Monday, February 11, 2013

Doing a Man's Job on the Canadian Prairie.

Again, we visit the life and times of a railroad operator.  In this segment, Andrew Puczko shares a few of his poignant memories as a train order operator on the CPR in such romantically named places as Manyberries, Bow Island and Fort Macleod, all situated on the Canadian Prairie.

A new posting for operators and station agents would often result in them stepping off an aging day coach, an old wooden way freight caboose, or a steam or diesel locomotive.  If it was their first visit to their new posting, their initial look at the surrounding country-side would sometimes cause them to draw in a deep breath, hold it for a moment..., and exhale slowly while they picked up their suitcase and their guitar..., and walk slowly to the station.  It could be a two story standard number three design, or an old, worn-out bunk car with a train order semaphore nailed to the outside near the door.

Source: Google Pictures
Photographer not identified

Railroading in the 1950’s


By: Andrew P. Puczko

 The life of a telegrapher –train Operator on the spare Board can be full of surprises, entertainment and boredom but not without tensions because we were involved with the movement of trains on single track, without automatic block signals.  Control of trains was done by train orders issued by a dispatcher, dictated by telephone.  An error in copying, repeating, recopying, etc., could result in a crash, a major disaster, and as a consequence loss of job, and possible criminal or civil charges.
Some may recall an operator on the CNR during the Korean War was criminally charged when he recopied a train order meet and did not re-repeat the corrected copy to the dispatcher.  It contained an error which resulted in two troop trains meeting head- on at Blue River B.C.    The operator was exonerated when the defending lawyer pointed out to the court that the Operating Rules read, “should repeat”, and not, “must repeat” train orders when recopying. The Lawyer was none other than John Diefenbaker, later Canada’s Prime Minister.

Besides having to be conversant with the rules and regulations of train movements there were other physical dangers.  Operators were obliged to stand beside trains passing by to detect any malfunctions of the freight cars, such as hot boxes, which could be dangerous, particularly in the winter.   Also hooping train orders to trains as they passed by, head end and tail end, required one to stand as close as a yard or so from the passing engine.

One incident occurred at Coalhust, the first station west of Lethbridge, where the Operator was hooping a west bound freight.  There was a very strong wind blowing across the track and the operator was leaning into the wind to maintain his balance and as the front end of the engine passed him, it cut off the wind and sucked the operator into the drive wheels killing him instantly.

On another occasion an operator was attempting to hitch a ride on the caboose of a slow moving train, miscalculated or slipped, and fell under the wheels and was also killed immediately. 

Many injuries occurred while unloading express from passenger trains, or unloading awkward and heavy articles, not to mention the half sides of beef destined for the local butcher.  Coleman was famous for sides of beef as the midnight passenger train delivered not less than six or seven carcases daily for the local butchers.  The miners of the Crowsnest Pass were heavy meat eaters!

There were compensations, however.  Often, while unloading express, a water melon would “accidently” fall to the ground and crack open.  Of course, it couldn’t be delivered in this condition, and so as not to waste good food, the melon was devoured later by the station staff.  In the summer fruit season, shipments abounded from BC in boxes of fruit that were consigned to relatives and friends on the prairies.  Often these boxes also fell and good fresh fruit was had by all.  If boxes didn’t break on the fall, the boards could be pried apart and a couple of apricots, or strawberries, could be retrieved.

In the beginning:

I broke in as an operator with the CPR on the Lethbridge Division on third trick on March 20, 1951 at Bow Island on the Taber sub, a villiage some 60 miles west of Medicine Hat on highway No.3.  I was so nervous that I now can’t recognize my signature on the first train order that I copied (see copy).   That date established my seniority date as an operator.

I worked relief at many stations on the Lethbridge Division but one episode I remember well was an event that occurred at Bow Island.  Pusher engines were stationed at Bow Island to assist freight trains up the hill toward Medicine Hat and the company maintained a bunkhouse for the engineers and firemen stationed there.  I was assigned for a week, and since several bunk beds were available at the bunkhouse I hunkered down there. I worked the third trick (12:00 to 8:00 am) and this one morning, after eating my breakfast along with other crew members who were not on duty, I cleaned up and  prepared for bed. Sliding into my bunk I felt something under the covers at the foot of the bed.  Thinking the sheets were crumpled I pushed harder and then felt something cold moving at my feet. In a panic, much to the delight of the crew, I jumped out of bed and rolled back the sheet to discover a snake curled up and much annoyed at being disturbed.  The chuckles and laughter in the room soon indicated just how the snake got there!  Thereafter I always checked for snakes.

