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A Window in Thrums

Fascination with a Canadian Pacific sleeping car
A window in Thrums

By Steven Duff

Thrums is a name that somehow resonates above most others, a name, as we say these days, that has Attitude. It is a Scottish word, immortalized in Sir James Barrie's novel, A Window in Thrums, and is perpetuated in Canada by a small town in British Columbia. In days gone by, the name of Thrums was also carried across the country by a great old Canadian Pacific sleeping car.

Those sleeping cars were a rolling lesson in Canadian geography, names to give you, in their passing, an almost unbearable sense of what John Steinbeck called "yondering": there were Rocanville and Riverton, Nanton and Naiscoot, Teeswater and Tring. Poor Tring! How could anyone take a name like Tring seriously? Fa-la-la, tring-a-ling-a-ling, and a hey-noony-nonny . . . well, you get the picture.

And then there was Thrums. Just the name itself had such a railroad sound; after all, a train thrums over the prairies, thrumbles across bridges, thrumbulates through the spider web of trackage approaching Winnipeg or Vancouver. Thrums had what CPR admirers would remember as "The Look": 80 feet of sturdily riveted steel, painted in Canadian Pacific's regal burgundy red and lettered in gold (maybe it was yellow, but to me, it always looked gold). Six-wheel trucks, serious-looking hoses hooked up to other serious-looking hoses -- oh, Thrums was something to behold.

I fell in love with Thrums. By light of day, she was often in the John Street coach yards in Toronto, being preened for the next run to Vancouver, Chicago, or Halifax, and evening found her in the yellow glow of the trainshed at Union Station in readiness for the next big event. The biggest of all would be a run to the West Coast on the Dominion.

The Dominion was the ultimate train, usually hauled in those far-off, pre-Canadian days by one of the great Royal Hudsons, and took westward the Royal Mail and assorted express and priority cargo in three or four of those mysterious, windowless cars the railroad guys called head-end equipment. There were some coaches for the common folk (which was how I usually traveled, but never mind), a dining car, and then . . . the sleepers! If Thrums were among them, all was well with the world. Not only that-I decided that one day I would journey to Vancouver on the Dominion and I would have my own window in Thrums from which to see the country.

As is the case with most pre-teens, I planned the project in reverse. Being aboard Thrums was the priority, and I would have to consult with equipment managers to see when she would be assigned to the Dominion, to other trains, or rotated out for maintenance. I read the transcontinental timetable end to end until I could tell you when the two sections of the train connected at Sudbury, Ontario, or what time the stop was in Broadview, Saskatchewan.

The westbound Dominion passed a few miles from our summer cottage at sunrise, a quiet time when one could hear the hollow thrumble of the train crossing the bridge at Pointe-au-Baril and the wail of the whistle for North Shore Road. I would set my alarm so that I could wake up in time to hear the Dominion and wonder if Thrums were in today's line up.

I would go to sleep at night, twitching and oscillating to impart a railway movement to my bed, imagining myself tucked away on Thrums, imagining the drama of the north shore of Lake Superior, the oceanic undulations of the prairies under a limitless sky, the sentinel grain elevators, the heady thrills of the Spiral Tunnels and Kicking Horse Pass, where a volcanic and invincible Selkirk locomotive would be in charge.

The odd thing, though, was that it was not the prairies and the Rocky Mountains that took root in my imaginary window in Thrums so much as the nocturnal stops in remote towns that still depended on the trains, towns where the only light might be a few scattered bulbs and a lonely Supertest or White Rose sign by a highway, and the only moving object a taxi hastening out of the night with a tardy passenger.

All these considerations were firmly established before I took what should have been the first step. When you think of it, the railway timetable must be one of the most cynical sources of information ever developed -- all those schedules induce a desperately serious case of yondering, and then you look in the back for the fare and, whoops, there goes the project. After gulping myself into near-oblivion at the cost for a lower berth in Thrums to Vancouver (an upper would have been useless, as it would have no window, no window in Thrums), I resolved to save for my pilgrimage, get a paper route, sell cigars, whatever was necessary. Progress moved more quickly than my budget. The pretty, silver Canadian was unveiled, powered-oh, no-by diesels, and the Dominion disappeared, its rolling stock dispersed and assigned to other duties. People drove. People flew. Timetables grew ever thinner as trains were terminated.

There were university fees to be dealt with, not to mention the costs of starting a career and renting one's space in the world. Reality had become intolerable. And somewhere along the way, Thrums was retired. I don't know when, I don't know where she went, and I don't want to know. If I had it to do all over again, I would have swallowed my pride and become a groveling beggar to finance my pilgrimage. Oh, Visa, oh, MasterCard, where were you when I truly needed you?

And if begging were not a success, at the very least I should have tracked Thrums to the junkyard and arranged for the salvage of one, just one window. My journey in Thrums, then, remains just a faded fantasy. But it certainly was fun while it lasted, a fantasy far longer than the actual journey and without the warts of reality.
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Before Penn Central

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