The Lavenham "Meet"

On Aug. 11th 1951, I made another trip to Brandon and it was a trip that will remain etched in my memory as long as I live. It was memorable for several reasons; I met a young fireman about my own age by the name of Lyle Corbet, who thereafter became a close lifelong friend. I also met for the first time an engineer by the name of Alister McGregor and, finally it was memorable because of the events that took place on the homeward journey from Brandon.

The trip to Brandon was approximately 140 miles and the route went west from Winnipeg over the flat prairie, crossing the Assiniboine River just east of Portage la Prairie. Leaving Portage the line headed southwest through Rossendale and then up a steep grade which extended to Lavenham, tapering off only slightly as it climbed on its way further westward up to Arizona. Beyond Arizona the line ran through sandy, level country over to Brandon Jct., through the northern tip of the Spruce Woods Provincial Forest to Camp Shilo and finally dipping down as it crossed the Assiniboine River again and into the city of Brandon a few miles further west.

The crew office had called me for 22:00K to Brandon with engine 3355. I drove my car down to the subway on Osborne St. at 21:30K and parked on the railway property close to the shop track. In a minute or so our engine came backing off the turntable and I climbed aboard. I had already phoned the Yard Office while waiting for the engine and learned that our train was made up in the "B" yard and so we headed down the "B" lead. When we backed onto our train the car-knockers were already waiting there to cut in the air hoses and give us our air test.

I was standing in the door of the engine over on the engineer’s side facing the yard office, looking for some sign of the conductor coming with the train orders when I spotted him about thirty car lengths back. Even though the evening light was beginning to fail, I knew at a glance it was none other than Jack O’Donnahue, the guy who chastised me so thoroughly on my second pay trip to Emerson. Jack was still wearing his old black uniform pants and the vest with the shinny buttons when he climbed up into the cab of the engine. But this evening he was "Mr. Congeniality," himself. He was an entirely different person, all smiles and chuckles, and he had seemingly forgotten how miserable he had been toward me a week or two earlier. Obviously, Jack was feeling in much better spirits when they called him for work this time.

We compared our watches to make sure they were all in agreement and then the fireman and I listened as O’Donnahue and our engineman, Alister McGregor each checked the order numbers on the "Clearance" with the train order numbers that were stapled to it. Satisfied that there were no train orders missing, they then went over each order separately and read them aloud before O’Donnahue climbed down off the engine and headed for the caboose. I walked quickly over to the block operator’s shack to get permission for Extra 3355 West to move out onto the main line.

It was a beautiful summer night as we pulled out of the yard about 22:30K and headed west to Portage la Prairie where we would be required to stop for coal and water. The order board was clear at Pacific Jct. on the south side of Charleswood where we branched off to the right. Engine 3355 stepped along smartly over the old Harte Subdivision (now abandoned) between Winnipeg and Portage with our train of grain empties. With nothing to do until the next stop, I began to relax a little and enjoy the evening air.

The brakeman’s seat was a fold down seat beside the left hand door on the cab of the engine and directly behind the fireman. I sat there gently rocking sideways too and fro in unison with each turn of the engine’s big drive wheels. My door was wide open with the safety chain across so as not to fall out. The cab was in darkness now except for the dim glow cast by the lights on the pressure gauges and the tiny shafts of bright light poking out from the cracks around the firebox doors. As we thundered along through the darkness, over the noise of the engine’s exhaust and the noise of the stoker feeding coal into the firebox, there was the frequent loud scream of the whistle as McGregor sounded two long, a short and a long, each time we passed over unprotected level crossings. There was the faintly pleasant smell of the coal burning in the firebox and occasionally the strong acrid smell of the engine’s smoke as the exhaust wafted back through the cab. It was the delightful smell unique only to a steam locomotive and now, but for the exception of a few old steamers still running around for tourists, gone forever.

Having hired out on the railway only three weeks earlier, I hardly knew any of the crews yet. So, I naturally assumed that the fireman in front of me who was carrying out his duties with such professional ease was a thoroughly experienced railroader, even though he didn’t look any older than myself. He was a very friendly fellow and as we got talking back and forth I was surprised to learn that he had hired out on the C.N. only three weeks earlier, just like myself. His name was Lyle Corbet and he came from Oak River, a small farming community about fifteen miles northwest of Rivers, Manitoba. Lyle hired out at Transcona but, because there was no work available there, was sent to work out of the Fort Rouge yard for a few trips until the Transcona spare board was setup again. It was shear luck that placed Lyle Corbet onboard engine 3355 that night and I have always been thankful for our chance meeting.

Through talking with Lyle, I learned that our "hoghead" was Alister McGregor and that Alister normally worked the east end out of Ft. Rouge, running to Rainy River, Ontario. Apparently, Alister had been bumped off the Rainy River end and this was his first trip on the West end for several years. Alister, too, was a friendly, fatherly type taken to smoking a pipe, and although we couldn’t talk to Alister without shouting over the roar of the engine, we communicated enough to get the feeling of friendly warmth that he exuded. When I learned that his name was McGregor, it immediately brought to mind the name of Roy McGregor, a young lad with whom I was acquainted at air cadets about eight years earlier, and who had been brutally murdered by a sex pervert one cold winter’s evening in a coal yard not far from where he lived. Although I suspected that Alister might be Roy McGregor’s father, I didn’t ask but learned much later that this, in fact, was the case.

So the head-end crew on Extra 3355 West consisted of one brakeman and one fireman, each with less than one month’s experience on the railroad, and an engineer who had not worked on the Pleasant Point Subdivision (Portage to Brandon), for several years and who was unfamiliar with the treacherous grades on that piece of track. Approaching the East side of Portage, Lyle thrust his arm out the window at East Tower and caught the hoop that was held up by the operator with additional orders covering our movement from Portage to Brandon. We came to a halt a few hundred yards further on at the coal dock where we took coal and water before the last leg of our trip. Leaving Portage we branched off the Harte Sub. on the West side of town and began making our way over the Pleasant Point Sub. On reaching Rossendale, fifteen miles west of Portage we began a long steep climb over to the village of Lavenham where we again stopped for water. Leaving Lavenham, we continued westward up a winging grade but it was not as steep and we soon reached the little station of Arizona. We had now reached the top of the hill and from here to Brandon it was plain sailing. I mention the heavy grade and curved track west of Lavenham because of the events that transpired there on the homeward journey the next morning.

