#751 A boyhood at Banff Station
When Trains Ruled the Rockies: My Life at the Banff Railway Station
by Terry Gainer
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2019
$22.00 / 9781771603010
Reviewed by Rod Deakin-Drown
It’s clear, I think, that Terry Gainer’s heart of hearts belongs to the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Banff, Alberta — especially in his memories of the service that the building provided to rail passengers from the early 1950s to the early 1960s.
Gainer’s loyalty to that era shines through in this memoir, When Trains Ruled the Rockies: My Life at the Banff Railway Station – set at this important station of the major Canadian transcontinental railway in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
I’ve also known these trains all my life. Like Gainer’s father, my paternal grandfather had been a CPR employee, an oiler working in the Golden yard. And so I recall receiving a free pass, or at least a lower-priced fare, to the Coast. I have a distinct memory of being put on the CPR passenger train, aged 8, and sent off alone from Golden to Vancouver. Thinking about it now, it seems strange that my parents would have done so, but it shows the high level of community and corporate trust that existed at the time. Along the way I lost my glasses, an event that still forms the strongest knot of that particular memory thread.
My grandfather had a few adventures at Golden with the CPR. Once, a man who had just stabbed his wife to death came into the Golden Station and confessed the deed to him. I’m sure that when Terry Gainer lived at the CPR’s Banff Station, he had experiences just as memorable, though perhaps not confessions of murder. For example, he did get to see movie stars of the 1960s like Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum.
When Trains Ruled the Rockies, Gainer’s five-section 250-page book is a multi-faceted evocation of what he remembers of his eight-year residence (1948-1956) in the Banff CPR Station, starting when he was a boy of six. Yes, while my cousin Donna and I could be spotted on the wooden passenger platform of Golden’s station, Terry Gainer actually lived in the Banff station. It was his home — not just his hangout.
Gainer’s eight-year adventure at “Action Central” began when his father, Frank Gainer, was appointed the Banff Station Agent, a position the perks of which included a two-bedroom family residence located on the station second floor. It included a large room in the basement, formerly a coal cellar for fuelling the furnace which had heated the building before the switchover to natural gas. Early on, Gainer and his older brother Fred turned that space into their own model railway room.
In the book’s opening pages, Gainer reveals his authorial motive. He wanted to complement the competent restorations the station’s new leaseholders began in 2012. He wanted to provide his personal and family recollections to supplement and heighten visitors’ responses to the newly- restored interior and exterior station spaces. He wanted to highlight the dominant role played by the Banff station during the post-Second World War years, when Canadian rail passenger travel was at its peak.
Gainer starts by detailing the CPR’s interest in and encouragement of early Rocky Mountain tourism. He tells how he and his family ended up in Banff, describes Hollywood movies shot in and around the mountain town, and chronicles the arrivals and departures of the daily passenger trains. When Trains Ruled the Rockies is an enjoyable and engrossing combination of personal anecdotes and opinions concerning a world-renowned destination.
The forerunner to the Townsite of Banff was a mere section of double track — Siding 29 — established in 1883. One of the big nearby attractions was the Sulfur Mountain Hot Springs. A few years later the first incarnation of the Banff Springs Hotel, the CPR’s first Rocky Mountain Hotel, was built. With that achievement, the railway became Canada’s first international tourism marketer and continued as such well into the 20th Century.
A boyhood in Banff
Very soon after his arrival in 1948, young Terry Gainer made his acquaintance with what might be called Banff’s “Natural Zoo.” Yes, the town’s garbage dump featured, Gainer recalls, “at least half a dozen bears in attendance.” All were under the direction of a guy named Vic, who was “always happy to have his charges put on a bit of a show.”
Seemingly, even the cosmos – speaking through the unlikely medium of a Banff community lottery – presented the town’s newest boy with a most appropriate gift. Terry was thrilled when, shortly before his first Christmas there, he won “the stuff of [his] dreams, an American Flyer electric train set. It had a cast iron steam locomotive and four streamlined passenger cars with New York Central Railroad markings.” He well remembers the moment his winning ticket (Number 71) was won because, “frozen to my chair,” he couldn’t believe his good luck.
After that big win, Terry and Fred spent hours in the station’s former furnace room, especially on cold winter evenings. “It was our very own railway to operate and we created a station community of our own.”
Hollywood comes to town
There was a time when making movies in the Canadian Rockies was a big deal for Hollywood. Google reveals that, since the beginning of movie making, there have been 129 movies made in and around Banff, four of them during the time Gainer lived in the CPR Station. Starring actors included Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, and Shelley Winters, and celluloid biggies included River of No Return (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Gainer reveals himself to be more knowledgeable than Google, adding Saskatchewan (also 1954, titled O’Rourke of the Royal Mounted in the UK) — to the cinematic list.
