Hey Folks. I’m currently on vacation in beautiful British Columbia but I thought I’d submit a few stories that I’d collected for a feature but didn’t have room to include. The stories range across 45 years, from 1964 to 2009. The first one is by William (Diesel Gypsy) Weatherstone, now retired and living in Elliot Lake, Ont. He’s a self-taught writer with a great stockpile of trucking lore. Those interested in reading more would do well to check out his website www.thedieselgypsy.com
THE MONTREAL DOCKS (PIERS) 1964
While at my time as one of Izzie’s Gypsies I used to haul bandit loads from Toronto to the docks in Montreal. It was a whole different ballgame than in today’s day and age.
First, in the early 1960’s Izzie had a scrap yard in the old industrial section in Toronto’s east side. There he would buy and sell scrap metals of all kinds. He had a couple of B-61 Mack’s and 36’ flat deck trailers with 36” racks; one of which was my honeymoon chariot.
His specialty was to buy up old used car batteries and scrap them for their lead plates. He had a set of rollers that when the battery was set on and started to roll down into the plant, they would pass trough a box oven (home made) and the gas flames above the battery would melt the top of the casing, and when it reached the end of the conveyer rollers a couple men would take the battery and turn it upside down and dump the guts from the casing (Lead plates & posts) into a steel bin; discarding the Bakelite casing into a pile for the dump.
Now Izzie was a pretty shrewd character and worshiped the all mighty dollar as much as any man in business, perhaps even more so.
He had a few regular customers that he would gypsy loads down to Montreal for them, and then reload scrap batteries for the return load which was the only legal part of the trip.
One of those customers was a chemical company down in the Niagara region that manufactured Aluminum Chloride, and shipped in 45 gallon drums.
I would pick up a load during the day and deliver to the docks in Montréal before 6am the next morning.
We received $10 dollars to hire a dock worker to unload by hand. The tarp was pulled back and the side racks were removed. The lift truck would set a couple stacks of seaway pallets up against the trailer so the loader could hand roll each drum onto them. If I unloaded myself I could keep the fee.
In my case I had hired the dock foreman to unload for me while I grabbed a bit of sleep, while other drivers would keep ½ the fee for themselves and short change the un-loaders. By doing so, 2 or 3 trucks would have to wait for unloading for as much as ½ a day. In my case I was always unloaded and on my way for a pick-up order within an hour.
On one particular trip, the outside temperature was pushing 90 and the inside of the steel storage shed was over 100. The drums started to swell and white smoke began leaking out the top of the drum. The crew immediately took off expecting an explosion. I was approached to see what should be done to prevent a disaster.
I borrowed a screwdriver from the foreman, wrapped a towel around my face and went into the shed. There were 72 drums, and one at a time I backed off the closed vent on top of the drum, releasing the pressure in a cloud of Aluminum chloride fumes. I did all 72 drums before the crew would return to work.
All went pretty good for most of the summer stocking up a boatload of product.
I was early for one load and the foreman came to me and told me to get off the docks right away and wait a couple hours as they were expecting an uprising this day. He did not bother warning the other 2 drivers when they came in (retaliation for cutting the unloading rate)
I went about 6 blocks away and parked in front of a Tavern. (In Quebec, they open at 7am) I sat for an hour & ½ then called to Toronto, getting an OK to drop the load at another storage facility.
The other trucks did not get out till late that night, but got out without damage. The problem was contained at the other end of the pier. After that episode, the other drivers had to pay the full $10 fee, or do it themselves, taking almost all day, and keep looking over their shoulder for possible retaliation.
At another Pier # was a different type of incident.
One of Izzie’s regular winter customers was a hide dealer, who got fresh hides from the abattoirs in Toronto. They dried, scraped, folded and salted, and then tied and tagged each in a bundle.
The trailer was dropped at the shed and loaded by hand. In the early evening we would go and pick up the loaded trailer and be on the docks by 6 am the following morning.
