Frontier College, or Why I Love Railroads!
Hard Work and Low Pay” said the summer employment ad in the Manitoban, the U of Manitoba student newspaper. What kind of an organization expected to attract university students to summer work for them with an ad like that?
Well, I found out. Eric Robinson, the College President, was recruiting students from the West for the first time in years. Most of the Labourer-Teacher positions in 1956 were with the railroads on maintenance extra gangs, and the railroads wanted students who would work as regular labourers during the day, and teach basic English or other literacy skills in the evenings.
Eric came to Winnipeg on a CPR pass and, true to his frugal nature, and stayed in a very small and old hotel immediately across from the station, a place to which I would never go under normal circumstances. We met late in the evening and I sat enthralled as Eric talked about the history, values and mission of the college. Amongst all of the inspiring things Eric spoke of, he said at the end of the summer the College would guaranty take-home pay of $800. Of course, I applied not knowing that the basic pay as 82 cents an hour minus $2.42 per day for food and a clean sheet every two weeks
A two-day, three-night train ride took me to Toronto and a billet at the home of one of the engineers who were strong supporters of the College at that time. I was clearly not up to his teenage daughter's expectations, and that was fine by a naive young man from the prairies!
The two-day training session consisted of a review of the two boxes of material that we would each take with us: a folding oilcloth blackboard, chalk and an eraser, pencils and paper, and the wonderful English Through Pictures that was our bible. The second box contained a variety of used magazines and books that the College staff received as donations from many individual supporters.
We learned basic approaches to the teaching of English, and that the first three days were exhausting, but that after that we would be as good as the existing gang members. And that we would receive one visit from a "supervisor" over the course of the summer.
The final afternoon we were told of our destinations. Mine was to travel coach on the CNR to Prince Rupert, and then to find the extra gang to which I had been assigned. The train ride in coach was three full days and we arrived in Prince Rupert about 8 AM. It was deserted until the stationmaster arrived at 9. I explained that I was to go to the extra gang, and learned that I would have to wait until the way freight left at 9 PM to take me back to the gang. I was beginning to learn new railroad terms!
The way freight drawn by an old oil-burning steam engine had three box cars, one tanker car and a caboose where I was to ride with a breakman. About 1:30 AM the train slowed and stopped at a siding, and I got off with my boxes and a duffle bag in cloudy mountain darkness. Crossing the tracks to the siding, I could make out a string of boxcars and by walking right up to them could see they had labels. Finally the time keeper’s car appeared, and I found courage to knock. A voice responded “Go to the last car. There’s an empty bunk.”
About 15 cars on, I found the last car, climbed up and opened the door to be welcomed by the odour of seven men who had obviously been working hard on the track for some time. An ancient-sounding growl let me know the only vacant bunk was above him. In the dark I managed to clamber up and fall asleep in my clothes like everyone else.
Eric Robinson had been correct. The first three days were tough for learning about what one was expected to do, avoiding serious injury and getting city muscles in reasonable shape.
This gang of about 80 men were replacing ballast under the tracks, replacing rotten ties and broken or worn-out joints, levelling and lining the track and “gandy dancing”: the process of pushing new ballast under the ties by means of a shovel. Each tie needed eight men, two on the outside end of each tie and two inside the rail on each tie, with four facing forward and four facing backward. Usually we had four rows of eight men each, which meant we did every fourth tie. Doesn’t sound like much, but our goal was two to three miles per day.
The gang was made up largely of men recruited from the Winnipeg “Sally Ann”: single older men for whom working for the CNR in the summers, and living at the Salvation Army hostel for the winter was a way of life. Some were alcoholics or drug addicts using the “geography cure” to avoid access to their demons, and others were quite prepared to have a slip whenever we were located close to a B.C. segregated bar: men on one side and women on the other
My students included the Italian cook, one of his cookies, a young German immigrant newly arrived, a young Aboriginal boxer and other long-term railroad workers who had never learned to read. From time to time others joined our little group, but most men were content to work 12 hours on the track and then relax before early bed. Breakfast at 6:00 AM, on the track at 7:00 and work till 7:00 PM did not leave a lot of time for recreation or education. My core group, however, stuck with it and made surprising progress given the limitations of their teacher.
Teaching English Through Pictures, a Dick and Jane type of book with drawings and words. The chef, an Italian immigrant, was the star pupil. He wrote to his boss, “hdis macino no likeee moro orko. Sen anoner oneo.” When you say it out loud it makes sense! The large can opener used daily to open cans of vegetables, et cetera, would not work. This was the note he proudly showed me. It was effective because on the next food delivery a large new opener arrived, and the large cans of vegetables were again in evidence.
