Being one of her crew was a steam-locomotive lover’s dream come true
We are in the CPR Port Coquitlam yard and the sun is just beginning to
come up. The Empress, steam locomotive 2816, is waiting, maroon-and-black
boiler gleaming in the morning light. I can see the shimmer of steam rising from her
cylinders as we, her crew, get her ready to start the long trip to Montreal. A train of
princely heritage business cars, steel-and-brass railed viewing platforms buffed and
polished, stretches out behind. All of the work we carried out in the previous week
will be put to the test over the next 18 days. I’ve had a passion for steam
locomotives since my grandfather, a locomotive engineer in Sudbury, Ont., hoisted
me up into the cab of one before I was tall enough to reach the firebox door. Some
47 years later, I’m a Child and Youth Care Counsellor at Calgary’s Lord
Shaugnessy High School. But every chance I get, I work on old steamers. Many
who share this passion know one another. So when the chance came for me to be a
part of the crew for a one-of-a-kind steam excursion on the CPR main line from
Vancouver to Montreal in May 2004, I took a leave of absence to live out the
dream of a lifetime; travelling with an Empress.
She backs slowly into downtown Vancouver where, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes, our passengers wait on the platform. They
board, find their seats, and with two blasts of the steam whistle, we’re off. The Empress moves slowly at first, but the speed soon
increases, and she settles into that comfortable rocking motion.
I am one of four special recruits who, along with eight CPR staff, will keep the Empress operating in top form on this trip. My job entails
watching the boiler and performing maintenance and repairs. But on the sixth day out, I have an experience I won’t soon forget. Shortly
after leaving Calgary, Jim Bogdan, our fireman, asks if I want to fire. ”Of course”, I reply, grateful for the rare privilege. The fireman’s
job is to keep the boiler topped up with water and the fire in the firebox hot, so that optimum steam pressure is maintained. As the engine
uses power, the pressure drops; it’s a delicate dance.
“If that needle drops to 250 you’ll be out of there!” calls Bill Stetler, our engineer. He is demanding-as he should be-and wants to make
sure I keep a close eye on the steam gauge. I check the fire. Increase the atomizer. Back off a nick on the oil valve. The gauge is going
up. Watch the glass. More water. Turn up the pump. I’m safe for now-Bill is letting me continue to fire. Then, as a slight descent begins,
I make a mistake, easing off on the fire. The water increases in the glass and the boiler pressure drops. “Cut back on the pump!” shouts
Bill. “Get on the oil! Add some blower and atomizer!”
The boiler responds and the pressure climbs. Way to go Empress! We run most of the next stretch at track speed, anywhere from 25 to
55 mph. At the higher speeds, it’s quite a thrill to feel the movement of the locomotive and the wind from the open windows. It’s a relief
from the intense heat from the fire. A few miles out of Medicine Hat, Alta., Jim tells me to prepare for the long downhill run into the
station. I finish the day exhausted-and elated.
It must really have been something in the 1930s when steam, then the height of speed and luxury, ruled the rails. Fast, cross-country
travel for the elite, surrounded by velvet and oak paneling, served the best foods and wine. The mathematics used in making the Empress
were calculated using paper and pen, her parts machined individually from cast iron and steel. Opportunities to revisit these times are
rare. Passage on this excursion is pricey-up to $34,000 per person-meaning only the richest train buffs can afford to retrace the route
made famous in songs and stories of the past, across high bridges and spectacular mountain passes and through roaring canyons and
tunnels carved from solid granite. Still, for fleeting moments, a glimpse of history is free to anyone with a moment to stop and stare as the
Empress thunders by. And many do, including small children who stop and point, mouths open in disbelief.
The Empress is particularly welcome in old railway towns. Droves of people greet our late afternoon arrival at the station in Smith Falls,
Ont., outside Ottawa. There is a touching moment when Bernie, a retired locomotive engineer, comes into the cab with a special gift for
Bill-his engineer’s watch and a time ticket from 1951when he was the fireman on this very locomotive.
This is the last evening our crew is together. The next day, our train glides into Montreal’s Windsor Station with long blows of the whistle
and her bell ringing. I think about what an incredible journey this has been-and how it gave me only a glimpse of Canada’s incredible
vastness. I find myself thinking about people from the past, the ones who operated the trains and built the railways against incredible
odds. They had grit and vision, I feel honored to have been part of such a historic trip with the Empress.
Don Totten is a long time Child and Youth Care Counsellor at Hull Child and Family Services in
Calgary. Don has a passion for kids, Child and Youth Care, skiing, motorcycles and old steam
locomotives. Last year Don got to live out one of his childhood dreams by working as a crew
member on a cross Canada trip on a famous steam engine called The Empress. His experience was
published in the July 2005 edition of MacLean's magazine.
Congratulations Don and thanks for sharing your memories.
Patrick Foran, President CYCAA
As a railroad buff and yes, old enough to remember the great trains and especially so in
the Rockies, this article certainly grabbed my attention. I come by my railroad mania
honestly as a former Tower man for Canadian National and with relatives who worked
on the railroads. This legacy is expressed in a railroad room in my case with
collectibles from the age of rail. Beyond that, Don's story also grabbed my admiration
for a CYC who lives his passions and more to the point, shares them with the youth in
A huge part of child and youth care work involves passion and self-care. Some would
be surprised at how invigorating and enhancing an outside interest, hobby, sport or skill
can be for a practitioner. While more work may sound like the last thing one needs after
a shift, it is amazing how loved work and controlled work can contribute toward blowing
concerns about change not being fast enough or making a difference right out of one's
The great age of rail has not passed. Rather it has become even greater with lines now
working in concert throughout North America hauling massive amounts of freight while
cutting down on pollution in the bargain. I hope some of Don's student helpers
someday find their place in just such work.
Garth Goodwin - Editor
Don Totten, May 30th 2004, aboard "The Empress",
Windsor Station Montreal, fireman's siding # 2816.
This is totally gratuitous but if you have ever had a yen to
ride the rails in style, you can enjoy the Empress
experience in the Canadian Rockies and elsewhere for, as
Don has noted, for a premium fair for a first class
experience. The links provided will extend your
appreciation for the Empress.
Don introduces youth in his care to the restoration
work necessary to keep Canadian history truly alive
with actual locomotives and carriages riding the rails
to this day.