Standing on a railroad, looking into the distance can make anyone wonder when the next train will come. There is a mystique to the railroad for those that only witness the trains rip by, where are they headed? What’s on them, and who is driving that contraption? Winter can be harsh, gruelling and unforgiving, but the trains still need to run on time, and someone needs to plow the path for these childhood wonderments to pass on through.
John Popplewell is the last of the famous railroad family to retire from the rails. After 36 years, John “Poppy” Popplewell will be wrapping it up this March.
The Popplewell family are no strangers to the rail yard, as John’s brother, Judd Popplewell retired just 3 years ago; his sister Dianne wrapped it up 6 years ago and the oldest of the family, Brian road the last rail 13 years ago.
Prior to the kids taking a role on one of Revelstoke’s bloodlines, their father, Gerald Popplewell, who started in 1941 until his retirement in 1985 was a long-time “hoghead” who was well known within the community and a true railroader at his core. Prior to Gerald, John’s grandfather, Henry was also a railroader for a short stint before an injury took place.
The railroad has a pulse, a beat- it breaths life. It can be lonesome at times, yet, have the fulfillment of a strong brother/sisterhood; the “rail” ties that bind.
Popplewell started his career in 1982, and in 1985 he was in control of “Christine” the snow plow, that was built and been in use since 1929. Popplewell shared with the Revelstoke Current how he feels and where he is at about his future change in daily routine.
“I liked it all, it’s all been very good-but it’s time. I’m stiff and sore, don’t you smell the Bengay? Time to let a young guy do it.”
With every veteran someone needs to be in the wings, waiting, learning and ready to grab the handle when a senior worker walks off into the sunset. Steve Bafaro (27) comes from a family of railroaders, his father John Bafaro and his grandfather, Phil Bafaro were both CP Rail employees, and the gene has been passed to “Young Shtevie” as Popplewell would say. Bafaro will be taking the reins of the plow as of March 3rd– the day after Popplewell retires. Sometimes, the shoe fits just right.
“Big role to fill, but John has been training me and showing me the proper way. He always says be patient and don’t be cocky because that’s when you bite off too much and you can’t handle it.” Bafaro stated.
Bafaro is humbled and proud to be taking over for the 36 year veteran, and it was evident throughout the ride to Rogers Pass, that there was a clear bond between the two and a great example of wisdom bestowed to the next generation. When asked about Bafaro taking his spot, Popplewell thought for a moment then looked over at his successor and simply said, “He’s got it.”
Anyone who knows John will attest that fanfare is not for him, nor does he like the attention. It is unfortunate for him that his nephew-in-law believes that credit is deserved where credit is due. While it was a task to get information from him, his longtime crew were ready to share many stories of Popplewell and just how well he knows these steel tracks.
Long-time Conductor, Grant Fuoco and Engineer, Brian Jamieson were not shy to share a few words on their respect and appreciation for Popplewell.
“Nobody knows what John does. It’s an art.” Fuoco proudly stated. When asked about how well Popplewell runs the plow, Fuoco simply raised his right hand circled his thumb to his index and showed me perfection.
Both Jamieson and Fuoco explained how when the wing is out, “Poppy” can rest it ever so gently on the outside rail and glide it with perfection. “He feels it” said Fuoco.
In 1988/89 Popplewell lived in the old Glacier House Lodge located at Rogers Pass during the week and then back to town on the weekends. Where many would find the isolation daunting, It was right up his alley and suited him just fine.
“I loved it, best job I ever had, I think. Always shit going on, trains always stopping and there was always someone to have coffee with.”
As the plow headed towards his old stomping grounds, the train rolled over Surprise Bridge, which was when Popplewell shared a piece of family history.
“Albert Lind, Kirstin’s maternal Great-Grandfather helped build this bridge in 1920”, Popplewell said reminding me of how the railroad really does run in the family veins.
His successor told the Current, “He knows every nook and cranny when it comes to the railroad. Every tree, rock or pole- he knows the story.”
While re-heating his cold coffee to keep warm, Ken Sproat tossed in “He is just a funny guy. He tells really good stories and all of his singing…he is a real bullhonk! He is a hard working guy and he likes to work hard.”
This particular crew worked as if a key turned over an engine and all the vital components were well oiled and firing on all cylinders. There was dialogue when needed, but much of the flow was without sentence.
Sproat summed it up when it comes to the retirement of John Popplewell, “There will be a lot of information and wisdom going with him.”