Sunday, December 22, 2013

CN's Christmas Train - 1984

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was sleeping, not even the .... mouse?

I had worked on the spareboard the whole year through,
Rolling up the miles, like all good hoggers do.
All my vacation time used up, I had no paid days remaining.
The family was packing, suitcases were straining.
Warm socks and sweaters, mittens and slacks.
Our plans were all made; there were no cracks.

I had worked extra shifts, racking up the miles.
We were going away for Christmas.  Look at those smiles!
We gather for dinner, excited at last,
For tomorrow we leave, not driving too fast.
Granny's for Christmas, it's been our plan all year.
Kelowna's our goal, the road's good, I hear.
One more night and we'll be away for a week.
So, off to bed kids!  Have a good sleep.
We want to leave early..., get a jump on the crowd.
What's this? The phone is ringing; it's ever so loud. 
'Tis time for the 'Board Change'. But I have  nothing to fear.
For I have my miles in. I've put in my time for the year.
Should I answer it? It continues to sound.
The crew office perhaps..., I pick it up in one bound.
My mileage date is the 28th, and I'm good to that date.
What lies beyond that, I will accept as my fate.
Be it spareboard or midnight goat
I'll be the hogger and that's all she wrote.
But not just now.  We're off to see Gran.
Gifts are all wrapped. That is the plan
That could be the Crew Office calling to tell me I've been bumped off my spareboard job and onto a yard assignment.  I'm not concerned though.  I have my miles in and it won't hurt to take a few days off to spend Christmas with family.

My hunch, based on countless phone calls coming only minutes before the 18:00 cut-off on Friday evenings, the hour of the weekly board change, was correct.   It was the crew office.  I wasn't being bumped...., it was worse!!!

I was being promoted!  One of the engineers assigned to passenger trains 1 & 2 had taken a leave of absence at the last minute, and I was to take his turn for two weeks or more. 

I tried to beg off, but there was no one else available who had been qualified on steam generators.  I tried to get out of it, but when the Assistant Superintendent came on the line, I knew my appeal had hit the wall!

I told him that we had made plans to spend Christmas with family and couldn't change the arrangements we had in place. 

"Just do what you gotta do," he said.

In a flash, the solution came to me.  "... Do what you gotta do...?"

The next day, December 24th, 1984 found me climbing up the side ladder and into the cab of a CNR FP9a on the head end of number 2 in Vancouver, BC.

In the 2nd engineer's seat, Mark Liggins was looking through the pile of train orders, clearances, bulletins and instructions that would cover our movement over BN track to Sapperton, then CP track to Mission, across the Mission Bridge and onto CN track at Matsqui.  After that, we'd be on home territory to Boston Bar.

Passengers are moving up and down the platform, looking for their assigned car numbers; baggage carts are tranferring baggage and express into our head-end cars; trainmen and porters are standing close to their orange stepping boxes, assisting passengers with their onboard luggage.

The carmen call me to ask for a setup and I apply the brakes for our brake test.  Soon, the brake test completed we get the OK to leave Vancouver.  The train is now on it's way to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. 

I had taken the Assistant Superintendent's advice and did what I had to do.  I announced to everyone at the dining room table that our plans had changed and, starting tomorrow, we would spend some of our Christmas Holiday as travellers on the Canadian National Railway's crack 'Holiday' passenger train.  They would get a chance to dine in the fine dining atmosphere of the dining car; would see sights along the way that too few people ever get to see and, would share in an experience at the end of the line that even fewer people could even dream of.   They would spend a night or two sleeping in the bunk house at Boston Bar.  However, because of the change in plans, it was agreed by all, and at the children's request, that the kids would spend Christmas with their father, and would come with us on the New Years run.   We're good to go!

During that two week period, the second engineer, Mark Liggins invited his father to join us on occasion.  Even so, the cab, which had three seats, never seemed to be crowded. 

Train Number Three, standing on the main at Boston Bar is waiting for orders which were being changed, due to a minor derailment somewhere to the west.
 Left to right, Bruce, Mark, Susan and Mr. Liggins Sr.

Number Four, meeting Number One at Mission.  Until later modifications were made to the operation, all trains moving over the crossovers west of CP's Mission station were governed by train orders, block indicators and manually operated switches.  Later developments saw the installation of CTC signals and powered, remotely controlled switches.   Here, our head end brakeman, Lorne, walked up and checked the block indicators, lined the switches and gave us a proceed signal by hand when everything was ready for the train to move westward.  


 In this photo, Number Four is headed by FP9a 6531.  Note, the strobes on the roof of the cab.  this was an eastern modification, and not often seen in the mountains.

Here, Assistant 2nd Engineer-in-training, Susan Harvey is watching for hand signals from the engine watchman who has been filling the engine's water tanks.

The weather had been typical for the south west slope.  It was cool, wet and sometimes foggy.  There were rumours that it could change to snow in a week or so, but for now..., it was to be a wet Christmas. 

On arrival at Boston Bar, the houses above the rail yard were lit up with strings of lights..., white, green, red and blue.  With no traffic on the highway, and only foot traffic on the narrow side-roads, Boston Bar appeared to be hunkered down for a long winter's nap. But, with a large planer mill in operation there, it wouldn't be long before logging trucks, fork lifts and log loaders would be rolling up and down every avenue again. 

But on this night, on Christmas eve, the gentle lights of quiet celebration served up shards of  coloured lights on the snow covered ground.

As we approached the station, bell ringing, the bare incandescent lights that hung under the eaves over the platform created a pool of daylight in the endless darkness.  The baggage cart waited just beyond the express office doors and the lights in the beanery showed up every empty table. 

After spotting the day coaches in front of the station, Mark, Susan and I stepped off onto the platform and walked back to the station where we wished the operator a Merry Christmas.  He told us that we were the only CN crew in town for the night, and the beanery was being held open so we could have dinner before retiring for the night.  Since all of the eating establishments in town were closed for Christmas, we were grateful to CN and the beanery staff for making this service available to us.

Regrettably, I can no longer recall their names, but the man and woman who operated the beanery in those days were fine folks who worked hard to provide good, home-cooked meals on short order and at fair prices. 

When we entered the brightly lit dining area, we found ourselves alone, so chose a table and sat down.  The lady came to our table and told us that we could have whatever we wanted from the menu, at the posted prices; however...., there was a fresh roasted turkey in the kitchen and we were welcome to share in the feast with the staff...., at no charge.  In fact we could eat our fill until midnight and wouldn't have to pay a dime.  And we did.   We had a wonderful dinner, replete with home made half pound butter tarts!!!!

Leaving the beanery, we walked over to the bunkhouse where we found the two storey building lit up, warm, clean and inviting..., but empty.   Therefore, we booked into our rooms and eventually turned in for the night.

Marks father drove to Boston Bar a took Mark home for Christmas, planning to bring him back before train time in the morning.

In 14 days, I made 7 round trips.  On four of those trips, my wife travelled with me. On the New Years trip, the kids came along too.

On the trip prior to New Years Eve, Delores, the woman who was in charge of the bunkhouse told me that the towns-people had invited us to join in the New Years festivities in Boston Bar.   I told her that I was grateful, but that we would have the children with us on that night, so would stay in the bunkhouse.  Delores told me that the ladies were aware of that and had arranged for a baby sitter to be available for us.  Wow!  Thank you Delores, where ever you are.

When we left Vancouver on New Years Evening, Mark was staying in the bunkhouse and he volunteered to keep an eye on the children so that Susan and I could go to the New Years Eve dance at the community center.

It had been snowing hard all day and the news was getting worse with each passing hour.  Only the passenger trains were being kept moving.  The highway was closed both east and west of Boston Bar.  

With driving snow skidding over growing drifts, we set out from the bunkhouse and turned up the hill toward the community center.  After only a couple of hundred feet of plowing through the drifing snow, we heard the voice of a man calling out to us.  Standing in the open doorway of a nearby house was Phil Moreau, one of the CN operators.  He waved to us and invited us in for an appy.  We were happy to join Phil and his lady for a visit.   When we got inside their house, we saw that they were prepared for a much larger party, but we were the only ones there.  Phil said that they had planned their New Years Eve party for months and were to be joined by friends who would drive in from Kamloops and beyond.  The snowstorm now in progress had changed their plans.  No one was coming and the table and sideboards were heavily laden with goodies.  We thought we would be doing a good turn by staying to ring in the New Year with Phil and his lady.

The next morning, with snow still falling heavily, we set out on Number 1.  With the train drifting lazily down the gentle grade out of Boston Bar, and large snowflakes seemingly hanging in the air, we listened to the thrumming of the 567's, easy exhaust sounds and steam escaping from uncountable leaks and vents.

By the time we left Yale, 27 miles from Boston Bar, Mark, Susan and I had been joined by a variety of senior CN officers who were enjoying a mid-winter break, coupled with a head-end ride on the old FP9's.   Lorne had brought them up from the coaches, and he also brought tall, strong coffees and warm muffins for the engineers.  He knew that I could use one after last night's revelry at Phil's house.  Thanks Lorne.