A memorable Christmas:

The Christmas period of 1951 was a hectic one for me. I was working Burmis third trick from November 28 to Dec 22nd when I was called to Lethbridge Yard Office to work the third trick commencing the next day, Dec. 23rd.   This lasted until January 1st at which time I was sent to work third trick the next day, to relieve a sick operator at Fort Macleod until Jan. 5thafter which time I was sent back to Burmis to start on the Swing shift Jan. 6th.  Travelling between these assignments was done by freight, in the caboose.  I missed my turkey dinner that year but I remember, however, that the paycheque covering this period was well worth it!

Another Christmas lost was when I was relieving the agent at Coleman, in the Crowsnest Pass, from Dec 7, 1952 to January 21, 1953.  Of course, we were obliged to stay open until 5 PM on Christmas Eve.  I, along with two assistant agents, was living in the company bunk house with no cooking facilities.   After closing we wandered down town to have supper but found all the cafes and grocery stores closed.  We finally rousted a corner store owner, but all he had to eat were canned goods and stale bread.  So we had sardines and unbuttered bread and then to early bed.

Promotion Lost:

Some assignments on the spare board usually lasted two weeks to relieve a station agent on his annual holidays.  Arranging for accommodation for these stints was sometimes difficult.  If the town had a hotel one could rent a room at a discounted price.  Many small towns, however, did not have hotels so quite often I had to sleep in the back seat of my car.  On one occasion, before I had a car of my own, I used a corner of the freight shed as my sleeping area.   This was in August 1953 at Granum, the first station north of Fort Macleod, on the Macleod Sub. Not having access to hot water meant shaving was not part of my morning routine (electric shavers were not in vogue at that time).  It was not a busy station so I was not unduly concerned about my appearance.  So with a four day beard, and scruffy blue jeans, a very creased shirt the day started early with a visit by the Official Car carrying the Superintendent and guests.  Normally, they just drive on through but on this one occasion, wouldn’t you believe it, they decided to stop and chat!  What they encountered was one young unshaven, unkempt whippersnapper.  I don’t know who was more embarrassed, they or I.  Thereafter, I never wondered why I did not get any promotions.

On the lone prairie:

 Another assignment was to relieve the agent at Manyberries,Alberta.  Now Manyberries is "hell -and-gone-from-nowhere"—right in the middle of the bald prairies – rattle snake country. It is 180 miles south east of Lethbridge on the Manyberries sub.  This branch line ran right up to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (in those days) but has since been discontinued.  To reach Manyberries I had to catch the weekly mixed train which left Lethbridge at 7 AM.  All the shunting at the various towns on the way was done when running eastward, so when we reached Manyberries it was sometime past 7 PM, and it was dusk.  Upon arrival I hastened to the Station Office to OS our arrival and put the train to bed for the night. I got up at 6 AM the next morning to prepare the running orders for the mixed train to return to Lethbridge. For those not familiar with train operators and telegraphers, most of us were not really professionally proficient with Morse Code or copying train orders by wire.  Most lines on the CPR were serviced with telephones and therefore copying trains orders by wire was not usual. We didn’t get much opportunity to use the code and were woefully short of practice.  There was no telephone service on this sub and to make matters worse the Lethbridge dispatcher on duty that morning was known for his horrible hand at sending Morse – using his feet as they say.  Anyway I couldn’t read him and I began to panic.  I remembered, however, that one copy of each train order, at all stations, was kept on a hook under the desk.  I reached under and low and behold, there they were the previous train orders that were needed - they were identical for every run from that station.  I just changed the date and the engine number and repeated the order.  No Problem – the mixed train departed on time and arrived at Lethbridge that afternoon without incident!

