Highball Freight

Climb into the caboose of 404, crack priority freight, and take a railroader's ride across the roof of Canada

JOHN CLARE July 15 1947

Highball Freight

Climb into the caboose of 404, crack priority freight, and take a railroader's ride across the roof of Canada

JOHN CLARE July 15 1947

Highball Freight

Climb into the caboose of 404, crack priority freight, and take a railroader's ride across the roof of Canada


FOUR-O-FOUR, the CNR’s daily east-bound fast freight, was out of Transcona, the Winnipeg freight yard, at exactly one o’clock of a late spring Sunday morning on the second half of its trans-Canada run. The Mikado-type low wheeler, 3566, was on the head end, hauling 60 loaded cars and a caboose about 3,900 tons of train. Not reckoned in that tonnage was the writer making the trip by caboose across the top of Canada.

Dave Fletcher, Transcona’s yardmaster, came aboard the caboose just ab 3566, half a mile ahead, whistled off with two long blasts. A yard engine nuzzled up to the rear end of the caboose filling the van with hard white brilliance from its headlight. Four-o-four shuddered through its length; the slack rippled down the cars and exploded with a kick in the caboose. The yard engine heaved, snorted and heaved again. The (rain started its journey, like a ship going over iron waves.

“She’s rolling,” said Dave Fletcher. He sounded relieved. Railroaders are always glad to see 404 leave town. She’s the road’s highest priority transCanada freight and rates second only to a passenger train. She carries perishables and prestige for the line; she also carries trouble when things go wrong.

Dave Fletcher swung off the jolting train and Conductor Jack Gruye, who had been at the head end giving the engineer his orders, talking over the run, swung aboard.

Conductor Gruye is a big ruddy man who walks lightly like an athlete who has put on weight but still carries himself gracefully. He wore a widebrimmed brown hat, a brown leather windbreakerstyle jacket, dark blue trousers and ves( and a blue denim shirt with a tie. The vest still carried the brass buttons Gruye wore when he held a passenger run. Four-o-four was suspended now in the night and its own clamor.

He put his package of waybills, one for each car

with details of its contents and destination, on his desk and handed the flimsy (rain orders to his rear brakeman, Vern Houle. The train orders give scheduled meets with other trains, advise the crew about slow orders on bad patches of track, and tell what trains are ahead.

Vern read the orders without speaking and handed them back to the conductor. Then he went down the caboose to a locker and changed into his working clothes—blue denim overalls, smock and the traditional railroaders’ cap. This cap is white with blue stripes, long-peaked like a baseballer’s. The high crown is as crisply and formally crimped as a bishop’s biretta.

Then he climbed into the cupola (kew-pa-low to railroaders), the glassed-in tower at one end of the caboose. From there he could keep an eye on the general welfare of the train and watch particularly for hotboxes. The wheels of freight cars (and many passenger cars) are not ball-bearinged but are lubricated by waste soaked in a special lubricant or “dope” in the journal box at the end of the axle. When the dope runs low, or a rod rider wanting to start a quick fire takes a little of the oil-soaked waste, the axle runs hot and if it isn’t detected, usually by the smell at first, i( gets hot and sets fire to the waste. Once the waste is consumed the redhot axle quickly grinds itself into a white heat and if left alone will break and cause a serious derailment. At night the hotboxes can be detected by the sparks they throw off.

The third man in the train crew, Red Walker, the head-end brakeman, was riding in the engine. We wouldn’t see him until the end of the run.

Gruye turned up the oil lamps over his desk and did some paper work after telling me or challenging me to make myself comfortable. By now 404 was rocking along through the night, its 60 cars bucking and charging as though they fought to be free. The caboose at the end of Continued, on putfe 47

Continued from page 9

the string snapped like the tip of a whip as 3566 eased its string over the humps and then snatched them away with an elephantine flick as it fled through the valleys. When the slack ran out in an accumulative flow of jolting, ragged power that lurched along the swaying train your shoulders were driven hard into your chair, your head was snapped back as though by an invisible left jab.

