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How were Railways Maintained?

March 30, 2024

Section Boss Bob Hanthorn on his Jigger with Happy

By Guy Scott

Railways were a complicated business. There were many jobs and departments to a railway company. The trains themselves had such staff as engineers, brakemen, conductors, etc. Railway stations had their agents. The central depots or yards had specialized staff to assemble trains and load and unload. There were also mechanics and staff to repair and maintain all the rolling stock. And of course, each railway had its section crews.

The section crews were the staff who maintained and repaired the rail line itself. Their repair jobs included replacing rotting wooden ties, adjusting the iron rails to keep them level, replacing iron rail sections, repairing washouts, cutting brush and other vegetation and shovelling snow as needed. Section gangs were assigned to sections or stretches of track and usually consisted of a section foreman and 3-4 section hands or workers. A section was between 5 and 10 miles of track. On the Victoria Railway, there was a section gang at Fenelon Falls, Fell’s Station, Burnt River, Kinmount, Gelert and Haliburton. Each gang was based at a station, primarily because there were buildings to store equipment, they could assist the station staff and housing was available for the crew. In the small towns along this line, jobs on the railway were steady employment compared to lumbering and farming. Railway work could take many forms, but for the working man, being a section hand was good employment. The position of section foreman was a step up the employment ladder. This position was actually considered a “skilled job’ unlike gang workers who were often casual labourers. Foremen could be transferred around the lines, similar to station agents. Good foremen were often sent to oversee larger repair operations and took pride in their craft.

Work was often hard on the section gang. Wooden ties were replaced without completely lifting a section of rail. Gravel or cinder stone needed to be added or replaced on a regular basis. Washouts were a problem, and the track had to be regularly patrolled. It was embarrassing if a derailment occurred on your section; and especially so if it was the result of poor maintenance or lack of vigilance.

Snow plows were attached to the engine of the train itself and did all the plowing. But occasionally, the snow drifts were so deep, the train became stuck or just couldn’t break through the drift. Then the section gang, often reinforced with casual shovellers, were required to clear the drift by hand! It was a hard but necessary job. The train plowed the main track, but the section crew had to clear snow from the switches by hand. They were also required to shovel snow from the station yards and all buildings. Before the roads were snow plowed (1930s), the railway was the only way in our out of most communities in the dead of winter.

In the summer, heat would often cause the iron rails to expand and warp out of shape. This could lead to the hated derailment. The section crew were sometimes forced to replace the warped rail with a new section of rail. This was not an easy job, as the rail sections were 39 feet long and weighed 15-29 pounds per foot. Heavy freight trains put a lot of stress on the rails and often the rails had to be shimmed to keep the track level. Usually, there was a time crunch as well as the trains passed the spot several times a day. It required scheduling and timing to keep the track open. Weeds and brush growing along the track was another issue. Even the gravel shoulders did not prevent Mother Nature from reforesting its former domain; it just slowed it down! Chemical killers were sometimes spread to control vegetation, but in the ‘old days,’ cutting by hand was the default means. Scythes were used to remove grass and weeds. Axes and crosscut hand saws took out deadfalls and larger brush. Oil spraying was one solution, and some crews used mowers or grass cutters attached to railway vehicles; much the same as farmers’ hay mowers. It seemed the section crew were constantly at war with Mother Nature.

The tools of a section crew included special tools to lift and move rails and sledge hammers to drive spikes (used to hold the rails down) into the ties. The image of a section crew driving spikes is a common one among railroad lore. The invaluable shovel was another common tool. But getting around on the line required specialized machinery. The early section crews used hand pumper cars, with the crew pushing the car by hand up and down the line. Then a velocipede was introduced; actually a 3 wheeled bicycle for railway tracks. The hand pumped car was eventually replaced by a gas-powered car. Finally, pickup trucks were converted to travel the rails. The section crew had to judge their time carefully to avoid being caught on the tracks when the next train rambled by! They could use convenient sidings or they could simply pick up the hand car and lift it off the track.

Grenville Shrader, local railway historian, came from a railway family. His father was a section foreman, starting out at as part of the Gelert and Haliburton gangs before being transferred to the Irondale section gang on the old IB&O. The Irondale section foreman (Charles Woermke) had retired and an experienced section foreman was needed to replace him. By the way, the position of section foreman often came with dwelling accommodations as part of the position! So important was the position of railway section foreman, that Grenville’s father was classified as an ‘essential worker’ and not eligible for the army draft during WWII!

In 1948 eighteen year old Grenville was working on a hydro power line at Norland when the following happened:

“One evening Sandy Martin (CN Railway Roadmaster) and Malcolm Sedgewick (Relief Foreman) at Fenelon Falls, drove over to Norland and put the “HEAVY HAND” on me. I had spent time in 1947 working as a relief section man and had experience—plus they were offering me a raise! I knew and liked Malcolm (plus Charlie Cruikshank) the regular section man on the gang was a true ‘gentleman’ and good to work with. Charlie lived in the old Victoria Railway section house at Fenelon (a flag stop), timetable 155. Fenelon Falls on Cameron Lake was a great place to spend the summer!


We had to run a spur into a gravelly hill along the lake with a steam shovel brought by train out of Lindsay every day. We had the Lindsay, Cameron, Fenelon Falls and Burnt River section crews all working on ballasting and installing new ties from just north of Lindsay to just south of Kinmount (30 miles). Carmen Woods, section foreman from Burnt River, was the gang Foreman and ran the show.”

Grenville stayed on the section gang and continues:

“In November 1948, I rolled the last spiking hammer over my shoulder and drove my last spike someplace between Watson’s Siding and Kinmount. I walked into the railway station at Kinmount, cold and tired, saw the well-dress (and warm!) station agent behind the desk (the famous Bob Blair) and thought ‘This is the job for me!’” Two years later Grenville graduated as a professional trained in “railroading and telegraphy.”

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