Events of 1954 signalled changes for Palmerston

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

New public facilities and major construction projects were only one facet of the changes that came upon Wellington County in the pivotal year of 1954, the year that also marked the county’s centennial.

For some communities, doom seemed to be the word on the signposts to the future.

That situation was especially so in the case of Palmerston. Like Fergus, Palmerston was a one-industry town in 1954. The Canadian National Railways totally dominated the economy of that town in 1954. It was the junction point for lines radiating in six directions.

Railway employment in 1954 topped the 300 mark. Firstly, more than a dozen train crews, consisting of five men each, were based at Palmerston. But that was only part of the railway activity there. 

Roundhouse crews looked after routine servicing and minor repairs to steam locomotives, which were labour intensive. Diesel locomotives had yet to gain a foothold in 1954 on the lines from Palmerston.

Other employees worked at the freight sheds, on track maintenance crews, in the yard, and at the station handling express, and in the offices. There were even car cleaners, who maintained the passenger cars based at Palmerston.

The town had originally been established by the railway, when the lines were built in the 1870s. Palmerston’s true importance as a railway centre, though, did not develop until the early years of the 20th century, when the Grand Trunk improved its service with more trains, enlarged the yard, and expanded the locomotive servicing facilities. Palmerston’s famous landmark, the footbridge across the yards, dates to that era of expansion.

Following the nationalization of the Grand Trunk, Canadian National maintained a high level of service and activity at Palmerston through the 1920s. 

Increasing deficits and the depression forced the company to cut back service somewhat in 1930 and 1931. The effect of those changes on Palmerston was significant, but not disastrous. Employment dropped, but those who remained had a virtual guarantee of employment. The trains might have been shorter, but they still needed crews.

Following the service changes of the early 1930s, railway activity at Palmerston remained virtually unchanged for a generation. The Second World War, with its shortages of new automobiles and tires, forestalled the impact of the motor car and new highways for several years.

By 1954, though, it had become apparent that Palmerston’s railway economy was living on borrowed time. Despite a booming economy, freight volumes were in a decline as motor carriers picked up increasing business. With more and more households owning automobiles, passenger traffic dwindled even faster.

Rumours and speculation grabbed the attention of railway workers and the public of Palmerston. Everyone had seen the announcements that Canadian National intended to eliminate steam locomotives. That, of course, would mean the end of the Palmerston shops.

The company’s president, Donald Gordon, made frequent public statements about increasing the productivity of the railway, and eliminating its mushrooming deficit. Labour costs were increasing much faster than income. Despite the reassurances of nay-sayers, those who understood the economics of railways knew that small railway centres such as Palmerston had no place on the railway map of the future.

The first announcements of cutbacks came in mid-January 1954. The daily local freight train from Palmerston to Guelph and return would, henceforth, run only three days per week.

That run was considered a desirable one. The crew, headed by conductor Walt Mackesney, conductor Pat Patterson and fireman Alex Butler, all had much seniority.

They bid on other jobs, and the result was a ripple effect, impacting several other crews. Other cutbacks and service reductions would come later in the year.

The retirement of several senior men eased the impact on junior employees and avoided some layoffs. Invariably, fellow employees staged big farewell gatherings for the retirees, most of whom had more than 40 years of seniority, most of it at Palmerston.

For example, Bill McCavish hung up his engineer’s cap for the last time at the beginning of February 1954. He had joined the Grand Trunk in 1907, and for years had worked the Palmerston-to-Toronto passenger run. 

Another engineer, Jimmie Mauser, retired in June of 1954 with 43 years service under his belt. He had worked the Palmerston-Southampton line as long as anyone could remember. The same week, George McBeth, the popular crossing guard at Main Street, also joined the pension rolls.

The strongest sense of foreboding came with a lengthy visit of a group of senior CN officials at the end of January. They looked at every one of the company’s activities in town, interviewed employees, and made extensive notes. Their visit was part of a system-wide initiative to reduce CN’s operating expenses by 15%. Everything, it seemed, was a candidate for the chopping block.

Palmerston’s council had, for many years, realized the dangers of being so dependent on a single employer. Its one success in attracting new industry had been the American Art Clay Company, which established its Canadian branch, making crayons, in Palmerston.

A further blow to Palmerston came at the end of February, when the firm announced the closure of the factory, and the consolidation of its Canadian operations in North Toronto.

Mayor Sam Wald and councillor John Nicholl talked to several prospective tenants for the vacant facility, without success.

Wald also approached the provincial Trade and Industry ministry, but they could offer little tangible help.

During February and March, Palmerston’s council considered hiring a professional industrial recruiter. Seaforth had recently followed that course, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $5,000. Mayor Wald watched the situation there with great interest, as did officials in many other towns wanting new industry.

One proposal was for Palmerston to pool together with Harriston and Arthur to hire a full-time promoter for the three municipalities. Other ideas came forward from councillors, but the municipality seemed powerless to be anything but a spectator to the unfolding of events.

One piece of good news came in late June. Canadian National installed a public address system at the station to provide information to passengers inside the building and outside on the platforms. Though a relatively minor development, the sound system did reassure the town that the railway intended to stay.

The path to the future, though, was clear. The year 1954 saw a reduction in railway employment at Palmerston for the first time in a generation, and the trend would accelerate during the balance of the decade.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 27, 2004.

Thorning Revisited