Thursday, October 4, 2012

Oil Lamps, Train Order Boards and Old Yellow Dogs

Most often, when railroaders get together, they gather in clutches, or small groups that are usually defined by craft, or trade.  Brakemen and Conductors will gather in one part of the room, order up a table full of beer and settle in to tell each other their stories of handbrakes, work trains, big miles, the number of beers consumed at the away-from-home terminal and which Engineer 'roughed them up' the worst. 

The Engineers and Firemen would do much the same, but instead would talk about how fast they could run on a given stretch of track, how good they were with the brake valve, or how close they cut it when they ran one extra station to clear the passenger train. 

Occasionally, the Operator or the Station Agent would walk into the beer parlour after work and pull up a chair at one of the tables to share in the railway chatter.  And sometimes the Operator would wander into the beer parlour to call a crew for a train that was just a few miles outside of town, or to warn the railroaders in the establishment that a Trainmaster and a Master Mechanic had just driven into town and were getting settled in their rooms before going to the bunkhouse to talk with the crews.  In that case, some men downed the glass of beer they were working on and left the beer parlour by the back door, while others, who by this time were full of courage, decide to stay at the table and order a couple more 'browns'.

I grew up within the culture that 'high iron' railroaders had developed over many decades of running trains.  The 'Running Trades' as we are known, ride on cushioned seats high above the ground that is either frozen solid and covered in deep snow, or is blistering hot and dusty.  Other rail workers  stand waist deep in the snow, leaning on their shovels, or take a five minute break while sitting on a pile of creosoted ties while my train rolls by. 

I give them a momentary glance as I open my window just wide enough to put my hand outside to give them a cursory wave.  After passing these men, I pick up the radio handset and call out to the tail end crew..., "PK both sides at the west switch Yale".  The tail end crew will call back after they've exchanged waves with the trackside workers, indicating that all's well on our train, saying "PK OK at Yale for the extra XXXX east."

But there was a 'down-side' to that culture that I regretably missed until I was nearing the end of my railroad career.  That 'down-side' was that I overlooked the culture that railroaders of different trades had developed. 

What about the Section Men, the Track Workers, the Car Men, the Bridge Tenders, the Operators and countless others?  They were equally important alongside the Engineers, the Conductors and the Switchmen.  In fact, without the work that these trades performed, there would be no trains running, no crews drinking beer in the hotel watering holes and certainly no stories of brave running to be told.

With that in mind, I've decided to let Caboose Coffee tell some of the stories that many of the 'Running Trades' people didn't get to learn very much about. 

This is a story about a man who fell under the spell of the railroad at a very early age, much like many of you, and much like myself.  This is Bill Atkinson's story..., well, at least it's his story as far as the railroad is concerned.  Bill didn't stay with the railroad, but the time he spent with CNR left an indelible imprint on his soul.

Let's read what Bill has to say about his experience as a Train Order Operator for the CNR.


Bill Atkinson shares memories of his life as a railroad telegrapher with the CNR:

 When I was a youngster on a mixed farm in southern Manitoba, the best part of winter was our weekly trip to town. Every Saturday, right after dinner, Dad would hitch up our best team to the homemade covered cutter and off we would go to do the weekly shopping and to enjoy the social activities that a small prairie town could offer. Everyone in the community made the same weekly pilgrimage and we always tried to arrive early so there would be a stall available in the livery stable for the horses. Gordon Budd charged 50 cents for a team for the afternoon, and he would throw in a forkful of hay to keep them contented until it was time to head for home in the late afternoon so we could get the milking done on time.

  There were two choices when it came to grocery shopping; Sam Kliman's General Store or the Red & White which was operated by Art and Vi Knisley. We usually stopped at the Red & White and I always looked forward to the free slice of cheese that Art would always carve off the huge wheel of cheddar that was covered by a fly-screen cage, summer and winter. I also looked forward to my weekly trip to Dan and Norman's Chinese cafe whenever I could afford the 20 cents it cost for a small dish of ice cream and a 'coke'.

  Another favourite stopping place was Dagg's Hardware Store where most of the men would drop in sometime during the afternoon for some lively conversation with Mel Dagg. I particularly remember the smells of kerosene, oil cloth and linseed oil and I was always fascinated by the many tin bins filled with all kinds of sizes of nails, and by the hand tools that lined the walls of the store.

