Swift Current Station in the 1950s
I arrived at Swift Current, Saskatchewan on the advertised (the scheduled arrival time of a passenger train) at 21:10. I walked over to the bunkhouse, marked up on the board and went to bed for the evening. At 05:00 in the morning there was a knock on my door, the bunkhouse attendant turned on the light and left my call slip on the dresser. I lay in bed for a while, and finally got up and read the call slip. I was called as the head end brakeman for the Burstall Wayfreight at 07:00 the crew was Harold Hegland, Conductor, Charlie Mock, tail end brakeman, and Pat Hay, Locomotive Engineer our power was two General Motors 1500 horsepower Jeeps (railway slang for GP units, or General Purpose) these were classed by CPR as DRS-15e (Diesel Road Switcher-1500 hp-class “e”) I met the crew and the bunkhouse kitchen, where we had breakfast and then went over to the station to book out, get our paperwork, radios, and train orders. We looked over our switch list, and made plans put our train together in the yard, we have had at least two hours switching before we would be ready to depart on the Empress Subdivision. Pat and I went over to the shop track, and checked the locomotives over to see they properly supplied, we tested our radio equipment with the other crew members, and left the shop track to go switch out our caboose from the caboose storage track.
Postcard view of CPR Swift Current Yard.
There were about half a dozen cabooses stored at Swift Current, our caboose for the branch line was an old one built about 1911, it had a coal stove for heat and cooking, and an ice box, no toilet facilities, and coal oil lamps for markers and illumination, along with one Coleman kerosene lantern for illuminating the conductor’s table. These cabooses were pretty primitive; originally they had “V” joint exterior finishing that did not provide much insulation. There was bedding for the conductor, and two brakemen, the mattresses were piled up on the conductor’s bed during the day, and at night-time there were two wooden bench seats, with storage space underneath, that ran along the wall, one was used for supplies such as extra knuckles, wrecking cables, and track tools, the one closest to the caboose stove was used for storing coal for the fire. At night time these bench seats were folded down flat, and the mattresses, and bedding for the brakemen could be made up, the tail end slept in the far corner, and the head end brakeman slept next to the stove, which was pretty warm on the feet, but seniority rules. In this case I was spared this experience, as the engineer slept in a sectionmens shanty at Burstall it was oil heated and had a bedroom with two beds that I stayed in. During World War II the CPR refurbished the cabooses, and covered the outside with plywood that help keep them a little warmer. They were a far cry from the modern pool through cabooses built in the 1960s that were used on the mainline, they were equipped with chemical toilets, fuel oil heated stoves on each end, diesel powered generators that provided electricity for the markers, electric stove, and refrigerator, along with couplers that had shock absorbers that made them much smoother to ride in. The slack action on a 100 car train with the foot of movement between each car can be pretty brutal on the tail end when it runs in and out unexpectedly, and you’re not prepared for it.
We set our caboose over to the lead, then went about digging out cars for our train from the different yard tracks where they were located, as we did this we marshalled our cars groups, potash hoppers for the potash plant at Ingebright Lake next to the caboose, butane and propane tank cars for the Pacific 66 Petroleum plant at McNeill, and any short hauls that included some maintenance of way material cars for the roadmaster at Leader, Saskatchewan. This took us about two hours, as there were no Carmen working the yard at Swift Current, we were responsible for coupling up all the air hoses on our train, and doing our own No.1 Brake test, to make sure that all the air brakes on our train were operative, we had a hold of about 90 cars, and when we had finished coupling up all the air hoses, I cut the air in from the locomotives to the brake pipe, seeing that it was winter conditions it took a while for the air pressure to rise to 75 PSI in the caboose, which was enough to make a brake test. This took about 30 minutes, a chance to have a coffee break, the engineer and I poured some coffee from our thermoses on the locomotives, while the tail end crew did the same on the caboose. When the air pressure on the tail end had risen sufficiently the conductor radioed us that he had 75 PSI back there, and it was okay to set up the air for the brake test, the engineer applied the train brake with the handle on his control stand, and when the conductor called and said that the brakes had applied on the caboose, I proceeded to walk down the train from the head end, and the tail end did the same from the caboose. I checked each car to see if the piston from the air brake cylinder had pushed out to apply the brakes, also checking for any hand brakes that were still applied, and any other defects, when I met the tail end brakeman Charlie halfway down the train we radioed the locomotive engineer that it was okay to release the air brakes, you could hear the air pumping through the train line and the pistons started to retract into the air brake cylinders, I once again checked each car to see the brakes had fully released while Charlie did the same. Arriving at the head end, I called caboose and told them that everything was okay on my end, Charlie replied the same. The conductor than radioed the operator at Swift Current to let them know that we were ready to leave town for the Empress Subdivision, the Operator came back and said that it was okay with the train dispatcher for us to leave Swift Current.
