Friday, October 28, 2011

One Night On The Rupert Rocket in 1966

The baggage wagons were pulled away from the side of the train and herded to their resting places at the west end of the Jasper station.  Their steel tired wheels clattered noisily as they crossed over the mainline and headed toward the Express and Baggage sign that hung from the large overhanging roof over the station platform.  There they would remain until just before the next passenger train was due to arrive.  Station workers, their outside work completed, disappeared into the brightly lit interior recesses.

 Rain had started falling as the last of the baggage and express was being loaded.  Pools of rainwater, growing too large to remain on the round roof of the passenger cars, released themselves from their lofty perch and cascaded down the sides of the cars and over the windows.  The passengers had settled into their seats and now waited patiently for the train to start moving.  As they watched from the large windows by their seats, rivulets of rain water spilled down like some living creature, trying to reach the ground before the Conductor called "All Aboard" and the train departed, leaving the train station for the darkness of the Rocky Mountains at night.  In the bright lights along the station platform, the cars looked like they had just emerged from the railway's paint shop and had been pressed into service with the paint still wet.

Railway employees hurried this way and that along the platform, gathering hoses to coil up and put away in hidden spaces under the platform.  They pulled carts that had, only minutes before carried supplies to the dining car, or extra blankets to the sleepers.  The men were dressed in dark coveralls and wearing dirty peaked caps that told of countless repetitions of the tasks they were performing at this moment.

Conductor Schwartz, dressed in his dark blue uniform over a crisp white shirt and black tie, came out of the station checking the time on his watch.  As he deftly dropped his trusty Hamilton 992B gold pocket watch into the little vest pocket that kept it safe until the next time he needed it, one couldn't help but notice the cluster of gold bars that were sewn onto the sleeves of his uniform jacket; one for every five years of service.

Looking to his left, he saw that his flagman, the rear end trainman was standing near the stepping box at the back of the train.  The coal oil lamp inside the train's rear marker flickered, displaying a dancing green light that reflected along the side of the sleeping car, the last car on the train.  And looking to his right, Marvin met my gaze and I nodded to him, indicating that all was well in my world...that of the baggage cars on train number nine.

Schwartz raised his arm high in the air and the flagman answered by raising his arm as well.  In one motion, and without breaking stride, Conductor Swartz bent low and grabbed the stepping box from the platform and, taking one of the coach's polished stainless steel grab irons in one of his big, tough hands, he stepped up onto the stairs leading to the platform in the vestibule at the end of the car.  After a brief word with the young head-end trainman who was also in the vestibule, he pushed open the door and stepped into the coach.  The trainman reached up for the cord that hung from a valve near the top of the vestibule and gave it a couple of short tugs.  This was answered by a couple of short blasts on the whistle, as the engineer released the brakes and cracked the throttle.  The bell began to ring from the top of the engine's cab and the sound of air being released from the coaches announced that the train was about to depart.

The brakeman released the catch on the two-part dutch door and closed, first the lower door and then the upper one.  The train was now secure and he followed his conductor into the day coach to help him collect tickets and hang destination tags above each persons seat.

Conductor Schwartz' first name was Marvin, but everyone who knew him called him "Tiger", for that was his professional name when he toured the prairie fight circuit as a pro boxer, and sometimes as a rodeo rider in the late 40's and the 50's.  Tiger still liked to ride the bulls whenever he got a chance and he was known as a scrapper among both crews and passengers alike.  Tiger and I got along quite well.

In the Winter of 1966, the Rupert Rocket was the most practical and economical method of travelling to Prince George in the interior of BC from all points east.  The train, run by the CNR from Jasper, Alberta to Prince Rupert, BC left Jasper after dinner six nights a week and arrived in “PG” in time for breakfast.  During the night, the train would stop at several regular stops, as determined by the timetable; and many more "Flag Stops" would be made at unmarked places along the way.  Wherever a green and white flag was encountered, sometimes displayed in front of a small track-side shelter, sometimes from a nearby tree branch…the train would stop to entrain passengers, pick up mail or drop off supplies to bush camps, prospectors, hunters, trappers and Natives. 

