Flagging at Elie

As I said before, I wouldn’t want to have missed the thrill of railroading during those last days of steam power for all the tea in China. Every trip seemed to be full of excitement; at least for me that seemed to be the case. There couldn’t possibly have been a more exciting occupation on a day to day basis. For example, on a return trip from Dauphin one bright summer day, I was the tail-end brakeman and everything had gone just great until we reached Elie, Manitoba around noontime.

When we left Portage la Prairie, thirty minutes or so earlier, we were given instructions to pick up some cars on the back track at Elie. When we arrived there, the conductor walked up to the head-end to give the head-end brakeman a hand switching out the cars. I stayed back on the caboose and checked the flagging can just in case I had to go flagging.

For some reason or other, the switching took a little longer than anticipated and our block (twenty minutes) leaving Portage had expired ten minutes earlier. There were no passenger trains or trains of superior class due along for several hours but another ‘extra’ train could possibly show up behind us at any time. It was my responsibility to go back 1000 yards and set down guns on both rails and be prepared to flag and stop any such train.

Although the rulebook stipulated a distance of 1000 yards in daytime for flagging, in actual practice the distance, although strictly forbidden by the rulebook, was often much shorter depending on circumstances and time of day. In this case, the village of Fortier was four miles behind us on straight track. Visibility was excellent and our tail-end could be seen for the full four miles. It was noontime and the crew of a following train would have to be awake to catch and read the orders that were hooped up to them at East Tower. The clearance on their train order form would show exactly how many minutes we were ahead of them. They would know, because of the short time we were ahead of them, that if our train stopped for any reason whatsoever they would, in all probabilities overtake us. They would be watching for just such a probability.

So, when I saw black smoke belching into the sky around the corner beyond Fortier, although I wasn’t at all concerned, I knew that I would have to flag down another train. I knew also that as soon as the other train came around the corner at Fortier, he would see our caboose and have four full miles to stop. There was no reason for concern and I walked back about 50 or 60 car lengths and put down the guns. The oncoming train was approaching me very quickly and I could tell he was still working the engine as hard as he could because the black smoke was still belching ten feet high out of the smokestack. An uneasy feeling began to creep over me as he came ever closer working his engine at full throttle. Thoughts began racing through my head as to why he could possibly be working the engine so hard when he was getting so close to our train. Surely to god they could see me; why hadn’t he shut off the throttle?

When he was out a mile from me I began waving the red flag back and forth in a leisurely manner signifying I wanted him to stop. He should have blinked his light to let me know he saw me and he most certainly should have set the air and cut the throttle. When neither happened, the uneasy feeling turned to one of panic and I began to wonder why the hell he wasn’t responding to my signal. The black smoke was still belching high out of the stack and I began swinging the flag with a furious motion. Was the whole head-end crew asleep or what the hell was wrong with them?

Finally, when I thought it was too late for him to get stopped, I saw the dust rise up along the side of the train and I knew he had soaked her (emergency stop). In a second or two the engine went past me and I recognized the engineman (will refrain from mentioning his name). He leaned out the window as he went by and held his arms out signifying ‘What am I supposed to do.’ There was a grinding of brakes and I stepped down into the ditch to watch him pile into our caboose. Fortunately, he got stopped before he hit, but from where I stood I couldn’t see daylight between the engine and our train. When I walked up to the engine, there were no more than two or three car lengths between the engine and our caboose. You can’t get it any closer than that without having a tail-end.

My nerves felt like a bowl of jelly but I climbed up on the engine to ask the hoghead why he didn’t answer my flag or stop his train sooner. He mumbled something but I can’t recall what it was. I had it on the tip of my tongue to call him every rotten, filthy name I could think of, but I had to refrain because I gave him a short flag and could be fired for having done so. The fireman and head-end brakeman never said a word but both had looks of bewilderment on their faces signifying they also couldn’t understand why their engineman hadn’t set the air much, much earlier. From the pale look on their faces, I would say that they both had just filled their pants and, in all probabilities, were getting ready to jump.

I climbed down off the engine, walked over to our caboose and climbed back onto our own train. In a matter of a few moments I noticed the air gauge in the cupola rising and then a jolt as we got underway again. I forget who my conductor was that trip, but I think it was Jack Caye. When he climbed back onto the caboose and I told him the story, he just shook his head in disbelief.

