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You don't hear anything much about the sectionman, do you?" asks Art Vessey. "You hear about conductors and engineers but you never hear about the sectionmen."
For Vessey, collecting artifacts and stories from the sectionmen is important work for a very personal reason—his father spent his entire career in that capacity.
"You have to think," he says earnestly, "the sectionman had 15 miles of track to take care of. And every bit of that work was manual labour. They'd be out there in all kinds of weather following the trains looking for problems, going ahead of the trains looking for problems."
The train schedule was Vessey's schedule as a boy. "We'd know to start walking up the tracks after school so we could catch the sectionman—he'd always pick me and my brother up and give us a ride to the station. The train didn't pull in until about seven o'clock in the evening. After supper, somewhere around six o'clock, if it was snowing my dad would take me and my brother out to clean the switches at the "y" where the train turned around. He'd do this on his own time. So I was sweeping switches by the time I was eight or nine years old."
The motor car (also called the rail car or jigger) was a boon to the sectionman. With it he could make his route along the track with the haste that was necessary to his trade. The onset of diesel engines didn't spell the end of the sectionman's role, but it did mean that changes would be made and the tenure of the motor car would be cut short.
Vessey chose a different career path from his father's but never lost his affection for anything to do with rail. After a tour with the Canadian armed forces that brought him to Regina, Vessey married and stayed on in Saskatchewan. As an electrician he was part of the development of potash and worked on the rural electrification project that revolutionized life in farm country. He ended his work career as an electrician at the Saskatoon airport.
Through all those years he maintained his deep interest in rail. In the late 1980s he joined the newly formed group behind the Saskatchwan Rail Museum and the Saskatchewan Railroad Historical Association. The establishment of the museum south of Saskatoon co-incided with Vessey's retirement. He turned his energy to re-building various pieces of maintenance equipment, including working on several motor cars. He has also worked on snow plows and taken a keen interest in one of the museum's larger pieces, a SaskPower generator car that was used to power towns along the railroad during an electrical failure.
He has also had a few opportunities to hit the open rail in the motor cars he refurbished. The museum has been able to negotiate access to track near to Saskatoon for these excursions, including the line to Rosthern.
Vessey's membership in the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA) is unique. He's the only Saskatchewan member. He is adamant that people who are mtor car enthusiasts abide by the rules that govern rail. "Bootleggers" are rail car owners who set their machines on privately owned track. He's even concerned about what people think of as "abandoned" track.
"These lines are not really abandoned but are just not being used or are obsolete," he says. "They are still the property of the railroad companies or maybe a salvage company. To be on these rails whether walking, snowmobiles or motor cars you are trespassing on private property. Running motor cars could cause trouble with people who want to do it in an organized way. It is possible these privileges could be taken away from people that want to do it properly."
Vessey's role as an interpreter of rail and western Candian heritage is one of his favourites. To hear some first hand memories, visit him at the Saskatchewan Rail Museum of the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon where he leads tours.
This article is a web exclusive to Prairies North Magazine. You can read our story "Chasing Jiggers" by Dorothy Seibold that appeared in the Spring 2012 by ordering a copy now! Call 1-888-861-8311 or email us or get the digital version of this issue.