After leaving Jasper, there wasn't much to do until we arrived at Redpass Junction, about 43 miles west.  There was a tiny train order station at Lucerne near the halfway mark and the possibility of receiving train orders on the fly, or perhaps a passenger to drop off or pick up.  Since there were no private dwellings at Lucerne any more, and only the CNR train order operator who lived in the converted boxcar that was both his office and his home away from home, there was little likelihood that there would be a passenger to pick up or leave behind.

At Redpass, our train left the former Canadian Northern Pacific mainline, now...CNR mainline to Vancouver and branched off onto the former Grand Trunk Pacific mainline to Prince Rupert.  Local railroaders still called it "The Trunk".  Leaving Redpass on our descent of the hill past Mount Robson, following the headwaters of the Fraser River, we entered very dark territory.  Gone were the electric 'search light' signals of the Automatic Block Signal train detection system of the Albreda Sub.  We were now running on the Tete Jaune Sub, where switches were marked with oil-burning switch lamps that were filled and lit by section crews who patrolled and maintained the track, mostly during the daylight hours.

This was true western Canadian wilderness.  There were no lights from homes and farms, no roads or power transmission lines...nothing but dark forests and towering, snow and ice-covered mountains.  On a clear night, you might get an unobstructed view of Mount Robson from the train, reaching up nearly 13,000 feet above the sea.

The station at Tete Jaune was dark, as it was operating under new hours, being open only during the day when most of the freight trains that ran on this subdivision might be found.

Arriving at Dunster, halfway between Tete Jaune and McBride, the train slowed.  Opening the door on the side of the baggage car, I stuck my head out into the night while reaching up to find the communication cord hung somewhere above the door.  There was a green and white flag hung in its holder by the waiting room door in front of the station and a woman stepped out of the darkness and, picking up her suitcase from the platform, moved forward to the line near the edge of the platform.  Judging the right combination of speed and momentum, I pulled twice on the cord and the train stopped.

While the trainman stepped off the train and placed the stepping box on the platform, I climbed down from the open door and, taking the long wooden draw bar of the baggage wagon that stood in front of the closed up station, I pulled the first of three wagons loaded with large cans of raw milk and cream that was destined for the creamery at Prince George.

Conductor Schwartz had commandeered a couple of strong backs to help swing the heavy cans up onto the baggage car while he and I spun them into place near the end of the car.  In less than fifteen minutes, we were underway once more.

Completing a quick tally of milk and cream, I pried the lid off one of the cream cans and scooped up a cup full of the thick off-white coloured delight and set it in the middle of the table for use in our coffee.  I banged the lid back onto the can and put it with the others.

During a half hour stop in McBride, the baggage car was loaded with many more five gallon cans of un-processed milk and cream from local dairy farms, and items of baggage belonging to people who had come aboard heading for Prince George and points west.

Day coach passengers were given the opportunity to get off the train during our stop at McBride.  When the train pulled to a stop in front of the station, several got off and wandered into ‘the beanery’, a railway operated restaurant for an early breakfast. The beanery staff had a talent for getting a customer's order ready in a matter of minutes so that everyone could eat, have a cup of coffee and get back on the train without delaying the schedule.

The in-coming engineer and fireman, who had brought the train from Jasper to McBride were standing on the platform talking with the out-going head end crew.  Surely, they were discussing water and fuel levels, the way the new traction motors on the lead unit were behaving and the ditch light that had burned out as the train was leaving Redpass.  All of these matters would have been booked, or written down on CN Form 538D which lived in a sheet metal holder on the back wall of the locomotive cab, but the engine crew would still discuss their findings with the new crew before they handed over responsibility for the engine consist.

The McBride shop staff were on hand to check fuel and water levels and would check the function of the large steam generators in the car immediately behind the locomotive.  You see, the engines used on the Rupert Rocket were not the same as those used on the mainline passenger trains.  Normally, they were used in freight service and when needed on the branch lines, were coupled to a steam generator car that did nothing else but create steam, under pressure to heat the train and provide heat for the galley in the dining car.

