Memories of a Close Call at Christmas Time
When one's mind starts back over 40 years to try and recall some memorable occasion, some funny, and some not so funny incidents come to mind. Recalling some of my experiences at Christmas during my career as a trainman and conductor with Canadian Pacific, one incident that readily comes to mind happened in 1947 when I was braking on the M&O wayfreight. The wayfreight at that time had 2 crews. One crew had the weekend lay-over at Ottawa West, and was usually manned by the senior men. The other crew had the layover at Outremont, the Montreal terminal, and was usually manned by the junior crew, as they had to deadhead home from Montreal after arrival on Saturday, and then deadhead back on Sunday night for duty Monday morning.
I was on a weekend layover at Ottawa West, and we were normally ordered for 8 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 7am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday ex Outremont. The job was very heavy, with lots of switching, and wayfreight to load and unload enroute. 3 full 36-foot boxcars of wayfreight leaving Ottawa West was the normal trip. We would unload the 3 cars enroute, and usually reload one. Monday was stock day. Loadings would usually start at Navan and continue at all stations as far as St. Eugene, where by this time we would have anywhere from 8 to 15 cars of livestock for Montreal. Hay was being loaded at several stations for export to the USA. Gas and oil was unloaded at Bourget by the B.A. dealer and distributed throughout the area. Car loadings of feed grains from the west were heavy as the M&O Sub runs through the heart of good farming country, so there was a demand for these grains to feed and plant. When the ice was thick enough in the Ottawa River, sometime after Christmas, cutting of the ice started at Hudson and was loaded there for the CP ice-houses at various terminals. Loadings from the ice-house at Hudson continued well into the summer. I mention this so our readers will nderstand just what made the job heavy with long hours.
After World War II, the air training school at Pendelton had been turned into a War Assets disposal area. Carloads of military stores and equipment were brought in, placed in the sidings, unloaded and then taken over to the airport for sorting. The freight was then reloaded and forwarded to War Assets disposal stores across Canada. This made for a lot of switching at that point, and is the place where my memorable incident took place. It has been one of the better-kept secrets on the railroad. Now, 37 years later (1984), I believe that I am the only member of the involved crews still living, and now that I am retired, I guess that it is safe for me to relate the story without fear of any repercussion.
Back in the 1940's, the General Holidays and extra pay for working on the Holidays, as enjoyed by the crews nowadays, was unheard of. If you were assigned to a passenger run and due to work on the holiday, you covered your assignment, or you were out the money. On the freight runs, the Company did their best to juggle things around to allow as many men as possible to be home for the holiday. This was appreciated. Being off for the holiday did not always mean that you were 'home free', as it was advisable to keep your distance from the phone as the yard office kept calling to get you to relieve somebody who suddenly took sick. I think that the families of the train crews should have been awarded something for being the best fibbers when the phone rang.
December 24th, 1947 was a Wednesday, so our crew was due to work to Montreal. However, the Company arranged for an early ordering time at Ottawa West so that we would be in Montreal early enough to deadhead home for Christmas Eve. If I remember correctly, it was 3:30 am. This would allow us time to get over to Hurdman to leave on the block of Train #2, due out of Ottawa Union at 4:05 am. Picture a cold crisp morning with some snow on the ground, and everybody is moving at a fast pace. Engine down from the shop, brake test, and when the conductor came down from Ottawa West station to the yard office with the orders, he told us: "No. 2 is late; we'll have time out on her at Hurdman". Then things really got on the move. Around to Hurdman on the fly. The time that we got on #2 on train orders was enough to let us do our work and get down the line quite a piece on her time. When we left Hurdman, the intention was to get into Montreal in time to catch #427 (later #137), the North Shore passenger, at 12:20 pm at Park Avenue Station. This would get us back into Ottawa at 3:40 pm.
Our regular assigned engine at the time was a D4 class, #474. She was a good one, and could run like a scared deer. Our engineer likes to go too, so everything shaped up for a quick trip. With the help of the engine crew unloading the wayfreight, things were moving at a good pace. By the time that we completed our work at Bourget, mileage 61.6, it was getting time to think about #2. It was decided that we had enough time to slip over to Pendleton, mileage 56, go down to the east switch, and back into the siding to clear #2. We had about 8 cars on our train, so we were over to Pendleton in nothing flat, and backed into the passing track. Not being satisfied at how well things had been going in our favour, the conductor dropped off the van and said: "We will have time to go into the back track and make our lift; she'll be later than that". Into the back track, we coupled on and pulled a string out over the east switch, then threw the cars that we were lifting onto our train, then put the rest back into the back track. By the time that I got the engine and cars back onto the train and coupled the air, I could hear #2 really coming and blowing for the crossing on Cobbs Lake, now County Road #2. By the time our engineer got the air pumped up and enough brakes released that he could start to back up in the clear, the headlight of #2 came around the curve into view half a mile away. We still had 3 or 4 cars and the engine out foul of the main track. With #2's whistle blowing for the 2 crossing west of the station, and me standing there with no place to go when she hit our train, it left me with a pretty hopeless feeling. I kept frantically waving my kerosene lantern to back up faster, but I might as well have had it stuck up my nose. The engineer on #2 must have spotted us about then as the whistle was blowing steady and the fire was flying from the brakes when they were applied in emergency. Number 2 finally got stopped 3 or 4 car lengths from the fouling point. We finally got into clear and I set the switch back for the main track.
By the time that I got back beside #2's engine, our conductor was talking to their engine crew. Apparently their fireman had spotted the red marker lamps on our van when they came around the curve and he yelled to his engineer: 'plug her'. This is all that saved us. Our crew, along with the engineer of #2, walked back to the baggage car and met #2's conductor. After discussing the situation and ascertaining that there was no official on #2, it was agreed that nothing would ever be said. The reason #2 stopped at Pendleton was that the wayfreight crew forgot to turn their marker lamps on the green when they were in the clear. After #2 departed, to say that there was a shaky crew on the wayfreight would be putting it mildly. We all realized how stupid we were to take a chance and lift ahead of #2 when we could have done our work after she had gone, when we were waiting the 20 minute block. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I recall our crew sitting in a restaurant near Park Avenue station waiting for #427 to take us to Ottawa, and saying: "Wouldn't that be a nice Christmas present to go home and tell our families that we are fired, or worse?" I think that we were all on pins and needles for a few weeks, praying that the story would not get out. It never did until now. Now that I stop and think, one of the best-kept secrets could have turned into a major tragedy in a matter of seconds