do you remember

June 22, 2011

PART 2: of the Railway Speeder conversation. Thanks to all who shared their memories…which were triggered by this ‘turnaround’ still on the turf in Gander. Thanks to Jim Johnson, webmaster for “Gander Our Town” website for granting permission to use this photo:

                  speeder turn around

Clyde Burt had this to say:            

I’m very familiar with the railway speeders. During the war years I lived at Union East, a very small community two miles east of Gander, near the northside of Deadman’s Pond. I and my friends walked from there along the railway line to school to school at Gander, so we often met speeders along the way.

Some of them were driven by the railway section hands who used them to transport themselves, their tools, or maintenance materials to various locations along the lines. Other speeders were used by the U.S. military persons who were responsible for inspecting and maintaining the telegraph lines which ran along beside the railway

Most of the speeders were open vehicles, but I saw some which were enclosed on top and around the sides with canvas panels which could  be rolled up or removed altogether.

I recall one interesting incident which I’ll share; As we were walking to school one day we found a lot of shiny rifle ammunition scattered for a considerable distance along the track. Of course we were very excited with our find.  Soon, though, a speeder which had passed us earlier came back to where we were, and stopped. When the soldiers asked us if we had found any ammunition we immediately admitted we had, and gave it to them. They thanked us and went on their way.

Regarding the remains of the turnaround shown in your photo, the building which housed it (the roundhouse) was used primarily  with the “Bug”.  This was a small passenger bus designed to travel on the railway track. I suspect that a “Y” siding transported it from the main line to the turntable inside the house. I can’t remember exactly what it was like, although I walked past it hundreds of times enroute to school on Chestnut Street, a half mile or so beyond.

 Speeders did not need a turnaround. They were light enough to be turned manually. They were fitted with four “handles”, two at each end near the sides. Using these, one end could be lifted from the rails and the machine pivoted around, then the other end lifted and the wheels set back on the tracks.

 I never rode on the Bug, but I had numerous rides on speeders.

 Another interesting machine that was used for rail travel was a three-wheeled vehicle. Imagine a motorcycle with an outrigger arm connecting it to a third wheel on the other track. It had no motor, though, but was propelled by the driver who pushed and pulled a handlebar which was geared to a drive wheel. 

This machine was used by men who patrolled the railway looking for fires that may have been started by hot coals which sometimes dropped from locomotives.

Clyde Burt, GA Class of 1953


Very interesting Clyde; it takes me back to my childhood. I never knew why there always seemed to be a speeder come along shortly after a train would pass by, but the idea of checking for fires makes sense.

Denny Pritchett, GA Class of 1963


From the 1930s to the 1950s speeders would follow the train from Botwood to Grand Falls. The trains used coal as fuel which would create a lot of coal flankers that would fly out of the stacks. The big, hot flankers would touch the alders and bushes that were dotted along the tracks, sometimes causing fires. Three of the men who worked with the fire patrol on the speeders were Walter Pardy, Jim Curtis, and Baxter Eveleigh.

Pat Dempsey Hiscock, GA Class of 1956


 I agree with Clyde's recollections of the "Speeder".  I recall seeing them on the railway tracks numerous times. Probably not as many as Clyde. I do recall how they were turned around, and it could be done by one person. The operators were like experts in doing so. I witnessed the turning about four or five times.               

Now the ‘Three Wheeler’  was operated by one person  exactly as Clyde described. My second cousin Horward Pritchett from Middlebrook was a fire fighter during the "Non Snow" season. He also owned a general store in Middlebrook, and I remember him telling many stories about his experiences while looking for and fighting fires along the railway track. One particular incident was where he got trapped in by surrounding fire, and just barely made it out to safety.
He kept his 3-wheeler up in Gambo at the railway yard building. He used to ride his bicycle from Middlebrook to Gambo (about 3 miles) to go to work and patrol the section of tracks he was responsible for. I saw his 3 wheeler a few times in Gambo.

The speeder was a life saver to many ill and injured people, as the speeder was used to transport injured people to Gander hospital for attention, and all the speeder operators were always on call for an emergency trip. Usually there were 2 people during this time because if they had to take the speeder off the tracks for a train, they had to remove the stretcher and then move the speeder off the tracks to allow the train to pass. They usually were briefed on train movements when they were dispatched for the mercy mission.
I knew one of the speeder operators but can't remember his name off hand.

I hope people nowadays can understand that there was no trans Canada highway until the mid 1950s, and there were few and far between medical facilities across Newfoundland to provide emergency services, so people were transported partway by Boat, Car, train, or Speeder and in some cases by Seaplane or Ski equipped aircraft.
Campbell Pritchett, GA Class of 1959

PS- Thanks for your story Clyde. Nice to hear from you.



