Friday, April 19, 2013

Memories of East Tower and Portage

Glenn Carlson, former mayor of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba recorded his life experiences, including his time with CN at Portage, in a book entitled From the Dirty Thirties to the Mayor's Chair.  With Glenn's agreement, I've included some excerpts from his book in this post, accompanied by pictures I took at locations he mentions in Portage plus a couple from Glenn's book.  Here are some of Glenn's memories...

The back lanes were surfaced with cinders [Portage 1940], the ashes and clinkers from the railway steam engines.  At the coal dock at East Tower and at the station were water standpipes.  This is where the locomotive fireman would shake the ashes and the clinkers into a steel pan underneath the firebox.  These hot ashes were later taken away by ‘Cinder Bill’ with his wheelbarrow.  When cinders were needed for the streets and back lanes, the city workers would pick them up by truck and distribute where needed.  When running around in our bare feet we had to be mindful of hot spots.  (Top photo: I'm aboard VIA No 2 passing East Tower's signboard in 1981 having crossed from CP to CN at the Shepp connecting track at West Tower, and below: Taken from aboard CPR on September 11, 1950 - L.C. Gagnon photo, and eastbound CN freight at East Tower, taken from CP's right-of-way to the north in September, 1985)
It was the summer of 1952 when I began at East Tower.  At that time, the office was a small shack on the north side of the CN tracks just east of the rail crossing on Stephens Street, and one mile east of the station there were also operators on duty.  The coal dock and water supply for the steamers was just west of the crossing.  At the coal dock was a track leading to the yard with about ten storage tracks, a wye for turning engines, a rip track where the car-knockers did their work changing wheel bearings, repairing defective brake apparatus, changing wheels etc.  I must not forget the crossing watchman shacks.  These were small, two meters square, with a stove and a small desk for the watchman on duty.  There were such stations at Main Street, Tupper Street and Eighth St NW. (Eastbound CN grain pickup behind GMD-1's 1012-1067 crosses Eighth St NW in September, 1985)
Portage had a switch engine to spot cars for loading and unloading.  The yard goat was housed and serviced in the roundhouse.  There was a day switch crew, consisting of fireman, engineer, conductor and switchman.  The yard clerk made switch lists of the work to be done.  When cars were set out in Portage they were usually left on a convenient track to save time.  The goat would do the rest.  The goat did the spotting of cars.  We also had a transfer track to the CPR and a spur to the Campbell Soup plant.  There were about six grain elevators that required the goat to take out the loads of grain and spot the empties.  When I first arrived in Portage, there was a block operator at Eighth Street and a towerman at West Tower, just west of Thirteenth Street.  The two worked with East Tower to get trains quickly and safely through Portage.  Some trains may have cars to set out, and some may pickup in Portage. 
(Above: Operator Carlson at work in the new East Tower office.  In the background is the control panel with all the tracks through Portage.)  The trains were announced on the board by a ‘ding’ and a small light.  The operator would then line up the chosen track and give green signals for the train.  I had a city phone, two dispatcher’s lines, the block phone for in-yard calls and the brand new two-way radio to talk to the train crews.   I also had the Morse wires as there were always company messages to send, and in the case of telephone failure we used Morse.  Sometimes it seemed that all bells were ringing at the same time!  The East Tower operator was also responsible for traffic using the diamond at West Tower, where the CP and CN mainlines cross.  We had to be watching for CP passenger trains to avoid delaying them for a CN freight. (VIA's Super Continental crosses the CP at West Tower's signboard in June, 1980)
Working at East Tower was a new experience.  There were often loaded cars being picked up from elevators, Campbell Soup and others.  Then there were empties being setout for reloading.  There were sometimes cars to go to the repair track.  The switch crew looked after these jobs on weekdays on first trick.  The rest of the day and on weekends the road crews were stuck with it.
With the death of the steamer, quiet a number of jobs were abolished.  There was no more coal dock employing half a dozen men.  There was no longer ‘Cinder Bill’, the guy that cleaned the hot cinders that the steamers dumped at each water fill.  No more roundhouse which had a large number of employees.  The regional stores closed at around the same time.  At one time there were around 500 railway employees in Portage counting both CP and CN.  After CTC was completed on the mainline and the job cutting slowed, one could count the number of jobs on your ten fingers.  (CN 9546 leads a westbound freight over Stephens Street at East Tower in 1986)
In the spring of 1964 [CN memo above] the creation of CTC replaced many telegraph operators.  Luckily, I had enough seniority to get a position at the Portage station.  I should spend some time telling you about the remaining years of railroading…at the CN station.  The first items to take care of were a written transfer from the second-trick operator, and a verbal report of what was to be done.  For example, we may have carloads to be picked up or some other chore like putting a loaded car on the CPR transfer track.  I may be required to sell a train ticket, check baggage for train No 1, send or receive telegrams.  I made sure the checked baggage for the passenger train was on the wagon, and the train orders and clearance ready to hoop up to the engine crew.  The conductor usually came in to get his copies and sign the ‘register’ book. (VIA's eastbound Canadian crosses from CN to CP at East Tower to complete its run into Winnipeg on January 9, 1993 after a CN derailment east of Portage - Brian Schuff photo)
The Assistant superintendent we called “Big Nick” came to Portage to present an award to a citizen.  A farmer west of Portage had spotted a hotbox on a freight car.  He was able to stop the train, thus preventing a derailment.  The official went out to the farm and made the presentation.  Much to the embarrassment of the CNR, it was a lovely set of hair brushes…and the farmer was bald (!!)