I can’t for the life of me understand why that hogger didn’t acknowledge my flag much sooner. He may have been trying to impress the fireman and then, because he was coming so fast, misjudged his distance. Whatever he had in mind just about caused a tail-end collision and could also have cost a couple of lives. So much for brakemen giving short flags, he sure scared the hell out of me!



Brother Bill books off on Christmas Eve, 1955

As luck would have it, my brother Bill booked off his regular job one Christmas Eve as tail-end brakeman (or flagman) on Train No.9, the passenger train running from Winnipeg to Kamsack, Sask. It was a brute of a night out, with a very heavy snowfall accompanied by high winds. Most of the roads leaving Winnipeg had become impassable earlier that afternoon, particularly those roads west of Winnipeg. In a frantic attempt to get home for Christmas, hundreds of people abandoned the idea of driving and flocked to the railroad stations instead. I was first out on the spare board this particular Christmas Eve and, consequently, got called to replace Bill as flagman on Train No. 9. A short, rather cocky little fellow by the name of Pete Todd was the conductor this evening. Although Pete was cocky, he seemed quite competent and was a nice guy to work with.

We were due to leave the C.N.R. station at 21:00 K (9 p.m.) but one delay after another occurred. First, several more day coaches had to be added to our train to accommodate all the extra passengers. Then, it was decided that our train was too long and would have to be split into another section. This caused a further delay and the dispatcher had to be notified so that he could change our orders to show that Train No.9 was running as First and Second section. It was after 22:00 K, over an hour late before First No. 9, the train that I was on, left the depot. This trip had all the earmarks of being a bad trip right from the beginning, particularly because of the weather conditions and the fact that I would probably have to be continually on the lookout for Second No. 9 on our tail. And since I was the flagman on First No. 9, the responsibility for protecting our tail end from being speared by Second No. 9 rested on my shoulders.

The trip from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie was uneventful but when we pulled up to the station at Portage, we sat there for what seemed like half-an-hour before we finally got moving again. The dispatcher had been busy issuing us with more orders. We were given an order showing that Second No. 9 was to run one hour late, Portage to Dauphin. Unfortunately for us, we were almost an hour-and-a-half late leaving Portage, so the run late on Second No.9 was useless and afforded us absolutely no protection whatsoever. Anytime we stopped, I would have to be prepared to go flagging post haste.

Our next stop was at Gladstone and, for some reason; we sat at the station for about ten minutes. I was quite nervous about the delay and watched constantly for the headlight of Second No. 9 to appear behind us. My nervousness was well founded because very shortly a headlight showed up at Golden Stream, one station behind us. I had the flagging can all ready to go and wasted no time getting out a sufficient distance and laying down the guns. It was a cold, black winter night but I never noticed it. My mind was totally absorbed in the task at hand, namely, getting the oncoming speeding train stopped. Unless you have ever stood at the side of a track out in the middle of nowhere, and flagged down an oncoming train with a red flag or fusee, it’s hard to appreciate the feelings of the man doing the flagging. In daylight, you have this big black beast belching smoke and roaring towards you. After dark, the approaching headlight gets brighter and brighter and, until he blinks his headlight, you wonder if you are going to be able to get that big black brute stopped.

I cracked a red fusee this evening as soon as I had placed the guns down and, as the headlight got brighter and brighter, I began giving him a stop signal with the lighted fusee. On such a black night the fusee could be seen for miles and the engineer of Second No. 9 (unlike Engineman Riemer on a previous occasion), blinked his headlight almost immediately to signify that he saw me. In a matter of seconds, the engine of Second No. 9 had pulled up and stopped beside me, allowing me to climb up into the cab. I told the engineer to watch for our tail-end at the Gladstone station and we then pulled ahead at a much-reduced speed.

As we approached the station at Gladstone it was obvious that First No. 9 had departed and left me behind. According to the Uniform Code of Operating Rules, First No. 9 could only proceed one station further without a flagman and so, when Second No. 9 left Gladstone, I stayed up on the engine and rode over to the next station, which was Ogilvie. I fully expected my train to be stopped there waiting for my arrival. But First No. 9 was not there either. And since Second No. 9 had no passengers or freight for the village of Ogilvie, we didn’t even stop, we carried on one station further, to the town of Plumas.

