Christmas Memories

One of the reasons that I think I am a railfan has to do with Christmas. I grew up in a railway family. My dad was a machinist in the CNR Steam Locomotive Repair Shops in Stratford, Ontario. As a result, he had a pass to go anywhere. He was also able to get seven "trip" passes each year for my brother and me. One of these passes was reserved each year to go down to Toronto to see the Eaton's Santa Claus parade.

I can't say whether I honestly remember the occasion or whether the pictures and constant telling have made the memory, but in my mind I have images of going to visit Santa at Baton's in Toronto when I was three - AND I got there by train!

The parade got to Baton's Queen Street store about ten in the morning. As a result, we had to catch CN Train #10 at 05:19. According to the Canadian Official Railway Guide for April, 1946, Train #10 had left Windsor at 12.30 in the morning. It is hard for me as a parent to consider the effort it must have been to get two sleepy kids down to the station by that time. For today's softies, it should be mentioned that winters were rough and Dad put his car away most winters. Taxis were a rarity as well, as money was not all that plentiful since Dad had spent most of the thirties laid off.

On the train we would have a snack of egg sandwiches. My, what a special taste those sandwiches carried onto the train from home had! After the parade, and fish and chips at Woolworths, we would catch Train #111, a Saturday only train, which got us back to Stratford at 16:30.

As we got older, Dad would sometimes ask the conductor for the pass back. Then, during the school holidays Mom would take us down to Toronto on Train #28 which left at a more civilised hour of 08:10. We would return from Toronto on Train #11 which left at 17:35 and got us back to Stratford at 20:20 (almost three hours to go 88 miles).

It's funny but I can still see those trains in my mind. Nos. 10 and 11 were powered by 'Northerns' while #28 usually had a 5500 series 'Pacific'. By the way, Train #10 continued for years on the same schedule.

My last visit to it occurred during university days in the early sixties. At Christmas, I would work the midnight shift at the post office. One night, one of my jobs was to go down and get mail sacks off #10. Ah, memories.

The CN shops had a marvelous Christinas tradition. They called it "The Christmas Tree" but what it was was a very special concert. The shops were a large employer, with almost 1500 employees in the early fifties. As a result, they had lots of talent and could put together such fabulous entertainers as a concert band, top-notch singers, and a magician. The stage was a flat car set on a transfer table in the tender shop. (The shop was in the form of L. The long part of the L was the erecting shop where the steam locomotives were stripped and repaired. The small part of the L was the tender shop where the tenders were repaired.)

The concert and the treats handed out were memorable but the real excitement was the walk with my Dad through the erecting shop. The only experience I've had like it recently was when our society went to CN's Point St. Charles shops in November 1972, to see 4-8-2 #6060 being rebuilt. There, it was - only one locomotive - imagine twenty locomotives sitting in various stages of undress.

But as the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" says - 'Dragons last forever, but not so little boys'. This little boy grew up and usually a part-time job kept me from the concerts. Then in 1957, CN started cutting back work as dieselization came in. The concert terminated along with hundreds of workers. My Dad hung on until December 1963, converting steam cranes to use diesel prime movers and repairing all sorts of compressors.

When I returned from university in December of 1963, I went to the shops once again on the day before Christmas. This time, there was no concert. In fact, as I helped Dad carry his toolbox out through the tender shop, all I remember is just he and I in the darkness and gloom - but then maybe the tears were getting in the way.

CN 4-8-4 6218, the last 1ocomotive overhauled in the Stratford Shops, performs for the fans at Washago, Ont. on January 28, 1968. - N.B. Ballantyne photo.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, December 1986, page 6.

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