by Tony Ickes from Thunder Bay, ON
I grew up on a remote lake in Northwestern Ontario. Our village was accessible only by rail or boat. When I was small, in the 1950’s, we had two steam trains a day, one east bound, and one westbound. We could catch the eastbound just before breakfast, ride the 100 miles into Port Arthur, do our business and grocery shopping, and jump on the evening train and be home that night. I was about 6 years old the year they took the steamers off the rails. I remember we would come out past the Neebing yards, and see the steam locomotives being busted up for scrap. I would cry my eyes out.
Over the years, as the highways got built, the train service diminished. We went from two trains a day to one; eastbound Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, westbound Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Soon enough they took our real train away, and replaced it with a railiner. You know the kind,: two cars, a combined engine/baggage car up front, with a coach behind. Not a real train, but it got us to town and home again. By the 1970’s we were one of the only place along the line between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay with no road in or out. Often the only passengers we saw on the train were retired railway guys riding on their passes.
The train was notoriously late, so much that it really didn’t have a schedule. In fact once, in making casual conversation with the conductor I asked, “Mitch, what time do you get to Ft. Frances?”
I expected him to say “ around noon”. I had to laugh when he pulled out a dog-eared timetable, and after carefully looking it up, said “Eleven –fifty six”! This from a man who had conducted the train for almost 20 years, on a schedule that in my life had never changed! Nonetheless the train was routinely 2-4 hours late. We had no choice but to wait in the bush for hours in the dark…spending the hours swatting bugs while we waited to drop off our mail, or pick someone up.
Usually when I rode the train, I would ride in the baggage car. I would sit with the mailbags and the stray pieces of local express freight, chatting with Bernie, the baggage man. On one memorable trip, the engineer was eating his lunch out of a classic gunmetal tin lunch box. As he was chewing the last of his sandwich, he turned around to me and asked “Ya wanna drive?’
Now like any self respecting 15 year old, I said, without a thought, “ Sure!”
I sat down on the seat, my foot on the deadman’s pedal. “Just keep ‘er out of the ditch eh!” He said with a chuckle.
I was 15-years old and driving the CN train. The engineer, having finished his sandwich, started in on a butter tart wrapped in wax paper. “Pull the whistle here,” he said. “There is a crossing coming up.”
One short and one long pull on the cord, and the whistle sounded just like I had heard all my life. It is a very strange perspective to see the rails disappear under you from the front of the train.
The butter tart now gone, the driver pulled out a package of Players Navy cut, and a set of Vaughn papers and rolled himself a smoke. We all smoked hand rolled in those days, tailor mades were a treat from town. The engineer seemed reasonably sure that his train was in good hands, so he reached in to the pocket of his jacket that was slung over the back of the seat. Out of the breast pocket came a Mickey of Hudson’s Bay Rye! With out a second thought, he twisted out the cork plug, making that eek-eek sound, and took a long pull from the bottle. After wiping his lips with his sleeve, and gasping gently, he reached out his hand and said “You wanna slug?”
It was now becoming clear why the train seldom if ever ran on time.
It wasn’t more than a few more years before CN took the train off completely. The community that existed died along with it. It was a very interesting community indeed. We remained isolated until a logging road touched our lakeshore in the mid ‘80s.
I still miss the train.