A memorable tail-end trip with Conductor Tom Landry

A conductor that I enjoyed working with on the Rainy River end was Tom Landry. Tom had spent many years working on the mainline out of Sioux Lookout and then moved into Winnipeg to work on the Sprague Subdivision running from Fort Rouge to Rainy River. During his career as a brakeman and conductor on the mainline, Tom had many harrowing experiences and his nerves occasionally showed it. To calm his nerves, Tom wasn’t above taking a drink of wine now and then.

On the evening of Dec. 17th 1955, the mercury had dipped to -30 F. It was the sort of evening when most people in their right mind, with the exception of railroaders, that is, stay cuddled up in front of the fireplace reading a good book. Outside this evening the snow was being whipped up into huge drifts by a bitter cold 30 m.p.h. wind from the northwest. I was braking tail-end that evening for Tom Landry and instead of being nice and cozy at home, Tom and I were in a drafty old caboose headed for Rainy River. We had a very short train of only four or five cars, practically a caboose hop, in railroad parlance. And we were running as a time card freight, Second 946 to be exact. With such a small, light train, we were expecting a relatively fast and uneventful trip, in spite of the abominable weather conditions prevailing at the time.

Leaving Winnipeg, the dispatcher had given us a meet on a westbound Extra at Marchand, a small community located about thirty-eight miles southeast of Winnipeg. On arrival at Ste. Anne, the order board was yellow and he dispatcher changed our meet on the Extra from Marchand to Bedford, one station further to the east, on the westerly edge of the Sandilands Provincial Forest. There’s a steep rise in elevation between Marchand and Bedford, but because of our light train we were travelling very fast. About a mile or so before reaching Bedford, the track takes a sharp turn to the right and as we approached this curve we heard the air whistle in the caboose give a short blast, indicating that the engineer had set the air brakes. Tom and I were seated up in the dark cupola at the time and we immediately shone our lanterns at the air gauge to see how much air had been taken off and how big a brake application was being made. Instead of reading about 75 p.s.i. which would indicate a small application of the brakes, the gauge read zero, indicating that the engineer had put the train into emergency stop. Alarm bells began ringing in our heads and the first thing that came to mind was the distinct possibility that the dispatcher had forgotten to give the other train the change of meet, from Marchand to Bedford. If this was, in fact the case, then we might be about to have a head-on collision with the westbound train. The other possibility was that because of our small train and because it was such a bitter cold night, the train went into emergency stop accidentally when the engineer made a small application of the air to slow us down on approaching Bedford.

Although not an uncommon occurrence, the combination of a short train and very cold temperature occasionally results in a full emergency application when attempting to make only a small application of the air brakes. But two other factors weighed heavily in what was about to transpire. The first was the change of meet from Marchand to Bedford, and the second was the very strong northwesterly wind blowing at the time.

On discovering that the train was making an emergency stop, Tom and I jumped down from the cupola, and ran to the back door and out of the caboose without bothering to don our parkas. As we peered forward to the front of the train we had slowed down to about fifteen or twenty miles per hour. What we saw, or thought we saw, threw the fear of Christ into us.

Besides the sparks from the brake shoes on the wheels and the snow flying up alongside the train, the headlight of an approaching train appeared to be looming directly in front of our engine. Tom let a yell out of him to jump and I didn’t need any coaxing. We both bailed off the caboose, dressed in nothing more than our shirt sleeves, into the freezing winter night. Upon landing in the snow at the side of the track we got a better view of the impending situation. We discovered, to our immense relief, that what we thought was the headlight of an oncoming train was, in fact, only the reflection of our own headlight on the white smoke coming from our engine and which the strong northwesterly wind was now blowing in front of our own headlight as we slowed down. It looked for all the world like the headlight of an oncoming engine. If somebody had told me that smoke wafting in front of a headlight could appear like the headlight of an oncoming engine, I would have been very skeptical, to say the least. But in our particular situation, with only a second to or two to make up your mind whether to jump, or become part of the wreck, I’d do the same thing again. So would anybody else who had the slightest aspiration of living long enough to collect his pension.

