Monday, August 22, 2011

Rule Class at Red Pass Junction


Bruce Harvey Collection.  Photographer Unknown

Rule Class at Red Pass Junction

It was just after 8:00 am, March 29. 1966 when the westbound freight eased to a stop in front of the depot at Red Pass Junction, BC. The head end brakeman backed through the narrow cab door behind the engineer and let himself down the ladder to the ground. I picked up my back pack from the cab floor and thanked the engineer for the ride, as I too backed through the door. I had been called earlier that morning to deadhead to Red Pass Jct. and wait for a special rail inspection car that had left Prince George and was expected to arrive in Red Pass Jct. before noon. I was told that I would be needed as an extra crew member to guide the car and its occupants over the last 45 miles from the junction to Jasper.

The head end brakeman met me at the door to the Operator’s Office as he was leaving with a set of dispatcher’s train orders that would help get their train down the mountain from the Yellowhead Pass we had just crossed and into the valley bottom some 30 miles further on. Number 2, the east-bound Trans-continental was running late due to a rock slide in the Fraser River Canyon several hundred miles away, so all west-bound freights, running as extras had to get updates on the passenger’s progress in order to keep out of the way and still not be delayed too badly themselves. The slide had been a major disruption to service in the mountains and it would take a few days to get operations running smoothly again. Patience was to be the order of the day.

I sat down on the bench on the station platform and watched each car as it rolled past when the train left. As the caboose passed the station, the operator held out a wooden “y” shaped apparatus with a set of orders with a clearance attached on a string and the tail-end brakeman, standing on the lower step at the rear of the wood caboose put his arm through the “y” caught the orders on his arm and waved to the operator and me.

I stayed on the platform for a few moments and listened to the sound of the engines wander back and forth through the deep valleys.

Inside, I found the operator, Gerry Taylor sitting at his desk with his earphones in place, speaking to the Dispatcher. He “OS’d´ the train out of Red Pass Jct. at 0809. When he set the head set back on its cradle at the side of his desk he turned to me with a broad grin and asked me why I was left behind. After I explained that I was called to meet the special observation car from Prince George, he laughed saying that it hadn’t arrived at McBride yet.  They were still somewhere out on the Fraser Sub.  It was already beginning to look like it would be a long quiet day spent in Red Pass Junction…population 1…now 2.

Red Pass had once been a much larger community than today. Old timers in Jasper told me that there had been a hotel, a school, a store and a post office; and numerous families living there.  I suppose that was around the time of the First World War when both the Canadian Northern and The Grand Trunk Pacific ran side by side westward across the prairies and into the mountains to Red Pass.  At Red Pass, the tracks diverged; the Canadian Northern taking a south-westerly route to Kamloops and Vancouver and the Grand Trunk taking a north-westerly route to Prince George and Prince Rupert.

But today… there was just Gerry and I…and the ravens and squirrels.

I hung around the station waiting room for a few minutes, reading faded and yellowed notices and bulletins that spoke of train schedules and hours of operation.

Stepping outside, and looking both east and west, I realized that, being a type “A” personality, I was going to have a VERY long day. The next freight to be expected at Red Pass wouldn’t arrive for at least 8 hours…and that was just a guess.

I wandered across the tracks that stretched from here to the Pacific in one direction, and to the Atlantic in the other, and made my way down to the shoreline of the river, where beautiful Moose Lake emptied its contents into the  Fraser River.  I sat down on a rock to watch the water birds as they worked the shoreline for little creatures to eat. Picking up a flat stone, I raised my arm to attempt to skip the stone across the Fraser River. This was probably the only spot on the river, which is several hundred miles in length, where one might attempt to set this ‘record’ as the river was only about fifty feet wide at this point.

Gerry’s voice stopped me! I turned to see him approaching with a fishing rod in his hand.  You might not want to scare the fish”, he said. “Maybe you can catch something for our lunch”.

“Thanks a lot”, I said.  “I’ll give ‘er a try”. He spent a few minutes showing me where he had caught an occasional trout, and he went back to his desk inside the station.

