‘I’ve been working on the railroad’

Photo from www.historicalplaces.ca. The historic Canadian Nation train station building in Blaine Lake stands on its original site in front of the train tracks in 2004.

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 from the Rhona Lake area 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 one — Getting involved

Leslie Bakos, Submitted

Being born and raised on a Saskatchewan farm during the 1930s, although not without its fond memories, did not provide a lot of pleasures. There was always an abundance of work like picking rocks, stumps, chopping bush, herding cattle, and never very much money. I can’t remember the exact age, but it was pretty early in life when I decided my future would be in an occupation other than farming.

With no more than a high school education, the choices of jobs made a pretty short list. One of them was a railroading career and more specifically, a station agent. The thought of becoming a telegraph operator was always fascinating, and even any remote involvement with steam locomotives was an attraction.

After clearing the idea with my parents (in those days you did that) I went to see the local station agent in Meskanaw, Sask. about training. Fredie Arnold was a likeable, smart man and I reasoned he would make a good teacher. He agreed to let me ‘sit in’ to learn the trade and my training would begin the next Monday.

When I showed up, he put a broom in my hand and politely said, ‘this is where we start.’ I began to protest that. That part of my training curriculum would not be necessary as I already knew how to sweep the floor. The short discussion that followed quickly established who was going to determine my training curriculum and who would be sweeping the floor that morning (and every morning that followed).

Happily, we were able to put that first bump behind us and for the balance of my training period in Meskanaw, though only two and a half months, was a happy one.

In May of 1952, word came down that the CNR was starting up a Student Telegrapher program to train telegraph operators for service in British Columbia. This was exactly what I was hoping for. The following week I detrained in the town of Blaine Lake, Sask. My title? Student Telegrapher at a salary of $75/month.

Mr. Marchand was the station agent, my new teacher, and a nicer man and family you couldn’t ever wish for. There was also Father Timmerman, the Catholic priest and a close family friend. Being officially an employee of the CNR, with the word Telegrapher in my title, felt pretty great but I quickly learned that at $75/month, there was always too much month left at the end of my money. I had to find ways to supplement that.

There were six grain elevators in Blaine Lake and the agents needed their grain cars coopered upon arrival for loading. They paid $2 for each car. Also, there were always farmers looking for weekend help and I was familiar with farm work. Then there was “Father Timm”, who never failed to show up at the Marchand home for Sunday night poker with a pocket full of change from the Sunday morning collection plate. Father Timm was a nice man and a good priest, but it didn’t take me too long to figure out that, as much as he loved the game, he was not a very good poker player. Now admittedly, none of the aforementioned sources contributed significantly to the monthly Student Telegrapher shortfall, but together they were of considerable supplementary value.

Blaine Lake was a very busy station, with heavy freight, express and passenger business, which generated a lot of work. My learning in those areas progressed well enough but there was little time for telegraph practice during regular office hours. In retrospect, I should have been devoting more after hours time to telegraph practice instead of unwisely using it for supplementing my income. Needless to say, my progress in telegraphy suffered.

By September, the company decided that there were no more telegraph operators required in British Columbia, or anywhere else on the system. Abruptly, the Student Telegrapher program was terminated. Coincidentally, it was about that time that rumours of CTC began to surface. CTC was the abbreviation for Central Traffic Control, an automated system of controls which enabled a train dispatcher to operate trains on an entire division from a central location. With the installation of this system, there would be a dozen or more mainline operator’s jobs wiped out. There was no way such rumours could be interpreted as good news for someone embarking on a railroad career.

If I wished to continue my career with the CNF, I had the option of going out as an assistant agent. The term Assistant Agent was a category which included jobs other than telegraph operator such as: Assistant Station Agent, freight, express, ticket and yard office clerk, cashier and towerman. In most cases the assistant agent’s pay was less than a telegraph operator’s and the assistant agents did the “heavy lifting.” Lie most union jobs, seniority almost invariably governed your ability to hold work.

For the time being, I was offered the job of Assistant Agent in Procupine Plains. The job was temporary and lasted about two months after which I was briefly laid off. When I was called back to work it was as a freight clerk in Bienfait, Sask. It was not the most desirable location, or job, but it kept me working for part of that winter.

My next couple of years were spent relieving assistant agents, clerks, etc, taking vacations, and getting laid off in the winter. On one of these occasions I was given the opportunity to work one of the most challenging jobs of my railroading career, the cashier’s job in Tisdale, Sask. It was not only challenging, it paid the best. It was a six day a week job, with one day per week banked. Besides liking the work, the extra income was most welcome. Now when I was laid off in the winter, I was able to go back to the farm and collect banked time pay for a good part of the winter. Now, for the first time, I was even able to save money.

The bad news came after two seasons of this. I learned that due to a change in permanent incumbency, the job would no longer be available to me for longer periods during the summer months.

There was one other job, more challenging and better paying that most, and that was the ticket clerk’s job in Melfort, Sask. The incumbent was off on long-term sick leave, so I was able to hold it for a longer period, but still temporary. When the permanent incumbent returned after his long-term illness, I was again displaced and had to move on.”

Once again, I was back to relieving assistant agents and various clerical jobs as well as putting in a few weeks as towerman on the Regina division. The jobs were not only the lowest paying my category, but some of them were starting to be cut.

Looking at the overall situation realistically, I was facing two very troubling factors. The CNR fully embraced CTC. They brought the system in and were terminating a significant number of jobs, particularly on the main line. The other negative was the CNR was steadily loosing freight, express, and passenger business to highway trucks, airlines, and automobiles. The result of the two factors had devastating effects, particularly on the junior members of the railroad workforce. Somehow, you kept making yourself believe that it will end soon and you will survive it all.

With the knowledge that they will require spareboard operators for relief agents in the spring, I made the decision to stay on. I spent the winter lay-off of 1956-57 practicing my telegraphy and studying my operating rules with the intent of becoming a Telegraph Operator by spring.

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 first in a two-part series.