Sound Heritage: Railroaders (PDF)



Recollections from the Steam Era in British Columbia

NO. 31

Please note: This is a digital file.

This issue of the Sound Heritage Series presents the stories of railroaders in British Columbia. All of the accounts are from the first hand experiences of the men who built, operated and maintained the province’s rail transportation system.

Railroading was, and continues to be, a tough life. In the years of steam power the work was long, uncomfortable, often backbreaking, and sometimes dangerous. Still, many made it a lifetime career; there was pride in accomplishment and an individual’s skills. There was an art to the work: a telegrapher’s touch on the key; a fireman’s ability to keep up steam in a locomotive; an engineer’s control of a heavy freight train on a long steep descending grade; a machinist’s skill in the shops. There were always uncertainties, particularly in wintertime when snow and avalanches made keeping the trains moving problematic. In spring there could be floods or washouts, with a real danger of wrecks or derailments, and in the summer there was the chance of fire.

This collection of interviews highlights much of the joy, labour, frustration and humour of railroading in the steam era in British Columbia. The interviews cover a period of roughly half a century—1910 to 1960—and record the work of men in many occupations. The interviews are grouped according to occupations with one exception, the incredible story of Bill LaChance which stands out alone. Following this account are recollections of the engineers, a conductor’s story, the perspective of a locomotive foreman and a car shop foreman, a young boy’s days with a construction crew, and the stories of a dispatcher, station agents, and a railway post office clerk. Finally, the logging railroaders present the story of working on the temporary, often crudely constructed, log hauling lines of the Pacific coast.

Many of the men spent a lifetime railroading, rising from unskilled labourers to senior positions as their experience, ability, luck, and seniority permitted. Consequently, many of the interviews provide a perspective on several occupations within the industry. One should not conclude that these stories are necessarily representative of typical individuals in each occupation. The number of interviews is too small to draw such a conclusion and some of the experiences recounted are clearly atypical. There are, however, elements from most of the stories which are representative: the training and the skills of the trades; the stress on seniority; and the basic nature of the work of the railroaders. It is noteworthy too, that many of the men came from railroad families, carrying on a tradition in some cases three generations old.

This is not a history of British Columbia’s railways, railroad technology, or of the labour movement during the steam era. Rather, it is simply the personal stories of a number of men who were a part of that history and who lived and worked in an industry that provided essential services—transportation and communications—to this province.


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