 However, fate wasn’t done with me yet.  When morning light arrived at 8 AM I happened to glance down the platform and lo and behold, what did I see?  It was the express wagon loaded with express and freight.  The crew had unloaded the express on to the wagon the night before and left it on the platform.  It was cold enough that night to partially freeze the pop destined for the local restaurant.  I quickly rolled the express wagon into the freight shed and into the heated room.  By the time the goods were delivered it looked like everything was normal.  In any case I heard no complaints about the pop.
Saskatchewan blizzards:

 Another assignment was in the winter of 1953 – January 24th to February 19th.  I was to relieve the agent at Consul Saskatchewan, some 50 miles east of Manyberries on the Red Coat Trail (Highway 13 in Sask.).  Consul was on the Manyberries sub. Since no trains ran from Lethbridge to Consul, the only way to get there was via Maple Creek, my home town.  I borrowed my Dad`s car and drove south over the Cypress Hills to Consul, some 70 miles distant.  This was the longest, dullest two weeks of my life—I saw neither trains nor customers.  The snow was piled high and road traffic was at a standstill.  It was bitterly cold and I had to store the car battery indoors.  I wanted to make sure I would get out of there! Most of that line on the Manyberries sub has since been pulled up.

 Sugar beet Trains:

 Southern Alberta is known for its farms that grow sugarbeets.  A sugar factory is located at Taber Alberta to process these beets. Today the beets are trucked directly from farm to factory, but in those days,  when the crops were harvested the beets were transported and dumped on piles at various locations along the branch lines in southern Alberta, i.e., Manyberries, Cardston, Sterling, Turin and Lomond subs   and then loaded into gondolas by front-end loader.  Trains were then dispatched to these subs to pick up the loaded gondolas and moved them to Taber via Lethbridge.  This was usually done in the evenings and presented a very busy time for the second trick operator in the Lethbridge yard office with several trains running back and forth at the same time.  As I recall, this operations lasted about two weeks.

I was layed off at Claresholm, as an assistant agent, on November 14th, 1950 and was called back to duty to Taber on December 15th to process the hundreds of sugar waybills and prepare them for collection.  This sojourn lasted until January 15th, 1951 and I can’t remember where I spent Christmas that year.

To reach Taber I was instructed to catch the first drag west to Medicine Hat from my home in Maple Creek, and then catch the evening passenger train from there to Taber.  The first drag I caught happened to be a cab hop (engine and caboose only) going home to Medicine Hat and they were in a hurry, so much so, that they decided to  beat a superior eastbound train to  the next station  with  hardly enough time to make it.  Well, we didn’t quite make it as the superior train was waiting for us, the block signals having held them up for our arrival.  The railroaders in those days, however, laughed it all off, as this was apparently a common occurrence,   but not for me. I was left shaking at what I thought was a close call!

 Strong winds of the Crownest Pass:

I   was stationed for a month in November 1951 at Hillcrest, situated at the east side of the Turtle Mountain slide on the five PM to one AM shift.  This was a temporary position, at this station, in the winter months to accommodate the local junior hockey team, The Crowsnest Pass Lions, to telegraph the home game results to the various newspapers.  As stated elsewhere the westerly winds through the Pass was often and very strong.  The midnight westward passenger train was soon due and I was preparing for it.  I trundled the express wagon unto the platform and hearing the dispatcher’s bell calling for me I left the wagon and rushed to the office.  When done with the dispatcher, I returned to the platform to finish placing it, and to my chagrin I could not immediately spot it.  I then realized that the wind had rolled it down the platform and I found it straddled across the tracks.  These wagons were very heavy and sturdily built and I knew I couldn’t lift it back onto the platform.  Fearing that the passenger head end crew might not be able to see it in time and if they hit the wagon there would be hell to pay.  So I ran back to the office and grabbed my lantern (battery operated) and ran down the track to flag the train.  I got it in time and the head end crew helped me get it back unto the platform.  Whew!

This assignment has particular significance to me as this is where I met my future wife who comes from Bellevue, just up the hill from Hillcrest.
Many thanks to Andrew for his contribution to Caboose Coffee.

1 comment:

LOU said...

Reminds me of " THE TRAVEL'N-SALESMAN-STORIES " - - - - - -What a vast experiance in their life for us to enjoy sharing ' WHAT ONE HAS TO DO TO MAKE A LIV'N ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

THANK-Y'ALL-KINDLY - - - -KEEP'M-COM'N ! ! ! ! ! !