After a while Gruye leaned hack in his armchair, slipped his watch out for a glance with the air of a man who performs the same operation 50 times a day, and talked above the sustained metallic thunder of the rolling wracking wheels.

“We’ve got an inspection at Vivian at 2.10 where we take water. Right along here we’ll be making good speed. The limit is 40 and of course we wouldn’t go faster than that.” Conductor Gruye looked around slowly and a little owlishly. “Just about here is the Golden Mile. They built it when they built the road about 1906. The ditches are just right, everything is trimmed and ballasted to perfection. It’s a sort of model mile. And it’s a good one. How about some coffee?”

Vern Houle had come down from the cupola and was rattling around the stove. He spread newspapers on the hinged table that came out from the wall. He set out cups, put a spoon in each to keep the coffee from slopping.

The coffee was as hot and hard as a called strike. As we drank in tentative sips trying to outguess the plunging of the rock-springed caboose I looked around. I hadn’t been in a caboose for ten years but the decor hadn’t changed, in fact it probably hadn’t changed in 50 years. I asked Jack Gruye about that.

“Here’s one new thing, anyway,” he said. He pointed to a new kind of kerosene lamp that uses a mantle. “Only it isn’t burning so good.”

Home on Wheels

Apart from the newfangled lamp everything was as I remembered it. Caboose design seems to be as traditional and unchanging as that of the wheel. A caboose is about two thirds the length of a boxcar, slightly lower

in the ceiling, with built-in shadows at the corners that the oil lamps beat against feebly with their tiny yellow gleam. The cupola at the back end is the distinguishing mark, of course.

Supposing you enter a caboose by the front door, something you aren’t likely to do because the hack door get s more use than the one in a house with four hoys. But supposing you do—you are immediately flanked by two hunks which fold lengthwise against the wall and fasten there during the day.

Farther down the car, on t he left, is a third hunk. That makes one for the conductor and each of his brakemen. When they are on the road the caboose or van is their home. Every conductor with a regular run has his own caboose.

Farther down the car on the left is a table which folds against the wall. Next is the stove with a rail around the top to keep pots and pans from taking off when the going is rough, and beyond that is the coalbox, about, as high as the stove and probably a foot wide and three feet long. Behind that is the cupola.

On the right side, just beyond the single hunk is another folding table and the conductor’s desk. The desk is surmounted by two oil lamps and usually a piece of calendar art that might be taken as clue to the conductor’s interests. Jack Gruye’s wasn’t very revealing; just a standard butcher’s offering designed to show nothing more than the day of the month.

Next to the desk is the washbasin and the water tank. The wash basin is up against the cupola. There is no men’s room in a caboose.

The passage to the back door runs through the cupola, the lookout tower for the crew. In the cupola are two chairs on platforms about five feet from the floor, one on either side of the passage. Under the platforms are lockers for food and clothing and a refrigerator. Strung along the walls of the cupola are red and yellow fuses or signal flares and torpedoes or guns which are put on the track to explode under oncoming wheels as a warning. There’s also an emergency brake for the train crew.

Our coffee finished, Conductor Gruye explained the class distinctions that made 404 an aristocrat among freights. Some freights called drags are turned loose with a long string of cars and a pat on the caboose to make their way subject to the whims and ulcers of

despatches and the rules of the road which make it go into the hole, or passing track, for everything but meandering moose. Hut 104 had standing and priority as a second-class train.

Four-o-four had left Vancouver early the previous Wednesday morning and would arrive in Toronto, 1,200 miles from Winnipeg, late the next Tuesday. She was carrying what Jack Gruye said was a pretty typical load.

'There were seven reefers (refrigerator cars) full of meat from Pat Burns and Swifts, a car of apples from a cold storage plant in Winnipeg and a car of ammonium nitrate from Calgary for the CIL in Beloeil, Que.