Photo by the author

Well, I tried…and I tried. I saw a few fish break the surface of the water only to disappear again without taking notice of the lure I was throwing at them. There were a pair of Ospreys working the lake and they seemed to be having better luck than I was. After an hour or more of walking up and down the shore, tossing the lure (I had only one lure) into every likely looking bit of dark water that I could reach, I reeled in the line and sat down on a rock to consider my next move.

A man’s voice broke the stillness and I quickly turned to see two men, dressed quite well in dark slacks, top coats and leather gloves walking toward me. One of them asked me what I was doing there so I explained that I was a CNR brakeman who was waiting for a special inspection train from Prince George and that I was to accompany it to Jasper once it arrived at Red Pass. The men seemed curious about the operation of the railway and asked me lots of questions about trains, and train orders; trackside signals and whistle signals, air brake tests and employee tests.

Carefully removing their nice leather gloves and placing them on a rock beside me, they sat down and asked me if the railway was required to test employees on their knowledge of rules and regulations. “Oh yes,” I said… “We have to take periodic Rule Exams in order to keep our jobs.” “We also have to have a Medical Examination and submit our watches to watch inspectors as well.”
I showed them cards similar to the ones shown below:


Explaining the importance of knowing our medical condition and keeping fit for duty, I went on to describe how important it was to ensure that our watches were maintained in prime condition so that we could operate under train orders and time table schedules without endangering passengers, crews and equipment.

One of the men took the lead with his questions and asked me how we kept track of all the dates of all the different examinations. I told him that we were issued a ‘card’ for every one of the different tests. I proudly showed him my medical card, my watch card and my rule card. The rule card showed that I was qualified in “B” book rules and was due to re-qualify in about three months at which time my current rule card would expire.

They asked me questions about the Automatic Block Signal System that was used on the Albreda sub, and then asked about the Centralized Traffic Control System that was in place on the Edson sub, just east of Jasper.  I explained the two systems and how each one worked.  I also gave them examples of train movements within the two systems and how the rules determined how trains, engines and crews functioned with regard to opposing movements and following movements....I was on a roll!  I was grateful that they didn't ask me any questions that I didn't have a reasonable answer for, like Rule 4 which covered how regularly scheduled trains such as passenger trains,  were run when the timetables changed, twice a year.  That rule was one that tripped up many an experienced railroader.  I knew of fellows who booked off work on those two days, just so they wouldn't be at risk of screwing up, or being involved in a very scary incident.

He looked each card over carefully, turning each of them over in his hands reading the handwritten comments on each side. As he finished reading each one, he handed it to the other man who read them as well. When he had gathered them up again, he said “well, son, you’ve given us a pretty complete tour of the railroad and its operations.” “I see that your rule card is about to expire, so I’ll tell you what I’m going to do…” “I’m going to give you a passing grade on the rule exam we’ve given you today.”

Rule examinations were always conducted in a classroom setting, whether in a room above the station, on a crate in the Express Shed, or in a converted passenger car, called The Rule Car which travelled from town to town.  Although there was a provision for a "verbal" rule exam, I had never heard of it ever taking place.

I chuckled…thinking, “I don’t know who this guy thinks he is, but he can’t take the place of a real Rule Instructor and give me a pass on…”   He opened his wallet and removed a card from within, saying....“Here’s your new rule card”.   "You've convinced us that you know what you're doing out here and you're good for another three years!"

He filled out the blank spaces and signed the small brown card and handed it to me…

it was signed by Mr. John Procyk, the Chief Rule Instructor for the entire Mountain Region!!

The two men chuckled quietly as they turned and walked toward the station.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The snow has stopped falling and the grain needs to move westward

            I had been in Jasper, Alberta working as a brakeman for the CNR when my parents brought my younger sister out to visit me for a few days.  The day they arrived, the sky was clear and the weather warming up slowly.  The next day however, was quite different.  We awoke to falling snow.  It snowed all day and all night and all the next day too.

