Friday, February 24, 2012

Milk Cow Blues on the Rupert Rocket

The baggage and freight handlers were working feverishly to finish transferring several tons of freight, express, mail and baggage from the platform to the baggage cars on the head end of Number Nine, standing on passenger track two in front of the station at Jasper, Alberta.

Photo Credit C. Van Steenis

For the better part of an hour, the small but dedicated team of station employees had been moving boxes, suitcases, mail sacks and more from the express room to the platform using a half dozen or more green baggage carts that clattered over the rails on steel rimmed, wood-spoke'd wheels of unknown vintage.

It was early autumn in the Rockies and the year was 1968.  The western Canadian economy had been on fire for at least the last five years with a great deal of activity in the forest industry in British Columbia.  Lumber towns like Prince George were stretched to the limit as a pulp and paper town, as well as processing millions of cubic feet of finished lumber for eastern and southern markets.

In moving these forest products from Prince George to eastern and US markets, the CNR provided for three freight train schedules per day between Prince George and Red Pass Junction, 43 miles west of Jasper on the Albreda sub.

This land of opportunity brought people..., lots and lots of people.  Trains Nine and Ten were running with three day coaches on the head end and every seat was sold, every night.  Closer to the weekends, CN might have to scramble to ready a fourth day coach for the evening train.  Whenever four working day coaches were needed, a second conductor was called to help make sure all the passengers were properly cared for and to make sure that no one was carried past their intended stop.

On this particular Friday evening, I noticed that Number Nine had four day coaches behind the two baggage cars.  The station platform was busy, with passengers mingling with station staff, car men making last minute checks, porters checking passenger's accommodation tickets, ice lockers being topped up with ice brought from the ice house beside the diesel shop and, of course, the clattering baggage carts moving back and forth.

I was glad, I thought, that I had decided to come down to the station 40 minutes early.  There would be hundreds of pieces of luggage to write up as well as a car full of express to view and sign for.  Fortunately, I wouldn't be required to inspect and account for the dozens of dirty grey bags of Royal Mail that lay piled on the floor of the 'working' car..., my car.

I climbed into the vestibule and opened the solid, black steel door that led into the baggage car.  Closing the door, I slid the heavy steel bar into place, locking the door to access from the train.  To my right and left, luggage was piled, floor to ceiling and wall to narrow walkway in the center of the car, leaving a space less than three feet wide to move through the car.

In order to keep track of the all the luggage, and to arrange it so that it would be available on a first-out basis, I had to look at each piece of luggage and mark down the information that was written on the baggage tags affixed to each piece of baggage.  To do this, I had to tear down the mountains of bags and boxes piled against the walls of the car, make a record of the baggage tags and re-pile the myriad pieces of people's lives in an order that placed the 'short-hauls' at the front of the pile and the 'long-hauls' or through baggage at the rear.  This job would take up the first hour of my night if I worked fast.  Occasionally, an off-duty brakeman would wander by and offer to help for the price of a cup of coffee.  This was one of those nights.  A brakeman from Smithers, BC was travelling with his wife and had been visiting her family in Edmonton.  They both pitched in and we had the job done in no time.  While he and I talked, his wife walked over to Phil's Chinese across the street and brought back coffee and treats.

While she was away, a baggage cart had been pulled up to the open door and a young fellow wearing a Jasper Park Lodge logo on his shirt asked for help to slide an animal crate into the baggage car.  My guest and I each took hold of one side of the crate and lifted it onto the floor of the car.  Inside the crate, which seemed much too small, was a German Shepherd dog.  We slid it across the width of the car and backed it against the wall in a spot near my desk, but out of the way of the night's work.  Turning, I went back to the open door and caught the young man as he was towing the cart back to the station.

"Where's this dog's water bowl", I asked?

"His owner's travelling with him," he said.  "And she will come up and give him water when he gets thirsty".

"She has sleeping car accommodation and is going to Prince Rupert to catch a ship" he said as he made his way into the crowd of people on the platform.