Every week or 10 days the gang was moved to a new siding down the line. We were pulled by a 6400 mountain class steam engine with four huge drivers on each side, a bunker oil tender behind it, and couple of daredevil young guys as Engineer and Fireman. We got to know these two reasonably well, and one time when we were about to be moved they asked me if I’d like to ride in the cab with them. Would I, you bet!
Up I climbed to the cab, and was quickly shown the whistle cord—two blasts was the highball signalling that we were about to move, one short, one long and two shorts for crossing, etc. Steam was already up so the Engineer backed up a foot or two to take up slack, then began the slow steps to gradually bringing the train up to travelling speed, not very fast as the boxcars being pulled were ancient. Suddenly, the two men slipped open the little windows on each side of the cab and, without a word, swung themselves out and disappeared. Was I in shock! They had told me which lever would set on the emergency brake, but that was all. Suddenly the cab went dark and the firebox, instead of going up the smoke stack, blasted back in my face. I realized we were in a tunnel and remembered how often ties in tunnels had given out causing the engine to sink between the rails. All this happened in a very short time, and suddenly we were out of the tunnel.
Laughing their heads off, the two returned from riding on the cowcatcher at the front of the engine, having been fully aware of what happens when on old steam engine goes into a tunnel. Of course they swore me to secrecy because it was against all the rules to have a passenger in the cab.
Being moved by a steam engine meant we had to pull into sidings where they could regularly refill the water reservoir. It seemed like a normal stop during one move until men from cars close to the engine came running back into each boxcar and told the men to get out. It turned out the car with all of the food and kitchen supplies had gone on fire from a hot box, a not unusual occurrence in these old boxcars when one of the wheel bearings got too hot. The engine drivers pulled the car into a position beneath the spout from a water tank and the foreman disconnected the cars behind the fire to reduce the likelihood of all the cars burning.
After the initial excitement, the foreman asked for volunteers to watch the burned car for the rest of the night, a challenge I accepted as I had recently purchased a well-used portable radio from one of the gang members. It had probably been stolen, I learned, and had two separate battery packs of different sizes and even in the mountains at night it worked. All night I listened to a country station from somewhere, and they must have played “The Wayward Wind” at least three times. Having grown up in Winnipeg within a short distance from the CNR mainline, this became my song for the duration.
In my second year with Frontier in 1957, I was sent to a CPR gang first between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie, and later between Sudbury and Ignace. It was a steel gang replacing rails and, where necessary, rotten ties Two hundred Portuguese from the Azores had been imported to work under circumstance that none of them had ever encountered in their lives. There are no trains in the Azores. Many were not literate in their own language and only two had any English at all. When mail came, as it did once weekly, pairs of men would spread themselves all over the landscape, one reading to the other.
We had an old passenger coach for our school room, which was a step up from the boxcar the year before and it was full almost every night. Of course some learned more quickly than others so individual lessons both before and after the regular classes were in order.
The work was hard. We had no machinery except a tie grinder that was a beast and had to be pushed along the track on one side, while the grinder worked the ties on the other side. Its giant gasoline engine worked to spin the blades in the head so that new plates that anchored the rails could be spiked in place. Spiking was an art using a 12-pound hammer on the end of a four foot handle: one tap to set the spike, then one blow to drive it in. It was a great skill to learn.
The biggest problem with the grinder was that once in a while a broken spike would still be buried in the tie. When the spinning grinder head came down on the tie, a missile was launched and could go in any direction. The man pushing the machine and the man positioning the head wore thick armour on their lower legs and over their boots. Lightweight face masks reduced the amount of creosote-soaked sawdust that arose from each ground tie. Even so, no one wanted to work on the grinder for more that week at a time.
The men were not eligible to join the union until they had worked for at least three full months. About 30 men, including the foreman Mr. Krupp and the sub foremen, were all regular long-term employees who normally worked on section gangs or other maintenance positions. As they were the “elite,” they had their own dining car—old coaches with long plank tables the length of the car and heavy wooden benches on each side. Three more of these coaches were used to feed the rest of us.
Working on the track from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm with a twenty minute break for sandwich lunch meant hungry men were there for dinner as soon as the gong sounded. For the third day in a row, our car had nothing but boiled potatoes, tea and soda crackers for dinner. When the young cookie came in with more potatoes, I complained. After all, we were having $2.82 per day deducted from our pay for our food. He disappeared into the foreman’s car.
