Rain had started falling as the last of the baggage and express was being loaded. Pools of rainwater, growing too large to remain on the round roof of the passenger cars, released themselves from their lofty perch and cascaded down the sides of the cars and over the windows. The passengers had settled into their seats and now waited patiently for the train to start moving. As they watched from the large windows by their seats, rivulets of rain water spilled down like some living creature, trying to reach the ground before the Conductor called "All Aboard" and the train departed, leaving the train station for the darkness of the Rocky Mountains at night. In the bright lights along the station platform, the cars looked like they had just emerged from the railway's paint shop and had been pressed into service with the paint still wet.
Railway employees hurried this way and that along the platform, gathering hoses to coil up and put away in hidden spaces under the platform. They pulled carts that had, only minutes before carried supplies to the dining car, or extra blankets to the sleepers. The men were dressed in dark coveralls and wearing dirty peaked caps that told of countless repetitions of the tasks they were performing at this moment.
Conductor Schwartz, dressed in his dark blue uniform over a crisp white shirt and black tie, came out of the station checking the time on his watch. As he deftly dropped his trusty Hamilton 992B gold pocket watch into the little vest pocket that kept it safe until the next time he needed it, one couldn't help but notice the cluster of gold bars that were sewn onto the sleeves of his uniform jacket; one for every five years of service.
Looking to his left, he saw that his flagman, the rear end trainman was standing near the stepping box at the back of the train. The coal oil lamp inside the train's rear marker flickered, displaying a dancing green light that reflected along the side of the sleeping car, the last car on the train. And looking to his right, Marvin met my gaze and I nodded to him, indicating that all was well in my world...that of the baggage cars on train number nine.
Schwartz raised his arm high in the air and the flagman answered by raising his arm as well. In one motion, and without breaking stride, Conductor Swartz bent low and grabbed the stepping box from the platform and, taking one of the coach's polished stainless steel grab irons in one of his big, tough hands, he stepped up onto the stairs leading to the platform in the vestibule at the end of the car. After a brief word with the young head-end trainman who was also in the vestibule, he pushed open the door and stepped into the coach. The trainman reached up for the cord that hung from a valve near the top of the vestibule and gave it a couple of short tugs. This was answered by a couple of short blasts on the whistle, as the engineer released the brakes and cracked the throttle. The bell began to ring from the top of the engine's cab and the sound of air being released from the coaches announced that the train was about to depart.
The brakeman released the catch on the two-part dutch door and closed, first the lower door and then the upper one. The train was now secure and he followed his conductor into the day coach to help him collect tickets and hang destination tags above each persons seat.
Conductor Schwartz' first name was Marvin, but everyone who knew him called him "Tiger", for that was his professional name when he toured the prairie fight circuit as a pro boxer, and sometimes as a rodeo rider in the late 40's and the 50's. Tiger still liked to ride the bulls whenever he got a chance and he was known as a scrapper among both crews and passengers alike. Tiger and I got along quite well.
In the Winter of 1966, the Rupert Rocket was the most practical and economical method of travelling to
After leaving Jasper, there wasn't much to do until we arrived at Redpass Junction, about 43 miles west. There was a tiny train order station at Lucerne near the halfway mark and the possibility of receiving train orders on the fly, or perhaps a passenger to drop off or pick up. Since there were no private dwellings at Lucerne any more, and only the CNR train order operator who lived in the converted boxcar that was both his office and his home away from home, there was little likelihood that there would be a passenger to pick up or leave behind.
At Redpass, our train left the former Canadian Northern Pacific mainline, now...CNR mainline to Vancouver and branched off onto the former Grand Trunk Pacific mainline to Prince Rupert. Local railroaders still called it "The Trunk". Leaving Redpass on our descent of the hill past Mount Robson, following the headwaters of the Fraser River, we entered very dark territory. Gone were the electric 'search light' signals of the Automatic Block Signal train detection system of the Albreda Sub. We were now running on the Tete Jaune Sub, where switches were marked with oil-burning switch lamps that were filled and lit by section crews who patrolled and maintained the track, mostly during the daylight hours.
This was true western Canadian wilderness. There were no lights from homes and farms, no roads or power transmission lines...nothing but dark forests and towering, snow and ice-covered mountains. On a clear night, you might get an unobstructed view of Mount Robson from the train, reaching up nearly 13,000 feet above the sea.
The station at Tete Jaune was dark, as it was operating under new hours, being open only during the day when most of the freight trains that ran on this subdivision might be found.
Arriving at Dunster, halfway between Tete Jaune and McBride, the train slowed. Opening the door on the side of the baggage car, I stuck my head out into the night while reaching up to find the communication cord hung somewhere above the door. There was a green and white flag hung in its holder by the waiting room door in front of the station and a woman stepped out of the darkness and, picking up her suitcase from the platform, moved forward to the line near the edge of the platform. Judging the right combination of speed and momentum, I pulled twice on the cord and the train stopped.
