Ian Wilson's blog

Welcome to the blog of Ian Wilson, author of the award-winning Canadian Branchline series, the King's Highways & Steam Trains series, and the Angus Wolfe adventures series.

A peek behind the curtain

October 07, 2018

On this Canadian Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of you as I prepare both Steam in Northern Ontario AND Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario for printing a month from now.

AND, in that light, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into the research process that has gone into these volumes...

When you open your package that contains one or both of the Northern Ontario books next month, you will own a part of the most ambitious undertaking of my publishing career. The background material which culminates in these two books took a full TWO YEARS to compile. That was back in 2004 to 2006 (such work would be impossible to do now).

Our story today begins with banker’s box #65...

...which I retrieved from our storage locker at 7:00 a.m. this morning. That’s one of some 120 such containers, many of which protect research notes which could NOT be produced today.

Digging into the storage box, we find the binder that contains the notes which form the subject of today’s broadcast—a light blue three-ring binder entitled “N.O. RESEARCH”.

You, reader, probably have dozens—if not HUNDREDS—of railway books in your personal library.

Many of those contain wonderful pictures of the steam era—locomotives, rolling stock, structures, scenes. There’s probably a lot of corporate history stuffed between the covers.

But here, in this picture of my notes from four days before Christmas back in 2005, you see the nature of most of my research for the Steam Series that occupies a prominent place on your shelves.

These scrawled words encapsulate one of several conversations I had with one Joe Close of Capreol, Ontario—who, in his own words (colourful examples of which you’ll see I transcribed verbatim in places) was “just a goddamned brakeman”. As in—‘what do I know, Ian?’

I’d say the Joe Closes of the world of yesterday, which I have explored, knew QUITE A BIT. They may have been just a bunch of “goddamned” brakemen. And engineers. And fireman. And yardmen. And station agents. And dispatchers. And hostlers. But the story I weave between the covers of Steam in Northern Ontario—and soon Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario—was fashioned from the raw material taken from interviews with a whole pile of their like. And most of them have since departed our world.

It’s only from talking with men who worked on the CNR in the steam era that I’ve been able to recreate the operations of the railway between the covers of my books.

And these aren’t generalities I discuss in my interviews with railwaymen. In the case of Joe Close, he worked at Capreol on the Northern Ontario District in the 1950s. Specifically, he knew about what happened in his own backyard—and that’s what I gleaned from him.

Such as...

That of the various Santa Fe class engines assigned to Capreol for Sudbury ore traffic—such as 4005, 4010, 4015 and 4030—the 4201 was “the biggest of them all” and was used as a pusher on the 11 a.m. job.

Or, that the 10:10 p.m. job was known as “THE PACKSACK”.

It headed out to the junction to meet #4 (the Continental) and always took ore to Coniston. And—it backed in to Sudbury.

And who else but a brakeman from Capreol could tell you that cabooses were stored in track 2, and that to an engine crew a caboose “was no more than a BUNTING BLOCK” and thus you had to “tie a goddamned good handbrake on it.”

You can see that Joe Close had a way of describing certain things! Although he was a Capreol man, he sometimes ventured to Foleyet, which was 148.3 miles to the west along the Ruel Subdivision. And there he encountered hazards unknown to railwaymen of southern climes.

When you read the narratives of the Northern Ontario books, you’ll learn about the bush horses of the Pineland Timber company, which shipped out a lot of lumber. These creatures earned their keep in the wintertime, but had time on their hands in the summer months. Then, they were “roaming loose all over the goddamned yard and all over Foleyet.”

A brakeman coming out of his van (caboose) could come FACE-TO-FACE with a idle horse.

In the Northern Ontario volumes, you’ll read dozens of stories fashioned from tidbits offered by brakemen and engineers and conductors and lumbermen.

They include accounts of the dinky engine that worked the lumber yard at Field, on the Alderdale Subdivision. Pulpwood loaded haphazardly in gondola cars that crews sometimes had to throw on the ground. Brakeman carrying packing irons so they could yank dragging brake beams off that couldn’t be put back up on their hangers. Tail end men almost falling out of their bunks when yard engines “kicked” a string of cabooses that came to a DEAD STOP when they banged into others in “van alley”.

In my introduction to Steam in Northern Ontario, I’ve framed the narrative as “Tales of the North Woods”.

That’s apt. For if ever a subject in steam railway operations looms larger than life, it is the account of the CNR’s Northern Ontario District mainline in the 1950s. Where else would a brakeman such as Joe Close set off on foot along the right-of-way for the next division point with three chocolate bars in his pocket—because he didn’t want to be stranded in Hornepayne during a North American-wide railway strike in August 1950?

Back to the present day—we’re only 59% of the way toward gathering sufficient pre-orders...

...that will send Steam in Northern Ontario for its SECOND PRINTING... and to ensure Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario sees the light of day. Whichever you prefer—the all-inclusive $69.95 offer than will see BOTH books shipped to your door, or the $26.95 which will add the softcover Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario to your existing copy of Steam in Northern Ontario—please DON’T HESITATE to place your order online or remit a cheque/check in the mail.

And remember—by pre-ordering the hardcover Steam in Northern Ontario you will receive the softcover Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario free of charge!

Here’s the order page where you can reserve your copies right now:

We’d like to tell Ampersand Printing to put these two books on the press on November 2nd. But IF sufficient pre-orders haven’t been received by that date, we’ll DELAY the printing. There is a very tight window to allow for printing and binding and shipping these volumes to all readers before Christmas. A week or two delay will set the project into the NEW YEAR.

To all our Canadian readers—we hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey feast. If things go well, both Steam in Northern Ontario and Steam Scenes of Northern Ontario will arrive in your hands by the time our American readers are digging into their Thanksgiving feast in November.

P.S. In order for the long-lost stories of brakemen such as Joe Close to appear in print for steam railfans as yourself to enjoy, please consider supporting the project by ordering one or both of the Northern Ontario books here:

P.P.S. After October 31st, the price including shipping for both Northern Ontario books will be $112.25 in Canada ($69.95 + $24.95 + $12.00 shipping + $5.35 GST) or $113.90 ($69.95 + $24.95 + $19.00 shipping) in the United States. By pre-ordering for $69.95 all-inclusive for either destination, you save almost 40% off the regular price!


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