 But, my favourite spot of all was the C.P.R. Station where all the men and boys would gather in the large waiting room well ahead of the scheduled arrival time of the daily passenger train from Winnipeg. The oiled wooden floor had an aroma like nothing else in the world and the large railway clock on the wall tick-tocked away the minutes and hours with no apparent rush. The huge pot-bellied stove always gave off a welcome invitation on those frosty afternoons, and sheepskin coats would be unbuttoned and fur hats would be pushed back while heated discussions were held on politics and local gossip.

The station agent, Ernie O'Hara rarely took part in these conversations as he was usually busy talking to some far-off exotic place on this Morse Code key. I often dreamed that I could understand what was being said and that I, too, could run a railroad station some day.

 Pretty soon we would hear her blowing for the level crossing at the Bruxelles Highway just east of town, and we'd all rush outside to see her arrive. I was always overwhelmed and more than just a little fearful as the 'hoghead' would bring his mighty, snorting charger to a screeching, hissing stop just past the station. The baggage car always lined up perfectly with the station platform and empty egg crates and cream cans would be tossed off onto the large, four-wheeled station cart. Then shouts of greeting would always be exchanged between the Conductor, the Baggageman, the Fireman and some of the local citizens while hand signals were being sent up to the head end that they were ready to go. Then two piercing toots on the whistle and staccato blasts of steam to the drivers would echo back from the Wheat Pool elevator as she pulled out of the station and disappeared into the hazy afternoon sunset.

 It had such an effect on this 10-year old farm boy that barely ten years later I found myself a Telegraph Operator on the C.N.R. in northern B.C., striving to become the hero that Ernie O'Hara had been to me in those days past. But then the steam engine started to disappear, followed by Morse Code and suddenly the magic was gone. The local passenger train is now little more than a memory and one is really hard pressed to find a small-town station. What do young boys dream of becoming nowadays?

  Early in my career with the CNR I worked in Kelowna as Car Checker and then as Freight Clerk. Both were temporary positions but I was able to hang on there for several months. That was great for me because my parents lived in Kelowna and I was able to move back home and enjoy my mother's cooking instead of trying to live on mouldy bread and cold beans, which was about the limit of my culinary arts at the time. I was already a qualified Telegrapher and everyone was after me to establish my seniority but I was enjoying what I was doing and then to make things even better, they took on a couple of student operators and I was assigned the task of teaching them Morse Code. They did most of the 'bull-work and that made my life easier too. After they got their speed up, we set up a three station telegraph network in the freight shed and I insisted that we talk only by code. That honed my telegraphic skills and George Dodge, the Accountant, who was an ex-telegrapher, talked me into getting out there and establishing my seniority before any of the students beat me to it.

 So, I said goodbye to Kelowna and my mother's cooking and went out as an Operator. I was sent off to relieve at a couple of smaller locations and then I ended up on a Work Train out of Morey. I was really starting to enjoy that job when I got a message from the Chief Dispatcher that I was supposed to get myself to Kelowna ASAP to establish a temporary Third Trick. I was happy to get the message but I wondered, 'Why me?' After I got to Kelowna the Agent, Ed Williams, told me that he had requested me because of my history there, and he knew I would do a good job. I was completely familiar with the layout of the yard and that was important. (The Kelowna industial area was a maze of tracks; half CNR and half CPR and some switchman voiced the opinion that they must have taken the rails up in an airplane and dropped them out and spiked them down where they lit !!)

I already knew Fred Munson and Jack Dierker, the permanent operators and that was a plus for me too. They were both a little 'snarky' in their own ways but I got along good with both of them. (And, I was back into Mom's home made biscuits!) It was a pretty 'cushy' job and I found the hardest part of it was staying awake.

The CPR had a 'mixed' train that left anytime between 2K and 4K every morning. I had to get a call figure from their conductor so we could set them up with running orders from Kelowna to Vernon. From Vernon to Revelstoke they were on CPR trackage which was their home turf. They had previously left in the early evening but I was told that they changed their schedule to discourage ridership and eventually pull their passenger service off. That was why the 24 hour train order service was established earlier than in other years, when it was just set up during the heavy fruit shipping season.