Plumas was a regular stop for Train No. 9 so I fully expected that my train would be there waiting for me. No such luck! Pete Todd had decided to go all the way to Dauphin without a flagman. Leaving Plumas I went back and rode in the front day coach. Unfortunately, the collar of the white shirt I had been wearing with my trainman’s uniform was now a dirty grey colour from the coal dust up in the engine. On arrival at Dauphin, I did catch up with First No. 9 and I met Pete Todd on the station platform. He gave me a big smile and said something about being happy that I had caught up. How he squared with his conscience or the rulebook, the fact that he had gone over 80 miles without a flagman, I’ll never know. But the important thing for the moment, as far as I was concerned, was that I had finally caught up and took up my position as flagman at the rear of First No. 9 for the rest of the trip to Kamsack.

The balance of that Christmas Eve trip in 1955 went without any further problems. We arrived at Kamsack about 8:00 a.m. on Christmas morning After sleeping in the local hotel until late Christmas afternoon, we wandered over to the restaurant to see what they were offering up for Christmas dinner. They did have turkey dinner on the menu, but it was a far cry from the turkey dinners I was accustomed to at home. And, as I sat in the restaurant at Kamsack, I couldn’t help wondering if my brother Bill was enjoying his Christmas dinner back home.

We boarded Train No. 10 at 21:00K on Christmas night and arrived home about 8:00 a.m. on the morning of December 26th. This was a typical Christmas for me during the time I worked for the C.N.R.



Memories of Gladstone, Manitoba

It didn’t take me long after I hired out as a brakeman to realize that there were good hogheads and bad hogheads. When I first climbed up on the engine as it backed off the shop track, with certain hogheads I knew that there was no situation that could arise during our trip that they would not be capable of handling safely. Other hogheads were in trouble all the time for rule violations of one sort or another. Some hogheads could handle the automatic brake valve with perfection and bring a 5000-ton train to a stop, virtually on a dime. Other hogheads never could seem to get a feel for that automatic brake valve and were forever having to shunt backwards and forewords at water tanks and switches. Some hogheads seemed to have a reputation for pulling drawbars and knuckles.

Returning from Dauphin late one summer afternoon in a 3500 class engine pulling approximately 70 cars of grain, we were approaching Gladstone at a pretty good speed. Our engineman set the air brake and we slowed down to about 25 m.p.h. crossing the C.P.R. diamond at the west side of Gladstone. He then kicked off the brakes and we continued on at a slower pace. As we approached the railway crossing at the centre of town, which is a blind crossing for vehicles heading north, we were still going too fast. Our engineer made another heavy application of the brakes and when he felt them taking hold and slowing us down, he kicked them off again. Because of the fact that we were approaching the main crossing in town a little too fast, I was watching him very closely. Only a few seconds after having kicked off the brakes, to my horror I saw him reach for the throttle and widen on it substantially. I knew that enough time had elapsed to pump off the brakes on only about the first 20 or 30 cars and that the brakes were still firmly applied to the balance of the train. This was a sure-fire recipe to pull a drawbar or break a knuckle.

Only a few seconds passed when the engine lurched ahead momentarily and then came to a grinding stop. I knew instantly that my worst fears had been realized. I knew that our engineman’s sudden application of power to a train with only the brakes on the lead cars pumped off, was about to cause us grave problems. And, as it turned out, my worst fears were fully justified.

I climbed down off the engine and as I began to walk back to see what the trouble was, I could see a pile of grain lying on the ground about 20 cars back. I thought to myself that this was going to be a real disaster to fix because the end of a boxcar had obviously been torn open. It turned out that when the draw bar was pulled loose, it tore a large opening across the back end of the boxcar allowing the grain to spill out onto the track. Fortunately, the damaged drawbar was on the trailing end of the boxcar so it was not necessary to use chains to pull it away. I turned the angle cock so that our hogger could pump off the brakes on the lead cars and then we pulled ahead and shoved the damaged car into the backtrack. On coming back to our train, it was necessary for me to shovel a huge mound of grain off the centre of the track before we could make the joint and connect the air hoses.

I don’t know how many demerit points our engineman got for that little episode but I’ll bet it was quite a few. Our conductor would be required to fill out a Form 3903 Accident Report covering the damage to the boxcar. And just to make matters a little worse for our engineer, I think the tail end of our train was over the diamond and had the C.P. line to Minnedosa tied up for about an hour before we got underway again.