We arrived in Brandon around 5:00K and found out from the yard office that there was no train in the yard for us to take back and nothing expected until later in the evening. It turned out to be a rather long layover and it wasn’t until 23:00K that evening before we were ordered for home. Our train would consist of 75 cars of grain which was full tonnage for the 3355.

I brought the engine off the shop track at 22:30K, went down and grabbed the caboose and tied it onto our train. We then ran down the main line and tied onto our train at the top end. As we sat in the yard pumping up the train line for our air test, No. 5, the passenger train from Winnipeg to Regina arrived, so that was one superior train we wouldn’t have to contend with on our homeward journey. A few minutes later, O’Donaghue arrived with the orders and as we went through them we noted that the only train we had to meet between Brandon and Portage was a westbound extra at Lavenham, half way down the steep grade I mentioned earlier. The train orders stated that we were to take the siding at Lavenham.

Since we were running as an eastbound, fourth class time card freight, westbound extras would normally take the siding for us at a meet. At this particular meet, however, the dispatcher put us in the "hole" because the westbound train, even though he was well below tonnage, had over sidetrack capacity. The dispatcher’s decision to put us in the hole, coupled with the fact that there were two very inexperienced crew members on the head-end this night, along with a hoghead who was unfamiliar with the territory, was the lethal combination that brought us within a hair’s breadth of a fatal head-on collision.

Having received our copy of the train orders from O’Donaghue and having seen Train No. 5 go by without carrying green signals to indicate a following section, we knew that there were no other superior trains to watch out for so we were now ready to get underway. When Alister put on his headlight and cracked open the throttle, a helpful car knocker lined the mainline switch for us and gave us a "highball" with his lantern. It was always greatly appreciated by the head-end brakeman when a car knocker would "highball the gate" for the train crew because it relieved him of looking back for a highball from the tail-end crew when they had lined back the mainline switch and, just as importantly, it allowed the engineer to widen on the throttle and get the train underway much faster.

Riding in the dimly lit cab of a steam locomotive at night was always thrilling for me. The feel of the powerful pistons as they rocked the engine from side to side, the smell of the coal smoke, the illuminated pressure gauges and the water glass indicating the water level in the boiler, created an atmosphere that can never be duplicated. The engine was alive: a big heavy monster responding to the commands of the engineer at the throttle. We picked up speed rapidly as the track dipped down toward the Assiniboine River. In a moment or two the big overhead span of the bridge loomed out of the darkness in front us, illuminated by our headlight. As we shot across, there was a sudden change in the sound as the reflected noise level changed each time we passed a girder on the bridge. We had a good swing on our train heading over to Shilo and as the train order board appeared in the distance in front of us Alister shouted, "Clear board."

The "green" order board, with its large magnifying lens appeared brilliant in the darkness that surrounded it, sparkling like a jewel in a crown as Lyle and I shouted back to Alister in unison, "Clear board." In a moment, the station flashed by over on the engineer’s side as we sped on our way over to Brandon Junction. We stopped there briefly for water and as the engine slowed down I dropped off with my lantern in hand. I let the train pull by, looking for hotboxes or dragging brake rigging and completing an inspection of the train as was required by the rules. By the time I walked back up to the engine again, the fireman had finished taking water, Alister had applied a few fast squirts of oil to the side rods and we then carried on to our "meet " at Lavenham, another thirty miles ahead.

A short while later, the little waiting room or station of Arizona hove into the beam from the engine’s headlight. And, as it slipped back into the darkness behind us, the adrenaline began to flow a little faster because Lavenham was the next station. We were now at the top of the downward slope mentioned earlier and our speed began to accelerate noticeably. If either Lyle or I had had more experience on the road, we would have realized that Alister should have been setting the air brakes as soon as the engine started on the downward slope, and while there were still seventy loads of grain on level track behind us. But Alister too, was unfamiliar with the grades on this subdivision and so he waited before making an initial application of the brakes.

I had my window down and my electric lantern in my lap and was watching ahead for the sign saying, "Lavenham One Mile." When the sign appeared on Alister’s side he shouted, "One Mile," and made a moderate application of the brakes. I immediately began shinning my lantern at the telephone poles on my side and watching for the first car length sign which would indicate one hundred and thirty cars to the west switch. We were now travelling well in excess of the legal track speed which was, I believe forty-five miles per hour. And although the brakes were now firmly against the wheels on all the boxcars, the tremendous weight of the grain kept pushing us forward unabated on the downhill slope approaching Lavenham.

Almost immediately after Alister had yelled, "One Mile," the beam from my lantern picked out the 120-car length marker on the telephone pole. We were now 120 car lengths from the west switch at Lavenham, at which point we were required to be travelling slow enough so that I could run ahead and line the switch to put us into the siding. I turned my head toward Alister who had his hand on the brake valve and was watching me intently, waiting for me to begin calling the number of cars to the switch. When the first car length marker became visible in my lantern, I yelled at the top of my voice, "120 cars." He hollered back, "120 cars," but waited for what proved to be a few more very crucial seconds, until I yelled,’90 cars." He then began making another application, this time very heavy, to the air brakes. I had my head out the window again and kept shouting car length signs as they appeared on the telephone poles. Alister’s response was to make further applications of the brake valve with what air we had left, but there seemed to be very little immediate slowing effect. With approximately 4000 tons of grain behind us shoving us forward, the momentum was obviously far too great to stop at the switch, which was just around a corner.