There was documentation stapled to the top of the crate that indicated that the owner had paid to have the dog shipped along her intended route of travel. There was also a hand-written note to 'All Concerned' insisting that the dog be kept in the crate at all times and must not be allowed out by anyone other than the owner, a Madame G. La Chance.  The note went on, "Owner will feed, water and exercise this animal"

At the bottom of the note, almost as an afterthought were the words, "His name is 'Toujours'" (French for 'Always').

"At least, she hadn't tried to send him on a 'baggage tag'", I thought.

With all the baggage, express, mail and dog accounted for, I swung the big steel bar out of the way, unlocking the door.  Opening it, I stepped out and went down to the platform where I searched the sea of faces for the conductor, Marvin Swartz (whom you've all met in an earlier story).  I found him talking with the assistant conductor and the trainmaster on duty.  Catching his eye, I indicated that I was ready to go and he could leave when he was ready.

I went back into the baggage car for coffee with my guests from Smithers.

Sitting down, the brakeman's wife told me that she noticed that the dog's toe pads on his front feet were showing signs of having been bleeding.

I had a look at the dog's feet through the wire enclosure and couldn't tell, so I said I'd keep an eye on it.

Soon enough, we heard the locomotive's bell begin to ring, followed by gentle tugging on the car.  The draft gear and couplers began to creak and Train Number Nine was on it's way to the Interior of British Columbia.

Once the train picked up speed, the evening chill permeated the inside of the car and, not wanting to turn up the steam heat provided by the steam generator just behind the locomotive, I got up and lit a small fire in the coal stove near the working desk and the table where we were sitting with the last of our coffee.

With the kindling burning strongly now, I raised the lid of the coal bin and took out a scoop of hard, black coal.  I carefully spread it over the burning wood inside the stove.

Satisfied that  the chill would soon be off the well lit activity center in the middle of the car, I pulled from a pigeon hole above the desk, the only OCS mail that I had for the Albreda sub, and that was a couple of brown envelopes addressed to "Lucerne" about half way between Jasper and Red Pass Jct.  I removed a yellow fusee from the rack on the wall and wrapped the envelopes around the fusee, securing them with a couple of thick brown elastic bands.  If the train wasn't flagged to allow passengers to entrain, I would let fly the fusee and envelopes confident that the airborne package would land safely within one or two yards of the front door of the little white renovated boxcar that had been converted for use as a station.

The dog whimpered, and pulled at the screen on the front of the crate with his front paws.

When the train stopped at Red Pass Jct. to line switches and pick up mail and other packages for delivery to McBride and Prince George, I got off the train and went inside the station to stretch my legs and to look over any train orders and messages that might be issued for our train.

I commented to Tiger that I was a bit surprised that he hadn't come to the baggage car for a chat since we left Jasper.  He turned to me and, pushing his hat back on his head, he said that he was grateful to have an assistant conductor.  "Four day coaches and every seat is sold", he said.  "And they've oversold the train"..."I've got a dozen people back there who don't have seats!!!"  "I've put them into the Dining Car until we leave McBride".

Walking back to the train, Marvin handed me a message that read:

C and E, Train #9, date.
Arrange stop at Dunster to load shipment of milk destined Prince George dairy.

Usually, this wasn't bad news because it would mean that we would be able to lift the lid from a can of pure, raw cream for our coffee and toast in the wee hours before arriving at Prince George.  However, tonight there just wasn't room for 'several cans' of milk from Dunster to Prince George.  I would have to move all of the Royal Mail from the baggage car to the express car just behind the steam generator.  And that might not do it.

My baggage car and the express car were full to near capacity and I would have to enlist help to make room for the Dunster milk.  I had left some room for the twenty or so cans of milk that would be added to the train at McBride, but hadn't counted on this shipment from Dunster!

Marvin (Tiger) Swartz was one step ahead of me and, before we passed Alpland, the end door swung wide open..., Tiger never entered a room timidly, and introduced me to a small army of conscripts that he had collared in the day coaches.

Soon, they had moved all of the Royal Mail sacks into the express car and created an amazing amount of free space in the west end of the car.  I was grateful and promised them that the coffee pot would be ready for them once we left McBride.  They were happy with that and went back to their seats.

After I had closed the steel door behind my volunteers, I turned to see Tiger crouching low and, with his fingertips, gently rubbing the dog's ear.

"Where's his water bowl", Tiger asked?