The Trolley

Now I know that Faye has elicited tales from us about that unique and commonly sighted contraption once found on our rail lines called the ‘speeder’. Some were powered by a small engine while others, more akin to our firsthand experience on the American side, were of the self-propelled type  which we referred to as the trolley, or the pumper.
The trolley can be best described as a small platform on 4 rail wheels with a see-saw lever mounted on the platform that was propelled by pumping the lever up and down by what was intended to be 2 robust at each end. Regardless of how robust the men might have been, these trolleys never achieved any real speed, especially when it was commandeered and driven by young boys....until one fateful afternoon. 
Before we get to the real story about the trolley, or the speeder if you will, a small picture needs to be painted. For those who lived on the American side the old steam plant was a familiar site. It literally heated all residences through the steam lines fed by coal-heated boilers in the plant itself. Now the coal and I mean mounds and mounds of it, was delivered on a rail track by a steam locomotive and off-loaded near the plant itself.
Now I know kids today enjoy sliding down snow slopes and no doubt that sure looks like fun. Try doing it on coal mounds as high as a 3-story building with no sled or that was fun, especially when you wiped out. But hey....that’s another story for another day.
Now back to the trolley.
The trolley was always around near the steam plant and more often than not, sat idly by with an open invitation for us young fellers’ to work the tracks. Now we had to pick our spots.....nobody of any authority in sight, keeping in mind that authority meant any adult whatsoever, AND no trains on the move. Then we would board the trolley and give it to ‘er for all we were worth, pumping like there was no tomorrow......2 on each end!
How sweet it was.
I remember those lovely summer evenings when the working men would be nowhere in sight and we could feast ourselves on those lazy rolls down the track until we eventually reached the dead end, telling stories and Pat and Mike jokes all the way down and all the way back.
Now, one of those ventures was not so lazy and you might say a little on the speedy side.
One day, during a working day, as bold and brave as you could get, we mounted the trolley and started slowly down the track. Now I can’t remember exactly who was present at the time. Memory does not serve me that well but the list of co-suspects probably included my brother Will, Ross Patey, John Malone, Campbell Pritchett and assorted others. I don’t mean to incriminate anyone and perhaps some of you could remind me. Remember now, we could cram a lot of us on that platform and the more the merrier.
Naturally we did our usual one or no trains in sight, or so it seemed.  As we rolled down the track we started gathering a little speed, not much mind you and as we approached the bend well below the steam plant, laughing and carrying on with the usual commotion, we looked up and with a palpable sense of shock and terror (we wouldn’t have used the word ‘palpable’ at the time), there she was.....the old steam locomotive coming round the bend, billows of smoke pumping from her stack, heading right for us and heading for her!
“Hard on the brake lever ‘byes’ and start going the other way! Change your underwear when you get home!”
As hard as we could pump we were no match for the old Iron Horse and finally had to abandon ship ....fellas jumping off the runaway trolley like rats leaving a sinking ship!
Now you may think that was the end of it.....all hands running off in all directions… but not so. Out of nowhere and I mean nowhere this truck pulls up and out jumps 2 or 3 men.
Caught in the act! Busted we were! Now for some reason and I’m not sure why this was, maybe it was a sign of the times I don’t know, but back then if you were caught red handed you didn’t flee the scene. Instead we froze in our tracks. I remember this man towering over me with a pencil in his hand ready to make notes on the back of his Export cigarette package. Looking down at each of us in turn he asks ‘and what’s your name young fella?’ And what was even stranger, is we all gave them our real names! Names were meticulously noted, or so it seemed, on the back of a cigarette package, followed by a scolding and the reassurance that the Mounties, yes the Mounties, aka. Cpl Rose, would be in touch with our parents and proper justice would be administered. Well now, I’m imagining the Mounties coming to the door to tell my ol’ man of our transgressions and I’m thinking, please......... take me to jail now and get it over with! (In actual fact, knowing more in later life about  my father’s adventures as a child, I doubt that he would have been too upset.)
Anyway, we all were instructed to go straight home and await our fate, which we did. You can imagine that for the ensuing days I was stricken with terror with every knock on the door. Days passed and still no arrest!
Eventually we realised we had dodged the bullet, as well as the old locomotive, and eventually plucked up our courage to surf the coal mounds again while fondly eyeing  the old trolley, waiting for the right moment. Being the well seasoned and hardened criminals that we were, thirsty again for the rush, we found our moments again, albeit with more scrutiny, to mount that old trolley, laugh, sing and joke, and slowly roll down those tracks wiling away our summer with what seemed like an eternal life ahead of us. So it was with those old not so speedy trolleys....while growing up in Gander.
Angus Taylor, GA Class of 1963

Pat Dempsey Hiscock remembers travelling on the railway in NL from Gander, not on a speeder, but what looked like a bus.
Faye . . . what I am describing looks exactly like an old fashioned bus.  Probably was a real bus and the wheels were adapted.  That bus was, as I explained, pictured in two of Dad's Newfoundland Railway books re the wreck at Gambo Hill.
I decided to see if I could find any mention of the "little bus" in any of Dad's books on the history of the Reid, Newfoundland and CN Railways that operated in Newfoundland. Especially in wartime while we were still Britain's oldest Colony.
After combing through six or seven books, I found the "little bus" of which I spoke on two previous occasions.
A picture of the bus was found in Tales of the Rails The Newfoundland Railway by Clayton D. Cook.  (ISBN 0-920021-80-8, printed in Canada by Robinson-Blackmore Printing & Publishing Ltd., P.O. Box 8660, St. John's NL A1B 3T7.)
The picture is on page 54 which features a train wreck (derailment) at Gambo Side Hill on May 17, 1951.
Obviously, this bus belonged to the Newfoundland Railway and must have been used to ferry rail crews to sites of rail mishaps, rail bed and/or rail repair.
Newfoundlanders are notorious for "scrounging, bartering and helping their neighbour."  Thus, knowing my father to be one of these people, I presume that either he or the British Air Ministry, with whom he worked as a radio operator/technician, arranged the trip to Norris Arm that my Dad and I took while he was enroute to work in Botwood.
This "bus" was not a "little speeder."
Mystery solved!               

Patricia Dempsey Hiscock, GA Class of 1956


 Note: Patricia researched the following websites for further info on the topic of speeders:

Thanks everyone for the great research and memories shared on the ‘speeders’ and how they played a part in the day-to-day life of Gander folks.

Next time we’ll talk about the arrival of the Toytmans to Gander. Thanks for the suggestion from Pat Hiscock. If you have any special memories send them to Faye at and we’ll get them posted here.


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