The CNR had a nightly freight train from Kamloops Jct to Kelowna and before I arrived there I understood they would just 'OS' themselves in and go to bed. I rarely copied more than three or four train orders on a normal shift.

Kelowna Station after the track had been pulled up.
Bruce Harvey photo ca 2007
The Kelowna terminal had a large express room at the east end but there was no doorway connecting it to the main part of the station. The last thing the express crew did before they locked up for the night was put any baggage or express for the CPR mixed on the station cart, inside the overhead doors. I was issued a key for the express room office and after they pulled up to the station I would go in and pull the cart out and help load any express and/or baggage onto the train. Then I would put the cart back inside and lock everything up again. The office door opened off the platform and the top half was glass.

This particular night, I was surprised to find the lights were on and when I got to the door I could see Kelly, the express agent, at his desk. I noticed that the safe was open and he had several stacks of cash on the desk in front of him. The top drawer of his desk was also open about 4 or 5 inches.

I guess I should have wrapped on the glass before I opened the door, but I didn't. When he sensed that someone was there he swung around with his revolver pointed right at my belly button! Then he recognized me and he turned as white as a sheet and I just said something like "Hi...Sorry" and walked on by him. It was just about then that it hit me that that was a 'close call'!

After the express and baggage had been loaded and I brought the cart back in and locked up, I walked back through the office and Kelly was sitting there shaking like a leaf. There was no cash in sight and I noticed that the door of the safe was shut, as was his desk drawer where he had obviously had his company issued sidearm. He said, almost in a whisper, "Don't ever do that again!" He then asked me if I had any coffee in my office and I told him I had an electric kettle and lots of instant coffee. He followed me back down the platform to my domain and he downed at least three cups of my horrid brew before he was calmed down enough to drive home.

Before he left he told me that I would NEVER know how close I came! We never mentioned the incident again and I often wondered if he was ever able to balance his month end. All I can say is, I never saw him there after midnight again.

I saw Redpass Jct for the first time in May of 1957 when I was on the work train out of Morey. We ran into Redpass a couple of times a day and so I had a pretty good idea what I was bidding on when I was successful in getting First Trick (8am to 4pm) late that fall.

Young Bill Atkinson copying train orders for the work train at Morey on the Albreda Sub.

Bill took this photo of a 3500 Class 2-8-2 Mikado and a spreader doing some bank widening near Morey, BC

I can still remember the day I got off Number 4 and started introducing myself to the regulars. A big sectionman named Molo Bertolo informed me in broken English that it was a really weird place; everyone was required to shovel their roofs off and you had to shovel uphill ! I laughed at the time but that's exactly how it was.

Volkswagon crew cab pickup waiting for Bill to dig it out.

Bill took this photo of an eastbound Plow Extra, stopping for orders at Red Pass, BC

I moved my meager belongings into the operator's quarters above the station. There were no inside stairs and one was required to go around to the back side of the station and climb the outside steps. I shared the three bare rooms with the Third Trick Operator.

Well, at least there was a coffee pot.  Things were looking up!
Bill Atkinson at home in the Operator's Quarters.  Red Pass, BC
There was an operator's shack on the opposite side of the tracks and the Second Trick Operator lived in it. Living over the office was handy but it took me awhile to get used to having steam engines sitting right under my bedroom window chuffing and puffing away the night while awaiting running orders.

I had met Kent West, the agent, back in May but that was only a quick 'pass in the night.' The first thing that threw everyone off guard was the fact that he had one brown eye and one very blue eye. My first thought was that he looked like an Alaskan Husky. He made me feel welcome and helped me over my initial nervousness.

I learned very quickly that he had a very highly developed sense of humour, bordering on bizzare, and he unleashed it on everyone he could. I have to say, though, that I was never a target and I often wondered why I had been exempt. He had made a "Moose Call" and it sat on the counter beside the wicket. It was a box, made out of tin, about 3 inches square and it had a short piece of pipe sticking out of it at an angle. A washer was soldered to the end of the pipe and there was a very narrow slit in the box, immediately in front of the 'mouthpiece'. I guess I saw it that first day but I was so busy seeing all the new things that would soon become common place that I never gave it a second thought. Not many days went by before I saw it in action when someone from a gang car came into the station and asked what it was. Kent said, "It's a Moose Call" and went on with his current task. The fellow picked it up and looked at it and finally put it to his lips and blew it and nothing happened. No one appeared to notice because nothing was said. He picked it up again and gave it a second try. Still no noise from it but I guess he smelled the soot that suddenly graced his upper lip and he dropped it and quickly disappeared.

