Passengers assist train crew with removing a big rock from the track in Kicking Horse Canyon, October, 1978. (John Cowan/Special to The News)

Passengers assist train crew with removing a big rock from the track in Kicking Horse Canyon, October, 1978. (John Cowan/Special to The News)

Former train conductor to release photo book of his time on the trains

More than 250 scenic shots document Maple Ridge resident’s travels across the country

A former train conductor has published a new book of photographs detailing his experiences after a 35-year career with Canadian Pacific Railway.

Maple Ridge resident John Cowan just released Canadian Pacific Trackside 1977-2012 with Conductor John Cowan, detailing his time on the tracks.

Cowan’s photographs span Canada from Quebec to Vancouver Island and offer views very few people get to see, along with interesting stories of his travels.

Cowan grew up in southern Ontario, and ever since he could remember, he had a passion for trains.

In the late 1960’s when he was about 10-years-old, he used to ride steam engines and freight trains.

His love for locomotives flourished as he grew up, and he started his career in Ontario as a train order operator with Canadian Pacific, working in stations in the Ottawa Valley, including eight months in Montreal.

Then Cowan transferred to Revelstoke, B.C. to become a conductor in 1978, before being relocated to Vancouver.

“And I did everything and I’ve been through everything you can imagine. I worked freight and I spent a lot of time working passenger trains,” he said. Over the course of his career, Cowan amassed thousands of photographs that he took before his retirement in 2012.

Those slides would sit in his closet waiting for guests to come over, when Cowan would set up his slide projector to show people.

In 2019 he decided he was going to digitize his collection and he started uploading them onto social media where he would receive a host of compliments.

That was the final push to put his photograph collection into a book. He contacted Morning Sun Books and sent them a written proposal which they accepted.

“I wanted to do it, to leave my legacy behind and it’s proven to be very popular,” he said.

One of his favourite stories in the book took place in 1978 when he was working on a train called the Canadian. It just left Golden on Oct. 29, and as the train was entering Kicking Horse Canyon, they received a call from a track patrol man who discovered a large rock on the tracks. After several phone calls for track maintenance went unanswered, Cowan, who was not the conductor but the trainman, along other crew, nine men and a heavy-set farm girl from Saskatchewan, decided to remove the rock themselves.

READ MORE: Maple Ridge’s slow West Coast train into the future

“You wouldn’t dare do that in today’s world,” he laughed.

“It was so heavy it took 12 people with a crowbar and other tools we had to get it off the track,” he said.

There is a picture in the book of where the current Pitt Meadows West Coast Express Station is now. Cowan took it from a locomotive of an eastbound freight train in the 1980’s. The picture is of a small freight train that used to go out to Agassiz and back every day.

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The book offers amazing details of his work as a conductor across B.C., in communities like Revelstoke, Vancouver, the Kettle Valley Railway out of Penticton, and Vancouver Island. It also features Canadian Pacific, VIA, and West Coast Express passenger trains. There are more than 250 colour photos.

Canadian Pacific Trackside 1977-2012 with Conductor John Cowan is due to be released in April, 2022.

“So many people from all walks of life, of all ages, love trains,” he said, adding that it was a huge blessing to be able to work on the book during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Copies of the book are $59.95 US before the release and $69.95 US after and are available for purchase at morningsunbooks.com and also at pwrs.ca/view_product.php?ProductID=325307.


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(John Cowan/Special to The News)

(John Cowan/Special to The News)