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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Train Stories

CN passenger train.
It was late spring in 1967 in Montreal. I was stone broke and living in a former coal room in the basement of a fraternity house that was about to be torn down. I had been camping on the floor of a friend’s room who was an American student at McGill University from Fairfax, Virginia when the powers that be in the frat house decided that I was a distraction to his studies and offered me the windowless room in the basement rent free. You might say my prospects didn’t look too good.

Expo 67 was about to open and all of the jobs there had been sewn up by university students some months before. I was glancing through the local help wanted ads and spotted one that was looking for summer employees to work on the CN passenger trains out of Montreal. Normally these jobs would have been snapped up quickly but most young people didn’t want to miss the chance in taking part in Expo 67.
I went down to Central Station and was pretty well hired on the spot. I faked being a university student and they never asked for any proof. Training started a day or two later and I was joined by about twenty real university students. The guy who showed us the ropes was a no bullshit type named Mike Hogan who kind of resembled Ernest Borgnine in his prime. He crammed a lot into our two days of instruction including how to carry a tray. Our training was done on an old dining car in the train yards. I think they were located in Point St. Charles.
Being that we were summer help we worked off of what was called a spare board. We could be called at any time to go anywhere on the CN line out of Montreal as long as the route was initiated in Montreal. Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg to the west. North to Senneterre, Quebec. East to Quebec City, Gaspe, Quebec, and Campbellton, New Brunswick.
We were trained to do two different jobs. One was as a waiter where we wore a white shirt and a black tie along with a short red jacket. The other job was the one most of us were not fussy about and that was as a dishwasher or as they called it on the trains, a “pearl diver”. The dishwashing area had a fairly small sink that was portioned in two. On one side was the very hot soapy water and on the other side was water for rinsing. The hot water was generated by a steam tap. Fortunately, I only found myself covered in food slop a half a dozen times before exclusively working only as a waiter.
Getting up close to a train can be rather ominous. They aren’t built of fiberglass. The power of a locomotive is incredible. And the whole shebang goes hurtling down tracks at high speeds counting on nothing being in the way. Trains are very unforgiving beasts and not to be taken lightly. They demand respect.
I was just about ready for my first trip but didn’t have any black shoes. I found a nice fairly new pair of brown ones that one of the frat boys had left behind and they fit so I got some black shoe polish and I was in business. It wasn’t as if the shoes were going to be missed what with the building about to be torn down.
I didn’t have a phone but shortly after I started to work I rented a room on Hutchison Street that had a pay phone in the hallway. That phone was my way of being contacted for a few months. Before that I would just check in physically at the spare board office that was just outside the south door to Central Station.
To get to the station platform we took the same stairs with the brass handrails that the passengers did down to the bowels below. The first thing I noticed was a lot of hissing sounds and a dank kind of odor.
Central Station Montreal
The guy in charge of the dining car was the steward. There were usually 4-6 waiters under his command. The kitchen was run by a chef with 2 or 3 cooks as assistants. The dishwasher was under the steward’s authority. The porters were almost always black. A few of the cooks were also black. I can’t recall seeing more than maybe one black waiter. Hey it was the 60s! Oscar Peterson’s brother worked as a chef on the CN trains. The guy that was in charge of everything on the train was the conductor. He was the sheriff, the judge and jury, the king. Whatever he said was gospel.
Working on the passenger trains back then had a whole culture. Almost all of the workers came from rougher parts of Montreal like Point St. Charles, Little Burgundy, Griffintown and a poor neighbourhood that once had the nick name Goose Village. Some of them had some resentment for preppy college boys who were just there for the summer.
Seniority ruled. The longer you worked for the railroad the better choices you had as to which runs you worked on. The conductors and stewards wore blue dress jackets that had little bars near one of the sleeve cuffs that indicated how long they had been with the company. From what I can recall, the most desired run for old timers was the Montreal-Ottawa one because you could be in your own bed at home each night. I think a old guy named Jimmy Dodds had top seniority at the time as far as stewards go.
A lot of the employees had limited educations and they knew that their jobs were important as far as providing for their families. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some characters also working on the train. A few were involved with criminal activities away from the job. There were also some I wouldn’t have wanted to face in a dark alley. There were some really tough buggers. The craziest guy I worked with once came out of the kitchen with his package laid out on a glass celery and olives dish. It was rumoured that he was once arrested for stealing a TV when it fell on his head from a window ledge and knocked him cold.
