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Travel by Train

Seven Persons - Once Hundred Sixty Acres and a Dream

Chapter 9

Many of the first homesteaders came from the northern United States, particularly from North Dakota and Minnesota. Originally they had come from the "old countries": Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Russia and China. They had by this time, come long distances by trains and knew of the advantages offered.

The coaches were bare with few comforts. The seats of a wicker covering, and later of a green plush exterior, were hard and became very dirty, as the soot and coal dust blew back from the locomotives. A coal heater in each coach kept the passengers too cold or two warm as the fuel was added by the conductor, or trainman, on their periodic visits through. In time, a system of steam heat was used. Most of the passenger's slept in their seats, "sleepers" being beyond their means. Still, the train ride was an adventure for most of the passengers and optimism was everywhere.

The travellers were a congregation of nationalities.

A Norwegian would be glad to find another country man with whom he could converse; a German may have found a new neighbor and they could talk. An Englishman, migrating alone, may have felt like a foreigner in Canada, even if he knew the language. Most of them spoke only their native language, but eventually by common need, a broken type of English was acquired. Their clothing was varied, each trying to account for all seasons of weather. Their travel cases were luggage of all shapes, sizes and colors, baskets, boxes and trunks, and many bulky parcels.

Because of lack of money, or of poor dining facilities, these immigrants carried lunches with them. The smell of coffee, sandwiches, garlic sausages, apples, oranges, peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs and canned sardines must have made the journey distasteful and tedious for most.

The big locomotives utilized coal. They carried supplies in special cars known as tenders. For their steam power they required water, which they took on at sidings along their route. The Seven Persons Creek was a supply. To assure a sufficient quantity of water, a dam was built near the siding, using rocks from the Frank Slide of 1903. A water tower, a pump house, a residence for the pumpman and a railway depot were constructed near the tracks, each painted a dark C.P.R. red. Names of pumpmen recalled were: Tom Nesting, James Leonard Scotty Bissett and Harry Mundie.

Impressive to the hamlet became the depot. It was presided over by a busy agent. He had an office, from which came the constant, but irregular sounds of telegraphic clicks, as messages were transferred in Morse code. He could decipher these messages and pass them on to incoming train personnel and to other depot agents. Of interest were the bamboo or wooden hoops to which he attached a paper with the message, held it up, and the engineer of trains, passing through, scooped it up on his arm as the engine rolled by. The hoop was then dropped, to be reclaimed by the agent or some ambitious boy, who wished to be helpful. It was characteristic of each agent to wear a green eye-shade.

This same station master sold passenger tickets, gave out information about travel and services, and dealt with in-coming and out-going freight. There was a large freight shed as part of the building. His living quarters were over the service part, and were known to lack much in the way of modern comforts.

For the passengers there was an austere, hard-benched waiting room, painted in dark colors, with a nearly-black, oiled wooden floor. Besides the ticket wicket, the room's decorations were: a plain big clock, fastened to the wall with screws, a big framed picture of a Canadian Pacific steam ship, also fastened to the wall with screws, a train schedule, and windows facing in each direction, that all might be aware of the trains' approaches.

When the local creamery was closed down cream was shipped to the Crystal Dairy in Medicine Hat. This formed part of the railway's freight, for filled cans were taken from the Seven Persons station and empty ones discharged. The building became decorated by rows and rows of five and eight gallon cream cans, the top half of each painted a dark green, with yellow letterings of names and addresses. The money paid for this cream became important in the economy of that era.

The arrival of the train was an emotional occurrence for the town. It meant excitement, curiosity, expectation, joy in exchanging greetings, and tears and sadness in farewells. Its noisy arrival awoke the people; its departure assured them that all was well.

"Meet the train? But I don't know anyone who might be getting off," said Tom. "I'd feel nosey and embarrassed to be there."

"Come anyway. Everyone, free to go, will be there. We'll see our friends. The station agent will be busy taking messages from his clickety machine and passing these on to the train men. The postman is always there, exchanging his mail bags. The train crew seem such jolly folk, often laughing loudly as they talk to one another. They must know some 'whoppers' to get hearty laughs like that," chuckled Tom.

"Perhaps railroading really is fun," agreed Pete, as the two hurried to join the crowd.

Katie and Ellen joined the group, too. Katie remarked, "I see Mrs. Johnson is going away. I wonder where she is going."

Ellen reminded her, "It isn't your business, you know. Don't be nosey. Do you see that tall gentleman -getting off the train, with two bags? With that mustache, he is very handsome."

