There are many ways an immigrant can make a new life for themselves. The search for jobs during the industrial revolution brought Franco-American ancestors across the border for factory work, lumbering, and other professions. But it was the railroads, in some ways, that connected the entire region together. Many men of the time chose working the rails as their profession. Railroad jobs were different than others; they often ignored boundaries and transported both passengers and freight across state and country lines. Over the years, the nature of the job evolved and changed much like the industry itself. Today there are a fraction of the opportunities for workers that there once was.
When Armand Vachon started working for the railroads in the early 1950s, he was about 19 years old. He’d missed the ‘Golden Age’ of railroad work, but there was still a demand and so he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Armand worked between Quebec and Maine. A life of constant motion can take its toll. It physically distances a person from their family, and sometimes it might even diminish their sense of place. Luckily for Armand, he would find a way to ride back and forth throughout his life, returning frequently to his community and starting a family with the woman he loved. His choice of profession wasn’t just a job—it was a lifestyle that he would have to learn to navigate.
Armand was born 1932 in Moosehead, Maine, a small town north of Greenville, he was only 16 months younger than his brother Don. While he and his brother were little more than infants, they lost their mother. His father made the decision to relocate to Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. They were children of the Great Depression; money was hard to come by and they came of age during the Second World War. So his father did what work he could, leaving Armand and Don with caretakers.
Armand: The economy went down, the Great Depression. Shortly after that there was no money anywhere. I remember dad working temporarily on the railroad and temporarily at the airport, they were building the runway. Dad worked there seventy-five cents a day. Most of the time you gave your name to work, they’d hired you, but the first day, you work for nothing—if you wanted a job. You didn’t get paid the first day.
Armand got his first job mowing lawns when he was old enough, but by his late teens and early twenties he too started to work on the railroad like his father. He wasn’t a part of a full-time gang right away, but he helped part-time as a clerk. Being young with no seniority, he had to take railroad positions as they came. Eventually, he worked on a section crew doing railroad maintenance and then started “braking” in his twenties.
Armand: When I turned 20, or 22, I started working on the railroad on the gang. Summer time, I was the clerk. 212 men on a gang, I was the secretary you know. Boy oh boy. Dad got me that job, it paid good. It was good money, oh boy. About three dollars a day. When I started braking I was earning—my salary was $4.44 a day.
During the early days of rail transport, being a brakeman was considered a very dangerous job. A brakeman would have to walk atop a moving train in all weather conditions—checking couplings, lining switches for the track, and operating the brakes for each car, which was done individually.
As the industry progressed, air brakes and other technologies were used remotely, which changed the nature of the job. By the 1950s when Armand was a brakeman, the job was still very important. He handled throwing switches, coupling and uncoupling cars, and keeping an eye out for hazards to the train itself. As he mentioned, Armand earned $4.44 per day as a brakeman, but a “day” was considered 100 miles. There were single days, therefore, when he was able to make up to $8.
Though he lived most of his life in Quebec, the United States called him back to Maine with a draft notice. His older brother had already been called to duty for the Korean War, so he was unsurprised to receive a letter of his own. In February of 1952, he left his work and home in Mégantic to serve in the U.S. military, the 370th armored infantry battalion.
In 1953, while on furlough, Armand’s father contacted him to return to Quebec to come to his cousin’s wedding in St. Martin.
Armand: ‘No.’ I told dad. He says, ‘Come on, come to the wedding.’ He says, ‘It’s your cousin getting married.’ ‘Yeah but I don’t know anybody else!’ ‘Oh just come over, come over to the wedding,’ he says. So, I went to the wedding but I was outside on the gallery on the veranda, I was like this you know (pretends to sulk) boring. It was, boring. Then all of a sudden this little blonde was walking down to the hotel from Main Street, she was walking down. I say, ‘jeez, boy—she looks pretty good!’ The closer she got, boy oh boy, blue eyes—oh boy—and she smiled. And boy, that did it right there. That smile got me. 62 years after that. I’m still with that blue eyed girl.
At his cousin’s wedding Armand met Lucette Blais and, as he said, “that was it,” for him—for her it took a bit longer.
Armand: I told dad. Dad was right there, I said ‘Dad, I want you to meet Lucette.’ I said, ‘This is going to be my wife someday.’ Dad looked at me (skeptically) in other words he’s not believing it, he thinks, ‘He’s going to meet a lot of girls before he gets married.’
Lucette: …But for me when he said to his father, ‘She will be my wife someday,’ I said, ‘No way.’ I was nineteen, imagine.
Armand, of course, would have to return to serve for another two years. While he was away, he and Lucette wrote each other many letters. Fortunately, he was still able to build seniority for his position with the railroad while he served which was important for job security. Armand started his railroad career during a difficult time for the industry. First, railway use declined after the Second World War because both passenger and freight trains became secondary to interstate highways. Then there were company buyouts, bailouts, and mergers, with segments of track that changed ownership frequently. Holding on to a job without seniority was hard to do—you had to put in the time.
