Saturday, April 27, 2013

Railroading - It's a Soft Touch, Right?

I've held many jobs in my working life, and I suppose I can say that I've enjoyed all of them. Of course some were better than others, in a variety of ways. Some were 'cushy' jobs that enabled me to have every night in my own bed, eat my meals with my family, gave me weekends off to be with friends and let me feel important in some small way. There's a certain amount of satisfaction to be had with a job like that.

I've worked in an Italian restaurant; a landscaping company; as a production miner in a nickel mine in Sudbury; a firefighter; a sales manager; a general contractor and a few others as well.
Some jobs I've had, like working on tie gangs between Nakina and Hearst on the former National Trans-Continental line which was taken up by CNR in the twenties, were much more labour-intensive. As a sixteen year old, during the summer of 1962, I went to bed each night in the upper berth of a converted Colonist car. Our meals were prepared in a converted box car and served in a dining car that had been converted from a former Grand Trunk or Canadian Government RR box car. We were allowed one shower each week, but only if there was enough water left in the converted steam locomotive tender. Since there was no actual shower facility, we showered outdoors, soaping up, then rinsing off with one small bucket of water, drawn from the bottom of the old tender.

Every Monday, while the gang was out changing ties and rails in the dust and heat of CNR's Northern Ontario line, the way freight, or a drag freight would bring a fresh carload of water to the gang.

Tie gang work was physically demanding, especially on a boy of 16 who had done nothing more strenuous than split firewood for the kitchen stove at the family's summer cabin. As the first few days passed, I saw my blisters break, bleed, hurt, then heal and turn to callouses. I stayed the full summer, earning my place among the men on the gang. I took away very little money from that summer job, being paid less than a dollar an hour for twelve hours work, six days a week working on the track; but I filled my personal 'self-esteem' account with a load of pride and satisfaction.

Can today's railroad job really be considered a 'soft touch?' Well, it depends largely on when your first railroad experience occured. I've told you a little bit about the experiences of a 16 year old boy on the extra gang, and the conditions I worked under in 1962. When I joined the gang again the following year, I was astounded to see a noisy, dusty, ugly track machine assigned to the gang. It was called a "Kershaw". (Please ignore the occasional 'inappropriate' photos at this site. Focus on the track machines!)

It was used mostly for changing ties, but it also cleaned up after itself! Before it moved on to the next 'marked' tie, it would tamp the new tie in place. That was a job that used to be done by four men with shovels!! After we had completed all that we could for the day, the Kershaw would run out to one end of our work zone, and slowly begin to put a nice, even finish on our work. It had rotating brushes and plow and scraper blades that would pull loose ballast from the shoulders of the road bed and distribute it evenly between the ties and between the rails!

Before the summer was over, a couple more machines joined the parade and in no time, we were getting as much as a mile of track re-habilitated every day! What a marvelous technological age we lived in!!!

My story isn't unique, but it's how I learned to use my own key to unlock the door to my future.

One of the most important things I've learned, from every job I've had, every encounter with my fellow workers, every rainy night and sunny day..., is that we're all on a different path, going in own direction, at our own speed. We each have our lessons to learn, and have lessons to teach. In the physical sense, "we are what we eat", but in the realm of personal philosophical growth, "we are also a product of WHO we meet and WHAT we do!"

In the following stories, submitted by "Rails", like you and me, as well as those of you who would have been "Rails", if life hadn't led you into careers in other fields. But you're here now, and that's what matters; we will call you "Brother", or "Sister", and treat you as if we had shared our shovels, our oil cans, our cabs and cabooses with you for forty years.

Recently, I posted a story submitted by Jim Munsey, a man with a stellar career with the CNR.

Many of you knew Jim, and wrote to me with your request to read more of his stories. If you don't mind, and if Jim doesn't mind, I would like to accommodate that request by posting another of his wonderful stories today.