None of them questioned the presence of my wife in the cab and I wasn't concerned that they might.

After all, I was just obeying an order from my Assistant Superintendent when he said that I must "do what you gotta do."

There have been a lot of changes since 1984.  The FP9's don't pull passenger trains on CN main lines any more.  Stations and their beaneries have vanished, passenger service in Canada has nearly gone the way of the dinosaurs.  But, for now, and at least for the foreseeable future we still have Christmas, the winter Solstice and the new year.

Thank you, good friends, for sharing with each other throughout the year.  And thank you for reading Caboose Coffee's stories, which are my gift to you.

In closing, please accept my humble offering of a wish for a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Mark Liggins sent an email with his recollections of our time together on the passenger train (backed up by his trip notes of the day).  I added his email to this blog in the "comments" section, below. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Work of Art, Hidden Behind a Work of Art

There were many things I liked about our new house.  It was built on a quiet street where we could play we could play without having to worry about big dump trucks rumbling by, dropping iron ore pellets that rolled along the pavement, until they ended up at the edge of the road.  The dump trucks weren't actually an unwelcome site for little boys because with only a jack knife, we made sling shots from a branch with a natural crotch in it, cut from our sour cherry tree, a couple of strips of rubber from a discarded truck-tire innertube that Mr. Hanzel, our neighbor had brought from the shop where he worked, and a bit of old harness leather that Donnie Lemieux's grandfather had discarded.  A little trimming, cutting, scraping and whittling, and we had truly fine slingshots.  The iron ore pellets that fell from the dump trucks were ideal for use with a slingshot since they were round, like a glass marble, would fly true when released and...., they were free.

That was our old house on Sellwood Road.

Our new house was built on Vaughn Street.  Our lot was small, and so was our house.  But the lot backed onto a low, wide swampy area that carried a slow moving creek from a great, marshy pond on the north side of the tracks at mile 144 on the Alderdale sub.  The creek eventually disappeared into a culvert that drained into the Vermillion River way across town, beyond the YMCA which had bowling alleys and pool tables..., way beyond the Fire Hall and the town jail, which I spent a whole day in...., way beyond Nepitt's General Store where I bought snare wire and .22 shells to take out into the bush with my dog, Roxy. 

In the summer, 'the swamp', as we referred to it, was a wonderful place to spend the day.  The Tea Bush grew to four feet in height and the bull rushes grew much taller than that.  There were frogs and snakes, turtles and bitterns, blue herons, hawks and a great many small birds which nested there. 

Freddy Lammi had a young crow that he had tamed and he would proudly walk past my house with the crow on his shoulder.  I wanted a pet crow too, but couldn't find a nest to take one from. I would find, occasionally, a baby robin or blackbird, but was never successful in raising one to an adult.

One of the best things about living in Capreol, and in particular, on Vaughn Street, was the proximity to the railroad line.  If I walked down to the east end of the street, past Mike Corrigan's house, I could quickly cut through the bush on a well worn trail that ended at the beaver pond where a colony of beavers had built and maintained a typical beaver dam all the way across the low valley, creating a large, deep pond with a big beaver house in the deepest part. 

The beaver dam served as a great place for us to cross the swamp without getting wet, unless of course a mis-step caused me to slip into the water, filling one or both of my rubber boots with water.

In the winter, the beaver pond was a popular place to gather for game of hockey among friends.  I know..., you've heard this before, but it's true.  Back in the day....., winters were a lot longer and a lot colder, or more severe than they seem to be now.  Even tho' the temperatures would plummet to minus twenty five and stay there for weeks on end, it didn't prevent us from having fun outdoors.  There were hills to take our toboggans to, ice fishing, snow shoeing, playing hockey on the many backyard ice rinks that were made to provide kids with a place to play.

The only window in my tiny bedroom in our new house faced the creek, the swamp and the final three hundred yards of the CNR Alderdale sub.  I loved to watch eastbound trains leaving town and westbound trains arriving from Ottawa and Montreal.  They moved very slowly past my window because they were either leaving or entering the yard.  In either case, the trains pulled past the curling rink, the stock pens and the beaver pond, and I had an unobstructed view of some of the most awesome sights a little boy growing up in a railroad family could hope for. 

These were the final days of the steam locomotives.  More and more freight and passenger trains were being pulled by the non-descript, monotonous diesels with the strange sounding horns.  They didn't seem to have any moving parts and they looked much the same, whether moving forward or backward.  I found myself turning away from trains that had a diesel on the head end.

One such cold, winter night, I had gone outside after supper to lie on my back in the front yard to watch the Northern Lights dancing overhead.  I was dressed warmly and was able to lie there for quite a while without feeling any cold whatsoever. 

The moon had risen over the quiet little town, making the recently fallen snow appear to sparkle with the dust of billions of tiny diamonds in shades of blue, white, red and green.  There wasn't a whisper of wind, or any air movement and from every chimney, smoke slowly rose into the crisp night sky, hanging there, as if frozen until spring would come to release it from winter's icy grip.

I got up, brushed myself off and went to the kitchen door to be helped out of my winter clothes so I could go to bed.  Dad would be coming in off the road sometime in the night and, after he had some rest, he had promised to take us all to the lake for a day of tobogganing and dinner cooked over an open fire.  My mom and sister hadn't shown much enthusiasm for that idea, but I would work on them.

A cup of warm milk and I was tucked into my bed to wait for sleep to come.  As my eyes grew heavier, watched the bright moonlight play on the thick frost that had formed on my bedroom window.  I marvelled at the intricate designs that nature created each night on my window...., never painting the same thing twice.

In the morning, I woke to the sound of a steam whistle that I didn't recognize.  I can't describe it, other than to say that it was different from that of a Mikado, a Northern, or a Mountain.  It was deep, but with a sharp, crisp beginning and end, followed by that beautiful 'quilling' that always gave me goose-bumps.  It sounded something like a trumpet that was being played like a trombone.

Scrambling from beneath my covers, I tried to open my window for a look at this locomotive before it disappeared from view.  The window was frozen shut.  I guess all wood frame sash windows were left closed each winter for the same reason that mine was closed.  Ice.

I could hear the soft 'chuff' coming from the stack and knew that it was now directly behind the house.  It would be gone in a moment!  I placed my palms against the glass, which was covered with a deep layer of Jack Frost's most beautiful work.  I held them there until I could feel the smooth, flat glass beneath my hands.   Then I lifted them away, sticking them deep into my warm blankets.

I looked throught the holes in the ice that my warm hands had made. 

There, arriving from Ottawa on the head end of the morning passenger train, was perhaps the most stunning, unusual steam engine I had ever seen.  I did a double-take, looking at it very carefully, as it passed in and out of the clouds of steam that it was creating around itself. 

It was black..., and green.  It had a Vanderbilt tender, but it wasn't like any Vanderbilt tender I had ever seen.  On the tender was the round CNR Maple Leaf wafer that said it was one of ours, and it was a passenger engine.  And the wheels, they really couldn't be that tall!!!  And there were only six of them! 

It was beautiful and I knew at that moment that, not only did I want to see this machine up close, but I wanted to be a locomotive engineer and run it on the head end of the passenger train.

As it disappeared into the frosty haze that had settled on the town, I leaped from my bed and ran to my parent's bedroom.  Mom was having her coffee in the kitchen and she started to tell me not to wake dad, because he needed his rest, but.......,

Jumping on the bed, I urged him to get out of bed so we could go down to the station and see the new steam locomotive that had just arrived.  I was sure it was going to leave on the Ruel sub for Foleyet and Hornepayne in a few minutes and we should hurry if we want to catch it.

I'm sure that if it had been for any other reason than to see a new steam engine before it left town, he would have had a much different message for me when I 'yanked' him out of his deep sleep.

We scrambled to get dressed and, still doing up buttons on our coats, we went out into the cold morning air. 

"We don't have much time," he said,  "if we walk to the station, we may be too late."

"We have to take the car," I said.

He took the keys from his coat pocket and with some difficulty due to the locks being frozen, he got the front doors opened.  It took a lot longer to actually get the doors opened, as the rubber door seals  had frozen together. 

I suggested pulling until they separated, but Dad didn't want to do that, saying that the seals would be badly torn if we pulled on them.  Getting them to release seemed to take forever, but eventually, we got the drivers door open and we both slid in on the frozen seat cover. 

With fingers crossed, I watched as he put the key in the ignition, stamped on the gas pedal a couple of times and turned the key.  The block warmer had done its job and the engine turned over, catching after several seconds of cranking. 

With the defroster blowers on full, we backed out of the driveway and headed for the CNR station, the rubber tires thumping with every revolution.  Until we had driven the car for a couple of miles, the flat spots in the tires that had been next to the ground would remain as flat spots, causing the car to thump as it travelled down the road.