This photo, taken by Peter Cox, of Edmonton AB is of CN train number 4 east of Vancouver.  It shows the use of two freight locomotives, the 9173, a GFA17 and a similar "B", or cabless unit.  Notice the blue car immediately behind the second striped locomotive: this is a steam generator car providing heat to the train.
This photo also demonstrates the placement of the lights on the front of the locomotive, with the dual sealed beam headlight on top and the two ditch lights, a CN innovation, on the bottom.  Thank you, Peter.

The final load of baggage rolled out of the express shed on an old green cart at the west end of the station topped with grey canvas bags marked "Royal Mail".   The station agent and his helper slid the baggage across the floor to me, then piled the mail bags on top of the already deep pile that had come from Jasper.  Wiping their hands on their trousers, they climbed down from the car and without a word, slipped inside the station, closing the door behind them.

After comparing their watches and discussing the train orders with the engineer, the conductor gave the familiar “all aboAARRd” call from the platform and lightly climbed onto the coach to check his passengers.

Once more, the familiar scene was repeated.  Station staff  retreated to their desks, the beanery staff busied themselves with cleaning up the counter top, sweeping the floor and washing up the kitchen before heading home to bed.

I finished processing the baggage, adding their tag numbers and destinations to the report that I would hand over to the station agent in Prince George.

The rain began to fall with a vengeance.  Rain drops drummed a constant and concerning roar on the roof of the baggage car as I took one last look at the station platform for anything, or anyone that might get left behind.  I closed and locked all the doors, except one.  This, I left open just a few inches for fresh air.  

 I was grateful that we had gotten our work done at McBride before the deluge began.

The head-end brakeman took one last look up and down the platform and, picking up the orange stepping-box he swung up into the vestibule.  In a series of movements, he put away the stepping box, lowered the vestibule deck into position over the steps and closed the doors.  Reaching up to the ceiling he hooked his fingers over the communicating cord connected to an air-operated signalling system and pulled it twice.  The brakes on the train were released as the locomotive’s bell began to ring and the whistle sounded twice.

With the slightest lurch, the night air came alive with the creaking and squealing sounds of draw bars, vestibule buffers and truck springs.  The train began to move, then slipped silently away from the brightly-lit station platform and into the rain soaked night.  The engine throttles were opened up and the big diesels eagerly leaned into their charges, speeding away to the next stop.

In the baggage car, the coal stove was burning hot and the over-filled kettle began to hiss and spit as water escaped from the spout, landing on the hot cast iron stove top as the train rolled along the track.
Running a bit late due to several slow orders that were in place due to soft track conditions between Tete Jaune and McBride, locomotive engineer ‘Pappy’ Howard worked the throttle and the air brakes in an effort to make up a few minutes on the schedule.  I listened to the  staccato rumble of the diesel engines that echoed off the mountains and trees.  The wheels and the rail joints created that clickety-clack that everyone loves to remember, and mixed with the engine sounds was music that entered my baggage car through the partially opened sliding door.  I shovelled a scoop or two of coal into the pot-bellied stove that stood beside the painted steel desk that was fixed to the wall, midway along the length of the baggage car.  On the desk lay baggage reports and Express Department documents that I would have to edit into reports-in-triplicate that would be sent by OCS Mail (On Company Service) to offices in Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal.   Hanging on a length of heavy wire hung a flat steel key of about three inches in length which unlocked the heavy steel safe sitting on the floor beside the upright desk I called my office.  Much of the time, the safe wasn’t locked, as there wasn’t much need to lock it.  Occasionally though, certain items would be loaded onto the head-end cars at Jasper or Prince George that were accompanied by a “Value Receipt” which the baggageman (me) signed for in the presence of the Express Agent.  The ‘item’ mentioned above might be an envelope, or it might be a package containing something of value like jewelry, bullion or cash. 

On this particular trip, we were carrying several oblong shaped bundles that were approximately 14” long by 8” wide by 6” high.  These were wrapped in heavy brown waxy paper which was neatly folded at the ends and where the folds met, there was a dollop of heavy, hardened red wax that had been imprinted with a stamp of some sort.

Each of the bundles had a 3 by 5 form taped to it with rather obscure hand-written code that consisted of letters and numbers.  The form also had a clearly defined number of 6 or 7 digits, as I recall that identified the package as one that I had signed for on a sheet that the Express Agent brought for that purpose.