"He doesn't have one", I answered.

"I'm going to let him out to stretch his legs and have a drink", I said.

"My advice...,"said Tiger..., "Leave the dog where it is!", and he left to go back to his desk in the coach.

I searched in all the cubby holes in my desk and finally found a dusty white porcelain bowl and a length of stout binding twine, which I doubled up into a length of about eight feet.  I rinsed and wiped the dirt from the bowl and filled it from the galvanized metal water tank held to the wall by sturdy steel straps.

'Toujours' emerged from his crate and took a long, leisurely stretch, then nearly drained the water from the white porcelain bowl I found in the supply cabinet.  I attached the makeshift leash to his collar and tied the bitter end to a painted wooden slat that made up part of the wall beside my desk and behind his crate.  He soon was laying on the floor, fully outstretched and falling asleep.

He didn't even lift his head when we slowed to deliver OCS mail to the darkened train order office at Tete Jaune.

Twenty minutes later, Tiger entered the baggage car with the rear end trainman and a couple of "volunteers" from the coach.  This was to be my team of milk handlers for Dunster.

Tiger gave me "a look", and softly told me to put the dog back into the crate.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated, for the dog had other plans and wouldn't go back into the crate.

"Later", I thought, when Tiger and the other brakeman would be up to help me load the milk.  We'd put 'Toujours' back into the crate then.

The train slowed to a crawl and Tiger pulled the big rolling doors open and peered outside and ahead.

"Wow", he said!

Gripping the steel bar above the open doorway, I leaned out for a look, and immediately agreed with him.  There were at least fifty cans of milk and a few cans of cream to be loaded.   The cans were sitting on the platform, under the extended eaves of the old, un-occupied Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station.

Reaching up to a cord that stretched across the width of the open doors, Tiger took the cord with his finger tips and gave it two short tugs.  The train's brakes squealed against the wheels and we came to a stop withing three feet of the intended mark, just opposite the front of the station.

Perhaps I could have waited until after we left McBride to stoke up the fire in the coal stove; but I hadn't.  I'd stoked the fire after the train had left Tete Jaune and the kettle was now boiling with a purpose.

After removing the innards from the coffee percolator, I set the basket, lid and percolator stem into the supply cabinet.  From the two pound can of ground coffee that one of the construction camp shippers had 'donated' to the crew on 9 & 10, I took a heaping handful of coffee and let it pour into the empty coffee pot.  Next, I put in a half teaspoon of salt and filled the pot to within an inch or two of the top of the spout.

Leaving the lid off, I placed the pot on the center of the hot stove and, within a minute, the water, coffee and salt inside was in a rolling, foaming boil.  I put the lid on tight and pushed the pot to the back of the stove to keep warm.

Instantly, the inside of the baggage car filled with the tempting aroma of hot, fresh coffee.

                                      Photo Credit Google Images Photographer Unknown

Forgetting all about the dog, tied with a length of binder twine just opposite to the double-wide door we would use to load the milk onto the train, the crew and volunteers took up positions on the ground and inside the baggage car.

Looking around and finding everyone ready, I gave the word to begin loading, and the cans began to arrive out of the darkness and into the light inside the car.

                                          Photographer Unknown, Source Google Images

The milk cans began to move in a continuous line, from the station, across the platform to the open door, where the rear brakeman and another fellow were each gripping the heavily loaded milk can in front of them, and with a grunt, they lifted the cans and shoved them into the open doorway.

Can after can, the milk was filling up every available space that we had created, and there were still several large cans and a few small cans yet to be loaded.

With each can they lifted, the men on the ground grew more tired, until they asked to take a moment to re-position themselves.

Tiger, who had earned his name in the boxing ring, and who was still in 'fighting trim', goaded the boys on..., suggesting they trade off with two other fellows, they laughed out loud and bent to grab another can.

Working like an old-fashioned fire brigade, the fellows on the ground moved the cans of milk from the front of the station, and across the platform; and moving in tandem, they tilted each can onto it's edge.  With one hand gripping a handle, and the other on the rolled edge at the bottom, they lifted in one movement, just barely getting the can onto the edge of the door sill.  Tiger and I were just inside the door, and as each can reached our grasp, we took them, and in one rolling motion, dragged them to the next fellows who placed them, row on row inside the car.

