Much has been written about Fort William, Port Arthur and the current city of Thunder Bay. The Schreiber to Thunder Bay run over the Nipigon Subdivision was never as interesting to me as the "East End". My favourite trips were between Schreiber and White River through the wilderness of the Heron Bay Subdivision.
On the highway signs of the time, Schreiber had a population of 2000 and White River had a population of 1200. With further streamlining of railway operations in the area, both of these towns are a little less crowded than they were in the late 1970s.
How did these little railway towns start?
In the late 1800s, several surveys were run through the country north of Lake Superior, as politicians were musing about an all Canadian railway route to unite 'the east' with the tiny colony of British Columbia. The proposed railway, and settlement of the land along its route, would help ensure that the traditional Hudson's Bay Company lands and the rest of 'the west' did not become part of the United States.
Some very interesting books were written at this time about how to organize railway surveying expeditions into the wild. Pack horses, dried food (hunting was useless as a source of food), simple optical and analog instruments, and significant backwoods skills to survive and survey in the middle of nowhere were required. There were no warm clothes and tents made out of synthetic fibres, no cell phones, no GPS, no police, no hospitals, no doctors. There was only the occasional fur trading post to provide any needed help. Serious injury or starvation could change your plans for the rest of your life pretty quickly.
The job was to locate a nearly flat railway line as economically as possible. This was difficult because there were only hundreds of miles of rounded granite mountains, lakes, and swamps to build through. The best steam locomotives of the era could run about 125 miles before they needed more fuel (coal) and fresh crews. So, along the north shore of Lake Superior, the railway builders needed to establish at least two townsites (called "division points") which met the following criteria:
- Flat land on which to build long railway yard tracks - to receive the trains and to switch their cars.
- Adequate flat space for stations, locomotive and car shops, coaling towers, worker housing, 'rest & exercise' stockyards, and community buildings.
- Abundant fresh water for locomotives and people.
These locations had to be at roughly 125 mile intervals from the established settlement of Fort William and other planned railway terminals farther to the east.
|MAP: Lake Superior and the CPR. |
Fort William; Schreiber (centre of map); and White River (at right)
became the 'railway towns' for the CPR north of Lake Superior.
Building along the shore of Lake Superior in 1883-1885 was more effective than building inland:
- Steam-powered ships could bring in rails, additional workers, food and supplies between winter freeze-ups.
- Construction was completed more quickly because shoreline building could be started at many landing points. Furthermore, building could proceed both east and west of each particular landing. (Contrast this to building west from the single 'railhead' on flat prairie land.)
- Given the difficulty of blasting through granite, inland construction done only from 'the end of track' would have probably run afoul of the company's guarantees to the government to complete the line on schedule.
- However, powerful Lake Superior storms quickly washed away the broken granite 'fills' for the roadbed along the shore if they weren't built carefully
White River: Home away from home
My eastern 'objective terminal' in 1977.
Dr. W.G. Houston was White River's physician from 1933 until his death in 1966. In 1985, the centennial of White River and the railway line, his wife Mary (Whent) Houston put together a wonderful, comprehensive pictorial history of White River. Using old photographs shared by White River's citizens, it shows all aspects of community life in the little railway town from its very beginnings. Most of the following information on White River's development comes from her book.
Mary Houston passed away in December 2005 at the age of 86 having lived all of her life in White River.
There are at least two points she would want me to bring to your attention.
First of all, CPR records show it was NEVER officially named 'Snowdrift' - always White River. In 1937, a record 13.1 feet of snow fell there.
More importantly, White River was long advertised as 'the coldest spot in Canada' at -72 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not correct because that reading came from a shattered thermometer. The lowest temperature recorded was -61.2 degrees F on January 23, 1935 and this is proven in her book through the use of official weather records.
I'd like to elaborate that a more accurate White River title would be:
'The coldest spot in Canada ... of those which provided daily telegraph reports of their temperatures ... back then ... which were regularly published in newspapers '
This doesn't fit on a souvenir T-shirt, though.
|White River, Ontario, in its earliest days|
The caption reads:
"First CPR company houses and lodging house built on the river bank with view of rail yard and station. Later these houses were moved across the tracks to the east end of town which became known as 'Little England'. Photo: Courtesy M. Leadbeater"
The photo may be from around 1890.
In 1911, White River is shown as the headquarters for District No. 2 of the Lake Superior Division. District No. 2 included 516.6 miles of mainline.