Gumbo on the rail

Railroading on the prairies had another problem which cropped up from time to time. It was referred to as ‘Gumbo’ on the rail. Because of the miles of open prairie, much of it sitting plowed and bare at certain time of the year, the topsoil would blow across the tracks every time the wind began to blow. After a short period of this, enough topsoil adhered to the surface of the rail to cause the drivers of a locomotive to begin to slip. It was a weird sensation up in the engine when this happened. The engine would be running along at full speed and then, all of a sudden, the drivers would slip once or twice. This caused the drivers to speed up momentarily, which in turn caused the engine to sway form side to side. A second or two later, the drivers would slip again and the swaying process took place again. If this only happened once or twice it was ok, but if it happened frequently or continuously, the train began to slow down very rapidly.

The most memorable occasion of gumbo on the rail that I can remember occurred one day when we were returning from Dauphin. Bill Leach, a top-notch engineman was running the engine and we were intending to meet Train No. 11, the passenger train to Churchill, at Glencairn. When we went by Neepawa Jct. we had ample time to go to Glencairn and head in. But half way over we began hitting gumbo on the rail. Just a little bit at first, but after a mile or two the gumbo was continuous and our speed dropped rapidly from 50 m.p.h. to about 20 m.p.h. It became obvious very quickly that we would not have enough time to get to Glencairn for the passenger train and unless we did something pretty quick, we were going to be caught between stations. Bill set the air and brought the train to a stop. I cut the engine off and we ran with the light engine over to Glencairn where I stayed to flag No. 11. Our engine ran back and tied onto our train and dragged it at a very reduced speed into the siding at Glencairn. In the meantime, I had flagged No. 11 and had the switch lined for the siding so our train could head right in. We laid No. 11 out about 15 minutes but that wasn’t bad considering the problems we had encountered.



House on the track

During the period of time I worked on the C.N.R. I experienced many strange situations. But I guess the strangest of all was the time when we were returning from Brandon one afternoon and came across what appeared to be a house sitting in the middle of the track in front of us. This was no small shed, but a good-sized bungalow. We had just come around a corner west of Edwin, which is about eight miles west of Portage la Prairie and there, about a mile ahead of us was this house sitting right across the middle of the track.

We had a 6000 class engine that day and were moving along at a pretty good speed with a tonnage train of grain. All three of us up in the engine took a second look to make sure our eyes weren’t playing tricks on us. But there were no tricks. There on the track was a house and it appeared to be sitting stationary. The engineer didn’t need any prompting; he grabbed the automatic brake valve and put her in the ‘big hole.’ A cloud of dust blew up along the sides of the boxcars for the full length of the train as the air reservoirs dumped their load, bringing the brake shoes up hard against the wheels. The surging effect of the brakes on the boxcars behind us could be felt almost immediately, but we had already decreased our distance to half-a-mile and were only just beginning to slow down. All eyes were now focused ahead on the house in front of us. As our speed rapidly decreased, so did the distance between us and the house and we thought for a few seconds that we were going to go right through it. We came to a grinding stop about 100 yards short of the railway crossing where the house was sitting. A large truck was attached to a low bed and had been attempting to pull the house across the track but must have got hung up on something.

At this point we couldn’t see who the truck belonged to and as we sat pumping off the brakes, the house began to move, ever so slowly. In a short while it was off the track and being pulled up a slight rise in the road. We now had the brakes pumped off and were pulling over the crossing that had only moments before been blocked by the house. I walked over to the engineer’s side of the cab to look out the doorway and, to my amazement, the sign on the door of the truck said ‘Jim Meseyton.’ I used to go to school with Jim in grade one and two when I lived in Portage during the 1930’s. I don’t know if Jim was actually driving the truck, but who ever was driving must have got one hell of a scare seeing a freight train coming around the corner hell bent for leather. We all had visions of that house being turned into kindling. And I’ll bet the next time Jim decides to pull a house across a railway track, he checks with the dispatcher to make sure no trains will be coming along.



C.P.R Diamond at St. James

Burnt journals (axles burnt off), were a notorious cause of train wrecks before they developed roller bearings for the axles on boxcars. Previously they used brass bushings lubricated with oil soaked waste stuffed into a journal box. As the axle rotated overtop the oily waste, it was lubricated and it passed this lubrication on to the brass bushing on the topside of the axle where the weight of the boxcar rested. This was a reasonably good method of lubricating the axle and bushing but it did have its drawbacks.

