Working Fort Rouge to Rainy River

The first few years working as a C.N. brakeman certainly was a great learning experience for me. And, even though I was being called for work at all hours of night and day and continually being subjected to lay-off’s during slack periods, I wouldn’t have passed up the experience for all the tea in China. The thrill of railroading in the steam era, particularly on the Rainy River end when the grain rush was on to the Lakehead, is impossible to describe adequately in words but I will try to give you the feeling of what it was like.

Rainy River is approximately one hundred and forty miles southeast of Winnipeg on the Ontario, Minnesota borders just a few miles inland from the south end of Lake of the Woods. The first twenty-five miles of our journey on leaving Winnipeg took us through Lorette, Dufresene and over to Ste. Anne, where we always stopped for water and inspection to comply with the Uniform Code of Operating Rules. Ste. Anne had a train order operator on duty twenty-four hours a day and the dispatcher in Winnipeg frequently gave us additional train orders at this point. We always watched to see what indication was on the train order board as we arrived there.

Leaving Ste. Anne, we continued on another thirty-five miles in a southeasterly route. We passed through the little villages of Giroux, La Broquerie, Marchand, and then up a fairly steep grade to Bedford. A few more miles and we were at Woodridge, which was situated on the southeastern edge of the Sandilands Provincial Forest. The first three stations had operators on duty at least part of the time and Woodridge had a twenty-four hour operator. It was always necessary to stop at Woodridge because it was approximately halfway to Rainy River and because there was a coal dock there. When pulling a tonnage train of grain it was impossible to go from Winnipeg to Rainy without additional coal. The fireman also took more water while the brakeman made his inspection.

Continuing on another twenty-five miles took us through Badger, Vassar, South Jct. and Sprague. There was a twenty-four hour operator at Sprague and, as well, the Canadian Customs Officers were there to inspect all westbound trains because they had passed through the U.S.A. for forty miles on their homeward journey. On most occasions, the customs inspections was very cursory and took only a few minutes, but some conductor or tail-end brakeman had taken advantage of the lax customs inspections to smuggle a few bottles of cheap American liquor and cigarettes back home with them. They had been caught and consequently customs inspections thereafter took on ridiculous proportions. Whereas it used to take only five or ten minutes to be cleared by customs, it then took well over an hour with the customs man opening box car doors and looking in at intervals along the whole train. Animosity quickly built up between train crews and customs men because of the pettiness of the operation. Those of us who smoked would continue to occasionally hide a carton of American cigarettes in the hollow steel frame alongside a journal box on a boxcar and it would be virtually impossible to locate. The head of the customs office at Sprague at that time and who had given the order to delay all further westbound trains for searches was, I believe, a guy called Carruthers or some similar sounding name. In any event, he was thoroughly hated by C.N. train crews and probably by his own men as well because of the uselessness and pettiness of the operation. I spent many cold winter nights sitting up in a steam engine waiting for the customs man to walk the length of our train; opening boxcar doors every fourth or fifth car looking in to see if we were smuggling cigarettes. I hope there is a place in hell for Mr. Caruthers.

Leaving Sprague, it was only another ten miles to Middlebro, which was the last Canadian station before crossing into the U.S.A. Ten more miles took us into the town of Warroad, Minnesota, on the southwest corner of Lake of the Woods. There was always an operator on duty there and when heading east it was our last stop for water. There was only thirty-five miles left to go and as we left Warroad the next little station was Swift. A few years before I started on the road, there had been a very bad head-on collision at Swift with some deaths. Swift also had a train order board, then we went up a grade to Roosevelt and Williams which both had order boards, then finally came Graceton, Pitt and Baudette. Baudette was located right on the edge of the Rainy River just across the bridge from the town of Rainy River itself. The head-end brakeman had to run in to the station and turn in some customs papers to the American Customs before we pulled slowly across the bridge back into Canada and yarded our train at Rainy River.

