Friday, November 23, 2012

John 'Canyon' Cowan Retires

Upon release of my second and third VIA Rail books, I received an order from Central Hobbies in Vancouver.  Seems they were in a rush to get some copies in for an upcoming weekend train show.  Done.  Little did I know the coincidence that was about to occur.  The following Monday, I received a nice email from John Cowan of Maple Ridge BC.  John advised me that he'd picked up a copy of my book, that he appreciated the variety of photos, quality and detail of the various eras of VIA, and that he'd be adding it to his vast* railway book collection.  It's always nice to receive emails like this from customers. 
Less than two hours later, I received a more startling email from John.  "I didn't realize when I sent your last email but I see you mentioned me on page six of your book."  I thought, whaaaat?  Thumbing through a copy of Cross-Canada Compendium, I found page six in the 'Ticket to Ride' section, which I had written in response to several requests for my experiences riding VIA in the early years, to supplement my first book's seemingly endless numbers and data.  I'd gone through my old, dusty archives, finding some trip notes and cobbling them into a text piece, including the following passage: "...a CN freight paralleling our progress across the mighty Fraser River...talking to our young trainman, who had previously worked as a CP operator at Smiths Falls."
John continued, "We must have met while going through the Fraser Canyon while I was working on the Canadian, a job I worked for the better part of ten years.  I am a conductor CP with 35 years, five months of service.  I was that young trainman who used to be an operator in Smiths Falls who is now an old conductor about to retire in three-and -a-half weeks on the West Coast Express.  That made my day, Eric."

No, it made my day, John.  Consider the improbable circumstances leading up to these traded emails: that we conversed aboard No 1 on September 22, 1985...that I made note of our conversation...that I kept those notes and referred to them while writing the text piece for my second book...that said trainman purchased the book, carefully read the Ticket to Ride text piece and contacted its author.  What a series of coincidences that came full circle...27 years later.
In June 2009, John wrote an entertaining, illustrated article for the Bytown Railway Society's fine publication, Branchline chronicling his service aboard the Canadian, sharing some anecdotes and experiences from interesting trips and passengers he'd encountered.  John mentioned that his job included riding the Park car of the Canadian between North Bend and Vancouver, and while monitoring the radio from the tail-end he found time to meet passengers.  As "an unofficial tour guide", John would share information about the route they were travelling. In my case, I was heading for Vancouver on No 1, with a tight connection with No 4 to Edmonton.  Though we were running almost two hours late, I didn't have to employ my Plan B, which would have involved disembarking to catch No 4 at Port Coquitlam.
Earlier, in June 2006, John penned another illustrated piece for Branchline on the subject of Okanagan railroading.  Reading both pieces, one comes away with the sense that while John was most definitely a railfan, he was professional on the job and was able to mix the two as appropriate.  John had worked for CPR as an operator in Ottawa, later transferring to Montreal.  Entering the running trades, John worked in Revelstoke, Penticton and Vancouver, serving several terms there as United Transportation Union Local 422 President.  In 1994-95, John also worked VIA's Malahat on Vancouver Island. 
John has worked on Canadian Pacific's 2816 trains four times, including the inaugural trip on September 19, 2001 as well as trains hauled by CP's restored F-units.  Here's something you won't often see a VIA Rail employee doing today...lifting heavy luggage or small children at the vestibule. Conductor job nickname...'baby-lifter'.
Having turned 55 in August, John's last trip aboard WCE will be December 5.  John poses in 2008 with engineer Tommy McDonagh, a good friend he worked the line with, unfortunately no longer with us.  John's regular passengers are planning an 'event' onboard!
John's now 23 year-old son Warren is a conductor with CP. Interestingly, Warren also worked steam locomotives on the Kettle Valley Steam Railway in Summerland BC, the Alberta Prairie Railway in Stettler AB, and 2860 runs with the West Coast Railway Association, eventually firing 2860 with supervision between Vancouver and White Rock BC.  Here are John and Warren aboard a CPR 2816 a few years ago:
John was kind enough to supply these photos, is also an avid collector of railway memorabilia, displayed in 'his museum':

*When he refers to his vast book collection, John is not exaggerating.  He will never run out of vessels to hold a hot beverage, either. (Arrow marks suggested location for a new book on VIA Rail.)
He invites anyone who's in the Vancouver area in future to feel more than welcome to stop by and see his collection.  Just send a heads-up email to johnpcowanATshawDOTca.  Best wishes on your retirement, John as you look back on many years and the many, many miles you've travelled!


BArailsystem said...

Wow, that is truly remarkable Eric! The odds are staggering... Really enjoyed reading that.


Eric said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Ben.
I don't think I'm over-reacting to this incredible coincidence (though I reserve the right to over-react:) I literally just about fell off my chair when I read John's initial email.

I also really enjoyed John's pieces in Branchline, since he and I are of the same vintage.


Anonymous said...

Hi John

Its Teri from the MBTA, we met recently and I checked out your blog. Very impressive! Those trains you drove are similar to our " Commuter Rail Trains" that go to the Boston Suburbs.
Thanks for chatting with me! I will give you a ring sometime! Have a great week. Enjoy the sunshine. Teri :)

Unknown said...

Hi, Olsa here. We met on the MetroNorth Yonkers Station. It was a great pleasure to meet you. You are truly fascinating and I love the blog.

Eric said...

Thanks, Olsa and Teri, for adding to this post and lengthening John's shadow in the story of Canadian railroading. It's great to see John's influence extending to our neighbours in the U.S.!

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed the article, great to see your son continuing the tradition,my daughter is just finishing her training for a conductors position in belleville. It's a different railroad than what we knew in the seventies. .anyways, lot of great stuff, can't get to it all tonight. on a run to Montreal tomorrow. .I'll check it out when laying over. ..thanks again John