Then, it included the following Subdivisions:
- Cartier to Chapleau - Chapleau Sub - 137.4 mi
- Chapleau to White River - White River Sub - 131.8 mi
- White River to Schreiber - Schreiber Sub - 118.9 mi
- Schreiber to near Port Arthur - Nipigon Sub - 128.5 mi
The Chief Train Dispatcher and six train dispatchers were at White River along with the Division Superintendent. There was an Assistant Superintendent at Chapleau and a Trainmaster at Schreiber.
White River station enlarged - photographed in 1907.
Division offices and the dispatchers were upstairs.
The train order and register office was at the far end.
District No. 1 of the Lake Superior Division ran from Chalk River to Cartier,
both in Ontario, and included the line to Sault Ste Marie and the US.
Schreiber received a fancy new station around 1924 and this was likely co-incident with the change in the location of the railway's District headquarters.
In 1977, White River was where we waited for our turn to work the next train back home to Schreiber. As you can tell, the land quite flat ... and the meandering White River flows right by the yard and shops. In May 1936 and May 1979, the White River flooded the town.
|Map of White River, Ontario|
- Locomotive and car shops and a passenger station with business offices.
- A coaling facility and water tank.
- Worker housing and a CPR rooming house.
- A building for storage of block ice cut in the winter - which was used for freight car ice bunker refilling, and likely some local refrigeration during the summer.
- Stock pens to feed and exercise entire trains of live cattle coming east for slaughter (before reliable refrigeration and the ability to freeze meat for transport). Other livestock, such as sheep and horses, was also sent across the country.
In the late 1970s, loaded stock cars were still coming east, marshalled at the headend of some of 'my' freights. However, the stock pens were demolished in 1976 because the Winnipeg to Toronto journey could be made without cattle rest stops within the federally required 40 hour period. The pens were located where it says "First Ck" on the map, by Little Lake.
When in White River, stay at ...
White River once had a YMCA which served as a pleasant centre for townspeople to meet socially and a place for visitors to stay. Its main function was providing rest facilities for off duty train crews and junior railway personnel from out of town. It burned down in the 1950s.
On the same location, CP built a bunkhouse where we slept and/or waited until our trains back home to Schreiber arrived. This bunkhouse is located at the bottom tip of the red shaded area of the map.
White River CPR bunkhouse.
The original CPR bunkhouse is the brown building,
and we slept behind in the green "portables"
Before the 1960s (approximately) particular vans (cabooses) were assigned to particular conductors. When away from home and off duty (eg. at White River) the conductor and the two brakemen slept on wooden benches - with mattresses and bedding - in the van. But the engine crew - the engineer and fireman - slept in the brown building above when off duty and away from home. These arrangements reflected the traditional practices of the railway and the separate collective agreements covering train and engine crews.
Consider a single typical eastbound freight running from Winnipeg to Montreal ...
Ten (5 + 5) crew members were required to move it from Schreiber to Chapleau.
At White River, the eastbound's Schreiber crew rested and would return home to Schreiber on a later westbound train.
At White River, a rested Chapleau crew would take over this particular eastbound freight, thus returning home to Chapleau.
|Kwik Van Location|
|Train crew during off-duty time. Inside a steam-era caboose on an American road with the train crew - washing dishes.|
Later in history, when the van was left attached to the through freight train, and not assigned to the conductor living in Schreiber or Chapleau ... the conductor and brakemen bunked in with the engine crews at the enlarged bunkhouse.
A big happy family.
Getting back to the White River bunkhouse in 1977 ...
Each room had its own desk, chair and bed. The place had showers, cooking facilities and satellite TV.
On arrival, you simply wrote your name beside any room number on the chalkboard where the 'name space' was blank.
When the crew callers came for us, they had four names (diesel era) for the ordered train. They looked for your name ... and came to your room if you weren't in the 'common room' watching the Peter Gzowski midnight talk show on CBC TV.
At your room, the crew caller would:
- Go to your room and bang on the door.
- Immediately open the door.
- Immediately turn on the light and walk right in.
- Say something like "Gagnon, extra west at 0300".
- Squint at you for a second to satisfy themselves you were past the point of going back to sleep.
- Leave, closing the door and leaving the light on.
- You then got ready and reported to the station to take your westbound freight train back to Schreiber at 3 AM.
|White River, Ontario in the 1970s|
Here is White River in the 1970s. The Trans-Canada Highway runs across the top of the town on this postcard and you can see the souvenir shops and services which sprang up in the 1960s to sell those "coldest spot in Canada" T-shirts to tourists. You can also imagine that when The White River (lower left and bottom) flooded there would be wet basements all around.
|CP Rail White River, Ontario, railway yard looking east in 1984|
Looking back from the dome car on the westbound Canadian in 1984, you can see the station and offices to the left of our track, then the yard, and the water and fuel facilities to the right. At this point, White River was losing its ability to repair locomotives and cars to larger facilities such as Thunder Bay.
