Art Woolley rode the rails west to the Fraser Valley from Saskatchewan in the Dirty Thirties and later drove truck for W.H. Berry for a number of years. His son Marvin Woolley tells the story below.
Arthur Harold (Art) Woolley was born in Edenwold Saskatchewan, June 21, 1912. He was the oldest of five children and “rode the rails” to Langley in 1931 when he was 19 years old. The Woolley family followed, settling in Langley later that year.
The 1930’s were difficult times in Saskatchewan, as in many parts of Canada, and the Woolley family were considering a move to British Columbia. I am not aware if Art was sent or if he volunteered to come out to BC to find a future home. He left home with very little, and wasn’t sure why his mother gave him a new testament. On one occasion he was down to one nickel which he decided to save in case of an emergency or for security when he got hungry. Imagine, a nickel for security! Many other men travelled on the freight trains, in box cars, gondolas, open flat decks or on top of a load if that was the only spot available. They were called “hobos”, many desperately hoping to find work in the next town or province. They would hide beside the tracks in locations where the train would be travelling slow enough to make the run and jump on: outside rail yards, stations and water towers where the steam engines would stop regularly to take on water and coal. Not all rail riders made it on the train or without incident. Art saw one man trip as he grabbed for the ladder. He was able to hang on for a short distance and fell onto the rocky rail bed.
When a train stopped in a town to unload or layover, hobos would find a place to hide that had shelter and maybe a fire. A shared cup of coffee was rare. Art was lucky enough to find someone who needed wood chopped and they offered supper when the job was done. On another occasion the local undertaker was assigned to bury a hobo who had died in one of the camps. He was an unknown individual, with no identification and of course, no local family to cover the cost. Art helped the undertaker carry the body to a wagon and back into town, and laid the hobo on an old discarded mattress in a rough pinewood box. After digging the grave and completing the gruesome task, Art had earned another meal, and permission to spend the night in a barn with the undertaker’s horse.
With the economy as slow as it was, freight train traffic was reduced and unpredictable, so Art and a few others decided to walk the rails until they could catch another ride. They came across a very long trestle; built for trains, not people. It had an extra set of train rails inside the regular gauge width to keep the cars on the bridge in case of derailing, but it did not have any hand rails and there were spaces between each cross tie, so it was slow going having to step on each tie. Although they had listened and tried to feel vibration in the track, about halfway across, a speeding passenger train approached from behind. They couldn’t run to the end fast enough and the bridge was too high to jump. They were caught! They laid on the ties outside of the track and the train roared over them, spitting steam and dripping oil and water. To make things worse, the engineer had stopped the train and they had to crawl the remaining distance off the bridge. The engineer scoffed at them; “Let that be a lesson to ya for walkn’ on my bridge!”
The hobo camps were not desirable places and a person travelling alone had to keep some things to himself, like never let anyone know that you have money, not even a coin! In a letter sent home to his mother, Art wrote; “When they discovered I had a nickel, they abused me until I bought a loaf of bread to share with the people in the camp”.
It was getting colder when Art reached the mountains and the fall temperature made the nights long and bitterly cold. In the rail yards, a fireman would be on duty all night to keep the steam engine’s boiler hot and ready to take over the next leg of the journey of a train crossing Canada. Risking being reported to the rail police, Art approached a fireman and in struck a deal and “shook on it“! Art would keep the fire going all night and be allowed to stay in the cab while the fireman slept most of the night. The fireman later shared part of his packed lunch before Art left in the morning.
As the trains approached a town or a yard, all of the hobos had to jump off the train to avoid being caught and possibly being arrested. The yard at Field, BC was extensive — with numerous spur lines breaking out onto parallel tracks. The hobos were hanging onto the ladders on the side of the box cars and Art could see the man at the front ladder was hanging his left foot low in preparation for a running jump. He must not have noticed the parallel rail getting closer and was about to meet the mainline again at a switch. His boot was caught in the intersecting rails and he was pulled off the train to make a sound that Art would never want to hear again. When he me told that story while we were sitting at a campfire one night, his voice sounded like it had happened last week.
When Art first set his eyes on the lush green fields in Langley’s Glen Valley area he thought this was the family dream come true. But after talking to the locals he found out why it was so green that late in the season. He decided that living in a flood plain was not for him. The family settled in Langley on the south-east corner of Livingston (232nd St) and Old Yale Road. Our Aunt Helen Woolley still owned that property until 2013 when she passed away.
Oh yes, the New Testament from Mother! She did not expect that Art would read the passages every night, however she did anticipate that he would open the book if times were particularly difficult or lonely. She had placed a dollar bill for him to discover in a time of need.