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Over the Hill to Shawnigan and the Days of Long Ago

By Gus Sivertz

Times-Colonist - September 13, 1959

There just didn’t seem to be any position that could possibly be as enviable and important as that of conductor on a railroad train.  May a ship captain had as good a job but when we were very young it appeared that a train conductor had more fun and perhaps more authority, although we learned later that this was not so.


Anyhow there was the old Esquimalt & Nanaimo morning train all ready for its long run to Nanaimo; transfer wagons were bringing parcels and the Royal Mail rig was pulling alongside the mail car; passengers sauntered along the platform pretending that this was just an everyday experience.  At the head end the big locomotive was breathing noisily and puffing steam out like breath on a cold morning.


Last-minute passengers were running through the Store Street waiting room, dropping paper bundles and stopping in their stride to pick them up again only to have them spill out over the steps as they boarded the train.  Women, they were mostly, and it seemed always that their hats go askew in their hurry.

Well, there was the conductor in his gold-buttoned uniform, just as calm as you please, nodding a good morning to the regulars and to the commercial travellers.  Then he would take out his watch, and a good big, solid one, look at it carefully and then yell:  “All-l-l-aboar-r-d.”


Now the late ones scurried down the platform, groups of hunters broke up and the conductor swung up the steps to yank the signal cord which let the engineer know it was time to pull out.  If a tug and boom was waiting to get through the bridge it would just have to wait.  Mr. Carrall wasn’t opening the swing span at train time, no sir.


I stood on the back platform as the tracks unrolled in two steel ribbons behind us and people one didn’t know waved and smiled so you waved back and sure enough, you were on a train ride…faster and faster…clickety-click as the wheels ran over the switch points, and clanked over the level crossings at Esquimalt Road, Lampson Street and Admirals Road.


As the train skimmed along Esquimalt harbour you could look right down on the slick grey-painted naval vessels and into the graving basin across the water.  But it was a quick glimpse because the old “locie” we now rolling along and passed over the highway bridge at the bottom of Four -Mile Hill with a dandy roar and then straightened out for the run to Langford.


There was only a short pause at Langford and the conductor stepped down to the platform with his watch in his hand like maybe he was in a hurry to get going.


The first real stop was at Goldstream because here was a fine hotel with gardens and an orchard and, if he could find out how much express was to be dropped at Goldstream, a fast man could sprint over to the saloon bar and hoist a very quick one and race back to swing aboard the moving train.


It never was moving very fast as it left Goldstream because it was entering the Sooke Hills and the grade got steeper very quickly.  Here the train sort of lost itself among the rocky ledges and ravines and the whistle woke echoes from the surrounding hills until it broke cover and swing around 17-mile post through the only tunnel on the whole line. 


It wasn’t much of a tunnel, maybe a hundred yards long, but it was still quite a thrill to a boy going through it for the first time.  Now the train was scooting pretty well down hill towards Shawnigan Lake and the wheel flanges screamed on the rails as it flashed through the lovely autumn countryside.


Soon the shining water of the lake broke through the trees and children in lakeside cottages waved to the passing trin roading down to the huge, swank, wide-verandahed Strathcona Hotel.


The station platform held its quota of train watchers and I swing down among them just as though this incredible thrill was something that happened every day and was really just a bit of a bore.  And I stood on the platform even after the conductor had shouted his “all-l-l-aboar-r-r-d” and swung up as nonchalantly as anything as the train was actually moving.


The fireman was busy again and smoke rolled back over the train, black and gritty on the red plush seats at it rushed, swaying around curves for Koenigs at the north end of the lake.


The air brakes hissed and the cars butted into one another as we slid into a stop in front of the red painted Koenigs Hotel, standing solid,  squat and firm about its green lawns.  Kindly, bustling Mrs. Koenig welcomed her half-dozen guests and herded them into her hospitable hostel.

It was the end of train journey and man years were to elapse before the country beyond ceased to be a terra incognita.


I watched the train pull out and disappear toward Cobble Hill before I swing down the wining, leaf-strewn and still dusty road to Mill Bay.

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