After a brief stint with the navy, Vernon returned home to P.E.I. in 1964 and spent seven years as relief agent for the railway, working in stations from Elmira to Summerside, but mostly in the eastern part of the province.
Getting a job with the railway was not so easy. These jobs were much sought after as they paid well and were continual, with room for advancement, as the older employee's retired.
As new positions became available employee's were offered to compete for these positions, but they usually went to the person with the most seniority. As well, good old politics played a roll in getting railway jobs although this did not eliminate the applications to be filled out and the exams to be completed.
Exams were held in Moncton, N.B. and for those that were accepted, course's were taught on all aspects of running a railway. Morse code was one thing you had to know, and although Vernon was already taught this with his Navy experience, the railroad version was different, "backwards" was the way he phrased it.
All orders and messages were sent by key, as it was called, and the station agent had to be able to understand and write the message first.
Agents took great pride in their ability to send quick and accurate messages and their feeling's were badly hurt if something had to be repeated. With safety always being top priority, the agent would report the time of arrival and departure of the train, also any changes in orders for the train crew were received on the key. This was an open line and all stations received messages at the same time that way each station up and down the line knew where each train was at all times.
The agents were responsible for all the bookkeeping for the station.
Ticket sales and C.N. money orders were also sold at many stores in the area. All freight had to be weighed and prepaid, the agent would take the cash, money orders, etc to the bank and get a bank draft which was sent to the Moncton Office.
Parcels from catalogue orders as well as goods for the stores in the area were received and sorted. Freight cars for potato growers were always requested for by the agent. This was not always easy for if he requested ten cars, he may only get six, which had to be divided among the farmers. Many farmers were rather angry and the agent had to take the brunt of the anger from irritated customers. Vernon considered himself very lucky for he always seemed to get the number of cars he requested.
The railroad was also very accommodating and would hold up the train for someone coming in late with a load of potatoes. Some of the people shipping potatoes during this time were; Freeman Mossey, Willie Fraser, Norman and Kermit Bruce, Joe Fay and Arthur Dixon.
As Vernon was working down in St. Peters one day, he received a call telling him that a motor trolley was spotted headed for St. Peters
without a driver. Taking his yellow key to switch the tracks, he made his way out to the tracks. Not satisfied with that, he ran up the track and placed two bars across it so when the trolley struck the bars it would jump the track. It was then he saw some children playing in the trolleys path.
Sprinting up to them he removed the children and seconds later the trolley went by at about 25 mph hitting the bars and flying off the track before coming to a stop. The answer to this bizarre mystery arrived a short time later. Very worried, badly shaken and with many cuts, scrapes, and bruises, the roadmaster, who was on his way to Souris from Charlottetown, had leaned from the trolley looking at the tracks, overbalanced and fell out, rolling down the bank into the woods. Needless to say, he was happy to learn that no one had been hurt and the runaway trolley had been stopped.
Being a station agent was rarely dull and very interesting, you were the first one to know who was coming or going. Telegrams were sent and received by the agent so he or she knew who was getting married or who had died.
Telegrams were received from Ottawa for congratulations to the winners of the latest elections. People came to the station to get weighed and one of the fun things the agent would do was to set the scales ten pounds heavier for the women. Folks also came just to visit and sit around the pot belly stove where the tea pot was always on.
Stations were often host to visitors from the railroad offices, supervisors and heads of departments. On one surprise visit to Elmira near the end of the freight era, Vernon was caught building lobster traps in the station, the first signs of worry quickly disappeared as his guests began to laugh and ask all sorts of questions about building traps and lobster fishing.
During the last year that the freight train ran to Elmira, G. MacIsaac from St. Peters ran the station at Elmira and the station was only opened as needed. Passenger's travelling a long distance were able to arrange for a compartment or berth at their local station.
These cars were either boarded in Charlottetown or the Mainland, cars boarded in
Charlottetown were put on the Borden ferry for Amherst where they were picked up to continue their journey. Passengers returning to P.E.I. could be held up in Moncton due to storms, Vernon was held up for three days while trying to get home on leave from the Navy.
Since Elmira was the end of the line for the east run, a section of track was built into a "Y," so the train could turn around and make it's trip back to Charlottetown.