First of all, it took a lot of ‘car knockers’ working in the yards to check the journals of every train before it left town. These car knockers would open every journal and add a shot of oil and check to make sure there was enough oily waste in each journal box to provide lubrication. But in cold weather, the oil in the journal box became quite thick and lubrication was poor until the heat from the axle warmed up the oil and waste. On countless occasions during extreme cold weather, the axle would overheat before the oily waste became warm enough to provide proper lubrication and then the journal caught on fire. This condition was referred to as a ‘hotbox’ and if it wasn’t noticed in time by the train crew, the journal (axle) would burn off and a train wreck would ensue.

This is what happed on a return trip from Dauphin with Conductor Gordon Thompson. I was the head-end brakeman and as we passed over the C.P.R.Diamond at St. James, a burnt journal, about 26 cars behind the engine dropped down causing three cars to derail.


L/R: Head-end brakeman Al Peden, Conductor Gordon Thompson and Engineman Wally Chatterly. Crossing the C.P.R. Diamond at St. James caused the burnt journal to drop. Spring 1957.



L/R: Conductor Gordon Thompson, Fireman Bird and Engineman Wally Chatterly. We had a ‘ hot box’ 26 cars behind the engine which we were unable to detect resulting in a burnt journal. As we passed over the C.P. Diamond at St. James the jarring caused it to drop resulting in three cars in the bush. This photo was taken in spring of 1957. Wally Chatterly died quite a few years ago.



The Beach Train

During the summer months the beach train running from Winnipeg to Grand and Victoria Beach was very popular with the general public. The roads still weren’t all that great so every weekend people flocked to the station by the hundreds to ride out on the train. The average ‘Beach Train’ had about seven or eight day coaches plus the baggage car, so there were quite a few passenger on board. And if my memory serves me correctly, the beach trains were extra trains and consequently the crews to man them were called from the spare board. In any case, if my name was close to top of the spare board on a Friday or Saturday afternoon, I always seemed to get called for the Beach Train. It wasn’t a bad job and you got to spend a lot of time at Victoria Beach, but the pay wasn’t all that good because it was a short trip and sometimes you didn’t come home till the following evening.

I was the tail-end brakeman on one particular Sunday evening and had just spent a most enjoyable afternoon at Victoria Beach. On the homeward journey, we backed our train into the station at Grand Beach and took on another load of passengers anxious to get home for work the following morning. As our train left Grand Beach, I was on the tail end and began walking forward closing doors. All of a sudden, the train made an emergency stop and I shoved my head out the vestibule door on the engineer’s side and looked forward to see what had gone wrong.

The C.N. cop was standing on the ground at the head coach and when he saw me looking, gave me a frantic motion to come to him quickly. I jumped on the ground and ran forward and when I got there, a man was lying under the wheels of the first coach with both of his legs off. The cop and I pulled the man out from under and he was a ghastly white colour and just barely conscious. I believe he died from loss of blood and shock within seconds of having been pulled out from under the train. In any event, he was dead before we got him loaded onto the baggage car on a stretcher. Fortunately for the train crew, a doctor was riding on the first coach and took over from the cop and me almost as soon as we had pulled him out from under. The conductor then ordered me to run over to the grocery store, only a hundred yards away, and get a box to put his legs in. It was a sickening feeling explaining to the grocer what I needed the box for. In any event, I was back with a large cardboard box within a couple of minutes and the gruesome chore of loading up the unfortunate man’s legs was performed by the doctor. An ambulance had already been ordered to meet the train at East Selkirk and when we arrived there, the body was transferred to the ambulance.

I can’t recall the unfortunate man’s name but he was about sixty years old and was a C.N. employee wanting to return to the city for work the following morning. He was late catching the train and, as he came running towards the train on the engineers side, the door was open on the first day coach. We were only going about 15 m.p.h. but when he grabbed onto the grab iron, it threw him under the train. It was a terrible way to end a summer weekend, not only for the unfortunate accident victim but for all involved.

Left Photo: Trainman Charlie Berthlette at Victoria Beach, standing beside one of the old wooden day coaches used on the beach trains. Right Photo:More trainmen at Victoria Beach in the early ‘50’s. L/R: Jake Armsrtong, Mike Linton and Bill Peden. Photo: Bill Peden.