the Rocket in those days.

Al thought he should be able to exercise his “eastern” seniority and place himself on the tail end as Flagman.  Since Al had been forced to leave his eastern seniority at the west switch at Nakina, Ontario…, he was starting all over again in Jasper and had next to nothing for seniority.  In fact, I outranked him with only eighteen months of seniority.

“Tiger” had another idea.  He put the head end brakeman in the baggage car and put me on the tail end (I had to run home to get into my uniform).  Whether he liked it or not, Al would work the head end, or he could book sick and face discipline for it. 

Begrudgingly, he stood beside the orange stepping box that was on the station platform by the open vestibule door between the head end coach and the baggage car.  He would be very familiar with that portion of the territory before the night was over.

After leaving Jasper, I came up to the head end to give the conductor the “count” that the Sleeping Car Conductor had given me before he retired to a vacant bedroom.

The “count” was a breakdown of the passengers who were occupying the sleeping cars and what their destinations might be.  The passenger count was given to the operator at Redpass to be forwarded to the dispatching office in Prince George.  These numbers were used by the railway to keep track of the public's use of the trains, among other things.

As well, for each sleeping car, there was a notation indicating what roomette the porter for that car might be found in, should he be needed during the night.

Under the rules that governed the employees of the Sleeping and Dining department employees, the Porters and the Sleeping Car Conductor, (Ollie Lane) were to remain awake and alert all day and all night to answer the call of sleeping car passengers.

The train crews on the Rocket had an arrangement with the S&D crews;  they would ensure that coffee, tea, light lunches and such were left where we could get to them in the dining car…, and we would patrol the sleeping cars at regular intervals to offer assistance to their passengers if it was needed. Also, we would wake them up in the event a CN Sleeping and Dining Supervisor got on the train unexpectedly, as they sometimes did.  

The trip went smoothly.  I patrolled the rear half, or that part that was made up of sleeping and dining cars, and made sure I was available to help out in the coaches or in the baggage car.  Al seemed to settle in nicely  and everyone was getting along just fine.

We arrived in Prince George about 06:00 and were soon having a light breakfast in a nearby café.  For their away from home accommodations, Jasper passenger crews were using a couple of converted wooden boxcars that had been taken off their wheels and set onto the ground.  This “bunk house” was crude to say the least.  One had to light a fire in the stove in order to warm the space before getting into the old, metal cots, and when the weather was severe, as it often was in Prince George in winter, the rooms never did get warm enough to get to sleep. 

When Al heard this, he took a room at one of the hotels in town.  I didn’t want to tell him about the hotels, since he had already balked at using the bunkhouse.  The hotels in Prince George in the mid-sixties were straight out of an old Wild West movie!!

I was to have a warmer place to sleep this night. A girl that I had met on the train was moving from a basement suite to an apartment in town and I had agreed to help her move her belongings across town, as long as I had a chance to get a few hours sleep before heading back to Jasper at 23:00 (11:00pm) that night.

She had arranged to have a few friends and a truck to help with the move, but it still took several hours.  We didn’t finish the job until nearly 18:00.  I showered, ate, set the alarm for 21:30 and fell asleep on the couch.

When I awoke, it was 23:45!!  The train, if it left “On Time”, was already on its way and I had been left behind. 

My mind was racing!  I phoned the station and was told that Number 10 had left 15 minutes ago! 

I knew that there would be several stops in the first 18 miles at Foreman, Shelley, Willow River and Giscome.  The next stop wouldn’t be until they reached Dome Creek at 02:03. 

Giscome was my best bet, and I had only 30 minutes to get there, a distance of 24 miles.  I would need a miracle, but it wasn’t to be.  The lady’s little Datsun got stuck in the snow well before we got to Willow River

When we got the car back onto the road, my only option was to drive back to Prince George and hope that Marvin would cover for me so that I could sneak back into Jasper, unnoticed.

Number 848, a heavy, lumber-laden eastbound freight was due out of Prince George at 01:30 and I thought I might climb aboard a trailing unit in the engine consist without being noticed, thereby making my way to McBride and then, Jasper.

Since I had a bit of time to kill before 848 was due out, we went back to the apartment to have a cup of coffee and work out a plan to get my sorry butt out of this mess.

The most important thing was to keep under the radar until I had a chance to talk with Marvin and there was no way to reach him until I was back in Jasper.

As we entered the apartment, the phone rang and the lady picked it up.  I heard her say, “No, he’s not here.  I dropped him off at the station about 10:30.”

They were looking for me and all I could think of was to hide!

Sometime in the night, I couldn’t see my way out of it without confessing, so I took a cab to the station. 

When I arrived, I went into the Operator’s office and told him who I was.  He just picked up the phone and made a call.  Then he told me to sit down in the outer office and wait for whoever was coming to pick me up.

In a half hour, the Trainmaster showed up and, without saying much, escorted me to his office.

Soon, the Assistant Superintendant arrived and entered the office, closing the door behind him. 

He sat down and turned to look at me.

After I had explained what had happened in the previous eighteen hours, he asked me a very peculiar question.