After ten minutes, we arrived at the station and parked the car.  Dad and I went into the yard office where he checked the train register to see what engine would be used to take the passenger west of Capreol.  Apparently, it wasn't the one we were looking for, because I overheard someone in the office say that "motive power wants it back right away."  It had been sent to the roundhouse for trip service and was to be run south to Toronto as soon as possible.

Dad, believing that we had lots of time, got into a long conversation with a small group of rail men while I hovered near the hot water radiator that stood near the table where the operating bulletins were kept.

Finally, we left the yard office and got into the car.  I thought that we should walk from the station, across the yard and westward along the shop service tracks to the roundhouse, but Dad wanted to keep the car handy, so we drove. 

After making a five-minute stop at the post office, we again carried on toward the shops.  Well, not exactly.  In order to get to the shops and the roundhouse, we had to back track almost all the way back to our house, then turn north, then east and then west; in effect, we had to drive almost the entire circumference of the town before we could get to the employee parking at the back of the roundhouse.

Young street, the main thoroughfare through the downtown business core would eventually end at Dennie Street which was an extension of highway 69 south, becoming Selwood Road which would eventually get us to the shops.

The Sudbury sub, or Bala sub crossed Young street in order to move trains to or from Toronto, and we sat for twenty minutes while a long northbound freight slowly made its way into the yard, blocking the crossing, thus allowing the mystery steam engine time to escape.

The moment the caboose finally tip-toed across the road, we were off!   A left on Dennie Street and soon we'd be on Selwood Road, driving past our old  house and on our way to the shops.

Nope.  The Alderdale sub crossed Dennie Street and runs eastward between the beaver pond and the curling rink.  There was a short eastbound freight already on the crossing, it's head end having disappeared in the clouds of steam that escaped from around the cylinders, beneath the cab, from the tender and from the stack. 

The caboose was soon out of the yard and 'on the high iron'; we once again headed for the shops to get up close to the steam engine I had seen from my bedroom window a couple of hours earlier.

I was beside myself with excitement, but couldn't get past the feeling that we had taken too long to get there.  The dark, steamy cavern that was the roundhouse seemed to be hiding my prey from my eyes.  Looking left and right, I saw only locomotives that were familiar to me. There was a small switcher with footboards, a couple of large-boilered engines with huge Elesco feedwater heaters hung over their smoke box doors.  These looked like an afterthought, because they had to mount the tri-angular number boards above the feedwater heater bundles, there not being enough room to put them below, due to the headlight placement. 

But, I couldn't see anything that looked like the one I caught a glimpse of through the little hole in the ice on my window.

Once inside, dad took me to the shop foreman's office, where he looked at the big board on which hung tags with the names of every fireman, hostler and engineer in the whole terminal, showing their status on the working board.  Some were booked off, others were waiting a call, and some were out on the road, or working a yard engine or snow plow.

Dad and the shop foreman spoke softly for a moment or two; then Dad turned to me and said..., "we missed him."  "He was on the eastbound we waited for by the curling rink."  "I've asked the foreman to keep an eye out for one of those engines for us, but he says that it was a rare sighting and even he didn't get a chance to have a look at it." 

It had been serviced and turned on the big turntable.  A crew had been called and was ready to take the engine to the yard to connect with an eastbound speed.  The turnover had taken less than 30 minutes.

The engine.....,  it was one of those beautiful racehorses of the steam era... a CNR K-5a Hudson.

I have never seen the real thing, but I have a wonderful, painted model of it on display where it reminds me of a cold winter morning chasing trains with my Dad, so long ago.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

And now, a message from our sponsor.

Life has been quite hectic around the Caboose Coffee ranch for a couple of months.   While most of you come to this site to read authentic railroad stories, and I come here to write them..., the stories don't put new shoes on my grandson.., or myself, for that matter.  So, I've been focusing on my internet hobby shop,  We've recently been asked to sell a substantial collection of mostly HO scale brass locomotives, cabooses, passenger cars and maintenance of way cars.  There are CP, CN, GN, BN, BC Rail, logging and others in the collection.
I've set up separate "pages" for each of the railroads' engines and rolling stock, so look for the tabs near the top of the home page and scroll down through the models that are posted there.  The collection is made up of over a hundred models, so bookmark the site and check back now and then to see what's new.  Or, you can write for a list of the models and their prices.

As for pricing, I've used a number of sources to determine a base-line for each model, but the market will determine final price.  If you see something you'd like to have, and feel the price is too high, don't hesitate to make an offer on it, and we'll figure out a reasonable compromise.

We're gearing up for the annual Victoria Model Show on September 8th and will be back with a new story after the show.   If you're going to be in our neighborhood during the show, be sure to drop by our booth and say hello.  Bruce, Susan and Colin will be there to help you find what you're looking for. 
Victoria Model Show 2013
Sunday - September 8, 2013

Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre, 1767 Island Highway, Colwood
Free Parking
BC Transit Bus Routes #50

10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Operating Model railroad Layouts, Vendors, Swap Tables.

Family - $ 6.00
Adult - $ 12.00
Youth (11-16) - $ 3.00
Children (8 and under) - Free when accompanied by an Adult.

For information and table rentals contact:,br> Ted Alexis (250)595-4070

Supporters of C-Fax Santa's Anonymous, the Times Colonist Christmas Fund

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Many Hand Brakes Are Enough?

It had been snowing heavily for days, with only short respites now and again when the dark grey, overcast sky took time out to build yet another arsenal of large, heavy snowflakes.  Then the sky would close in again and the air would go still, in anticipation of the next big dump. 

East of Jasper, on the Edson subdivision, there was also a lot of snow, but the icy winds that blew down from the Arctic Ocean, the northern prairie and into the Athabasca Valley, all the while reaching for the Columbia Ice Fields, kept the ground scoured almost clear of built up snow. 

All things in nature huddled against the bitter, cutting wind; snow packed tight against the lee side of the rails.  Large numbers of Elk and deer had long since left the Rocky Mountain Foothills and moved into the forest closer to Jasper where the snow was deeper, but the temperature was not so severe.  A herd of Big Horned Rocky Mountain Sheep took refuge inside the 735 foot curved Brule tunnel at the east boundary of Jasper National Park.  Most of these animals would meet a tragic end, under the wheels of an eastbound freight train, unable to stop in time due to limited visibility.

West of Jasper, where the railroad left the wide, flat-bottomed valley of the Athabasca river, and plunged into closer quarters with the mountains to follow the Fraser river, the weather was affected more by the Pacific Ocean than by the Arctic Ocean.  Air, warmed by warm ocean currents from the equator brought moisture-laden air to Canada's west coast, and from there it was pushed deeper into, and over the mountains toward the Rockies.  On the way to the prairies, much of the moisture is lost in the form of rain or snow. 

During this particular winter, circa 1969, the falling snow had been relentless.
The build-up of snow on the steep mountain-sides along the Albreda subdivision caused train and engine crews to keep a watchful eye on the snow chutes, or avalanche alleys that were evidenced by long ribbons of open rock and cliff faces above the track.  These had been swept clear of all but the the mountains themselves by repeated avalanches, year after year. 

Most of those avalanche paths were relatively small and the snow that they deposited on the track during an active 'slide' weren't usually large enough to derail a locomotive, but occasionally, a seemingly harmless snow slide might bring down a large tree, or a rock that could cause the engine crew some concern.  When that happened, the first indication given that there was a rock or a tree trunk inside the slide was that loud thump, or banging sound that was created when the light, steel pilot was torn from beneath the drawbar and coupler, exposing the wheels and undercarriage of the lead locomotive. 

The next couple of seconds would determine if you were going to stay on the track....., or...., not.

I had been called off the spare-board at Jasper as the head-end brakeman on an extra west to run to Red Pass.  Once there, we were to pick up a 'live outfit' from Albreda 2, an interchange track where cars were routinely set out and picked up by trains going to and from the Tete Jaune sub, or 'the Trunk', the last remaining mileage of the former Grand Trunk Pacific. 

The outfit was made up of very old, outside braced, single sheathed boxcars that had been converted to bunk cars, foreman's bunk, cook car, tool car, water car, a flat car with miscellaneous equipment and a refrigerator car.  All in all, the outfit was about 30 to 35 cars. 

We didn't need to do any switching on this outfit, as it was merely being moved from Rearguard, on the Tete Jaune sub where it had been cleaning up after an avalanche that had come from above the Albreda sub a couple of weeks earlier.

Leaving our caboose hop standing on the main track behind the station at Red Pass, our crew, including Walter Kortzman, conductor, Bill Russel, rear trainman, Ed Poelzer, engineer and myself gathered inside the warm office of the operator to arrange for our clearance and train orders and to discuss our strategy regarding the placement of the outfit we were charged with moving.

