Monday, June 15, 2015

Remembering the Farm - the Boxcar

Number crunching was making me dizzy.  Forty vegetables, one country, one province, two counties, fifteen years, area and yields.  Adds up to a great many numbers - then twist and turn them to try to make them tell any secrets.  And do the same for 25 fruits and nuts.  Music is a good break and You Tube is handy. Found Pete Seeger singing one of my favourite sad songs, a song Woody Guthrie made famous, "Hobo's Lullaby".  Got to thinking about the boxcar which was every bit as symbolic an icon on the prairies as the grain elevator.

The boxcar, a box on wheels with a sliding door on each side, was the universal carry-all for over 150 years.  Far more than hobos rode the rods courtesy of boxcars. I remember as a small boy, watching the mixed local pull into Landis or Cavell.  (They were 7 miles apart on the main CN line, Saskatoon to Edmonton).  This was pre-diesel-electric, with a big black steam engine doing the honours.  The train would be one or more passenger cars, mail/baggage car and one or several box cars filled with freight for the local towns along the way.   It served as bus line, mail delivery, grocery and parcel delivery. Whatever was needed in small town Saskatchewan came by train.

The train would be met by a flatbed truck, or horse drawn freight wagon, or in winter a flatbed sleigh.  Goods would be hand-bombed from the boxcar onto the dray and then delivered where ever in town. Groceries came that way and needless to say there were not many perishables and no frozen goods to speak of.  If there were enough perishables and frozen goods to warrant a shipment, a reefer car would be added to the train. 

Boxcars also moved our bulk commodities out of the west to the Lakehead and farther east to Montreal, or eventually west to Vancouver.  Try to imagine loading that boxcar with grain through the side door.  No easy task for the elevator agent. To ensure everyone had a chance to deliver grain, quotas were allotted based on acreage.  There was always excitement when someone spotted some cars on the elevator siding because that meant there would be room in the elevator to deliver some grain and that meant cash money in the pocket. The boxcars loaded with grain were emptied by turning them on their side.

By the late 50's and 60's,  the boxcar was relegated primarilytmoving grain as highways improved; buses moved passengers and packages while trucks moved mail and freight.  I remember sitting in church, looking out the window and counting boxcars on the freight train that went by every Sunday morning.  Empties going eat were usually about 75 to 100 cars long.


Gradually, the boxcar fleet was replaced by big round grain tanks with top loading and bottom unloading hatches.  Sidings were lengthened to handle 50 to 100 cars which cut the delivery and pickup costs dramatically but spelled the end of the old wooden elevators.  Now on abandoned sidings you will see hundreds of abandoned boxcars, waiting, I supposed to be melted down for scrap.  They have gone the way of the hobo.


NOTE: Those who remember better than I, please add details or correct errors.


8 comments:

  1. The S.O. tells me that back when his family still had cows (a very small dairy operation), the milk got shipped by rail to the cheese factory, which I seem to recall was located at least 100 miles away from here. The milk runs the freight trains made were what made it possible for a farm to only have half a dozen cows and still make some money. I always wonder a little about the logistics involved in dealing with multiple farmers and thousands of milk cans scattered over a huge geographic area, but we've still got tags left that were used as shipping labels in the '40s.

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    1. We shipped cream to a local dairy plant. I need to blog about that. Cows III.

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  2. Hauling grain in boxcars was a lot more labour-intensive than with the new grain tanks. Each boxcar had to be coopered before the grain was loaded: wooden grain doors were placed inside the sliding doors and all the gaps and cracks were patched with cardboard or tin. If flax was being hauled, there was an additional step - the boxcar had to be lined with brown paper so the slippery flat seeds wouldn't escape through the cracks.

    The sheer amount of man-labour involved makes you shake your head when you realize how easy and automated everything is today.

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    1. Thank you for those details, prairie farm girl. I didn't know about flax as there was none grown in my area when I was young. Just wheat, oats and barley. Loading cars was very hard work. Stupid work when you think about it. But old grain doors were sure hand for stuff.

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  3. Thanks for the memories. My grandmother raised me. Her husband, before he left her for a younger woman, was an Illinois Central station manager. She retained her pass to ride free on the train and she and I occasionally rode the old steam trains to visit family. Then the advent of the diesel. We rode the City of New Orleans, the Hummingbird and trains with no names. Great memories. The last train I rode was the Alaskan Railroad ...
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. You actually rode The City of New Orleans? Can I have your autograph? I love that song! I rode the passenger train twice in steam engine days. Once in the dead of winter on the CPR branch line from Kelfield to Wilkie. No heat and wooden benches. I was maybe 3. Mom and my baby brother and I had been visiting her parents in Kelfield and dad couldn't come for us because of the roads. The other time, I was in Grade 1 or 2 and took the train by myself to Landis (7 miles) because dad was in town and couldn't pick me up so I went to him. Cost maybe a dime?

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