Thursday, August 20, 2020

Portage la Prairie's CN Operators

On December 31, 1986 CN's operator positions at Portage la Prairie, MB were abolished. Bill Cook, (above), age 56 at the time spent 39 years with CN, 35 of them at Portage. Bill Wynes 43 years with CN, 38 at Portage. Jack Darling spent 35 of his 39 CN years at Portage. 'Newbie' Gordon Fidler was at Portage for 9 of his 35 years. In an earlier post, I profiled the duties of CN East Tower and Portage operator Glenn Carlson in the 1950's and 60's. Here's a postscript with some of the orders and clearances.
Regarding the work of the Portage operators for CN and CP, technological change had an impact - radios replaced telegraph and telephone, train order territory was superseded by Centralized Traffic Control. CP's four Portage operators' positions were phased out as of July 28, 1984. On June 19, 1980 the CP operator stood on what was left of CP's passenger train wooden platform hoops up orders to the head-end trainman of an eastbound grain train waiting on the 'front porch' (above). With a major part of their job being transmitting train orders for Minnedosa Subdivision trains, those were to be transmitted by radio from Winnipeg. The four CP operators were offered the option of bumping elsewhere. An all-weather function: CN operator handing orders to VIA's 6506 cab-floor level, 1980:
Another reason for the change was the takeover of the station by VIA in May, 1986. Ticket sales were being suspended as of July 1. According to the Portage Daily Graphic newspaper article (bottom), VIA paid CN agents to sell their tickets. Instead, VIA would rely on travel agents to sell those same tickets. The operators knew this had to affect their jobs. Two August 17, 1978 photos showing the CN operator delivering their precious paper:
Handin'em up into an F-unit cab on a westbound with lumber empties. Two sets of orders for four trains meant four hoops. I suppose that's the reason for the between-track delivery:
Waiting with orders for the caboose of the rearmost westbound, while the potash empties on the near track must be heading through town on the Rivers Sub, 1979:
CN Prairie Region telegrapher seniority list excerpts showing the four operators' assignments and seniority dates (middle of each excerpt):
 Wynes (above), Cook (below)

Darling (above), Fidler (below). My aunt and uncle, with whom I stayed, knew Jack Darling personally. He was one of their patients!
During my time railfanning in Portage, Bill Wynes seemed to work days most often, with Bill Cook coming in for the evening shift. It was common for operators to park their personal vehicle right on the platform, just below the operator's bay window, 1984:
Between trains, I'd sit in the cool shadow of the CN station eaves, on the steps to the passenger waiting room. I was only a few feet from the operator's bay. It was easy to hear the operator receiving and typing train orders and clearances dictated by the Winnipeg dispatcher. Each one was repeated back to the dispatcher, with numbers, locations, directions and mileages spelled out letter-by-letter. Sometimes this was still happening when I could see the approaching train. They still had to be stapled, wrapped and strung on the train-order 'hoops' (Y's, actually.) This resulted in the operator hustling out onto the platform to hand up the orders to the head-end crew! Other times, the operator would have the train order hoops ready and leaning against the wall by his operator's door to the platform. Then I could get into position to photograph that soon-approaching train. Two GMD-1's lead eastbound grain while the engineer multi-tasks non-ergonomically to grab his orders on August 25, 1979:
While I went into the station occasionally, I did not want to make a pest of myself, knowing I'd be there for several days in a row during each of my summer visits
All four operators opted for early retirement rather than bumping into other positions elsewhere. CN's station would still host a 'freight terminal' and VIA passengers would have access to the waiting room one hour prior to train time. Bill Cook treated his last day like any other, "I'll be here until four o'clock, then Jack Darling comes in. And at midnight, Jack will close up, and that'll be it. At midnight, our jobs are terminated." Some 1976 train order deliveries recorded by my Dad, L.C. Gagnon:
Orders for head-end and tail-end.

Golden Hour deliveries on CN and CP.

Running extra...

My son and grandson and I did some platform-pounding this past week. The rain held off and so did the trains until CN No 376 put in an appearance. Thanks to Andrew who generously provided the Timmies. As we know, there's nothing like Fast Food and Trains! The little fellow put in several two year-old scale miles on the platform. When that train came he covered his ears, and his eyes were like tennis balls at Wimbledon watching the cars pass. And so it begins.
Working with Amie, Myriam and Charlotte of Montreal's Sid Lee agency since September, 2018 my own modest contributions to CN's 100th anniversary book finally made it to print. And now the book has made it to my front porch, just today. First, copies were mailed to employees, pensioners and corporate accounts and now contributors. It is a masterful and modern look at CN's rich history, and it is presented in a finished product of high quality and bold graphics that still manage to convey much varied and valuable historical information. A not-too-humid day with a not-at-all-boring history book! Bravo!
Oh, the places blogging will take you. To the fine print on the credits page!


Brian said...

I suspect that when these pictures were taken, they were seen as photographs of normal everyday railway operations – operators hooping orders to train crews. Only a few short years later, they would become pictures of railways operations from times gone by.

There are a lot of boxcars alongside the elevators. Here too, times are changing with the Government of Canada and CWB hopper cars. The CWB hopper in the right side of the VIA picture from 1980 would have been at most a few months old at the time.

Interesting pictures.

Eric said...

That's very true, Brian. Witnessing history. The three CWB covered hoppers were featured in my original Cylindrical Grain Cars post - shiny and new in 1980!

Thanks for your comment,