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Retired CP Rail conductor on a mission to find past friends from 43 years ago

A retired CP Rail conductor is on a mission to find special acquaintances who helped unblock train tracks during an incident 43 years ago.

In 1978, one of the very last trains operated by CP Rail on the Canadian route from Vancouver to Toronto was stopped in its tracks in Kicking Horse Canyon, B.C.

It was Oct. 29, coincidentally the day Via Rail took over the Canadian line from CP Rail. John Cowan was a rookie trainman and amateur photographer whose job that day was to ride the last coach of the train.

As they approached Kicking Horse Canyon, a railway patrolman radioed the conductor to report an obstruction on the tracks.

The train rolled to a stop and the conductor, Len Timpany, realized they had a major problem. The rock on the tracks was less of a rock and more of a boulder. There was no way the six train employees — one conductor, two engineers, two trainmen, and the patrolman — were going to be able to move it on their own.

Timpany called the issue in to the nearby town of Golden, B.C. The train order operator there, responsible for timetable co-ordination on that section of track, phoned the local maintenance crew. Early on a Sunday morning, that attempt proved fruitless.

By this time Cowan had left the rear of the train and walked up to see what was happening. Cowan was a serious train enthusiast who had been taking train photos since he was 10. He sees what happened next as one of the most memorable incidents of what became a 35-year career.

Timpany decided to ask the passengers to help. “He got on the intercom and explained what was happening,” Cowan said. “He said, ‘Hey folks, we’re going to be here all day unless we get some help.’ And people responded!”

Even then, Cowan said in a phone interview, it was a risky idea. The conductor’s primary responsibility is the safety of the passengers. If anyone had been hurt in the attempt, Timpany — and probably the rest of the crew as well — would have been in big trouble.

Nevertheless, they put a boulder-shifting team together with eight or nine male passengers. The patrolman supplied a long crowbar, but their heaving only lifted the boulder slightly on one side — they couldn’t get it to turn over.

At that point, their hero arrived. “This woman came up the side of the train and asked to help, and she made all the difference,” Cowan says. He remembers that she was from a farm somewhere in Saskatchewan. She took the central spot in the team.

“She was so strong!” Cowan says. “It took all of us, for sure, but she made the difference. We couldn’t have done it without her.”

The boulder was quickly moved off the track, and the train was able to proceed. Cowan took a group shot before they left. He also collected contact information for everyone in the photo, and later sent them a copy.

Unfortunately, after sending out the photos, he figured he didn’t need their contact information anymore. After all, the incident was resolved. So, Cowan threw the information away — something he regrets tremendously. He is on a quest to reconnect with the boulder team.

Cowan, now 64, retired as a conductor. He is publishing a book filled with stories and photos (Canadian Pacific Trackside 1977-2012, available in April 2022 from Morning Sun Books).

He hopes someone will remember the boulder incident in Kicking Horse Canyon on the morning of Oct. 29, 1978. If the photos attached to this story stir any recollections for our readers, Cowan can be contacted at johnpcowan@shaw.ca. He can also be found on Facebook.