The Murray Harbour branch was a lot like the rest of the Island’s railway; it had something more akin to a guideline than a schedule. It was supposed to leave Murray Harbour early in the morning and return from Charlottetown early in the evening, but it didn’t always work that way. One of the most common reasons for this was winter weather; Despite the fact that there had been trains in the province for three decades, snow removal was still a constant issue. Even into the 1920’s, there was no machinery that would throw the snow off the tracks like the rotary ploughs that we’re familiar with today. When drifts were deep, the ploughs would get stuck and have to be shoveled out by a troupe of up to 20 men! Milton Buell, an Abney resident, worked with the trains in Murray Harbour in his youth. He recalled a bad winter on the trains in an interview with Dutch Thompson:
I remember one time, it’d be around probably ‘22.. ‘21 or 2, it took a whole month for the engine to get, the train to get from Charlottetown to Murray Harbour. One month. …… some of the times you’d be above the telephone wires, you’d throw the snow up, and then the next guy’d throw it up again, you’d be up two tier high… yeah.. a whole month one time. Oh snow used to be a heck of a problem on the Island, it really was.3.
Those snow shovellers were generally farmers or farm hands earning a bit of extra cash in the slow, long winter months. In the 1920’s they earned about 35 cents an hour for their labour, and it wasn’t an easy task.3. Nor was it a particularly safe one. Trains had been known to hit shovellers who couldn’t get out of the cuttings in time (cuttings were the low areas of track that the snow would drift into).4.
So that was one major reason for delays; another unexpected issue was caterpillars (yes, you read that right). Like mice and grasshoppers before them, PEI’s caterpillar population exploded at one point, causing problems on the tracks. Buell mused, “Sometimes it’d be so bad they’d have to get out a broom and sweep them off, sweep them off the railroad track so the wheels wouldn’t spin…. They’d be so blinkin thick…. ” So delays due to caterpillars; luckily, this was a one-year event, and caterpillar delays didn’t become commonplace!3.
Even without these conditions though, delays were a built in feature. There were two main reasons for this: the already slow engines, and the many, many stops along the way. Steam engines were the technology of the day, and they were very different from the speedy trains that we’re familiar with today. They only travelled at about 30km per hour,5. which certainly beats the 8-12 km per hour that a horse drawn carriage could travel (if the roads were decent, which was a big if)! But despite their slow, cumbersome ways, many people loved the steam engines. Milton Buell went to work in the roundhouse at 13, cleaning off the engines on the overnight shift; he reflected on how lifelike they were to him at the time:
I used to like to just be there and just look at this great big black thing, it looked awful big when you’re small ya’know yourself; look at this great big black thing, and she’d be kind of.. panting and every once in a while the exhaust would go, you know but…. And then hiss for a while and then the exhaust again for a little while and she’d keep that up all night… you’d almost think it was alive, it seemed to be alive because it was always hissing, and every once in a while you’d hear the big heartbeat.. what seemed like a heartbeat…3.
The many stops weren’t just a function of how many stations there were; it was a true PEI railway that would stop by a field to pick up berry pickers, by a barn to pick up milk, by a house to get some mail, and basically anywhere people wanted them to stop!7. This made the train fairly inefficient, but it was still greatly appreciated.