It was an ultimatum set by his father that saw now retired train engineer Les Handley begin his career with the Canadian Pacific Railway almost 70 years ago.
“My father laid the law down, you either go to work or go you to school, one of the two,” Handley told me. “It (working for the railway) was in the family you know. My grandfather started out in 1899 in Winnipeg. Then he was working out of Minnedosa, Manitoba. That’s where I was born. Dad started in 1913 delivering telegrams.”
In September 1946, at the age of 17, Handley moved to Field and started working as an engine wiper.
Now, at 86, Handley recalled how different it was to get a job during his youth.
“It wasn’t like it is now. If you wanted a job, they’d take anybody,” he said.
Training was a bit different, too — you learned on the job. “You start out as what they call an engine wiper and you just do everything that no one else will do,” he said.
Being an engine wiper is how Handley started out. At that time trains still ran on steam. Handley explained that most of the steam engines in the B.C. division were oil burners, where the Alberta division burned coal. Fires had to be cleaned and all the ashes taken out each time an engine came in.
“That’s what I did,” he said. “We lived in Mount Stephen House in Field. For that you paid $15 a month.”
It was a round-the-clock job, where the men worked seven days a week, changing shifts on a rotating schedule from days to nights, then to afternoons, and then back to days. Despite this seemingly gruelling schedule, Handley says it was a great time in Field.
“It was 75 cents a meal, but all of their meals had two prices. The CPR employees paid the lowest and the tourists paid the highest price, I don’t think you could get away with that now,” he said.
After nine months of working as an engine wiper, Handley was promoted to fireman. However, as Handley pointed out, you’re simply an extra board fireman, which means relieving fireman with a permanent position on-board an engine if they want a day off.
“They’d call you and you’d have to wait for somewhere to go,” he said. “In my case, the first trip I made was from Revelstoke to Field and then the next trip was from Revelstoke to Kamloops.
“So the fireman, you had to go wherever your engineer went and eventually you get to the point of seniority where you could hold a steady job as fireman on freight service, yard engine, passenger service, something like that.”
Working on board a steam engine, meant having a lot of responsibilities, Handley explained.
“You (engineer) have an awful lot of responsibilities on there. You don’t have any other way because you have to maintain the steam pressure for the fireman. He’s got to maintain the boiler pressure, and you’ve got to watch the water level in the boiler and you’ve got to be the look out on that side of the engine, and you don’t have any spare time.
“You were busy.”
Promoted again in 1967, Handley made just one trip as an engineer on a steam engine.
“Everything was all seniority basis, you just went. If your seniority entitled you to a job you went, you took it,” he said. Of course, getting promoted to engineer meant taking an exam.
“The turnover was pretty high. A lot of the guys they never stayed long enough to worry about that [engineer exam]. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week and you have, when you went to work you were gone until you got back. You might be gone for 24 hours, sometimes 18 or 36 but you had no choice, no say in the matter.”
For Handley, who eventually got married and had five children, the sometimes unpredictability of his engineer schedule was something the family had to adapt too as well.
“Your family had to adjust themselves,” he said. “I can tell you about the time we were gonna go somewhere, go for a picnic or something like that… then the phone rings and that’s the end of that, duty calls.”
Editor’s note: We only learned after publication that Les Handley was moving to Merritt to live with his daughter.