As we approached the "60 car" marker we were on a curve to the left and the tension in our cab by this time was electric. At this point, even though the brakes had now begun to slow us down somewhat, it became terrifyingly obvious that as we came down the face of that hill, we were not under control and would never stop clear of the west switch As I hollered "60 cars," Alister pulled the automatic brake valve hard over to his right thus putting it in "emergency stop" position and drawing off the last little bit of air that was left in the braking system. In railroad parlance, he "soaked her," in an attempt to get us stopped before we came around the curve and reached the switch where we were required to head-in.

It was pitch black outside and we couldn’t tell whether our "meet" was there or not because of the curve in the track and the hilly terrain. But we all sensed we were in mortal danger from an imminent head-on collision. I dropped my seat behind the fireman and opened my door in case Lyle Corbet and I had to jump.

As we came around the curve into Lavenham and only 100 yards or so from the west switch, Alister yelled with unmistakable alarm in his voice, "Is he there?" Because the track curved to the left and because of the long boiler on the engine, Alister still couldn’t see for himself and had to depend on us to tell him. I shouted that our meet was there but can’t remember what else was said because of the stark situation unfolding so rapidly in front of me. I do remember standing in the open doorway ready to launch myself into the darkness and I remember most vividly what I saw as our engine rounded that curve.

The other train was sitting on the mainline just clear of the west switch with his headlight on. This meant only one thing! They had just arrived and had not had time to line the switch to put us into the siding. The Rule Book requires the other train to leave his headlight on until his head-end brakeman lines the switch for the siding, at which time he must turn his light off. I could see that the target light on the switch was green indicating that it was still lined for the mainline and that we were about to have a head-on collision. At that point, I would have jumped to try and save my life but, by the Grace of God, the other head-end brakeman was running as fast as he could go for the switch. We were only a few car lengths from the switch, when I saw the target light go red indicating the switch had been thrown for the siding and received a "highball" from the brakeman’s lantern as he ran down into the ditch from fright.

As we hit the switch and entered the siding I can still remember the sickening lurch of the engine and I thought for sure it was going to roll over. But Lady Luck was riding with us that night and the engine righted itself and we came to a grinding, screeching halt with sparks flying off wheels the full length of the train. We were over half way into the siding and I can only imagine the devastation that would have occurred if we had piled head-on into the other train. Two boilers would have exploded which would have wiped out both head-end crews, and half of both trains would have been turned into instant kindling.

I wouldn’t be here today to relate this incident but for the fast legwork of the other head-end brakeman to throw the switch. I never found out who he was, but six men owe their lives to his
speed at getting to the switch, unlocking the lock and throwing the switch to put our train into the siding. I can just imagine the fear that shot through that brakeman when he saw our train come around the corner still doing 25 or 30 m.p.h. We were obviously out of control with sparks flying from the wheels from the emergency application of the brakes and he must have thought that he was going to be buried in the tangle of wreckage that was about to happen.

Five years later, again coming back from Brandon in the middle of the night with the same engineman, Alister McGregor, tragedy struck. But this time we did have to jump from the cab of the engine to save our lives.

In spite of our hair-raising meet at Lavenham, we were back home at Fort Rouge about 4:30K. Lyle Corbet lived over in Transcona and rather than have him take a cab home at that time of the morning, I invited him to come home with me and offered to drive him home later that morning after we had had some rest. Lyle was pleased to take me up on the offer so we jumped in my car and drove to my parents home on Arnold Ave., only a dozen blocks away. When we got up around noontime, my mother was delighted to meet Lyle and threw on the bacon and eggs for two young railroaders. She was so happy and cheerful we didn’t bother telling her about the episode at Lavenham and how close these two young railroaders came to being killed.

Having finished breakfast I now had to complete the rest of my bargain and drive Lyle home. I had an old Harley Davidson motorcycle of 1943 vintage and when I told Lyle that was what he was going home on, he became very reticent. Lyle had apparently never been on a motorcycle before and had no desire to climb on one now. But after some persuading, he relented and climbed on the back of the bike. With one hand firmly clasped around my waist and the other clutching his grip which he was holding at his side, we started off for Transcona. I tried not to lean the bike over too far on the curves because with each fraction of a degree of lean, the arm around my waist closed like a vice around my lower rib cage until I thought my ribs might crack. I knew then what it must feel like to be in the clutches of a Suma wrestler. In any event, I delivered Lyle safely to his home in Transcona and a long lasting friendship was firmly cemented.

L/R: Myself, Denise and Lyle Corbet when Irene and I were at Minneapolis for a few days with them in 1954.


Lyle Corbet went on to become an engineman with the C.N.R. and occasionally made trips to Pine Falls bringing coal and pulpwood to the Abitibi-Price paper mill where I worked for twenty-two years as an instrument mechanic before taking my pension. On those days, when he came to town he always found time to walk over to the house and have coffee with us and exchange a few reminiscences about our earlier days on the railroad.

Lyle spent thirty-eight years with the C.N.R., many of those as an engineman on the East end out of Transcona, running to Sioux Lookout. When on the Sioux end, he became a very good friend of my brother Bill who was braking, and also running on that end. Lyle retired on June 1st, 1989. His last train order from Sioux Lookout was addressed to Engineman Corbet and the Clearance attached to the train order was numbered, "The Last One." The train order read as follows:

Engineman Corbet,

Run Happy Retirement Extra

From Good To Better,

With Right Over All Troubles

And Ahead Of All Worries;

Meet Enjoyment Each Day

And On Arrival Symington,

Throw Away Your Timetable, Rule Book, And Time Piece.

Run All Waits, Disregard All Meets,

Ignore All Rules, And Run At Your Own Convenience.

May We Wish You Many Happy Years Of Retirement.






Made: Complete Time: 0650 Opr: R.E. Plesh


My brother Bill and I, along with Lyle’s good friends, Johnny Wareham, Forest Findlay, Neil Pow and other well wishers were at the west end of the Fort Rouge yard at Portage Jct. to greet Lyle as he brought his last train down the mainline to a stop. Lyle’s wife, Denise and grandson had climbed up on the engine when he arrived at Transcona and rode the last few miles on the engine with him. I was happy to be there to shake the hand of a very dear friend on completion of a successful career as a C.N.R. Engineman.