                                           Source: Google Images.  Photographer Unknown.

We were all working as hard as we could and sweat was running down our backs.  We were all loosening our shirts, trying to cool down.

Heaving together, they lifted the can as high as they could, and..., the bottom edge of the can didn't make it all the way into the open doorway.  It caught the sloping steel door sill, and began to slide backward toward the ground.

Both men had gripped the top of the can with both hands, and now had no free hands to prevent the can from falling to the ground.  The can tipped forward into the baggage car, and with all hands inside the car working to roll the heavy milk cans into position near the west end of the car, there was no one available to catch the milk can that was falling onto its side...., in slow motion....!!!

Tiger and I grabbed for the top of the can, but it had already passed its center of balance and was falling inward, to land on it's side.  

Time stood still.  The can landed heavily and gave a small bounce.

The lid remained in place..., but only for an instant.  With a muffled gurgling sound, the milk inside surged into the neck of the can, and the lid literally flew across the baggage car floor...., clattering noisily, it careened  between the legs of the German Shepherd named "Toujours"!

Rearing up, Toujours deftly escaped the flying saucer that had only a second ago been firmly jammed onto the top of the 5-gallon milk can.  But what followed, presented a threat that, I'm sure no one inside the baggage car, including Toujours had ever confronted; a wave of ice cold, white milk shot across the floor, following the path that the lid had taken.

It all happened in a flash... the milk rushed from the now-open can, the dog frantically backed away from it, and the hot stove was standing there..., its presence preventing the retreating dog from reaching the wall of the car.

It's a good thing that dogs, when they're frightened..., tuck their tails between their legs.  Or, at least one would hope that they do that when they're in "fight or flight" mode.  Perhaps Toujours didn't have time to get his tail down, but it was obvious that he got too close to the coal stove, because it was definitely the stove that put him in motion.

At the same time however, he didn't want to engage the advancing white fear that was the flood of milk that had gotten his complete attention.  He leaped forward, clearing the angry, white monster that had just launched itself at him.    About half way across the width of the car, and while still airborne, he reached the end of the binder-twine leash I had made for him.  It snapped with a resounding 'ping' and he landed with all four paws firmly on the edge of the door sill.  Without missing a beat, Toujours sprang from the open doorway, clearing the heads of the two men on the platform who instinctively threw their arms up to protect themselves from the dog that had landed within inches of their faces.

Toujours disappeared into the darkness beyond the light of the train.

For a moment, all that was heard was the gentle throbbing of the two F7 locomotives which seemed to be beating much slower than the blood that was pounding in my head.

I immediately looked toward the end of the baggage car where, I was certain, Mme. La Chance was sure to emerge from behind the steel door, demanding to see her dog.  It remained closed.

We spent several minutes looking around the station, under the train and up and down the road near the tracks, but there was no sign of 'Toujours'.

With nothing left to be said or done, Tiger bent at the waist, picked up the stepping box and yelled into the night..., "Boooaaaard!"

The dog was gone and it was my fault.  Of course, by extension, it was also Tiger's fault.  Something had to be done, or there would be hell to pay once Madame La Chance discovered that I had let her dog out of the crate he was travelling in.

I turned to Tiger to tell him what I had decided to do, but he headed me off.  He told me that I had already made one decision too many regarding the dog and he took a small knife from his pocket and opened it up, exposing a flat bladed screw driver.  With it, he turned the screws holding the hinges on the crate's door panel until the threads had chewed up the wood so much that the screws would no longer hold the door on securely.

Without saying a word, he poured us each a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove and sat down on an old caboose chair near the table.

Setting his cup down on the table, he raised his hand and cocked his fist at me.  Then he broke into a big grin and pushed his salt and pepper hair back on his head.

"There's no sense crying over spilled milk".

The dog'll be OK," he said, taking a sip of baggage car coffee and Prince George Dairies cream.

"Perhaps he will", I said.


At that moment, I really appreciated my friend, Tiger.

                                                    Photo Credit:  BBB Heritage Seeds

1 comment:

LOU said...




THAT ' TIGER ' SOUNDS ' SHARP ' !!!!!!!!!!