While the trainman stepped off the train and placed the stepping box on the platform, I climbed down from the open door and, taking the long wooden draw bar of the baggage wagon that stood in front of the closed up station, I pulled the first of three wagons loaded with large cans of raw milk and cream that was destined for the creamery at Prince George.
Conductor Schwartz had commandeered a couple of strong backs to help swing the heavy cans up onto the baggage car while he and I spun them into place near the end of the car. In less than fifteen minutes, we were underway once more.
Completing a quick tally of milk and cream, I pried the lid off one of the cream cans and scooped up a cup full of the thick off-white coloured delight and set it in the middle of the table for use in our coffee. I banged the lid back onto the can and put it with the others.
Day coach passengers were given the opportunity to get off the train during our stop at McBride. When the train pulled to a stop in front of the station, several got off and wandered into ‘the beanery’, a railway operated restaurant for an early breakfast. The beanery staff had a talent for getting a customer's order ready in a matter of minutes so that everyone could eat, have a cup of coffee and get back on the train without delaying the schedule.
The in-coming engineer and fireman, who had brought the train from Jasper to McBride were standing on the platform talking with the out-going head end crew. Surely, they were discussing water and fuel levels, the way the new traction motors on the lead unit were behaving and the ditch light that had burned out as the train was leaving Redpass. All of these matters would have been booked, or written down on CN Form 538D which lived in a sheet metal holder on the back wall of the locomotive cab, but the engine crew would still discuss their findings with the new crew before they handed over responsibility for the engine consist.
The McBride shop staff were on hand to check fuel and water levels and would check the function of the large steam generators in the car immediately behind the locomotive. You see, the engines used on the Rupert Rocket were not the same as those used on the mainline passenger trains. Normally, they were used in freight service and when needed on the branch lines, were coupled to a steam generator car that did nothing else but create steam, under pressure to heat the train and provide heat for the galley in the dining car.
This photo also demonstrates the placement of the lights on the front of the locomotive, with the dual sealed beam headlight on top and the two ditch lights, a CN innovation, on the bottom. Thank you, Peter.
The final load of baggage rolled out of the express shed on an old green cart at the west end of the station topped with grey canvas bags marked "Royal Mail". The station agent and his helper slid the baggage across the floor to me, then piled the mail bags on top of the already deep pile that had come from Jasper. Wiping their hands on their trousers, they climbed down from the car and without a word, slipped inside the station, closing the door behind them.
I finished processing the baggage, adding their tag numbers and destinations to the report that I would hand over to the station agent in
I was grateful that we had gotten our work done at McBride before the deluge began.
With the slightest lurch, the night air came alive with the creaking and squealing sounds of draw bars, vestibule buffers and truck springs. The train began to move, then slipped silently away from the brightly-lit station platform and into the rain soaked night. The engine throttles were opened up and the big diesels eagerly leaned into their charges, speeding away to the next stop.
While they weren't identified as such, it was reasonable to assume that these packages contained paper currency, as there was reference made on the way bills to a Canadian Bank in Edmonton and another branch in one of the small towns on "The Trunk" in north western BC. Out of curiosity, I added up the total value as stated on the waybills and came up with a figure in excess of half a million dollars! Not that much by 2011 standards, but in 1966, when a 12 hour day's pay on the railroad was less than $25.00, the contents of those packages represented a large fortune!
Brakemen depend on this light to lead them to the hand rails and foot rests on the ladder when en-training or de-training in the dark of night. When attempting to "lift" a heavy train from a stopped position, engineers would roll down the window and lean out, resting an elbow on the padded window ledge and, releasing the brakes and cracking the throttle with their left hand and pushing the "manual sanding" lever over into the forward position with their right, they would watch the illuminated ground beside the engine for an accurate indication of their forward movement. Sometimes, if this operation was not carried out successfully, the train could roll backward, even with the throttle open in forward operation. This could force the engineer to reverse the engine and back into the train while setting the brakes. The object of this maneuver is to bunch the slack while the train is stopping.
The engineer will then return the engine to 'forward' position and begin to work the throttle once again. When he sees that the load indicator is showing two or three hundred amperes of DC power being delivered to the traction motors on the axles, he will release the train and engine brakes and once again, watch the ground below his window. With his left hand, he will work the throttle back and forth, exercising care that not too much, nor too little power is being delivered to the traction motors. Too much, and the wheels will slip and the engine will lunge forward with the potential to tear the train in two. Too little and the train will once again begin to move in reverse, resulting in the whole procedure to be repeated. As the brakes release, the engine picks them up, one or two at a time while the brakes are still applied at the rear of the train holding it in place.
I knew that there was a shipment of hand tools including shovels, picks, axes, bars and others in the express car. These had been consigned to Ben Ginter Construction of Prince George and were en-route to one of his construction sites near
Once into fresh clothes, we hung out in the baggage car, drank hot coffee and talked about the great recovery effort we had all taken part in.
On our return to the station for a late night departure on train number ten, we learned why there had been such interest in the contents of the express car and…..the safe…!