Engineman Lyle Corbet arrives at Portage Jct. on his last trip, June 1st, 1989



Lyle arrives on June 1st, 1989 from Sioux Lookout, on his last trip as engineman before taking his pension. His grandson is beside him as I wish him good luck. Lyle and I had a hectic ride together with engineman Alister McGregor 38 years earlier, in 1951. It was a ride that cemented a lifelong friendship.


Lyle is accompanied by his wife Denise and his grandson, as he brings C.N. 9546 to a stop at Portage Jct. on his last trip as an engineman before retiring from the Canadian National Railway, June 1st, 1989.



On completion of Lyle’s last trip, he greets his very dear friend and fellow C.N. engineman, Johnny Wareham.


Lyle is greeted by Conductor Bill Peden. Engineman Johnny Wareham is centre.



L/R: Forrest Finley, Neil Pow and Al Peden, out to greet Lyle Corbet on his last trip. Neil was running the Prairie Dog Special that day and is dressed to suit the occasion; the Prairie Dog being a coal fired steam engine.



Lunch back at the Corbet’s after that "Last Run.". L/R: Denise, Lyle, John Wareham, Bill Peden.



Working out of Portage la Prairie with Uncle Fred

My own career with the C.N.R., bucking the Fort Rouge spare board continued on at a busy pace during August of ’51. I found myself working out of Portage la Prairie for two weeks on the Portage-Dauphin wayfreight. George Rush was the conductor for the first two trips and my Uncle Fred, who lived in Portage, was the conductor for the remaining four trips. George Rush, who booked off sick after my second trip on that job, died from cancer not long after.

On the morning of August 18th, after I had brought our engine, the 1332, off the shop track and tied onto our train, Fred walked over from the operator’s office in the station with our train orders. He gave one copy to Norman Chard, our engineman or "hoghead," as we called him., and they then proceeded to examine them. After going over the orders the topic immediately switched to what work had to be done in-route and to what our tonnage was. There was no work to be done until Neepawa and so I was told to ride the head-end over to Muir while we were on the mainline. I was to then line the switch for the branch line and then drop back to the caboose. This was apparently standard practice for this job. The branch line would take us up through Helston, Hummerston, Hallboro and into Neepawa.

Because Fred was normally the tail-end brakeman, Chard figured he wouldn’t know what the correct tonnage was for the controlling grade. He began questioning Fred as to what tonnage we had and when Fred replied, Chard immediately said that we were over tonnage for the Hummerston hill. He demanded that Fred set out some cars to decrease our tonnage before we left Portage. Well, Fred was the conductor and it was his responsibility to know whether or not we were over tonnage and when Fred insisted that we weren’t, the fight was on. Norman Chard was noted for his explosive temper and his face turned scarlet red almost instantly and I thought for sure he was going to have a stroke right up there on the engine. Fred persisted that we were under tonnage for the controlling grade and eventually Chard could see that he wasn’t going to sway Fred one bit. So I climbed into my seat along side the boiler and ahead of the fireman and Fred lined the switch for us to leave town. Chard cracked the throttle open a little to pick up the slack and in a moment or two we were under way. But it wasn’t hard to tell that Chard was still boiling mad; you only had to look at his grim expression and the bright red colour of his face.

In half an hour we were approaching Muir, and as we bounced along at 35 m.p.h. I climbed out of my seat, and with a firm hold on the grab irons, climbed around the outside of the cab. I then groped my way along the catwalk beside the boiler with the wind blowing my jacket straight back and then climbed down onto the pilot on the front of the engine. When Chard had her slowed down enough for me to run ahead, I jumped off, ran forty or fifty yards and quickly unlocked and lined the switch. This would take us off the Gladstone Sub. then, over to Hallboro and Neepawa. As instructed, I stayed at the switch and lined it back for the mainline again after the caboose passed over. We were now safely onto the branch line. I gave the head-end a highball after running and jumping onto the caboose for what I thought was to be an uneventful ride over to Neepawa.

A few miles down the line we passed the elevator at Helston and a couple of minutes later we were half way up the Hummerston hill. Our speed had slowed considerably to the point where we were only travelling at a fast walk. I remembered the argument Fred had had with Chard and I began to wonder who was right about the correct tonnage for our train. I didn’t have long to wait to find out because half a mile further on the train stalled on the face of the hill. I was getting prepared to hurry up along the side of the train and cut our train in half so that we could double the front end over to Hallboro. Fred said, "Never mind, Al. You wait here, I’ll go up ahead and look after it."

Fred had only been gone for a couple of minutes when, to my utter surprise, our whole train began to move again and a second or two later I heard the heavy footsteps of Fred as he climbed back onto the caboose. He was sporting a big grin from ear to ear and it was obvious he had pulled a fast one over on Norm Chard, our engineer.

As it turned out, Fred walked half way up the train and, while Chard was watching him from the engine, reached in between the boxcars and pretended to turn the angle cock and cut the air hoses. When he stepped back again into Chard’s view he gave, what appeared to Chard, to be a mighty heave on the pin, then proceeded to give Chard a big "Go ahead" sign. Chard, thinking that Fred had pulled the pin and thus cut the train in half, opened the throttle wide and never looked back. The old 1300 class engine, which Chard swore could not pull the whole train up the Hummerston hill, even with a running start, not only pulled it up the hill, but lifted it from a standing start on the face of the hill. Needless to say, Norm Chard almost had a fit of apoplexy when he discovered that Fred had pulled a fast one on him and had proved that the train was, in fact, under tonnage for the controlling grade, the Hummerston hill. And what was more galling, Fred also proved that Chard had deliberately let the train stall on the face of the hill to try and prove that it was Fred who was wrong about the tonnage a 1300 class engine could handle.

