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Station Agent's Stories

George McInnis

as told to R.L.Kennedy


Decades ago George McInnis a CPR station agent who by the time I knew him had become a Mobile Agent and travelled by automobile from one closed agency to another to handle freight matters working out of Lambton Yard Office in Toronto. George was a gentleman and a great story teller, sure wish I had gotten him to tell me more. I suggested he get a portable tape recorder put it on the seat beside him as he travelled from place to place and make believe I was sitting there. Just tell "me" your stories! He never did this and I sure wish I had bought a tape recorder he could plug in to the cigarette lighter to use and then I could have transcribed it for a magazine article etc.

One day day George went by the relocated Shelburne station (built 1914) and stopped when he saw a woman working in the front yard working on the flower bed. He stopped and greeted her then he commented about the railway station and the woman brushed him off without stopping her gardening. George then told her he was the last Agent working in that station. WOW! BIG change in attitude! She told him they tried to open the safe but did not have the combination. They were curious
if there was anything in it. George told her there was nothing inside it as he had cleaned it out on the last day. In any event they went inside, seeing the safe he proceeded to think and without error he opened it! Empty! Just as he said. But, he wrote down the combination for her and left!

Station Agent

Station Agents played a key role on railways for more than a Century performing many duties in the operation of all trains that arrived and departed or passed by, be they freight or passenger. They were the Railway in the eyes of the public and respected citizens for their role in the community. These duties included being responsible for all station staff including train order operators on shifts, assistant agents, baggage porters etc. A small agency might have only one person per shift or even just the Agent himself on day shift. Bigger agencies could require several employees to take care of station work.

These duties were shared amongst the various employees included copying train orders from the dispatcher over the telegraph wire and later over company telephone lines both of which passed along the right of way on pole lines. These orders were delivered to trains by hooping up as they passed by without stopping. Certain orders required the train to stop so the conductor could sign for them because they restricted passenger trains.

Selling tickets to passengers for anywhere in Canada or the United States on any railway was an important part of their work so too was receiving, sending and delivering public telegrams. Selling money orders issued by the Express Company. Likewise accepting and receiving Express shipments. These express duties earned the Agency a small commission! Handling Royal Mail was another important responsibility. The public could actually "post" a letter when a train stopped at a station, provided it had an RPO car, as there was a letter slot in the side of the car! Imagine that!

One of the small town and rural happenings involved department store mail order catalogue shopping. Popular for decades, people mailed their orders from the station after buying a money order there and a short time later these goods arrived on the train! Some of these farmers were poorly educated and could not read or write. They would bring a catalogue to the station, show George what they wanted and he would fill out the order form. This was done confidentially and nothing was revealed that would embarrass the person. Sometimes the receipient would eagerly open the package when it arrived proudly showing George what he had bought! It might have been long johns or something for his wife who would the last one to see it!

Freight traffic (which included LCL in the freight shed) was the most profitable business which included keeping track of team tracks where cars were loaded and unloaded (including counting pieces) as well as local industrial private sidings. Sealing box car doors and recording their numbers. Tracking demurrage on freight cars and when applicable collecting it from consignee. Weighing LCL freight and Express shipments.

The Agent accepted and signed for Bills of Lading, issued a waybill to move the car to destination even beyond their own railway. Freight rates were quoted to shippers binding the railway to what was stated. This required many volumes of huge binders and a good knowledge of what was in them. Freight bills were issued and delivered to the customer, payment received and cheques deposited in the bank along with cash sales of tickets etc. Ledger books were kept and regularly audited by company auditors from headquarters.

Handling out pay cheques to other department employees, primarily Maintenance of Way sectionmen etc.

In other words; it was serious business!

Often stations included living quarters which were available to the Agent for a modest rent for him and his family. A single Agent might step aside to allow an operator with a family to live there instead. Company houses were frequently built nearby for section men or other employees especially in rural areas where houses were scarce or non existent.













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