It was Easter 1967, and the blizzard dumped several feet of fresh snow on the Rockies.  For the first 24 hours, the train crews managed to keep the line open.  But as the snow kept falling and the winds blew drifts higher and higher, the trains had greater difficulty getting through until, finally they stopped running as sidings began to fill up with trains that could no longer move ahead.  Crews were ordered to set out their trains and bring their cabooses in.  As the last of the crews arrived at the terminal and went off duty, the rails went quiet.  Mother Nature had taken control of her domain and men retreated to their homes to wait.  The snow continued to fall.

The railway had only just re-opened after being closed due to accumulated snow.  I was been called for a 110 car west-bound train of prairie grain. It was 4:00 am, 15 below zero and snowing lightly.  Avalanches were expected to pile up on the tracks and dad wanted more than anything to go with me. I jumped at the chance to take him with me.  

Dad had been a locomotive engineer with CNR in Capreol, Ontario and had been running trains since 1944, but he’d never seen the mountains before, so I thought he might enjoy a different view through the cab window than he was used to.  

Many times during my childhood, he had taken me on his steam engines.  I’ve ridden way freights, freights and passenger trains with him.  I even have memories of riding steam engines pulling high speed passenger trains through the night.  These experiences left a lasting impression in my young heart that would drive me to seek more of the same throughout my life.  The decision was made and we packed food and coffee for two. I had never seen him so excited about going for a train ride that he wasn’t getting paid for.  This would be an opportunity for me to return the favor. 

            From the beginning, the trip promised to be a hard one. The switches were packed with blowing snow and as fast as I cleaned them out, the biting wind that came out of the east filled them back in. Nonetheless, with Dad sitting up high in the cab of the 9142, an F7a class diesel, the engineer and I got the engine from the shop track and coupled it onto the train that had been waiting in the yard for two days.  I coupled up the frozen air hoses and turned the valve to allow air to move from the engine’s reservoirs to the train’s brake pipe. In weather that cold it would take an hour or more to charge up the brake system on the train.  

Photo courtesy of Peter Cox

Eventually, our air test was completed and we were given permission to leave the yard.

            The engine’s sixteen cylinders revved up higher and higher, and the train began to move ahead, but was almost immediately stopped as the snow that had piled up under the boxcars resisted the engine’s efforts to pull the cars.  After backing into the cars and pulling them again, we managed to break the frozen boxcars out of the snowdrifts.  It was an uphill pull westward out of Jasper yard on a good day; today it was even more difficult.  The rails and wheels were frozen and the axle bearings were so stiff that they protested loudly, producing groaning sounds that mixed with the creaking and tweaking of the drawbars that connected each car to the one next to it.  Eventually, the whole train was moving along and the engines could be throttled down a bit. 

            The engine was pulling past the west mile board when the conductor called out over the radio, “we’re on, OK to highball”.  I opened my thermos and poured myself a cup of coffee.

There’s something about the smell of hot coffee with cream and sugar on a cold day.  It brings back memories of watching a hockey game being played at an outdoor rink.  The lights are hanging from wires above the ice, and snow is falling softly.  The Capreol team is playing against a team from the valley and the cheering fans are full of enthusiasm.  

            We put our feet up and settled in for the 19 mile climb up the hill to Yellowhead, the top of the Divide.  From the long, broad meadow that lay between switches at Yellowhead, there ran two small streams.  One flowed eastward toward the Miette River which flowed into the Athabasca and eventually to the Arctic Ocean, while the other stream flowed westward into Lucerne Lake and then into Moose Lake at Red Pass Junction.  This waterway, when it left Moose Lake became the Fraser River which flows North to Prince George BC and then south again to its mouth near Vancouver.  There is nothing overly dramatic at this location in the height of land or divide that meanders almost the full length of North and South America.  When travelling over it by rail, or now by vehicle, you wouldn’t notice that you had crossed from one watershed to another.

The Fraser River....just west of Red Pass Junction on the Tete Jaune Sub.

