Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The snow has stopped falling and the grain needs to move westward

            I had been in Jasper, Alberta working as a brakeman for the CNR when my parents brought my younger sister out to visit me for a few days.  The day they arrived, the sky was clear and the weather warming up slowly.  The next day however, was quite different.  We awoke to falling snow.  It snowed all day and all night and all the next day too.

It was Easter 1967, and the blizzard dumped several feet of fresh snow on the Rockies.  For the first 24 hours, the train crews managed to keep the line open.  But as the snow kept falling and the winds blew drifts higher and higher, the trains had greater difficulty getting through until, finally they stopped running as sidings began to fill up with trains that could no longer move ahead.  Crews were ordered to set out their trains and bring their cabooses in.  As the last of the crews arrived at the terminal and went off duty, the rails went quiet.  Mother Nature had taken control of her domain and men retreated to their homes to wait.  The snow continued to fall.

The railway had only just re-opened after being closed due to accumulated snow.  I was been called for a 110 car west-bound train of prairie grain. It was 4:00 am, 15 below zero and snowing lightly.  Avalanches were expected to pile up on the tracks and dad wanted more than anything to go with me. I jumped at the chance to take him with me.  

Dad had been a locomotive engineer with CNR in Capreol, Ontario and had been running trains since 1944, but he’d never seen the mountains before, so I thought he might enjoy a different view through the cab window than he was used to.  

Many times during my childhood, he had taken me on his steam engines.  I’ve ridden way freights, freights and passenger trains with him.  I even have memories of riding steam engines pulling high speed passenger trains through the night.  These experiences left a lasting impression in my young heart that would drive me to seek more of the same throughout my life.  The decision was made and we packed food and coffee for two. I had never seen him so excited about going for a train ride that he wasn’t getting paid for.  This would be an opportunity for me to return the favor. 

            From the beginning, the trip promised to be a hard one. The switches were packed with blowing snow and as fast as I cleaned them out, the biting wind that came out of the east filled them back in. Nonetheless, with Dad sitting up high in the cab of the 9142, an F7a class diesel, the engineer and I got the engine from the shop track and coupled it onto the train that had been waiting in the yard for two days.  I coupled up the frozen air hoses and turned the valve to allow air to move from the engine’s reservoirs to the train’s brake pipe. In weather that cold it would take an hour or more to charge up the brake system on the train.  

Photo courtesy of Peter Cox

Eventually, our air test was completed and we were given permission to leave the yard.

            The engine’s sixteen cylinders revved up higher and higher, and the train began to move ahead, but was almost immediately stopped as the snow that had piled up under the boxcars resisted the engine’s efforts to pull the cars.  After backing into the cars and pulling them again, we managed to break the frozen boxcars out of the snowdrifts.  It was an uphill pull westward out of Jasper yard on a good day; today it was even more difficult.  The rails and wheels were frozen and the axle bearings were so stiff that they protested loudly, producing groaning sounds that mixed with the creaking and tweaking of the drawbars that connected each car to the one next to it.  Eventually, the whole train was moving along and the engines could be throttled down a bit. 

            The engine was pulling past the west mile board when the conductor called out over the radio, “we’re on, OK to highball”.  I opened my thermos and poured myself a cup of coffee.

There’s something about the smell of hot coffee with cream and sugar on a cold day.  It brings back memories of watching a hockey game being played at an outdoor rink.  The lights are hanging from wires above the ice, and snow is falling softly.  The Capreol team is playing against a team from the valley and the cheering fans are full of enthusiasm.  

            We put our feet up and settled in for the 19 mile climb up the hill to Yellowhead, the top of the Divide.  From the long, broad meadow that lay between switches at Yellowhead, there ran two small streams.  One flowed eastward toward the Miette River which flowed into the Athabasca and eventually to the Arctic Ocean, while the other stream flowed westward into Lucerne Lake and then into Moose Lake at Red Pass Junction.  This waterway, when it left Moose Lake became the Fraser River which flows North to Prince George BC and then south again to its mouth near Vancouver.  There is nothing overly dramatic at this location in the height of land or divide that meanders almost the full length of North and South America.  When travelling over it by rail, or now by vehicle, you wouldn’t notice that you had crossed from one watershed to another.

The Fraser River....just west of Red Pass Junction on the Tete Jaune Sub.

The railway hadn’t been able to run a snow-plow ahead of us as one of their plows was derailed in Edson yard and the other was stuck behind a series of big snow slides on the Clearwater Sub 150 miles to the west. The snow had stopped all traffic and since we were the first train ordered west, we would have the whole Subdivision to ourselves.  The return trip would be a different story, though. The line would be open in both directions and the trains would be running hot and heavy.