Station Agent's desk
31 August 2002
Elmira, Prince Edward Island
Coming from a farming family George can recall the days when his father, Reuben McCannell, used the train for shipping cream during the winter months. In the other seasons, his father would truck the cream, this was after the independance of the domestic vehicle came about (around the early 1930's or so).
As for George, he was a very dedicated railway operator. His service was at the base of the operations, he worked as a station agent or sometimes referred to as station master or agent operator. In his younger years, before his railway career, George worked the family farm a bit and recalls going to Nova Scotia to work the lumber camps, one winter. In 1942 he went on to Kitchener, Ontario for army training in Communications.
It was there that he met a gentlemen by the name of Ken Fraser who influenced him to become a railway communications operator or something in that line. Ken Fraser was also an Islander but George never met him until he went to the army. Ken told George to look him up after the war was over and he would train him himself. George moved back to the Island in 1946 and farmed for a year. Ken returned the year before and was already an established station agent in Breadalbane.
In 1947 George went with Ken for an informal training session which helped him qualify for the test which he wrote in July of 1948. George recalls writing the test in Charlottetown. It was based on safety rules andcommunications, that is a practical test on the key. Once you were successful in the test you were then considered an official Station Agent Operator. You started out working part time or on holidays until a full time position became available. George explained that in a station you would most often have:
Station Agent Operator - who did all the works
Operator - who worked with communications only
Assistant Agent - had all the qualifications of a station agent but with lesser pay. He did not have the same responsibility as the station agent.
In the communications area there was a standard level by CN's pay scale. However, the quality of work and ability to administer such skills was all put on special levels, you could be a level 1, 2, or 3.
You were not promoted but you were recognized for such proficiency by a specific level. Although George was successful in the exams and now was officially a qualified Station Agent Operator he did not get his first posting until 1951 at Montague Station as a station agent assistant. George was stationed in Montague until 1959 when he took advantage of an opening in the Mt. Stewart Station where he remained as station agent operator for 13 years.
He continued to explain the daily routine of the station agent. A work day was either 7:30am until 4:30pm or 8:00am until 5:00pm where there were always two people, agent and assistant.
They used to share a shift so they could keep the station open longer. Firstly there was tending to the daily cash and documents (which were kept in a safe that only the agent could open). You could judge your cash pretty accurately as to what you would need for the day. You also anticipated how many business people you would be in contact with during the day at the station. Secondly you had the role as yard supervisor.
You had to keep a daily check of what was in the yard , where it was packed, how many cars were empty, what would be leaving, all of this had to be finished before the trains began their daily run. Daily orders were also given by the agents to the brakemen to switch cars to the proper track, get them ready for departure etc.
The station agent had keys for the safe, cash till, where the records and blank tickets were kept etc. If you knew how to fill out a ticket properly, it could have been a free ride for someone.
If someone was travelling off Island or out of the country to the U.S., you could transfer to several different railways. All of this information had to be figured out and written up on the blank ticket. Later the conductor for each destination would punch the ticket to confirm i.e. Charlottetown to Montreal could have 3 or 4 different conductors.
Along with this travelling off Island or abroad the station agent had to be accurate. Proper routing was something the conductors had to be very accurate about. A routing tariff book was to be followed which management people for CN, in Montreal, had to arrange and have standard copies made. This tariff book was about a couple of inches thick, "this was our standard routing," George says. Calculating ratings for passengers and freight that was being shipped was also a job the conductors had to do.
Along with having all of this work to do as a daily routine, there was always a lot of noise. There would be people coming and going or people just there to hang out and get the latest gossip. The station was considered a socializing place and was always bustling with activity.
Back in the Montague years, George recalls how this place truly depended on the train. The station agent would hire a porter (who was strictly a labor worker hired for loading and unloading freight). In the early 1950's this was year round employment.
There was a combination of a coal freight shed located here. The coal was for the old steam engines and was not for sale to the public. Horse and sleighs or buggy's would also back right up to the freight shed so you didn't have to walk far to load and unload. Some people would try and get away with weighing in less than the freight actually was. Most were pretty honest though.
