Posted on 15-12-2011
Filed Under (Alberta 1970s, CPR, Many Jobs and Trades) by Broken Rail

On February 21, 1974 we were called for 08:00, Fred had taken a trip off, and my conductor was Ray Burns who I had worked before with on the Maple Creek Subdivision, Ray who didn’t hold a regular conductors assignment, had his name on the list for spare running, and was called out to work Fred’s vacancy for the week, we had 8698 as our lead locomotive, and the engineer was Bert Collins nicknamed “Flatwheel” a moniker given to any railroader who walked with a limp. Bert, who had not worked on the road for many years, was called out of the yard on his days off as there was a shortage of spare engineers available. His skills at the throttle on the road were a little rusty which became evident a little later on during our trip. At the booking out office we read our work assignment list, today was going to be a little different, as we had to make a side trip out on the Irricana Subdivision 27 miles down to the Alberta Wheat Pool Elevator at Tudor, we had about 100 empty boxcars for grain loading on the branch lines, we left Alyth at 10:05, and stopped at Shepard, to spot up the grain elevators and lift some empty sulfur tank cars for Wimborne. We then ran 10 miles over to Langdon to spot up the elevator track there, this is where I learned a valuable lesson about the slack action between the locomotive and the caboose on a 100 cars train, coming in to Langdon to slow down for the stop Bert used the locomotive independent air brake to slow the train down, rather than use the automatic train air brake which would have applied air brakes to each car on the train, between the couplers on each car is about 1 1/2 feet of slack, if you compound that by a 100 you get 150 feet of distance. I was sitting in the cupola on the leather covered horsehair seat cushion seat and back when I heard the sound of the slack gathering, so from going 30 miles an hour our speed was reduced to 5 miles an hour in an instant, the slack running in so violently that I had to hang on to the steel ladder to avoid being propelled out the front window of the cupola, when I was to experience next was the opposite, Bert had slowed down too much, so he released the brake and opened the throttle, and like cracking a whip, the 150 feet of slack ran out and I was driven back against the seat back cushion so hard that it physically knocked the wind out of me. This old wooden branch line caboose that was built around the turn of the century, had rigid couplers and drawbars. The modern steel mainline ones have spring-loaded shock absorbing draft gear that I was more used to; I was on my toes after that experience.

We did our usual chores stopping at Keoma, and Irricana spotting the elevator tracks, and switching out our train placing our caboose behind 10 empty boxcars for spotting on the Irricana Sub starting out at mileage 72.5., we then had our lunch at the local restaurant, and left for our trip to Tudor I rode on the lead locomotive as I had to help out further down the line, at one time this subdivision ran all the way down to Bassano on the Brooks Subdivision on the mainline, I referred to it earlier on my post of working the Zone 2 Wayfreight from Bassano to Standard. Just south of Tudor at mileage 44.9 there was an engineering problem with a sinkhole, every year dozens of cars of rock gravel ballast would be unloaded to keep track stable, when the mixed passenger service was discontinued in 1967 track was closed and the Wayfreight’s did all the work from both ends of the subdivision.