Over the next five and a half years I saw many people 'sucked in' by it but none as deeply as the young RCMP Constable who had come on Train 4 from Vancouver to escort a prisoner back to Oakalla Prison in handcuffs. He looked the Moose Call over carefully then put it back down. By then I was watching him out of the corner of my eye. He picked it up again and looked at it and asked what it was. Kent very casually said, "It's a Moose Call" and went on writing figures in his ledger. Then this tall, clean cut Mountie put it to his mouth and gave it a puff. Nothing! A larger puff and it plastered his upper lip with a nice black smudge. I think he got suspicious about then and put it down quickly. Just about that same instant Corp. Mercer from the McBride detachment walked in with the prisoner and handcuffed him to the escort and within 4 or 5 minutes they were on Train 3 heading for the west coast.

We often laughed about that and wondered how soon our hero discovered that he wasn't clean shaven any more. Corporal Mercer laughed harder than anyone. I got to know him better over the next few months and his sense of humour was even more warped than Kent's.

Kent seemed to have a thing for RCMP officers. Shortly after I got there, Const. Art Scully moved in to take over the Redpass detachment. Art and I became close friends and over the years since then I visited with him and Marg several times before he passed away a few years ago. He had retired as an Inspector with many honours to his name. I can still remember the first time he came into the station. He wasn't in uniform but he introduced himself and proceeded to meet the locals. He asked where a person could get a haircut and Kent said, "Oh, I cut hair!" Well, the haircut proceeded forthwith and Kent completely butchered him. I guess Art felt that things didn't turn out well because he went into the washroom and looked in the mirror and came out swearing. (I seldom heard him swear.) He said, "I thought you said you cut hair..." Kent smiled and said, "Yes, I cut my dad's hair once." Well, talk about getting off on the wrong foot - they never got along and I think Art was out to 'get him'. (And he did on a couple of occasions.) The worst part was the Staff Sgt. from Prince George came to Redpass by Beaver aircraft a couple of days later on an inspection tour and poor Art had his hat pulled firmly down over his ears. He got away with it until they went into the detachment and his C.O. asked him why he had his hat on. The truth was quickly learned and the Staff Sgt. asked him where in the hell he got that haircut. Art meekly replied, "Don't worry Sir, it won't happen again."

I didn't know it at the time but Art told me many years later that the police car they assigned him had been in a pretty bad wreck before he got it and the frame was bent to the point that the doors wouldn't open anymore. That meant he had to climb in the window and it caused him many untold embarrassments when he had to drive to Valemount and quell potential fights in front of the bar. There was more than one occasion when he took a prisoner and that was a major undertaking trying to force a drunk to climb in through the window of the patrol car. There were many occasions when he would ride a freight train to and from Valemount when the roads were impassable or when he was too embarrassed to take any more ribbing from the yokels. One such trip almost caused his demise. He had arrived back in Redpass Jct sometime after midnight and started to walk up to the detachment which was located on the road a good 500 yards from the station. Another freight was slowly pulling out on the Tete Jaune Sub and he walked alongside of it instead of waiting for it to pass.

Our water tank had spouts on both sides so that two locomotives could take on water at the same time. There was always a lot of ice around the base of the tank and as Art started walking between the train and the tank in the darkness, he slipped and his feet went under the moving train. He told us later that he tried to pull himself up but it felt like he just kept slipping further under and the wheels kept coming closer and closer. He had nightmares for weeks about that. The section foreman from the northline put a couple of men to work on it the next day, chipping the ice down to ground level.

Note the Train Order Board superimposed in front of the two-spout water tank at Red Pass.

 One summer weekend, when I was working at Redpass Jct., our second trick (4:00pm to midnight) and third trick (midnight to 8:00am) operators were both away and so Reme Clement, the swing operator and myself were each working 12-hour shifts. On Friday night, Reme relieved me at 18K (6:00pm) and I went home for a nice supper and a relaxing evening.

