Spy Hill hosts 98 unexpected guests on Christmas Day

January 2, 2018, 7:30 am
Kara Kinna

The Spy Hill hall full of stranded Via Rail passengers, volunteer firefighters and volunteers on Christmas Day after a Via Rail train broke down near Spy Hill.

‘Just like a big old Saskatchewan kitchen party’

When Spy Hill residents woke up on Christmas morning to begin their Christmas Day celebrations, they had no idea that they would be hosting 98 unexpected guests that day.

But by 10 in the morning, the Spy Hill hall was full of people who were stranded after a Via Rail train suffered mechanical problems due to the extreme cold, and the passenger cars began to lose power and heat.

“About 7:30 or 8 in the morning we got the first heads up from the RCMP from their dispatch down east that they had a train that was frozen up,” says Jim Larocque, Spy Hill’s fire chief. “They had no heat or power in the passenger cars and hadn’t for some time, so the people were getting cold and hungry to the point where they thought it was prudent to get them off the train.

“The train was approaching town, so we did go down and make arrangements to get the hall opened up. My wife went down and she got the coffee started.

“The train blew through town actually and stopped a little further to the southeast out by Welby, so I proceeded down there, contacted the conductor, and at that time they indicated that they thought they were going to try to keep going, that they had gotten some of their problems solved.”

Larocque says Christmas morning proceeded as usual—until the train came back.

“We came back home and went about Christmas morning and got a call back from provincial fire dispatch saying that no, they were bringing the train back into Spy Hill, that they were going to be looking to offload passengers and get them in to something warmer.

“So we went back to the hall and got things set up there and invited in 98 guests,” he says with a laugh.

How does a small town of just under 300 people prepare for that many guests on Christmas Day?

“My wife starts cooking pancakes and making coffee and I called out the guys on the fire department and said ‘come on down here, we have to get these people off the train, through the ditch, across the road and into the hall,’” says Larocque.

“Andrew at Spy Hill grocery store was able to open up. He was around and he was home so he gave up a little bit of time with his family to go down and open up and let us get bread and makings for sandwiches and salads.

“Morley Clarke with Moe’s Bakery was able to provide us with a bunch more food.

“Between the Via Rail crew—who were amazing throughout the entire thing—between them and some volunteers in town and my fire department we were able to make food for these people, and the entertainers on the train kept us all going singing Christmas carols.

“It was just like a big old Saskatchewan kitchen party.”

Larocque says between the fire department and people in town, there were plenty of helping hands.

“We probably had about 14 people from the town and fire department and at least twice the number offering to help if we needed more,” he says,.

“We had the mayor Elgin Clark out with the loader clearing a good solid path so people weren’t having to go knee deep through snow to get from the train to the building.

“Maureen Fletcher from one of the church groups was out there making sandwiches, I had my guys wrapping and making sandwiches, although that isn’t necessarily their forte. Watching my firefighters try to butcher some sandwiches together was quite amusing,” he says with a laugh.

“Travis Moore, one of my firefighters, he had that hall rented all decorated. Their family was going to have their Christmas Day celebration in there. They gladly gave it up and Travis spent the morning getting people and all their belongings into the hall safely, and on one of his trips he went home and picked up a bunch of his son’s toys and brought them down there for the kids that were on the train to try to keep them occupied.”

Although the arrival of the 98 unexpected train passengers slightly derailed Christmas Day plans for many in Spy Hill, Larocque says it was a pleasure to help.

“I think every one of us was thinking that any one of us could have been in the same predicament as these people and we would want somebody to be helping our families, our kids, our grandkids,” he says.

“All in all I think most of us are going to look back on this and think it was probably one of our more enjoyable Christmases.

“Realistically when you’re a fire department you’re getting called out when people are at their worst. This wasn’t necessarily that. A lot of these people were at their best.”

Larocque says he can’t say enough about the Via Rail staff as well, who pitched in to help out once in the hall.

“The Via Rail crew, yes they were being paid, but they were in the same predicament as those people on the train,” he says. “They’d been on this train, and I heard upwards of 11 pm the previous night is when they started losing power, so they’d been in the cold and dark trying to feed and take care of these people and answer their questions—people afraid of missing travel plans and whatnot. And once we got them in the hall they pitched right in and their culinary staff was working just as hard as any of our people getting these people fed, so I can’t say enough about the Via crew that was there.”

Larocque says alternate arrangements were made to get the passengers to where they were going, and by around 5 pm that day, everyone was on their way.

“They ended up getting a few taxis for people that were just going to Rivers or Portage, and then they ended up getting three buses. The first one out of Brandon was there around 2 pm and then two more out of Winnipeg. Finally the last of them left around 5 pm.”

He says the passengers were all appreciative of the hospitality shown to them during their brief stay.

“We’d like to think that people would do the same for any of us or any of our families,” says Larocque.

“That was the nicest part and most heartwarming part for us is that people couldn’t have been more appreciative of everybody’s efforts.”

Travis Moore was one of the firefighters who got a call that day to help out. Moore spent the day helping the passengers get across to the hall and hauling their baggage off the train along with other members of the fire department.

“We opened up the hall and the rest of our fire department got called out to help. We took a few trucks there to haul the baggage across and assist all the people to come across the tracks and across the road into the hall,” he says.

“After everyone was off the train and into the hall I ran home and we picked up some toys and coloring pages for the kids to play with so they had something to do. You could see them sitting around there wondering what to do and I thought they are probably going to be there for while, and there is nothing else to do in that place.”

Moore’s family had the hall booked and was supposed to have Christmas lunch there that day.

“Once I found out that we were putting people in the hall for sure, I just phoned my aunts that were organizing it and told them change of venue, that we were going to move to the curling rink in town,” says Moore. “It wasn’t really a big deal. The hall was decorated and there was some food down there already so they came into town and took the food out of the hall and just switched places.

“It was just a little bit of extra excitement Christmas morning. When you’re a volunteer firefighter and you live out here, when the phone rings you never know what’s going to happen.

“That’s just part of being a volunteer firefighter. If the shoe was on the other foot, you would hope somebody would give you a hand, and it was Christmas and it was cold and it’s just what you should do.”

Moore says it gave him a good feeling to see his town be so helpful on Christmas Day.

“It makes you feel proud or happy about your town that people care and try to help out when they can.

“Seeing the situation that they were in, I think they were pretty grateful to get off that train and into somewhere warm and to see that people were trying to get them food and make them as comfortable as possible.”