The track between Irricana and Tudor was so seldomley used that ranchers and farmers had leased parts of this right away for grazing cattle, and barbed wire fences were put up across the track to keep the cattle in, whenever the wayfreight was scheduled to make a trip the landowners were notified by car control in Medicine Hat ahead of time so that they could take down their fences down for the train to pass. We proceeded southward there with some snowdrifts as no trains had been through for a few weeks, they were not too deep, or long enough to cause us any concern about plowing through them. There wasn’t much left for communities on this stretch of railway at one time there were towns at Craigdhu mileage 67.8, Gayford mileage 62.5 and Hamlet mileage 50.8, all that remained was a siding at Nightingale mileage 54.9 and Tudor with its two Alberta Wheat Pool Elevators at mileage 45 5, leaving Nightingale we then approached a manual interlocking with the CNR at Dunshalt, this was the first time I had seen anything like this on my railway career I had read the following Timetable Special Instructions that stated “Railway crossing at grade with Canadian National Railways mileage 52.4 — Interlocking Signals will be operated by CPR trainmen and the left normally clear for CNR trains, Rule 605A does not apply.” I knew the by reading my rulebook that Rule 605A referred to flag protection not being required in interlocking limits, but the rest was all new to me. We brought our train to a stop at a manual interlocking single with the bottom aspect indicating stop, from here I have to walk about 500 yards up to a wooden tower to operate the signals as I walked along the track I could see steel bars mounted on concrete supports that were connected to the semaphore signals and ran to the tower. I reached the tower and climb up the rickety stairs to the door, there was a curved steel bar through the padlock staple that had two railway switch locks attached, one CPR, and the other CNR, I unlock the CPR one with my switch key and open the door. With the door open I entered the derelict tower there was snow all over the floor where it had drifted in, the windows are long gone and are all boarded up so the only illumination is from the daylight through the doorway, I am confronted with four large steel levers mounted to the floor, and under glass in a wooden frame on the wall were instructions for operating the interlocking, they were posted in 1930. The four levers were painted bright red, had unlocking handles at the back, and number plates from left to right painted in white 1, 2, 3, and 4. The way the signals were set always gave the CNR the right-of-way. The instructions stated for train movements by the CPR first unlock and pull to lever No.1 toward you this was to display stop signals on the CNR, what happened next scared the hell out of me, the open door violently closed shut and I was left in the darkness momentarily, there was enough light through the cracks in the boards over the window to allow me to see again, the next instruction was to unlock and pull lever No.3 by doing this a mechanical clock mechanism behind the lever started clicking and timed out for 3 min. with this done I was able to unlock and pull lever No.2 towards me, this gave our train a clear signal to proceed southward. Our engineer whistled twice and pulled lower train through the interlocking stopping the caboose just in the clear on the south side. My next step was to restore all the signals to the way they were when I entered the tower, by doing this a steel lever coming up through the floor opened allowing me to open the door and exit. This simple but ingenious method of making sure the signals were all restored to normal was probably thought out by the signal maintainers who probably got tired of being called out to restore signals by negligent CPR brakeman who have not followed the instructions. Of course the veteran crew had a good laugh at my expense, knowing beforehand about the towers locking mechanism, it was kind of a rite of passage for railway men.

One of the older engineers I knew told me at one time this tower and the automatic interlocking on the Langdon subdivision were both operated by local farmers and in the steam engine days they would blow whistle signals for the farmer/tower operator to come out and give them signals to pass. I was to find out later in my life one of my neighbours Dorothy Robinson where I grew up in South Calgary was raised on a farm at Dunshalt and her father William Gorman operated the tower from the time it was built circa 1914 until the Great Depression and the economic downturn forced the Railways to eliminate these jobs, and have the brakeman do the work. She gave me a postcard picture showing her father standing on top of the stairs in the doorway to the tower, it looks brand-new all freshly painted with all the windows in place levers visible through the glass, there are glass windows on the ground floor, and an access door for the maintainers, visible in front are the steel rods that operated the semaphore signals, and a chimney that at one time must have been connected to a stove that provided heat. It must’ve been a quite cozy and comfortable workplace, not like what I encountered 60 years later.

We returned to Irricana, picked up our train and continued on to Wimborne arriving at 20:30 and at 21:45 were off duty. Leaving the switching of the sulfur plant for the morning we started at 07:00 departed at 10:25 and arrived at East Coulee 17:50 and off duty 18:50 we went on duty at 07:00 and were off duty at 16:50 Alyth.

1.) Approaching semaphore signal indicating stop at Dunshalt manual interlocking.
2.) Walking towards manual interlocking tower control rods alongside rail on right side.
3.) View of our train waiting for signal taken from interlocking time, CNR right-of-way to the left.
4.) Manual interlocking control levers inside tower, instructions posted on wall, snow on floor.
5.) Manual interlocking control levers set to stop for the CNR on lever No 1, and lever No. 3 timing out.
6.) View of interlocking tower and diamond where the tracks intersect taken from our caboose.
7.) Close-up view of tower that day in February 1974.
8.) Postcard photo of manual interlocking tower newly constructed 60 years before in 1914.

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