In the White River yard office
In researching this piece, I was reminded of one of the nicest experiences I had during my Lake Superior effort. For a short while I worked as an 'intern' at the White River yard office with the night shift machine operator Bob Mura. He taught me how to work on the old IBM teletypes - which produced a punched tape record of a train's cars (a train consist). These long tapes were wrapped in a figure-eight motion around your thumb and pinkie finger and hung up on pegs to be fed into the machines for later transmission to Montreal to update their car control computer. Today, you could easily record the data from rooms full of these primitive paper "storage media" on a single USB key.
|Baudet five-unit automtic code punched in tape|
(This 6 Hertz 'processor speed' sounds about right as I remember the machines)
One cold dark winter night, the powerful White River yard office radio crackled with an engineer's call that their freight had just put fifty ("five nought") cars in the bush to the east of White River. "Man, that's railroading!!" said Bob Mura.
Whenever there was a derailment, the trains would all cram into terminals like White River to wait for hours or days until the line could be reopened. Stranded train crews at the bunkhouse were sometimes called for duty just to refuel the diesel-powered refrigeration units of similarly stranded semi-trailers and shipping containers travelling on flatcars.
|Eddie Doyon's retirement at White River station. Photo courtesy of Jason Cottom.|
Edna & Ed Doyon, R.J. Mura (dark glasses), Bill Card, Charlie Linklater, Ernie Gionet, Tommy Hogan,
Mac McLeod, Irvin Baziuk, Bob Roffey.
I am very grateful to Bob Mura's grandson for reading my memories of White River, contacting me, and sending this photograph (April 2009). The event shown dates back over 30 years and I recognize many of the faces. I think the facial expressions here communicate a lot to you about my experiences in White River.
Bob Mura taught me how to use the IBM teletypes during the night shifts. Assistant Superintendent Tees had suggested I could stay at the bunkhouse during the training. I was preparing for a summer relief vacancy at a station to the east.
Bob was a good patient teacher - even when the Montreal computer repeatedly rejected the train consist tapes I had typed off-line and then submitted on a live machine.
He explained to me that the running trades required a 'different kind of cat', and that life on the road could be very demanding, with significant stress and time away from home. In our short time together, he certainly made me feel much better about some decisions I had made.
Eddie's Retirement wasn't the only 'end of career event' which Bob attended.
I departed White River (and CP Rail) for eastern Ontario on Train Number 2 in the middle of the night. It was a clear and cold, and the patches of snow remaining on the hard asphalt platform squeaked underfoot. Bob came out with me in his shirt-sleeves to see me off and waited there with the station lights behind him as I boarded.
I'll always remember his friendliness and support during those last few days.
A scan of a 1958 CPR Spanner magazine. You can see the figure-8 wound tape consists - usually one for each train - on the varnished wood pegboard. And there's Bob at the centre of the photograph.
After seeing this photo, Jason Cottom advised me that P.E. Linklater was R.J. Mura's father-in-law. Many railroaders have nicknames and Yardmaster Linklater was known as 'Hot Cakes'. If you are doing the math at home ... this is a photo of Jason's Grandfather and Great Grandfather.
|Clarence Cottom retirement from Mary Houston's history of White River|
Photo: Courtesy J. Dillabough"
This is one of my favourite photos from Mary Houston's 1985 book. It shows Jason's other grandfather.
Sometimes cakes or other mementos were decorated with the locomotive number of a retiree's last run. Here is a 1932 snapshot of another Angus Shops built engine of the same class as Clarence Cottom's 'last run'.
|CPR locomotive 2222 at Toronto, 1932|
White River flooding 1936
|Flood - May, 1936. Clem Cowan and Mary Whent paddling on Winnipeg Street at White River|
The tallest structure between them is the locomotive coaling tower.
It must have been quite a project to pull together, safeguard, sort, select, caption, reproduce, and return a collection of photos to represent White River's 100 years of history in 1985.
Mary Houston (shown above as a teenager) and the citizens of White River have made a great contribution to the understanding of 'the human experience' of railroading and living together
in a small close-knit CPR community from its earliest days.
My 'home terminal' in 1977
In Schreiber, there is an Ontario historic plaque which reads:
|Sir Collingwood Schreiber 1831-1918|
James Isbester, CPR contractor
Photo from Rolly Martin
- Born: Orkney Islands and came to Canada as a youngster when his family settled near Woodstock.
- As a young man, worked as a mechanical engineer on the Great Western Railway (Canada).
