Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Steam Whistle Tattoo

Prince Rupert, October 1957. We had been living in Prince Rupert for just a few months, but already we, as a family, were embracing the Canadian National Railways. Of course my Dad had the closest interface, being chief engineer on the “M/V Comet” owned by American British Columbia Transportation, dragging a 24-car rail barge back and forth between Prince Rupert and Ward Cove. See “In the Beginning.

The ancient two-story house we were renting was a short block from the CNR yard and main line. An interesting structure in itself, being built on a log raft “floating” in a sea of muskeg, actually moving from time to time! We even had a foot bridge running from the curb to the house!

We soon noticed that promptly at 6pm, just after sitting down for dinner, that we could hear the passenger engine whistling departure from the station, not more than a half mile up the line from us. And very soon, as the train picked up speed, the engineer would begin performing a beautiful tattoo with the engines whistle. This would continue the full mile or so from the station south to the first grade crossing at the end of the yard. And the beautiful sounds were made as only a steam engineer with a lot of pride in his craft could perform.

Those of you fortunate enough to remember steam will know exactly what I am woefully inadequate to describe. I wish we had had a tape recorder to capture those moments. Several Pacific's were assigned to the varnish, including the 5141, 5149 and 5152, through service to join the Canadian National Railways main line at Red Pass Junction. I'm not sure how far the engines went before returning to Prince Rupert. Perhaps at Smithers.

One of the engineers, my Mom dubbed “Tex,” worked the lower moaning octaves, ending in the required crossing signal just south of our house. The other engineer as I recall was nameless. And he had an entirely different repertoire, again ending with the legal grade crossing requirement.

The passenger train engineers provided an entertaining and memorable part of our life in Prince Rupert, which for us, ended almost as soon as we were aware of it. Diesels soon took over the varnish, ending steam on the Prince Rupert Extension forever.

Only in my later years, did I come to realize what a dramatic change these fellows were going through, making the transition from steam to diesel; from Johnson Bar to clicking notches.

And what can you do with a diesel air horn, other than blow it!

3 Comments - Click here:

Bill ~ {The Old Fart} said...

Loved the read Robert, I know exactly what you are getting at Steam Whistle Tattoo. Of course by the time I was able to watch trains, Steam was gone forever except for Excursions (None of which seemed to make it to Nova Scotia), but heard it on records that Railfans recorded on these excursions. I wonder if they can be found on the Internet ??? Hmmmm.

Thank you for the wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

I feel very fortunate to have experienced the steam locomotives even for a short time- I lived in that house with the footbridge over the muskeg (visited again in 1986, the front yard has been filled in with dirt and gravel.) A truly missed era-of the great black magnificent machines with the poetic whistles, thank you for the wonderful article, Lesley

Anonymous said...

While I was not alive during the steam era, they still capture my imagination. I have been lucky enough to be able to be a member of a large scale model train society. The trains are large enough to ride on and the steam engines are REAL steam engines either powered by propane, wood, or coal. Having been able to drive some of these, I have always loved using the whistle, especially as a couple of the scale models use whistles that were used on real steam engines. You can be very creating with how long you hold the whistle and where as well. If you have the chance, and if you haven't already, I would suggest finding a local club and go spend a day playing. There are at least three clubs in the Seattle area, one each in Port Orchard, Snohmish, and Clinton.

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