Friendly train man retires his hat

Credit: Kristi Dobson
Gordon Blake, a long time volunteer with the WVIIHS, is retiring as conductor on the No. 7 steam train but remains committed to volunteering and maintaining Port Alberni's heritage.
Kristi Dobson

If you have even taken the No. 7 steam train to McLean Mill, you may have been greeted by Gordon Blake. As a member of the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society for nearly 30 years, Blake has been a conductor on the historic locomotive for almost as long. 

Although he is committed to remaining an active volunteer on the board and getting his hands dirty in the roundhouse, Blake has decided to retire his conductor's hat. 

"I have always loved trains," Blake said. "As a kid I remember the train went from Camp 1 through town and past our house to Coulson mill to dump the logs." 

The late Mark Mosher, a founding member of the WVIIHS and old family friend of Blake's family, worked in the logging industry at the time and would often be on the train. 

"I would always run down to wave at the crew and see if Mark was on it," Blake said. "But I have always loved trains, they are fascinating things. They run along a track and can't go anywhere the track doesn't go." 

Blake has been the treasurer for the society, but, like many members, took on more hands-on work. 

He started firing on the Two-Spot under the tutelage of Mosher, who was also instrumental in the restoration of that locomotive. Firing, he said, is an integral part of running a steam train.

"The fireman is responsible for the amount of fuel going in the fire and makes sure there is enough water in the boiler," he said. "He has to keep the flame big enough to keep enough steam going. The most embarrassing thing for a fireman is to run out of steam on the way to McLean Mill." 

Shortly after, Blake decided to learn the ropes of conducting a train, and found the position suited his personality.

"The conductor is the foreman of the train," he said. "The train doesn't move until the conductor says it is allowed to go. A professional conductor hired by the railway showed me the tricks and I realized there was nothing to it." 

Now he said the WVIIHS has a mentoring program for others interested in working as conductors on the No. 7.

Besides readying the train for the engineer, the conductor's position is a very social one. Blake said his favourite part of the job was talking to the passengers as he took their tickets and enjoyed the ride to the mill. 

"The nicest time to conduct was with the cruise ships that came out of Nanaimo," he said. "Everyone was on holiday and having fun. All we did was brag about Port Alberni and they were all pleased that Port Alberni is such a cute little place." 

After the passengers toured the mill and had lunch, they returned by bus and Blake always made it a point to hop aboard to thank the tourists for coming and encourage them to return. 

Of the many interesting people he met along the way was a traveller from Dubai. He was a tunnel engineer. 

"I asked him why they needed tunnel engineers and he said there are tunnels under the roads where the oil pipelines are," Blake said. "I also met someone who used to work on the railroad in Philadelphia. I had a wretched out ticket puncher because I lost my old one and he asked for my address and said he would send me one. Six months later I received a package from Philadelphia and he apologized for the delay because he was travelling all that time." 

In return, Blake sent the tourist a video of his trip in Port Alberni. 

"A lot of the people are interested in trains in their own areas and want to see what other trains are like," Blake said. "For me, the only other train I've been on, besides one in Ottawa as a boy scout, was an electric-powered one from Washington to New York about 15 years ago. My daughter and her husband lived in New York and had a car to deliver to Washington so we took the train back."

After his long commitment wearing the conductor's hat, Blake realized his sore legs are no longer up to all the walking the job requires. He is now looking forward to returning to firing and will be learning from an engineer how to do that on the No. 7. He has also been filling in behind the scenes scheduling the train crew. Regardless of his role, Blake said it is important to maintain the heritage that the WVIIHS works to restore. 

"It is neat to say I used to watch the train go by my house as a kid," he said. "Let's face it, we have a fantastic town. I have lived here since 1944 and always enjoyed it. You've got to be happy to make life go 'round and I am a happy guy."