This particular shed was filled with thousands of hides (a boatload) for shipment to Russia.
These were the last days before the introduction of the container system.
My first load was quite an eye opening experience….. While waiting to get into the shed, a dock worker stopped beside a pallet of figs in wooded boxes. He took his hook and smashed open a case, removed a package, ate one fig and threw the rest away, leaving the damaged stock on the ground.
That was one good reason that containers were introduced. Most companies wanted the product rather than an insurance claim.
The lead hand came to each driver and offered $35 a hide (up to 10) if they left them on the nose of the trailer covered over with the tarp. Leaving the docks as empty and delivering them to a drop point where the cash was paid.
The receiver would then remove the coloured tag and replace it with his own and deliver it back to the ship as his.
NOTE; at that time 3 hides were worth close to a weeks pay for a driver.
Just near the end of the ship loading, the Mounties raided the docks and shut down that little enterprise. Fortunately, I was 1500 miles west of Montreal at the time.
This is just a couple more memorable incidents from ½ a century ago when trucking was real trucking without the dreaded computers.”
The next couple of stories were told to me by JD McCallum of Hudson Quebec. These days he hauls cryogenic tankers regionally around southern Quebec, but he cut his teeth running A-Trains for AllTrans as a team driver between Montreal and Vancouver.
“I used to work as a yard man for Motrux in Vancouver (still going strong on Anancis Island). Part of my job was taking the empty trains over to a mill and get them loaded with particle board or plywood. The plant was only two and a half miles away so I’d usually get ahead of them and have to wait for the lifts as they were being made at the factory.
“The glue on those boards would still be hot and on a hot day they’d burn right through my workboots as I was walking across them unrolling the tarps. The funny thing was that the tarps would be folded up wet as the drivers would have run into rain coming through the mountains. And they’d swell up like hot air balloons when the heat from the hot glue hit them. The steam would cause them to billow up. It was like trying to throw a strap over a hot air balloon.
“I was among the first truck drivers to run the Coquihalla Highway—twice! This was back in 1986 and the highway hadn’t opened yet. One night on the radio we heard that the highway was open and that a bunch of trucks were going to run it, somewhere around Kamloops.
“We were the only ones on the road that night. But it was weird. There was no signage and the lines hadn’t been painted yet. It was almost impossible to tell where the highway ended and the shoulder started. Lucky we didn’t drive right off the side of it.
“But we really were among the first trucks to take it on opening day. This was in Kamloops a few weeks later. Somehow we got our truck into the parade of dignitaries. The premier was there, and I remember brass bands and convertable cars full of girls waving. I still have the sticker on my tool box. “I drove the Coquihalla on Opening Day.”
The last story comes from Michael MacClellan, one of the top shunters for National Shunt Service Limited of Cobourg. This is an interesting company that supplies drivers and shunt trucks to companies across Canada, as well as hauling other types of freight. The following happened to Mike on August 20, 2009.
“I was shunting at Whirlpool in Milton, Ont., and from the yard you have a good view of the Niagara Escarpment and the 401 highway where it cuts through it.
“It was the strangest day, with thunder and lightning all around, grey and black clouds around. I ran over to this ledge and shook my fist at the sky. ‘C’mon you mother, is that all you’ve got?’
“My very next move I was pulling a trailer around the back and the sky went really weird and violent, turning black and grey and brown and shaking the truck. To my surprise my trailer brakes locked up and out the back door I could see the glad hands dancing around in mid-air.
“A few minutes later a couple of Buckley drivers who had been sitting down by the gate came over. One of them asked, ‘Did you see those twisters forming up over the top of your truck?’ I told him I didn’t see nothing but my trailer dynamited and the wind pulled my air lines clean off.
“As it turns out that was the start of the same tornado that hit Woodbridge and Vaughan, Ontario later that afternoon, causing millions of dollars of damage. Since that time I’ve been more respectful and never called out mother nature again.”
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs