Angus Marshall has grown up listening to the sound of a train whistle.
His parents, Chris Marshall and Charmead Schella, ran the Fat Salmon Backpackers Inn on Third Avenue in Port Alberni, and Schella was the very first reporter to work at the Alberni Valley News in 2006-07. In the summer, Angus would play on the family’s back deck beneath the echo of the No. 7 Baldwin steam train announcing its arrival and departure at the train station numerous times per day.
In the winter, there was the Santa Train. Traditionally the first weekend in December volunteers with the Alberni Pacific Railway would take the passenger cars out of storage mode, producing blankets for each bench aboard to keep wee laps warm as the train made several special round trips from the train station to Kitsuksis Trestle.
On those trips, the jolly old elf himself would appear from the caboose, greeting each child in turn as his “elves” handed out candy canes.
Angus wasn’t quite one year old when he rode his first Santa Train. “Still travelling in a baby sling and not yet even walking,” Schella recalls.
Fast forward two years and Angus was never without a toy train in his hand. One of his favourite after-dinner walks was to the roundhouse behind Smitty’s, where the trains “went to sleep.” The family had season’s passes to ride the steam train to McLean Mill, and they lost count how many times Mama and Dah switched off—one riding and one driving out to the mill for the return trip.
When Angus was nine years old his family moved to Paraparaumu, on the North Island of New Zealand, an hour’s train ride on the KPL Kapiti Line from the nation’s capital, Wellington.
It was Mother’s Day 2017 when Angus rediscovered steam.
His father had heard about the Paekakariki Railway and Steam Incorporated, a volunteer group much like the Port Alberni-based Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society, and arranged a family outing. “After we got there, it looked cool. I liked it,” Angus said Saturday from his home in Paraparaumu. “I’ve been going ever since.”
Not quite 15 now as he heads into his summer Christmas break, Angus has volunteered at Steam Inc. for nearly two years. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. he helps the team with restorations, shovelling coal, needle-gunning—“whatever needs to be done,” says Schella, who often drops him off. He takes his Dah’s work-worn Thermos full of tea, and when it’s time to go home the Thermos is empty and Angus has coal dust and grease embedded under his fingernails and in the creases of his wide grin.
He thrives working on the heritage locomotive, and he loves the nature of steam. “It’s alive,” he says. “It’s not the same way a lot of things are: it’s got feelings. It’s cool.”
He is by far the youngest volunteer at the roundhouse, and his older mentors are only too eager to help him. “There’s people who really know the trains and can tell what they’re doing by the sounds.” He loves learning from them. So much that he is already studying mechanical engineering in high school.
“It’s different from being a passenger. I get to learn a lot about trains, I get to learn about machinery from the people who know what they’re doing.”
On Saturday, Dec. 18, Angus was part of a team that ran a nine-car charter for Steam Inc.’s version of the Santa Train, the North Pole Express. They ran a “top and tail” format with the JA1271 steam engine in front for the northbound trip and the DA1410 diesel electric locie in the back for the southbound trip. He said it was great to help people who were happy to meet Santa on the ride.
Angus crewed on the diesel, which was built in London, Ont. in 1955. “A lot of the New Zealand locomotives were built in Canada,” he says. “I’m the third Canadian in Steam Inc. because there are two locomotives built in Canada.”
Port Alberni’s Santa Train has not run since 2018, after which the train was silenced due to a boiler issue and lack of political steam.
I can’t help but think it’s a good thing that Angus was not here to see that happen.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.