Not for Popguns

“Ammonium nitrate,” said Conductor Gruye. The shadows crouched a little closer to the flickering oil lamps as he repeated the words. “They don’t use that stuff to make popguns,” he said hoarsely.

He was right. I learned later they use it to make fertilizer.

The rest of the train carried nothing more sinister than a car of scrap metal from the CNR shops at Transcona, old clothes being shipped by War Assets to Valleyfield, mill products like cereals that explode with tiny fury in Junior’s face and other mill products like cake flour that just lie there.

Four-o-four had five cars of stock -four of cattle and one of horses.

Somewhere up ahead there was an empty tank car, speeding back tor another load of gasoline or lube, and lumber from Youbou, B.C., bound for Boston and Newport, R.I., where it might get diverted from a new theatre to make a house for someone.

'That was 404’s burden as it slammed through the night, jolting and swaying.

Conductor Gruye looked toward the head end, shook his head morosely and looked at his companions. His look was a plea for understanding, for tolerance for the heavy-handed hogger in the engine.

Freight trains are like ships in their caste system, their built-in prejudices. The hierarchy is two-headed—the engineer or hogger runs the engine, the conductor runs the train. And when the t wo heads speak to each other it is often in sorrow, sometimes in anger. The engineer’s art—and it is a skill that touches on art, this smooth blending of air and steam to bring 3,900 tons of wheeled steel into submission—is frequently under review in the caboose.

Tonight Gruye nodded to me:

“We just take you over one subdivision. At Redditt you get a new engine, new train crew. We’ll be there about seven so if you’d like to lie down for a while go ahead. You probably won’t get much sleep but help yourself.”

On a passenger train the high-speed clicking of the wheels over the joints sets up a rhythm that blends into a vibration like the sound of a tuning fork. 'There is no such singing cadence to the wheels of a caboose. Caboose wheels fight and smash their way along. Each new turn of each wheel has its own raw hard noise.

At Redditt, 121 miles east of'Transcona, 3566 dropped the brakes, the engine dug in its heels and the 60 cars slammed together. Everything in the caboose that wasn’t nailed down drove against the front end of the van. Since 1 had neglected to nail myself down 1 was awakened by the brisk contact of my head with the wall.

The station restaurant at Redditt is typical of bush beaneries, which means it isn’t elegant, and at this hour on a Sunday morning it was a dismal place occupied by the stale smell of cocking

and two plaid-shirted boys from the bush looking with impartial curiosity at the waitress and anyone who happened to come in.

The new caboose was hooked on the end of 404 by the time 1 walked to the end of the train. Jim Campbell was the conductor, his rear-end brakeman was Harold Forest. Both lived in Sioux Lookout.

Like most of the men who run this north line, Campbell and Forest were enthusiastic fishermen. As we swung along the winding course of the road, with the engine often two and sometimes three curves ahead and out of sight, through rock cuts darkly sweating out their frost in the spring sun, the trainmen looked at the last black ice on the lakes and talked about trout. There’s no golf in those northern towns, they explained, not much of anything in the way of outdoor sport except fishing.

In the cupola it was bright and warm as Harold Forest and I chatted. Conductor Campbell was at his desk doing his paper work, coming back now and then to lean his elbows on the platforms and talk to us. There was a pot of coffee on the stove and an almost domestic air about the caboose compounded of fragrant steam from the coffee, the warm sunlight and the casual talk.

Harold said he started with the CNR in 1943 and had been working regularly. He had enough seniority to hold the choice rear-end brakeman’s job and often got good runs like this one of the time freight. Brakemen like throughfreight jobs better than the fussier wayfreight assignments where there is constant switching, spotting and picking up cars.

4,400 Miles a Month

Train and engine crews get paid on a basis of mileage and the rate differs with the job. On a time freight, like 404, an engineer gets $9.42 a hundred miles, a fireman $8.06, a conductor $8.05 and a brakeman $6.73. In the terminals they get paid at the rate of 12J^¿ miles an hour for the time they are standing. Freshman brakies get as much as men with whiskers 20 years long. Harold said in April he ran 4,400 miles. This is an average month these days, he said. Passenger trainmen get a lower rate per hundred miles but they get more mileage, which tends to level out the difference.