He asked me if I had been at the station just prior to the train’s departure…, and had I spoken with trainman Al?

“No”, I said.  “The train had already left before I woke up, and I tried to catch it in the car, but it had got stuck in the snow, and….”

“OK”, he said.  “I’ll bring 848’s power back into the yard and you can deadhead back to Jasper on the freight train.”

“You’ll be contacted by your Trainmaster to make an appointment for an investigation of this incident.”

He got up and walked out, closing the door once again.

The Trainmaster spoke, saying…, “You’ll be taken out of service on arrival at Jasper.” “You won’t be called again for work until after you’ve been OK’d by your Supervisors.”

A couple of days later, I sat in front of the Jasper Trainmaster and his typewriter.  I explained what happened…, exactly as it had occurred. 

The investigation seemed to go on forever, and when it was over, he collated the six page statement of facts and handed it to me to read. 

I agreed that the statement was accurate and I signed it. 

“You can go back to work now”, he said.  “I’ll notify the crew office to ‘book you back on’.”

Now I waited for the brown envelope that would carry the message that I had been assessed with a great whack of “brownies”, or demerit points…, or worse; that I was being terminated!

I hadn’t seen or spoken to Marvin, or Al or the guy who worked the baggage car that trip.  I didn’t know how Marvin would take it or what kind of reception I would get when I showed up for work next trip.

The next trip, I found that some things were not as I expected them to be.

Al wasn’t on the crew, and in fact, he had left Jasper and had moved to Kamloops where he was on “Laid  Off” status.

I was back in the baggage car and Marvin seemed to be a bit more “bubbly” than usual.  He walked out of the station and across the platform with his “signature” gait, one that might make you think that he was under the influence of alcohol.  On the platform, he couldn’t walk a straight line and his feet didn’t seem willing to line up, one in front of the other.  But…, once he was aboard the train, and it was underway…, the pitching, bobbing and weaving motion of the cars running on the tracks seemed to match his pitching, bobbing and weaving gait just perfectly.  He was at home on the passenger train.

Photo Credit Peter Cox
Westbound freight circa late 80's crossing the Continental Divide at Yellowhead

When we passed over the Continental Divide at Yellowhead,  Marvin came into the baggage car and, taking off his uniform jacket and hat, he sat down at the table in front of the pot-bellied coal stove.  Without speaking, I poured two cups of coffee and handed one of them to him.

Then, he said…, “Well, I guess you’d like to know what happened?” 

I was confused.  “I thought you might like to know what happened”, I said.

“Oh, I know you helped your friends move to their apartment.” 

“And, I know you slept in and missed the train.”

“But, it was your friend, Al that set the stage for what happened later”, he said.

“Before we left Prince George, I asked him if he’d seen you, because I hadn’t seen you come down to the station.”

“He told me that he talked with you on the platform and had given you the train orders to look at.”  “He said you’d made a (hand-written) copy of the ones outlining the meets with other trains and then you got on the tail end of the train.”

“That’s not true”, I exclaimed loudly!

“I know that now”, he said. “But I had no reason to doubt him at that time.”

“When you didn’t come up at Willow River and Giscome to help with the passengers, I thought I’d better go back to find out why.”

“What I found was the rear door open on the right hand side and the steps were down, too.” 

“I woke up the Sleeping Car Conductor and made him get his Porters out of bed to help look for you in case you had found a warm bed to climb into!”

“When we couldn’t find you, I had no choice but to call the Dispatcher and tell him that it appeared you might have fallen off the train somewhere between Prince George and Giscome.”

So that explained a lot to me.  That’s why I overheard the Assistant Superintendant talking with the RCMP about running 848’s motive power out to the big bridge over the Fraser River.  They thought I might have fallen off, or worse…, that I might have been thrown off the train while on the bridge!

Photographer Unknown.  Source: Post Card and John MacDonald, Summerville, Nova Scotia.
Please visit his website at:

The fact that I had slept past the call time for my assignment didn’t seem to be as worthy of everyone’s disappointment as the fact that the other brakeman had lied when he said he spoke with me on the platform and had seen me get on the train and close up the vestibule doors as required by the rules.
Whatever went on behind the scenes, I wasn’t made party to.  There was some talk about giving me some demerits, otherwise known as “shares in the company,” for not showing up for my assignment, but that didn’t materialize. 

Instead, trainman Al received demerits for his role in the episode. 

I never saw him again.

Note:  For a much broader view of life in the Robson Valley, please visit the website of Marilyn Wheeler of Sternwheeler press (McBride, BC). And better yet, order a copy of her wonderful book, The Robson Valley Story... A Century of Dreams. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a historical, yet social overview of the early development of one of BC's beautiful interior regions.  The building of the Grand Trunk Pacific is covered in detail with lots of wonderful anecdotes and photographs.


LOU said...

After my first (hurried) read'n, I'd say " BRUCE'S-CHARM-RIDES-AGAIN ", but I'll be back after I spend more time 'THINK'N-ON-IT' ! ! ! ! ! ! !

Unknown said...

'O what tangled webs we weave, when first we practise to deceive.'

I'm loving these stories. They're great.