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Old Time Trains

Station Agent

The station agent played a key role in the community at a time when most transportation and communication depended upon the railway and as a result held a respected place in the community. He WAS the "railway", farmers, businesses and villagers alike depended upon him to ship their crops or goods as well as receive their needs. His tasks included selling passenger tickets, handling express and freight shipments, and telegrams, as well as taking and delivering orders to train crews. This latter task was by far the most important one since it involved the safety of those who travelled and worked on all the trains that passed his station.

His primary task was soliciting and selling the railway's services to businesses and the general public alike. This included such diverse things as freight shipments, be it a full carload or less-than-carload (LCL) all of which required finding the applicable freight rate and routing if sent off-line to another railway. This was a very elaborate matter involving thousands of tariffs filed away in huge loose leaf binders that had to be kept constantly up-to-date. Ordering the empty box or other type of car to load and overseeing its placing on the business track (public team track shared by others) next to the station or at a private siding nearby, and its loading, including at times counting every box or piece loaded into the car and signing the Bill of Lading which committed the railway to shipping the goods for the agreed upon price and their delivery in good condition, was all part of the job. Affixing the all-important seals to the box car doors and recording their serial numbers was a minor task but one of great significance. These seals would be checked for integrity at yards along the route by Railway Police. LCL would be kept in the freight shed which was either part of the station or a separate structure, sometimes an older station building. Helping to load this freight into a Way car (box car) was another job, as well as the unloading of inbound shipments. At busy locations checking car numbers by walking along tracks was required to maintain records and provide train crews with information and instructions. This would include private sidings in town as well. Issuing revenue waybills for cars originated, collecting payment on shipments received collect or sent prepaid was a very important part of the agent's responsibilities, as was assessing demurrage charges and doing claims inspections of damaged freight.

Shipments requiring faster handling were sent by express on a passenger train that would stop briefly at his station. Valuables, including cash, sometimes for the local bank, were handled and this necessitated being armed with a revolver. He would have to hold and protect these express shipments locked up inside the station and its safe until train time and then load a four-wheeled wagon he pulled along the platform and helped load into the express car. For which he was a representative of the separate express company and paid a small commission for handling their business.

Telegrams were a way of handling important or urgent messages especially those requiring a written record for business purposes and continued to be so for many decades until newer methods of communication replaced telegrams in the last half of the 20th century. Again, the station agent handled these "commercial" messages on behalf of the Telegraph Company, also a separate company that paid him a small fee. Separate telegraph wires were used for these public telegrams. News was sent by wire and important events were relayed to eager people who gathered around the station waiting word. So too did unwelcome news get sent to the station, and it was the duty of the agent to deliver this news in person if it involved a death.

Selling tickets for passenger travel including making reservations where required for sleeping accommodation etc. was another part of his duties. This important task brought revenue to the railway and its hotels and ships as well. The passengers were often persons who shipped by rail or ones who could be influenced to either ship by your railway or another depending upon how courteously they were treated not only by the agent but also everyone they came into contact with including the conductor, porter and dining car staff. All had to work to retain the goodwill started by the agent.

All of this business meant books to keep and balance along with remitting cash and cheques to the bank and sending regular reports to SHQ (System Headquarters) as well as undergoing strict audits that required every cent to be accounted for.

Mail was sent and received by train with a Royal Mail box being located on the station's exterior wall. Mail was handled by a person contracted by the government. Even milk was shipped and newspapers were once delivered to stations for the community.

Cleaning and filling oil lamps including trimming the wick for the train order board and track switches at his location was another duty. Even indoors oil lamps were used at some places.

The Station Agent was in fact an Agent-Operator, someone who was qualified in sending and receiving Morse code telegraph messages for railway and public use. The railway use was of course train orders to be delivered, either by "hooping them up" to the engine crew and van (caboose) crew as the train passed his station or, in person to stopped trains. This task required not only knowledge of the intricate clicks of the telegraph but, also passing an exam on the complex rules governing train operations. Although telephones on private railway lines replaced most telegraph use, the "wire" remained as backup on all lines form many years and in some cases were the only method available.

A station agent had the most diverse and complicated job on the railway, one that dealt with both public and private matters some of which required discretion. Rural agents would often receive mail order goods from the famous Eaton's catalogue starting out with the order form itself which some illiterate folks sought help from the agent to fill out based upon being shown the pictures in the catalogue. He would sell an Express Company money order to mail with the order sending it off on the train and receiving the goods soon afterwards. The proud recipient would show the agent what he had bought even before his own family! Company business was both important and often urgent when it involved the movement of trains or more importantly stopping the movement of trains that might otherwise be headed for disaster.

The Agent would often be helped by others who worked under him usually an Operator on afternoons and nights at locations where trains handled a number of passengers and/or freight trains. These Operators were primarily concerned with the handling of train orders, selling tickets and handling wires. A very busy location might have an Operator on day shift as well with the Agent handling public and freight customers while the operator remained concerned with train movements. Operators could go onto to become an Agent. In other instances the Agent might be helped by an Assistant Agent, a beginner position frequently found at local stations in major cities which might have a half dozen or more of them. The Assistant Agent tended to handle the menial jobs especially outdoors ones which allowed the agent to remain in the office.

What have I left out? Besides cleaning the toilets!

In many villages and towns the station had a "dwelling" built into it where the Agent and his family lived. This allowed the agent to be nearby for emergencies when off duty as well as providing a small benefit in the form of low rent. Yes, he had to pay rent to the Company. Often, a small community had little or no extra homes and in some cases the actual village might be some distance from where the railway located its station. Preference for this dwelling went to married men with single men using a boarding house or bunk car.


I worked as an Assistant Agent for a few years in the 1970's at Agincourt, one of the last Accounting Agencies. It was great learning experience what with freight tariffs and reservations for sleepers on The Canadian etc. Demurrage, claims inspections etc. etc. the agent was one of the best bosses I ever had on the CPR and I only wished I had bid the job years sooner! Jim Lahay taught me and seeing my abilities trusted me with more responsibilities, I never let him down. He was a prince of a man and a gentleman in every sense of the word. R.I.P. Raymond Kennedy

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