Gainer reveals some financial connection between Hollywood and the CPR. “It was a perfect scenario,” he writes, “to have a Canadian Pacific / Canadian travelogue displayed in movie theatres all over the United States when you have a summer train from Chicago to get you to the Banff Springs Hotel.…” (p. 19).
Gainer’s insider perspective
The Banff Station had enough transportation information to awe even the worldliest of young fellows. In the baggage room, a huge map mounted on the office wall charted the CPR and CNR rail passenger systems across Canada, as well as the connecting rail services into the United States. There were train lines everywhere. The station was the busiest place in town, with eight passenger trains arriving daily in winter and ten in summer.
Why were passenger trains so popular? “Until the advent of jet travel,” notes Gainer, “the public also harboured safety concerns: piston-driven aircraft were unable to fly above 20,000 feet and at lower elevations the ride could be rough and very scary” (p. 25).
While rail passenger service was the CPR’s biggest profit earner, Gainer suggests that the mail delivery contracts with Canada Post also provided substantial income for the railway. I remember very well this era of superb postal service. I yearn for the days when many of the passenger trains had a mail car staffed by postal employees. On the mainline between Vancouver and Calgary, hardworking mail clerks sorted steadily — connecting lovers, friends and family to one other — as the train rumbled through the night (how romantic!). They prepared all the mail for the various communities in between those two urban centres. One could mail a letter in Vancouver in the evening knowing it would arrive in Golden the next morning. How’s that for service?
Gainer describes how passenger train cars ranged from rustic functionality to renowned opulence and elegance. At the lower end, “colonist” cars were basic, with wooden benches, pullout wooden upper berths, and a shared cook stove at the end of the car. Colonist class was rock-bottom cheap. Travellers brought their own food and bedding. At the upper end, it was all white table clothes, polished silverware, and liveried waiters.
Young Terry got his fair share of rail travel. “For the first few years after arriving in Banff,” he recalls, “Trains 1 and 2 were my favourites because our family often rode these trains for shopping trips, medical appointments or whatever other occasion to Calgary.” And on the way home, “an 11:15 pm departure ensured we kids would sleep all the way home….” (p. 29).
I especially enjoyed Part II of When Trains Ruled the Rockies with Gainer’s accounts of the iconic royal trains. One of these official caravans on steel wheels and rails, belonging to Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret Rose (younger sister of Queen Elizabeth), rolled through Banff — and Golden — in the summer of 1958, when I was ten years old. Margaret’s tour included a short holiday in Banff partway through her royal visit to Canada.
There had of course been previous tours, such as the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Gainer describes how, on that occasion, Mr. Brewster, the owner of Brewster tour buses, took the royals for a drive around the Banff town-site. He even pulled into his own stately brick home located on the bank of the Bow River for afternoon tea. Gainer continues the tale:
The only problem was he’d forgotten to inform his wife that company was coming. But Mrs. Brewster, apparently never ruffled by anything, simply pulled off the afternoon tea as if she had expected the royal couple and nothing was amiss. But I suspect Mr. Brewster heard about it later (p. 41).
Princess Margaret’s tour provided evidence to British Columbia residents that the Royal Family cared enough about the province’s Centennial Celebration to send a gorgeous princess to oversee it. Her reception in Banff appears to have been rather sedate. However, in Golden, it provided opportunity for at least 200 enthusiastic residents to eyeball the princess. Hidden well in the back of the crowd were some of Golden’s prize duck-tailed yahoos who, I recall, took the opportunity to practice their wolf whistles on the royal visitor who, at the time, was a very attractive 28 years old.
Other special trains included the Grey Cup specials, the Banff Springs Hotel staff trains, and trains from Calgary that brought people to the long-running Banff Winter Carnival.
The Grey Cup Special
There’s much in this book for sports fans. A famous incident occurred in 1948 when Canadian football’s iconic match-up, the Grey Cup Championship, was fought between the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa Rough Riders. Freight cars were specially outfitted to transport Calgary horses to bring the Wild West to downtown Toronto. Two horses were ridden up the front steps and into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel, causing controversy in a city known as “Toronto the Good.” After the fans made their point so effectively, Calgary went on to win its first Grey Cup that year.
The 43rd Grey Cup match-up occurred on November 26, 1955, before 39,417 football fans at Empire Stadium in Vancouver. This was the first Grey Cup played in Vancouver, and 13-year-old Terry Gainer was there. The Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes by the score of 34 to 19. “Like us,” he remembers, “the pro-western crowd was delirious, and thousands stayed on in the stadium, cheering and clapping long after the game was over. My first trip away from home without my parents, travelling on a crazy Grey Cup Special, my first visit to Vancouver and my first live football game – all in one package” (p. 51).
