Railway fever – a John Dunn story

John-Dunnby John Dunn

Right up to the time I was nine I’d suspicioned (as the men on the front step of the blacksmith shop would likely say) that CPR locomotives – like all other living things had come trundling off Noah’s ark.

Even though I’d been named after him, I’d begun to suspicion my grandfather too. He had magic, real powerful magic. As section foreman on the CPR he got to ride the rails on a “scooter”, a kind of railroader’s kiddie car with iron wheels. Nobody else could have one of those contraptions, and I was deeply envious of him.

Often too, when he’d arrive back home off the road on a cold winter’s day, a cluster of icicles would be hanging from his moustache, and that made me gape in wonder. But even mightier magic followed.

Customarily on coming in, he’d set down his lunch can and right away go sit in the big Morris chair by the kitchen window, strike an Eddy’s `sesqui’ and light his pipe. As flame came to the bowl, icicles began to melt and droplets fell from his moustache ends wetting the Quebec shag in the bowl. Unnerved by this, he’d puff until the charred match began to burn his thumb nail. With a mighty blow he’d quench the match just as the icicle butts slid off the roof of his moustache and tumbled to the floor.

My grandfather’s greatest magic, however, came out of the fact that rank hath its privileges. He knew the engineer, the fireman and the conductor of the weigh freight. One magical day in July they unlocked for us the secrets of the caboose! We two John Patricks travelled ten miles to Pakenham, and another mile outside the village. There the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. We wayfarers came down from the caboose, climbed the fence and walked across the fields to Aunt Kathleen’s house where we got cookies and milk. Caboose day brought real magic to remember, powerful railway magic. I stopped suspicioning my grandfather right there.

A couple of years later I became sick. It was April. My father used the magic in his physician’s stethoscope, and then stood up beside my bed and said to mother, “He’s got scarlet fever. We’ll have to put him in isolation for three weeks, away from the rest of the family, and make sure he’s kept out of direct sunlight.”

On my third morning in isolation in the little room at the back of the house the fever had gone down enough that I could sit up. After my father stuffed the stethoscope back in his pocket he said, “I thought you might like to have something to read,” and handed me three books from The Chronicles of Canada set, from the bookcase in the dining room.

I thanked him and picked up The Railway Builders.

Sunshine crowded the big maple outside my window and swelled the buds ominously. Excited robins flitted in and out from under the eaves. A freight train, high-balling through Almonte, screeched at the town hall, thundered across the railway bridge over the Mississippi and faded away west.

I’d come to the chapter, “The Brockville and Ottawa”. Suddenly the book dropped, and I stared excitedly. I’d just found the name, Almonte, in the book. “The Brockville and Ottawa reached Almonte in August 1859,” it said. Only important places got printed in history books, I knew, and here was our town in one of The Chronicles of Canada, and all because of the railway.

That evening I told my father what I had discovered, and the date, August 1859.

“That would be about right,” he said. “This remained the terminus for five more years until the company could go on building towards Pakenham and Arnprior.”

“Where did the Brockville and Ottawa end?” I asked him.

“Its charter called for a line to be built from the docks on the St. Lawrence at Brockville, straight through Leeds and Lanark counties, to some point on the Ottawa River,” he said. “That point turned out to be Sand Point, near Rhoddy’s Bay, a few miles beyond Arnprior. At first they had to build a tunnel under Market Square in Brockville, and that took time. Their aim was to get vast stands of white pine timber in the Upper Ottawa Valley to the thirty million people across to the St. Lawrence in the United States. That would make the Brockville and Ottawa important to all the Ottawa Valley.”

My scarlet fever passed, the Depression came in, and I went into high school. Along the Ottawa Valley route of the CPR thousands of men took to travelling by train – freight train.

Sunday morning frequently brought one to the front door of the doctor’s house, a man in dire need of attention, hollow-eyed, soot-stained, and cinderstrewn. And always a stranger, not knowing that the doctor’s office was at the side door of the house, not the front. Never was the visitor calling for the doctor, but asked rather, “Could the lady of the house offer me the favour of a meal?” Leaving later well fed, and carrying a paper bag of sandwiches, each gave thanks for a chance to have something to share with a friend.

Occasionally a man on the move plumbed the depths of desperation by travelling on “The Dominion Limited” and leaving behind an image wrought in steel and etched in pain. That image is the transcontinental, standing at the station on a frigid January night, lights turned low inside where passengers dozed, and clouds of hissing steam outside, the 5200 series locomotive’s headlight glaring straight ahead into a three-dog night, and one non-paying client on the narrow platform at the rear of the tender, one arm hooked through the handrail up to the elbow, seeking through travel a future laced with vivid learning.

Learning comes ponderously too, from such as the night of 27th December, 1942 when 1, a soldier with lance corporal rank in one fiercely grim moment almost became a casualty at home. The summary of the inquest that followed records the event in stark simplicity:

TROOP TRAIN EXTRA #2802 STRUCK THE REAR OF FIRST CLASS PASSENGER TRAIN #550 WHILE THE LATTER WAS
STANDING AT ALMONTE STATION, RESULTING IN THE DEATHS OF 36 PASSENGERS AND INJURIES TO SOME 207 OTHERS.

Because of bad weather I’d not gone to the last coach as usual, but rather boarded the fourth coach from the rear. Magic, my grandfather’s magic, blanketed me that night: out of a scene rivaling the Blitz in London, through hissing steam, broken bodies, and wrecked railway cars I walked unscathed.

For the past forty years our house has been next-door neighbour to the old B & O, now the main line of the CPR, where both house and railway are mirrored in the 62 foot fall of the Mississippi at Almonte.

But time has come to pass, and the decree has gone out that rail operations between Smiths Falls and Mattawa must end. On Canada Day 1994, we can expect silent locomotive screams and ghostly trains only. No more “Canadian”, no more standing in silence with our children on the front lawn as the special train carrying the remains of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker moves solemnly past, going west. No more thunder in the night. Only the bright lights of my grandfather’s magic, a heritage of the Ottawa Valley since August 1859, a memory that bars the door on railway fever and the hustle on the rails.June-July 1994.