I was a little apprehensive when I returned to the head-end on arrival at Neepawa but Chard apparently didn’t hold any grudge against me, even though I was Fred’s nephew. The rest of the trip, I am pleased to say, went without further incident.

After making six trips with Fred on the Portage-Dauphin wayfreight, the regular brakeman booked back on the job, so I was bumped and had to go back on the Fort Rouge spare board. It wasn’t until the following June that I would be sent back to work out of Portage again. My trip record book shows it was from June 4th to June 7th, 1952 and it was on the Alonsa wayfreight. Once again I was the head-end brakeman, working on old engine 1280 with Earl Lawrence as conductor. Alonsa was on the west side of Lake Manitoba and our route took us through such places as Oakland, Lakeland, Langruth, Embury, Amaranth and finally to Alonsa. The population of all of these little places put together probably wouldn’t exceed four or five hundred people, so I could never figure out why the C.N. ran a train to Alonsa. The tail-end brakeman for this short period was also a spare board brakeman by the name of Jack Robie.

I still had my old 1943 Harley-Davidson motorcycle at that time and I used to scoot back to Winnipeg between each trip, instead of staying in a hotel in Portage. Heading back to Winnipeg in the late afternoon after a trip wasn’t too bad a ride, but returning in darkness early the following morning was something else again. The road was full of potholes and although they weren’t too hard to avoid in daylight, they were very difficult to see after dark, particularly when you were travelling at a high rate of speed as I was wont to do. On one black morning, I picked up a girl at Headingly who was hitchhiking to Portage. Somewhere just east of Poplar Point, I hit a pothole that seemed to have no bottom. The bike went into a high-speed wobble that sent the fear of Christ into me. I slowed down a little but I’ll bet that girl still remembers the ride. I gave Jack Robie a ride back to Winnipeg a couple of times in the daylight and I think he enjoyed riding on the Harley.


Back to Fort Rouge and Transcona

I met a lot of new people in the first few months on the C.N.R., and most of them were great to work with. And I heard countless railroad stories, most of which were humorous and based on fact. I remember working with one particular engineer named Danny Lavishere, who was a very stern, no nonsense type of person. At least this is how Dan appeared to me as a green brakeman. The first time I climbed up on the engine, he immediately asked me my name and then proceeded to write it down in a small note pad that he kept handy in the chest pocket of his freshly laundered and starched bib overalls. No other engineman had made such a point of learning my name the instant I stepped up into the cab of the engine and I had the distinct feeling that I had done something wrong and was going to be reported in due course. But I needn’t have worried; this was just Dan’s usual way of greeting a new employee. It didn’t take long in listening to the conversation between Dan and our fireman, to learn that every time Dan mentioned anything about the engine; he always referred to the engine as, "My engine." Which brings me to the humorous story my brother Bill later told me about Dan Lavishere.

It seems that a big robust brakeman by the name of Walter Prystako got called to work on the head-end with Dan Lavishere one fine day and as they were backing off the shop track, Dan stated that for some reason or other, he didn’t want to work "my engine" too hard this trip. Walter became highly annoyed and told him to stop the engine right there. "Look Dan!" Walter said in a none too friendly voice, "lets take ‘Your’ engine back to the shop track and get one that belongs to the company." Needless to say, things got pretty frosty up in the engine for awhile between the two of them, but Dan apparently got the message loud and clear. Either work this engine to its full potential out on the road or go back and get an engine that could be worked to its full potential.

Bill had many such stories to tell and another one which gave me a big laugh was his story about a man from a C.N. work gang in the hotel at Regina. Bill was working as a brakeman on trains 5 and 6 from Winnipeg to Regina for awhile. This was an all-night run leaving Winnipeg at 20K and arriving in Regina the next morning at 8K. After working all-night, the practice was to go over to the hotel located close by the station and sleep until about 16K and go to the restaurant for supper at about 17K. On this particular trip the rest of the crew had gone over to the restaurant ahead of Bill. As Bill walked down a flight of stairs to the landing, he looked down into the hotel lobby bellow and saw several people sitting around stretched out comfortably in the nice high-backed leather chairs located there. But what immediately caught his eye, was the man from the C.N. gang sitting in a chair with his head away back, his mouth wide open and a peculiar blank stare on his face. Bill said he knew at a glance that the guy was dead but he didn’t go over to him. Instead, he hurried on out through the hotel waiting room and over to the restaurant for his supper. As he sat eating, the thought of the dead man kept cropping into his mind even though he had half convinced himself that it was all his imagination.

But when he went back to the hotel after supper to get his grip and get ready to report for work, there were the police in front of the hotel. The body of the dead C.N. man had already been removed. It seems that Bill’s first quick glance into the hotel lobby had been correct after all.

Before I knew it, the summer and fall of 1951 had slipped by and it was now early winter. The Fort Rouge spare board had slowed down considerably and I could no longer hold a job there. The Crew Supervisor, Johnny Kramble, called one day and asked if I would mind going to work out of Transcona for awhile. Well, I didn’t want to get laid-off so even though it meant a long way for me to go to work each trip, from Fort Rouge over to Transcona, I quickly agreed.

Working out of Transcona on the mainline, the freight crews ran east to Redditt and west to Rivers and it wasn’t very long before I began getting acquainted with the Transcona crews. I made quite a number or trips to Rivers off the spare board but one in particular remains quite vivid. It was the return trip from Rivers to Transcona and it was a very snowy winter evening in early December as we pulled eastward out of the Rivers yard. Looking back on the engineer’s side to try and get a "highball" from the tail-end crew after they had the mainline switch lined back, was an exercise in futility. Technically, it was required by the rules to get a "highball," but under the circumstances this evening it was absolutely impossible. All that we needed to do under those conditions, was to crawl out the length of our train beyond the east switch to give the tail-end brakeman time to line the gate back and get on. Then, if for any reason he couldn’t get the switch lined back or couldn’t get on the caboose, the conductor could pull the air from the tail end.

