I’ll Take the Train by Ken Liddell
Western Producer Prairie Books,
1971 (3rd printing)
Ken Liddell was a newspaper reporter who worked for several newspapers in the Prairie provinces. This book is a collection of 33 short stories about railroads, their workers, their customers and their role in Canadians’ lives from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. The stories are based on Liddell’s personal experience – he started his career as a teen-aged news agent working a two car, passenger local out of Regina – and tales, gossip, anecdotes and railroad folklore gathered on his many trips as a roving reporter for The Calgary Herald.
The stories are humorous – “The Runaway Caboose” tells of an uncoupled caboose rolling back and forth across a road-rail bridge on a cold winter’s day in Peace River; sombre -“The Funeral Train” is about 21 RCAF pilots final trip in the baggage car after they are killed in a plane crash as they returned home from their last war-time flights; historical -“Radio Rides the Rails” details Sir Henry Thornton’s efforts to bring radio to the CNR, forming the basis of the CBC; and poignant – “The Last Run” describes the last runs of retiring steam locomotive engineers, one of whom helped build the road he ran over on his last trip, 41 years later.
Liddell writes with a light, but descriptive and evocative, style. In “The Boat Train”, the Minto, a CPR stern-wheeler, working south on the Arrow Lakes is described as “hustl[ing] her bustle down the lake like a fussy old lady with a tall white feather in her hat.” The above mentioned runaway caboose “incident would have drifted into the passing track of memories” except for some innocent questions raised at a business dinner.
British Columbia’s PGE passenger service – pre-RDC – is delightfully described in “The Pacific Great Eastern”. How can one not relish Liddell’s picture of a porter in his moccasin slippers waking passengers to view the Fraser Canyon or the dining car steward valiantly trying to serve passengers iced tea with only two tall glasses assigned to his car?
This book was a pleasure to read. As one who came of age well after steam locomotives and mixed trains to everywhere, Liddell’s stories provide a view, possibly rose-coloured, into a different era of railroading and life. In many instances, the railroad side of the story is incidental to the human interest side but this only serves to emphasise how deeply embedded into Canadians’ lives the railroads once were. This book will interest rail fans, armchair historians or those simply looking for a good chuckle over people’s foibles.
Unfortunately, the book is long out-of-print so those interested in reading it will have to check local libraries or thrift stores to locate a copy.
Review by Rick Jelfs, Secretary – Transport Action BC