Friday, March 15, 2013

A Young Lad's Memories of CNR Freight Trains and Friendly Crews

This story is submitted by Mike Mastin and is a portrait of his formative years, many of which were spent chasing trains, hanging around the rails, getting to know the crews, the engines and rolling stock.  We can be grateful that he also took photos of his experiences.

Mike's story:

It all began in the old country, namely England. I was an avid trainspotter during the 
1950's, but my lifetime pursuit of train numbers was cruelly interrupted in March of 1957
when my parents decided to emigrate to Canada and refused to leave me behind to
fend for myself despite having reached the age of eleven.

Arriving in New York on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth I started on the longest train trip of my life, namely New York to Toronto. 
We travelled on the Lehigh Valley RR overnight and next morning, what a sight, a CNR Northern, obviously freshly shopped, glistening in the sun on the Niagara Falls Ontario turntable.

CNR Northern Type, looking freshly outshopped, ca. 1957
Photographer unknown

Needless to say I did not own a camera. Another long trip followed, Toronto to Vancouver on CNʼs “Super Continental” with FP9 6504 on the point.

CNR FP9A in 1954 colour scheme
Photographer, location (perhaps Vancouver) and date unknown

 This was an uneventful trip until the last day, awakening in Kamloops to the
realization that we had been there for some time. Enquiries were made, there had been
a slide in the Fraser Canyon, we would have to travel on the CPR tracks. At Basque we
did indeed back onto the CP, proceeding west through North Bend. Shortly after, across
the canyon was a train of empty boxcars forming a V where the slide had pushed the
train almost to the riverʼs edge. Still on the head end was a large CN steam locomotive.

We crossed back to the CNR at Hope, using the Kettle Valley crossing of the Fraser and
subsequently arrived in Vancouver many hours late on a dark and rainy night. Our first
Vancouver residence was on York Ave. in Kitsilano, with the sound of BCE freight
motors punctuating the night and lines of condemned iinterurban cars beside the
Burrard St. Bridge.

Fast forward to the late summer of 1958, my parents bought a house in Richmond B.C.,
miles away from any rail line, or so I assumed. Imagine the thrill when out of the front
windows I saw a CN MLW S-4 diesel switcher, wooden caboose and a few boxcars
rolling south less than half a mile away.

Mike Mastin Photo
Lulu Island Rice Mill 1959

Jumping on my bike I soon discovered the Lulu Island branch. My explorations soon determined that upon reaching the dikes along the river bank the line branched into an east and a west leg, the east leg ending at “Delta Rice Mills” and the west end ending at the Crown Zellerbach plant.

The two legs were connected by a wye track which was used as a storage track for 40ʼ boxcars as back-up supply for CZ.

There were run around tracks on the east and west ends of the branch, the east one was just west of No. 5 road. For those with long memories there was a small store at the number 5 road crossing to serve the needs of motorists lined up for the ferry to Ladner, no tunnel in those days.
Arriving at the Rice Mill. MM

Mike Mastin photos

The operating pattern was a morning train to CZ, returning after lunch, then an evening
turn to the rice mill, both turns monday to friday only. Saturday or sunday trains were
rare but ran occasionally, usually with a different caboose, a rather ancient looking
cupola-less variety. 
CNR caboose commonly used in yard and transfer service had no cupola.
Mike Mastin photo

The morning train stopped at the packing plant by the south end of the Fraser St. bridge to unload cattle, bringing the empty cars south to the CZ plant to avoid the need for a stop on the return to New Westminster. The afternoon train had a more varied consist as it served varied customers including Alcanʼs extrusion plant on Vulcan Way, the new Shasta Beverage plant next to Alcan, a facility whose name escapes me that received Hooker Chemicals and Penn Salt tank cars. The ramp at the number 5 Road runaround received a few PGE boxcars cars of feed each year for a local farmer.

Mike Mastin photo

Discovering this rail line eased some of the pain of my separation from my beloved
British steam trains. During school I only witnessed the evening train but school
holidays saw me waiting somewhere along Shell Road for the morning run. Not only did
I record the locomotive number but all the car numbers as well, a hangover form my UK
train spotting days-it was to be over 50 years later that I discovered I had Aspergerʼs
Syndrome, anyone familiar with this will recognize the connection.

I should mention at this point that my parents, who had left my bicycle in the UK, took
me to Woodwards in downtown Vancouver in the summer of 1957 and bought me an
“Argyle” bike, made in the UK by Raleigh, so the salesman said, the ʻArgyleʼ name
being strictly for Woodwards. This bike was rather unique-it had no gears, it was permanently in low, very low, one city block required me to pump the pedals somewhere
in the neighbourhood of 10,000 times, or so it seemed.

With no trains on the Lulu Island branch on weekends I would get on this bike-get your maps out here-at my residence near #4 Rd. and Williams and ride to the Fraser River bridge in New Westminster, via Queensborough. There I would watch the GN “Internationals, CN and GN freights, BC Electric motors shuffling cars on the waterfront, and if I was lucky and
they were working weekends steam at Pacific Coast Terminals-but that is another story.

