September fifth, nineteen twenty-six, a day of doom and mystery,
That Sunday morn would soon see born a tale in railway history.
A silver sheen lay cast on the green, the breeze blew crisp and cold,
The hills were kissed with a shimmering mist of tamarack glimmering gold.
The Mountain Ash, with scarlet cache, flecked the stands of spruce and pine,
Aspens swayed and sunbeams played along the Kettle Valley Line.
A skiff of snow, glimpsed from below, glinted silver in the sun
and steel rails gleamed as an engine steamed,� number thirty-four-O-one.
An engineer out of Brookmere, � Bob Marks was the hogger that day,
with a seasoned crew, all of whom knew the Coquihalla's treacherous ways.
With bridges and trestles, they�d have to wrestle using judgement and skill,
climbing surely upgrade, with attention paid to keeping the pace downhill.
There were twenty cars, hauling lead bars, and zinc and silver too
from mines underground to the Orient bound, manned by a five-man crew.
Up a steep grade, plugged the steel parade to the Coquihalla station�
a routine run, with two thousand tons, and Hope as their destination.
Through mountainous realm, Bob Marks held the helm, guiding his engine uphill�
Ray Letts shovelled coal as the train upward rolled and slowly climbed higher still.
Ollie Johnston, a Nordic son, with Mick Stringer manned the brakes that day,
Conductor Jack Quinn, watched the air gauge within, and so far all seemed okay.
Beside J.C. Quinn, rode ol� Clapperton, or "Smoky" as he was known,
An engineer too, admiring the view, deadheading to Hope on his own.
From the "crow�s nest", the spot he liked best, the cupola atop the caboose�
some hoboes he spied, hitching a ride, and some transient boys on the loose.
Quinn surveyed the scene, morning serene backlit by skies crystal blue, �
of this crew of five, only one would survive before this trip was through!
Every now and again, these practiced trainmen let a plume of steam on the breeze,
over rivers and creeks, through valleys and peaks, they managed the steamer with ease.
It was all uphill, an arduous drill, those first eighteen miles or so�
but there was dispatched, and fast attached an engine with nine cars in tow.
Now from the rear, this engineer pushed the burdened freighter up-grade, -
John Osborne by name, drove this helper train, with fireman Barwick to aid.
At the "Coq�, in a cloud of smoke, the train puffed into view,
a scheduled stop at the mountain top, for there was much to do!
Water and air were checked with care before the downhill roll,
the brakes inspected, and next connected a dozen more cars of coal.
The remaining stretch, as they wound west, lay down-grade over four per cent,
perilously steep, over canyon deep, -a twisting, tortuous descent!
The stations were named after characters famed in the plays of William Shakespeare�
there was Juliet and Romeo, Portia, Iago, Jessica, Othello and Lear.
Eleven more miles, then they stopped awhile at tiny Iago station.
Ten minutes they took as by the book of CPR regulations
for the brakes to cool, as per the rule, before descending the hill.
Then the light flashed white and they chugged out of sight as Marks blew a parting quill.
But it wasn't long, before things went wrong, as the train gathered speed that morning.
Marks tried the brakes, but they wouldn't take, so he blasted an urgent warning.
"I have no air!,- We haven't a prayer, so bail and I'll understand"
then he grabbed a stick and climbed up quick, to set the brakes by hand.
Now in the caboose, all hell broke loose when those gauges showed no air!
Conductor Jack, taken aback, grabbed a club and breathed a prayer.
He handset the brakes, midst horrific quakes, then scaled the next car without fear!
He set those too, though inside he knew that the end of the line was near.
The two brakemen joined J.C.Quinn astride the careening runaway train;
With nimble feet, they fought defeat, but their efforts would prove in vain.
Through Portia they flew, as the whistle blew doing ninety miles an hour!
Here Ray Letts leaped, onto cinders heaped just past the water tower.
He stood up dazed, much amazed that he�d somehow survived the fall�
in the days ahead, he never once said, anything he could recall
about the terror ,whether human error or whether booze was to blame,
to his dying day, he had nothing to say, hence Clammy became his new name.
Smoky then warned John Osborne that the train ahead was in trouble!
To his cab he lurched and excitedly urged that the helper train be uncoupled.
Brave young Barwick grabbed a "stick" and crawled to the hitch on the speeding caboose,
then angle-cock closed ,he next broke the hose, pulled the pin and the helper came loose.
Down the track with the throttle back flew the train and the crew under Marks,
smoke poured from the wheels with hideous squeals and red hot showers of sparks.
Oh what a sight, the terrible plight of the desperately struggling crew, �
Smoky watched it swerve as it hit the curve when Jessica came into view.
Osborne moaned when Johnston was thrown, for Ollie was the first to go.
The rest hung on, but not for long as the runaway plunged to the canyon below.
For miles around the hellish sound pealed through the gorge and frost swept hills
the oil caught fire, the flames leaped higher,� an inferno raged through September�s chill.
Nothing was left to loved ones bereft of their husbands, fathers and sons
by fire consumed , there was little exhumed from the smouldering rubble of 2000 tons.
A few buttons of brass, bone fragments and ash, a jackknife and buckles and such
and fused to the steel of one brake-wheel, charred fingers curled in a ghastly clutch.
And all the spoils from miner�s moils, to the earth were now returned
the zinc and the gold, the oil and the coal, all mingled, molten and burned.
To this day none can say, how many lives were lost in the flames�
there were 4 of the crew, and several more who rode to their death without names.
A watch of gold as good as told the spot where Marks had lost his life
that he�d stood by his post �til he gave up the ghost was no comfort to his wife.
She had just remarried, having previously buried her trainman husband Jack�
both men she�d cherished, now both had perished on the Kettle Valley�s tracks.
Now there are no more rails, but just a trail along the Kettle Valley Line
the age of steam and McCullough�s dream forever lost to time.
Cyclists ride and hikers stride the path where trains flew down the grade
Daisies sway and sunbeams play and like wild roses, memories fade.
Sally Bland �
July 15, 2007