            Pushing snow with the engine’s pilot all the way, it took nearly an hour to reach the summit at Yellowhead.  Soon we were picking up speed as the train crested the Yellowhead and wound along the frozen shores of Lucerne Lake.  Beneath the towering peaks of The Seven Sisters, the narrow valley first surveyed by Sir Sanford Fleming (1827 – 1915) began to open wider before us. The engineer reduced the throttle and softened the engines' throaty roar.  

            The snow now lay heavy and deep on the cross arms of the telephone poles and the wires hung low with the weight of snow that clung to them. 

Again, this photo taken while on the Tete Jaune sub, with an Albreda sub tunnel showing above.

Tree stumps and large rocks near the trackside looked like huge white toadstools.  As we plowed through the snow at thirty miles an hour, the engines’ pilot, or ‘cow-catcher’ scooped up the snow off the track and threw it into the air and over the bank onto the right of way like the bow wave of a speeding boat.   The snow drifts, as we burst through them would flash in front of the ditch lights creating a show of bright flashes of lights and deep shadows, creating the effect of a photographer firing off flash bulbs at a gala Hollywood event.

         The train order board at Lucerne was displaying a green light.  The operator on duty must have been encouraged to hear the train’s whistle echoing across the valley. He had been trapped inside his two room station since the storm closed the railroad.  With no trains running and the nearest road over 20 miles away, there was no way that his relief could get to him, so there he stayed until the trains started running again.  His family had asked us to drop off a ‘care package’ to him as our train went by.   At the mile board the engineer blew a few short blasts on the whistle to notify the operator that we were getting close.  At just the right time, I opened the side door of the cab and let the package fly. The operator waved as the package landed in snow drift near where he stood waiting for it.

            There was no highway and no settlement along the route for many miles. The only inhabitants to be found along much of the railroad were train-order operators and section crews.

            The east switch at Red Pass Junction clattered beneath the wheels as the train rounded the bend on Moose Lake, the headwaters of the Fraser River. A dense fog had begun to rise from the lake, drifting lazily upward in the early morning air. The sunlight was kissing the tallest of the mountain peaks to the west which were now wearing the soft yellow-orange mantle of dawn. 

            The section men stationed at Red Pass Junction had been called out early today to clean out the snow-clogged switches. They would stop their work only long enough to return our wave and inspect our train as we went by. The tall semaphore signal that stood in front of the station held its arms erect, cradling a brilliant green searchlight.  Again, there were no orders to be picked up for our train.

            I pulled the radio handset from its cradle and called out “Extra 9142 west, clear board Red Pass.

            “Clear board Red Pass, thanks,” was the reply from the caboose.
            Leaving Red Pass Junction we began our descent into the Rocky Mountain Trench, some thirty miles to the west.  This was the part of the subdivision in which we kept the windows wound up tight and our eyes glued to the track ahead.  The railway had been placed precariously on a narrow shelf carved from the near-vertical mountain slope high above the valley floor.  Tunnels, snow sheds and rock slide warning fences would now be the prominent features of our run down the hill to Valemount.   
            The engineer had set the train brake as our train began the downgrade run and  adjusted the throttle so that our speed settled at twenty five miles an hour. That old feeling called “butterflies” came back to me as it did every time I passed the west mile board at Red Pass. And this morning the feeling was even more intense. The snow storm had lasted for days and the snow lay so deep on the rails that there had not been a track inspection since the storm began. The potential for snow slides at this particular time was heightened considerably now that we were entering the canyon portion of our trip.

            Slide detector fences, long fences which stood twenty five feet high between the train and the mountain face, and were strung with wire which would break when struck by falling snow slides or rocks.  When the wires are broken, the interrupted electric circuit activates a warning light in advance of the protected area.  As we rounded a tight curve along a rock face, the first of the warning lights came into view. It blinked its silent warning in the cold morning air.   Conversation trickled to a standstill in the cab, being replaced by apprehension.  The droning of sixteen cylinders and the singing of the wheels were the only sounds that could be heard.

            Leaning to my left, I told Dad that this could be the most exciting ride he had taken in many years. He said, “I believe it.”   “If the next forty five miles are anything like the last forty five, I’ll have something to talk about when I get back to Capreol!”

            “Then brace yourself,” I said, “because it’s going to get pretty interesting in about one mile.”

            The engineer took another pound or two out of the brake pipe and the train brakes squeezed the wheels just a bit tighter.

            As snow roars down the mountain side, it can pick up loose rocks and break off trees along its path. When the slide is finally stopped on the tracks, those rocks and trees can be hidden inside the slide and not be visible to the train crew.

