In Advance of the Pullman

JOSEPH WEARING August 1 1909

In Advance of the Pullman

JOSEPH WEARING August 1 1909

In Advance of the Pullman


IF YOU wish to experience every degree of lassitude, apathy and general indifference except in one respect, take a long journey by rail; nothing seems to breed ennui like the atmosphere of a railway carriage. A few hours in the train may be enjoyed, but with most travelers it is not long before the lethargic condition is reached and then the only thing of interest is—the journey’s end. Modern engineering has reduced danger to such a minimum that the average passenger hardly gives a thought to the men on whom his life depends ; and whoever wonders while traveling swiftly and easily over the roadbed how much toil and sweat has entered into its construction?

Many people will consider me rather an eccentric sort of person, I fear, but, taking the risk, I should urge everyone to travel some time or other over a hundred miles or so of railroad before a car has run upon it, before even the rails have been laid, and while the only means of conveyance is “Shanks’ pony.” The journey may entail some fatigue, but it will surely banish apathy ; there may at times be sore feet, but there wall certainly never be ennui. Before the hundred miles have been completed there will have come some dim realization of the extent of scientific knowledge and amount of mechanical skill required in order to span a stretch of country with two parallel lines of steel, and the traveler will begin to understand that the building of a railway embankment or the digging and blasting of a rock-cut involves more labor and hardship than is ever put on record in the Government report ; to say nothing of the actual toll paid in workmen’s lives. Though claiming no relationship with any manner of prophet, I venture to predict that anyone making such a trip will afterwards implicitly believe that whatever is possible in thought to a railroad contractor is possible also in deed, and I have not the slightest doubt that the passage over a hundred miles of construction will result in the conviction that Solomon should have sent the sluggard, not to the ant, but to the railway navvy.

It is a well-known fact that doctors rarely take their own physic, and that precepts are much more easily expounded than worked out in practice. A journey such as I have advocated is well within my own experience, however, and it is because I have not only learned much of the difficulty and danger of railroading in general, but have also appreciated something of the romance of railway construction in particular that I offer the following account of a recent tramp over the potential Grand Trunk Pacific line between Stoney Plains—twenty miles west of Edmonton—and the McLeod River—seventy miles east of the Yellowhead Pass.

The “tramp” proper did not begin with my departure from Stoney Plains, for I started out on the St. Anne’s stage, which took me to Wabamun Lake—twenty-two miles west of Stoney Plains. There were two passengers besides myself : one a

homesteader from the State of Oregon, and the other a Norwegian fur trader, who lived at Entwhistle. The homesteader made it his business to keep the stage from upsetting, and during the whole of the twenty-two miles he kept dodging from one side of the rig to the other as the occasion —or the holes in the trail—demanded. The Norwegian, a most hospitable fellow' to whom I am indebted for two nights’ lodging, entertained me with information regarding the country, and endeavored to palliate the iniquities of the burg which he represented. The driver of the stage, hearing that I was from the east, remarked during one of the very brief intervals between two bad places in the road that he had been for eighteen years a conductor between Toronto and North Bay. “Drink?” I suggested. “Oh, no,” he said. “I just got tired of it and came west to try farming, but drifted into this instead.” “Like it any better than railroading?” “Oh, sure ! I make as much money and have no responsibility.”

Traveling by stage in that section of our great and glorious west does not give one much opportunity for studying the landscape ; my attention was directed, however, to the number of dead horses along the trail in different degrees of decomposition. A question drew forth the information from the stage driver that during last winter five hundred teams wrere hauling supplies from Edmonton into the different camps and that the killing of a horse was a common occurrence.

“See that?” he said, pointing to a skeleton at the bottom of a steep hill, “Well, I was coming along last winter when a fellow started up the hill with sixty hundred pounds. I told him he had better let me double up, but he said, ‘Til make it or kill ’im.’ That’s what he did before he got halfway up.”

Passing along by the side of a small lake the fur trader volunteered the details concerning a navvy who had drowned himself there the summer before. “Just got clean crazed with drink and ran right into the water. There was a gang working close to the lake, but they didn’t do much to save him. Nine days after the body came up and they chucked him in an old box and buried him on the hill there; right over there.” The narration of this tragedy stirred up again some of the indignation which had been aroused at the time of the event and the trader finished up with, “Downright shame, the way they let the poor fellow drown himself. If it had been a mule the whole gang would have been ordered oft" to pull it out of the water.”

