Mr. Morse

I began dispatching for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Smiths Falls Ontario, 45 miles southwest of Ottawa, in January, 1969.

The dispatcher's telephones in those days were not the best. With one bolt of lighting from a thunderstorm, the phones would often go dead, or so noisy that you couldn't hear anything. Also, when I first started hanging around the CPR when I was less than 10 years old, Smiths Falls had three desks; the M&O (Montreal and Ottawa) desk, the Winchester desk on the double track from Montreal to Smiths Falls, and the Chalk River desk, from Smiths Falls to Chalk River, and a whole bunch of branches out of Ottawa. By the time I got dispatching, the M&O desk had gone to Montreal, and on the weekends, the two remaining desks were combined.

In the summer of 1969, I was working 4-12 pm on the Winchester, with Monday and Tuesday off. Saturday and Sunday, I was all alone.

It was a hot July day, in the 90'F range, and they were calling for late evening thunderstorms. I was busy with my regular duties. At about 430 pm, the operator at Chalk River, the farthest end of my territory, comes on to OS a train, and give me a lineup from my western counterpart in Sudbury of the next planned trains coming to me. I casually ask this new voice..."Do you know the morse?" He replied "Yep".

All the trains were into Chalk River except #1, "The Canadian", the last passenger train on this pike. It was due there at 715 pm. The next train going to him was #949, a transcontinental freight train which would not be there until 7 the next morning. So the Chalk was quiet this evening.

The operator at Pembroke, 20 miles east of Chalk River, reported #1 out at 645 pm, on time. The phone was starting to crackle, and Pembroke said that there was a big storm moving across the Ottawa River towards him, and to expect a big blow in his burg soon.

About 7 pm, a big roar came onto the phone. I asked Pembroke to cut the phone east or west to see where the racket was, and it was west of him. So I had him cut the phone west.

About 730 pm, I started calling RV RV RV/Q on our wire 1W (West), RV being Chalk River's call letters, Q being mine. No response. About 830 pm, same thing. By 930 pm, I had to start getting some train delay messages ready, so called RV again, no answer. At this time, CP and Bell Telephone were very active against each other's interests, and it had to be a real emergency before we used the Bell Long Distance services on the CPR. Anyway, I finally called Chalk River, and he answered on the first ring.

Me:"Do you not hear me calling you on the wire?"

RV: "I don't know the wire!"

Me: "Well, I asked you at 430 if you knew the morse!"

RV: "Oh, I thought you wanted to know if I knew Jack Morse, the west-end conductor!"

Anyway, this guy's name was Warren Mitchell; he had just transferred off the Schreiber Division where they had removed the morse wire a short time before, and it was not a requirement for them to know the wire. Warren became my boss when we moved to Toronto from Montreal in February 1995, where he was a Chief Train Dispatcher, and I was a Locomotive Manager for the St. Lawrence and Hudson Railway, a CP spinoff, and he retired a year before I did. He now lives in Mattawa, 90 miles west of Chalk River, and on our occasional chats, the conversation always starts with "OS Chalk River."

[For the record, Doug Phillips advises that May 31, 1972, was the last day of the Morse code in Canadian railroading. Canadian National sent its last message at 12:38 pm, just 25/2 hours before Canadian Pacific tapped out its last telegram. The last use of Morse in Alberta was between the Calgary dispatching office and Lomond, Alberta. It was removed in April of 1972.

In the CBC production of the "National Dream" produced in 1973, the hand working the Morse in the documentary was that of Sonny Dickinson, Chief Dispatcher at Calgary in 1973.]

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, March 2003, page 20.

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