We proceeded westward to Java where we had a signal indication that took us up to an electric lock switch that took us from the Maple Creek Subdivision to the Empress Subdivision, I had to get out of the locomotive and check the metal box on the ground on top of the switch mechanism and look for a white light this allowed me to line the switch for the Empress Subdivision, I did this and gave Pat the engineer a hand signal to proceed, we pulled up and the tail end radioed to slow down so they could restore the electric lock switch and we left Swift Current at 10:11. We ran Westward on the schedule of Forth Class 75 a daily freight scheduled westward from Java at 05:00 arriving at Leader, Saskatchewan at 08:30 a distance of 88.2 miles, the Empress Subdivision ended at Empress at mile 111.8.
There were 14 stations between Cantuar, and Leader many with elevator tracks as this was good farming country, in order they were Success, Pennant, Wickett (that was a junction with the Pennant Subdivision another elevator branch line) Battrum, Cabri, Shackleton, Abbey, Lancer, Portreeve, Lemsford, Scepter, and Prelate. Between Battrum and Cabri at mileage 30.1 was the Grant Spur a 6 Mile length of track that serviced another potash plant. With no work to do until we arrived at Leader we made fairly good time going track speed at 30 miles an hour most of the way with the exception of a few slow orders and arrived at 13:40. All the work switching the elevators was looked after by another assignment called the Grain Train that worked mostly at night. We stopped for lunch going over to the hotel in Leader that served a good Chinese buffet luncheon, after lunch we went to the station at Leader and talked to the operator Arthur Lannon, to see if there was any other switching required at Leader besides the maintenance of way roadmaster cars we had on our head end, he said no that was all we had to do there. The Leader station was like going back in time, in the cold winter weather Arthur had the cast-iron stations stove in the waiting room fired up nicely which was a nice refuge from the cold outside, he looked like an old-time operator from the past, smoking his pipe, and wearing an old high collared shirt with vest gold chain pocket watch, and black arm sleeves, and slicked back black hair, with the exception of the modern telephone lines, it looked like nothing had changed around the Leader station since it was built around 1918. Arthur was typing out our train orders, on his ancient CPR Underwood typewriter, so we could depart Leader and continue our trip on the Burstall Subdivision to our terminating station at Burstall.
With our new orders we ran Southward on the schedule of Fourth Class freight No.70 that was scheduled to run from Leader to Burstall on Mondays and Wednesdays departing 12:01 and arriving at Burstall at 13:10. We covered the 25 miles, going through the community of Mendham, and Gascoigne where there was an abandoned elevator arriving at Burstall at 16:33, we had been on duty now for nine and a half-hours, but our days work was far from done. We still had a hold of 85 cars which had to be switched out at Burstall there was an elevator track, and two siding tracks that were used for storage, we switched out our potash cars to one track, and some of the extra petroleum tank cars we didn’t need to the other siding, we stopped for a supper break and then we went a mile south to the McNeill Spur with the LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) cars we needed for the Pacific Petroleum plant at Empress, the plant was built in the early 1970s on the Alberta Saskatchewan border a delivery point to the TransCanada transmission line for political and infrastructure reasons, politically Alberta wanted value to be added inside provincial borders, so it made sense to extract the LPG before sending the dry gas methane into the export market.
We were working in Yard Limits, (Definition “That portion of the main track or main tracks within limits defined by yard limit signs”) UCOR Rule further states “Within yard limits the main track may be used clearing the time of first and second class trains at the next station where time is shown. Protection against third class, fourth class, extra trains and engines is not required” so we needed no authority, to do our work, at McNeill there was a wye and we did some more switching to get the cars in proper order for loading in the Empress plant, we then shoved our tank cars the 5.41 miles down the spur to the plant we had a hold of 48 cars enough for two complete spots for loading in the plant, outside the gates into the plant there were three run around tracks designated as the main track andMcNeill 1,2, they were all empty and we filled up track 1 with 24 cars, and the main track with the remainder, and ran down the clear track McNeill 2 to the gates outside of the plant where we were still in Saskatchewan, when we opened the gates and went into the plant we were now in Alberta. The loading racks in the plant were designated South and North Track and each held 12 LPG cars on spot, our list said that they were all loaded and ready to pull, we checked to make sure the blue flags were down, and we removed the derails, coupled on and cut the air through, we doubled the loads together, we then pulled them up into track 2, secured them with hand brakes, cut off, and tied down to the LPG cars for spotting on the main track, we then pushed them into the plant and spotted them on the South and North loading tracks, we put the derails back on, locked the gates and returned to Burstall to tie up for the night at 23:15 being on duty 16 hours and 15 minutes. I have no trouble sleeping that night.
