Red Caps and Porters at Union Station

1880s-1980s

Starting in the late 1800s, Red Caps were employed by Union Station. Train stations hired Red Caps to help assist with the mass amount of luggage taken off each passenger train. After the luggage was taken off the train, Red Caps could be hired to carry a passenger’s luggage to their hotel. In 1929, one-hundred and fifty Red Caps worked at Union Station in two shifts. At least two passenger trains came in each hour.

 

By the end of their eight-hour shift, Red Caps pulled thousands of pieces of luggage off the trains. With the affordability of plane travel after the Depression, passenger trains were less exciting to the public. By 1973, only twenty-four Red Caps were employed by Union Station, and they would become employees of VIA Rail in the 1980s.

A Conductor sells dust gogges on a Canadian National Railway Train 1933

Conductor Selling Dust Goggles on a CNR Train 1933. Courtesy of Libraries and Archives Canada. FA-189. 

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CNR Porter J. N. Alford, gave writer Lotta Dempsey a welcome as she boarded the train at Union Station in 1973. Courtesy of Toronto Star Archives.

Union Station Red Cap. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1266. Item 2192.

CNR Porter and Toronto Politician Harry Gairey. Courtesy of Toronto Star Archives.

Unusual for the time, Union Station hired a number of Black Canadians as Red Caps. Considered a respectable profession, some Red Caps were highly educated Black Canadians with degrees in the sciences, medicine, and business administration. Red Caps were one of the few railway positions that allowed Black Canadians to work within the Middle Class. 

Like Red Caps, Sleeping Car Porters were introduced to Canada in the 1870s. Privately owned, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began hiring emancipated Black Americans for cheap labour. Soon after, other Canadian railways followed, hiring cheap labour from the Southern United States and the Caribbean. Like Red Caps, some Porters were highly educated Black Canadians with university degrees.

Though Porters were not Union Station staff, they often travelled through the station, sometimes taking leave between shifts there. When on duty, Porters worked seventy-two hours shifts and were available for service twenty-one hours of the day. Passengers saw porters: loading sleeping cars with coal or wood for the journey, greeting passengers, storing luggage, pulling down beds in the evening, reassembling seats in the morning, serving food, mixing drinks, shining shoes, and caring for children and drunken passengers. 

For Porters and Red Caps alike, each day was filled with discrimination and prejudice. Porters ate in the dining car outside of the regular hours of operation. If early rising passengers came into the dining car, a curtain was pulled in-between the Porters and passengers. Black Porters were consistently called ‘George’ or ‘George’s Boy’, by passengers despite their real name. This name referenced George 

Last Red Cap Working at Union Staion Toronto

Last Red Cap working at Union Station. Courtesy of Toronto Star Archives. 

Pullman, who modelled his railway company’s policies after Black-servitude in a southern plantation house. Most Porters despised the name because it removed their own personal identity. Black Canadian Porters also dealt with inequality from their employers. Institutionalized racism kept Black Canadians from being promoted on a regular basis.

Throughout the years, many Black Canadian Sleeping Car Porters and Red Caps worked in Union Station. Both professions faced racial discrimination on the job, and to combat discrimination, Black Canadian workers formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1939, with help from the American group of the same name. BSCP Unionized in 1942, helping many Black Canadians push for fair employment. Through a long battle, and with help from the 1953 Fair Employment Act, railway workers slowly began to experience better working conditions and gain more promotions. 

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CNR Porters from Selwyn Jacob’s film ‘The Road Taken’. Courtesy of Selwyn Jacob and The National Film Board.

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