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by R.L.Kennedy

PGE 806 refer covered in chalk marks, in Vancouver June 30,1944. The Sirman Collection

"Oh well, chalk it up to experience!" used to be an old expression of polite comment when something went contrary to someone's expectations. Long ago, children would chalk up their school work on small slates in school. Teachers would chalk up lessons on school blackboards (later, green ones),  and coloured chalk came along to amuse and decorate with. Children wrote "love" messages on walls and sidewalks, along with other not-so-nice words that no longer shock people the way they once did.

Kids around railway yards would sometimes strike it rich when they obtained stubs of chalk used by railroaders, for railroaders too would "chalk it up". Of the many uses for chalk there was a time when railways had a very important use for it.

Chalk used by the railway came in very large sticks, 1" in diameter and 4" long, as compared to normal chalk which was usually 3/8" by 3".  These pieces of chalk were sometimes placed in a holder to keep your hands clean, and as an extension when it wore down. The holder itself came from another essential railway tool, it was the discarded top off a fusee!

Chalk was important to yard operations for without it switching freight cars in marshalling yards would have been slower and much more difficult. Here is why. Conductors on freight trains would write out a list (known on the C.P.R. as as "77", for its form number), listing all car numbers, including initials, type of car, load or empty, where the car came from, (the trains point of origin or place lifted enroute) , and contents. This would be made out in the van (caboose) while enroute, in three copies using carbon paper (another defunct item!) and it would be handed in to the yard office with the bills (waybills) . The clerk (Inward Clerk or "Corner Man"  at Lambton Yard),  would insert carbons again and "list" the train to indicate where the cars were to go next.

The "77" then became a "switch list" , for the use of yardmen (switchmen) to break up the train. Yard jobs consisted of a ground crew and an engine crew. The ground crew was made up of a Yard Foreman and two Yard Men (helpers). They were known as a "pin boy" or engine follower, usually the junior man, especially if inexperienced, and the "field" man, because he was farthest away out in the field. Major classification yards had additional yardmen, including switch tenders and utility men, the latter often known as a "marker up" , because he would take the switch list and "mark up" the cars using chalk to indicate to the switchmen where to put the cars. He would also "bleed off" the air brakes, thus readying the cars for switching. Although paid on the rate of a helper, the job was considered by many to be a preference job and thus it usually went to very senior men, especially on the day shift. One of utility men working as the "marker up" at the C.P.R.'s Lambton Yard in the 1960's was Jimmy Lumbers and another one was Dick CHALK!

How could chalk marks work in wet weather since chalk quickly washes off? During inclement weather, or the expectation of rain, the "marker up" would use rain marks. That is he would write in places where the chalk was less likely to get washed off. On box cars it was underneath the door track. On other cars it would be on the truck frame or some other protected place. In the case of the Board of Transport Commissioners inspector he used a yellow crayon that would not wash off, to indicate cars shopped for Federal defects.

The C.P.R. bought #70 CHALKALL, in one gross (144 pieces) boxes from Binney & Smith (Canada) Ltd. an old manufacturer in Lindsay, Ontario.  Although Binney & Smith no longer make CHALKALL, they do still make chalk, but they are better known for CRAYOLA crayons! 


The box was marked "for railroads, mines, mills, glass factories etc." Does anyone know what uses these other industries made of Chalkall?   Is there any other maker of this kind of chalk today?

Is chalk still used at any railway yard?

Might anyone know how cars were marked at other yards on any railway?

General Marks

RIP     *              shopped for repairs

(*RIP track = Repair In Place)

H&W  =   High and/or Wide and/or long load, special handling required. (now referred to as DL = Dimensional Load , in other words it is oversized to normal.

x something x =  x before and after another mark indicates car requires weighing.

x  4 tare  x    =  weigh car empty to check actual tare, or for something left in car.

drawing of a clock face (circle with hands)  = a warning to switch car carefully as an impact recorder (clock) has been installed to check for rough handling and overspeed impacts.




Mark     (explanation)

73     (Woodstock set-off)
G&G  ( Guelph Jct. set-off)


London, Windsor, Detroit etc.
Ingersoll, Tillsonburg, Port Burwell, St.Thomas
Guelph to  Goderich. also Waterdown


89    (Moonlite/Fraxa P/U)

89   Brampton (etc.)

Orangeville, Owen Sound, Elora, Teeswater and
Walkerton points.
Name of place short of Orangeville
69   Midhust (etc.)
69   Parry Sound (etc)
81 NB (Romford set-off)
81 SOO
Name of place short of MacTier
Name of place short of Sudbury
Sudbury  and beyond
North Bay and beyond
Sault Ste. Marie etc.
North West traffic
Port McNicoll etc.
90 (Way Freight ex Havelock) Peterboro, Bobcaygeon, Lindsay, Havelock,
Nephton, Tweed etc.
P/U  (Trenton Pick Up)
902 SF  (Smiths Falls set-off)
904 (mostly meat ex Canada Packers)
NPT (B&M traffic etc.)
Agincourt to Trenton
Smiths Falls to Ottawa
Newport, Wells River etc.
East beyond Montreal
OTHER      (See also General Marks with story)
HAM    (Starlight or Kinnear)
2         (transfer)

VEG     (vegetables etc.)
Hamilton, Welland, Buffalo etc.
Parkdale yard local cars (not train cars)
(train cars = cars for outbound symbol trains)
All fresh produce (usually for the OFT)
oo CN
oo new oo
HL   (high level)
AB or A Bay (name of industry often added,
e.g. AB Texaco etc.)
GTR (Grand Trunk Ry.)
VEG  (Vegetables)
OFT (maybe plus track number)
910 ("MaeWest") mostly shed cars
955 (North rush traffic)
955 NB (Romford set-off)
955 SOO
965 (North West rush traffic)
Ft.W  or Dryden (965 shorts)
Cherry Street Shed, etc.
Interchange to CNR Cherry St. (local cars only)
New Toronto, Swansea, Mimico
Coach Yard
Ashbridges Bay

Interchange to CNR at Bathurst St. Yard.
All fresh produce cars
Ontario Food Terminal
Lambton Yard
Montreal and beyond
Sudbury, Chapleau, White River.
North Bay
Sault Ste. Marie
Winipeg to Vancouver
Fort William or Dryden only


Click here to find out how chalk is made!


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