The freight pulled into Sioux Lookout about 14 o’clock railroad time, two in the afternoon your time. She got a new crew and caboose, the reefers got a booster shot of ice and salt and we were on our way again. As 404 rumbled through the yards, past the east switch, Angus Fraser, the new conductor, looked over his shoulder from his perch on the back step.

“This is the time of year you don’t want to be away from home too long— might miss the opening of the fishing season,” he said. His highball to Engineer Ralph Colborne, up ahead in the 3581, was urgent, eloquent. It was one fisherman telling another “Let’s get on with the job and get at those trout.”

Bill Wilson, the rear-end brakeman, came aboard as we clattered over the points of the east switch at a jolting 20 miles an hour. Bill, took the front grab irons at the rear of the caboose in his mittened hands and leaped lightly on the van. His left leg trailed elegantly as he pivoted on the step, swung around and gave the engineer a final highball.

It was a railroader’s pas seul, a classicleap as stylish as Nijinski at his spriest.

At the Sioux I had met Engineer Colborne, “one of the best hoggers on the road” and his fireman Paul Kendall in

the cab of 3581. He had asked me to come up and ride in the cab so when the train stopped at Savant Lake, 60 miles east, for coal and water I went to the head end.

Paul was making tea when 1 arrived. The operation consisted of opening the lire door and inserting a blackened lard pailón the end of a seven-foot poker. In a few seconds it was boiling. Mr. Colborne took some tea bags from his battered club bag and the brew was hung on the throttle arm to cool. The trick in making tea this way is to get the pail out of the fire before it melts.

Mr. Colborne, a dignified and friendly man with white hair who looks like a second-term FDR, has been railroading for 36 years. He fixed up a temporary seat for the guest by upending a coal scoop and bracing the handle against one of the cylinders of the automatic stoker. Jack Chyk, the headend brakeman, climbed up the ladder and took his seat, a folding affair, behind the fireman. Mr. Colborne released the brakes, set the gear and poured on the steam through a tenderly opened throttle.

• Thirty-five eighty-one ran out the slack and the train behind us drew taut. Then 3581 laid its bulging shoulders into the harness and strained against 3,900 obstinate tons. F or a moment the throbbing power of the locomotive and the wheeled mass of the train cancelled out. Mr. Colborne leaned far out of his cab to watch the low-slung drivers. Paul Kendall, across the cab, wiped his hands on a piece of waste and glanced at the engineer. The exhaust from 3581 was thin and sharp. 'Then, slowly, painfully it seemed the engine began to move. Mr. Colborne sat back. Engine 3581 had picked up her train. Four-ofour was rolling again.

“This is the best freight power on the continent,”1 said Mr. Colborne nodding at the sweating, black bolts and the characterless faces of the gauges. “They don’t like them much down east, but out here we swear by them. Pull anything, freight or passenger. But I suppose in ten years everything will be Diesel.”

As 3581 gathered speed the noise made conversation difficult. The heat and sway made you look at your sweat to see if it were as green as you felt.

“Like to sit up here?” asked Mr. Colborne getting off his padded black seat at the right-hand window. The guest would; the guest had been wanting to sit there for 25 years.

The track ahead was straight and uphill. The white extra flags were stiff as boards beside 3581’s squat stack.

The Guest Sounds Off

“You can pull that whistle anytime,” shouted Mr. Colborne as we approached a curve.

Back in the caboose, some time later, a critical opinion of the guest’s effort was delivered. The consensus of the experts went something like this:

“In the opening passage of the familiar work—two long, one short and one long, the traditional signal for a curve or a crossing—the guest betrayed his unfamiliarity with the new medium, but indicated some appreciation of what the composer was trying to say. The second long passage had a haunting quality that probably reduced any listening porcupines to nostalgic tears. The brief staccato third movement was crisp but in the closing movement his inexperience was evident and we were given modern almost groovy reading.”