As we crawled ahead, the engineer kept asking me if I could see a "highball" and, each time he asked, I answered in the negative. When we were out past about ninety car lengths and were half way across the big steel trestle bridge over the Minnedosa River just east of the Rivers yard, the engineer told me to get up on top of the boxcars and walk back toward the caboose until I did get a "highball." I don’t remember who the engineman was that night but, being young and stupid, I did as I was told.

In the pitch black evening with the snow coming down heavily, I climbed out of the engine. With my lantern slung over my left arm, I grabbed onto the ladder of the tender with both hands and pulled myself over. I made my way back along the edge of the tender, shining my lantern with my right hand as I made my way, through periodic clouds of steam, to the back of the tender. I now had to get over onto the first boxcar by letting my body bend at the waist and my upper torso fall far enough forward so that I could grab onto the ladder on the boxcar with both hands. This is no great trick but, in the snow, the darkness and the steam, there definitely is an element of risk that one should not take unnecessarily.

The train kept pulling slowly ahead as I walked back over the top, jumping from boxcar to boxcar while overtop a river gorge forty or fifty feet deep. The snow was coming down so heavily I could barely see where I was going, but I knew I was over the gorge and the thought occurred to me that there must be a much safer way to earn a living than this.

Eventually, the train came to a stop and, since I was now on the other side of the trestle bridge, I climbed down off the top of the boxcars and continued walking toward the tail end. Before long, the light from the tail-end brakeman appeared in the darkness. When he learned why the train had come to a stop and why I had been sent back, he couldn’t believe the stupidity of our engineer. He assured me that the mainline switch was lined back and I now had to climb up on top of the boxcars again and make my way, through the dark and snow, jumping from boxcar to boxcar across the trestle bridge back to our engine. I told the engineer that I had met the tail-end brakeman halfway back and that he assured me the mainline switch had been lined back. But I didn’t tell him about all the foul terms the tail-end man had called him. I’m sure he guessed that for himself. And I didn’t tell him what I thought of him for sending me back to risk my neck so unnecessarily. Anyway, after wasting a good thirty minutes he was now satisfied about the switch. So he opened up on the throttle and, in a couple of minutes, the 3500 class engine we were riding in had us barreling around the curve at Grants Cut as Rivers quickly dropped behind.


Switching the Rivers Yard with Jim White

One morning, not long after my night walk over the trestle bridge at Rivers, the crew office called and told me the spare board had been cut, but that if I wanted to keep working I could go to Rivers as a switchman. Again, not wanting to find myself out of work, I agreed to go.

Rivers was on the C.N.R. mainline about thirty miles northwest of Brandon. I began working on the 19K job with another young fellow about my own age by the name of Jimmy White. Jim had a farm close to Rivers and, like many other young farmers starting off, depended on a second income to make ends meet. Jim was married and this job as a switchman, where he could work evenings and have his days free to work on the farm with his wife, was ideal for him. He and I worked the evening shift together switching the Rivers yard until mid-December, when I was called back to work on the Transcona spare board as a brakeman.



Christmas Eve, 1951

Business on the road had picked up again and I was getting quite a few trips to Rivers. In the early hours of December 24th, 1951, I got called for engine 3575 on the head-end for another trip to Rivers with Elmer Trudel as conductor. Our crew booked rest on arrival at Rivers and we didn’t get out of bed until about 16K that afternoon. Elmer checked with the yard office and learned there would be nothing in the yard ready to go back to Transcona until about 22K.that evening. About 18:30K (Christmas Eve) I was sitting in the station restaurant (called the beanery, in railway parlance) having a bite to eat when my former switch-mate, Jim White came in and sat down with me. He just came in to grab a cup of coffee before beginning his 19K job switching in the Rivers yard. We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes and then Jim left for work. A few minutes later, someone walked into the restaurant and casually mentioned that he had heard that Jim White had been hurt. When I asked him what had happened, he didn’t know. But when you get hurt working on the railroad it can be very serious, so I thought I’d walk over to the yard office to inquire.

The sight that greeted me when I opened the yard office door was one that stunned me in disbelief. Forty-seven years have slipped by since that terrible evening but the recollection remains all too vivid. There was Jim lying on the floor in front of the counter of the tiny Yard Office with both his legs off. He was still conscious and saw me walk in. Someone had already tied tourniquets on the legs of his blood soaked and shredded overalls, one above the knee and the other just below the knee. The only other person in the room with Jim was a car-knocker near his head and he looked almost as pale as Jim did. My first inclination was to turn and leave but Jim had seen me walk in so I couldn’t do that. I knelt down beside him and tried to comfort him as the car-knocker assured him that the ambulance was on its way from the Rivers air base. I lit a cigarette and gave him a few puffs to try and ease his pain.

In a minute or two the car-knocker, probably feeling sick himself, got up and left me alone with him. Jim was complaining about the tourniquets hurting him and pleaded with me to loosen them off. Knowing that he had already lost a tremendous amount of blood, and against all my better judgment, I loosened one tourniquet for the briefest instant and then tied it back on with all my force. The momentary release of the tourniquet gave him some brief respite from the pain. I was still alone with Jim and wondering where the hell everyone else had gone when the door burst open and the ambulance crew hurried in. In one brief moment they had him loaded onto a stretcher, new rubber tourniquets were applied and the cloth tourniquets were removed. Seconds later they were on their way to the Brandon General Hospital.

Jim White survived the loss of both his legs, one below the knee, the other above the knee. Later that night as I rode in the dimly lit engine back to Transcona, my mind dwelled on the events of earlier in the evening and I couldn’t help thinking what a horrible Christmas Eve it had turned out to be for Jim White and his wife. I never saw Jim again but some years later I learned that he and his wife had split up.