Leaving the stage, the Norwegian and I crossed Wabamun Lake and took the right of way into Entwhistle, arriving there just at midnight. At this particular time the newspapers all over Canada were on the qui vive concerning this so-called town on the Pembina River, because of the unsavory reputation it had acquired through some statements made by a preacher there and the subsequent raid by the N. W. M. P. Like a loyal citizen, my compagnon de voyage defended his town most emphatically, admitting that “blind pigs” and attendant evils were to be found, but declaring that these were very quiet resorts and that they did not in any way disturb the town as a whole. He appeared to consider it an indispensable condition that such places should exist on the frontier. My own impression of the town was exactly opposite to that of the Englishman landing at Montreal, and finding a city where he expected to see nothing but wigwams. All I could see on the banks of the swift-rushing Pembina was a few tents and huts. The odor of the place reminded me of an extract from the diary of Dr. Livesey in Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”: “If ever a man smelt fever and dysentery, it was in that abominable anchorage,”

The second day, I traveled alone, keeping straight along the right of way and passing through ten or twelve construction gangs at work. To say that I walked all day would be hardly correct. Sometimes I walked, but mostly I climbed, slid, rolled, plunged, waded or wallowed. Tramping over a right of way which leads through swamp and muskeg, one does some unexpected “stunts.” Distance, too, is purely arbitrary on the frontier. A certain camp would be still ten miles ahead after I had passed several gangs working some miles apart, and even when the distance had decreased to six miles by common report, I was just as likely as not to meet someone who would aver that the camp was exactly eleven miles straight ahead. Several times during the day I came across a sign bearing the legend, “General Store. Bread for Sale,” but on each occasion I failed to notice anything in the shape of a store, the only building visible being a little sod hut at some distance from the right of way. On one sign the “bread for sale” was varied by “fish for sale,” but where the fish came from I was unable to imagine, for there was no lake near, and who bought the fish I had no idea, for the nearest construction camp was seven or eight miles away.

Let it not be thought that I am a Government inspector of railways or an itinerant land speculator. The roadbed, as such, was not my chief interest, though I gave it careful attention, particularly as to its possibilities for providing a footpath ; nor was I especially concerned regarding the nature of the surrounding country, though I noticed that all along the route on either side of the line there was rising ground which will before long be tilled by hundreds of farmers. The real object of my trip was to learn something of the condition of the men who build the railroads and to enquire into certain efforts which have been put forth for their moral and intellectual development.

During my journey I became particularly interested in the “stationmen” whom I passed along the road. These are the navvies who make the roadbed through the muskegs, doing all the work with an axe, spade and barrow, and being paid so much— about twenty -cents—per cubic yard. These humble and modest “builders of empire” trundle the barrow fifteen and sixteen hours a day, passing the nighr in rude huts along the line, either alone or with a chum. About the only diversion a station-man has is the cooking of his meals, and this operation is not of a lengthy nature, for, as one of them remarked to me, the never-varying bill of fare is “bread and pork and pork and beans.” To be a station-man means to be a mere hanger-on to civilization. One robust digger I met who had at one time been an Irishman, said that he had not received a letter for eight years—had no friends to write to. Among the station-men I found nearly all the nationalities in Europe, as well as Britishers, Canadians and Americans. Some were quite cheery and talkative, while others were morose and uncommunicative. One old fellow, wearing a good-natured smile in spite of the sweat which rolled down his face, told me that he was a German and that he cleared four and five dollars a day at the work. The reason he gave for his success at this particular kind of employment was that for a number of years he had been a market gardener in England. In one hut where I sheltered from the rain, the owner, a young Nova Scotian, took quite a different view of the situation.

“The job’s no good,” he said, “and I am sick of it. All a fellow needs for digging up muskeg is a strong back and a weak mind.”

A Finlander with whom I had quite a conversation was not only satisfied, but quite enthusiastic. Waving his spade towards the east, he stammered out, “Finland no good country. Little bit money. Lots money here.”