I think waiters and dishwashers got paid something like $1.30 an hour. We were off the clock as soon as we stepped off of the train. Meals were free while we were working. When I first started I made the big mistake of gulping back orange juice like it was water. The tips were pretty good while we were working as waiters. Our accommodations in other cities were paid for by the company and always at a 3rd rate hotel including The Walker House in Toronto, The Empire Hotel in Winnipeg, and The Baker House in Gaspe, PQ.
CN pay stub 1967.
Over the summer I hardly ever ran into any of the students I had started with except for one. He was a short Jewish guy who had to be one of the hairiest people I have ever met. Nice enough guy but he must have had an itchy life.
It was a really busy summer in 1967 on the trains what with Expo 67 The passenger cars were packed and some people were quite demanding. We often had 4 calls for a meal and people were lined up down the corridor. Some would sit down before we had a chance to clean the table. I got to be pretty proficient at handling the big serving tray while the train lurched about and somehow never managed to spill anything on anyone.
I remember one trip between Montreal and Toronto when I was assigned the duty of wandering through the passenger cars to announce the first call for dinner. I entered one car and was kind of taken aback by the sullen looks from some of the passengers. It was a few minutes before it dawned on me that they were manacled and on their way to the pen in Kingston.
On another trip the staff was eating dinner after having completed 4 sittings and an old farmer wandered in. We told him that the dining car was closed but the steward let him eat anyway. Apparently he didn’t like cigarettes and took it upon himself to put our smokes out in the ashtray they were resting in.
In the beginning, I would sometimes go down to the last car and go outside and have a smoke. I would feel little drops of water but thought nothing of it. Someone later pointed out to me that those little drops of water were coming from the washrooms.
I started to become a bit of a cowboy. In northern Ontario if a passenger asked me what lake was outside the window, I would tell them Round Lake. ”Round Lake?” “Yeah it’s round somewhere.” None of the other waiters wanted to call bingo after the last meal at night but I kind of liked it. It gave me a chance to joke around with the young and older babes. There was one steward, a guy named George Stundon, who was a bit of a cool dude. I think he asked to get me on his crew if they needed someone from the spare board. I must have told that guy every joke I ever heard in my then 20 years on this planet.
Things got very hectic on the train during Expo 67. Once in a while the steward and chef would agree to condemn some food just so they could shut the dining car down because of lack of food. Occasionally garbage was tossed out to the side of the tracks. It was kind of like us and them. The hordes at the gates.
Trip record Montreal To Winnipeg and back.
The porters and the conductor and assistant conductor were also fed in the dining car. Some of the young black guys had copped an attitude. Race relations were a big deal in the 60s. Some of the young black guys would just glare at you if you asked them a question. There wasn’t any point in telling them that I wasn’t the one oppressing them. “I’m on your side man!”  I do remember getting pissed one night with some of the older black porters at a dive in Quebec City called The Fez.
In 1967 they added a disco car to the passenger train between Montreal and Toronto where people could dance while hurtling down the tracks. I was never in that car while working but saw the interior when the train was in the station. It was decorated in early acid trip.
You may be asking yourself what was on the menu in the dining car? Maybe not? Anyway, there were about 5 main choices. Prime rib was #1. A lot of people wanted the end cut but there were only two per roast. I kind of got sick of the stuff after a while. #2 was some kind of chicken. The only other entrĂ©e I can remember was trout and it was seldom ordered. I think they pronounce it “trit” in French. Celery and olives (without the package) came with the meal. Pie and ice cream or pie and cheddar cheese were the desert standards.
I found that the worst place to sleep at night on the train was above the wheels unless you really liked listening to that “clack-clack, clack-clack sound”. I learned what a “deadhead” was, a worker who was travelling but not being paid.
I never met anyone really famous working on the train. I saw Elwy Yost (look him up) who was rather tall get on a late night train to Toronto. I also ran into a folksinger on a trip to Winnipeg. He wrote a song that became popular in Canada for a few months called Moody Manitoba Morning.
I was too young to work the club car as a bartender. I probably would have had to take a course. Seemed like a cozy kind of job. Shmooze with the passengers, load them up on alcohol, get great tips. The breaking up of fights might not have been much fun. I started bringing home those empty miniature liquor bottles that held about an ounce of liquor. They are probably worth something today.
I stayed on at the trains after the summer. I was saving up a bit for a trip I had planned to take to Australia. You couldn’t quite call me a college drop-out since I wasn’t going to school anyway. A few of the regulars would give me a hard time for being a student. If only they knew.
