Tales of the Brakemen

The Okanagan’s favourite musical historians have been building up steam for the nation’s sesquicentennial.
The Kettle Valley Brakemen, a folk band that writes music about Canadian heritage, are paying homage to the occasion with a station stop in Peachland next week.
Had it not been for the real-life work on the railway during the 19th Century, there’s a chance that Canada wouldn’t be shaped the way it is today, as colonists from the United States could have annexed an unified-Canada without much resistance.
“If B.C. was going to join Canada in 1871 then there had to be a railway built across the country,” said Jack Godwin, frontman of the Brakemen.
All of the Brakemen’s songs are based on anecdotes from life on the railway.
Long before the days of labour unions, brakemen were tasked with gruelling work, they faced immense dangers and they were nickel-and-dimed by their bosses. And if they were fired – no matter how far they were from the nearest town – they had to find their own way home.
“And we have a song about that,” Godwin says.
Being a brakeman wasn’t the most glamorous job in the industry, but for anybody hoping to climb the ladder of the railway ranks, it was the entry-level position.
“It was the toughest job on the railway,” said Godwin. “Seven times as many people were killed than any other railway job.”
Before the invention of air brakes, the only means of mechanically stopping a train was through the work of brakemen, who had to adjust the brakes on each car by hand. No matter how harsh the weather conditions might have been, those levers had to be operated from the roof of the car.
Each brakeman would usually be responsible for three cars. Even after the advent of air brakes – which allow conductors to automatically control the brakes, it was another 20 years before they became economical enough to outsource the dangerous jobs of brakemen.
“The cost had to come down for the life-saving technology to get implemented,” he said. “I just love sharing these fascinating stories about the construction of the railway and some of the people who were involved.”
Because he interweaves all of his music with episodes of Canadian railway history, Godwin can easily hook his audiences with a story before launching into each song.
After a major rock slide in Frank, Alberta in 1903, a train was expected to come barrelling down the crushed tracks. Everybody on board was facing imminent doom. Thankfully, there was a brakeman working near the slide and he wasn’t going to let that happen. In the darkness of night, he crossed a slide of debris with just a lantern, and the only other light came from sparks being created by smashing rocks that were still sliding.
“He finds his way and flags down the train tracks and saves everyones life. He’s the bravest brakeman I figure ever lived. So we’ve got a song celebrating that.”
The industry has a bright future in delivering freight, but the proliferation of automobiles had an irreversible effect on railways as a commuting service.
“The 1980s was when the Kettle Valley Rail stopped,” he said. “It just wasn’t economical anymore.”
The KVR never recovered its vitality after the construction of Highway 3 three decades earlier, which provided drivers with reliable roadway to the Lower Mainland, something that hadn’t existed before.
“Once the Princeton highway was completed in 1949, there was no more use for trains leaving Vancouver twice a day.”
But while new technologies brought the golden days of railway to an end, the rich history will always be celebrated by the Brakemen. Godwin will be bringing the rest of his band to the 50+ Activity Centre on Sunday, March 5 at 2 p.m. Advance tickets cost $10 through the venue.

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