Most of the bundles were all locked safely inside the heavy safe and the key was hanging from a hook above the desk.  However, the steel strong box wasn't large enough to hold all of the shipment, so some of it was had been stuffed into compartments above my desk that we called pigeon holes.  These were open compartments and were never meant to protect high value shipments.  When I brought my concerns to local railway authorities in Jasper, I was told to keep all the doors locked and not leave the car unattended.  

While they weren't identified as such, it was reasonable to assume that these packages contained paper currency, as there was reference made on the way bills to a Canadian Bank in Edmonton and another branch in one of the small towns on "The Trunk" in north western BC.   Out of curiosity, I added up the total value as stated on the waybills and came up with a figure in excess of half a million dollars!  Not that much by 2011 standards, but in 1966, when a 12 hour day's pay on the railroad was less than $25.00, the contents of those packages represented a large fortune!

Pappy blew the whistle signal 14(l), two long, one short and one long... just as I placed the cast iron lid back on the stove.  I tossed the scoop shovel into the coal bin and dropped the metal lid into place. Wiping my hands on a paper towel, I unlatched the big sliding steel door and leaned into it, pulling it open a few feet.  Cool, damp air rushed into the warm car and rain water that had been running down the outside of the door's window, now rode the swirling puffs of night air and settled on the polished steel floor in the doorway.  Taking a firm grip on the grab iron that was bolted to the wall near the edge of the opening, I squeezed my eyelids closer together and poked my head outside.  Looking forward, I could see the track and trees ahead of the engine as the scene was illuminated by the engine's headlight and ditch lights.  Everything behind the leading end of the engine lay in darkness, save for the soft yellow light that originated from a grime covered light bulb under the skirt of the engine that lit up the leading truck and the ground beside it.

Brakemen depend on this light to lead them to the hand rails and foot rests on the ladder when en-training or de-training in the dark of night.  When attempting to "lift" a heavy train from a stopped position, engineers would roll down the window and lean out, resting an elbow on the padded window ledge and, releasing the brakes and cracking the throttle with their left hand and pushing the "manual sanding" lever over into the forward position with their right, they would watch the illuminated ground beside the engine for an accurate indication of their forward movement.  Sometimes, if this operation was not carried out successfully, the train could roll backward, even with the throttle open in forward operation.  This could force the engineer to reverse the engine and back into the train while setting the brakes.  The object of this maneuver is to bunch the slack while the train is stopping.

The engineer will then return the engine to 'forward' position and begin to work the throttle once again.  When he sees that the load indicator is showing two or three hundred amperes of DC power being delivered to the traction motors on the axles, he will release the train and engine brakes and once again, watch the ground below his window.  With his left hand, he will work the throttle back and forth, exercising care that not too much, nor too little power is being delivered to the traction motors.  Too much, and the wheels will slip and the engine will lunge forward with the potential to tear the train in two.  Too little and the train will once again begin to move in reverse, resulting in the whole procedure to be repeated.  As the brakes release, the engine picks them up, one or two at a time while the brakes are still applied at the rear of the train holding it in place.  

Squeezing my eyelids closed to force the rain water from my eyes, I could see the engine leaning into a right hand curve as the track followed the course of the river.  The bright headlights, boring a hole into the cold, wet night illuminated the open end of a tunnel that allowed trains to pass beneath the steep mountain-side ahead.  I pulled my head inside the car and reached for another paper towel to wipe the rain from my face. 

While the rules called for the whistle to be blown approaching tunnels, curves, bridges, railway crossings at grade and other places as may be determined by the railway, it was a bit unusual for Pappy to blow the whistle for the tunnel this late at night and in such bad weather.  My curiosity was up.

As I wiped the rain-water from my eyes, I heard the train brakes go into emergency!  The baggage car began to surge back and forth.  As the train’s speed dropped quickly, the leading end of the car was raised up a few inches and began to tilt toward the river.  I abandoned any thought of pulling the door closed, and dove headlong into a large pile of Royal Mail sacks that had been neatly stacked on the floor near the end of the car.  Frantically pulling as many bags as I could reach on top of myself,  I huddled in a tight fetal position and took a deep breath.  I wondered if the train would stop moving in time to avoid a cold swim in the river.