The snows had come. One day I got a call telling me I was going to Senaterre in northern Quebec . Somewhere past Chicoutimi and on the way to Chibougamau I think. Love that name. Chibougamau. Anyway, I was changing into my waiter’s garb when I was told that was not going to be a waiter but “the” cook. It only involved making sandwiches which wasn’t difficult. When we got off the train the snow was about 4 feet high on the ground. We had to carry our valises (there’s an old word) over our heads. I remember the windows in our hotel were glazed over with ice.
One of the awkward things about working on the trains was sharing a room in some far off distant city with strangers. It isn’t that comfortable seeing an old guy you hardly know getting undressed out of the corner of your eye. The other thing is a lot of these guys liked to get shit faced drunk when they were out of town. It wasn’t so bad when I was with them but getting drunk was just a sometimes thing for me.
I had a couple of run-ins with a few waiters but never on the train. I was sitting at the bar in The Baker House Hotel in Gaspe talking to a taxi driver when a French Canadian waiter from the trains approached us. He started giving me a hard time about being a student and I don’t think he was fussy about my English speaking background either. He was throwing a lot of insults around and wouldn’t let up. Finally I got up from my seat and punched him in the noggin knocking him over some nearby empty tables and chairs.
Back then they had newsstands on some trains that were operated by women. On this trip the the newsstand woman had brought along her boyfriend who was a bit of a gorilla. I was serving the two of them breakfast the next morning and the gorilla guy started laughing when he found out that it was me who was involved in the short fight the night before. Apparently the waiter had gone to the gorilla’s room seeking help in fighting me. I might have weighed all of 150 lbs. at the time and I wasn’t Bruce Lee.
I had two run-ins at the Empire Hotel in Winnipeg. I’m not sure, but this may be the same Empire Hotel that Joni Mitchell sang about in one of her songs. “Raised On Robbery”. The first run-in happened in the hallway outside of our room. I was on the way to the bathroom in my skivvies (this wasn’t a classy hotel) when an old guy accused me of making a lot of noise. He wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t me and looked like he wanted to lay a beating on me. He kind of skulked away when I picked up a floor ashtray and told him I would clobber him if he got any closer.
The 2nd run-in was with another waiter. He had an English last name but was French. 4 of us were sharing a room and he came back to the room totally wasted. I was sleeping. He started to harass me with the student stuff and I told him to take a hike. Then he got in my face and did a few fake punches at my chin. I knocked him out. He deadheaded it back to Montreal. It turned out he had once had his jaw wired. I had to explain to the union guy on the train why I had done what I did.
This same guy had a brother who worked on the trains who was rumoured to be a pimp. I didn’t like my chances of being on the same crew and in some strange town with him. Pimp guys were probably out of my league as far as fighting goes. I did about 5 or 6 more trips and then quit.
I remember the names of some of the smaller towns the train stopped at. Places like Sioux Lookout, Armstrong, Hornepayne, Gogama, Madapedia, and Campbelton. I remember some of the characters who worked on the train. One guy told me about how he had joined the army at 15 and had been in WW2. He said he had cut fingers off of dead German soldiers on the battlefield to take their rings. One of the train conductors was also an opera singer. One guy aspired to be a professional gambler and would get me to play cards with him so he could practice his skills.
All in all I thought working on the trains was kind of like the Foreign Legion.
The last time I was on a train other than a sky train in Vancouver or a subway in other cities was the one from London to Paris. It was like being on a quiet rocket.
Train travel has fallen off in Canada over the past decades but there is still something about them. Partly because of our history I guess. Beats the hell out of having your ass crammed into an airline seat next to someone with bad breath.  Trains also make better songs than planes. “From Natchez to Mobile….wherever the four winds blow….”
Pardon mois garcons! C'est le Chatanooga choo-choo!





  1. Great story Colin - brings back memories. My Dad was a real train buff and he and Mom took my sister and I on a summer train trip to eastern Canada / US in 1965. That was certainly the age of passenger rail - you could ride by rail almost anywhere. I remember one train called the "Phoebe Snow" that I think ran between Buffalo and New Jersey.

  2. Thanks Colin for the enjoyable story and great memories. The folksinger was probably Rick Neufeld of Manitoba who wrote the song "Moody Manitoba Morning." Montreal's "The Bells" had their first hit with the song in the late 1960s. Certain jobs -- especially when you work in a small group and travel together -- attract the characters. Like the railroad, think of carnivals and circuses. I worked on a rail gang in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, living on a work train on which we travelled throughout that district to work sites. The only full diner left on Canadian trains is the one between Toronto and Vancouver. You're right -- it was the best way to travel. I relived some of those experiences this summer on two trips across the country. Unfortunately today it is less of a way of regular travel than a fancy train ride that is meant to be done once as a special treat (you couldn't afford it otherwise).

  3. Great story. Much Appreciated.

    My father worked all his life for the C.N. Retired while working at what was the turcot yards.

    My grandfather as well; and uncles.