Snowplow Extra - Thurso Style
It was "long-John" weather as we looked at the morning sky from the Masson (Quebec) ferry. It was just getting light in the east. February 12 was dawning bright and the weather would stay that way all day. A few of the faithful had come to ride a snowplow extra on the Thurso and Nation Valley Railway.On February 12, 1986, several Society members rode on what may be the last snowplow train on the Thurso Railway (it appears that the line will close before year-end). The consist included Thurso Railway pre-1900 plow #561 (ex-CP), Thurso's 1949 GE 70 Tonner #7 (also numbered 5131 for accounting purposes), the Society's 1913 caboose #436436 (ex-CP #436436), and the Society's 1907 Official Car #27 (ex-Thurso & Nation Valley Railway #27, nee CP #27). No. 7, photographed at Ripon, Quebec, was operating in the traditional nose-first direction, whereas the Thurso Railway usually operates its lead locomotive with the cab end leading. No. 7 was resplendent in a new coat of paint thanks to B.R.S. member Jacques Beaubien, Jr. who toiled for two weekends to fully repaint the locomotive. Photograph by Paul Bown.
They said to get there early as there was a little to be done to get Car 27 ready. They were right! We had to put all of the left-hand-side windows back where they belonged as well as to move pieces of buffer beam and handrails into the caboose. Somebody also took the brave decision to put water on the car.
Now, the plumbing system on Car 27 has a mind of its own and we have never yet put water on the car without discovering a new leak. Last time we did this in the winter, we had a four star flood in the galley. This time everything went impeccably and the water stayed where it was required to for the entire trip!
At 07:45, No. 10 - the 50-ton GE side rod switcher - was fired up and hauled Car 27, the BRS van, and the Thurso plow into the open and quickly inserted GE 70-tonner No. 7 in between the plow and the van. The latter was accomplished with much slipping of side rods.
We had hoped that it would be No. 7 because Jacques Beaubien Jr. had painted it all by himself a week or so earlier and it looked beautiful. The locomotive also sported a K5LA type whistle (used by AMTRAK and other U.S. roads), belonging to Jacques and specially fitted for the occasion.
With a blast from the whistle, we set out a few minutes after 08:00. Everyone was excited but none more so than Tony Toscas who was having his first ride on Car 27. Tony had previously put in many days working very hard on sometimes very boring items during the restoration of the car. We were all pleased that he could come. All the day, his happy face indicated that he was having a great time.
We took a leisurely trip to around mile 20 where we met Joe Toscas, Jacques Beaubien Jr. and Gaetan Lafleur, the Thurso Railway Superintendent who had gone ahead in Gaetan's hy-rail pick up truck looking for some good photographic opportunities. We stopped there for a runpast and to talk to the crew. The engineer was Jean-Louis Blais while Laurent Blais was operating the plow. With its wings out, the plow made a good sight as it blasted its way through the crossing located there.
I had a ride in the plow as far as Singer (mile 26). It was an exciting experience although one is always conscious that Laurent must be a real expert and must know every inch of the road as the flanger must be raised at every crossing while the wings must be brought in for every bridge.
We plowed out the siding at Singer as well as the three log loading sidings there andthen set off for the siding at Iroquois (mile 33). This was also cleaned out (we hope for a winter weekend) and then we made short work of the trip down the hill to Lac de la Ferme and Duhamel. The former presented a spectacular vista while at Duhamel some of us took the opportunity to see some wild deer.
The top end of the line at mile 56 is set in a provincial park and is wilder and more beautiful than the lower segments. We arrived around 13:00 and, after having made heavy work plowing out the wye, were joined by the regular train that had left Thurso with the empties behind 70-tonners 11 and 12 some two hours after us.
There then followed a switchman's puzzle that should grace the pages of Railway Modeller. Everyone had a different idea as to how they would swap the loads for the empties and finish up with the plow, the van, and Car 27 on the back of the train in that order and with the gleaming No. 7 turned and in the lead. Nobody figured it out the way the crew did it but it certainly provided some entertaining speculation.
The return was almost as uneventful as a trip on a logging railway in your own 1907 Business Car and 1913 caboose together with a turn-of-the-century wooden snow plow can be. Jean-Louis was at the controls of No. 7 and gave us a pretty smooth ride.
As expected, we stopped just south of Lac de la Ferme to double the hill to mile 33. I was first off and soon found that the snow was deeper than it looked! There was time to take pictures of the back of the train in the rock cut and to watch Joe also finding out the hard way how deep the snow was, and right in front of his own video camera! It was here, John Colemen please note, that we found that one of our number had actually brought along a tripod. Earl Roberts hadn't used his tripod for several years and it took some time for us all to figure out how it worked. I don't know what our pictures will turn out like as nobody had a grey card. The only grey was on someone's parka and he wouldn't stay still long enough for any one to get a reading!
As we approached the top of the grade at mile 6, the tension increased noticeably. I was in the caboose cupola where we could see the air brake gauge with the aid of Neil Robertson's lights. Over the top and a slight jerk indicated that the slack was bunched up. Jean-Louis than gave a ten pound brake application. A further jerk indicated that the brakes were fighting against gravity. The air was heavy with brake smoke. A blast on the whistle indicated that we had made the farm crossing by mile 5.3 and the brakes were released. Jean-Louis was cycling the brakes. With the train line fully charged, there followed a 20 pound brake application which was held on for a mile or so. In the frosty cupola, we could see the Ottawa Valley racing towards us. The brake was cycled off and then reapplied for the first part of the descent to the mill. As we rounded the first curve, the brakes were released giving Jean-Louis the chance to recharge the train line and have ample braking power for the final steep drop into the yard. As he came through the gate, he gave a final brake application which brought us to a stop at just the right place.
What a day! This had been the first time any of us had had the chance to ride a snow plow (including Duncan duFresne of Snowplow Extra fame), and another opportunity to see the Thurso Railway in its workaday environment. I don't like the rumours about the line's future that I hear and I have decided to take every opportunity to savour this line while it is still possible.
If it snows again, Gaetan will have to run another snowplow. I and at least seven others are praying for snow!
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, April 1986.