Trainspotting, the amateur’s interest in watching trains, is an activity normally associated with the British Isles. It has a grand tradition, leading to both a novel and a movie. But let’s consider, for a moment, trainspotting and the two vast railway systems that connect Canada. And let’s consider it before the diesel locomotive robbed the industry of most of its charm. For roughly 70 years, steam locomotives of astonishing diversity criss-crossed 3500+ miles of largely unsettled country. From the edge of a small prairie town, it was my good fortune to have experienced 10 years of this often hectic traffic.
As a boy, our family lived next to the CNR main rail line that connected Moncton, New Brunswick, with Vancouver and Prince Rupert. We lived so close to the tracks that – in the words of Daniel Woodrell – “if the train came through at breakfast time, all the eggs were scrambled”. From 1946 until steam faded into history around 1955, I watched hundreds of locomotives pull their loads across the country. Our town was what the railroad called a divisional point. This meant that every locomotive had to stop to take on water, get a splash of oil on squeaky bearings, perhaps re-fuel, and often undergo a change of crew. Think of a pit stop writ large.
Not every locomotive stopped. On rare occasions a heavyweight locomotive (a 5500 series, if I recall) sported white flags across on either side of its forehead. This meant the main rail line was to be cleared and this monster allowed to race to its destination as fast as it was allowed to go, its cargo a secret and its comings-and-goings unannounced. Where it began and where it finished we never knew. Often they passed in the night and only their fierce huffing told of this brief dash through town. Rumours abounded as to the possible cargo – silk, munitions, nuclear weapons. These ‘phantom’ trains fueled many a conversation at the beanery.
My brothers and I were self-trained experts on CNR train traffic. We had names for the different types of locomotives that had nothing to do with the standard wheel assignation, such 2-6-4-4. We knew approximately how long a train would lay over by how far its siding was from the main track. We knew the language of the whistle. When a freight carried what we called a ‘dead’ engine, a locomotive headed either to the Winnipeg repair centre or the locomotive boneyard, we would try to sneak onto it and play engineer. Thanks to this proximity to the CNR main line, our childhood was enriched greatly.
But there was one train that consistently received special attention. It was called the Local and it ran from Edmonton to Saskatoon. Every day. One train going west, one train going east. They passed each other somewhere, we guessed, around North Battleford.
The Local was not a big train, like the Continental and Super Continental, either of which could run to twenty or more cars. On a big day, it might have a baggage-passenger car mix of eight. Often it was only four cars long. The local began its service sometime in the early thirties and continued through to the early sixties, that sadly brief period of Western Canadian history when travel by passenger train waxed and waned on the Canadian prairies. And if you ask the small-town prairie people who lived on the CNR or CPR main lines what they remember about train travel, they’re quite likely to cite the Locals. The bigger, continental trains were flashier and state of the art but they generally traversed the prairies in the dark of night (the assumption being their fare-paying clientele had no wish to gaze at unending grasslands and wheatfields. Unfortunate, because many of those passengers would never know the subtle and varied beauty of the Canadian prairie. Moreover, the continentals had no intention of even slowing down for most prairie towns. They stopped only at divisional points and then but briefly.
But the Locals were special. They were generally stubby affairs that roamed a vast sparsely-populated swath of Canada. They were, in a very real way, thereliable link. The highway system was well-developed by 1950 (if not paved) but weather could disrupt traffic at any time. Not so the Local.
The locomotive itself was a sleek black machine, almost diminutive compared to its transcontinental cousins. If the larger locomotives could be likened to noble thoroughbreds, the Local engine was a perfectly proportioned quarter horse, no less beautiful for its smaller size. It shone brightly in the prairie sun, always appearing as if it had received a fresh coat of shiny enamel. The Local did its job so briskly that gawkers of all ages came out regularly just to watch its arrival and departure, to watch its huge wheels slowly begin to roll, to edge as close as one dared to avoid steam suddenly released from one of the many valves, and to wave to the man with the best job in the world, the engineer.
Today, few people expect passenger trains to run on time (probably because passenger rail traffic has no status with railroads fixated on freight) but the Local, unless impeded by a blizzard or a crossing accident, was rarely off schedule by more than 10 minutes. It was, for many, the model of beauty and efficiency. Of course, it only had to go 300 miles. Why shouldn’t it be able to keep to its schedule?
Well, between Edmonton and the Saskatchewan border – roughly 170 miles – the Local had to be prepared to stop a few times. In this 170 mile stretch, these towns and villages were stops for the Local – Clover Bar, Ardrossan, Uncas, DeVille, Lindbrook, Tofield, Ryley, Poe, Holden, Bruce, Torlea, Viking, Phillips, Kinsella, Jarrow, Irma, Fabyan, Wainwright, Greenshields, Heath, Edgerton, Ribstone and, finally, Chauvin. With only one or two exceptions, each stop had a small sandy-coloured station and at least one grain elevator. 23 stops in 170 miles and 5 hours. Try replicating that in a car and you’ll have some idea of how conscientious the trainmen were to stay on schedule. There was none of that ‘grabbing the mail bag off a hook as you race by’– stuff either.
For a traveler in a hurry, taking the Local could be frustrating, even when the timetable was apparent. All that stopping and starting every 6 or 7 miles could try one’s patience. But most travelers took it all in stride and it was cleaner, roomier, and brighter than the bus. The occasional whiff of smoke and dusting of cinders was preferable to the gravel highway alternatives of choking dust, knee-deep mud or four-foot snowdrifts.
The Local rarely had more than one or two passenger cars, day coaches with less-than luxurious seating. But it was an important freight conduit to the small communities along the way. The dominance of the trucking industry was in the future and for smaller freight loads the Local was a reliable option. Prompt delivery was important for many rural businesses and the Local delivered.
Why were there so many towns? One word. Grain. Getting the grain to the elevator was an arduous task. The grain was heavy, the equipment clumsy and accident-prone, and the ‘engines’ were dray horses. Both the wagons and the horses often had to be borrowed from a more affluent neighbour and keeping their loaned use to a minimum was both polite and prudent. The town began with the elevator (if one considers there may have been as many as 60 elevators along that 170-mile stretch, there must have been one hell of a building boom in the first 30 years of the 20thcentury).
The elevator was the town centre and what happened after that was a matter of speculation. Some towns grew and others did not. And, as far as I know, no Ph.D candidate ever researched this phenomenom. All I knew was that physical beauty didn’t have anything to do with it. The prettiest town locations were more than likely the sparest. Our town, healthy and growing, was set in a dreary slough bottom. Seven miles away, a beautiful valley was home to a dying hamlet.
It may seem obvious now that not all of these towns could survive. I am also sure no one thought that at the time. Perhaps they were hoping the European model might be replicated and may have simply underestimated the harshness of the prairies.
Now in the second decade of the 21stcentury, in that 170-mile from Edmonton to the Saskatchewan border, only Wainwright, the divisional point could be described as a healthy town. Others, like Tofield, Viking, Ryley, and perhaps Irma are clinging to a small population base. Edgerton has a small but vibrant arts community. The rest have either disappeared or are nearly deserted. And, of course, the Local is no more.
But for an all-too-brief period of our history, trainspotting on the Canadian prairies was a splendidly varied and exciting affair. And there was always the Local. I wish my grandchildren could have seen it. An imitation of sorts can be seen – and experienced – these days with the steam train running from Stettler to Big Valley in central Alberta, although the promoters seem more interested in portraying an old west evocation rather than the mid-20thcentury. That’s understandable, it’s entertainment, not history, even if, to people like me, history IS entertainment.
Robert Alan Davidson
June 15, 2015