 The next morning I showed up at 6K to relieve him and we went through the current orders and I signed the transfer. Just before he went out the door he turned and said, "Oh, by the way, there's a body in the coal shed!" I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to explain that sometime shortly after I had gone off duty the night before, a freight was switching in the yard and a hobo had been on top of one of the boxcars and he lost his balance and fell off, breaking his neck. The conductor had sent one of the brakemen to the station to get the stretcher out of the freight shed and then they brought the body back to the station. Clement said he wasn't going to spend the night with a body and told them to put it in the coal shed across the tracks. Our local Mountie, Art Scully, was away on vacation and so Clement had advised McBride and they had contacted Corp. Mercer of the McBride detachment and they were going to send a car up on Saturday morning to get the body.

Sometime in mid morning, a young rookie RCMP officer showed up and told me he was sent to retrieve the body of the vagrant that had been killed the night before. I was busy copying train orders so I asked him to wait for a couple of minutes until I finished. After I repeated the orders to the Dispatcher and got 'complete' times, I told the dispatcher that I would be busy with the RCMP for a few minutes and I directed the Mountie to take his car over the tracks and back it up near the coal shed. There was a freight crew in the station and they all followed us across the tracks. I opened the door of the shed and saw the shirtless body on the stretcher, with the head end propped up on the coal. The young mountie said there was no way he was going in there and none of the tough railroaders were about to get involved and so I had to crawl up on the coal and lift the one end of the stretcher while the rookie gingerly reached in and took the other end. About then, the second mountie showed up on foot; he had dropped off at the local detachment to check that everything was okay and to leave some papers for Art when he returned to work.

We lifted the body off the stretcher; rigor mortis had set in and the body was as stiff as a board. I remember there was no noticeable trauma to the body but the head was at a slight angle and the smell of liquor was still quite noticeable. Now, next problem; the two members of the law said they weren't going to put the body inside the police car and it wouldn't quite fit in the trunk. The older mountie put his foot in the mid section of the body and pushed until it bent just enough to 'snap' into the trunk. I remember thinking, "Is there no respect?"

My brother-in-law was studying to become a Minister and he was working in the sawmill at McBride at the time. He was given responsibility for digging a grave and burying the body in 'potter's field' after reading over it. He told me months later that he got $5 for his trouble.

That beautiful tall Train Order Signal at Redpass Jct caused us untold problems for quite awhile one winter. It was really nice to have an electrically operated signal that we didn't have to stand up to lever into position but it was kind of sneaky. As you know, it was across the tracks from the station and a control box sat behind us in the bay window.
Train Order Board moved to new location across main line from station.
It had two switches; one for eastbound and one for westbound. There were three positions on each; Green, Yellow and Red with a light beside each. The dispatcher would call for a "19Y East copy 3" and we would reach over our shoulder and flip the eastbound to yellow and say "19Y East". Most times things would go as they were supposed to but occasionally it would stick on GREEN!! Now, that's a BAD situation and the first time it happened we immediately called the signal maintainer and he climbed the mast to try to find the problem. He arrived at the conclusion that if it was left on clear for extended periods of time the contacts would ice up and the motor wouldn't move the arms. He tried adjusting the arms so that gravity would assist but there was very little adjustment that could be made. As it was a one-of-a-kind signal, he sent off an urgent request to his superiors for assistance and in the meantime we left both boards on Yellow until trains without orders were getting close and then we would flip it up to 'Clear Board' and then move it back to Yellow after the caboose was well past. It seemed to happen most often on second trick, for some reason. Eventually, the Lineman got some information back that cured the problem. I was never caught off guard by it but I know for sure that at least a couple of times No. 420 went scooting through town on a Clear Board when the operator actually had a helping order for him. Thank goodness there were no reverberations over that one. It could have been real nasty.

Bill met Betty in Kelowna and asked her to marry him.  He regaled her with stories of his railway job and his life in the mountains, tucked neatly between Moose Lake, in the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River and Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. 