The railway hadn’t been able to run a snow-plow ahead of us as one of their plows was derailed in Edson yard and the other was stuck behind a series of big snow slides on the Clearwater Sub 150 miles to the west. The snow had stopped all traffic and since we were the first train ordered west, we would have the whole Subdivision to ourselves.  The return trip would be a different story, though. The line would be open in both directions and the trains would be running hot and heavy.

            Pushing snow with the engine’s pilot all the way, it took nearly an hour to reach the summit at Yellowhead.  Soon we were picking up speed as the train crested the Yellowhead and wound along the frozen shores of Lucerne Lake.  Beneath the towering peaks of The Seven Sisters, the narrow valley first surveyed by Sir Sanford Fleming (1827 – 1915) began to open wider before us. The engineer reduced the throttle and softened the engines' throaty roar.  

            The snow now lay heavy and deep on the cross arms of the telephone poles and the wires hung low with the weight of snow that clung to them. 

Again, this photo taken while on the Tete Jaune sub, with an Albreda sub tunnel showing above.

Tree stumps and large rocks near the trackside looked like huge white toadstools.  As we plowed through the snow at thirty miles an hour, the engines’ pilot, or ‘cow-catcher’ scooped up the snow off the track and threw it into the air and over the bank onto the right of way like the bow wave of a speeding boat.   The snow drifts, as we burst through them would flash in front of the ditch lights creating a show of bright flashes of lights and deep shadows, creating the effect of a photographer firing off flash bulbs at a gala Hollywood event.

         The train order board at Lucerne was displaying a green light.  The operator on duty must have been encouraged to hear the train’s whistle echoing across the valley. He had been trapped inside his two room station since the storm closed the railroad.  With no trains running and the nearest road over 20 miles away, there was no way that his relief could get to him, so there he stayed until the trains started running again.  His family had asked us to drop off a ‘care package’ to him as our train went by.   At the mile board the engineer blew a few short blasts on the whistle to notify the operator that we were getting close.  At just the right time, I opened the side door of the cab and let the package fly. The operator waved as the package landed in snow drift near where he stood waiting for it.

            There was no highway and no settlement along the route for many miles. The only inhabitants to be found along much of the railroad were train-order operators and section crews.

            The east switch at Red Pass Junction clattered beneath the wheels as the train rounded the bend on Moose Lake, the headwaters of the Fraser River. A dense fog had begun to rise from the lake, drifting lazily upward in the early morning air. The sunlight was kissing the tallest of the mountain peaks to the west which were now wearing the soft yellow-orange mantle of dawn. 

            The section men stationed at Red Pass Junction had been called out early today to clean out the snow-clogged switches. They would stop their work only long enough to return our wave and inspect our train as we went by. The tall semaphore signal that stood in front of the station held its arms erect, cradling a brilliant green searchlight.  Again, there were no orders to be picked up for our train.

            I pulled the radio handset from its cradle and called out “Extra 9142 west, clear board Red Pass.

            “Clear board Red Pass, thanks,” was the reply from the caboose.
            Leaving Red Pass Junction we began our descent into the Rocky Mountain Trench, some thirty miles to the west.  This was the part of the subdivision in which we kept the windows wound up tight and our eyes glued to the track ahead.  The railway had been placed precariously on a narrow shelf carved from the near-vertical mountain slope high above the valley floor.  Tunnels, snow sheds and rock slide warning fences would now be the prominent features of our run down the hill to Valemount.   
            The engineer had set the train brake as our train began the downgrade run and  adjusted the throttle so that our speed settled at twenty five miles an hour. That old feeling called “butterflies” came back to me as it did every time I passed the west mile board at Red Pass. And this morning the feeling was even more intense. The snow storm had lasted for days and the snow lay so deep on the rails that there had not been a track inspection since the storm began. The potential for snow slides at this particular time was heightened considerably now that we were entering the canyon portion of our trip.

