Those were the first words of English that Gaétan Lafleur ever learned! As a young lad he was paired with Park Smith who had had many jobs on the railway, including steam shovel operator and locomotive engineer. Park claimed that he did not speak French because he was too old to learn and, for that reason, everyone who worked with him had to learn English. He was very patient and helped the younger lads improve their language skills. One word that gave Gaétan particular difficulty was "sawmill". This was an important word for the TNVR and Park had Gaétan repeat it over and over again on their many trips together. Park always felt that he was in the right and had great difficulty in accepting blame. It was always the brake that had not come on properly or some other unexpected problem that created the difficulty and he became adept at talking his way out of discipline. The strange thing about Park was that he was able to speak passable French, but only over a drink or two. Click here to return to TNVR Locomotives.
Paul B. Bourget, the second General Manager, was the guiding light behind the railway. He had an eye for detail and very little escaped his minute scrutiny. He would send out a continuous stream of instructions: cut back the trees here, tighten up the check rail there, inspect that fence. An autocrat in the old style, he expected the slightest observations to be interpreted as instructions. The use of the royal "we" is well illustrated in the following note to Damien Lafleur dated March 3, 1942:
Some of his notes exhibit a dry sense of humour such as the following which was sent to Damien Lafleur on May 6, 1941:
Paul Bourget's success was founded in his appreciation of his men. He distributed firewood slabs to help out through the winter and he obtained a battery operated radio which was put in the boarding car in June 1943 so that the men could enjoy listening to Mackenzie King. It was apparent that he cared.
Paul Bourget was a winner, in fact he couldn't bear to lose. There was intense competition at the fishing trips to Lac Barrière Depot to see who could bring back the largest catch. Bourget would almost invariably win even though his catch frequently looked smaller than the others. One day one of his bass was found to contain a railroad spike!
L.E. Hird was transferred in 1925 from the St-Jean works and assumed
financial and legal responsibility for the Singer operations at Thurso including
the post of treasurer of the TNVR. He acquired the property for the right
of way and managed the legal and financial aspects of this vital link between
the timber limit and the Thurso operation. Much of this work was carried
out behind the scenes but it was just as important as the more visible aspects
of railway operation. Mr. Hird managed to achieve substantial savings in
transport costs by the use of special rates negotiated with the main line
railways. He managed the financial affairs of the railway for over forty
years. He too could exhibit a dry sense of humour when, for example, he gently
chided Damien Lafleur for not giving information about the oil used by the railway.
Damien Lafleur was brought up in Fassett, Québec, another
small lumber community on the Ottawa River. He came to Thurso to oversee the
railway operation for the Singer Company on April 27, 1927 and stayed to
make Thurso his home. He saw the opening of the line to its farthest extent.
He retired in 1964 and handed over to his son Gaétan. Always known
as Diamond, he ran the railway with an iron fist although he was a fair man.
Photographs portray him as a "hands on" type of person who would not expect
anybody to do anything that he wouldn't, or couldn't, do himself. There was
little that happened on the railway that he didn't know about.
When Gaétan Lafleur took over the railway from his father in 1964 he had some very definite ideas as to how the railway should be run and very quickly made changes. These included the dropping of the caboose and, perhaps more important, the use of the heavier 70 ton locomotives on the north end of the line. However, Gaétan was not designated the heir apparent to the top job. He had to earn it. He started on the railway as a young lad and did just about every job on it. He was ready when the time came to take over having had a thorough grounding of every aspect of operation and maintenance. Gaétan is a good example of the attitude and approach that made the TNVR a competitive force well into the 1980s. If there was a problem they would think it through and talk it out among themselves. When asked how he decided to install the switchless sidings for the maintenance of way equipment all Gaétan could say was that he had been having a problem in clearing the larger pieces of equipment to allow the log trains to pass. What was ideally required was a series of short sidings at close intervals. However, sidings require switches that are expensive and need maintenance. In any case the railway didn't have spare switches and new ones couldn't be justified for such a purpose. It took some thought before the solution became apparent but it was applied with typical TNVR ingenuity. The solution came from a practical understanding rather than an attempt to apply somebody else's answer gleaned from book learning. Click here to return to the Route Described.
