Relic restored: Repaired cat train caboose a reminder of early-Northern life

by Evan Kiyoshi French, Northern News Services
Saturday, January 9, 2016

While there has never been a railroad stretching to Yellowknife, that's not to say trains haven't made their way to the capital city. 

A relic of Northern living restored and on display near Giant Mine is proof of this and a reminder of the days before ice road trucking.

Donated to the Mining Heritage Society by Clifford Heal, a cat train caboose has been on display near the society's museum since the fall. With the pull of a tractor at the front, it would bring up the rear of a train of sleighs carrying supplies to the city.

Society spokesperson and historian Ryan Silke called it a testament to the enormous task mining operation suppliers took on to keep the city provisioned.

"The cat train really was the precursor to the modern ice road engineering that we have today," he said. "But instead of having plowed roads on the ice, you basically had Caterpillar tractors towing sleighed convoys across the lake so these guys had to have a place to live along the way. That was the function of the caboose."

Silke said the city was first supplied by boat but during the mid-1930s, low water levels forced freighters to think about new ways to traverse the supply routes.

"A lot of freight destined for Yellowknife ended up getting stranded so freight operators began saying we ought to open up a winter road."

Silke said freight company Yellowknife Transport spearheaded cat train convoys in the winter of [1939] with the first trip coming from Grimshaw, Alta.

"These things aren't moving fast," said Silke. "They were noisy diesel caterpillars roaring through the bush. That first run, from Grimshaw to Yellowknife, is a distance of 900 kilometres. It was three tractors pulling 15 sleighs loaded with 60 tonnes of freight. It took 40 days."

That's an average speed of 0.9 kilometres per hour.

The train didn't stop so the crew - consisting of an operator and a few labourers to keep and eye on ice conditions and perform maintenance - would work in shifts, sharing downtime in the caboose at the end of the line.

"The caboose was a nice place to relax and sleep it off," said Silke.

Edmonton's Ben Matijon - whose father Ted Matijon worked as plow driver on Yellowknife-bound cat trains in the mid 1940s - said he remembers hearing some harrowing tales of the early ice road across Great Slave Lake.

He said the tractors often broke down on the trail, forcing crewmen to come up with creative ways to patch things up and get the train moving again. Matijon said he remembers hearing about one instance when his father was forced to plow for several days parallel to a weak point on the lake, trying to find a safe way across. He said his father never witnessed a tractor falling through the ice, although he heard about it happening to other crews.

Silke said at least one team lost a tractor after it fell through the ice, although the load was saved. The tractor is probably still somewhere at the bottom of Great Slave Lake, he said.

"I don't know if they ever went in to recover that tractor," he said. "It was lost to the depths."

The society's caboose - now refurbished after three years of restoration - was owned by Smokey Heal and Del Curry who used their cat trains when they shared a freighting business from Hay River to Yellowknife in the 1940s and 1950s, Silke said.

"Eventually, Curry focused more on construction as opposed to freighting. And Smokey Heal focused more on rock haulage and trucking as opposed to winter freighting," said Silke. "When the cat train era ended in the 1950s, a lot of these cabooses just became shacks and sheds. Up until 10 or 20 years ago, there were quite a few in old town. Especially in the Woodyard where people converted them to living shacks and storage sheds."

Silke said the caboose passed down to Heal's son, Clifford Heal, who used it as a storage shed for his construction business before donating it to the society for restoration and display.

Heal said he had hoped to restore his own cat train but decided to hand it over to Silke when he learned the society was interested in restoring it. He said the caboose was sitting in storage on Curry's property when he first came across it.

"I have vague memories of the cat trains coming and going," he said.

Silke said the society has a pair of tractors and would like to complete their cat train collection with a freight sleigh.

"We're looking for some more sleigh runners to build a sleighed deck," he said. "These are the original ice roaders."