Guest Commentary

Senator Michael L. MacDonald

Uncle Clarence

I remember the last running of the steam train through my hometown, Louisbourg, in Cape Breton, in 1966. Uncle Clarence Shaw was one of the regular engineers. He spent most of his working life with the Sydney & Louisbourg Railway. By the 1960s it was only running to Louisbourg twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday.

When Clarence was working the train, he would let me scramble up into the cab of this powerful locomotive and pull the steam whistle at the two level crossings in the town. Nothing could make a 10-year old boy feel more empowered! The blast of a steam whistle still makes me nostalgic.

The S & L ran on a 41-mile line through central Cape Breton. They nicknamed it the Slow & Lazy, but while it was slow it certainly wasn’t lazy. Over a century ago the Dominion Bureau of Statistics rated it the top railway on the continent in tonnage by mile. It freighted a fortune in coal and Cape Breton steel and iron ore.

The steam trains defined our communities. Louisbourg and Glace Bay used to be close neighbours when people traveled back and forth by the S & L. It was a friendly service. The engineer would even stop between stations if a passenger wanted to get off for berry picking.

I remember those steam locomotives so vividly, the heat and sound, the firemen stoking the coal for the boilers, the smell of coal and the taste of coal dust. And I remember Uncle Clarence. He was a quiet, raw-boned man with a kind face, a lovely, old-fashioned man whom everybody liked. He was the boss and always in charge, and since Clarence was an engineer on the S & L I received special privileges.

Twice weekly, when the steamer stopped at the fish plant in Louisbourg, I would tear down there on my school lunch break for a ride in the locomotive with Clarence.

It was like the engine was alive. Every drive of the pistons whooshed and groaned. We’d roll through town and Clarence would let me pull the steam whistle. The blast could lift a small boy off his feet. I felt like the mayor. After the second crossing, Clarence would stop the locomotive and let me run back to school. I look back on it now as a very special experience few people have ever enjoyed.

After the war the role of the train greatly declined and more neighbours bought automobiles. Highways killed the Sydney & Louisbourg line forever, in 1968. It had been the last fully operational steam line in North America, long after the big railways converted to diesel.

Uncle Clarence retired and passed away in 1975. Those working men never lived long. Together in that locomotive most every Tuesday and Friday, we witnessed the end of an era for steam and Cape Breton.

(Editor’s note: the author is Senator from Nova Scotia. Mr. MacDonald’s commentary was first published May 15, 2018)

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