The greatest surprise I had during my whole trip was the sight of a woman calmly wheeling a well-filled barrow up a steep plank. At first I could hardly believe my eyes, for, as one man put it. “Women are as scarce as Christians out here.” but I found my vision not only true in general, but also correct in detail, for the laborer proved to be a pleasant-looking, good-natured girl, and not at all masculine in appearance. She spoke very good English, and told me that she was a Belgian, and that she came there of her own free will because she didn’t want her husband to be all alone. At the time I wondered how many Canadian girls would be willing to go to such a place in order to keep a husband company, to say nothing of making a home in a hovel built of sod taken from the muskeg.

The second day after leaving Entwhistle I reached my destination— Foley’s Camp, No. 114, a few miles from the McLeod River, and within sight of the Rockies. From different gangs along the line I had heard reports of what the men considered an extraordinary proceeding in Camp 114. A student from some college had been sent in there to run a reading tent, and this same student was driving a pair af mules in the daytime and teaching classes in his tent at night. It was this strange proceeding that I had come to investigate and to me there was an added interest in the fact that the student was a college chum of mine.

Coming into the camp I was directed to the tent where the “reading tent instructor” bunked along with four or five other laborers, and soon I greeted my chum. In appearance there was nothing of the college man about him. At sight no Alma Mater would have claimed him. Without doubt, nobody who had any acquaintance with students would have supposed that two months previous he had carried off a scholarship in philosophy. The fellow I greeted was a navvy pure and simple, and he certainly looked the part. During my stay in the camp, however, I learned that the influence of the college had exerted itself even among mule drivers, scraper-holders, graders and ditchers. Almost every man in the gang was interested in the reading tent, applications were being made daily for entrance into the evening classes, and all were eagerly looking forward to a concert which had been announced for the following Saturday night. All hands, from the foreman to the cookie, were enthusiastic over the fact that in their camp, at least, the evenings and Sundays would not be without means of profitable entertainment.

The visit which I paid to Camp 114 confirmed my belief in the excellency of the means which had been adopted by the Reading Camp Association for the amelioration of the lot of the railway navvy. The association does not send into the camps a missionary, a teacher or a colporteur, but it sends in a laborer who is a composite of these three. Instead of attracting the men of the camp by means of a frock coat, the “instructor” reaches them through the medium of a pair of overalls, and in place of exhorting his fellow-workers to flee from the wrath to come, he endeavors to show them a mode of life which has no fear of impending destruction. The association was formed as the result of a conviction that the building of good roadbeds is not more essential than the making of good citizens, and the conviction carried with it the belief that frontier laborers can never be reached by ordinary methods. Certainly it is no ordinary method which sends into construction camps collegebred men, who not only establish means for sound entertainment and profitable instruction, but at the same time become themselves, in every sense of the word, railway navvies.

It is surely high time that publicspirited Canadians wakened up to the real condition of affairs on the frontier. All our larger cities are making an effort to provide comfortablyfurnished and finely-equipped buildings which shall be the means of raising the moral and intellectual status of the railroad men, but who cares anything about the navvy?. There’s need to guide and control the lives of the thousands of men who operate our railroads, but there is a greater need to make intelligent and progressive citizens of the other thousand who build them, particularly when it is .remembered that these latter are, for the most part, immigrants who have come to us for better or for worse. It is not long ago since the question went forth among our cousins to the south:

“Who loosened and let down this1 brutal jaw ? Whose was the hand which slanted back this brow ?

Whose breath blew out the light within the brain ?” "

We can only forestall such a question in our own land by declaring of these incoming railroad builders and homeseekers :

"We’ll not make them helpers only. But we’ll teach them to be true. First and last Canadians............”

to a Young Man. - Remember, my son, you have to work. Whether you handle a pick or pen, wheelbarrow or a set of books, dig ditches or edit a paper, ring an auction bell or write funny things—you must work. If you will look around, you will see the men who are the most able to live the rest of their days without work are the men who work the hardest. Don’t fear of killing yourself by overwork. It is beyond your power to do that on the sunny side of thirty. They die sometimes, but it's because they quit work at 6 p.m. It’s the interval that kills, my son. The work gives you a perfect and grateful appreciation of a holiday. There are young men who do not work, but the world is not proud of them ; it simply speaks of them as old So and So's boy. Nobody likes them; the great busy world doesn’t know they are there. So find out what you want to be and do, and take off your coat and make dust in the world. The busier you are, the less harm you will be apt to get into, the sweeter will be your sleep, the brighter and happier your holidays, and the better satisfied the world will be with you — Bob Burnett.