MEN AGAINST THE STORM
By Marc T. McNeil
Press Relations Officer Ottawa
Many years ago Canadian Pacific published a series of ten books named the "Foundation Library". One
particular book added to this collection, published in 1946, is named "Canadian Pacific Facts and Figures". It contains many
short stories and articles dealing with the company during that period. This month's article from that book, "Men Against the
Storm", written by Marc T. McNeil, Press Relations Officer Ottawa, is reprinted here for your enlightenment with the addition of
some appropriate images.
The 1946 Article
EDITOR'S NOTE: The story of the successful fight against the elements during the winter of 1942, 1943, is printed here as a
typical instance of the courage, resource, and ability with which Company men meet and defeat one of the nation's most devastating and
difficult transportation problems. It could be written equally well about railroading during almost any Winter season in this country.
The story also is a deserved tribute to all Canadian railwaymen.
It takes the Winter to show if you've got a railroad or not, runs the railwayman's adage, and never has the
truth of that old saw been proven more conclusively than in the Winter of 1942-43.
Starting in November and running through until mid-March the storm king was on the rampage, and, in turning
back the many onslaughts which threatened to tie up transportation and communications, Company men wrote a glowing page in the Canadian
Pacific's long history of accomplishment under adverse conditions.
Adding lustre to the victory was the fact that it came while the Company was engaged in moving the heaviest
traffic in its history, with every load vitally important in the world's greatest war and when the demands of that war on manpower had
got down close to the bottom of the labour barrel.
From a dollars and cents angle these heavy snowfalls and sleet storms which burdened operations meant $1,300,000
in increased cost of snow and ice removal, according to the report made by D.C. Coleman, Chairman and President, to the annual
shareholders' meeting in May, 1943.
Going at it from the question of snowplow mileage the figures are staggering. In January, for instance, more
than 83,000 miles of Company lines, a mileage more than three times the earth's circumference at the equator, were cleared by
Company snowplows for an increase of 72,860 miles or 709 percent over the corresponding month in
The real story of successful operation through the most vicious Winter since the Company started
transcontinental railroading in Canada cannot be told though by cost accounts and snowplow mileage. That
story is the human story, a stirring saga of men against the storm.
It is a story which takes in the entire system. There were section crews and
yard men who fought with pick, axe, and fire against the dreaded "blue ice" which threatened
to clog switches, who worked steadily in garments which sleet had made into an armor of ice, and who took only brief breathers where it
was warm before going right back on the job.
On the line there were snowplow operators, engineers, and firemen who rode in their cabs with the windows wide
open in sub-zero weather to make up for poor visibility as they bulled their way through the snow, with the plows sometimes powered by
as many as four locomotives.
Or, the trainmen could tell stories of floundering back through waist-deep snow with a knife-edge crust for as
much as three miles to report their trains stalled in cuts which had been plowed but a short time before. They could also remember their
experience in freight service of "doubling hills" in the biting cold.
An All-Out Fight
The communications department could provide its own firsthand description of the truly hellish weather in which
Company linemen, aided by experienced men made available from the Army's signals branch, did a terrific job. With many miles of new
copper wire and 140,000 feet of insulated twin wire they repaired the hundreds of breaks caused by the hammer blows of sleet and gale
and replaced the many poles, some of them reinforced cement test poles, which were bowled over.
Usually balmy British Columbia shared the fight too with one of the ships in British Columbia coast service
winding up one voyage with 500 tons of ice coating as added cargo from 70 mile-an-hour gales roaring directly down from the North
Sleepless officials and other employees fought as hard from their desks as the men who carried out their orders
on the line and made brilliant improvisations when their wires went dead.
It was a battle of ever-increasing intensity as engine house crews recall when they think of the coal which
froze in chutes and the locomotives which were so coated with ice they looked to be wrapped in cellophane.
Outside the Company entirely there were mothers of small children in metropolitan centres who rejoiced in the
victory, even if they knew little about the fight. If it hadn't been for Company trains there would have been an actual milk famine
during at least three periods of the Winter in places like Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. The snow which stopped truck carriers dead
saw the shippers back with "old reliable" and the railway came through. An example of how Company trains filled this breach is
the record of Train No. 422 down the north shore from Ottawa to Montreal. Normally 500 cans of milk a month are handled by this train
but on one day alone in March 1,110 cans were brought in with two baggage cars and two box-baggage cars being filled.