Moments later, the distinctive footsteps of the 6’ 3” 250lb Mr. Krupp could be heard in our now silent car. “Mackie, you’re making trouble. Go to the timekeeper and pick up your time.” No Labourer-Teacher with Frontier College had ever been fired before. It was part of our mythology. I was shaken and worried. I finished my tea and started the long walk down the row of cars to the timekeeper’s car at the end.
As I walked, at first a small group of Portuguese chattering to each other began to gather about 50 feet behind me. Probably coming to see the disgrace, I thought. As they walked, I heard them calling out to others to join them.
When we got to the last car, I was about to climb up to open the door when it was flung open by Krupp. Before he said a word one of my star pupils shouted out “Mackie feenish work, tout Portugeseo feenish work!”
Krupp paused only a second and said, “You better come in and talk about this.”
We quickly discovered his car had been fed properly, but the rest had not. It turned out the cook was drunk and the number two cook had only enough food on hand to feed the elite’s car and not the rest of us. The cook was banished, and Krupp and I had greater respect for each other for the rest of the season.
One of the Portuguese workers became very ill and needed to be moved to the hospital in Sault St. Marie. The foreman instructed me to accompany him, which I did. The hospital was run by an order of Sisters that had started almost 150 years earlier. The only reading material in the small waiting room was a year-old Reader’s Digest in which Scott Young (Neil’s father) had written an article about the College featuring his visit to me the previous year. The Sister, who I learned was the Superior, asked what I was doing, so I told her about Frontier and said there was an article about us in the Digest. Being a bit shy and modest, I said the article glorified us a bit.
“Young man,” said the Sister. “We all need a little glory sometimes.” With that she left.
Later in the summer we were to move to the CPR main line west from Sudbury. As usual, we were pulled by an old steam engine, and moved at night so as not to waste daylight in transit. We had just pulled away from taking on water when the emergency brakes came on. This was unusual as the cars were old and somewhat fragile and certainly not accustomed to violent stops. Walking up to the engine, we discovered that a man had been on the tracks and was now between the tracks immediately beneath the blazing fire box. When he was hit, he had been rolled over and was not conscious. The sub-foreman, a tall slim man, began to carefully unfold the body with the heat from the firebox not two feet above his head.
Eventually an ambulance arrived and by then we could see the man was still between the tracks, but back beside the small wheels under the engine cab. They were able to get a stretcher in to get him out. We learned later that he had been so drunk and relaxed that the engine’s cow catcher had simply rolled him into the centre and that his only injury, apart from scrapes and bruises, was a cracked shoulder blade.
The train then continued on to the main line.
This was the summer of 1957, and work was going on to complete the Trans-Canada Highway. We worked at two sidings replacing 100 pound steel with 120 pound rails. That is 120 pounds per yard. By now, we were fairly proficient and knew what we had to do. Then we were moved to White River Ontario, a bush town dependent on the forestry industry with only one large pub. This was a novelty for us as all of our other locations had been on isolated sidings with no “civilization” in sight.
The highway construction crew also happened to be in White River that day. The pub was full to overflowing and the two police constables hovered around outside the pub for the evening. Most of the Portuguese were cautious, but the regular CP employees were prepared to let off steam. About 12:30am it began. No one could say what started it, but it was clear the two gangs were fairly evenly matched. Bloody noses and black eyes abounded, and finally the two constables moved in. The town had just completed the construction of a two-cell jail awaiting occupants.
The constables, at some risk to themselves, identified half a dozen from each gang and dragged them off, each group to its own cell to sleep it off and patch some bloody knuckles. The next morning our rail gang was released first. As soon as they were released, we were moved to the next siding and things were back to normal. Obviously some conversations had taken place behind the scenes and no one was charged.
By now, classes were going well and as it began to get dark a little earlier, more students took advantage of our partially lit coach and the opportunity to learn. One man who was well educated at home as an accountant really worked hard on his English and was able to help me tutoring some who struggled. He expected to seek work more akin to his professional skills and left the gang in late August before it shut down for the winter. Most of the rest went to Toronto and found technical and labouring positions.
Without any doubt my experiences as a Labourer-Teacher helped to shape my life. When you are all on your own you have to take initiative. If you need to confront authority, make sure you have your team behind you. We all need a little glory sometimes. There is much to be done, so do what you can when you can. Take advantage of the resources available.
Thanks to the Principals, Fitzpatrick, Baldwin, Robinson, Morrison, Pierpoint, O’Leary and Campbell, for keeping us focused on the frontiers, wherever they may be.
- by Cam Mackie Labourer-Teacher 1956-57, Field Supervisor and Frontier College Recruiter, former Governor and Chair of the Frontier College Board, former Foundation Board member, Honorary Governor.