"May I remind. you about your good manners," said Katie. "I see that Pete is speaking to that stranger, evidently giving him some directions."

The engine whistled, the bell rang, the train departed and the crowd dispersed. Ellen said thoughtfully, "Meeting the local passenger train is fun; I don't think we are being rude in feeling interested in the comings and goings of our town. A traveller could feel quite lonely, or discouraged, arriving at a place where no one cared to meet the train, and them.

Some of the Seven Persons depot agents, whose names are recalled were: Art Buckler, Mr. Wickett, Mr. Boyles, Mr. Locke, Mr. Locke, Mr. Collins, C.R. Moore (known as Dinty) of 1920 to 1926, Mr. Dooley - 1926 to 1927, Donald Munroe, Mr. Tomkins, Jim Munroe and Ted Acott.

One citizen relates: "There was a train wreck back in the spring of 1922. A blizzard was blowing over the prairie and visibility was almost nil. My father and I were outdoors and we heard train whistles as of two trains at once. They were so loud, even to us, at nearly five miles distance. We heard afterwards that there had been a collision of two freight trains, southeast of Seven Persons. Rumors were that the station agent had missed a message and allowed a train coming through, to go down the track and collide with an oncoming freight. I do not know if there were any deaths, but there was much damage. The station agent lost his job."

How awesome and strikingly beautiful were the big black, steam-driven locomotives, as they thundered along, trailing long trains of freight or passengers. The cars were of wood, painted an identifying C.P.R. dark red, or-shades of yellow, red or orange of the Great Northern, the Pennsylvannia, or of other American companies. The shiny black engines belched dark, cinder-laden smoke, and at times showed their red-hot fire boxes. The tracks, upon which these giants ran, placed on rows of identical wooden ties, appeared as ribbons of parallel steel, cleaving the countryside.

They made a loud, rumbling sound, vibrating the land they traversed. Their whistles were the most memorable. First, there were short, joyous yips, and then, long mournful, nostalgic wails, that echoed over the plains and valleys, These could be heard for miles when the air was calm. They were used as signals for the operation of the railroad, for the signal of entry into every town, and were sounded at every road crossing. The depth of resonance of these whistles was considered by the homesteaders as barometers, predicting changes of weather.

"Hey John, did you hear the train to-night? I'd say we are in for a blizzard in a day or two."

"I'm afraid you are right, Denny. Before that last storm we had in January, I thought the train was coming into my house, the whistle was so loud, even if it was five miles away. I wish the storm would stay away till I could haul another load of coal for my shanty."

"We'd better be careful and not be caught out on the road.

Canadian blizzards can last for days, and could take your life. There is no protection on these open prairies. I have learned that they are to be feared.

To the lonely, homesick "wrestler of the soil", or to his wife, that train whistle was an assurance that there was a mode of escape, if their type of existence became too unbearable. It was a guarantee that they could get to a city for urgent business or for medical reasons. Best of all, they could dream of going home again, and dreams were very important in Seven Persons in those early years.

To the children, the train was the greatest delight. What a place for fantasy! Could they be an engineer and drive that big motor? That would be a heavenly thrill. Some would have been firemen, keeping the rosy fire bright by shovelling more coal. The girls, as well as the boys, liked to envision such thoughts.

If only I could ring the bell! How I would love to blow the whistle if I could but once! " It was a desire beyond explanation. Some wished they had enough money to buy a ticket to travel on a train. The destination was unimportant.

The coaches of the regular trains, not the immigration trains, were so extravagant-looking, with dark green plush seats, and water containers with taps. The dining cars were splendid in red rugs and white table cloths. The waiters were in white and carried trays of food with such a flurry. The porters were colored men, seen in this role only, by western Canadians. They looked so efficient. Children enjoyed their soft, kind voices.

"Hello, Honey. Wheh yo goin' in dat perty red dress?"

Who wouldn't like to wear a conductor's suit, with braid and brass buttons and stiff cap, gleaming with gold medals, and to be able to call out in a deep voice:


There was even the cook for the freight trains' caboose to be envied. He always waved as his train departed, as if he knew everyone. He looked so happy, riding at the tail-end of a long freight.

*Editors Note*
The editor was contacted by Grace Cockburn who stated that the train crash mentioned in this article actually took place April 9, 1927. Her grandfather, Charles Douglas Baines, was one of the engineers killed in the crash.

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Mary Tollestrup