The Banff Springs Hotel staff trains
Perhaps these trains should have been called the “Heart Break Specials” — especially those taking summer staff home when the Banff tourist season ended, the big hotel closed, and the lusty or lonely young staff headed home. As Gainer writes, “… the staff specials at the end of the summer were a different creature: a combination of chaos, tears and broken hearts, with some heavy-duty partying thrown into the mix” (p. 53).
The Banff Winter Carnival Special
Gainer does justice to the Banff Winter Carnival. From its start in December 1917, it was backed by the CPR, supported by some of Banff’s most financially successful citizens, and organized by the local Chamber of Commerce. It had a good run.
In the early years, Carnival Queen contestants came from all across Western Canada — Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Revelstoke, and Vancouver. In later years, they came from as far afield as Quebec City, Seattle, Portland, and California. By the late 1940s, the Banff Winter Carnival was renowned as one of the two major winter festivals in Canada — the other being at Quebec City. The Festival was a spectacular event, with attractions for all ages. A children’s ice palace was constructed on the riverbed below the Bow River Bridge, featuring a maze made of ice blocks cut from the Bow River.
The Carnival train from to Banff from Calgary carried 500 people per trip.
One of the backers of the festival in its early days was the Graham family of Vancouver, which owned a huge mansion-style home on Cave Avenue. Its patriarch, F.R. Graham, was one of the major financiers and industrialists in the province and owned Union Steamships, a forerunner to B.C. Ferries, as well as Graymont Ltd., a company that supplied limestone products around the world. Eventually the community energy and involvement behind the Festival slowly fizzled out. In 1958, a secret ballot was held regarding the Banff Chamber of Commerce’s continued participation in the event. “In an almost unanimous decision, the chamber members voted not to operate the carnival in 1959. Thus ended 40 years of community spirit,” notes Gainer.
Part III of When Trains Ruled the Rockies is infrastructure related — ice houses, water towers, and much more; while Part V gives a statistically-telling tale about the decline of passenger rail travel in Canada. By the end of the 1960s, passenger rail service in Canada had all but disappeared. “Rail travel had peaked just after the Second World War when Canada’s railways carried over 60 million passengers,” notes Gainer. “The decline, hardly noticeable in the 1950s, became a nosedive in the 1960s. By 1977, the number of rail travellers had dropped to five million” (p. 247).
Gainer comments at length about how, after the Second World War, to meet the surging public demand for rail service, CPR introduced not one but two Dominion services: the Montreal Dominion and the Toronto Dominion. These were pretty flashy trains; in Golden we called the Toronto Dominion “The Flyer.”
I remember the Flyer well because it led to a rather mysterious episode in my family’s rural neighbourhood north of Golden. In the late 1950s, many people around Golden talked about how, every evening, a mysteriously moving circle of light could be seen circling in the clouds — especially the ones toward the Selkirk Mountains. For several weeks there was much animated discussion. People talked of UFOs. Then someone dissolved the mystery by telling us poor rural folk that the head engine on the new CPR “Flyer” had a powerful rotating light attached. While lighting up the clouds it was lighted up our imagination. That was what our big mystery came down to!
I saw my last steam engine when I was about five years old, an isolated locomotive coming down the track all on its own. By the early 1950s, the technology of rail passenger travel was changing, as Gainer points out: “This was strongly evident in the introduction of diesel locomotives, which shaved hours off the cross-country journey, were more fuel-efficient and did not require 24 hour surveillance. By simply adding an extra remote-controlled unit diesels could also pull much longer trains” (p. 33).
Not everyone was happy about this evolution in transportation technology. Not only had my grandfather worked on the railways; my father had too, briefly in his youth. We also had a bona fide engine-man in the family — an uncle who spent most of his working life as a CPR engine driver. Originally, he had been a fireman — the hardworking guy who shovelled coal into the locomotive’s boiler when locomotives were steam-driven. I remember listening with my father as my uncle groused about how the position of fireman was being phased out. Even now I can hear him explaining his opposition to the CPR’s cost-cutting, saying, “The engineer could have a heart attack and the fireman could be of great help in that emergency situation!”
The Trans-Canada Highway
The big kill for train travel to Banff was the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH), which opened in August 1962. Gainer reports that on opening day, over 400 Airstream trailer owners travelled in convoy from Banff to Vancouver, and subsequently 3,000 cars a day used the highway through the national park.