After George left Montague and got posted in Mt. Stewart in 1959 he remained there until 1972 serving as a Station Agent. The day to day operations were much more hectic than the Montague posting. In fact, George recalls his first day at Mt. Stewart Station.
With all of the confusion of starting a brand new job, the previous station agent would only stay with you for 3 or 4 hours to show you how to do the books and learn the ropes. One would have to be a fast learner because once he was gone you were on your own. With the new job came approximately a 20% increase in pay. George served in Mt. Stewart for 13 years.
In the years at Mt. Stewart George recalls many frustrating things that went along with the job. An example would be the fear of giving the wrong information to the sectionmen about the where abouts of the trains, where they were supposed to go etc. "In the late 60's I didn't give the complete correct information to the sectionmen who did not wait until I completed the call" (This call was done by phone). There would have most likely been an accident, but the oncoming train had to go around a sharp turn so it slowed down enough to see the other train approaching and was able to stop.
George can also recall many railway crossing accidents especially when cars were first allowed on P.E.I. roads. He explained how the level crossings were the most likely to pose a problem. He commensed to explain how there are:
Level Crossings - where the track and the road are at the same level and meet at the same level. There were many of these on P.E.I. as we can still see the remains of them today.
Over Crossings - where the trains crossed the road overhead. The road would be under the railway bridge. The only place George could think of was in western P.E.I. near Summerside, Wilmot area.
Under Crossings - were of course under the road bridge. There were quite a few of these on P.E.I.
Leaving Montague to take a new post in Mt. Stewart, George noticed that the railway was beginning to disappear. "CN office people and owners, I believe, were intentionally diminishing the individual stations," says George. Livestock shipping was the first to disappear, then other freight started to as well, due to transport trucking. When George left Mt. Stewart it was still a junction point, "this was more or less kept on by the pressures from the big wigs, for safety purposes."
After his years as a station agent George worked as a consultant supervisor over these junction points, as a service representative from 1973 until 1976. This was basically the same line of work that came with the job of being station agent only they gave it a different title. "You were also scattered all over the Island with those last years of service," says George."
With the closing of the railway George feels that we took a step backwards. P.E.I. roads are not equipped for heavy trucking. "Who can justify putting transport trucks on the highway with the exhaust, oil spills etc. polluting the air. 100 freight cars could be done at one time using only one or two engines." George says people were not using there heads when they closed the railway.
"As a service person and station agent I enjoyed the railway work. You were a group of people at the station who pulled together to get the work done. In those days you did not need an extra dollar for doing extra work."
An average pay for the week working as a station agent was $162.00.
A torpedo was used by the brakemen to signal trains for specific purposes.
The steam engine changed to diesel in the mid 50's. Steam engines had one extra person on the crew for firing the engines. The coal for the fuel was carried and stored in the tender.
In the early years before refridgerated cars there was ice cars. This was the responsibility of the shipper who would make sure the car had ice, would order the ice when needed etc. When travelling off Island you generally had more icing stops.
Key, sometimes referred to as a Bug as a newer verion of the key. This was a standard piece of equipment that had a switch you would tap to signal messages to a receiver. If you wanted one you had to purchase it yourself.
P.E.I. poster, near the Clerks office at the Elmira Railway Museum.
31 August 2002
Elmira, Prince Edward Island
Gus worked on the railway as a sectionman. He does not have a lot to say about his job, but he did have other interesting information.
Al Campbell worked at the Elmira Station and one of his duties was to clean the engine every night. Ashes from the tinder had to be dumped, which were then saved and used on the railbed. Coal had to be loaded for the train to burn, this was done by loading small cars, each car held one ton of coal and ran on a smaller track. Once loaded the cars were brought to the side of the engine, using a cable and hook they were lifted to a table on the engine where the car was tipped, spilling the coal into the box. About three tons were loaded every night. The train was turned and freight cars coupled on ready for the engine crew in the morning.
Two fires broke out which may have been caused by a spark from the train engine. One was in the coal stock pile at Elmira Station which smoldered for days. The second fire was just west of the station and south of the Trantum Road. The land was owned by a Malcolm Campbell, a large area of woodland was burned. The land was then sold to Stuart MacGregor that fall, he harvested what was left of the trees for pulpwood. The train stopped at Munns Road only on request. Passengers wanting to board here had to be on the platform and flag down the train. Chester Pratt bought and sold western horses, they were shipped by train to St. Peters.