Often during the grain rush, we would be speeding through the night, bouncing around in the cab of a dimly lit engine with a tonnage train of grain behind us. There would be a fist full of train orders hanging from a clip on the throttle quadrant containing meets, waits, superseding orders, annulments, and run-lates on passenger trains No. 33 or No. 34, keeping us right on our toes. Often, we depended solely on our railway watch and time card to keep us out of harms way.

It was on nights like that, when the dispatcher was running four or five sections each of No. 944 and No. 946, when orders were constantly being annulled and meets changed, that you hoped like hell that the dispatcher hadn’t forgotten to annul the meet for the opposing train as well. On some occasions, the station operator has forgotten to include and order changing a meet, in with the rest of the orders to one of the trains involved. Only the watchful eye of the train crew noticing an order number missing from those numbers listed on the clearance avoided a head-on collision. Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of everyone, mistakes were made resulting in wrecks and lost lives. On occasion, wrecks resulted because of drinking prior to work or on the job.

Many times when bucking passenger train No. 33 or 34, all three of us up in the engine would be looking at our timecard and continually glancing at our watches to see if we had time to go one more station before heading-in. On those occasions (which were all too frequent) when it was nip-and-tuck and the engineer though we could make it, he would look over to us with his watch in his hand and hold his arm up indicating he intended to try it. These were the nights when you placed so much of your faith in the skill and competence of the man at the throttle. To signify our concurrence with his decision we would hold our arms up and give him a "highball" sign. Thus, over the roar inside the engine we communicated back and forth with hand signals because if anything went wrong, or if we didn’t clear the passenger train’s leaving time by five minutes, we were all held equally responsible and could all be fired.


Left Photo: L/R: Brakeman Gerry Forest, Engineman Billy McGuiness, Fireman? Engineman Gussie Right Photo: L/R: Brakemen G. Forest & Al Peden, Fireman?.Fireman Harvey McEachran. Front: Engineman Gussie.


The old (4038) and the new (4359) at the west end of the Rainy River yard in July 1956.


On those occasions when the engineer decided we couldn’t go any further and still clear the passenger train by five minutes, he would look over to his head-end brakeman and tap his head with his fingers. This would indicate that he couldn’t go any further and still clear the passenger by five minutes and that he wanted to head in at the next station. The brakeman would then button up his jacket and as soon as the engineman set the air brake, he would open his door and climb out onto a tiny ledge about three inches wide on the outside of the cab. Then, hanging on very tightly, he would grope his way past the fireman’s window and climb up onto the side of the boiler. At this point, there was a catwalk and railing to hold onto and the brakeman would then very gingerly walk along the side of the boiler clutching his lantern with the wind blowing in his ears and climb down onto the pilot on the front of the engine. When the engine had slowed down enough, he would jump off and then, with his switch key held carefully in his hand, run ahead of the engine to the switch. Very quickly, he would open the switch lock, lift up on the handle and, with a heave, throw the switch over lining the track to put his train into the siding. A "highball" with his lantern to the engineer or fireman indicated the switch was over and the points properly lined. Performing this task in daylight in the summer months was bad enough, doing it after dark in the winter months was a challenge to even the most nimble brakeman. Often the switches would freeze up in the extreme cold weather and it would take every ounce of strength you could muster to throw it over. Sometimes, the switch points were full of snow and the train would have to come to a stop while the brakeman swept the switch clear before he could throw the switch. How much easier and safer it is today when, with the big powerful diesels, the engineman brings the train to a stop and lets the brakeman walk over to the switch to throw it.

My first trip to Rainy River was on August 7th 1951, just two weeks after I had hired out. We had engine 3335 and the conductor was Graver. Oddly enough, I didn’t get called for Rainy River again for almost another year, June 21st 1952. This time I had engine 3437, the conductor was Doc Jones and the engineer was Fred Rooke. I can’t remember Doc Jones very well but know he was well liked. I do remember Fred Rooke and I worked with him frequently. Fred was a very friendly fellow; a very competent engineer who must have been in his late 50’s when I worked with him.

