Associations de retraités du CN, Inc.

Angels In The Canyon

  It was a twinkle; no a flash. I was catching glimpses far down the canyon walls of a faint flashing light. I folded my window back and leaned out, letting the cool night wind whip by my face. Our charging beast seemed oblivious to the night dangers. We were astride a Mikado Class 2-8-2 steam locomotive – over 600,000 lbs of galloping steel heading into the "White Canyon". As thousands of tons of freight punched and jostled us from behind I had a sudden respect for my new surroundings. This was gut crunching scary! I knew that at track speed and hauling the tonnage we had behind us, we would never stop in time if rocks were down. It was stay or jump; a choice that would change – or end – your life in an instant. This was mountain country; nothing but darkness and rocks and, there it was again, that little flickering light.

  I was fresh from the prairies, from flashing over miles of flat, almost worry- free rails where stray cows and level crossings with stalled cars were about our only concern; that and plowing through endless snow drifts over rollercoaster track. I had enjoyed the fun and relaxed patter of the engine crews on every trip across the flat prairie lands. Hanna, Alberta was my home terminal and from there, I went in all directions over the safe and easy rails. All that changed when I lifted my clearance out of Hanna and laid it down in Kamloops, B.C. Real railroading was about to begin.

  The engine whistle jolted me from my prairie reflections and brought me back to the canyon. The 6ET brake valve blasted exhaust air once more as the 'Hoghead' (engineer) brought our speed down and we headed into another of the endless flange-squealing curves. The blast of the engine whistle sounded at every curve and made me wonder – there were no roads on this side of the South Thompson River and no settlements and no one - I thought - to warn with our whistle. I was wrong. That little winking light and the engine whistle had something in common. As we squealed around the next curve, there he was; my first "Angel Of The Canyon". The little yellow/white light (a kerosene lamp) hung flickering from the frame of his hand pumped velocipede. He was safely clear of the track (thanks to our whistling) and raised his lamp to us in a 'highball' as we swept by.

  It was my first of many encounters with 'Angels of the Canyon'. I soon learned how many miles of slide-prone track were watched over by these nameless faces with their little lights and big hearts. They sat astride their little machines and hand propelled themselves over miles of the Ashcroft Subdivision in the dead on night – some of the most dangerous track in the world. They had no means of communication, were out there in all types of weather and were ready to save your life in an instant by running out flags in both directions as soon as they detected danger. Our constant whistle blowing was their main defense. They could meet a train squealing around the very next curve. Often, they were suddenly surprised when they failed to hear an engine whistle over the roar of the river. We would be on them in a flash and they would skid to a stop, their feet causing the rock ballast to fly. They would leap from their machines and in one motion; throw it and themselves to safety at the last possible moment. It scared the hell out of me and I can only imagine what it did to them.

  One summer, I bid a work train in the heart of the "White Canyon" several miles east of Lytton, B.C. Our job as engine crew was to move empty dump cars into position for the ditching crews and haul the loads of rock out when the cars were full. The loads were later dumped along the river bank as "rip-rap" an erosion preventative for the railroad right-of-way. It was hot and dusty work and we were happy to get a run into Lytton, away from the searing canyon heat. Lytton was always around 100 F, but at least out of the rocks and dust.

  One afternoon, we were returning to our work site at Pitquah and were hauling a train of empties. Some section hands and other rail workers had asked if they could hitch a ride in the cab of our diesel locomotive. That was technically a no-no but we stretched the rules a little and were soon off and running. The weather was sunny, clear and hot; not the kind of weather for rocks on the track. I was running the engine and the engineer was in my seat on the opposite side of the cab. There was a lot of banter in the cab, everyone talking and laughing in a light and carefree mood. Even though conditions were ideal, I had us at a safe speed and we trundled along, dust flying from the empty dump cars, my hand riding (as was the custom in that part of the canyon) on the train brake. We were coming to a rock cut; a place where jumping to save yourself, was not an option. My eyes were glued to the ribbon of rail as it curved toward the cut.

  Suddenly, an "Angel" sprung into view, a lighted fusee (flare) in his hand and panic on his face. He was swinging the fusee across the tracks in an arc – emergency! I slammed the train brake in the 'big hole' (put the train and engine brakes in rapid and full braking) and we all suddenly became religious. The angel jumped clear of the tracks and I felt the see-saw struggle of hard braking cars. The empty (thank God) cars reacted quickly as 70 lbs per square inch of air vented straight from their emergency reservoirs to their brake cylinders, slamming brake shoes to wheels in a smoking, screaming effort to save us. The train sat down in earnest and we smoked to a stop just short of the slide. This was one of only two times in all my railroad experiences that we had been able to stop short of rocks in an emergency – our angel and the empty cars had saved us! Had our angel not flagged us, we would have been into the rock cut with no place to jump, a cab full of people and no hope of stopping. It was my first experience at having an angel save my life; but, it was not the last.

  Not long after, I was firing a Mikado Class 2-8-2 steam locomotive westward through the canyon in the dead of night. The tension was there. With every squealing curve our eyes sought the enemy – rocks. We started into a curve on my side and then began to curve to the right again. Out of the blackness screamed a red light – planted right between the rails. This was something I had never seen before but it meant only one thing – emergency! The hoghead slammed the train brake into the 'big hole' and tons of freight punched us from behind, sending us nearly half a mile into the unknown. We overran the light and my guts twisted and flopped, not knowing what the light had been for. Obviously, one of the angels had planted it there to protect us, but from what? Was the track washed out, were rocks down? We jolted and squealed to a stop around the next curve. After setting a spot fire, I got down with the rest of the crew. We couldn't locate anything in the dark and whistled out a flag to protect our rear. Soon, one of those wonderful winking little lights came 'round a curve toward us. We told the angel that we had overrun his red lamp and had checked the track but had found nothing. He told us an amazing story: he had been pumping his little machine along when he heard a 'click' that didn't sound right, not like a rail joint. He stopped and examined the rail inch by inch with his kerosene lamp and found the reason; one rail was fractured clear through from crown to base at about a thirty degree angle. He didn't know from which direction the next train would come, so he ran out a flag about a half mile to the east and planted the red lamp between the rails. Then, he pumped for all he was worth, going a mile to the west to protect any eastward trains. When he heard us whistling out a flag, he came back.

  We would have hit that broken rail on the curve with our 600,000 lb locomotive. It was an outside rail. It would have burst toward the river and we would have been history.

  How do you thank a guy like that? There were never enough thanks given to their breed – tough dedicated men who risked their lives to save ours. They were the tireless guardians of the tracks. When we exchanged waves in passing it was more than a greeting. I wanted to shout, "Thanks for being there and God bless you, whoever you are". There are no record books to show who they were, how many lives they saved, how many risks they took or how many hardships they endured.

  I hope that years from now people will still remember and respect what these faceless, courageous men did and who they were to us - "Angels In The Canyon".

  Clif Chapman
Former fireman/engineer - CNR
1952 - 1960. SRB #596962-1
10th. February, 2008 (Rough Draft)
Revised 11th. February, 2008.
Revised 13th. February, 2008.
Ready for edit.
Harry Home amendment entered 15 Feb/08 and minor text changes made. Awaiting punctuation edits.