Gus bought one of these horses, all had been branded, which was quite a novelty on P.E.I. where branding is never done.
Photographs of working on the Railroad.
31 August 2002
Elmira, Prince Edward Island
The Elmira branch from Harmony Junction to Elmira was completed in 1908. The railway buildings at this time consisted of a station, a two stall engine house with a turn table and a small freight shed. A work train was stationed at Elmira to complete the work of fencing and ditching along this branch before regular train service could begin. The work train went to Souris every day for coal to run the engine and supplies for the work crew.
The turn table that was built in the beginning was very easy to operate. The engine would be driven onto it, resting on rollers the table had several wooden handles and could be turned by three men.
After the Y was made, a garage to service the engine was built and the turn table was covered. Boilerman, Jack Cameron was foreman for the project, he picked Bill Monroe and H.E. Morie, two locomotive firemen, both idle from their regular jobs.
They brought their tools and used old light rails for the frame to carry the wooden top. Holes for bolts and rivets had to be done by a hand ratchet as there was no electric power. The Y was large, running from the station almost to the Tarantum Road. The whole train could be turned for the return trip to Charlottetown.
In the early years the train stayed in Elmira every night. The train and engine crews boarded with a couple by the name of Mr. & Mrs. Malcolm Campbell. When conductor Cliff Cox was assigned to this run he built a small bungalow for his own use. Later a bunk car was provided for the engine crew.
Aeneas MacPhee worked nights at the station and had the job of cleaning the engine for the next day of travel. Cleaning the engine was not an easy task, for the boiler plus all the tubes had to be thoroughly cleaned. In addition to this, the firebox and tender had to be cleaned and filled with coal preparing it for morning. Working with coal and ash was not always pleasant, the coal gave off gasses that had long term effects on one's health.
There was a magic with the steam engine, something the newer engines never had. An engineer was assigned an engine and it became his pride and joy. C.Y. Partridge was one who took pride in his work. He came to work each day wearing a fresh white shirt and tie, striped overalls clean and pressed and boots polished and shining. His engine was clean and the brass valves and knobs had a sparkle before his train left the station.
Inspecting the tracks, at any time during the year, kept the sectionmen quite busy. Every mile of track had to be checked before each train came in. In the winter frost would cause ground heaves which would lift the tracks. This could cause considerable damage, for if left alone, the engine running over the rail would break it leaving the end sticking up to catch the next car.
Washouts in the spring and heavy summer rains were also a hinderance. Summer also brought with it the flies, not a hazard to the train, but to the sectionmen it was almost unbearable. A mixture of pinetar was used to try and keep black flies, mosquitos and moose flies at bay.
Harry's father worked as an extra, on call, for a short time but not after the 1920's. His uncle Joe Harris spent many years on the railway. Joe was often called to go for a doctor in an emergency, day or night. If it was during the day, he would have to get permission to be on the track. The trip to Souris on the open trolley and returning with the doctor could be a cold one in the winter. Neither Joe or the doctor ever refused someone in need of help. Dr. W.H.P. MacMillan, a surgeon, came ny train to Elmira to see patients. While in Elmira, doctors would board at farms near the station. The Harris farm was one such place.
A large store located in Elmira was taken over by a lady named Estella (Aeneas) MacPhee and previously owned by the Hughes. All goods for the store, as well as other stores, came by train. Different types of fuel came in barrels, lime and fertilizer came for farmers and mail and parcels could be picked up at the store.
Many people travelled the train to do business or for pleasure or just to socialize at the station. Sales people travelled by train and boarded in Elmira until their business was finished. Christmas shopping trips to Charlottetown was an enjoyable time for many.
The trip home was often turned into "The Best Party" as some people phrased it. Fiddlers would play, everyone would be singing, some would be jigging, which would continue the whole way home. On train nights as many as 40 to 50 people would be at the station. They came for the mail, to pick up goods at the store, socialize or yes, to pick up passengers.