            There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to hit slides on this trip and  we were not to be disappointed. The first of them was only a few feet deep, and apart from a muffled thud and a moment of blackness as the exploding snow pile buried our headlights, the engine did not notice the impact.  The second one came only moments later. And then another.   Rounding a curve, we entered a two hundred foot tunnel which didn’t have an opening at the other end. It was completely plugged by a big slide.  The engineer opened the throttle wide. “Here it comes,” I said. We pressed our boots against the front wall of the cab as we dove headlong into the snow pile.  The engine lurched, and then hesitated a bit.  The inside of the cab went dark except for the soft light provided by the instrument lights in front of the engineer.

Mouth of tunnel on Tete Jaune sub. below Albreda sub.        

      Our train, which had been stretched out for a mile behind us, now ran into the back of the engine and hammered us through the wall of snow and debris and into daylight.  

            The ditch lights had been ripped from the front of the engine and the front windows were smeared with mud, branches, and snow.

           After we emerged from the tunnel,  the debris fell away from the windshield.  I saw the concern on Dad's face and assured him that we were still on the tracks, despite the noise and confusion of the collision.  Stepping behind the engineer, I lowered the window for a running inspection of the train, as required by the rules.  With my head extended through the window opening, I watched as our train snaked along the mountain side behind us.  Everything appeared to be running normal.

            It was a beautiful morning.  The sun was beginning to clear away the frosty fog that clung to the mountains and, there in the still morning air, standing twelve thousand nine hundred and seventy two feet high, stood Mount Robson, framed by a crystal clear blue sky and wearing a soft halo of filmy cloud just above its peak. The glacier on its shoulder gave just a hint of pale ice-blue in the morning sunshine.  I called dad to the window. “Come here, dad. You have to see this.”  There was only room for one person at the window and I didn’t feel there was a need to point out what it was that he should be looking at. He saw it immediately.  

Mount Robson photo taken from Albreda sub.
           After several minutes, we were getting closer to another tight spot where snow slides could present a dangerous situation,  I put my hand on Dad's shoulder and tugged him back into the cab.  He didn’t want to leave that view behind. I had never seen such an expression on his face. He had been impressed beyond words.  

            Little did I know at the time what an effect that moment would have on him.

            While the rest of the trip was as beautiful as the first part, he couldn’t stop talking about the magnificence of Mount Robson. And our engineer, born in the area, had a great deal to say about the geological and archeological history of the mountain. Dad learned all about the meteorology of the mountain and how it creates its own weather and affects the weather of the entire valley. He learned about the early Native peoples, the trappers and traders of Tete Jaune Cache, and the salmon runs that came from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the foot of the mountain to spawn and die in the Fraser River. 

            He radiated with excitement as we sat in the railroad beanery in Blue River eating our breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee. 

            As a young boy, I had gone with my father on road trips in Ontario.  Some of my earliest memories of those trips were aboard steam engines with my dad at the throttle.  It filled me with pride to be able to take him for a ride such as this. 

            My father died in 1998, and his ashes were scattered near the CN mainline at Harvey, not far from Mount Robson.  As I spread his ashes on the ground, the wayfreight came drifting by, blowing a long, single blast on the horn.  Last post for a fine railroader.

Thank you CN!


LOU said...

Just a note to say THANK-YOU-KINDLY again for including us in your great,interesting railroad'n-past !!!!!!!!

I hope to be there w/ you on all-of'm !!!!!

Bruce said...

Thank you, Lou. I'm in your debt and will continue to write about my experiences as long as I'm able...just for folks like you. I enjoy re-living the memories and putting them in writing to help others understand the essence of railroading as seen through my eyes. Pull your chair up to the coal stove and wrap your fingers around that hot cup of caboose coffee.

LOU said...

WOW !!!!!!!!!!Those pics really 'BRING-IT-TO-LIFE', yesterday I got the 'EARLY-ISSUE'

My first job as a 'survey-rodman'for my uncle involved a 15m COMMUTE in NW IL in the summer of 1937 ( just finished 7th grade ) @ 50 cents round-trip and start'n-pay was 25c/hr. After starting college fall-of-42,enlisted in AAF, gone 3yr-1wk back to finish civil engineering and had some time in track construction, even driv'n-spikes & shov'l'n ballast, & AREA member.

Very-slow @ typ'n, so this BLOG'N is WORK !!!

Jim Hutchings said...

Hi Bruce:
Thanks for your great story. Railroading provides compelling stories whatever the location, but there is certainly something quite unique and engaging about coaxing trains through mountain passes, valleys and tunnels. Northern Ontario seems kinda dull in comparison. I think your dad made the right move.
all the best

md said...

Wonderful,multi-dimensional stories...thank you so much for saving them for history!

Mark Dance (Vancouver BC)

Ron said...

You capture the real Canada with this blog, I enjoy it very much. I loved the Mount Robson story and photo.