Engine 6075 making its first trip out of the backshop after being completely rebuilt, ties onto the caboose at Dauphin. It looked like a beautiful, brand new engine, and indeed it was. Even the cab had been redone with new black leather upholstory. For some unknown reason they removed the bullet nose, shown in a previous photo, during the rebuild, probably to save a few bucks. What a magnificent engine it was, I wish it were still running. October 16th 1958.

 

 

Engine 6075 pulling Train No. 11 at Portage la Prairie, January 1959. The bullet nose has been removed.

 

As our train ground to a halt, we ran forward a few car lengths in the dark that separated us from our train and climbed back, half frozen, onto the caboose. I gave the engineer a highball with my lantern and immediately our train pulled away without any acknowledgement on the whistle. We met the westbound Extra at Bedford as per our running orders and then proceeded on to Rainy River with no further problems.

It wasn’t until after we had yarded our train and the engine was on the shop track at Rainy River that I bumped into our engineer as he was walking into the station restaurant. We sat down and had coffee and as I related the harrowing story of our jump from the caboose, a look of incredulity appeared on his face. He said to me in a strange voice, "You what!" Again I repeated that Tom and I had bailed off the caboose. He shook his head in wonderment and said, "Jesus Christ, I didn’t know you guys were off the caboose. I never even looked back before I pulled away!" I said, "You mean you never saw me give you a ‘highball’ after we got on the caboose?" He replied again, "I never thought you guys would be off the caboose, I never even looked back."

It was now my turn to look incredulous, as the realization set in, that we might have frozen to death in that bitter cold wind before they realized we were missing. But such were the thrills of railroading. I filed that "headlight experience" in the back of my memory, but I never forgot it.

 

Another "Headlight Experience"

Another thrilling ride I had was when I was a head-end brakeman on a trip to Brandon early one summer evening. I can’t remember who the crew were other than that Bob Ireland was the tail-end brakeman. The engineman this evening, was a young fellow who hadn’t had all that much experience running an engine on the road but who liked to go like hell, regardless of what the track speed was. We had a 6000 class engine and about seventy grain empties this evening and, given the slightest bit of encouragement from the engineer, it would run like a scared deer. I loved to travel like this too, but at certain points, like over slow orders or in yard limits, I liked to feel that we could abide by that wise rule in the Uniform Code of Operating Rules about being able to stop in one half the range of vision.

As we approached yard limits at Brandon Junction, which was about fourty miles east of the city of Brandon, the sun had set and dusk had set in. We were going hell bent for leather around a curve to he left and into yard limits and I was watching ahead to make sure the track was clear. The engineman could not see ahead because the track curved to the left and the length of the boiler impeded his vision. In particular, I was watching to make sure that no other train had come off the branch line and was on our mainline.

Suddenly, a headlight appeared coming around the curve on the track and my heart literally stopped. I looked over to the engineer and yelled as loud as I could. "Soak her!" (Railroad parlance for an emergency stop). The engineer looked startled and yelled back to me, "What!"

I yelled a second time, in high-pitched horror, "Soak the bloody thing!"

There wasn’t any further instructions required, the engineer could hear the horror in my voice and grabbed the automatic brake valve and pulled it over into emergency stop. No sooner had the engineer ‘soaked her,’ than the headlight that had scared the Jesus out of me, disappeared. By the time the engineer had run over to my side of the cab to see what was on the track, the headlight was gone and the track was clear in front of us. We came to a grinding halt in very short order as the brakes on all the empty boxcars grabbed hold. The engineer began to berate me for telling him to ‘soak her’ but stopped in mid sentence. "No Al", he said, "It’s my own fault, I was going too bloody fast in yard limits!"

What I thought was the headlight of an oncoming engine was nothing more than a car approaching us on the dirt road that was elevated somewhat alongside the track. The car had one headlight burnt out and so it looked for all the world like an approaching engine. And because we were on a curve, it appeared to be on our track. It turned off and went south after a few moments, but not before it had caused me to have an impromptu bowel movement and yell "Soak Her."