What the critics didn’t know was that the whistle cord became entangled with the throttle arm on the last leng blast and the result was a driving finish that would have made Harry James Continued on page 50

Continued from page 48 I turn as green as a tamarack with envy.

Mr. Colborne, who had been standing behind me, took over and gave a I masterful blast on the whistle as though j to reassure 3581 that pappy was back home and 404 toiled up the hill to Mile 75.

“This is the high point of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Winnipeg,” said the engineer.

Past Mile 75 it was downhill and 3581 picked up speed in a rocking canter.

Fellowship of the Road

At Sioux Lookout we had been given a telegram to deliver at Allanwater, a Hudson’s Bay post, where there is an operator only during the busy time in the fall. There was no scheduled stop at this hole in the woods by a river and Jack Chyk tied the message to a stick and prepared to toss it out.

When Jack nodded to indicate we were coming close Mr. Colborne gave a rapid series of short blasts on the whistle. The first and last glimpse of Allanwater 1 had as we swept by was a mixture of boys, dogs and men converging on the spot.where the message landed.

The crews on the through freights don’t have many of these errands to perform, but they have their friends along (he road even if they don’t get a chance to speak to them and learn their names. Instead they wave to them and on a run like Mr. Colborne’s there are groups, like the one outside the General Store, Fred Dubois, Prop., at Superior Junction, which gather to greet him every day.

Mr. Colborne has an unfailing and impressive salute for his friends. He gravely raises his right hand with the first two fingers extended, the other two curled lightly back on his thumb. He raises his hand slowly and finishes the gesture with a flick of a wave. It is a courtly and kindly salute, a sort of matey benediction.

On the other side of the cab Paul Kendall told me he had been firing for 26 years. Sometimes he gees a run as an engineer and his mates say he is a good one-—a natural. Some men have a heavy hand on the steam and air until the day they die. With Paul there seems to be an instinctive feeling for the power under his hand, an appreciation of the great weight at his back.

“Paul wouldn’t spill a cup of tea,” said one ol the men in the caboose.

His job looks pretty easy on an engine with a stoker. He sits most of the time, turning a valve now and then. But he never knows when he is going to draw one of the back-cracking, hand! fired jobs, the kind he stoked for years.

! The long freight arrived in Arm! strong Sunday evening (the same trip going West had taken an hour and a half by air a few days before). I had something to eat at the station restaurant (no tea, no coffee) and walked back down the half-mile train to the caboose. Johnnie Marr, the new rear-end brakeman, who had been in the railway corps in the army overseas, met me. He had a provincial fire fighter and some of his equipment on board. A forest fire had been reported down the line.

We ran to Ferland, just east of Armstrong, and went into the passing track to meet Number Three, the transcontinental from Toronto. We sat in the cupola listening for a distant whistle, looking for the first stab of light from the onrushing train. All around us the blue-black dusk was tremulous with the quivering chorus of the frogs, musky with the sweet smell of the black swamp water.

Johnnie Marr is a lithe young man eager to know all there is to know about railroading. He studies when he is on

the road and will soon try for his conductor’s ticket. Tonight he sat in the cupola and talked about this north line, the two shining sutures that bind the west and the east of Canada together.

“Ferland—there’s a funny name but not as funny as some of the others up here. Take Ogahalla, that’s a phony, I’m sure. It’s supposed to be Indian, but I don’t think an Indian would know what the hell you were saying if you went up to him and said ‘Ogahalla,’ he said, talking softly as he looked up the patient bulk of the waiting train, his lamp upturned on the cupola seat beside him.

/rhere are strange names up here. Some wonderful names, too. If Norman Corwin ever decides to fry to fit the soul of Canada into his microphone he can have this timecard as soon as I’m through with it. There’s a lot of good raw Corwin in it. All he’ll have to do is take out the arrival and departure times and there he will have a throbbing chunk of primitive poesy.