SW9 7204 returning to Port Mann with one stock car and caboose.
Mike Mastin photo

Then I would ride all the way back home, all alone, but that was not a concern.
Anyway, back to Lulu Island. The regular engineer on the evening train around 1959
was a kind man, name of Johnny. If I walked down to the platform at #5 road he would
invite me to ride to the rice mill and back. As I got to know him better he would let me
stay on board and make a special stop at Shell Road and Williams Road and I would
walk home from there. The most common power was 8077, others that I remember
were 8061 and 8163.
By the summer of 1962 I had made myself familiar to the morning crew, I would wait at
the north wye switch as they had to stop and line the switch, it having been left lined for
the east spur by the previous evening ʼs train. They would also give me a ride on the
loco, letting me off at Williams Road on the return. One day I got bold and suggested I
ride in the caboose all the way to New Westminster, they acquiesced and what a thrill it
was for me.

Crossing the Fraser River on the Lulu Island bridge
Riding in the cupola of the caboose from Lulu Island to New Westminster
Mike Mastin photo

The afternoon crew were somewhat surprised to find me occupying their
caboose but they kindly stopped at Williams Road so I could trot home for supper.

There were humorous moments. One evening at the Rice Mill, which was down in a
dip, they dropped a load onto their train, they really dropped it, the crew member who
was to swing on and wind the hand brake was otherwise engaged and missed it. I
heard Johnny say “Thatʼs a standing load”, then there was the bang. Nothing derailed,
no car damage was apparent, but the dust cloud emanating from around the doors of
the rice load was somewhat impressive.

The engine has run around the train and is now shoving cars toward the Delta Rice Mill facility.  MM
Another day I was waiting at #5 Road with my dog, a perpetually hungry Springer Spaniel. Dog and I were invited into the caboose while the crew ate their lunch, a new brakeman opened his lunch bucket, took out a pork chop, put it on his plate, went to fill his coffee cup.  In an instant my dog took ownership of the chop. Amazingly not a bad word was said.

On another day I was at that same ramp with my bicycle, the train pulled in and
immediately the conductor told me not to go on the ramp, better I go home, there was
something I shouldnʼt see. I went home mystified, contacted a school chum who lived
nearby, and we decided to walk back to the ramp and solve the mystery. As we walked down the track we had to step aside for the train, on the rear platform of the caboose
were a young couple who appeared very amorous. When we reached the ramp we
found evidence of a picnic that had ended up with a very special dessert, apparently
interrupted by the trains arrival.

Then there was the day I had to take the bus to Vancouver. On the way home I used a
pay phone to call my mother at work. I inserted 25 cents expecting 15 cents change,
that was the day I learnt that pay phones did not give change. Not having enough
money for bus fare I started what would be a long walk to home. I walked across the
Fraser and Mitchell Island bridges and was thrilled to see the Lulu Island train still
unloading cattle at the packing plant. I detoured along the track and told the crew my
tale of woe, could I ride with them and get dropped off at Williams Road? Sure they
said, climb on the caboose. Already on board were five passengers, folks going
blueberry picking who were dropped off near Blundell Road.
One of the hazards of railroading on Lulu Island was the everpresent danger of brake-shoe sparks setting fires in the peat bog, which is everywhere on the island.  Once a peat fire has started, it can burn for months, sometimes consuming even railway rolling stock, as we see above.  MM Change came to the branch in 1962 when SW-9ʼs started to replace the MLW units.

The first SW-9 I recall seeing was #7206.   

 Mike Mastin photo
Change came to me the same year as I finished Grade 12 and took on a summer job to finance my tuition at UBC.

As I got older, finishing UBC after obtaining Grade 13, and started working I had less
time for the Lulu Island branch. I did have a vision that came true, I thought how
wonderful it would be if ʻsomethingʼ were built at the end of the branch which would
bring more traffic. This vision came true after I had moved away from Richmond to Vancouver, the loading facility for imported autos has led to longer trains running on rebuilt trackage. I hear rumours that the access to this auto facility will be changed, that rail will be put in beside the river from the end of track at the Lafarge cement plant at the south end of #9 road all the way to the auto facility, allowing the line currently used with its myriad of grade crossings to be removed.

It was odd to see this Scale Test Car on Lulu Island, but here it is after all  MM
Does anyone recognize this location?  We're assuming it is in the vicinity of CP/BCHydro/CNR yard in New Westminster yard
Thanks to Mike for this story and his photographs..., and to the CNR Lulu Island crews who let him "hang around" with them while he built his childhood memories.


Recieved today in an email from Mike Mastin, clarifying an error to two I committed in the assembly of the article and photos.

Thanks Mike!

Thanks for running the article-a couple of points, the picture captioned "Arriving at the Rice Mill" is actually the northbound train from Crown Zellerbach swinging from its north bound alignment, alongside Shell Road, to an eastbound run, it is just about to cross #5 road.  The Highway 99 overpass crosses the tracks just behind the photographer's location.  

The 'small type' paragraph "After pulling into one of the empty tracks at the Rice Mill, the engine would come around to the tail end and set the caboose over to another track before switching the train out. On occasion the crew would 'drop' the caboose allowing the engine to perform other work before coming toi the rear of the train" is not correct, it implies a run around at the mill.  The mill had two stub tracks, one by the loading doors and a set over track.  The southbound train would always have the caboose immediately behind the engine.  After eating supper west of the #5 road crossing, between switches of the siding, the engine would run around its train and shove east 1/2 mile or so to the mill.

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