Blind Baggage

In 1904, Jim McLean left his wife and daughter on their rented farm near Ailsa Craig Ontario, and headed west. He filed claim on 160 acres of prime alluvial land, 60 miles south west of Saskatoon, and built a sod house, before returning home. In 1905, he again travelled west alone, this time to prepare a new home for his family.

For a rental fee, the Grand Trunk railroad provided boxcars for settlers' effects, and a man travelled with his effects. Jim McLean loaded his boxcar with a cow, a crate of chickens, two horses (Minnie and Clip) and bags of feed for his livestock, and household furniture of massive carved oak. His collie, Trix, leaped into the car at his heels.

Not long after the train pulled out, Jim discovered he had company. Even before investigating the aromatic smoke rising from behind the highboy, Jim guessed what he would find -- 'blind baggage'. This was a term applied to would-be settlers who hadn't the price of train fair but, determined to go west, hid out in loaded boxcars, hoping to escape the attention of the trainmen who had orders to 'kick them off'.

Jim recognized the two men since they, also, were from Ailsa Craig, and knew them to be hard-working and ambitious boys who had been unable to find employment around home. He debated the moral issue and decided that young, strong, willing workers were exactly what the west needed! This decision to bend the law a bit necessitated diversionary tactics to evade the brakeman, who was apt to pop his head in unexpectedly at stops. Since he was certain to detect the tobacco aroma, he had to be adroitly misled; Jim, a non-smoker, quickly learned how to fill, tamp and handle a pipe convincingly without actually smoking it. He even 'bummed' a sack of tobacco from the brakeman when the supply ran low.

When the train was in motion, the boys moved about freely in the boxcar until, one hot afternoon, Jim learned that the brakeman had another trick up his sleeve. He was half-dozing in his chair by the door when a noise startled him awake. Looking up, he found himself face to face with the disembodied head of the brakeman, who had climbed up and walked the length of the train on top of the boxcars, stopping now and then to lie flat and peer hopefully into a car. Jim's heart gave a thump of alarm as the brakeman's eyes squinted, searching the dim exterior. Then he remembered -- the boys had decided to nap away the heat of the day and were safely hidden behind the furniture. After a moment or two, the brakeman nodded glumly and disappeared.

Jim heaved a sigh of relief and looked out the open door. Suddenly, he noticed that he could follow the progress of the brakeman by watching the shadow of the train. Thereafter, if the train's shadow sprouted a moving biped in a peaked cap, Jim would call out, 'Whoa, Clip!' on which signal, the boys would dive into hiding.

Jim McLean never regretted protecting his 'blind baggage'; they both proved up on homesteads not far from his own, and proved, too, that they were the stuff of which pioneers were made.

Story written by Myrtle McLean, Neil Mclean's wife,

Given to the Friends of the Forestry Farm House by the estate of Lynn McLean.