Riding the K+P’s Smoke and Steam

Riding the K+P’s Smoke and Steam

By Eric Gagnon
All Photos from Queen’s University Archives

Can you imagine what it was like to ride the Kingston & Pembroke (K+P or “Kick + Push”) Railway? Other than the roadbed of the former Kingston-Renfrew CP Kingston Subdivision that is now the north-south K+P Trail, little remains to help us conjure up what train travel was like. Remember – anyone old enough to remember riding on the K+P mixed train (freight and passenger cars together) is well-seasoned. The mixed train era ended in 1960, so anyone who rode is now a senior citizen, 65-plus!

Post-war prosperity brought chromed cars with fins, delivery trucks and an improved road network that left only bulky, lower-value cargo for the trains to handle: oil, coal, lumber. The end of Royal Mail contracts, few passengers and mounting financial losses to the CP, plus the advent of modern diesel-electric locomotives ushered in the freight-only era. That means that only seniors recall the nostalgic era of steam: coal, cinders, steam and the hearty whistle and clanging bell of the smoke-breathing D4-class 4-6-0 (10-Wheeler) dual-service steam engines that plied the K+P’s rails.

The heavy steel passenger coach tacked onto the end of the train was definitely not First Class. No food service, no liquor service (officially, anyway!) and no air-conditioning. Sitting on utilitarian walkover seats, the seatbacks that flipped over at the end of the run, ready for the return journey. Ahead of the coach was the mail-baggage car in which bags of mail for online communities, valuable express parcels and large items were carried. An additional dedicated box car handled less-than-carload shipments in crates, barrels and boxes.

When boarding or disembarking, the conductor would open a sprung trap-door exposing a set of metal steps at the end of the coach. A metal step-box would be dropped to the planked platform to bridge the gap to ground level. Climbing aboard, seats weren’t assigned. Rest assured, the leather-upholstered seats had no head-rests! Windows in wooden frames slid up or down for fresh air. A water cooler at the end of the coach dispensed cool water in paper cups.

In winter weather, a coal stove at the end of the coach was the only heat source. The locomotive was too far ahead to provide steam for radiators, or electricity for lighting. Gas lamps, suspended from the ceiling, were lit when darkness fell. The claustrophobic bathroom at the end of the car had no holding-tank. Stepping on a foot-pedal opened a hopper beneath the toilet, with gravity and train speed doing the rest. For this reason, flushing during a station stop was forbidden.

The conductor or trainman punched your paper ticket after you boarded. Each man had his own unique metal ticket punch. At a makeshift desk in the coach, he kept track of tickets and paperwork
en route. The pace was slow, the locale quaint, and there was a good chance you would recognize some of your fellow riders. The K+P provided cheap, somewhat-inconvenient transportation. Imagine the slow lope of your train past fields, woods, farms and lakes. The northern part of the K+P was definitely in the bush. Getting there was half the fun and took the majority of the time! Three hours were required to cover the 47 track-miles from Kingston to Sharbot Lake, or six hours to reach the northern terminus of Renfrew, 103 miles away.

A variety of reasons to travel brought folks aboard this calm conveyance: visits to family, appointments or shopping for necessities in Kingston. Anyone in a big hurry to get to a big city rode the Canadian National mainline from Kingston to Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa. If not, it was possible to connect with Canadian Pacific trains to Montreal or Toronto from the K+P at Sharbot Lake.

There were inevitable delays to contend with: cattle cars or carloads of wood to be added to the freight section ahead, unloading of mail and parcels, snowdrifts in rock cuts, flooding at Jackson Mills. There were few if any other trains on the line to meet or pass! Arriving at your destination station: Kingston, Glenvale, Murvale, Harrowsmith, Hartington, Verona, Godfrey or any of the 20 more north to Renfrew, that same step-box got you safely on the platform. It was then a short wait in the station until your ride appeared.

By the time family cars were commonplace, there was no one left to mourn the passing of the passenger runs. Even the locomotive crews would come to welcome the warm, dry cabs of the diesels.

There was no longer any need to shovel tons of coal, take on water from the water tank at Tichborne, or perform any of the laborious, dirty tasks to care for and feed steam engines.

The train crews, along with the station agents and baggage handlers, would transfer elsewhere on the railway or find other jobs.

Lineside stations were boarded up throughout the 1960s. Diesel locomotives were maintained in Smiths Falls, no longer stabled at Kingston’s roundhouse at the foot of North Street. The downtown station across Ontario Street from City Hall became a tourist bureau.

The K+P and later CP, provided reliable if not remarkable transportation for over 80 years. It’s hard to believe that while we’re speeding along Road 38, the paralleling replacement for the K+P, with commuters, workers and truckers. Train travel was the only way to go during the first half of the 20th Century. Indeed, for this short, golden era, it was the only connection to the outside world.

Eric Gagnon is the author of eight Canadian railway books. You can see his most recent book at booksbyericgagnon.blogspot.com.

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