The opening of the TCH led to the loss of CPR passenger service jobs. The passenger trains had made Banff Station the town’s largest year-round employer, but once the highway opened, the railway lost its passenger base and the Banff Station infrastructure was wiped out. Employment casualties included the reservations department, the ticket office, the summer switch crew, car washers and cleaners, the red caps, the baggage room attendants, food services personnel, and supply personnel. Into the 1960s, over 70 people had worked at the station — 40 of them full-time and year-round.
Across Canada an entire industry became redundant.
In the latter part of his 250 page book, Terry Gainer ends his narrative on an uplifting note about how two Banff entrepreneurs, Adam and Jan Waterous (Liricon Capital) have leased the old Banff station and its surrounding land from CP to launch a full-scale revitalization project for Banff’s most famous heritage site. Ultimately the Waterous plan could lead to the restoration of rail passenger service part way through the Albertan portion of the Rockies. Gainer believes the transportation problems facing Banff could be lessened by instituting rail service along the Lake Louse-Banff-Canmore-Cochrane-Calgary corridor where, according to the entrepreneurs’ website, traffic on the TCH is getting increasingly congested.
In railway parlance, catchy names have a habit of reappearing. For example, the privately-owned tourist train, The Rocky Mountaineer, which runs excursion trains through the Rocky Mountains and some of the adjacent provinces and states, was preceded in the 1950s by the CPR’s Mountaineer. According to Gainer, it was:
A unique service … a two- nation train, operated by CPR and CP’s US subsidiary, the Soo Line. A summer train, it originated in St Paul, Minnesota, and travelled west through North Dakota, crossing into Canada at North Portal, Saskatchewan. At the border it became a CP train and the journey continued to Banff and Lake Louise and through the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver. The 2,200 mile journey was North America’s longest international train route. The Mountaineer had brought tens of thousands of Americans to Canada since its introduction in 1922 (p. 34).
These travellers wanted style and modern equipment, with mechanical air conditioning. Like most of his generation, Gainer was fascinated by the Yanks (as presented by Hollywood), and in Banff the CPR staff and the community as a whole met thousands of American tourists as they passed through on the Mountaineer. He found the great majority of them friendly, gregarious, and generous.
Gainer admired the new luxury of air conditioning. Innovations to railcar construction meant that the passenger cars could be cooled by large fans, powered by direct current (DC) generators that circulated the air through ducts passing over large ice blocks stored in watertight compartments in the chassis underbelly.
One thing that made Gainer’s boyhood in Banff so idyllic was his playground in an abandoned dairy farm – Moffat’s Farm — half lost in the woods near the station. He and his chums spent a lot of time there engaged in various wars and skirmishes with other boys, as Gainer recalls:
Our generational game was war. War or its aftermath was constantly on the radio and in the newspapers. The Nuremberg trials were in full swing, the Cold War had ignited and it was an atmosphere filled with conflict. I think we just played “life” as it was happening around us. [Yet] no serial killers emerged from our mob (p. 157).
I recommend Terry Gainer’s When Trains Ruled the Rockies: My Life at the Banff Railway Station as a valuable, textured, and beautifully illustrated account of growing up after the Second World War at an important Rocky Mountain tourist and recreational railway station along the CPR mainline between Calgary and Vancouver.
Born Rod Drown and raised in Golden, Rod Deakin-Drown attended Simon Fraser University during the 1970s. (Recently he officially changed his last name to honour his great grandparents, the Deakins, who settled the family farm in Golden in 1913.) He has been a farmer, janitor, sawmill worker, journalist, elected regional government representative, and worker in the mental health field. In the 1970s, his poetry was published in a number of literary journals and magazines, including the Dalhousie Review, Canadian Author & Bookman, and West Coast Review. For a few years in the mid-2000s he edited and published Grab News: Muse Views from Vancouver, an online magazine. He also writes and records his own songs. His book of poems, Between the Empty and the All, was published by Silver Bow Press (New Westminster, 2019). In March 2020, Silver Bow will publish the first book in his Vancouver-based private detective series, Death of a Doppelganger. With Ken McIntosh, he also wrote No Dog Barked: Who Killed the MacLauchlans? (2018), reviewed by Don Hauka in The Ormsby Review no. 509 (April 2, 2019). Deakin-Drown now has three books in preparation: a history of UFOs in B.C., a second book in his private detective fiction series, and a history of Golden’s forest industry. Rod lives in Golden where, in the late 1980s, he formed the Old Station Preservation Society which was instrumental in moving the old CPR Station across the Kicking Horse River to its present site beside the Golden Museum in south Golden.
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