Excerpted from …
From the Dirty Thirties to the Mayor’s Chair - Memories of Glenn Carlson, printed by Norquay Printers Ltd. Received 2011.  Copies are available for $25 plus postage, kindly email Joyce Carlson at for more information.

I'd like to thank Glenn and his family for allowing me to share his memories, as well as my uncle Wilf for the autographed copy of Glenn's book.  It's a great read and I heartily recommend it!

April 2013 Update: Glenn Carlson passed away in December, 2012. It's not every day that I am privileged to be able to share some experiences of railroaders of Glenn's era. I trust Trackside Treasure readers have enjoyed his reminiscences of Portage's railway heyday as much as I did. I'd like to thank Glenn's family for their assistance and support of this post getting published.  I trust it will serve as a fitting tribute to Glenn Carlson.

Interestingly, East Tower was the subject of a 1961 Ted Rose painting that appeared on the cover of David P. Morgan's seminal book Canadian Steam! His view appears to be looking north-west:

Here's a 1908 view of some of the Grand Trunk Pacific staff at a tower in Portage la Prairie.  Could this be West Tower, with the CP represented by the pole line?
CSTM Collection photo CN002387

August 2020 update: Fletcher Wade kindly shared this additional information: 

After CTC was installed on the Rivers sub the operators in Portage la Prairie lost most of their train order load as they were then generally only copying train orders for the Gladstone Sub and the Pleasant Point Sub. The Pleasant Point is where all traffic for Brandon and Regina via the Cromer Sub, as well as down the Lampman Sub to Estevan ran. When the Pleasant Point was removed that just left train orders for the Gladstone. Occasionally orders such as these shown would be copied, but as most of the traffic was on the Rivers sub these trains would just do a run through and rarely would pick up orders there. It must have been frustrating for operators who enjoy the moving of trains. I got lucky. My first job as a brand new operator in 1971 was second trick Rainy River terminal. The Sprague and Fort Frances Subs were even then, a very busy main line and all of it train order territory. I was fed with a fire hose and it was all very exhilarating. I also worked Navin, hooping up train orders on the Sprague Sub. Navin was located on the eastern end of Symington Yard, about a mile from the hump. Same sub but only one set of orders for each train vs Rainy with train orders for both subs. Portage la Prairie was once like that. In the 40s and 50s when my father, newly returned from war worked Portage la Prairie; East Tower, Eighth Street, and West Tower, the job of operator Portage la Prairie would have been a very busy one indeed.


Jason said...

Great stuff! Thanks!

Eric said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Jason. It really takes one back to an earlier time at one of Canada's most interesting railfan locations.

GP9Rm4108 said...

I always look forward to more Portage stuff! I eagerly await your map of the east side of the yard!

Eric said...

Thanks for your support, Chris. There will be more Portage stuff of mine, but I was really glad to have Glenn's retrospective.

I had the east end schematic all done, then realized that McCallister Pea & Seed was not located where I had it. I'll have to revise it, but will be posting it plus working on a model layout trackplan of Portage.

Anonymous said...

Dear Eric, Im baaaccckkk. Trip to St Paul-Milwaukee-Green Bay and return went great. Deanne did the driving and drove like a nascar racer. Went to Walther for tour and met with a great friend. Green Bay RR mueseum was a good day to photo shoot, locos and stuff. CRIP areotrain was GREAT. Shot UP locos in Milw and ST Paul and SOO-CP in ST Paul and Portage Wi and the best for last...CP 2200 in all its glory being brand new in TRF Minn. The photos of P La P look great and thanks for the credits, and Amroad. I-Spy with VIA no 1 on Thurs, will call with spotting. Till Thurs eve.

Zartok-35 said...

Cool stuff! But I think my favorite part is the hellcats in 1986 with the John Deere load.
Just got 'Cross canada compendium' in the mail today, Mr. Gagnon. Nice job!

Eric said...

Dear Eric, Im baaaccckkk. Trip to St Paul-Milwaukee-Green Bay and return went great. Deanne did the driving and drove like a nascar racer. Went to Walther for tour and met with a great friend. Green Bay RR mueseum was a good day to photo shoot, locos and stuff. CRIP areotrain was GREAT. Shot UP locos in Milw and ST Paul and SOO-CP in ST Paul and Portage Wi and the best for last...CP 2200 in all its glory being brand new in TRF Minn. The photos of P La P look great and thanks for the credits, and Amroad. I-Spy with VIA no 1 on Thurs, will call with spotting. Till Thurs eve.

Eric said...

Hi Elijah and Brian,
Thanks for your comments!

Elijah, glad you enjoyed the hellcats on that hot afternoon at East Tower.

I hope you continue to enjoy my book on VIA - it's in the news right now regarding the 'terror plot'. My only terror on VIA are the prices, at least until there is a 50% off sale, at which time they become reasonable.

Brian, glad you enjoyed the East Tower post. It was certainly a happening place before our time railfanning there! Will talk soon,


Anonymous said...

When's Brian getting a REAL computer????? :0)

Great Post Eric, as usual!