            Slide detector fences, long fences which stood twenty five feet high between the train and the mountain face, and were strung with wire which would break when struck by falling snow slides or rocks.  When the wires are broken, the interrupted electric circuit activates a warning light in advance of the protected area.  As we rounded a tight curve along a rock face, the first of the warning lights came into view. It blinked its silent warning in the cold morning air.   Conversation trickled to a standstill in the cab, being replaced by apprehension.  The droning of sixteen cylinders and the singing of the wheels were the only sounds that could be heard.

            Leaning to my left, I told Dad that this could be the most exciting ride he had taken in many years. He said, “I believe it.”   “If the next forty five miles are anything like the last forty five, I’ll have something to talk about when I get back to Capreol!”

            “Then brace yourself,” I said, “because it’s going to get pretty interesting in about one mile.”

            The engineer took another pound or two out of the brake pipe and the train brakes squeezed the wheels just a bit tighter.

            As snow roars down the mountain side, it can pick up loose rocks and break off trees along its path. When the slide is finally stopped on the tracks, those rocks and trees can be hidden inside the slide and not be visible to the train crew.

            There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to hit slides on this trip and  we were not to be disappointed. The first of them was only a few feet deep, and apart from a muffled thud and a moment of blackness as the exploding snow pile buried our headlights, the engine did not notice the impact.  The second one came only moments later. And then another.   Rounding a curve, we entered a two hundred foot tunnel which didn’t have an opening at the other end. It was completely plugged by a big slide.  The engineer opened the throttle wide. “Here it comes,” I said. We pressed our boots against the front wall of the cab as we dove headlong into the snow pile.  The engine lurched, and then hesitated a bit.  The inside of the cab went dark except for the soft light provided by the instrument lights in front of the engineer.

Mouth of tunnel on Tete Jaune sub. below Albreda sub.        

      Our train, which had been stretched out for a mile behind us, now ran into the back of the engine and hammered us through the wall of snow and debris and into daylight.  

            The ditch lights had been ripped from the front of the engine and the front windows were smeared with mud, branches, and snow.

           After we emerged from the tunnel,  the debris fell away from the windshield.  I saw the concern on Dad's face and assured him that we were still on the tracks, despite the noise and confusion of the collision.  Stepping behind the engineer, I lowered the window for a running inspection of the train, as required by the rules.  With my head extended through the window opening, I watched as our train snaked along the mountain side behind us.  Everything appeared to be running normal.

            It was a beautiful morning.  The sun was beginning to clear away the frosty fog that clung to the mountains and, there in the still morning air, standing twelve thousand nine hundred and seventy two feet high, stood Mount Robson, framed by a crystal clear blue sky and wearing a soft halo of filmy cloud just above its peak. The glacier on its shoulder gave just a hint of pale ice-blue in the morning sunshine.  I called dad to the window. “Come here, dad. You have to see this.”  There was only room for one person at the window and I didn’t feel there was a need to point out what it was that he should be looking at. He saw it immediately.  

Mount Robson photo taken from Albreda sub.
           After several minutes, we were getting closer to another tight spot where snow slides could present a dangerous situation,  I put my hand on Dad's shoulder and tugged him back into the cab.  He didn’t want to leave that view behind. I had never seen such an expression on his face. He had been impressed beyond words.  

            Little did I know at the time what an effect that moment would have on him.

            While the rest of the trip was as beautiful as the first part, he couldn’t stop talking about the magnificence of Mount Robson. And our engineer, born in the area, had a great deal to say about the geological and archeological history of the mountain. Dad learned all about the meteorology of the mountain and how it creates its own weather and affects the weather of the entire valley. He learned about the early Native peoples, the trappers and traders of Tete Jaune Cache, and the salmon runs that came from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the foot of the mountain to spawn and die in the Fraser River. 

            He radiated with excitement as we sat in the railroad beanery in Blue River eating our breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee. 

            As a young boy, I had gone with my father on road trips in Ontario.  Some of my earliest memories of those trips were aboard steam engines with my dad at the throttle.  It filled me with pride to be able to take him for a ride such as this. 

