From 1900 to 1950, Canada experienced a golden age of train travel. Steam engines carried freight and passengers from one end of the country to the other. As the 1950s arrived, diesel engines started to replace steam engines, passenger traffic began to dip, and a young Saskatchewan farm boy began working as a relief station agent for the CNR. His name is Leslie Bakos, and these are his memories of working on the railroad.
Part two – Station pets and hooping trains
On May 10, 1957, I officially established my Seniority as a telegraph operator, my first assignment, relieving the station agent at Borden, Saskatchewan for his three weeks annual vacation. I immediately took a liking to this set-up where for the first time I was on my own in performing my duties instead of under the stern, sometimes combative supervision of a senior agent, yardmaster or the like. The rest of the summer was spent relieving agents for their two, three, and four week summer vacations which provided a variety of interesting experiences.
The job required two essential pieces of equipment; one single mattress roll-away cot plus one electric hot plate.
When I was relieving station agents as a spareboard operator, there was no expense account. After a couple years, I had enough seniority to bid into a Permanent Relief Agent’s position where I was given an expense account of 75 cents per day. Judging from the amount, that rate was probably established in the 1930s and for some reason, the CNR neglected to ever increase it. Consequently, I spelt in many CNR freight sheds and offices in Saskatchewan, as well as did my own cooking, which often left much to be desired in meal quality. A lot of soup, canned meat, and sandwiches.
The constant moving from station to station involved performing a wide range of functions relating to railway duties and I soon realized there was MORE.
Most CNR stations were one building, which included the agent’s living quarters as well as the office and freight shed. The usual routine was, I would drive up to the station on the designated date, take the transfer of the books, the cash and a description of the job, which the agent usually had prepared. This being completed, I would then be invited to step into the residence side to, “Meet the little wife” and this is where the MORE came in.
Station agent’s families often had pets such as canaries, parrots, gold fish, cats, dogs, (Cute little puppies and big, old hounds) which needed care while their owners were gone on vacation. Often these little critters became my buddies during my stay. Also, at times there were flowers, plants, and gardens to water. I must state here that this arrangement was not completely one-sided and later as I became smarter, I realized that this was the time for some sensitive negotiation.
My first choice was usually to inquire from the agent about the availability of a boarding house to get my meals. Too often that was not available and as I mentioned before, I had to do my own cooking. Refrigeration space, especially during the summer months, was almost a necessity. In the ’50s and ’60s watching TV was a huge part of daily life and something I really enjoyed and wanted. To be realistic, it was expecting a lot of a station agent and family to allow a virtual stranger into their private living quarters, but in the cases where they were asking me to do these little chores, they had opened the door to that arrangement. This was the time for sensitive negotiations without appearing, “cheeky”. Mostly it worked out very well and everyone was a winner.
I have always taken considerable satisfaction from the fact that having relieved a station once, most agents usually specifically requested my services again. To realistically assess the quality of my work, I believe I have never reached the speed and dash of some of my compadres in sending and receiving telegrams, so barely a pass mark there. My book keeping and general knowledge or running a railway station were good and probably my saving grace. The credit for that I would give to my somewhat lengthy experience as an assistant agent and more specifically, the cashier’s job in Tisdale.
Soon after becoming a Relief Agent, I began receiving most of my assignments on the main line. This was of huge benefit to me because the main line stations were equipped with commercial phones to transmit telegrams and dispatchers’ phones for train orders. The use of the troublesome Morse Code was virtually eliminated
So as one problem resolved itself, another one, though not as serious, emerged. The unique practice of hooping up train orders to moving trains. This little chore was done at times on the branch lines as well as the main line, the difference being the speed the trains were travelling. It took some practice to quickly place a copy of train order into a wooden hoop, then hoop it up to the locomotive engineer, and then another copy to the conductor on the rear end, with the train rumbling by you sometimes at speeds of 60 to 65 miles per hour.
Failure would result in a full tonnage train being brought to a grinding stop, then back up for a hand delivery of the train order. If that occurred, the engineer and conductor would be extremely upset. Nobody I have ever met could express their displeasure like an angry railroad conductor. The words they used were invariably colourful and extremely unpleasant. Needless to say, the failure was never their fault.
