On a spring morning 60 years ago, an excited group of school children from Yarrow Elementary clambered aboard a big red train for a ride home from Chilliwack.
They watched in awe as a yellow diesel hooked the interurban car to a freight train, and then they were off. For some of the kids, it was their very first train ride.
[Marlene Penner, left, and Elsie Giesbrecht scan for familiar faces – Jennifer Lang photo]
“With more bell-ringing and horn blowing than usually accompanies a freight run, the train pulled into Yarrow 45 minutes later to discharge its young cargo,” the Chilliwack Progress reported on May 4, 1955.
The hoot of the B.C. Electric Interurban hadn’t been heard in the Fraser Valley in five years – the passenger trains had been replaced by buses, and there was no longer electric power for the trams on the valley line.
The Grade 3 students had been studying transportation in class, and their teacher thought a train ride would be a fitting conclusion.
She wrote to BCE president Dal Grauer, who passed the request onto the interurban and freight department, the paper reported. “And last Wednesday, BCE training instructor Ralph Grieve was at the siding near the bus depot with a train ready and waiting.”
After stepping off and inspecting the red caboose, the children waved to the engineer and crew as the train resumed its trip to New Westminster.
“It took 38 eager youngsters to bring the interurban out of its five-year retirement for one last special run,” the story ended.
Fast forward to August 2014, when a woman named Elsie Giesbrecht was taking a tour of the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society’s operations in Cloverdale.
As tour guide Hugh Parkinson pointed to a display featuring photos of that historic Yarrow field trip on car 1304, Giesbrecht gasped, “I know those kids!”
Parkinson then pointed to the teacher, identified as Miss J. Fowlie in a clipping from the B.C. Electric
“That’s JOY Fowlie,” she told him.
“You know this teacher?” Parkinson recalls asking. “And she said, ‘Yes! She was my teacher.”
Giesbrecht was a couple of years behind that class, but she knew most of the children in the photo, and the Abbotsford resident is still in touch with many of them today.
To Parkinson’s utter amazement, she proceeded to list their names.
For members of the Fraser Valley Heritage Society, the moment ended years of speculation and wonder: Just who were these kids? What did they think as they rode the last interurban in the valley? And how on Earth did their teacher convince the power company to bring a car out of retirement for the day?
Car 1304 is undergoing painstaking restoration efforts, but it’s hoped she’ll mark her triumphant rebirth in 2016 or ‘17 as part of the society’s heritage rail operations.
And when she does, the society wants to invite those now-grown school children to the launch.
But it seems the Yarrow Elementary alumni aren’t prepared to wait that long. A Grade 3 class reunion this summer at Cloverdale Station is already in the works.
“We will be one excited bunch!” says White Rock’s Marlene Penner, a friend of Giesbrecht’s who is one of the 38 Yarrow students who rode the train that day.
She doesn’t remember much, “Except it was a lot of fun!”
Penner recalls hearing a story about someone who stuck their head out of the Interurban window, only to lose their dentures.
“Somehow, I remember that, from that trip. All those little kids laughed, because a lot of people had dentures in those days,” she giggles. “Here we are, all these little kids on this train, and we’re all excited and hearing different stories.”
Penner, her sister Anne Dyck, and Giesbrecht – who recognized her in that photo – toured the car barn and replica 1910 Cloverdale Station last week. They also got a chance to explore car 1304.
“It’s nostalgic in a way,” Penner reflected. “It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness – I remember this and I was on that train.’ It was a fun thing.”
She’s thrilled with the prospect of meeting up with her former classmates this summer.
“It was really quite a day,” she said.
She’s already begun contacting former classmates about the reunion, and they sound just as excited. It seems their childhood ride on the interurban sparked a life long love of trains for several of them.
One classmate plans holidays around train excursions and even celebrated a wedding anniversary on a dinner train.
“The train ride in 1955 had always stuck somewhere in the back of my mind,” emailed another, who just six weeks ago went to the Chilliwack archives to look up the event, and found the Progress article.
“That Grade 3 class loved trains!” Penner said.
The reunion is planned for July 23, when the former classmates, their spouses, children and grandchildren will meet at Cloverdale Station for a tour, a ride and lunch. After the event, the adults are invited to Penner’s home for a barbecue. “After all these years there will be much to reminisce about!” she says.
– The Fraser Valley Heritage Railway has announced its 2015 season will run from May 9 to Thanksgiving (Oct. 11), with five trains a day departing from Cloverdale. For more, visit fvhrs.org