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Railroads Canada - The Transcontinental Road Of Canada

( Originally Published 1927 )



THERE was a splendid audacity in the proposal to build a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the vast tract of Canada. On the eastern seaboard—when the project was first broached—there were less than five million people settled in a narrow fringe along the boundary between Canada and the United States; on the western coast there were some four or five thousand colonists; to connect these two regions would involve the laying of tracks for a distance of three thousand miles through a wilderness country, much of which had not been explored. Yet the people of British Columbia, on the Pacific side of the continent, made such a railroad a condition of their entering the Confederation of Canadian States.

The question of building this railroad became a political issue; the Conservatives wanted to construct it, the Liberals opposed it on the ground of its great expense. While the parties fought over the subject surveyors commenced work; Sandford Fleming, a Scotch engineer, set out from Montreal in July, 1872, and arrived in Victoria ninety days later, having made a study of possible routes through the 3300 miles of wild territory he had traversed. In this country there were few warlike Indians to be con-tended with,—indeed Indians frequently served as guides and assistants to the first surveyors, but there were plenty of other perils, forest fires, hazards in canoes, the risk of losing the way and starving in the wilderness. Snow storms added to the difficulties and more than one party disappeared in a blizzard and never got back to camp.

For six years surveyors sought the best route, experiencing the chief difficulties in the Rocky, Selkirk, Gold, and Cascade Mountains on the west and in the Laurentian ranges bordering Lake Superior. The task to be accomplished-as was ultimately determined—was to build 2500 miles of new railroad. Of this line 650 miles must be constructed through a country peculiarly unsuited to the laying of tracks, the stretch between the Ottawa River and Port Arthur, on Lake Superior. The section from Lake Superior to Winnipeg, on the Red River, also presented many difficult engineering problems. From Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains rolled 900 miles of what was known as the Prairie country, although but little of it was level ground; through the Rockies to the Pacific was perhaps the most difficult section of the whole road.

While the surveys were going forward one political administration after another considered the problem of how to construct the railroad. One party in power advocated the policy of building short stretches to unite lakes and navigable rivers. This was not popular, and the government that backed this plan presently gave way to that headed by Sir John Macdonald, whose policy was to go ahead with an actual transcontinental line.

This government accepted the offer of a syndicate to build what was called the Canadian Pacific Railway. Among those who composed the syndicate were George Stephen, the president of the Bank of Montreal, Duncan MacIntyre, the head of the Inter-colonial Railway, already built, James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern in the United States, and another very remarkable railroad man, Donald Smith, who, having started out in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company in Labrador at a salary of one hundred dollars a year, was now governor of the Hudson Bay Company and who was later to be created for his many achievements Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.

This syndicate engaged itself, by a contract with the Canadian government signed October 20, 1880, to have a railway in operation from Montreal to Vancouver within ten years, for which it was to receive $25,000,000 in cash, 25,000,000 acres of land, and 712 miles of railroad that were in course of completion. To fulfil their agreement the Canadian Pacific must lay over 400 miles of track each year, and therefore work was begun simultaneously at several points, from Lake Superior, Ottawa and Winnipeg west-ward and from the Pacific coast eastward.

From May to December 1881 the company built 165 miles, too short a distance to satisfy the syndicate. The next year a contract was made with the firm of Langdon & Shepard, of St. Paul, Minnesota, to construct the section of 670 miles from Flat Creek, which is 175 miles west of Winnipeg, to Calgary. These contractors advertised for 3000 men and 2000 teams, divided the work among sixty subcontractors, and as soon as spring opened launched their army of railroad-builders on the northern prairies.

As soon as a subcontractor completed one section he moved his workmen forward 100 to :150 miles to their next location and in another six weeks the track-layers usually heard the locomotives puffing close behind. Ahead went two bridge-building gangs, who were continually supplied with timber by teams that had to haul it from Rat Portage, 140 miles east of Winnipeg. Each day from twenty to twenty-five 20-ton cars of rails and fastenings and from forty to fifty cars of ties were put in position, and most of this material had been carried an average of 1000 miles before it reached the working gangs.

Heavy floods in the Red River valley so delayed the arrival of supplies that only seventy miles of rails were laid by the end of June. To make up for this, when conditions improved, the work was accelerated, the line advancing nearly two miles a day, and by the end of the year 349 miles were completed and 110 miles of grading accomplished in advance of the rails.

In the first three years of construction 962 miles of main line and 66 miles of siding were laid. Three and one-half miles of track were built daily for several weeks in 1883, and the record day was July 28, 1883, when six and one-third miles were completed. To do that required the laying of 2,120 rails, weighing 604 tons. Twelve men unloaded the rails, twelve placed them on dump cars, and ten, five to a side, put them in position on the road. Following these came two distributors of angle-bars and bolts, fifteen bolters, and thirty-two spikers. Sixteen thousand ties were unloaded; eight men distributed these on the grade, four others spaced them, two more spaced the joint ties, and another pair adjusted the misplaced ties immediately ahead of the front spikers.

To feed this army of workers scattered over 150 miles of country was no small task. The men required two carloads of provisions each day, the horses 1600 bushels of oats daily. The food provided was of the very best. In contrast to the rowdyism, shooting, gambling, and drinking that were so prevalent among many of the construction gangs on the west-ern railroads of the United States the camps of the Canadian Pacific builders were models of law and order. There was an efficient police force, and no intoxicating liquors were allowed in camp. All trains were searched for contraband goods, and if any man was detected smuggling in liquor he was fined fifty dollars and the liquor was destroyed. For a second offence the fine was two hundred dollars ; for a third the fine was four hundred dollars and the smuggler was lodged in a fort with a ball and chain on his leg. There were no saloons, no dance houses, and none of the roughs and professional gamblers who had trailed after the workgangs of the Union Pacific and fleeced the builders of their wages.