It was early Christmas morning when I got back to Transcona but the events that took place in the Rivers yard office the previous evening had thrown a real damper on my Christmas spirit. In any event, early on the morning of December 26th, the crew office was calling again and I worked steady throughout the holiday season. New Year’s Eve saw me working as head-end trainman on Train #4 to Armstrong, Ont. It was a bitter cold night and I remember we were having trouble with the steam lines freezing up. I didn’t get home again until Jan.2nd, after all the festivities were over.

Bright and early on the morning of Jan. 3rd, 1952, the crew office was on the phone giving me a New Year’s present by telling me that I had been laid-off. I didn’t know it then, but this was to be a common present from the crew office. I was laid off for five long months and it wasn’t until May 23rd, that the crew office needed my services again. Working like a dog through the Christmas and New Year’s season, only to be laid-off immediately after, was the usual state of affairs when working as a brakeman for the C.N.R., I was to discover. I thought that as I gained more seniority I would be able to work all year round but diesel power began appearing on the scene shortly after I hired out. Consequently, I continued to suffer ever-increasing periods of lay-off'’s until I resigned from the railway in 1960.

Working as a spare board brakeman certainly gave a fellow the widest possible range of experience. From wayfreight to through-freight, head-end to tail-end, passenger trainman to freight handler; you got called for it all.

In the summer of ’52, I began getting called to go braking on various passenger jobs such as 9 & 10 to Kamsack, 5 & 6 to Regina or 33 & 34 to Fort Frances. All these runs took about eleven or twelve hours running time and left Winnipeg about 20 or 21K. Because they stopped at virtually every station and even at some flag stops, and because they ran all night, we referred to these trains as mid-night wayfreights. There were always cream cans to load or unload from the express car, baggage from the baggage car and usually a few tons of groceries to be unloaded from the L.C.L. (less than carload lot) car. By the time you got to your destination you were ready for bed. On rare occasions I would get called for train # 1 & 2 or #3 & 4 on the mainline east or west to Armstrong, Ont., or Waterous, Sask. I got called only rarely for the mainline because senior men would grab the job because it was easy and paid big money. The spare board brakeman would then get called to fill in for him on some mid-night wayfreight job.


Spike McLennan

On July 27th, 1952, I got called for 20K on Train #5 to Regina with Spike McLennan as conductor. It was my first trip to Regina and the tail-end brakeman this evening was Uncle Fred, who was now working passenger jobs out of Winnipeg. Spike was a huge man and stood at least 6foot 2 inches in his stocking feet and had a face that could only be loved by a mother. And Spike’s disposition was every bit as bad as his face was ugly. At this point in my railroad career I hadn’t had very much experience on passenger, but Spike’s miserable disposition was well known, even to junior trainmen like myself. This was the first trip that I had ever made with Spike and so I was very anxious not to make any mistakes which might incur his wrath. I did feel an immense sense of relief though, when I discovered that Uncle Fred was the tail-end brakeman or flagman, as the tail-end job was referred to. Fred was every inch as big as Spike McLennan, with a gentle smile and pleasant, easy-going personality. Where Spike got what he wanted by bulling people, Fred got their co-operation by using a little tact. Fred could be every bit as tough as Spike if the situation arose, but he seldom ever had to resort to those tactics. On this particular trip, I felt far more reassured with Fred on the tail-end because Spike would be much less inclined to throw his weight around. As it turned out, the trip went as smooth as clockwork and Fred came up from the tail-end several times during the course of the evening to see how I was getting along. Each time, his big smile would give me a renewed shot of confidence.

There was a well-known story about Spike McLennan that illustrated his miserable personality and lack of tact with passengers. It seems that as the train was completing its run and entering the station one day, a little old lady with a couple of large suitcases asked Spike if he would mind giving her a hand getting them off. Displaying his usual lack of co-operation and tact when dealing with passengers, and his absolute unsuitability for the position of passenger train conductor, Spike pointed with his large index finger to the sign on his cap and replied in his gruffest voice, "See that sign, lady. That says Conductor not Red Cap!" And with that he turned on his heel and walked away leaving the poor old soul to fend for herself.


Uncle Fred’s last trip after retiring as conductor on trains No. 1 & 2, Winnipeg to Waterous, L/R: Fred Peden Jr., Aunt Eva, Conductor Fred Peden, Allan Peden, May 1966. Photo: Fred Jr.


The Paymaster’s Clerk

Freight crews and spare board brakemen who worked out of the Fort Rouge terminal picked up their paycheques at the Crew Office over in the Fort Rouge Yard Office on payday. The cheques were kept there for a few days incase the intended recipient was out on the road. But, after about three days, if any cheques hadn’t been picked up they were sent back to the Paymaster’s office in the C.N. Depot for safekeeping. If you hadn’t picked your cheque by that time, you had to trot up to the Paymaster’s office to get it.

On one occasion, in mid-July of ’54, I happened to be working on the tail-end with Conductor Wes Patterson, making Beulah and Rossburn turns from Neepawa when payday rolled around. Consequently, I was a few days late getting back to Winnipeg for payday and, as it also happened, my car was tied up in the garage for repairs when I arrived home. I never thought to phone the crew office to see if the cheques were still there, I just assumed they were. About two p.m. this particular afternoon, I walked half-a-mile in the sweltering summer heat from my house in Charleswood, up to the bus stop to catch a bus to take me to the yard office. I was thoroughly dismayed to learn, on arrival at the crew office, that the cheques had already been sent back to the C.N. station that morning. Since I was almost flat broke, with the exception of a dollar or two in my wallet, I needed my cheque to buy groceries. So, undaunted, I went out to Pembina Highway and waited in the heat of a summer day for another bus.

Eventually, I arrived at the C.N. Depot and made my way up to the Paymaster’s office. I was tired from the long bus rides, but at least felt that my paycheque would soon be in hand. I had never picked my cheque up at the Paymaster’s office before, I just assumed it would be a routine matter. Indeed, the Crew Office staff also seemed to think it would be just a routine matter. How wrong they were!