In this heart-warming story, Jim tells of being a boy and visiting his dad who was assigned as a relieving operator, stationed at Brule, a siding just inside the east boundary of Jasper National Park, in Alberta.


by Jim Munsey

While working on the operator's spare board out of Edmonton, my father was sent to relieve the operator at Brule, a siding just inside the Jasper National Park. There was a station with living quarters built on the shore of the Athabasca River and, in fact, the living quarters were on stilts

over the river's edge. There was a coal dock at Brule and other buildings to accommodate the section crew, the tunnel watchman and the coal dock operator. The regular operator and his family were leaving on a vacation and invited my father to use the living quarters during their absence. My father sent for us and we went on the local passenger train to join him.

It was a glorious event as the scenery was spectacular. There were lots of trains, all of which stopped to take on coal. The regular operator had left their little puppy dog in my father's care. The dog and I became best of friends. Dad caught fresh fish by fishing off the back porch, mother picked pails full of wild blueberries, huckleberries, strawberries and raspberries. A set of powerful binoculars belonging to the regular operator allowed me to spend hours watching the mountain sheep, mountain goats and the odd bear grazing above the tree line on the mountain directly opposite the station.

Upon seeing a porcupine walking along the siding, my dad got a burlap sack and took after the animal. When he caught up to it, he flipped the sack at the poor creature several times before returning to the office. The sack was saturated with quills, which he removed and placed in a bowl on the desk which was normally used for straight pins to attach train orders, messages and clearances. I was impressed with my father's ingenuity.

The porcupine found a high tree and climbed to the top where it lived on the bark and leaves as it waited for its quills to grow back.

One day, a young black man with a large back pack got off the local westbound passenger train and announced his intention to climb to the top of the mountain across from the station. He said he would be leaving early the next morning. He was from the United States and was fulfilling life long dream. Mother invited him to eat the evening meal with us and after a visit, he slept in his bedroll in the waiting room.

My mother got up early and made him some breakfast and before he left, my dad gave him a handful of red signal flares (fusees) asking him to ignite them when he reached the top. Dad also gave him advice on how to cope with the bears he was sure to encounter and warned him of the possibility of mountain lions. Armed with his climbing gear, water and food, this man started his adventure and was well on his way before I woke up.

I looked for him through the binoculars and finally caught sight of him as he emerged from the dead-fall and thick bush. We watched his progress until it got dark but we continued to keep an eye on the summit looking for the fusees he promised to ignite. Eventually, we saw the pinpoint of red at the top and we were quite thrilled that he had successfully accomplished his mission. He spent the night on the mountain and returned the next day, arriving back in the late afternoon. He spent another night with us and caught the local eastbound passenger train the next day. We never heard from him again, but his visit made an impression on me.

I was very sad when it came time to return to Edmonton. I knew I would miss my father, the little puppy dog, and the beautiful setting I had come to love. Mother packed our suitcases so we would be ready to board the morning passenger train back to Edmonotn. The next morning, mother discovered that the little dog had taken one of her shoes and had literally chewed it to pieces. She did not have a spare so my dad did what he could to make repairs. Mother was highly embarrassed when she boarded the train, and again when she got off in Edmonton. The repair job was not very durable and mother finally had to remove that shoe. She walked to the street car stop in her stocking foot and again when we walked the two blocks from our stop to our house. As I recall, she had some frequent and unfriendly things to say about the little dog who, after all, only did what came naturally.

Jim Munsey.

It was early July 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. I had eaten at Bert's before. When I was a child, my father was an engineer at Capreol and I sometimes talked him into taking me on the road with him. Most of my memories of those road trips were of riding on diesels, but I do have some great memories of riding in the cabs of Northern's and Mountains, running at track speed on the head-end of passenger trains.

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. Often, the selection was sold out and had not yet been replensished.

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 expect a discount when he shops there!

The walk into town, buying an ice cream cone at the Georgian Bay Creamery and a walk down to the harbour brought back a flood of wonderful childhood memories....., 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 and a walk among the boats tied up at the harbour.

After buying an ice cream cone, we walked down to the harbour and sat on the dock watching the boats coming and going.

In the evening, after dinner..., dad and I were picked up by our fireman who lived in Parry Sound. He took us to a lake that lay beside the railroad track where we fished for pike and catfish from the shore.

The passenger train that would take us back to Capreol left South Parry around midnight, so we didn't stay by the lake for very long, but we caught lots of fish before we had to leave.

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

Cliff really surprised me by telling me that he had once owned the Georgian Bay Creamery!!!!

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