Because the outfit was being moved "live", meaning that the cars were occupied by members of the gang, we waited for the gang foreman to arrive with his instructions and an assurance that the gang was ready to move, with all wires, water lines, or other obstructions tucked away and secured for movement. 

We already had a copy of a 'message' from the Chief Dispatcher instructing us to move the gang from Red Pass to Foster, and to leave it in the siding at Foster with room at both ends for maintenance of way equipment.

Wally decided that Bill should ride the head end with Ed and me to Foster and, when we were in the clear, with room to spare, Bill and I would tie down the train with more than enough handbrakes to keep the train from moving out of the siding and onto the main line, where it would run westward all the way to Valemount, unless it hit something, or derailed due to excessive speed.  The story of the runaway log cars of a few years earlier was still fresh in every Jasper railroader's mind. 

The gang foreman arrived at the station and, after stomping his feet and brushing his pant legs to shake off the snow that was by now above his knees on hte ground, he gave Wally the OK to tie on to the outfit and take it away.

The operator had cleared us as a work extra, working between Albreda and Red Pass which would allow us to use the main line in both directions between those two points and within given time perameters, which I no longer remember.  Foster is just over seven miles from Red Pass, so we didn't have far to travel, but the heavy winter conditions would certainly create serious delays to our progress.  We felt we had sufficient time to do what we were required to do under the Chief's message and make it back to Red Pass for fresh orders, but we would likely be on the road for several hours, putting us beyond our dinner hour.   To this, the foreman said that he'd speak to the cook and arrange for us to have a hot meal once the gang was tied up and the labourers had been fed.

"It's a deal", we said.

Thinking ahead, Bill suggested that we take a couple of pick handles, or track hammer handles from the tool car to use as 'brake bats' on the ancient 'stem-winder' hand brakes of the ancient outfit cars.

Brake bats used to be carried on all cabooses and, I would think, all steam locomotives for the purpose of cranking on a good, hard brake which operated on a "pawl and ratchet" principle.  The brake systems that were still being used on those old maintenance of way cars had been around for over fifty years, not because they were considered effective, but because the railroads planned to scrap the cars eventually, and didn't see where the considerable expenditure required to upgrade the brake systems to more modern standards would be economically feasible.  So, Bill and I prepared ourselves to climb to the top of every car, tie on each hand brake until we couldn't turn the wheel anymore, and then feed the brake bat into position and with both hands gripping the hammer handle tightly, lean into it until we had squeezed every last "click" out of the brake chain and pawl-and-ratchet. 

We left the warmth of the station and went outside into the gathering afternoon gloom.  The snow was letting up a bit, we agreed.

Bill closed the angle-cock behind the engine as Ed climbed into the cab of the engine and sat down at the controls.  I pulled the pin on the caboose and, with a raised hand, gave Ed a proceed signal. 

The engine, which had been idling outside the station on the Tete Jaune main line for about forty five minutes rumbled and shook off the snow that had fallen on the hand rails.  As it moved ahead, I gripped the handrail and stepped onto the trailing footboard for the ride to the west end of the Omaha interchange.

The section crew assigned to Red Pass had already cleaned out the switches and I easily backed the engine on top of the outfit and cut in the air.

While the brake pipe was charging up, I walked back a few cars to check for handbrakes and, finding several, I climbed to the top of the ladders and released them, letting the slack ease against the locomotive. 

When the brake pipe had charged sufficiently, we called Bill to tell him we were ready to back out onto the caboose and shove back into the siding for our brake test. 

Once that was completed, we eased out onto the mainline of the Albreda sub and listened as Wally gave us 'car lengths' to the switch where he dropped off, lined and locked the switch for the main and got back on the caboose. 

After we got away from the station, across the steel bridge over the Fraser river and approaching the mileboard, Ed set  the brakes to test their effectiveness. 

They didn't set up like more modern cars would.  This was expected.  In fact, they didn't seem to want to set up at all!  We weren't moving very fast, and Ed reduced the throttle a bit.  We hadn't yet tipped over the top of the grade, so if the train had to be stopped, Ed could manage it with the help of the engine brake. 

Then, with a bit of minor slack action, the brakes began to take hold.  The brake shoes had likely been covered in snow and needed to warm up a bit before being able to grip the wheels. 

Bill and I shared a smile, acknowledging that we had both been thinking the same thing.  If the brakes didn't work well using air, then they sure wouldn't be very effective as hand brakes either. 

Bill asked Ed to use the train brakes often enough to keep snow from building up between the brake shoes and the wheel treads as we head into the siding at Foster.

A great deal of snow had fallen west of Jasper.  It seemed to be heaviest around Red Pass, but as we started down the hill on our seven mile run to Foster, I noticed that the signal huts at trackside were carrying mushroom shaped caps that were about five feet tall and they were cocked at crazy angles, much like that seen in "The Cat In The Hat" drawings.   The cross-arms on the line side telegraph poles were heaped high with snow and even the wires, strung between those poles were sagging under the weight of the snow.   This was the reason this gang had been brought to the Albreda sub.  They were going to be clearing snow away from important infrastructure, such as poles and wires, signals, tunnel mouths and snow sheds.  It was dangerous work.  Very dangerous.

Ed set the brakes more than a mile from the east switch and we waited for speedometer to show a decrease in speed.  Gradually, the train slowed and we glided to a very nice stop about three car lengths from the switch. 

Bill and I got off and retrieved the tools, a shovel and a broom, from their place near the dispatchers phone box by the switch.

After ten minutes or more of digging, scraping, sweeping and shoveling, we were finally able to line the east switch at Foster, checking to see that the points had completely closed against the stock rail.

Confident that the switch had been properly cleaned and the points tightly secured, I hung up the switch broom and shovel on the up-ended railroad tie that had been put near the switch for that purpose. Then, I gave a 'proceed' hand signal to the engineer.  I was looking forward to climbing back inside the cab of the engine, a 1954 EMD 4200 class GP9.  Bill was already aboard.

The siding at Foster hadn't been used for several hours and snow lay a foot deep over the rails.  When we were halfway into the siding, Ed put a light brake on the engine and the train to warm up the brake shoes, ensuring he could get the train stopped where he wanted it to stop.

Conductor Kortzman got off the caboose at the east switch and lined it back for the main after cleaning out the switch points of snow that had been dragged into the switch by the passing cars.

Bill and I dropped off the engine as Ed brought it to a stop and we started climbing ladders to the hand brake wheels that were accessible from the tops of each of the cars.  Ed stayed with the engine, waiting for our signals to pull or push against the brakes we had set as a test of their efficiency.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, Bill and I had cranked on ten hand brakes.  We gave Ed a 'proceed' signal and he began to open the throttle to pull on the train and the ten hand brakes we had applied. 

He had only opened the throttle about one third of the way when the train began to move.  We swung him down at the same time as he put the brakes back on.  He know we hadn't put enough brakes on the outfit. 

We put on another ten hand brakes and tested once more.  Once more, the train moved, easily toward the west switch..., and Valemount. 

If we put on another ten hand brakes, we'd have a brake on almost every car on the train!!  So, off we went and fifteen minutes later, we had every car tied down.   We couldn't see Ed any more, as it was now getting dark and snow was beginning to fall again. 

Bill went to the caboose and called Ed on the radio, asking him to pull on the train again.  He did.  It moved! 

After talking it over, and refining our plan, Bill and I stepped in between the rails on the mainline, (remember, this was train order territory and we held a work clearance, giving us exclusive occupancy of the track) and we walked back to the head end. 

We went up into the cab and told Ed we were going to take our spike hammer handles and 'go high' to crank those brakes down hard with brake bats.    Ed chuckled, and reminded us that we weren't going to get any supper until we had finished the job.  We were motivated, and Wally was already in the cook/dining car having hot coffee and a slice of pie, we were sure.

After two hours of wading through 'watch-pocket deep' snow, climbing up onto the tops of rickety old wooden cars and bending the brake bats, we finally got the train secured.  Ed was no longer able to move it using the locomotive. 

Of two things, we were supremely confident.  One..., the train wasn't going to roll away on its own, and two...., whoever would be given the job of picking this outfit up and moving it to its next layover spot would be P.O.'d with the crew that tied this outfit down so tight that it couldn't possibly be moved without an effort that would be the equal of ours in getting it that way.

The smell of fresh-baked bread, home made stew and apple pie filled our heads as we sat down for our long-awaited meal in the diining car.  As she brought food to the big table, the cook let us know that she was glad that we finally stopped pushing and pulling the darned outfit back and forth in the siding.  I began to explain what we had been doing, and why we were doing it, but when I caught the smile on Wally's face, I understood that he had done his best to keep the old girl calm for the past two hours!!!  

