I was Born a Boxcar Child- Tales of the Railroad


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Grampy Crittenden worked for the Canadian National Railroad for almost 50 years until one day he reluctantly retired. As a young boy he used to ride up and down the rails in a boxcar until he got caught. He persuaded the agent that nabbed him to let him go and the man agreed as along as he came back to load baggage at the local station. After that it was one menial railroad job after another until he worked the last twenty years in the office of the CNR station in Montreal, Quebec.

He always said that his favourite part of his railroad career was working in the special dental car*.Grampy Crit worked “the run” a half dozen times in the 50’s but he was proud that he was part of a dental care system that was given to thousands of Canadians living in remote parts of Northern Ontario. The train had a sleeping room for the nurse and doctor, an examination room, a dark room, a waiting room, a kitchen and a bathroom. Every Friday night when he came to visit I sat there and listened to his railroad tales.

When I was 7 my Grandfather decided that my sister and I should experience the love of his life first hand. The plan was to get on the train and ride it to the next stop a few miles down the track and my father would pick us up. His best friend was the engineer that night and as it pulled into the Cowansville, Quebec station he let the whistle blow one too many times. My Grandfather held my 2 year old sister high up in the air and screamed,

“Look at the train! Look at the train!”

With another loud whistle and the ear busting sound of the braking wheels my sister broke into tears while I stood there with a puddle forming around my black patent shoes. The noise of the train had literally made me pee my pants and my sister was afraid of trains for many years afterwards. Straddled with one wet 7 year old and another crying child he waved to the engineer, turned around and went back to my Grandmother’s. That was the end of his attempts at trying to get us to ride the rails with him.

At the age of 12 my mother died and my father decided to send us to Seattle, Washington for the summer where Grampy Crit had retired. My father discussed different modes of transportation with my grandfather until Grampy sent a telegraph saying,

“Just put them on the darn train, nothing will happen to them!”

So my father placed his daughters aged 12 and 6 on the darn train and we traveled the 3000 miles alone to Vancouver B.C. For five days we saw the prairies, rode in the ‘dome car’ and were overwhelmed watching the majestic Rockies roll by. We saw buffalo and wandering deer in Banff and marveled at the site of a couple of glaciers. When we ate in the dining car we watched the waiters serve in moving cars with speed and grace.


By day 5 as the train rolled into the Vancouver train station my stomach felt like it was never going to stop riding the rails. Two days later I vowed never to enter a train again but was extremely grateful I had a bathroom to sit in rather than use a 4 by 4 stainless steel hole.

The return trip home fared better as I met a young girl who boarded the train in Saskatchewan. She told me that she was on her way to Ottawa to meet her grandfather who was a politician. If you were not The Beatles in those days then I never asked another question as I wasn’t interested. I learned later the man I saw hugging his granddaughter through the train window was none other than Tommy Douglas who had been premier of Saskatchewan and was the founder of Canada’s healthcare program.


Photo from the Smiths Falls Railway Museum


Years later still found me sitting in Montreal train stations while I waited for a ride home. I used to read the words of John Lennon and Leonard Cohen while I watched people go by. One day a young man sat down next to me and told me he had seen Cohen the day before talking to someone in the station. For months on end I sat and waited for Leonard Cohen to walk by me and possibly declare that I was his next “Suzanne”. That never happened and I finally met him thirty years later on a Los Angeles bound plane. As all of us waited for our baggage I walked up to him and told him how long I had sat on that bench at the CNR station in Montreal waiting for him. With his sultry eyes and deep voice he took my hand and simply said,

“My dear the years have been kind to you.”

And with that I was 7 years old all over again and imaginary puddles formed at my feet as Leonard Cohen was boarding the Love Train to my heart.

Whooo! Whooo!

*The “Dental” train was a former sleeper built in 1913 by Barney & Smith Company, Dayton, Ohio, USA. It had been used as a passenger car by the Canadian Northern Railway in 1913 – 1921 and then by Canadian National until 1951 when it was converted to the “transportable” dental clinic to serve remote rural areas




Thanks to Elisabeth Humphrey who sent this to us… Thank you!!
I recently came across this photo of my great grandfather – who worked for the railway in Smiths Falls. This is dated 1923-25. Left to right: R. Britton, R. Brown F. Howard, R.Flynn, A. Humphrey, J. McDermott

“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know who you are!” —The late Edna Gardner Carleton Place

Buy Linda Secaspina’s Books— Flashbacks of Little Miss Flash Cadilac– Tilting the Kilt-Vintage Whispers of Carleton Place and 4 others on Amazon or Amazon Canada or Wisteria at 62 Bridge Street in Carleton Place

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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