The people and the railway workers had what you would call a close knit relationship. Conductors, would at times, allow passengers on who could not pay the fare. His kind heart could have gotten him fired or suspended if he was caught.
Very often railway detectives or other personnel, unknown to the crew, would ride the train watching for infractions by those who worked for the railroad. When one passenger fell asleep and missed his stop, Munns Road, the conductor found him when they arrived in Elmira. The train had to back up all the way to Munns Road to let him off.
As Harry's recollection came to a close he concluded by telling a funny little story. A special train brought a large group of people from Elmira to attend a Tea Party at Susan Ford's on the East Point Road (now Joe Cheverie's). It turned into quite a time as the cider being served had fermented.
Building the line from Souris to Elmira.
Between Harmony Junction and Elmira, Prince Edward Island
The first survey for the railroad from Souris to Elmira was done in 1907. The decision as to where the railway would go, on a second survey, was completed in 1909 and the line was to go through Harmony.
A 100 foot wide strip was cut through the forest using cross cut saws and axes, two steam shovels were brought from New Brunswick by scow to grade the land and dig out banks around streams for bridges and culverts . One of the large steam shovels had to be taken apart and loaded on a truck wagon pulled by horses, to where it was needed.
Men working on the line lived in tents sent up at Munn's Road. Wages were $1.50 per day and you could buy dinner for 17 cents, room and board was $3.50 per week.
Sand and gravel had to be tested carefully for use on cement culverts. It was decided that gravel from North Lake and the white sand from South Lake was the best, it was then transported by horse and cart.
The line was completed in 1912 with stations at Harmony Junction, Connaught, Fountain Head, East Baltic, and Munn's Road. The Harmony Junction Station had a 10,000 gallon water tank and a 200 foot shed for coal, was built at Elmira Station. In 1926 the narrow gauge track was widened to accommodate trains coming in from the mainland, it was 4 foot 8 1/2 inches long.
A first class ticket from Elmira to Souris was 70 cents and 45 cents for second class return. Passenger trains ran everyday with the freight cars running about twice a week. During the Charlottetown Exhibition a special train ran and you could go and return for $1.00. At Christmas time the return train was held up for an extra two hours or so to allow passengers more time for shopping.
During heavy snowstorms the train would get stuck and have to be shovelled out by men, it would also occasionally slip off the track and would have to wait for the work train. The tracks were checked on a regular basis by a work crew, usually four men on a open trolley which was pumped by hand to move along the track. In 1914 the motorized trolley was introduced.
The East Baltic and Elmira train stations were popular spots to meet and talk around a pot belly stove, to pass away a cold winter's evening. It was not uncommon to see the young people peeking in the windows to see what the afternoon freight train had brought.
Those meeting the train would rush out to calm and hold their horses and assure them that the hissing monster was harmless. A few students travelled by train to Souris to complete Grades 9 and 10. Even though the distance from Elmira to Souris was short, they had to stay the week and come home only on the weekends. If it happened to storm they would have to stay in Souris. On one such occasion the train was held up for 7 days.
Farmers would often send cream to Charlottetown by train, the empty cans would be returned on the next freight train. In 1907 a Starch Factory was built and owned by Harvey McEwen from St. Peter's, it was built just north of the East Baltic station.
It later closed for a number of years and was then reopened again. Just south of the tracks there was a copper shop where tanks and barrels were made. The last passenger train to Elmira was in 1967.
Construction on the railway
Between Harmony Junction and Elmira, near East Baltic, Prince Edward Island
Francis started with the railway in 1924 at 15 years of age. He began as an extra, a laborer, for the railway for 23 years. Francis was a smart and talented man in the area of building and constructing, especially railway bridges and track laying.
In later years of working on the railway, the supervisor of the railway said he was capable of advancement to the foreman's level. When asked to advance, Francis declined the position and continued to be a labourer (cook), travelling with the cook car and living right on board.
Since Francis had no education, he only learned to sign his name probably for signing cheques, he felt he was not worthy of the position. He was a proud man so was quite content where he was. How unfortunate and what a great loss of someone with so much talent.
A young man who felt he was not educated enough to take advantage of climbing the ladder of advancement. In 1947, just after the war, things began to develop and grow everywhere, even here on P.E.I. Francis had retired with the railway in 1947 and took it upon himself to start up his own construction and doing private contracting.