I shut up and started in on my bowl of soup.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bert's Beanery and the Georgian Bay Creamery

It was early July, 1964  and I had been working for a couple of weeks on a Ruel sub work train.  After two weeks on the road, I had a good paycheque on the way and was ready for a weekend at home.  I had plans to spend some time with my family and my friends, but without realising it, I had forgotten to book rest on arrival in Capreol and was quite surprised when I was called for 09:00, an extra south out of Capreol.   I packed a couple of sandwiches and headed down to the station to find out who would be on my crew, what the power and train would be and how soon I could get back home again.

 After a pleasant, but uneventful run of 129 miles, we came to a stop in front of the station at South Parry, near the Georgian Bay city of Parry Sound. This was in the summer of 1964. I was looking forward to getting something to eat at Bert's Beanery, situated near the yard at South Parry. I wasted no time in walking over to Bert's to see what he might have on the stove.

Dining at Bert's was much like dining at a logging camp. The building was large, open and brightly lit by sunlight that poured through many windows. To your right, as you walk in were long dining tables occupied much of the big dining room, and a couple of smaller tables that would seat four to six were over in the far corner of the large, open room. The galley, or kitchen was at the other end of the room, to the left of the entry and was dominated by a very large cast-iron cook stove that might have been fuelled by oil. The stove itself was glossy black, with bright, polished nickel accents on the oven door, the firebox door and the hot water reservoir at the side. The top of the stove was, like the sides, polished and clean. Bert's experience as a 'camp cook' was evident in his beanery.

And that big stove was the source of the wonderful smells that filled the dining hall and the woods outside. I could never guess what Bert might be serving on any given day. The top of the stove held a large tea pot which was never washed, just dumped, just before the tea became bitter. Then it was quickly refilled with hot water from the ever-present kettle. The addition of fresh tea bags, taken from a large square tin with a tight-fitting lid would soon produce another pot of hot tea.

The coffee pot was handled in a similar fashion. Patrons were encouraged to help themselves to the tea and coffee, as Bert was often involved deeply in a conversation at one of the tables with an off-duty railroader or two. And sometimes, he would be playing cards with a group of men who had made their way from Parry Sound to the Beanery, just to pass the time with Bert.

The stove-top also shouldered a very large pot with a lid on it. Inside that pot was the soup of the day which was invariably made with whatever the special of the day had been the day before. There was no menu at Bert's Beanery. No matter what you ordered or wanted, you got what was in the pot on top of the stove, or what was in the big roasting pan in the oven.

Nobody ever complained, and certainly nobody ever left there feeling hungry.

As good as it was, a meal at Bert's had to be topped off with something special, and Bert's fruit pies tended to be a big seller.  If the pie shelf was empty, There were shops in Parry Sound to explore.

So off to Parry Sound I went. It was a three mile hike into town, but the hike was well worth the effort. On the corner of Bowes Street and Great North Road, was the Georgian Bay Creamery, the home of the best ice cream I'd ever eaten. The building is now occupied by Orr's Fine Meat Ltd. Yes, Bobby Orr can ask for a discount when he shops there!

When I was a lad, my father was an engineer and I would pester him to take me with him on a run to Foleyet, Brent, or South Parry. Whenever we went to South Parry, he and I would walk into Parry Sound for an ice cream cone, then walk along the docks among the boats tied up at the harbour.

After buying an ice cream cone, I would walk down to the harbour and sit on the docks watching the boats coming and going.

Now, I mentioned this experience to Cliff Beagan, who is a regular reader at Caboose Coffee and he shared a bit of his history with me.

First of all, he surprised me by telling me that he had once owned the Georgian Bay Creamery and also that he had worked on a CNR Extra Gang for a time before switching to the CPR.

This is what Cliff shared with me:

My first job with the CNR was shovelling snow at South Parry in the aftermath of the snow storm of the Century at Christmas time 1947 when I was 15 years old. Got paid 0.60 per hour and made about $40.00.

The next one was on an extra gang in Parry Sound picking up rail, tie plates, and angle bars between Parry Sound and Waubamik with Extra Gang Foreman Delpapa from Capreol. I skipped a few days of high school on that one in 1948 or 1949. The Conductor was Murray Chisholm. Brakeman Lorne Jacklin took sick and Murray used me as a brakeman.

He laughed at me when I could not throw those damn CNR mainline switches. He says, "you're too light in the ass Cliff".

The next one was an extra gang somewhere near Gamebridge south of Orillia. I rode down there on 'old Sparky' from Parry Sound one summer in the late 1940's.

Why I ended up on the CPR instead of the CNR, I will never know. But the CPR mainline switches were much easier to throw I found out.

Ah the good old Steam days, Bruce.

I will wait patiently for your next episode on Caboose Coffee, which reminds me of my favorite Caboose Coffee. An old Conductor always bought “Hayhoes” Mountain Blend Drip Grind. Put in a pinch of Chickory and a pinch of salt, pour the boiling water into the top reservoir, and let it drip through the grinds just the one time. Add Carnation canned milk and a touch of sugar..............oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I can still taste that beautiful cup of coffee. If you ever have the time, “Google”Hayhoes Mountain Blend Coffee. The Company is no more but it did have an interesting history.

Best wishes Bruce,

Cliff Beagan

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bunkhouse As An Ever-changing Community

The operator at Boston Bar has given us track one at 'The Bar'.  A mile west of the yard, the engine, a brace of SD40-2's rolls onto the Anderson Creek bridge, a long, high, curved trestle spanning the Anderson River.  
Westbound over Anderson Creek - Peter Cox - 1970

One who is not familiar with the high's and low's of seasonal weather-related water levels might not appreciate that during the late summer and fall, the Anderson River becomes Anderson Creek.

With the onslaught of the West Coast rainy season, which usually arrives just in time for Hallowe'en, it becomes a river once again.

The high-mast signal at the east end of Hicks had displayed an "Approach Signal", or yellow over red, so I reduced the throttle to allow the gentle grade to bring the train's speed down to just under 15 mph.  The next signal, at the west end of Boston Bar was displaying a "Restricting Signal", or red over yellow.

Beyond the CTC controlled main line switch, the hand-operated switches leading to each of the storage tracks in the yard, now came into view.  The brakeman rose from his seat, and as he reached for the handle on the front door, he said "Track one's against us......, don't stop, I'll run for it."  I notched the throttle even further, and the speedometer responded by dropping to 10 mph.
SD40-2 and SD40-2W, perhaps westbound near Floods, west of Hope, BC
Photo credit Gordon Hulford

When the leading truck of the locomotive began to leave the mainline, heading into the turnout that would take us into the yard, I kept a close eye on the brakeman as he dropped from the step at the bottom of the ladder.  He covered the 75 feet to the switch with ease, and with one motion, he flipped the open switch lock out of the keeper, letting it swing on the end of its steel chain.  Lifting the handle, he pulled it over and pushed it into the opposite slot.

He replaced the lock into the keeper then took a good look at the switch points to ensure that the points had made proper contact with the stock rail.  Once he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he turned to face the approaching engine and gave me a proceed signal.

I opened the throttle and the speedometer began to climb again.

I checked my watch and thought of the conductor who would be doing the same.  Our pay structure changed the moment the engine moved over the switch.  We were now on hours instead of miles, although the time spent while yarding the train and putting the engine to the shop track would be converted to miles on the basis of 12 1/2 miles per hour.  With 100 miles constituting a basic days' pay, the yard, or terminal time could add 25 miles (pay) or more to each trip.

As the engine neared the east end of the yard, the tail end brakeman began to call out the distance to the clearance point in the west end of track one, where our train was to be parked until CN was ready to run it further east.  Sometimes a train would be stored like this for a matter of a few hours, waiting for a connecting crew to become available.  At other times, a train might rest in the yard for days, waiting for some unforeseen obstruction, or 'hold order' to be lifted.

As the train was slowing to a stop, I set a light brake on the train.  The front brakeman had dropped off the engine and stood nearby, waiting for me to give him a 'nod', indicating that he could now step in between the trailing unit and the leading car to cut off the air and lift the pin to separate the engine from the train.
SD40-2W's waiting in track 2 at The Bar.
photo credits photo by Ralph Mintze (sp)

When the train had come to a complete stop, with brakes firmly set on the train, I release the engine brake and let the engine settle gently back against the standing train.  Then, I gave him a nod and, reaching out the side window and using both hands in a chopping motion, I indicated that it was now safe to 'go inside' to make the cut.

Leaning on my elbow, I sat with my body twisted waiting for him to emerge from behind the engine.  With the familiar 'clank' that is caused by the operating lever lifting the pin to free the engine from its compliant followers.  Holding the operating lever up, he gave me a 'proceed' hand signal; I pulled out the brass knob that started the bell ringing, and moved the engine forward.

Soon, with the engine running backward, we rolled westward on the mainline to pick up the tail-end crew, who had locked up the caboose and were waiting in the sunshine for their 'ride' to arrive.

The head-end brakeman drops off as the engine slowly rolls past the east shop-track switch, and when the engine has passed the points, he lines it for the shop.  The engines will sit on the shop track, patiently waiting for their next assignment.