Gaétan has two sons and both were trained in the ways of the TNVR. The elder, Claude, worked as a brakeman and acquired expert welding skills in the Car Shop. When the line had to be inspected on a Sunday in readiness for operation on Monday it was very often Claude who would find himself in the Québec bush looking for track defects. He left the railway in 1985 to work at Thurso Pulp and Paper. His brother, Réjean, learned railroading the hard way, as a switchman in the Thurso yard, before he left school. He never worked full time on the railway although his handiwork with a paintbrush was well appreciated. One summer he was given some silver paint and told to paint the bridges. On another occasion he was let loose on the locomotives with some yellow paint. He spiffied up the racing stripes and even painted the couplers. Another member of the Lafleur family who was closely concerned with the railway was Réjean Lafleur, the father of Guy Lafleur, the hockey player. Réjean was a clerk at camp 15 when the German internees were working on the railway. He was officially designated a guard but claims he had nothing to do with the incident at Thurso in which many of the men received more than they bargained for! Réjean later moved to Thurso and retired from the Company in 1976.
One should not forget Gaétan's wife Pat. Her father, Joseph Lalonde, also worked on the railway, in fact he died of natural causes on the running board of one of the locomotives in the Thurso yard. Pat knew almost as much about the TNVR as anyone and she would frequently act as radio operator passing on messages to people on the line. One wonders how many of her excellent meals have been spoilt by railway business.
Another TNVR institution was the Blais family. Laurent Blais started work on the railway at the age of fourteen as a cook's helper on the gang that was building the spur into Baie de l'Ours. When he wanted a permanent job, Laurent loaded logs in the bush in the winter and worked on the track gangs in the summer. He took over the Singer section as foreman and spent twenty years in that small community. The move to Singer was a good promotion and enabled him to afford to get married. Laurent and Leone brought up eight children in Singer. Laurent's father, Pierre, was brakeman on the train that was wrecked at mile 49.5. His injuries were so severe that his arm had to be amputated. In spite of this handicap he continued to work on the railway spotting cars in the log loading areas until he retired in 1961. Jean-Paul Blais, Laurent's uncle, was on the weed killing train that ran away and he also carried out a number of jobs on the railway including loader operator. The two engineers at the close were both related to Laurent; Jean-Louis Blais was his cousin while Renald Séguin was his brother-in-law.
Many of the original employees worked for the TNVR
for their entire working lives. The first man to be employed was Len Purdy
who signed on on May 22, 1925. Known as "Great Walker", Len was self educated.
An excellent woodsman who would walk the bush on his own, he laid out much
of the route of the line single handed and without the aid of a compass.
Len Purdy became Woods Superintendent in November
No discussion of the people of the TNVR would be complete without mentioning Osias Richer. He was the regular fireman to Park Smith on #2 for a number of years and when retired he was working in the Car Shop. Osias was the exact opposite to Park. He was an unassuming man who went about his work in a quiet way. Maybe that was why they managed to work so well together!
Park Smith had a number of relatives who worked on the railway in the early days. His brother, Herb, held an engineer's licence and worked in the 1930s while his father, Sam, was also involved in the early days.
Bob Simpson was responsible for car 27. Euclid Neveu, another quiet man who commenced on the TNVR in 1927, started work on the locomotives then became a Section Foreman and later the Roadmaster at Singer. Romain Boucher was the regular fireman on #3 for many years. The yard at Thurso was looked after by Delphis Leduc during the 1930-50 period.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the TNVR people was their embracing of the work ethic which was unusual in the 1980s. They believed in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Thus a crew would come off a run within their eight hours and go into the Car Shop where they would work on the cars until their time was up. A man might work as a brakeman one week and then find himself on the track gang the next. A broken rail might be changed out by the train crew if they were there before the section crew. This may seem unfamiliar in today's system of union demarcation but it did enable the railway to continue for a few more years and, more important, it continued to foster the spirit which was the TNVR. It should not be forgotten that the TNVR was unionized so it cannot be claimed that the railway was running a sweatshop.