The Assiniboia Hotel, Medicine Hat, my room was on the second floor in the middle, facing N. Railway St. and the Medicine Hat CPR yard
Finding accommodations in Medicine Hat in the winter of 1973 was not easy, there was a boom going on at the time with lots of construction projects building fertilizer, and petrochemical plants in the area, due to the availability of large natural gas resources. The city of Medicine Hat sat physically on top of a huge gas field, the author Rudyard Kipling had visited Medicine Hat in the early 20th century and named it “The city with hell for its basement”. This utility owned by the city was available at reasonable prices that encouraged industrial development. I checked the local newspaper for a rental apartments available, there wasn’t very much, I checked out one listing in a tenement on 4th Street that was owned by the local hardware store owner Harry Veiner who store was across 3rd Street three doors up from my hotel. Harry was a real character and local legend, at one time he was the mayor of Medicine Hat, anyways I talked to him about this rental apartment he had for rent, he said come with me and I will show it to you, we walked over one block to the southwest corner of 4th street, where there was a rundown three-story redbrick building, we went in the front door and he opened the door to the suite on the main floor, I wasn’t very impressed at the squalor inside, all the paint was peeling off of the walls, and ceilings, and it smelled pretty bad. He told me he wanted $400 a month for rent, and that he would even throw in a couple of gallons of paint for free, I decided to stay in the hotel, and look around some more when I had a chance.
The Medicine Hat Spareboard covers both road and yard assignments in the terminal, the usual procedure was after working a road trip you would be subject to work a yard if needed, before making another road trip. Seeing that it was the weekend, and the spare board moves very quickly I booked a little rest, and was called out that evening as a helper on a 23:00 yard with Foreman Richard Ressler. I had my two hour call so it gave me lots of time to go down to the restaurant in the basement of the Assiniboia Hotel for something to eat before I went to work, I also ordered a sandwich to take out for my lunch. It was only a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the CPR station where the yard crews worked out of. Outside of the hotel across the intersection of South Railway Street there was a concrete lined pedestrian underpass that had ramps on both sides that went underneath the railway yard emerging on North Railway Street two blocks west of the station. It was well lit and kept fairly clean, but there was always a strong smell of urine, probably from the derelicts and the patrons traveling between the hotel beer parlors that were on both sides of the tracks.
Photo of the East End of Medicine Hat’s CPR station, showing entrance to yardmen’s lunchroom.
Working in the yard in Medicine Hat was quite a difference from Calgary where we would have 45 minutes coffee breaks, one hour for lunch, and go home anywhere from 1 to 2 hours early when the work was all completed. In Medicine Hat we went out in switched from 23:00 until 01:00 and took 15 minutes for our coffee break in the yardmen’s lunchroom located on the main floor at the east end of the station, we then switched on until 04:00 and had a 20 minute lunch break, went out and switched again until about 06:30 getting off about half an hour early. We moved a lot of cars in that eight hour shift, but it gave me a good education on the layout of the yard, and some of the industrial spurs, such as the Ogilvy Flour Mills.
We had one box car of freight for a warehouse that had a placard on it that said “Unload From This Side Only” as it was the wrong side for the warehouse we had to turn the car, there was no turning wye in the yard at Medicine Hat, the nearest one was 3 miles away out of yard limits at Cousins, so we had to take the car over by the diesel shop and turn it with the turntable they use for locomotives, we placed the car onto the turntable with our yard engine, applied a handbrake and moved the locomotive on to the lead, and turned the turntable one revolution using a built-in air compressor that turned the gearing that moves the turntable around in its pit, we coupled back onto the car and took it over to spot it at the warehouse. After the shift was completed I once again I booked short rest hoping to get out again that evening for a road trip, which I did. On Sunday, November 11th Remembrance Day I was called to deadhead to Swift Current on Passenger Train No. 2 to work a vacancy Monday morning on the Zone 2 Burstall Wayfreight, as I was to be gone all week I checked out of my room, and left my suitcase in storage with the desk clerk until my return.