When I stepped up to the counter, a young fellow, very obviously obsessed with a strong feeling of superiority over those who faced him on the opposite side of the counter, asked me in a crisp, unfriendly tone what he could do for me. His manner immediately set alarm bells ringing in the back of my head but I told him very politely who I was and why I had come. He asked me to produce my identification which, in itself, was not an unreasonable request. After fumbling through my wallet for a moment or two I finally produced my driver’s license and a couple of credit cards. But this wasn’t satisfactory; I would have to produce a company identification card. I wasn’t even aware that such a special identification card existed nor had I a clue where to obtain it. A simple phone call to the crew office would have verified my identity beyond any reasonable doubt to even the most suspicious individual. But this supercilious junior clerk felt he was being uncommonly helpful by telling me to return to the Crew Office in person and get it there. When I tried to reason with him and asked that he make an exception on this particular occasion because I was travelling by bus, he became even more arrogant.

It became quickly obvious that this very junior payroll clerk wasn’t going to budge from his hard-nosed stance. He knew he had me by the short hair and was obviously relishing every moment of it. So, controlling my frustration and urge to crawl through the window and choke him, I turned and walked out. I caught another bus in front of the depot and headed back to the crew office. When I arrived back there and explained to them what I required to obtain my cheque, they were very surprised. But after rummaging around through a few drawers they came up with a blank employee identification card and promptly filled it out for me with their apologies.

The time was now 16K and the Paymaster’s office closed at 16:30, so time was quickly running out. On the return trip I thought of several stinging rebukes that I was going to deliver to that officious little bureaucrat when I had my paycheque safely in my hand. Unfortunately, when I got there about five minutes before closing time, there was no sign of him. An older chap produced my paycheque immediately. I now had a long ride back out to Charleswood on another bus and it was too late to get my cheque cashed at the bank that day. But I thought that if I ever got a chance to even the score with that officious, uncompromising payroll clerk, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Well, the Good Lord works in strange and wonderful ways and behold, seven days later, on July 27th, 1953, exactly one year to the day from the time I made that first trip to Regina with Spike McLennan and Uncle Fred, I was called again for train #5. This was only my fourth trip to Regina in the two years that I had been working for the C.N. and as I mentioned earlier, #5 was one of the mid-night wayfreights that left Winnipeg at 20K and didn’t get into Regina until 8K the next morning. It was a twelve-hour ordeal, stopping and starting at every little station and passengers who sat up all night in the day coaches were more than happy to get off when we jerked to our final stop at Regina. I was the head-end trainman and, as such, it was my responsibility not only to help with the unloading of express and baggage at each station, but also to attend to the passengers in the three-day coaches ahead of the sleeping car.

Leaving Winnipeg, Conductor Caslake walked back through the coaches taking tickets and placing a coloured hat check in the window blind beside the passengers when he had collected their tickets. Paying passengers had one colour hat check while those company employees riding on a pass had a different colour, so that train crew could tell at a glance who was riding on a pass and who was a paying passenger. Shortly after the tickets had been picked up I walked back through the coaches to check the air conditioning in each car, to make sure that it was functioning properly and that the cars were at a comfortable temperature for the passengers.

As I was making my way back through the third day coach, a familiar face caught my eye, and for a minute I couldn’t place it. I didn’t want to stare so I looked away and fumbled with some hatcheck cards I had in my vest pocket. The young man sitting there had noticed me coming down the isle and had obviously not recognized me, but in my initial glance at him I did notice by the colour of his hat check that he was riding on a pass. As I stood in the isle a few feet in front of him my mind was racing because the face was so familiar. Suddenly, as if a steel trap had sprung, it dawned on me who he was and a surge of adrenaline went coursing through my veins. This time I took a long hard glance to make sure I was not mistaken. Sure enough, the fellow sitting there so comfortably with a pillow behind his head and his feet up on the seat in front, was none other than the detestable young payroll clerk who took so much delight in refusing to give me my paycheque the previous week. I just could not believe that the fickle finger of fate could be so kind as to deliver this miserable little bean counter into my clutches for the next twelve hours.

Wanting to be absolutely sure before I took my retribution, I turned on my heel and made a beeline to the conductor’s seat in the head coach. When I told Conductor Caslake why I wanted to know who the guy in the third coach was, he was only too pleased to thumb through the passes to find out. Sure enough, it was the arrogant, officious little jerk from the Paymaster’s office and his pass indicated that he was travelling all the way through to Regina. How terribly convenient for me, and most unfortunate for him.

I wasted no time getting back to the third coach and to the payroll clerk who was stretched out so comfortably across two seats. In the most rotten tone of voice I could muster, I told him to get his feet on the floor and sit up. With that, I turned the double seat that he had had his feet on, back facing the front of the coach so that he would have to keep his feet on the floor for the rest of the trip. A look of bewilderment came over his face and, strangely enough, he still didn’t seem to recognize me. The fact that I was wearing a passenger uniform and a Trainman’s cap had him fooled, which only added to my enjoyment. During the course of the night I wandered back through the now dimly lit coach half- a-dozen times to check on my captive passenger. Each time as I passed by, I shone my lantern into his closed eyes to let him know that I was still watching and to deny him as much rest as possible.

Sharp at 8K the next morning we rolled into the station at Regina. I opened the vestibule door, placed the stepping box down on the platform then proceeded to help the passengers get off. Eventually, a bleary-eyed payroll clerk stepped down and as he did so, I gave him a big smile and said with a voice as pleasant as I could muster, "The next time I come up to the Paymaster’s office to pick up my paycheck, don’t be such a prick!"

The look that came over his face was something to behold. Suddenly, he recognized me. And, with recognition, came humiliation and the realization that while he may be king of the castle so long as he’s behind the counter at the Paymaster’s office, the moment he climbs on board a passenger train to make use of his railroad pass, there will be somebody there to even the score and take him down a peg or two. I have never forgotten the satisfaction I received on settling the score with that fellow; and so soon after his contemptuous treatment of me. It was an excellent lesson for a pompous prig, and one that I am sure he has never forgotten.