Behind the old steam locomotive tender, which had been converted to a 'Fire Fighting Tanker', lies the shop track.  There had been a turntable, which by 2012 at the time of this photo had been removed.
Photo credit, Gordon Hulford.

Stopping in front of the yard office I wait for the tail end guys to get off with their 'grips', and then turn to see the head end man giving me a back-up signal, swinging his arm in a wide circle, at right angles to the track.   With the bell ringing, I back the engine up until it's well clear of the main, and then I secure it, or 'tie it down'.

After registering our arrival on the train register at the station, we wander over to the bunkhouse.  Stepping inside, we look at the green chalk-board on the wall.  Each of the small bedrooms in the bunkhouse are numbered, and we see that there are a few men in town from the Ashcroft sub, as well as a one or two crews from the Yale sub.

Seeing that room #9 is vacant, I pick up a piece of chalk, and print "HARVEY - 1 HOUR CALL PLS".

With a dozen or more men waiting for a call that will put them on a train to take them back home, I walked into the recreation area where CN and the Unions had installed a pool table, card tables and a ping pong table.  That facility had become a healthy alternative to the only other place in the village of Boston Bar, the beer parlour at Old Cog's Hotel.  Of course, railroaders still visited Cog's water hole because, as many are aware, a fast game of ping pong can create quite a thirst!

The railroad bunkhouse is more than just a place for crews to lay over; it's a meeting place, a place where crew members catch up on the happenings at the other terminal, to share their thoughts on matters that range from sports to fishing, from weather to rail traffic and, most often ..., Labour/Management issues.  It's the latter that generated the most heated of debate, almost always resulting in universal condemnation of every officer in the company's management roster.

Away-from-home dining offered several options in 'The Bar'.  One could choose from the menu at Cog Harrington's dining room or coffee shop.  The pub in the same building offered a variety of nutritious choices from their pub menu, or one could stay with appetizers, such as pickled eggs and pepperoni sticks which you could purchase from the bar tender and carry back to your table.

Or, one might walk a block to the grocery store where the makings of a meal could be purchased and brought back to the large kitchen in the bunkhouse.

When the CNR Beanery, which was housed in the west end of the station was open, the food and prices were quite acceptable.

Most crewmen didn't wander too far from the bunkhouse when they were on the usually short-term layovers.  Others would cross the tracks (literally) and walk down the narrow road that led to the aerial car ferry that carried cars and pedestrians from Boston Bar, on the east side of the Fraser River, to the west side, where the CP terminal formed the anchor for the village of North Bend.

The CPR Beanery in North Bend offered good food too, and was a good place to sit near their mainline, hoping to see a set of MLW/ALCO C630's pulling past with a long coal train from BC's south-eastern interior.  CN didn't operate similar locomotives in Western Canada, preferring to stick with GM/EMD products.

Sooner or later, the car checker would arrive at the bunkhouse and, with a piece of white chalk taken from the tray under the green board with the room numbers on it, wrote down a call time next to a crew-member's name.  He would then check all the usual places; the lounge, the recreation room, the kitchen, the room that the member had marked up for himself and..., if all else fails, he would walk up the hill to Cog's beer parlour in case the fellow had dropped in for a bit of pepperoni and 'a brown', or glass of beer.

Yes, we all knew that we were in violation of Rule G, which banned the use of alcohol and/or drugs while on duty, or while subject to duty.  However, the company's field managers chose to overlook these minor infractions, knowing that most of the crews who did take a sip now and then, did it responsibly.  The others, who might abuse the oversight, would one day 'switch themselves out', ending up in re-hab, or being fired.

Once a crew was called, they became active as paperwork had to be arranged for at the station.  Train orders had to be collected, checked and discussed.  Most often, the wig-wags and bells were activated on the road crossing near the front of the bunkhouse.

Within minutes, the Kamloops engine crew are climbing down the ladder where the incoming engineers and brakemen will exchange information about how the train was behaving, any mechanical difficulties that might have rafter leaving the initiating terminal and any other piece of information that might be considered pertinent.

After climbing the ladder, step into the cab, taking a look around to ensure that all the necessary tools and supplies are on-board.  The brakeman will check the flagging kit.

With everything in order, I sit down, and lifting the radio handset from its cradle, I call the incoming trains tail end.  They're on the caboose and ready to be pulled down to the station where the entire scene we had played will be re-enacted by the Kamloops crew, page and chapter.

With the brakes now released, I ease the throttle up and the train begins to move forward.

CN train 'pulling down' at Boston Bar.  
photo credit, Gordon Hulford

In fifteen minutes, the tail end crews have exchanged places, with the Yale crew settling into the caboose and the Ashcroft crew talking with the operator who is calmly advising them that they'll be getting called to go home in a couple of hours, or perhaps will be dead-heading back to Kamloops on the bus.

We conduct a quick brake test and ask the operator, by radio to call the dispatcher for the signal to leave Boston Bar and enter the Yale sub.

The crew is on, the brakes are released and the Yale sub lies ahead
Photo credit Gordon Hulford

The train is  moving slowly on the slight down-grade westward.  The signal comes into view and it's a "clear signal", green over red.

Meanwhile, a bunkhouse attendant would be discreetly making up our rooms for the next person. The bathrooms would be checked and the kitchen tidied up.

When that was all done, he or she would put the kettle on for a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits, to be consumed, alone in a corner of the kitchen eating area.  They were the stalwarts of the bunkhouse and, I'm sure...., they didn't receive the recognition they deserved for the silent service they performed.

If the second half of the trip goes as smoothly as the first half, I'll be home in time to read the kids a bed-time story and tuck them into bed.

Thank you, Delores and the others who kept my home-away-from-home so comfortable, clean and homey.

You are not forgotten.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My ride left without me

Train number Nine, The Rupert Rocket stood on passenger track two in front of the beautiful stone and stucco station at Jasper, Alberta. 

Number 1 had just pulled away from its position on the main line, it's engine passing over the west switch, not with the expected clatter of steel wheels on steel frog and switch points, but instead the muffled creaking of frozen ties being pressed down by the weight of the locomotives and cars as they passed from the Edson sub to the Albreda sub.     

I stopped walking and stood in the cold night air to watch the westbound Super Continental as it forced its way into the darkness,  wearing a train-length skirt of swirling snow and escaping steam.
Soon, the creaking sound made by the departing train gave way to the sound of three FP9's that were now well into the climb to Yellowhead Summit of the Continental Divide about seventeen miles to the west.

The flickering red 'markers' and the dim glow of the vestibule light showed off the wagging tail of steam that emerged with a throaty hiss from the partly opened steam line at the rear of the last car; and it was gone.

Turning toward the station, I continued walking the last half block to the station where I would join my crew to discuss our night's work over a cup of coffee..., if the beanery was still open.

The scheduled departure time for train number 9, The Rupert Rocket was set in the timetable as 21.00.  Number 1 had been running over two hours late due to intensely cold temperatures and blowing snow on the prairies and, fortunately for us, had managed to get out of Jasper before our scheduled departure time.  If it had not, we would likely have been held until after number 1 had departed, so that passengers, mail and express traffic could be loaded on 'the rocket' for destinations on the north line.

I crossed the street and rounded the west end of the station to see my conductor having a conversation with the brakeman who had booked onto the job a couple of trips earlier.  This fellow had taken the job of "Flagman" on the crew and his first two trips showed that he really didn't know much about protecting the rear of the train from following trains.  His uniform was not standard issue and consisted of black jeans, a filthy (used to be) white shirt, a stained passenger trainman's vest and badly scuffed brown leather boots.  On both of the previous trips, he had been admonished by the conductor to clean himself up and come to work properly attired for the job, or get off his crew. 

As I rounded the end of the station, I saw, illuminated by platform lights and under-the-eaves lighting, the conductor and the 'scruffy' brakeman standing face to face, having a discussion.  Actually, it was the conductor who was doing all the talking.  The brakeman listened.

I had expected this, as the conductor had told me on arrival in Jasper that same morning, to come to work that night, prepared to work the tail end, rather than my regular job in the baggage car.  At first, I was upset with his directive, as I really liked the independence afforded by the more private spaces with the baggage and express cars.  But knew that every conductor had the right to place his crew men where ever he felt best suited him.

I was wearing my passenger trainman's dark blue uniform; pants, vest and jacket with my soup pot trainman's hat secured within my travel bag.  I was also wearing black stockings and polished black street shoes inside my heavy black rubber snow boots.  The brakeman who was being spoken to by the conductor was wearing jeans, runners, shirt and a quilted vest for those times when he would be forced to open the doors of the warm baggage car to the frozen night air of the CN North Line in BC's isolated interior.

I will admit that I was pouting, even though I had been assured that my name would be shown as the baggage man on the trip ticket to ensure I received the two or three dollars more that was paid to the baggage man over the trainman, under the collective agreement.