Roughly the worst periods in the epic fight against the elements were at the New Year, in mid-February and early
in March although you would find few railroaders who remember any of the intervening periods as being anything like decent weather.
Even old-timers who pooh-pooh the weatherman's efforts in modern times as compared with the "good old
days" had plenty of respect for the savage outbursts of 1942-43.
Eastern Lines Hard Hit
The East was possibly harder hit than the West. Taking the snowplow mileage for January as an example, it is
revealed that 60,723 miles of the total of 83,000 miles of track cleared was east of the head of the Great Lakes. In British Columbia
the mileage plowed was 14,456 miles while the prairies accounted for 7,821 miles of the total.
Not that the West didn't have its tough times. There was one March blizzard they'll remember for a long time at
Mileage 23, Lyleton subdivision, near Dalny, in southern Manitoba. On that occasion a snowplow and
Engine 983 were several hours in heavy snow with storekeepers, elevator men, neighbouring farmers, and townsmen demonstrating the
friendly spirit of the West by coming to the aid of Company workers in getting the snow cleared.
Because it came when the added burden of New Year's holiday travel and use of communications had to be met, the
storm which ushered in 1943 best illustrates how the fight was won. Certainly this was true of the communications department for the
January storm was the one which coated wires with ice up to 2 3/4 inches in thickness in places. This was the time when the department's
foresight paid big dividends. The lines along the north shore of the Ottawa River between Montreal and Ottawa survived the storm's fury
when all other lines were being interrupted. Along this north shore route the communications department established high fidelity
facilities and put a 36-circuit carrier system in operation to do telegraph work and bring in Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
For the railway's end of the January storm a feature story in the Canadian Pacific Staff Bulletin of March,
1943, collated reports gathered on the scene in the Quebec, Ontario, and Algoma districts. The other sectors had their headaches at the
same time but this Staff Bulletin piece spoke for them too, by inference, in the report that:
This damaging storm, almost unprecedented for the length of its sustained assault of snow, sleet, wind, and ice,
struck at a time when abnormal traffic conditions prevailed, coupled with the wartime pinch of manpower.
Relentlessly Hard Work
It seemed a miracle, but through it all, the trains were kept moving. The miracle was achieved solely by the
relentlessly hard work and devotion to duty of Company men, spurred on by the innate railroaders' sense of responsibility to the
To illustrate how well the trains did keep rolling and the tremendous volume of traffic that was moved despite
the white barriers thrown up against them by the storm, take, for example, what the records showed at Windsor
Station in Montreal and at the Toronto coach yards. These points typify the amount of work done everywhere. During the week of
3-9 January, just a few days after the first onslaught of the hurricane of snow and sleet, 4,622 passenger cars were handled at Windsor
Station, as compared to 4,134 passenger cars for the same period in 1942 under normal winter weather conditions.
All these cars were serviced at the Glen Yard, two miles from Windsor Station, which yard has a capacity of 300.
The increase in passenger business was duplicated in the freight handled.
during the week of 14-21 January, when the storm was still at its height, the coach yards there handled 800 more passenger cars than in
the corresponding period of 1942, and 170 more engine shifts. During that week, no less than 2,933 coaches were handled in the big
Toronto yards, which have accommodation for 582 coaches.
And similar heavy work was done all along the line: At Ottawa, Smiths Falls, Megantic, Chalk River,
Teeswater, Orangeville, North Bay, to name a few points.
The amount of equipment required to cope with the positively terrific conditions engendered by the storm was
staggering, and is best exemplified by the needs of the far-flung, frontier-like Algoma district. The Algoma was having tough sledding
long before the big storm broke at New Year's, but it had been an unusual winter even for that frigid district.