While this splendid army was laying the track from Flat Creek to the Rockies the rails were progressing in other sections. In British Columbia 7000 Chinese laborers were forcing a passage through the Cascade Range. Along the northern shore of Lake Superior the going was extremely difficult; 2,500,000 cubic yards of the hardest rock, syenite and trap, had to be blasted by dynamite. Here 12,000 men and 2,000 teams were employed for three years. The severe cold of the winters and the wildness of the country, which was practically inaccessible by ordinary roads, made the work of supply extraordinarily complicated. To store up food for the seven months of winter, when regular communication was impracticable, twelve steamers were constantly employed while navigation was open. Wagon roads could not be built from the northern shore of Lake Superior to the railroad camps : supplies went by a seven-mile portage road to a small lake, six and one-half miles in length, over which they were carried in a steamboat constructed on the lake; then they were loaded on wagons and hauled sixteen miles to a second lake, eleven miles long. This lake was navigated by a steamboat ; then came a road of two and one-half miles to a third lake and another steamboat, like the others built in the wilderness; this steamer, voyaging twenty-six miles, deposited the provisions at a place from which they could be distributed to the various railroad camps. Six transfers from boat to wagon and wagon to boat, all of them laborious, were necessary to get the supplies in. In winter three hundred dog teams were employed.

On this section of the road five tunnels were driven and ten streams diverted from their courses through rock tunnels ; in one place a shelf twenty feet wide and eleven miles long had to be blasted through the rock. Ninety miles of the road cost two million dollars, but the engineering was so well done that the maximum grade was fifty-two feet to the mile and there was no curve greater than six degrees.

In April, 1885, Louis Riel headed a band of mal-contents in a rebellion against the government, and thanks to this stretch of track, over which Canadian soldiers were hauled in construction trains, the Dominion forces were able to surprise the rebels and quickly quell the revolt. When they returned in the autumn the soldiers found trains with sleeping and dining ears running on a regular schedule along this part of the line.

The summit of the Rockies had been reached by the end of 1884; here the engineers studied the merits of several possible routes to the valley of the Columbia River. The Howse Pass offered easy gradients, but would add thirty miles to the line. The Kicking Horse Pass, on the other hand, was short but steep. In order to complete the road without loss of time the engineers chose the latter route. In the sixty-two miles from the summit of the Rockies to the valley of the Columbia River the Kicking Horse River falls 2778 feet. This river had to be crossed by the railroad nine times and an immense amount of rock excavated. The drilling, on account of the impossibility of getting machinery over such a trail, had to be done by hand. In one part of the work treacherous landslips caused far more trouble than the rock-blasting.

By the spring of 1885 a gap of only 220 miles remained in Columbia; but across this gap rose the Selkirks and the Gold Range. Here more tunnels had to be bored and gigantic trestles thrown across ravines; from two sides engineers and track-layers worked and finally met in Eagle Pass, in the Gold Range.

Many unusual difficulties were encountered in building this great railroad. At one place, some two hundred miles east of Winnipeg, the line was constructed over the Barclay muskeg, the Indian name for bog. The bog was dense enough to support the track, but whenever a train ran out on the rails the surface of the bog would undulate and the waves would cause the rails to move from their proper position. This motion sometimes sheared off the track bolts and watchmen had to be stationed at the Bar-clay muskeg to repair the shifting rails until the engineers worked out a method to hold the track in place.

On the western side of the Rockies the builders planned to drive a tunnel through a spur of the mountains, but the tunnel was no sooner finished than it was filled up with quicksand. Various devices were tried to go through this quicksand mountain, but the tunnel could not be kept clear, and the railroad had to go around the spur.

Two hundred miles east of Vancouver, on the Thompson River, irrigation had caused great land-slides ; in one instance a huge mass of earth had slid into the river and been stopped by a mountain wall, so that the river was dammed to a height of one hundred and sixty feet and formed a lake twelve miles in length. When the river rose to the top of the dam it flowed over and flooded the neighboring country. Here the railroad engineers could not make the tracks stay where they placed them, the surface of the ground slid; one morning it was discovered that during the night the rails had moved eight feet to-wards the river and had sunk four feet below grade. To overcome this shifting various experiments were tried before the builders succeeded in constructing a stationary track.

One of the greatest difficulties was due to the very heavy snowfalls, which frequently sent avalanches crashing down mountain slopes. These slides, moving with tremendous velocity, would cause flurries, or cyclones, which would uproot and batter and blow everything from their path. To protect the line from these great slides miles of snow-sheds were built, and built so skillfully that the Canadian Pacific has had less trouble with snow blockades than railroads in the country farther south.

On November 1, 1885, a train pulled out from Montreal with officials of the company to celebrate the completion of the through line. There was yet one rail to be put in place when the train arrived in the forest at Craigellachie, 2,553 miles from Montreal and 351 miles from Vancouver. No speech-making was indulged in ; on November 7, 1885, Donald Smith hammered a plain iron spike in the last rail, and the eastern and western portions of the road were united. Then the dozen or so railroad officials took a holiday and went fishing.

In about four and a half years the Canadian Pacific had laid 2200 miles of rails through a wilderness country that presented many unique problems to its engineers. Montreal was linked westward with Vancouver on the Pacific, and from Montreal the St. Lawrence River carried traffic east to the Atlantic. As the St. Lawrence is open for shipping only part of the year the Canadian government built a line to connect Montreal with the ports of St. John in New Brunswick and Halifax in Nova Scotia, and thus supplied an all-rail route from ocean to ocean.



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