After receiving his verbal 'dressing down' by the conductor, the brakeman picked up his 'grip' and walked over to the leading day coach and climbed aboard.  In a moment, I watched as he passed by the lighted doorway, stopping to toss a scoop full of coal into the stove near 'his' desk.

 He was understandably nervous, for he had taken a pretty angry lecture from the conductor before he got on the train.  I wasn't made party to the discussion, except that I was told that I was not to offer any assistance in the baggage car unless instructed to do so by the conductor.  The chill that was in the air outside, was nothing compared to the chill in the air that surrounded my normally jovial and convivial conductor.

"Shrug it off", I told myself.  "It has nothing to do with me", I thought.

It was obvious to me that we wouldn't be meeting for a friendly cup of coffee, so I greeted my conductor and we had our pre-departure briefing in the crew's booking in room while we read the clearance and train orders that would take us from Jasper to Red Pass Junction. These orders had just been copied and repeated by the operator, from the dispatcher at Kamloops.   At Red Pass, we would obtain fresh orders, dispatched from the dispatchers desk in Prince George, which handled traffic on the North Line.

The trip from Jasper to Prince George was uneventful, except for two or three screw-ups on the part of the baggage man. Each time he made an 'error in judgement', as he called it..., the conductor was all over him like snow in a blizzard.  This just made him more nervous, and further prone to screwing up again at the earliest opportunity. 

Now...., this particular brakeman was a nice enough guy.  He just had a whack of personal habits that many would find socially unacceptable.  Yes, I know there are some among my readers who will know immediately who this fellow was..., even though I'm not going to use his name.  And I know you will agree with my observations of this fellow.  The mistakes he made were never made intentionally; it was just who he was that made him do it that way. 

06.00 couldn't come soon enough for our erstwhile baggage man. That was the time that number 9 was due to arrive in Prince George and Pappy Howard, our engineer from McBride to Prince George brought her in on time.

Prince George was a demarcation point for CN's passenger service on the North Line.  Number 9 was a conventional passenger train, with conventional, mostly heavy-weight cars, pulled by freight locomotives and a steam generator car that provided steam heat to the train.

At Prince George, the service went to Budd Rail Diesel cars for the remainder of the trip to Prince Rupert.  The RDC's left Prince George about an hour and a half after the arrival of our train from Jasper.
Upon  our arrival, the flagman helped with the unloading of passengers and took down the markers to be stored for the return trip.  The front trainman waited until the car men had cut off the steam line to the train, then he guided the engine to the shop track.

Number 10 was due out of Prince George at 23.00 and we gathered at the station to prepare for the train's departure.  With the engine and steam generator in place, the passengers were ushered out onto the platform be entrained.  The day coach passengers were assisted onto the platform stepping boxes and, with a quick look at their tickets, were told to turn left or right at the top of the stairs where they would enter the well-lit passenger coaches to look for the seats that were indicated on their tickets.

Seating was allocated so that 'short-haul' passengers were seated so that those who would be detraining first, would be seated closest to the front door of the leading coach.  People getting off at the second station down the line would take up seats next, and so on.

Usually, the lead coach was almost completely occupied by people who were travelling to points within the first 45 miles from Prince George.  On some nights, Saturdays in particular, every seat in the car would be filled, and there could be several people who had to stand until a seat became vacated by someone who was leaving the train.  At times like these, we were forced to lock the rear door in the last day coach to prevent standing passengers from wandering back into that part of the train that was reserved for overnight travellers who had purchased sleeping car accommodation.  It was the established practice of passenger train crews on this run to keep the door locked until the majority of the 'short-hauls' had been let off the train.  Only then was the flagman, other duties permitting, allowed to wander up to the head end to assist with head-end duties, or to enjoy a cup of that famous baggage-car coffee that was always on.

The reason the flagman stayed at the rear of the train for that long was that the fourth class freight train operating as number 848, or first 848 was due to leave Prince George at 01.30, just two and a half hours behind number 10 and due to the fact that we were operating in 'dark' territory, or train orders and timetable schedules, we had to be watchful that 848 didn't overtake us without being protected against by the flagman. 

It's true that if everything went according to schedule, 848 would leave the station two and a half hours behind the passenger train.  What must be remembered is that, at times, a hundred or more passengers would have to be found (they often went walk-about to help their friends, who were seated in some other part of the car, drink a bottle of lemon gin).  The conductor and the head end brakeman had to pick up the 'hat checks' that had been tucked into the bottom frame member of the pull-down window blinds where each person was sitting.  Then the passengers had to be mustered toward the door with their baggage in tow.  There were numerous non-time table flag stops, as well as station stops and scheduled flag stops in the first 45 miles and the train made very slow headway.  The scheduled running time between Prince George and Hansard (46 miles) was 2 hours and 48 minutes!  That was likely based on the train making track speed and accounting for only the scheduled station stops.  More often than not, the train would be running late by the time it reached Giscome, only 24 miles after beginning the run.

Occasionally, the dispatcher would include, in the sheaf of orders attached to our clearance, a copy of
a Form E time order instructing 848 to run late on its schedule.  For example, the order might read:

No. 848, engine 9042
run 40 minutes late Prince George to Giscome (mile 122.4) and
30 minutes late Giscome to Longworth (mile 79.4)

This was a 'run late' order and gave us some protection against following trains within the times and locations specified in the order. 

Another order, Form U was similar in effect, but worded somewhat differently.

It was know as a Rear Protection' order, or "RP" which gave the train running ahead of the train named in the order, protection from having to flag that train while standing on the main line up until the time specified in the order.  The downside to this order was that it was a timed 'hold' order and could only be issued to a train at one location at a time.  While it was 'second best', it was still better than leaving Prince George with no help from the dispatcher at all.

And this was the case when read the orders issued for our return trip.

There was no "RP" and there was no "Run Late" issued to 848. 

What we had was a meet on 423, a westbound fast freight that ran as an extra, but was treated better by the dispatchers than the passenger train.  We were given an order that read something like this:

No. 10 eng. 9036 meet Extra 9128 west at Willow River.
No. 10 take siding Willow River.

423 was due into Prince George at 24.10 and was running pretty close to the track line-up.

This order added considerable challenge to an already tension-laden run.  We had over 90 short-haul passengers to unload; most of them had spent the hours leading up to train time by drinking as much alcohol as they could consume before making their way to the station, where they leaned against anything that was upright to wait for the signal to enter the waiting train. 

To make matters worse, the temperature was dropping dramatically, threatening to reach minus 35.  This really didn't have too dramatic an effect on the train itself, but when detraining passengers stepped out of the warm coach into the biting frost of the open vestibule, they seemed to be less willing to step into the deep snow found at most of the flag stops along the route.  Physical encouragement was sometimes necessary to keep everything moving along.

Every man on the crew, the conductor, the brakemen, the fireman and the engineer needed to be on the ball this night.  The fireman had agreed to line the switch at Willow River to head us into the siding, and again to leave the siding, while I would return the switches to the normal position after the last car of the train had gone through the turnouts.

We were running a bit late, and I thought that 423 might be at the meeting place before us, meaning that the head end brakeman on the freight would likely line us into and out of the siding at the west end, leaving only the east end of the siding for us to handle.

This wasn't to be, however and, so sure was I that it would be otherwise, I had delayed putting on my heavy over-boots and coat.  I'd left it too long and now I was going to have to get off the train and line the switch back wearing only my uniform and city shoes.

The fireman wasted no time at all getting the switch lined and he stepped back onto the ladder to climb into the cab as Pappy edged the throttle open.  The train moved quickly and smoothly into the siding while I stepped out onto the rear platform and opened the door. 

I stepped down to the bottom step and took a solid grip on the cold steel hand rail.  Leaning out a bit, I saw the flickering red oil lamp on top of the switch stand and gave a signal with my lantern to the fireman, who was watching me from his open window in the engine. 

Holding my lantern high, I 'tipped' it three times to indicate three coaches to the switch.

Then two, and one.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the same intense cold and deep snow that our passengers were experiencing when they detrained.  I shivered, and understood their natural reluctance to abandon the warmth of the coach for the hostile night that awaited them. 

I flipped the lock out of the switch-lock keeper and grabbed the handle giving it a hard pull.  The points came over relatively easily and I ran to the rear of the train that had by now stopped just clear of the mainline. 

From the glow of head light on the snow laden trees beside the track, I knew that 423, the extra 9128 west was pulling down the main.  I opened the upper door on the opposite side of the car and leaned out to identify the train we were expecting by engine number and to give the head end crew a wave.

423's power quickly notched up to full throttle and they were speeding away into the night as we drifted through the siding at 10 or 15 miles per hour. 

I stepped into the rear car to keep warm until it was once again time to get off and line the east switch back when we re-entered the main line.

When our train stopped, I went to the rear vestibule platform and watched as the fireman, illuminated by the strong ditch lights of the engine, hurried up to the switch.  Soon he had it lined and turning toward the engine, he gave the engineer a 'proceed' hand signal.  A couple notches on the throttle and our two locomotives came to life and started pulling the train back out onto the 'high iron'.