No story of my railroading career would be complete without telling of the night I slept with the Auditor. Mr. Devine was an elderly gentleman with an English accent who was a CNR auditor forever. I believe he was there when I started in 1952, and still there when I left in 1964.
On this particular occasion, I was relieving the agent in Dunblane, Saskatchewan when Mr. Devine got off the mix train and went right to work checking my cash, my books and all the things that auditors do. He said he planned to work into the evening, finish up in the morning, and take the same train back out.
I knew Mr. Devine quiet well from other places he had checked my work. We were on friendly terms but I didn’t feel it was my business to ask him where he planned to stay that night. Along about 9:30 that night he announced that he was going over to the hotel to spend the night and would be back to finish up in the morning. His jaw dropped when I told him there was no hotel in Dunblane. He said he saw the sign across the street. I told him the sign may still be there, but the hotel has been closed for 20 years or so.
The conversation went something like this:
“Where is the nearest hotel?”
“Lucky Lake, 18 miles away, gravel road.”
“Would you drive me there?”
“If you really want me to … but then pick you up and open the station by 8:00 in the morning, I’ll be up all night.”
“What am I going to do???”
“Give me a minute.”
I had my single mattress roll-away cot set up in the freight shed. There was another mattress I saw in one of the shelves out there. I laid the two mattresses on the floor side by side and spread what sheets and blankets I had on them. There now!! I invited Mr. Devine into the freight shed to view the new accommodations. His somewhat less than totally approving remark was: “Well I suppose we don’t have too many options, do we?”
I don’t think either one of us had the best sleep of our lives but it was good enough. I even had hopes that my legendary hospitability would be richly rewarded in the form of a generous tip. Instead, when Mr. Devine was boarding the train the next morning, he shook my hand with the comment, “Your books are in really good shape and by the way, thanks for the sleepover last night.”
Naturally, I couldn’t wait to tell my railroading buddies about the unique experience I had of sleeping with the auditor. No one can imagine the grossly exaggerated humorous benefits I was supposed to have received in payment for my efforts. We had many good laughs over the experience.
And so my railroading career continued into the 1960s, during which time I liked the work I was doing. The money was not huge, but satisfactory. As Permanent Relief Agent I was able to hold work year round, but not in any permanent location. There was very little hope of that aspect of my job improving.
By that time I had met and married a young widow with two small children and together we had a third. The desire was there to have a stay at home job but is wasn’t likely going to happen as long as I was going to stay with the CNR. The thought of starting over on a new job wasn’t one I cherished but as a family, this was no the way we wanted to live.
My wife and I agreed that after nearly 12 years of living out of a suitcase and working in a total of 75 different Saskatchewan towns, with no prospect of a permanent location, it was time to start looking.
Regrettably, I would be leaving a job I enjoyed on which I experienced a couple of changes that were somewhat saddening. One was watching the steam locomotive get phased out and replaced by diesel. Also, the telegraph, which was a unique qualification that set railroaders apart, was almost completely obsolete by that time.
After a few months, I did find something more or less suited to my qualifications, which I was offered and I accepted. Unfortunately, I had to settle for less money, but living at home, closer to work, and also reduced expenses made the leaner salary tolerable. In time, the salary improved and the benefits got better. I retired with that company 30 years later.
Les Bakos was born in 1932 and raised on the Bakos Homestead in the Rhona Lake area, a primarily Hungarian settlement near Yellow Creek, Saskatchewan. He went to Rhona Lake School for Grades 1 – 8. He recalls his first day at school not knowing a word of English. He attended Yellow Creek School for Grade 9, Meskanaw School for Grades 10 and 11 and PACI in Prince Albert for Grade 12. He joined the CNR in 1952 as Student Telegrapher and pursued that career in various capacities until 1964. In 1964, now married with a family, he joined Armour Chemicals, from where he retired 30 years later. In 2004, Les and his wife moved to Abbotsford, B.C. to be nearer family. This column is the second in a three-part series. The first column appeared in the Oct. 19 edition of Rural Roots.