- Began contracting experience in 1869, building a portion of the Rimouski Bridge under Alexander Macdonald.
- Subcontractor on the Intercolonial Railway.
- Built Section B of the CPR in partnership with Manning and Macdonald - along the north shore of Lake Superior.
- Contracted with R.G. Reid (of the Newfoundland Railway) on the Cape Breton extension of the Intercolonial Railway.
- Completed a contract on the Crow's Nest Pass in the spring of 1899.
- Died of complications from diabetes during a trip to inspect a contract in the Rainy River district.
- 'Ardent Conservative', Presbyterian, and 'warm personal friend' of Sir John A. Macdonald.
From the text of an obituary supplied by Brian Westhouse, December 2005
|Little Pic River bridge|
|CPR Schreiber station was initially located on the north side of the mainline.|
Photo circa 1890-1900.
Schreiber station on the north side of mainline. Schreiber before I went on brake.
Where do we start with all the interesting details?
There is a brakeman on the roofwalk at the three livestock cars just ahead of the conductor's van.
At the edge of civilization at the rear of the photo ... left to right ... shop (?) ... passenger station and freight shed ... food and boarding facilities (?) ... ice house (?).
|Schreiber, Ontario showing railway livestock pens|
|Schreiber, Ontario topographic map, 1977|
During railway construction, nearby Rossport and Jackfish harbours would have been more important than Schreiber for heavy supply. As you can see from the map, Schreiber is isolated from Lake Superior, except for the trail down to Schreiber Beach - i.e. Isbester's Landing - for supply boats during early construction. The contour lines show that the town and its facilities are ringed by high hills and that the yard tracks had to be bent around these hills in order to be located on relatively flat land. The blue squares are 1000 metres across.
Schreiber existed for the railway, but gradually a more balanced community developed. Here is a Schreiber news column from the Fort William Journal of July 18, 1894 - nine years after the line was completed.
|Schreiber Scribblings 1894 newspaper column|
"The Strike" referred to above was the 50,000 worker Pullman Strike in Chicago which had been called by Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union because sleeping car workers' wages had been cut 25% and their union representatives fired. An injunction was obtained by the U.S. attorney general (who also happened to be a director on two railroad boards), and U.S. President Cleveland sent in troops to enforce the injunction (34 strikers dead, hundreds of railway cars burned by strikers) on July 4, 1894.
This violence occurred a week or so before the newspapers would have reached Schreiber if they had not all 'been disposed of' from CPR train Number 2 as recorded above. The railways were BIG business and you didn't fool around with them. CPR officials had no interest in keeping local workers in a company town up to date on strikes on other railways.
Speaking of officials ... from the same edition :
|Fort William journal July 18, 1894|
Schreiber's Italian Community
Immigrants from many countries and many other parts of Canada have come to call Schreiber home over the years. The most noted group all had an interesting common background.
Around 1905, Cosimo Figliomeni arrived in Schreiber from Siderno, Italy, beginning a sequence of 'chain' migration of families from Siderno to Schreiber. Put simply, 'chain migration' is knowing someone who can help you find a place to live and help you get a job - then you help someone you know, etc.
Back then, the railway was a very labour intensive business. It is hard to imagine how it could have functioned without the contribution of newcomers to Canada who often took on unpleasant, dangerous, lonely and demanding jobs to become established in this harsh and challenging country.
All year, the track would need to be patrolled and maintained with heavy repairs being performed during the summer. This would employ hundreds of workers on the Division.
In winter, with the roadbed frozen, shimming would be performed to correct minor track surfacing defects. Cold and brittle rails breaking under the pounding of trains would need to be replaced. Snowstorms would bring a great demand for switch cleaning to keep the yards and sidings functioning. Slides of rock, snow, and ice would need to be cleared. Inevitably, trains suddenly coming into contact with winter track defects would require labour to clear derailments and rebuild the track.
|Cleaning switches in White River yard|
White River yard switch cleaning in the 1930s - from 'Pictorial History of White River'
To maintain safety, trackwalkers were used in a number of lonely areas on the line which were likely to be struck by rock and snow slides. The waves and ice of Lake Superior storms could also attack the right of way. These workers would be out in all hours, and in all weather, to inspect the track and signal trains that it was safe to proceed if all was well. This was particularly important before the passage of a passenger train.
Another lonely job would be to maintain the water tanks used to refill steam locomotive tenders. All year, the water pumps to fill the tanks would need to be operated. During the winter, the fires in heaters at the base of the tanks would also need to be maintained to keep the tanks from freezing.