Extending northward from MacTier and westward to the Great Lakes, the Algoma experienced the coldest sustained
snap in living memory. Snow came early and the plows were on the job in November, a virtually unheard-of occurrence. During the month of
December 1942, no less than 64 plow and 15 spreader trips were made on the Sudbury division alone, as
against three plow and no spreader trips for the corresponding period in 1941. Then came the big storm that swept the Algoma, Ontario,
and Quebec districts. The Sudbury division, up to the last week in January of 1943, made 94 plow and 43 spreader trips and, of course,
all the extra power necessary to their operation was tied up in snow fighting. Snow plow mileage of 4,102 miles was run up on the
Sudbury division in December, 1942, and 5,833 miles was the record in January, 1943. On the Schreiber division 2,087 snow plow miles
were operated in December and 3,097 in January.
On the hard-hit Teeswater sub-division of the Bruce division, 20 additional locomotives were required to contend
with the situation. Three engines to a plow were a common sight in the vicinity of Teeswater and Elora. Three such engines represent a
tractive effort of about 80,000 pounds or 96,000 horsepower. And every ounce of that power was needed when it is realized that snow
resistance was such that sometimes the wheels of a 70-ton spreader car would be raised completely off the tracks as it strove to clear
the lines. Not infrequently, engines had to take time out to renew their steam pressure because of the rapidity with which water and
steam supplies were diminished by the weight of the tasks to be done.
Many types of cars, including flats, gondolas, and general purpose cars, were used to haul the snow away from
the yards at the big terminals and divisional points, where the multiplicity of switches, welded into immobility by the insidious blue
ice, further complicated the already strenuous work.
"Blue ice" is a combination of heavy snow followed by sleet and more heavy snow, and has to be cleared
from switches with hand picks, and burned out with a special oil.
A few statistics reveal what this can mean: There are 170 switches in the 35 miles of sidings at Smiths
Falls, 106 switches in Ottawa's 15.04 miles of yard sidings, and no less than 1,450 switches in the 182 miles of sidings connected with
The storm picked upon the Teeswater subdivision to give it a singularly heavy drubbing and in this snowbound
region there occurred one of the rare instances of a train being actually marooned. This was passenger train No. 753, Teeswater-bound
from Orangeville, and brought to a standstill only two miles from its destination.
Officials noted that everywhere the travelling public showed a deep appreciation of the problems confronting
railwaymen and openly expressed admiration for the way the obstacles placed by the storm were overcome. Nowhere were the public's
understanding and tolerance more evident than in the case of the snowbound train, No. 753. The passengers took their unscheduled 17-hour
"stopover" in good spirits, and rather enjoyed the novelty of the situation.
Word of the train's plight was despatched by the conductor who braved the blinding snows and waist-deep drifts
to reach a farmhouse to summon aid from Teeswater. It came by toboggan and snowshoes the next day.
In the meantime, Donald Cox, son of the Company's agent at Teeswater, brought a toboggan load of coal to keep
the coach fires burning. Food was procured from nearby farm houses. With the arrival of the "relief expedition" the passengers
of the stranded train were transported to Teeswater by toboggan. One lady expressed herself as "tickled pink" over the novel
"C.P.R. toboggan service" which brought her home.
For the Company's men who pitted themselves against the storm it was a ceaseless, difficult, grind. Operating
plows and spreaders, shovelling ice and snow, repairing wires, and driving ice-encrusted locomotives through the mounting drifts became
"It was not so much the severity of the storm that hampered us but rather its continued un-abatement,"
said Superintendent S.W. Crabbe, of the Bruce division, (now assistant general superintendent, New Brunswick district). Never before, he
added, had they had such a prolonged battle with the elements and never in the past 30 years were so many snow plows operating together
in that sector.
All in Front Line
Although road gangs, linemen, and train crews probably bore the brunt of the struggle against the winter
tempest, no member of the railway's personnel affected escaped his share of the headache. Agents, operators, machinists, car repairers,
engine wipers, cleaners, hostlers, and other classes were all in the front line, while in most cases superintendents and other officials
were on the scene to supervise operations. H.A. Greeniaus, (now assistant to Vice-President, Western lines), R.W. Scott, and E.S.
McCracken, general superintendents of the Ontario, Quebec, and Algoma districts, respectively, carried the load of responsibility that
the storm laid upon their shoulders and, as soon as was feasible, made personal inspection trips over their lines.
