Sparks and speeders – death-defying days on the PGE Railway

Last September we received a visit in the Museum from Walt Punnett, who worked for the PGE Railway in the spring of 1946 in fire suppression. He was only 22 years old when he took the job, which entailed him and a partner riding along in a speeder (railway maintenance vehicle) behind trains and spraying water on any sparks created as they moved along the tracks. His route ran from what is now Darcy to Whistler, which was then known as Alta Lake.

A covered speeder traveling on the PGE tracks in wintertime

Rainbow Lodge was still owned by Alex and Myrtle Philip that spring, and Walt quickly proved popular with the owners and guests. According to Walt, “They were always running short in Rainbow Lodge, so I ran what I called a ‘beer run’ from Pemberton down to Alta. I would stop in…at the old Pemberton Hotel, pick up a couple of cases of beer and a breadbox so no one knew what it was…and we headed down to Whistler.”

Another type of speeder, with an open top

Walt was lucky enough to work with a partner – working alone on the railway proved particularly dangerous for the section crew members, who were responsible for repair jobs. Walt got to know quite a few of them that spring – and some of the horror stories that came along with the job. One man by the name of Pete Rebagliati was attacked by a grizzly bear, which buried him under some brush, presumably to save him for snack time later on. Amazingly, he was able to crawl out and make his way to Pemberton for help.

These one-man crews travelled in smaller “soap-box” speeders that could be manhandled off the tracks if a train happened to come along. According to Walt, “They just had a set of handles that slid out from one end of the speeder, you’d pick it up like a wheelbarrow and turn it sideways, and you could trundle it off the tracks.” A bit different from the pickup truck service vehicles that make their way along those very same tracks today.

Speeders weren’t necessarily the safest means of travel. While Walt was still working for the railroad, he narrowly escaped a collision with the front of a cowcatcher on an oncoming train, while attempting to help a millworker who had run the tips of his fingers through an edger. The accident happened on a Sunday, and Walt had the only form of transportation that could be used to get the injured man to medical care – his speeder.

A young man (Reg Shurie) stands in front of a PGE train in the 1920s - the cowcatcher is covered in snow, but you can still imagine how scary a close encounter with one of these would have been!

Walt was given the rundown on which trains were running that day, and off they went. With only one train that was still miles away, he wasn’t concerned about running into it. Near Anderson Lake, heading downhill and northbound, he rounded a bend and “there was a double-headed steam engine coming at full-bore uphill.” Moving too fast to jump, he held onto his passenger, threw on the one-wheel brake, and “watched the cowcatcher coming straight at me.” At the last second, they jumped off either side of the speeder, and watched as it flipped “about fourteen feet in the air.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Walt recalls, “I found out that day that cactus spikes go right through the upper portion of a logger’s boots – we jumped into a patch of prickly pear.”

Walt had already taken a job falling logs, and that fateful Sunday was his last day working for the railway (perhaps he should have put his notice in for Saturday). He started working for Blackwater Timber the very next day, and didn’t look back on his railway days.

These handcars (powered by pumping the lever at the front) were popular before speeders were introduced, and were sometimes used by those who lived at Alta Lake since they were much faster than walking

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2 responses to “Sparks and speeders – death-defying days on the PGE Railway

  1. Pingback: Whistler’s Wildfire Past, part 2: Burned into the Landscape’s Memory | Whistorical

  2. Pingback: Whistler’s Wildfire Past, part 2: Burned into the Landscape’s Memory — Whistler Is Awesome – Whistler Blog

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