            My father died in 1998, and his ashes were scattered near the CN mainline at Harvey, not far from Mount Robson.  As I spread his ashes on the ground, the wayfreight came drifting by, blowing a long, single blast on the horn.  Last post for a fine railroader.

Thank you CN!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Living the dream - A little boy's adventure on a freight train.

At home on Sellwood Road, Capreol... ca. 1951

My mom dumped a dollop of boiled, mashed, watery turnips on my plate beside the peas, carrots and sausages, and set it on the table in front of me. I began to pick at the peas and carrots. And there was no doubt that I would eat the sausages that were on the plate, but matter how much butter, salt, pepper or gravy you can put on turnips, they are not designed to be swallowed by most 8 year old boys.

I made a stand, refusing to eat the turnips. Mom held her ground. She pointed out that there were kids somewhere in the world who would love to have turnips to eat. I told her that if she wrapped up my turnips and put a postage stamp on the package, I'd be happy to take them to the post office and mail them away.

She didn't budge.

So, I announced that I was leaving home. Mom said that was OK, but I would have to dress warmly, pack my toothbrush and take a sandwich in case I got hungry.

"Fair enough", I said, and went to my room to pack my knapsack while Mom made me a sandwich. Soon I was ready and, in a huff, off I went with my knapsack over my shoulder.

Without any idea where I was going, but knowing that I would have to make a plan, I walked downtown, ending up on the railway station platform. The sign on the station said, CAPREOL and "Brent, 145 miles"; "Foleyet, 148 miles".

I knew my way to Brent, having made the trip, accompanying my dad on the steam locomotive a couple of times. But I didn't know anyone there and I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be as welcome in the CNR bunkhouse by myself as I was when I was with my father.

Foleyet was a different story. My mom's sister, Violet lived there with her family and I had been there many times. I knew that I would be welcomed there. I had never been made to eat turnips at Aunt Vi's house.

I sat on the wood and metal bench in front of the booking-in room where all train and engine crews reported for duty and I waited for the first westbound train.

As luck would have it, a westbound freight train came down the mainline and the caboose (van) stopped in front of the office.

OK... It's a model, but close enough!

The incoming crew got off and the outgoing brakeman got on and lit the marker lamps that hung on the rear of the van.

Within a few minutes, a soft yellow light warmed the windows on the side of the van and the brakeman got off and went into the office.  The engine was cut off and went to the shop to be serviced for the next trip and a fresh one was put on the train.

The conductor stepped onto the platform and turned to talk to me. He noticed that I had my packsack with me and appeared to be ready to board a train. When he asked me where I was going, I told him that I was running away from home and going to Foleyet to live with my aunt. Then I asked him if he would give me a ride on the van. With a broad smile, he said he'd think about it. He went back into the office.

In a few minutes, he emerged from the office and, seeing no company officers about, he picked up my knapsack and told me to climb aboard and stay out of sight. I knew very well what I had to do. I had been on trips with my Dad before and "unauthorized personnel" had to remain out of sight until the train had left the yard and was beyond the Yard Limit Board...just to be safe.

Two car men, having finished with their inspection of the train gave the conductor the OK to leave town and, stepping through the back door of the caboose and onto the platform, they walked slowly away toward their office on the other side of the tracks.

 After settling me into a nice wooden chair with a pancake shaped cushion, the brakeman went out onto the platform with his oil lantern in his hand. I watched through the window as he raised and lowered the lantern, giving the engineer a "highball". The whistle on the top of the boiler blew two short blasts and, with a soft jerking motion, the train started to move. The brakeman climbed up into the cupola and the conductor pulled up a chair and turned up the Alladin lamp that hung on the wall above his desk. Reaching into his big leather satchel (every conductor carried a leather satchel and every engineer carried a metal box), he removed a big bundle of paper forms, held tightly together with several tan coloured wide elastic bands. There was also a list of every car on the train and he meticulously compared every number on the switch list with a number on each of the paper forms (car way bills).