She said "Yes!", for..., how could she resist.  They made plans to make their home and begin their life together at Red Pass Junction.  RBH

Bill and Betty on their honeymoon,  moving their first home to Red Pass

Betty and Goldie at home in their mobile home.
Bill Atkinson photo
Betty and I both loved dogs and so we decided we'd like to have one of our own and one weekend when we were in Kelowna we found a young female pure bred Golden Lab in the pound. She had belonged to a young RCMP constable and he had received many complaints about her barking and crying in his apartment while he was at work. We got her for about $20 and took her back to Redpass. We named her "Goldie" and proceeded to train her. We let her sleep in our trailer but we had no fence and didn't want to tie her up so we just hoped that she would learn to avoid the many trains that went through town every day. I can vividly remember the time she got into some rotten moose meat somewhere and while she was sleeping on the carpet in front of the chesterfield she kept passing gas. It was so horrid that we couldn't stand it and I opened the door and tossed her out into the snow. She had very little hair and so she wasn't able to stand too much of the sub-zero weather and so we felt sorry for her and let her back inside until the next round forced me to put her outside again. I'm sure she thought that I had gone crazy and wondered why she kept ending up out in the cold. Alas, she was destined for a short life too; one day the Blue River wayfreight was leaving for Jasper just as Goldie was trying to drag part of a moose hide back to our place. The conductor kept chasing her back but he had to get on the caboose and poor Goldie went under the caboose wheels. He pulled the air and told one of the sectionmen what had happened. They disposed of her poor little mangled body and only told me about it after the fact. We both mourned for our Goldie and we didn't get another dog until we had moved into a rented house further away from the tracks.

Ken was an expert pilot and had a float plane that he kept tied up at the end of Moose Lake just across the tracks from the three old stations that had been converted into living quarters for the agent and the two section foremen and their wives. On summer weekends he would fly 'customers' into the small fishing camp he had set up on Myrtle Lake, near Blue River. Many times I would watch him roar across Moose Lake, trying to get up on the 'step.' Then he would get out on the floats with his hand pump and pump some of the water out of them and then try again. I could never figure out why he didn't just pump ALL the water out but he never seemed to.

Stinson Aircraft
Photographer and source unknown
Bruce Harvey collection
Sadly, he crashed west of Blue River one July weekend and took three of my friends with him. They didn't find the wreckage for a couple of days because it was down in a deep canyon. I'm told there is a plaque on a trail head there but I've never seen it. When it happened, I was working in Clearwater and we had been down to the Okanagan for the weekend. On our way back to Clearwater we stopped at Rayleigh to get gas and 'The Kamloops Sentinel' was in a rack by the front door of the service station. The headline blared: "FOUR CNR MEN KILLED IN CRASH." I first thought 'Train Wreck' but I soon learned the truth. At least two of the bodies had to be identified by dental records. Ken left a wife and a daughter... the other three were single.
        July 31, 1963.
        Kent West     40
        Jim Price   32
        Ken Conway   35
        Art Blundell   30

Bill Atkinson ... at his desk

Can there be any place more beautiful than this?
Upper and lower photos courtesy of Bill Atkinson and his family.

73's my friend............. Bill

This past summer, Bill and his adult children, along with his grandchildren enjoyed a visit to Red Pass Junction, where he showed them where he and their mother and grandmother had come to live after they were married. 

Bill and Betty spent more than five years at Red Pass before moving on.  Bill left the railroad and worked many years for Greyhound Bus Lines.

Betty, sadly has passed away..., but the memories she was such a happy part of will live on.

My most sincere gratitude is offered to Bill Atkinson for sharing his experiences, his family and his friendship with me and with all the readers of Caboose Coffee. 

I am also grateful to Lavina Shaw, J. Guy Hamel, Bruce Chapman and many others who have contributed so much to Canadian railroading through their love of telegraphy, trains and the sound of steel wheels on steel rails. 

You bless me with your interest in these stories.



Andrew said...

That is a great story, Bill. Thank you for sharing that with us!

Linda Blackman said...

Thanks for this story, Bruce. Really enjoyed it. I am the daughter of the infamous prankster Kent West.

Unknown said...

Great read - I used to live in Red Pass and am the son of the Signal maintainer Joe Tepasse that worked in Albreda and Red Pass in the mid to late 60's. I remember him telling me of Mr West and the great times they had with all in Red pass and fondly remembers it as the best time of his and my mothers life. We lived in the last home nearest the bridge at the west end beside the diesel plant. Both are still well and live in Kamloops - Andy Tepasse