This may give you an idea of the kind of material lying loose up there:

Sunstrum, Millidge, Richan, Amesdale and Niddrie.

And many other names like Anola, Ena, Onaping and Pascopee.

Ogaki and Ghost River, which used to be called Smith,

But was cnanged to Ghost River to attract tourists.

And then there is Jones which hasn’t been changed to attract anyone.

It’s still just Jones.

At Nakina I said good-by to Johnnie Marr and wished him good luck in his exams. We were out again about midnight and at five o’clock Monday morning were in Hornepayne. Here the stock was watered, fed and left for a five-hour stretch in pens in keeping with the rules. We pulled out about eight. Our second section, running an hour behind us, would pick up the stock.

At Minnipuka we met 403, the westbound counterpart of 404.. As we waited in the passing track the talk was about the late spring. In Winnipeg people had been worried about its effect on the planting. Here the concern was for the effect on the roadbed that supports not only the trains but the economy of this country.

A secondary or Grade-B concern was expressed for the effect of the slow season on the fishing.

Four-o-four was out of Foleyet, the next divisional point, at 21 o’clock in a driving rain.

Blue-Ribbon Beanery

The next morning, Tuesday, 404 was in Capreol, where the trans-Canada lines split, one going south to Toronto, the other east to Montreal. Here we waited for our second section and switch engines took the cars from both, shuffled the deck, cut it and made up two new trains. Ours was somewhat smaller than the one we had been hauling across the muskeg country. We pulled out for Toronto at nine in the morning.

The next change of crew was at South Parry Sound and while the new caboose was being couplèd on, Bruce Edey took me over to one of the bestknown eating places on the CNR—the Royal York. This famous beanery used to be in a converted boxcar, but the present location is a new bamlike building painted railroad red.

Ben Foster, a former construction gang cook, came out of his kitchen wiping his hands on his apron followed by an engineer who was helping him dry the dishes. Ben’s place is like that. Train crews waiting to be called will often grab a towel and give Ben a hand.

In addition to having some of the best food along the CNR Ben has a corner filled with calendar art that would make Minsky look like a strawberry social promoter.

At 2.45 in the afternoon we left Washago, moving steadily south on the last leg of the run. At Washago you run out of the Laurentian Hills and the landscape changes abruptly. Gone are the outcroppings of rock and for the first time in a thousand miles there are fences to mark the right-of-way. Bland pasture, an occasional tilled field and houses and rail fences fill the scene. Today the first green blush of spring was on the land.

“That’s Railroading”

“Yes, it’s a nice job on a day like this,” said Rod Virgo, Toronto, a young brakeman, from his cupola seat where he sat with his feet against the wall to brace himself. “But in the middle of the winter when the snow’s drifting and it’s 40 below it can be pretty miserable. But I like it. I used to work in a grocery store. One thing about a freight brakeman—you never see your customers.”

At six o’clock we were approaching Zephyr, 45 miles from Toronto, with

a meet with the Northland Limited coming up at Richmond Hill 24 miles ahead. The way lay uphill to Richmond Hill and then down grade all the way into Toronto.

We were in Old Ontario now, rocking past old farms, well-kept fields. A rag of steam fluttered more frequently at the whistle now as we signalled for crossings. We took coal and water at Richmond Hill and waited for the Northland bound for North Bay and Timmins.

After the meet we slowly pulled out on the main line and began to roll. But there was another delay at Oriole just ten miles out of Toronto.

Virgo looked at his watch.

“1 was supposed to go out to Port Credit with my wife and see some friends tonight,” he said.

There were more delays and it was late, nine o’clock, when 404 slammed to a stop at the Don Station in Toronto, seven days after it left Vancouver, almost three after it left Winnipeg.

Virgo flicked a look at his watch. It would be another hour maybe more before they put 404 into her berth in Mimico. It would be too late to go to Port Credit with his wife.

“See,” he said. “That’s railroading for you.”