The Train Station

2016.03.25

As the years wear on and my grey hair whitens, more and more I want to revisit places I knew as a younger person.  Some might find this to be a depressing activity, but I don’t.  I am not always thrilled about what I find, but often the memories feel good.

Last year, I decided to return to the town of Standard, Alberta.  Standard is in the middle of good prairie farmland, south of Drumheller and the Red Deer River.  I hadn’t been there since the summer of 1964, when I was a young, undergraduate engineer working on a survey crew for Alberta Gas Trunk Line.

My job, for a couple of weeks, was to travel with the head surveyor to help with altitude measurements along the surveyed pipeline right-of-way.  In those days altitude measurements were taken with a high-quality barometer, designed for surveying.  We started each day by taking a reference at the closest railway station.  We would work the morning and then return to the station to take a closing reading.  If the barometric pressure had changed due to the weather, we would then read the difference and apply it proportionally to all the readings we had taken in the morning.  As the junior in the survey crew, this exercise gave me lots of pre-calculator, hand calculations to finish every evening.  We would repeat the same procedure in the afternoon and add to my homework.

For a week, our reference station was the CPR train station at Standard.  In those days the station was still in use and there was one regular passenger train every day.  The station agent in Standard was one of the old timers on the line and shared his coffee with us each morning.  We learned a bit about the operation of the station and the railway on that section of the line which ran from Bassano to Irricana.  I was a keen ham radio operator in those days and when I saw his old morse code equipment sitting on his desk I had to ask him about it.  It turned out that it was still operational.  He said there were several older station agents on that line and, even though they had radios and telephones, the old timers used the morse code equipment periodically just to keep up their skill and have some fun.  One day he sent and received a few short messages for my benefit while we watched.  I could read morse code radio tones on my ham radio with no problem, but I had no hope reading the clicks and clacks that emanated from his old morse code equipment.

We were never there when the train arrived and departed, but we could hear its whistle cast a lonely note across the prairies as we drove the planned pipeline route with our surveying equipment.  It was no longer the romantic sound of a steam engine whistle, but one of a diesel engine as it slowly navigated the poorly maintained track across the flat fields of farmland.

Today the station is gone.  The railway is only the remnants of the track bed, heading off to the west in a straight line over the prairie.  New businesses cover the land where we used to visit the station agent.  I looked for the old metal stake with the elevation written on it that was our benchmark for our barometer readings those many years ago, but had no luck finding it.  The only thing left from those days long past was an old, broken down shack where they stored the ‘speeders’ that were used on the line for maintenance.

Railway road bed heading west from Standard with the speeder shed

I found a shady, warm spot under some aspen trees in the local park, settled in to eat my lunch, and started thinking about how change affects everything.  Looking out on the open prairies and small town, I couldn’t help but think of the now historical practices on the railway that I had the privilege of experiencing when they were real and useful, but now an experience unattainable for a young person of today.

Driving down the road after I left Standard, I started thinking about other unique things I experienced in my youth that can no longer be experienced today.  The list may seem a bit haphazard, but that is what came to me.

- The ice throne at Banff during the Winter Festival and the crowning of the Festival Queen on her throne of ice out on the frozen-over Bow River.

- Watching brave souls being pulled by a horse whilst ski joring down Banff Avenue and over several ski jumps built on the road.  The accidents were spectacular and anyone who made it through the course of jumps got a great round of applause

- Driving to Elbow Falls on a narrow gravel road and not seeing another soul.

- Walking up the wide, carpeted steps in the Capitol Theatre in Calgary.

- Getting on the number 3 trolley bus to go to downtown Calgary.

- Riding with the milkman in a horse drawn milk wagon.

- Using a telephone party line.

- Using a dial telephone.

- Keeping food in an icebox and having no freezer in the house.

I went on to think of today’s latest generation and things that their parents could have experienced, but my grandchildren never will.  My list went on.

- Paper library cards that you had to fill out in the back of the book.

- Paper dollar bills and pennies.

- Vending machines that actually gave you something for a quarter.

- Toys in cereal boxes.

- Vinyl records and record players as the common form of listening to recorded music.  And what about the record players that could automatically play multiple records?

- Untangling tape cassettes after they got wound up in the tape player.

- Traveling by train from Calgary to Regina.

- Navigating from town to town on the prairies by following the grain elevators on the horizon.

Change goes on and I’m thrilled to be living in a time of such fantastic new things in our world.  However, some memories from times past are also good, especially when I am alone and reflective.  That was my state of mind last year, as I drove down the country roads of eastern Alberta, past farms and through old communities that were thriving in those days of my youth.