When the train was about halfway out of the siding, the engine leaned into a left hand curve and soon disappeared from my view.  This didn't concern me, as our astute baggage man (remember him) had swung the big door open and had taken up a position where he could relay my signals to the fireman who would, in turn, relay them to the engineer.

I gave him 'three cars', 'two cars', and 'one car'.  The train slowed to a crawl and I stepped off into the snow while giving a big 'stop' signal.

Gingerly stepping through the snow to the switch, ( I didn't think it would be necessary to struggle into my heavy clothing and boots just to line the switch back) I was shocked to hear the engines revving up! 

I turned in time to see the baggage door closing, closing, closed; and the train pulled away into the darkness.

My mind was racing.  It was already too late to try to catch the train.  It was already going a good clip and I was wearing slippery soled shoes.

I could be in a lot of trouble here.  How far away was 848?  Could I survive until 848 arrived?  Would the crew notice me if they got here before I froze to death?  How long would the battery in my lantern last in the intense cold?  When did I replace it last? 

I knew if was less than five miles to Giscome, and it was a train order office where I might find refuge.  I looked around for one of the dispatcher's line phones that are usually placed near the switches at sidings and other locations.  I couldn't see one.

My ears were really stinging now, and my toes were numbed to painfulness.

Then, I heard a faint, high pitched sound, like a squeal of some unknown origin. Like a dog who thinks he's just heard his kibbles being brought out, I cocked my head and listened for more.  Then, I heard it again!  It was louder, and closer! 

In a few moments, I was happily surprised to see the back end of no. 10, gaily led by those flickering red markers backing up the main line towards me....., against every rule in the book!!! 

The conductor was standing in the vestibule, operating the 'back-up' whistle.  I couldn't have loved that man more than I did at that moment.

There was my conductor, my friend..., Marvin Schwartz coming back to get me after learning that the baggage man had only 'assumed' that he had given me enough time to line the switch back and get aboard the train before he gave the fireman a 'highball' signal.

After learning of this from the baggage man, Marvin hurried to the tail end, his baggage man in tow where he found my compartment empty, my heavy weather coat and boots still inside,  and the rear doors open.  He knew that I had been left behind, and that would never do on his watch.

When I had struggled up the steps I saw that Marvin had the baggage man by the throat and was holding him against the bulkhead of the car.  There was a darkness, a determination about him that I hadn't seen before.  The young man swore to Marvin that I had given him a 'highball' signal and he had relayed it to the fireman.  Marvin told me to step inside the car and get warm, while he had a chat with the baggage man 'in private'.

The baggage man bid another job and wasn't seen on "our crew" again.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Birthday Party - The ex-CNR 1392 steam locomotive is 100 Years Old.

In this blog post, I want to visit the Alberta Railway Museum at Edmonton, Alberta.
Any railway museum is a great place to visit, anytime.  It gives people of all ages an opportunity to get up close and personal with the railroads of the past. 
Some museums host static displays of different types of railway cars, handcars, speeders and lanterns.  There might be a replica of a working station, including the telegraphers wicket, the waiting room with a coal stove, and the operator's office with the sounds of Morse Code messages being transmitted between stations. 
When the Morse went quiet, as it usually did until the next message needed to be sent, the sharp 'tick-tock' of the Seth Thomas railroad wall clock kept time for the swinging pendulum that went from side to side inside the glass fronted door in the oak-cased clock.  Even when there was no one about, the sounds of the station told you that you were never alone.
Breathe deeply, and I'm sure you can hear those sounds from your youth, or recall them from your parents, or grandparents time, when 'train time' was gathering time for the small communities along the rail line. 

After the train had left town and the sound of the exhaust stack and the clicking of the trains wheels had faded around the bend and disappeared beyond the trees, the walk home promised carefree conversation, the scent of Lilacs in warm air and perhaps an ice cream cone at Gertie's Ice Cream Parlor.
Surely, this was the vision that men such as Shaughnessy and Van Horne; Sir John A. Macdonald and George Stephen had for the Canadian Pacific Railway. 
On the other side of the railroad map was to be found equally enthusiastic railwaymen; enthusiasts who had a vision, and believed in that vision.  Charles Melville Hays of the Grand Trunk, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann of the Canadian Northern, all contributed greatly to the eventual evolution of 'the people's railway.'  (see "The People's Railway" by Donald MacKay - 1992)
Museums hold wonderful collections of artifacts that, except for those that are cloistered away in private hands, one doesn't get to see. 
The Alberta Railway Museum is being featured here because of the love and devotion of its volunteers to a project that has stolen their hearts, all of their free time, and much of their own money, I'm sure.
I'm speaking of the ex-CNR H6g class 4-6-0, or ten wheeler that carries the number "1392" beneath her cab windows and below her headlight.
Courtesy Terry Wolfe of the Alberta Railway Museum
She was built in 1913 by Montreal Locomotive Works.  On her builder's photograph is a note that reads 3rd week of April, 1913.  She made steam until she was retired in June 1958, and was donated to the city of Edmonton, where she sat on public display in Exibition Park until the Alberta Railway Museum stepped into the picture.
 I have to admit that my exposure to the 1392 is limited, indeed.  In fact, the first time I saw her was when she steamed in Vancouver for Steam Expo 86.  There were many steam powered machines at that event, and one of the prettiest was the ex-CNR H6g number 1392.  She appeared in beautiful condition and showed well. 
 Unfortunately, my role as a presenter at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers booth prevented me from getting more photos of the event, but I did manage a few.
 A Full House - by Bruce Harvey

 Upper left, Harry Home, Cal Elliot and Dennis Strate.  Buddies since their early days as firemen.
Upper right, Bruce and his wife, Susan on the pilot deck of the 6060
Middle left, Susan 'working steam' on UP switcher 4466
Lower left, another angle on the 'full house'
Lower right, the Happy Hogger, himself..., Harry Home on arrival in Vancouver with 6060
Enough about Steam Expo for now.  I'll bring you back to Steam Expo Vancouver in July 1986 with another story.
Steam Expo 86, as an event was testament to the love and devotion that volunteers give to the preservation of the wonderful artifacts of a time gone by.  But it's not just a page from the past that's significant in the preservation of railway equipment; it's the physical proof of the commitment of a nation, its leaders, in financiers, its contractors, its labourers and the families who stood by them.
But events like Steam Expo are simply the icing on the cake, if you will.  The real meat in the recipe is the behind-the-scenes work that goes on in the off-season. 
Inside the shop, volunteers spend countless hours and, I'm sure..., countless dollars from their own pockets, as all volunteer organizations are constantly in need of money to survive.
As well, there's more to a railway museum than the steam engine.  There's rolling stock to acquire, move, strip, repair, restore and, finally to make ready for certification.  Track must be maintained, switches serviced and structures to be kept in pristine condition. 
And there's testing to be done!  Here, a Cat Scan is being conducted by a volunteer.

For, without all that taken into consideration, there can be no valid reason to throw open the doors and say...
 "We're open. Bring your family for a fun day at the railway museum".
Why do they do it, you may ask?  It's not for the money they hope to receive during their short operating season.  It's not for the skinned knuckles and bruised shins, or the oil soaked clothing, or the dirt under their finger nails that they do this.

It's for the smiles on the faces of children as the brass bell begins to ring.  It's seeing a child plug his or her fingers into their ears as the engine approaches, whistle blowing.  It's knowing that, at the end of a long day at the museum, grandparents have taken their young charges home to tell them stories of a time long ago, when the haunting song of the steam engine's whistle drifted through their open bedroom window on the cool night air.
These are memories of a quieter time, a safer time; a time of oil lamps and long hikes to school.  There were station agents and grey mail sacks piled high on green baggage wagons.  People were polite to each other and, for the most part, you could believe the word of a politician.
What does a museum hold for you?  Why, it holds all the sights and smells of your youth, when your parents were young and a treat was getting two bits to go to the 'show' on Saturday afternoon and have enough left over for a candy bar or a soda.
Even if you don't take anyone with you, you owe it to yourself to visit the Alberta Railway Museum this year.  And, if you can make it.... go and visit them for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the ex - CNR H6g 4-6-0 steam locomotive.  And, if you can't make it to Edmonton..., visit your closest railway museum. 
Make plans to go this month or this summer, but don't put it off any longer than you absolutely must. 

May 18, 2013 starts the new season.
See and ride behind 1392 on the museum grounds.
Long weekends are planned as well as some special events.

Phone for information: 780-472-6229

Take a few minutes to visit the website and be sure to click on the video to see the 1392 in action.
Make sure you take enough time to visit all of the exhibits at the museum while you're there!  There's lots to see.
All museum photos courtesy of Terry Wolfe and the volunteers at the Alberta Railway Museum