The people of the TNVR also played together. They would go hunting and fishing together and there is still talk about the 25 pound grey trout that was caught at Lac Ernest and presented to Damien Lafleur. The woodlands presented boundless opportunities and they took full advantage of them. The section of line north of mile 46 abounds in well stocked streams was originally the private Bourbonnais Club before becoming the Papineau Labelle provincial park. The Bourbonnais Club employed a game warden, Gaston Rogers, to prevent poaching but the bush was so thick that the only way for Gaston to get around was on his own speeder. Before putting it on the rails he had first to obtain the superintendent's permission so the men always knew where the warden was. Trains would stop for unexplained reasons right next to the spawning beds at miles 47, 48 and 50. Even with this advantage one had to employ cunning. One trick was to lower the boom of a crane over a stream so that one could climb out on the boom and fish without leaving tell-tale footprints in the sandy ballast. But Gaston was not always out done. One day some men had gone fishing from camp 15 and cleaned the illegal fish while returning on the speeder. Gaston followed the trail of discarded fish entrails back to camp and asked some very awkward questions.
Another sort of playing was to be found in the amorous escapades of some of the TNVR people. One had a number of girlfriends up and down the line. He would sound the engine whistle every time he passed the farm on which one of his girlfriends and her husband lived. One day she ran out and stopped the train. She told him that after the last time he passed the farm her husband had thrown her out. The couple continued the relationship but the train went by the farm without any fanfare. The same man was fond of pointing out to the younger men the particular places along the line where he had enjoyed his girlfriends.
Locomotives were used to transport a number of unusual objects such as Christmas trees. The cab of #13 was shared by a very irate racoon on one occasion. It was in a strongly built cage which had steel protection around the handles so that the person carrying it could do so without losing some fingers. Perhaps the racoon knew that it was destined to be made into a hat.
We should not end without mentioning Albert Desgagnes. Albert could neither read nor write yet he had a wonderful mechanical mind. He could tear down a machine and reassemble it with just the drawing from which to work. Albert worked in the Car Shop with his brother, Joe, for many years and it was the Desgagnes brothers who developed the reputation for being able to fix anything. Not only was he a skilled mechanic but he was able to run a locomotive well, although his skills didn't prevent the wreck at mile 49.5. This remarkable person could do just about anything. So, it seems, could most other people on the railway. There seemed to be differences in the spelling of the surname. Early records use the form "Degagne" while later documents refer to "Desgagnes". For the sake of consistency the later spelling has been used here.
The TNVR was a small, french canadian community which had learnt railroading the hard way from the school of hard knocks. Their features showed the tanning effect found in those who spend most of their time outside in a harsh climate. And they knew how to railroad.
The spirit of co-operation lasted right to the end. In order to provide employment for the people who would be laid off, the dealer who obtained the contract to scrap the line was required to use TNVR employees to carry out his macabre task. It might have been a job they would have preferred not to have done but it helped to keep bread on the table.
The men of the TNVR were a very close community that worked together, knew each other and, in many cases, played together. Many were closely related and so the TNVR was not just a job, it was a way of life and a part of family life. The men were adept at doing a variety of jobs and were happy to go out of their way to give just that little bit extra, made easier, perhaps, in the knowledge that one was working with friends and relatives.
They worked in an environment which, although harsh, would be envied by many today. Unlike the crews on large railways, they could easily take a personal interest in their machines, their railway, their company and their jobs. This was not hard to do since they knew their co-workers and managers by name, knew where they worked and knew their families. The TNVR people enjoyed the close knit relationship exclusive to men working on a short line. This, regrettably, has now passed into history.
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