Spring thaw, heavy rain and beaver dam flooding repairs; ditch and culvert maintenance; brush clearing; bridge and building maintenance; locomotive servicing and car repairs; inspecting journals and topping them up with oil; hauling blocks of cooling ice; maintaining kerosene markers and switchlamps ... there seems to be no end to the list of jobs the railway needed done.
Today, descendants of the immigrants from Siderno are said to make up half of the population of Schreiber.
To understand the history of Schreiber is to understand the contribution of those who worked under the most difficult and dangerous conditions to keep the trains rolling.
|Winter scene, postcard, Schreiber, Ontario|
The message mailed to Red Deer, Alberta reads:
"This is pretty true to life.
Gee I think all the snow in the world is here,
and more to come and it's cold."
Schreiber Grows and Changes
Begun in the 1930s, the Trans-Canada Highway was not completed in the region as a through road until 1960. So the early development of both Schreiber and White River was centred around the railway station and yards, beginning with the CPR's completion in 1885.
- Water transportation was minimal because neither had good harbours on Lake Superior.
- There were few roads and no through roads in the early years.
- There were few motor vehicles then.
- The towns existed only for the railway as single industry towns.
The railway provided Schreiber with:
- Some company housing, particularly worker dormitories and houses for officials who were transferred to Schreiber.
- Coal oil street lighting and eventually a diesel motor generated electrical system in 1936.
- Telegraph service with the outside world with some telephones in the late 1930s.
Social services were provided mainly by the churches. The YMCA was one place where some community events were held and it was the place where travellers and transferred or "bumped" railway workers could get a room. Retail stores, their goods transported in by the railway, also became established.
My brother obtained the following photocopies of diagrams for me years ago. They show the plans for the proposed station at Schreiber, dated 1924. They're not presented because they are beautiful ... but because I think others should have and preserve the history of the CPR line north of Superior. It was this building which made Schreiber the headquarters for the division. With this came the salaried positions which - I was told in 1977 - made Schreiber 'the town with the highest per capita income in Ontario'.
|Proposed CPR station, Schreiber, 1924.|
|Proposed CPR station, Schreiber, 1924.|
With the completion and opening of the Trans-Canada Highway from Sault Ste Marie to the lakehead in September 1960, the Schreiber I knew evolved.
To me, the most memorable features of Schreiber were:
- The friendliness of the people - everyone was very helpful to a teenager arriving in town to 'go on brake'.
- The importance of the railway to Schreiber and vice versa (i.e. the division offices and the shops to repair rolling stock).
- The silence of the town and the height of the snowbanks - as I walked to work in the middle of the night in a snowstorm.
|Spadoni Brothers advertisement circa 1965|
|Spadoni Brothers advertisement circa 1965|
With the opening of the Trans-Canada, 'getting over the road' took on a new meaning. Back in these days professional salaries were probably around $1000 per year. Old cars are always interesting, but also take note of the local telephone exchange in this 1965 flyer.
|Schreiber, Ontario and the Trans-Canada Highway|
About 500 people were employed by CP Rail when I worked there in the late 1970s. About 120 more were employed by the expanding Kimberly-Clark mill in nearby Terrace Bay and there was a housing crunch in Schreiber as construction workers crowded in to every available lodging.
Schreiber - a final trip back through time
The dispatchers, locomotive and car shops, division offices, and half of the running trades employees (the trainmen) are no longer to be found in Schreiber. Today, the Schreiber station stands as a reminder of the thousands of railroaders who called Schreiber home over the years.
|Schreiber, Ontario CP Rail station, 1980s|
Travelling back, here is a postcard from sometime in the mid-1960s. The railway is prominent in the postcard photo by Harry R. Oakman of Peterborough. A long summertime Train Number 1 with three locomotives is changing crews at Schreiber station. The roundhouse is gone, but the yard is full of paper cars and the car shop is in business.
|Schreiber, Ontario in the 1960s|
Let's go back to the late 1930s. There is no Trans-Canada. There is no through road featured in the next postcard.
|Schreiber, Ontario 1930s|
The westbound mainline - the sole reliable link between eastern and western Canada for the first 30 years of the CPR - quickly disappears among the forested granite hills.
Schreiber today is a thoroughly modern town. But in the photo above you can catch a glimpse of its origin.
It has been over 125 years since the first of thousands of Schreiber running trades employees began performing the final rituals of departure: pulling themselves up into the hot cabs of waiting CPR locomotives; shouting 'board', giving the headend the 'high sign', and mounting the passenger car steps; or swinging themselves up onto the steps of passing CPR freight train vans.
Today, these railroaders continue to provide a link to Schreiber's beginnings.
|Schreiber (now Heron Bay) Subdivision 1911, Employee Timetable|