Tales of a 'Gull' that flew over the rails

A reader, no doubt a railroad buff, asks to hear more about the special steam train that made the nonstop mercy run from Boston to Halifax the night of the munitions explosion on Dec. 6, 1917.

My dad, a railway postal clerk, was aboard the regular train that was sidetracked in the Maine wilderness while that hospital caravan had the right of way. His letter-sorting crew had no idea what was going on, except that five minutes apart, the caravan's six sections howled by in the night with the whistle cords tied down.

I'm sure the story of the mobilization of that Red Cross train is in the Halifax disaster file and doesn't need my retelling. But the train my dad was on that night, the daily Halifax Express out of Boston, was one of the country's finest, and held the record of the fastest over-the-route consist.

The "cannonball'' and Casey Jones paragons of Western railroads, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and the Katy lines, had a good press. But the Maritime Gull flew back and forth faithfully with little to-do. For 42 years my dad "stuck" mail on that train between Boston and Bangor and return, in the days when every train was a rolling post office, a three-cent stamp carried a letter, and an insufficient address sufficed because the clerks cared. We lived in Freeport, Maine, and every night, just after midnight, Dad would go through Freeport eastbound at a furious clip.

The Gull was quite a train. A lot of Down-Easters lived in the Boston area, and traffic to and from was steady. It always included two or three iced express cars of fish westbound, with return cars eastbound. As the eastbound pulled out of Boston's North Station in mid-evening, her counterpart left Halifax and they passed in the night. The westbound arrived at North Station, Track 1, at 7 a.m., dripping ice water. A consist would run to a dozen cars: a post office behind the steam locomotive, and then the baggage and express cars, coaches, and sleepers.

The trains carried no diner, as they stopped 20 minutes for breakfast at McAdam Junction, where the Canadian Railroad restaurant pulled a miracle and fed 800 people, the only meal en route. Between terminals, the Gull used tracks of some five railroads, and changed locomotives and crews.

The train attained high speed in two or three places, and sustained 100 m.p.h. in Maine's Sebasticook Valley, but otherwise dogged along. It covered 900-odd miles faster than any other train in North America.

The train made few stops. It didn't stop at Freeport. Dad, inside the mail car, was busy at his sorting case and all places were the same to him. But Freeport had 15 grade crossings and the train whistled two longs and two shorts for each.

A boy, then, in bed with my pup curled up at the small of my back, I heard each toot of the chime steam whistle, and each toot lifted me and my dog six inches off the bed. It was no secret that my dad was telling me where he was. The train tracks were no more than 300 yards from my attic chamber, and then the Gull was gone. So much for Freeport.

One night we had a mishap. Just as Dad was halfway through town, the locomotive fireman miscued with his shovel. Stoking was done by hand. Soft coal was carried in the tender behind the engine and in front of the mail car. The fireman goofed and tunked his shovel against the glass tube that shows how much water is in the boiler.

The tube shattered and released the tremendous pressure, which blew the fireman and engineer out of the cab up into the coal car. One of them, the fireman, continued over the side into a snowbank. Neither was hurt, but both were astonished, and we had a runaway train that would stop when the steam ran out.

My dad, sorting away, thought he heard an uncommon noise at the forward door of the mail car. When it persisted, he got the other clerks to listen. They decided to open the door, which was forbidden except in an emergency. It was the engineer, who had crawled over the coal pile to tell them there was an emergency. He knew about a valve he could turn and in five miles the train would stop. My dad and his fellow postal clerks resumed sorting mail.

When the glass tube shattered, the escaping steam set up a wicked-high whistle that brought me and my pup up from our downy. While we didn't know the cause, we well knew something had happened to Dad's train. The train came to a stop just outside the Brunswick yard limit, and in time a shifter locomotive pulled the injured engine to the roundhouse there. Then the shifter brought in the cars, which by now had no heat. Dad came home somehow and others were taken care of in the Brunswick hotels and homes.

The fireman was fortunate. Uninjured, he came out of the snowbank and went to a house not 50 feet away from the tracks. The locomotive, however, was in sorry case. She was out of service two weeks while a new gauge glass was shipped from Pittsburgh.

The high whistle hurt my pup's ears, and he was a mess for months. He whimpered in his sleep every night when Dad went through town.

Special war coverage preempted this column last week. Mr. Gould will be back in his usual spot this Friday.

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