May 28, 2018
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Milo man, 95, fondly recalls his life on the railroad

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

MILO, Maine — When a train chugs through Milo and its whistle is blown to warn nearby motorists, memories of a lifetime working on the railroad occasionally flood 95-year-old Cecil Miller’s mind.

Miller, who went to work for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Brownville Junction at age 15 and stayed for 44 years, said the memories are both good and bad.

‘’My whole family was railroad people’’ — and that included his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins, Miller said during a recent interview. It just seemed natural that he follow in their footsteps, he noted. ‘’It was something to do.’’

Miller, who was named Cecil Burton Alfred Harry after his father’s four brothers, all of whom went into the Canadian army in 1914, moved in 1916 with his family from McAdam, New Brunswick, to Brownville Junction, where there was plenty of railroad work.

In those early years, Miller said, the Canadian Pacific was known for having the world’s greatest travel system. He said the railroad operated the Empress boats, which were about the size of the Queen Mary; the Duchess boats, which were like the Lusitania; and the Beavers, large freight boats.

‘’When a train came in, us kids used to run over and see what boat the freight was coming from because there would be a tag on the side of the freight cars,’’ he said. As kids, they could only imagine what was inside those crates, Miller added.

During the Depression, the then teenager joined a gang that was building the Onawa trestle near Borestone Mountain. ‘’People now talk about depression. Hell, they don’t know what depression is unless they lived through the 1930s,’’ Miller said. During those years, he worked 16 hours a day, from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., and was paid 25 cents an hour. He was glad to have the job, he said.

‘’From 1939 to 1945, the railroad through Brownville Junction was the busiest main line in North America,’’ Miller said. About 40-45 trains a day went through the community, including some carrying troops headed overseas.

“In the fall when the St. Lawrence River would freeze up, all of the freight going to Europe would come through Brownville Junction,’’ Miller recalled. ‘’When the war started in 1939, everything went through Brownville Junction — all the ammunition, arms supplies, soldiers and everything else, and coming back, German soldiers, who wore the crummiest-looking uniforms you ever see.’’ In the 1920s and 1930s, Miller said, it was a regular occurrence to see immigrant trains about six times a week headed for western Canada, where the immigrants planned to settle.

Brownville Junction was pleasing to the eye for those railroad passengers, according to Miller. ‘’Every terminal of the Canadian Pacific — like McAdam, Sherbrooke, and Brownville Junction — had the most beautiful flower gardens that you ever see in your life, and they had the highest-class restaurants you would ever find, right up until the Depression,’’ he said. Italian crews that worked on the railroad gangs tended to the flowers. ‘’Nobody now ever remembers it, but I do. They always had a big fountain with flowers planted all around it and they had a first-class YMCA owned by the railroad that had a bowling alley and tennis courts.’’

When the railroad traffic slowed in the junction the first of April, Miller and the other engine men  would go elsewhere for work. ‘’All of our men who worked in the engine service were very well trained; you could get a job anyplace,’’ he said. Miller worked for the Boston and Maine, New York Central and the Bangor and Aroostook, among others during that downtime, or he would return to work on the gangs in his hometown.

Miller took what work was offered through his younger years, from working on the tracks to serving as fireman, shoveling tons of coal by hand into a steam engine as the train traveled from one location to another. In later years, he was promoted to engineer.

That advanced rank required skill and perfect vision, according to Miller. He said a screener would toss a handful of different lengths of colored yarn in varying shades onto a table and the candidate would have a limited time to pick out a half-dozen of one particular color identified by the screener. In a second test, candidates had to call out the colors of lights as they flashed at the end of a long, dark hall. Those tests ensured that the candidates were not colorblind, he said.

Training also was a must. ‘’I had to go to rule classes once every six weeks. That’s the only way you stayed alive on the railroad,’’ Miller said. If anyone on the crew forgot a rule, somebody ended up getting killed, he said.

And rules were forgotten at times. Miller recalled reporting to his supervisors a problem he had with one boiler and was told that it would be fixed. When he made a run with the same engine later, the problem persisted, so he reported it again. Unfortunately, the problem was never fixed, and the boiler exploded and killed an engineer from another crew, he said.

Miller recalled that when he was 5 or 6, a train went off the tracks in Onawa and killed several immigrants. ‘’I remember that because all the women in Brownville Junction were cooking for the immigrants.’’

On one of his railroad trips, Miller said, the engineer at the wheel of a 70-car passenger train carrying U.S. troops nearly wiped out a track gang on motor cars. The crew, which was headed to work on the tracks, had been given “bum’’ information about the train’s location. “I thought we must have killed some of them, but they all jumped off the cars and nobody got hurt,’’ he recalled. The train stopped so quickly, however, that the meals being served to the troops in the dining cars all ended up on the floor.

There were humorous incidents, as well. Miller recalled that an engineer pulled into the terminal one day and inquired where he should park his train. When he looked back, he discovered his 54-car train was gone; all he had was the engine. He later discovered that the lumber being carried in the head car had slid off four miles back on the track, tripping the entire train.

That train also carried a car full of Canadian wheat flour, considered then the best flour in the world, and a car full of beer for the troops overseas. It didn’t take long for the beer to disappear, Miller said. People were cutting off the top of the big flour sacks, emptying the flour onto the ground and filling the sacks with beer, he said with a hearty laugh.

“There were a lot of run-offs like that,’’ Miller said. “There are no small accidents on the railroad.’’

Miller praised the railroad union, which bettered working conditions over the years by reducing the shifts to 12 hours and improving workplace safety.  He later served as chairman of the Brownville Junction union and helped organize a new union in 1971. He worries now about the future of the railroads.

The state has made a mistake in removing rail lines, he believes. “That’s crazier than hell. They’ve got to build them all over again; there’s no question about that,’’ Miller said. Rail travel is much more economical, has little impact on the highways and is quicker, he said.

Miller, who retired from the railroad at 60, continues to be active. He loves to cook, plays the violin and drives to Bangor occasionally to bet on the horse races and plays the slot machines at Hollywood Slots. And he enjoys hearing the whistle that helps to keep his memories so vivid.

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