Interviewing people for historical fiction? Talk to them NOW

I wrote this article almost 14 years ago. Although almost of the men who helped me on both Allandale books are gone, the principles are as true as ever for authors and researchers. Thank you to Keith Hopkin for taking the photographs (except the one with him shaking my hand!).

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Two years ago today, on August 31, 1998, we released Steam at Allandale in an elaborate ceremony at the old locomotive foreman’s building at the division point (now a community centre).

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There were ten Allandale railwaymen present who were honoured for not only their contributions to the book, but in representing their departed mates in making sure the story of the steam era at Allandale was told.

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One of those ten gentlemen present was Ernie Morrison, who is no longer with us today. This month’s column is respectfully dedicated to him.

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Ernie started work for the Canadian National Railways (CNR) in Meaford, Ontario as an assistant agent, better known as a “shed man”, on August 1, 1944. In those days, the local station agent held a position of prestige in a town, and to work for the railway was the dream of many a boy visiting such branchline points at a thousand locations across the country. Meaford at the time was still very much a railway town, with coal dealers, stock pens, industries, a freight shed, engine servicing facilities and a lovely turreted station right down at the harbour. A shed man’s duties were to sweep floors and load freight whenever necessary, and to make the daily yard check for freight cars six mornings a week.

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Instead of “learning the key” (as his brother Harold would later do), Ernie chose to work directly with the public in the stations and express departments. Early in his career, typical of all junior men on the railway in steam days, he made a whirlwind tour of duty on his home division. He relieved the local agent in Penetang, another terminus at a Georgian Bay port, for a week. During that time he unloaded half a boxcar of beer for the local store! On the Milton Subdivision, he spent two weeks at Inglewood and two months at Milton. At Barrie, across Kempenfeldt Bay from the division point, he worked the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at the station, handling billing for the deliveries to local industries (including six coal yards, two tanneries and a large freight shed) and unloading express from number 47. He experienced the madhouse and drama that was Gravenhurst in 1946: interchange point and locomotive and crew change for freight trains, and hot paper trains for New York City from Iroquois Falls and Kapuskasing. Closer to home, he consigned reefers of apples out of Thornbury and Collingwood.

Ernie watched the branchline railway scene deteriorate from a system requiring a number of employees at each station (and section of track) to the lonely days of the 1960s, when Meaford was down to one man. He closed out Collingwood in 1975, when the CNR shut down the freight shed for lack of business. Indeed, our paths crossed in the summer of 1984, when, fresh out of Queen’s University with a civil engineering degree in hand, I chose to work as a shipping clerk with CN Trucking (the successor to the railways’ l.c.l. and express departments) for a few weeks before pursuing a position more suited to my training. Amid the telephone calls and sound of computer printers, I listened to Ernie and the other four steam era freight and express men reminisce about former days on the railway. When I asked one of Ernie’s colleagues about the branchline trains that ran on the Allandale Division behind steam power, he summed up the feeling of the men in the office: ‘it was too long ago’.

Yes, it was indeed a long time ago; a frighteningly long time ago for researchers who desire firsthand accounts of the era which fascinates us so much. In addition to numerous telephone conversations with Ernie while in search of information for my Allandale book, I spent a full day with him touring his old haunts along the Meaford Subdivision. We visited the site of every former industrial siding and track in Meaford. We scouted out Thornbury, and he patiently pointed out where every building had stood. Down at Collingwood, he reconstructed the scene of activity for me, with trains arriving from Allandale and Beeton under the sky scape dominated by huge grain elevators and a ship yard. That day was memorable, and a luxury. Readers of Steam at Allandale (and Steam Scenes of Allandale) are as indebted to Ernie and his colleagues as I am, for reaching back half a century to scour aging memory banks for information useful to us.

It frightens me how helpless as researchers we will be without the likes of Ernie Morrison. Two months ago, while planning a model railway based on the Meaford Subdivision circa 1952, I decided to give Ernie a telephone call and arrange to speak with him at length about details of the apple loading at Thornbury. This was in reaction to a visit to the local library in that community, which in common with most public secondary sources for researchers of the intricacies of railway and industrial operations, had little to offer. I had come up short of my needs, and Ernie was the fellow to turn to. Then I received my copy of the CNR Allandale Pensioners newsletter, and read of his passing at the age of 71 on May 12 after a short battle with cancer. Instead of telephoning Ernie to discuss his memories of the Meaford Subdivision, I placed a call to his brother Harold to offer my condolences.

While I shudder now to read each monthly newsletter from the CNR Pensioners, even at this late day there are still dozens of railwaymen in our very midst who worked in the steam days. Like the old photographer’s adage of ‘take a picture today, it might be gone tomorrow’, talk to these fellows now. Talk to them while there is still time. In a few short years, we modellers and railway historians will be left with nothing but inference, conjecture and speculation to substitute for real live people to tell us how it really was. It will be a very poor substitute.

Ian Wilson
August 31, 2000

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P.S. Here’s that picture of Keith and I. He’s the basis for the character “Hookah Hopkin” in The Secret of the Old Swing Bridge.


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