From June ’52 on, Rainy River was a frequent destination for me when called off the spare board. I worked with such conductors as Billedeau, Mack Hall, Percy Wardell, Bradshaw, Moffatt, Campbell, Eley, Lockhart, Les Jenkins, Arnold Proteau, McGuinnes, Dave Muckle, Drewitt, Ernie Cottom, Ramsey, Jefferies, Fenby, George Bell, Bobby Workman, Jim Portree and Bill Robertson to name but a few. Many strange incidents happened to me during my stint as a brakeman on the C.N.R. Coming back from Rainy River on an Extra one day during the winter, we had a meet on First 942at Bedford. When we arrived at Woodridge, one station before Bedford, we had a yellow order board and the operator gave us an order annulling the "meet" at Bedford and changing it instead, to Marchand. I never thought anything of it at the time; I just assumed that First 942 was late getting out of Winnipeg and that the dispatcher decided to advance us one more station for the meet to compensate for it.

When we rounded the curve west of Bedford we could see that First 942 was already at Marchand waiting for us. We could also see that there was something in the siding burning very brightly. As we got closer, we could see that it was a caboose burning and that it was almost burnt up. We had to take the siding for First 942, so we headed in on top of the burning caboose and stopped short. It was First 942’s caboose that was on fire and they had backed it into the siding and cut it off there.


Extra 6075 West, sits tied onto our train at the west end of the Rainy River yard. We were going back to Fort Rouge and waiting for the car knockers to give us our air test and for the conductor to come up with our running orders. The 6075 was a beautiful engine and road as smooth as a Cadillac. July 1956


Meeting Extra 3318 West on the double track between South Jct. and Sprague. I was braking tail-end this trip and we had a couple of flat cars ahead of the caboose, which made it handy for taking pictures. July 1956.


L/R: Fireman Harvey McEachran, tail-end brakeman Gerry Forest, and engineman Bill Leach. They were all great fellows to work with. I worked up on the head-end with Harvey and Bill on very many occasions and enjoyed every minute of their company. They were both great railroaders and Bill Leach was a top notch "Hoghead." I never worked that often with Gerry Forest but he was always easy to get along with. Gerry had the misfortune of burning their caboose down one cold winter day at Marchand when we had a meet on them. All three of the above have since died. This photo was taken on the station platform at Rainy River July 1956 after we had just arrived from Winnipeg and had had our dinner in the beanery. Harvey and Bill were just heading back to their bunkhouse and I was going back to the caboose with Gerry.


Since the caboose was almost burnt out at this point, there was little we could do except watch. I got to talking with the tail-end brakeman, Gerry Forest, and he told me how the caboose caught fire. Because it was such a bitter cold day, it seems that the drain for the wash basin froze up where it went through the floor. Gerry attempted to thaw the pipe out by holding a lighted fusee up close to the pipe where it went through the floor. Unfortunately, before the drain thawed, the insulation in the floor of the caboose caught fire and they were unable to put it out.

A short time after we arrived, the fire was extinguished and the hulk of the burnt-out caboose was moved to a backtrack so that we could get by and resume our trip. As we proceeded west of Marchand, there were chairs, mattresses, bedding and other items scattered along the right of way where Gerry and his conductor had thrown them off to save them from the fire. It was a bitter cold winter day when this accident took place and I never did learn what happed to First 942 after we left. In all probability, they shoved their train into the siding and then got orders to go back to Winnipeg with the engine.


The water tank at Carrick, Manitoba, on the C.N. Sprague, Subdivision. Taken from the caboose. Note the train following us. The operator, if he’s on duty, still hasn’t dropped the order board behind us. July 1956.



Left Photo: Myself in backyard when we lived in Slayen’s house at 152 Morley Ave., Wpg. Summer 1954. Right Photo: South Jct., Sprague Sub; brakeman from the westbound train prepares to throw the switch when our caboose is over. Note that he already has switch handle raised. Not a very safe idea!