The brakeman called to me, inviting me to join him in the cupola. I settled into the empty seat and, just like the brakeman, put my feet up on the metal grab bar that was bolted to the wall beneath the window. I slid the windows open and placed my elbow on the window sill.

As the pine trees, lakes and rivers of CN's Ruel subdivision slid past in the gathering dusk, I fell in love with the rhythm of the caboose running on steel rails. The rail joints, bolted together every 20 feet created a slight rocking from side to side and the classic "clickety-clack - clickety clack" sound of a passing train.

Eventually, he climbed down from the cupola. He went to the pot-bellied cast iron stove that stood in a corner near the cupola ladder. Raising the lid on a box that stood next to the stove, he brought out paper and kindling wood and stuffed it all into the stove. Striking a match, he held its flame against the paper and in a few seconds the kindling started to snap as it caught fire.

As the fire gained momentum, he filled the kettle with water from the small tank on the wall above the sink and swung it over to place it on the top of the stove. Soon, he was adding some lumps of coal to the fire. The tea pot and three cups followed, and before long, we were sitting around the conductor's desk, drinking a cup of hot tea and munching on fried egg sandwiches.

That was the best fried egg sandwich I'd ever eaten and I was surprised how tasty toast could be when it smelled of coal smoke. And there wasn't a turnip in sight.

The train rolled rolled through the summer night, the only sense of motion being the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails and the occasional passing of the full moon through the pine trees along the right of way. Listening to the music of the rails, I fell asleep, sitting on a bunk near the coal stove.

1927 Silk Train just south of Capreol, Ontario

Sometime in the night, the train came to a stop and there was stirring and talking in low voices in the van. I woke up on the soft mattress covered by a scratchy woolen blanket, with my head buried in a feather pillow that smelled lightly of coal oil.

Sitting up, I could see lights outside, and a station platform and men walking toward the van. The conductor who had let me ride with him held out his hand and helped me onto my unsteady legs.

"It's time to get off", he said. "We're in Foleyet".

I thanked him for the ride and the sandwich, and the great time I'd had. Picking up my knapsack, I stepped off the van and headed toward Aunt Vi's house, about a block away. Dawn was breaking and Robins were singing somewhere in the still-sleeping little town I knew so well.

As I turned the corner, I saw that her house was lit up like it was supper time...and aunt Vi was standing on the back porch in her cotton dress and flowered apron. Her hair was tied up in a bun on top of her head. She called out to me to come in and sit down for a bowl of soup and a piece of toasted home-made bread. She said she "had a feeling" that I was coming to visit her so she got up early to welcome me.

Years later, I learned that the conductor had gone back into the station at Capreol and phoned my mother to tell her that I was at the station, intending to "run away from home" to travel to Foleyet. Mom said if the conductor was willing to take me there, she'd phone her sister and let her know that I was coming on the freight.

I rewarded Aunt Vi by coming down with the mumps and I was sick for a week.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Welcome to Caboose Coffee!

After much pushing and shoving by friends and family, I've finally decided to put my railroad experiences in writing and submit them to the public domain for your entertainment and edification.  For all of my old "Scoop Shovel Hoghead" friends, that means you can now laugh openly at all of my mistakes and you may even learn a few things from my experiences just as I learned from yours.

In some cases, names will be changed or protect the guilty and to avoid prosecution.

To all of the younger railroaders who might find their way to this blog, I want to tell you about how it used to be, when cabooses were lit by oil lamps and engines had no toilets, hotplates or drinking water.  Times have changed a lot and it was only through the lessons learned and commitments made that these changes were able to take place at all.

I'll begin soon with a bit of background on my railroad heritage and the wonderful life I've led because someone took a chance and hired a sixteen year old boy with a smile on his face and determination in his eyes.  I come by it, not by virtue of a University degree, or of a moneyed background or privilege,  but by long hours, immeasurable hardship, danger, excitement, laughter, anger, frustration, ingenuity and sometimes leaving my family at the dinner table on Christmas Day to pack for a road trip.  All this has been so that I might share the whole experience with you.

I look forward to writing these stories for you and to hearing about yours.