Amid the sound of screeching brakes, grinding metal and surging train cars, all movement finally came to a stop.  The baggage car settled with only a slight list toward the rain-swollen river.

After waiting a moment anticipating an after-shock of some unknown origin, I threw off the mail sacks that had covered me and re-opened the side door, which had rolled to a close during the excitement.  I looked toward the engine to try to determine what we had hit and saw the two locomotives standing upright along with the steam generator car immediately behind it.   The Express car, which contained  high-value shipments and which was immediately behind the steam generator car was upright as well.  My baggage car was next in line. 

I was unable to determine whether the baggage car was derailed or not, because it was standing in mud, rocks and broken tree parts.   Looking toward the rear of the train, I saw that half of the baggage car was still inside the west end of the tunnel.  

The door at the end of the car closest to the coaches opened with a loud bang and the conductor came striding in.  Marvin “Tiger” Schwartz was well seasoned as a passenger conductor and had seen just about everything that the railroad or Mother Nature could throw at him.  When it comes to train mishaps, this one was of the "not too serious kind", but neither was he flashing his usual broad smile.

Sliding open the door closest to the mountainside, Tiger took a look around outside.  He said we were going to need help to get out of there and asked me if I had checked the tool locker before we left Jasper.  “Of course”, I lied;  I could tell by the look that he gave that he knew I was lying.  It didn't matter, though.  One shovel and a pry bar was not going to get us out of this mess.  We were going to need a gang of men, each with a sturdy hand tool.

I knew that there was a shipment of hand tools including shovels, picks, axes, bars and others in the express car.  These had been consigned to Ben Ginter Construction of Prince George and were en-route to one of his  construction sites near Prince George.  I mentioned this to Tiger and he brightened right up with “Hell yeah”, “And I've got about twenty of his men sleeping in the day coach!”  He told me to go back to the coaches and conscript every able-bodied man I could find, while he made his way up to the engine to find out how Pappy and the fireman were doing.  While he was on the engine, he said he’d call the dispatcher and get permission to put Mr. Ginter’s men to work, putting them on the company payroll. 

I returned to the baggage car with every man from the coaches.  Not a single man chose to remain behind.  They all volunteered!  Tiger had spoken with the fireman who had come back to find out how the train had fared in the collision with the slide.  The fireman told him that the dispatcher in Prince George had been notified of our situation and arrangements were being made to help us, if required.  Tiger decided that we would try to extricate ourselves and, failing that, we would call for help. It would take at least four or five hours to get help to us, even if an "ASAP" call was initiated at Prince George.  Wrecking crews, train and engine crews, laborers, bulldozer and operator, front end loader and operator ... all take time.  Besides, we were about 130 miles from Prince George and the running time alone would eat up four hours. was a good decision on Tiger's part.  We would see what we could do with what we had.

It was Tiger’s intention to put a shovel or a pick into the hands of every man on the train.   His instructions to me were to coordinate the distribution of the tools and keep the fire hot to make coffee for the workers.   Tiger and I got along pretty well.  Tiger Swartz looked out for his brakemen.

After a couple of hours of non-stop digging and shoveling, rolling rocks away and pulling roots and large branches from the mud, they had cleared away all of the debris under the baggage and express cars, righted the baggage car and cleared all of the mud and debris from the train’s running gear and brake rigging.  The locomotives and the steam generator car got a good once-over and the decision was made to attempt to move the train ahead, while our conscripted "volunteers" stood alongside, watching for anything that might be a hazard to the train.  The "All Clear" was finally given, and with no remaining threat to the train or engine, we pulled away from the site of the slide at restricted speed. 

Once underway again, I dug through a mountain of luggage that had once been stacked and organized so meticulously so that the workers could find clean clothes to change into.  It was a madhouse in there for over an hour while men stripped, wiped themselves down with paper towels from the coaches and linen that Tiger commandeered from the sleeping cars. 

While the men were cleaning up and putting their luggage back into orderly piles inside the baggage car, I continued to make lots of "baggage car coffee" having borrowed coffee pots, water and cups from the galley in the dining car.  I put out sugar cubes that someone brought up from the diner and I pried off the lid of a three gallon can of heavy cream that had been loaded onto the car by a dairy farmer in McBride, destined for the Prince George Dairy.  The cream was marvelously rich, being the consistency of ice cream.