Back in the tail-end, as all this was happening, Bob Ireland and the conductor were just sitting down to the table to eat their evening meal when the brake whistle went and the train came to a sudden, grinding halt. The caboose pitched forward, Bob and the conductor were almost thrown out of their chairs and their evening meal was thrown to the floor breaking the dishes. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most popular head-end brakeman with the tail-end crew when they learned why the train had gone into emergency and why their evening meal landed on the floor. I spoke to Bob Ireland only a few months ago and he still remembers that trip very vividly. So do I!

 

Conductor Terry McSpadden

 

Terry McSpadden was a tall handsome man about six foot two inches in height with a wonderful sparkling personality. And he was a top notch conductor with whom I had the pleasure of working on a number of occasions. I never had enough seniority to go braking with a regular crew, but when I got called off the spare board for a trip with Terry, I knew that it just had to be an enjoyable trip.

On my first trip with Terry, he and I headed over to the beverage room in the King’s Hotel in Dauphin on a particularly long layover there. There was no where else to go, there were no bunkhouses in them days where we could read or watch TV, we all slept in the caboose. And if one member of the crew was sleeping, as was the case on this trip, we had to go somewhere else to entertain ourselves. And there were very few places we could go in the evening, other than to the beer parlor.

On this particular occasion, the crew office had told us that we wouldn’t be getting called before morning, so Terry and I headed over for a beer. We sat and swapped stories for awhile but then, for some reason, Terry’s appearance seemed to have changed. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but he saw me glancing out of the corner of my eye at him on several occasions with a rather puzzled look on my face. Finally, Terry could contain himself no longer and he broke out laughing, displaying a mouthful of gums; no pearly white teeth like he had had only a few minutes before. When I wasn’t looking, Terry had slipped his false teeth out and put them into his pocket. This caused his facial appearance to change slightly and his speech to change a little too. And this in turn caused the questioning look to appear on my face. But this was Terry, full of fun. If there was no fun, he’d make his own, even if it meant doing something as crazy as slipping out his false teeth to play a joke on the spare board brakeman.

So it came as a terrible shock when the news of his tragic death appeared in the daily paper. I had long since left the employment of the C.N.R. and was now working as an instrument mechanic in the paper mill at Pine Falls when the accident occurred. I learned much later through talking with my brother Bill, some rumors he had heard as to how the accident happened.

It seems that Terry was shoving some cars around the ‘Y’ at Rose Isle after dark one evening. He was riding on top of a boxcar so as to be better able to see the track and to give signals to the engineer with his lantern. In the darkness of the night, what Terry didn’t see was the branch of an overhanging tree and as his boxcar passed by it, it knocked him off. Terry fell between the moving cars, was run over and killed instantly.

What an unfortunate end to such a warm , friendly person. Whenever the old ‘rails’ sit down to talk over old times, Terry will be remembered fondly.

 

Left Photo: L/R: Engineman Steve ‘One Round’ Nelson and Conductor George Henderson on a work train at Sandy Lake, Man., on the Rossburn Sub. Right Photo: Myself, taking water for the fireman on engine 1347, at Indian Springs, just west of Swan Lake, Manitoba, July 9, 1958

 

Fireman Kalanuk on a 3300 class engine on a night trip to Brandon, summer 1953.

 

 

Left Photo: Engine 3224 at Dauphin, with Conductor Charlie Mayor Aug.20, 1954. Right Photo: L/R: Fireman Archie Watson standing in doorway, Engineman Mervin Flack, Rainey River, Ont.

 

 

Engine 6079 in the ‘B’ yard at Fort Rouge, tied on and ready to go. Looks like the conductor has just arrived with the orders. Late 1950’s.

 

Left Photo: Master Mechanic Sam Payne at Lake Francis, directing picking up of cars Uncle Fred dropped.December 16th, 1958. Right Photo: Conductor Alfie Colbert on a trip to Brandon. George Livingston was on the tail-end. Alfie was a great guy; treated me like a son. July 27, 1956.

 

Engineman Vince Glendenning stands at the front of our engine in the ‘B’ yard at Fort Rouge prior to a trip to Dauphin. The fireman is looking out the window, looks like the air test has just been completed, and the white flags are displayed.