The blizzard-born gremlins played havoc every way they knew. Ice and the frigid temperatures attacked the
mechanical parts of engines and cars, hot boxes smoked to delay trains further, drifts mounted to a height of 15 feet.
Trainman George Haystead, of Orangeville, described how crewmen wrapped their faces in towels to protect them
against the stinging blasts of wind-spun sleet. Flying snow and engine steam sometimes so reduced visibility that locomotives were
forced to a standstill or had their speed cut to a snail's pace.
Then there was the case of a rear-end brakeman on one Ottawa-Montreal run who walked the long storm-swept mile
back to protect his train with signals and his lonely, frigid, hour-long vigil until he was "whistled in" after his mates had
fixed three hot boxes.
The engine houses had their troubles, too. Locomotive foremen tell of the work involved when the
turntables leading to engine sheds were jammed with ice and snow and had to be hauled around with
logging chains attached to locomotives. The 120-foot turntable at Toronto terminals was stymied in its concrete pit and was released
only by steam jets directed at the snow that held it prisoner. In the roundhouses themselves, the intense cold caused engines to steam
up the interior with the result that visibility was reduced to zero and engines literally had to be "led by the halter" to and
from the tracks outside.
There was at least one instance where 10 men were required to tend coal chutes
which ordinarily need a crew of only two men. The men actually were compelled to "pick out the snow and ice from the coal"
which had frozen in the chutes.
Men used small pieces of steel as hammers to clear grab irons of dangerous ice, treacherous footing on the
ground, and on the slippery tops of boxcars were other hazards. Switch engines, which normally handle 24 cars at once, had to work with
painful slowness, lifting one car at a time, all that could be taken with safety. At Fraxa, Ontario, the snow literally piled up in
mountains. Wherever there was a "cut" the flanking embankment was a sheer precipice of snow. At Smiths Falls ash pans on
locomotives were frozen solid and four men on a bar were needed to get them ready for dumping.
Record Low Temperatures
In the hard-bitten Algoma district the cold was searing. At Hemlo, Ontario, the water supply was temporarily cut
off due to the lake at that point freezing almost to the bottom. At Arctic-like White River, the mercury hibernated in the bottom of the
thermometer tube to register an official low of 54 below zero. Official snowfall figures in that district stood in excess of nine feet
at the end of January.
White River did not have a monopoly on the sub-zero temperatures, however. E.D. Gilmore, section foreman and
plow foreman at Chalk River, said they told him it was 38 below the night he piloted a plow from Chalk River to Renfrew to clear the way
for a freight train which had been held up for 30 hours. And he faced that weather with the windows open, thereby losing most of the
benefit of the small stove in the plow. It seems a man doesn't worry too much about heat or cold when he's watching the road on a wild
night and remembering where he must lift his plow points to avoid ripping out switches and crossings.
Indicative of the way men used their heads when on their own was instanced at Rigaud. A through passenger train
to Ottawa made its regular stop at Rigaud and stalled. At first, the engine of the following train tried to help lift the through
When that failed, the crews of the two commuter trains lying over at Rigaud came out with their engines and the
four locomotives got the through train moving. It was decided then to use one of the commuter train's engines to double-head the through
passenger to Ottawa. Suburbanites didn't suffer, however, for the engine of a telegraph repair train was commandeered to haul their
train to Montreal the next day.
The army helped out to the best of its ability to supply auxiliary manpower from the diminishing labour pool.
They did it with men from the army to the number of almost 900, 500 of them at Montreal terminals, 100 each at Smiths Falls and Ottawa,
and 160 at Toronto.
Pensioners like Otis Kirkland, retired roadmaster of the Farnham division, who came out to help at Montreal
terminals, W. Edwards and J. Alexander, retired engineers, who operated two trains which cleared snow at Smiths Falls, and Harry Cavers,
retired chief dispatcher, who filled the breach at Ottawa when the wires to Montreal and Smiths Falls went dead, exemplified the spirit
of the old-timers in the emergency.
Associated Web Sites
Canadian Pacific Railway
Canadian Pacific Historical Association
Additional CPR Web Sites