Once into fresh clothes, we hung out in the baggage car, drank hot coffee and talked about the great recovery effort we had all taken part in.

By the time I bunged the top back onto the cream can, we had depleted the contents by about a third!  It was so good that someone even spread a heaping tablespoonful onto slices bread that he had toasted on the top of the coal stove.  Needless to say, every slice of bread in the bag was toasted and creamed in short order.

When the train finally rolled into Prince George, it was met by the usual station staff, express and baggage handlers and others.  Apparently, when it was learned that some passengers had been allowed to work in and around the baggage and express cars, CN's security people had been notified.  I had been busy inside the baggage car, transferring my duties to Prince George station staff when Tiger came in and asked me to stay inside the car until CN had finished checking the train.  When I asked him what that was all about, he just repeated his instructions that I stay inside the car and not allow anything to be removed.  Well, it was already too late for that!  The baggage wagons had already been towed away from the train and taken inside the station.  One or two wagons had been unloaded from the express car and were standing on the platform, waiting for someone to move them into the express shed.  

After several minutes had passed, Tiger entered the car with a man who was dressed in a suit.  Tiger asked me to give the man my 'grip'.  I did, and he looked through it and handed it back to me.  I asked Tiger what was going on, but he didn't answer me.

We walked across the yard to the bunkhouse for a shower, then we turned in for some very much needed sleep.

On our return to the station for a late night departure on train number ten, we learned why there had been such interest in the contents of the express car and…..the safe…!

Tiger explained to me that there had been a large shipment of cash in the safe, packed $50,000.00 to the bundle and wrapped in heavy waxed paper, with a hard wax, red seal on it.  When CN checked the ‘valuables’ on arrival at Prince George, one or more of those bundles were deemed to be missing.!!

He later learned that police dogs had located the money hidden under the tracks inside the tunnel within 100 feet of the site of our derailment.  All train crew members must have been cleared of any suspicion, because we never heard another word about the theft, and we never learned who had taken the money from the train, or how they had done it.  It would have been easy enough, I suppose.  There was a lot of excitement on that train following the striking of the mud slide.  Several people had been moving about, in and out of the baggage car...and, in the excitement of the moment, I completely forgot about the brown-paper covered bundles that were stuffed into the safe and the open pigeon holes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce
Stealing Cream from that poor old farmer was 'theft of product too' Bruce. I used to do the same thing in the 1950's when I was a baggageman on the Toronto/Sudbury locals. We would pick up about 20 eight gallon cans at Alliston from 'McWilliams Dairy Farm' and deliver them to Parry Sound for the Georgian Bay Creamery. I later was an owner of that GBC from 1969 till 1997. That cream on the top of the can was 33% whipping cream. Thats why it tasted so good.
Now did CNR reimburse that poor old farmer for his lost cream?
I used to steal only a small amount for my coffee, not 1/3 of a can.
You had a coal stove in the baggage car?
We had a 'pinsch gas' heater for boiling water?
Great story Bruce.
ps: I contacted my cousin, Jimmy Stanzel, who lives in Ottawa. He left Capreol in 1955 and says he didn;t recognize your name.

Bruce said...

Thanks Anonymous!

Actually, I was thinking of you when I wrote about popping the lid off that cream can. You know that my dad used to buy me an ice cream cone at your Georgian Bay Creamery. Some of the best memories of my life...

Yep...the farmer knew we were dipping, but not 1/3 of a can. We heard about that one, believe me. The farmers used to leave their milk and cream inside the station when the weather was sub-zero and we'd haul it out for him. Good trade!

I didn't know Jimmy either, but I thought he might know my dad or my grandfather.

Thanks for dropping in....

LOU said...

HEY-THERE-BRUCE !!!!!!!!!!!Just got here after breakfast and finished your latest ' TALE OF SUSPENSE " That sure turned out good for the kinda-trouble-y'all-were-in. We definately feel you have lived a " BLESSED EXISTENCE " and WISH-YOU-MANY-MORE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!