His talent was not completely at loss, for not only was he talented in this area, the desire to do this type of work was enough to have him take the initiative to build his own business and have his son apprentice and eventually take over the business years later.
Construction on the railway
Between Harmony Junction and Elmira, near East Baltic, Prince Edward Island
Hughie Joseph MacDonald
Although the railway greatly improved transportation of people and produce and brought more people together for social activities, the building of the railway was debated. At the time everyone had a farm, during the summer months the livestock were allowed to roam free and fend for themselves, foraging on grass, young sapling, drinking from the streams, and taking cover for the night amongst the trees.
Most people were concerned that their wandering livestock would be frightened off to places that they would never find them or, still worse, be killed by the trains.
There must have been some agreement of this because when the railroad was built, some sources refer to the fencing put in place by the railway and the money given to replace an animal that had been killed by the train.
The section of railway from Harmony to Elmira was built much later than that extending from Mt. Stewart to Harmony and Souris. Crews worked on this area, surveying and clearing the land, laying the railbed, building bridges and finally laying the track.
This involved a lot of work as this area was a very dense forest and required a lot of time and energy to clear. When that was completed, loads upon loads of fill were brought in by horse and cart to make the track bed.
Because of the huge amount of work, many of the men stayed on site for the week, returning to their families on the weekend. Old box cars were used for sleeping quarters and the cookhouse.
The cook for the crew, Allan MacKinnon, lived in Selkirk and used to walk on the tracks to Elmira on Monday mornings to work for the week. The train always went west in the morning and he could not take the horse for the whole week so the only other way was to walk. Mother nature often took its toll on the trains passage from station to station.
Snow storms often piled snow as high as the train on the tracks. In 1923, the snow was so deep that the train was stuck there for days. In 1930 a fierce storm washed out the track bed in St. Peters. Rock from Nova Scotia and or New Brunswick was used to make a more sturdy bed for the rails than previous Island clay foundation had provided.
New sources of fuel made way for the shift to diesel engines in the late 1940's or early 1950's.
The new trains were found to have less power than the coal driven steam engines. It was discovered belts were slipping in the diesels and new gears replaced these belts and provided the power needed.
Few stories about ghosts, forerunners, etc. associated with the train were recalled. However, a few scary incidents with reasonable explanations occurred.
Before the train existed in the eastern end of the country, those who were unfamiliar with the sound of the train, often heard a low, eerie noise as they walked at night. Imaginations got the best of them most times and stories arose about this noise.
It was later discovered that on calm nights, the trains running west of where they lived could be heard for miles hissing and blowing their whistle. Another incident involved a man walking home on the tracks one night and a clicking noise could be heard. Knowing there was no other way home, the brave man walked on towards this noise, expecting to meet the devil himself. As he got closer, he discovered a horse had become loose and was clicking her shod hoofs on the ties and rails as she ate grass along the track.
Allan MacKinnon, born at Selkirk, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Allan MacKinnon and except for a few winters spent as a cook away in lumber camps, lived his entire life in the district of Selkirk.
After his marriage to Mary (Minnie) Burke, he bought a homestead and farm property close by his old home. He operated a farm and in 1926 took over the rural Mail Route there for which he drove with horses only until September 1960.The roads were rugged and tough in those days, especially in the winter months before the widespread use of snowplows and heated cars made the work more bearable.
"I remember well, one blustery mid-winter day about 1935, that his sleigh was hit and he came close to being killed by the westbound afternoon train at the Selkirk Railroad Crossing."
The horse had broke away from the sleigh and headed for home and Allan laid on the cowcatcher, at the front of the train, for some 100 yards. As the train came to a stop, Allan stepped off the train unhurt. Mike MacIntyre boarded the train at that time and with the snow drift, did not know of the accident. As the train pulled away, he saw the fur cap on the snow and felt sure it was Allan's for Mike kept the post office at the time and saw Allan with the cap daily.
Collection of photographs of the P.E.I. Narrow Guage Railway, at the Elmira Railway Museum.
31 August 2002
Elmira, Prince Edward Island