So when Armand left the military he was fortunate to return to Mégantic with his job waiting for him. He jumped back into work as a brakeman on the track from St. John to Montréal, but getting Lucette’s affection was a little bit more of a challenge. Armand knew that Lucette’s affection was there, but she wouldn’t sit idly by while he was gone for long periods of time.
Once, after returning from a long stint away at Smiths-Falls, Armand boldly commandeered one of Lucette’s dates. He told her date to excuse himself at the movie theater—at which point Armand promptly sat next to Lucette and finished out the date. Soon after, Lucette and Armand decided to be an official item. On May 24, 1958, they were married; he was 25 and she was 23. After the wedding and the honeymoon, Armand expected to go right back to work only to find that the job was gone. So instead, he spent a full summer getting to know Lucette.
Armand: So finally, I was supposed to work at Smiths-Falls, I called. They closed the Havelock Line—so all the employees of that line came to Smiths-Falls to work and they didn’t have anymore jobs there. So what I did was spent all summer, I got to know my wife really good, all summer.
After that summer Armand was back to work and he and Lucette started a family. His job would take him away—he’d spend weeks at a time working on the railroad between Maine and New Brunswick, which was quite far from Mégantic. Armand eventually suggested that the family move to Brownville Junction, in Maine, so they could all be closer to each other. At first Lucette wasn’t a big fan of the idea.
Lucette: I’d been to Brownville a few times, every time I came back I’d say no way, I don’t come here. But after a while I decided it was best for the family to be all together, to move to Brownville, and I don’t regret it. Sometimes that was not easy. The worst thing was the mosquitos for me. It was awful. But I don’t regret it.
Although Brownville seems like a small locale today, historically it provided many job opportunities for railroad workers and their families over the years. Many railroad lines ran through Brownville, starting with the Bangor and Katahdin Iron Works Railway in 1881. In 1889 the International Railway of Maine was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway which extended Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental mainline through Quebec into Maine, then over to St. John in New Brunswick.
Lucette had one stipulation for moving to Brownville: they had to be able to spend two months every summer in Mégantic. She still wanted to have a connection with Mégantic, and she especially wanted her children Josée and Steve to spend time there. The move was made and the promises were kept. Armand spent most of the year working, but two months of the year were reserved for the family to live in Lac-Mégantic. They’d rent out an apartment or cottage and spend their summers golfing, going to the beach, and gathering with family in the area. Armand and Lucette lived in Brownville, Maine for twenty-one years.
After their children were grown, Lucette and Armand decided to move back to Mégantic. It is there that they still reside, as strong as ever, watching their children and grandchildren grow and succeed in the modern world. Some readers may recognize their daughter, Josée Vachon, as a Franco-American folk-singer, or their son Steve who entered the field of Broadcast Journalism.
Lucette and Armand both say that they have had a good life. From the outside it might seem stressful, moving around so much, working on the railroads and traveling back and forth between Quebec and Maine—the two places that they have called home—but this was the life that they chose and it was a life they loved. Armand was devoted to his profession throughout the years, but he never lost what he loved the most. Armand knew he was always going to make his family life with Lucette a priority; it was the reason he worked so hard. The tracks may have taken him away more than once, but they would always bring him back.
This story was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in February of 2021. Special thanks, most of all, to Armand and Lucette Vachon for sharing their family’s stories. Thanks as well to Josée Vachon for photographs and music, and to Steve Vachon for interviewing his parents.
“I go Yesterday,” traditional, performed by Josée Vachon:
For a video of trains in Brownville Junction, somewhat before Armand and Lucette’s time there, check out this video here.
Writer — Emily Meader.
Editors — Nathaniel Smith & Ben Meader.
Audio Editors — Ben Meader & John Meader.
Contributing Editors — Susan Pinette & Lisa Michaud.
Photo Credits — Vachon family, Library of Congress.
Audio Credits — Josée Vachon (music), Steve Vachon (interview), The Miller Center at the University of Virginia (historical broadcast), Freesound.org (effects).
Map Credits — Canadian Pacific Railway, edited by Rhumb Line Maps.
Burns, Adam. “Railroad Brakeman: Jobs, History, Salary & Hand Signals.” American-Rails, www.american-rails.com/brakeman.html
Skye, Stephen. “The Life of a Brakeman.” The Neversink Valley Museum of History & Innovation, 2009, neversinkmuseum.org/articles/the-life-of-a-brakeman/.
Canada, Library and Archives. “Railways.” Library and Archives Canada, 22 Sept. 2020, www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/genealogy/topics/employment/Pages/railways.aspx.
“Our History.” Connecting Canada, cpconnectingcanada.ca/our-history/.
“Brownville, Maine.” Three Rivers Community, The Brownville Historical Society, 8 May 2020, www.threeriverscommunity.me/community/brownville/.
Featured Photo — Armand Vachon. Photo Courtesy of Vachon family.