Driving Steel Through a Wilderness

W. C. Arnott January 1 1913

Driving Steel Through a Wilderness

W. C. Arnott January 1 1913

Driving Steel Through a Wilderness

W. C. Arnott

A transcontinental railway in a country such as Canada—the land of illimitable distances—marks a new epoch. It is a project fraught with immense difficulties and wonderful possibilities. In the Northern wake of the builders of the New Transcontinental will follow thousands of settlers, for the country is potentially rich, and without doubt the history of the West will be repeated in this new land of abundant promise. In this article the stupendous task of driving steel rails through the Northern wilderness is graphically described in picture and story.

IT IS ONE of the hallucinations of the human mind to imagine that the other fellow always has I he easier job. The tendency to magnify the burden of one’s own tasks is deep-seated. That is why you will find a divergency of opinion as to whose share in the work of building such a railway as the National Transcontinental has been the most onerous. Engineers in the field will

sniff disdainfully at the part performed by the staff at headquarters. (Jontractors’ men will sneer at the achievements of the resident engineers. The navvy, if he takes time to think about it at all, will be convinced that he alone has actually worked.

Yet when it comes to the final analysis, it is doubtful if any one person or group of persons has had to endure more genuine hardships than the men who located the road. One can cover the three or four hundred miles of completed track through northern Quebec and Ontario, comprised in the Cochrane district, with comparative comfort. It is even possible to go further and follow the grade for many miles on foot without any undue discomfort. But what a journey that must have been before the hand of man had set itself to hew a path through the wilderness. It was not alone a land spread thick with forest growth. Nor was it only the abundance of its rivers and lakes that rendered it difficult of passage. Above and beyond all this it was largely a water-sogged waste. All through the woods, water was held in storage in soaking ground and springy muskeg. It is easy enough to be courageous when dry of foot and warmly clad but to struggle forward day in and day out

through weeks and months, with drenched shoes and damp clothing, is a truer test of endurance. This was the lot of the locating engineers.

Water is one of the great assets of Ihis north country. It is the main element of contrast in the scenery. Take away those brimming rivers that intersect the right of way at intervals of every few miles and a journey across the great clay belt would be more monotonous than a trip over virgin prairie. The prairie affords breadth of vision at least, but the forest closes in against one with monotonous and almost stifling uniformity. To relieve this oppression, the rivers come as rifts in a cloudy sky. They cut deep into the forest growth and their valleys open up panoramas of great attractiveness. From the high steel bridges that span their current, one peeps into regions full of potentialities for sport and exploration. But in pre-railway days, the rivers were as bridgeless as the forests were pathless. Natural drainage alone carried off such surplus moisture as was squeezed out of the woods and more than enough remained to make prospecting unpleasantly damp and correspondingly disconsolate. Into such a land as this, supremely rich in its soil, abundantly blessed with water, the pioneers of the railway penetrated, taking the first essential steps in the work of construction.

Very much like actual warfare has been the building of the railway and while no human enemy in the shape of hostile tribes of Indians has been encountered, yet in subduing the opposing forces of nature, the railway builders have had to have recourse to many of the artifices of real war. With somewhat the same precision as an army is officered, the leaders of the railway forces have been placed in different

ranks and positions. At the head of llie engineering staff, stands the chief engineer with his headquarters at the capital. Under him are the several district engineers, each of whom has charge of one or two districts. These districts are in turn divided into divisions and the divisions are subdivided into still smaller sections. Over a division, a divisional engineer takes charge, while resident engineers carry out the instructions of their superiors in the smaller subdivisions.

The rank and file are divided into gangs, corresponding to the companies in a regiment, while a camp may be considered as analogous to the regiment ¡(self. As the work progresses the camps are moved forward, carrying the attack ever further and further into the enemy’s territory. There are in each camp officers of the non-commissioned variety, time-keepers, paymasters, supply keepers, cooks and foremen, all of whom have their particular duties to perform.

Track laying machine at work.

In the work of railroad building the transport of supplies has been one of the most important considerations. This was perhaps a more arduous undertaking in the early days before the men had obtained a firm footing in the land, but thanks to the existence of navigable rivers and lakes it was possible to carry supplies to the construction camps with comparative ease. Visitors who follow the trail of the railroad builders are shown relics of the days before the steel was down in the shape of scows, makinaws and river steamers, some of which are fast decaying alongside some sheltering shore and others are in service as pleasure craft of one sort or another.

One contractor at least established a mono-rail route for bringing his supplies to the front. A single rail was laid along the grade, on which a twowheeled contrivance was placed. By an

ingenious arrangement a horse was harnessed underneath one side of this vehicle and, the load being balanced neatly between horse and cart, so that, the animal would not be lifted off its feet, the whole outfit would jog merrily along towards the camp.

In process of time, as mile after mile of track was laid, real trains began to supersede these primitive attemps at locomotion and to-day the supply train has become a regular bi-weekly or triweekly feature on the road. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products, are carried east and west in box cars and are delivered at the camps within a comparatively few hours. The strenuous days are over—the days, when it was necessary to carry supplies to end of steel over frozen tote roads, before the coming of spring rendered communication uncertain. Nowadays the railroad builder is a pampered individual, living on the fat of the land and within as easy reach of the big mail order house as the average homesteader in the West.

From tbe high steel bridges that span the rivers one peeps into rivers full of potentialities for sport and exploration.

Bereft of many of the blessings and comforts of civilization, with no saloons or^ theatres within several hundreds of miles, your railroad navvy must be treated with some measure of consideration in the item of food. One may y onder at the plenty and variety that is placed before him at meal time but it must be regarded largely in the light of^ a bribe. The attraction of sight being denied him, for he is supposedly blind to the beauties of nature, or at least that aspect of nature which is vouchsafed him. it becomes necessary to appeal with double force to that other clamorous sense of taste. He must be fed well to hold him and this circumstance the contractor recognizes. That is why one finds these hard-worlced navvies feasting abundantly on roast beef

and pork, steak and potatoes, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, corn, bread and rolls, pudding and pie, cookies and cakes, jam and preserves, crackers and cheese. All these articles of food and more are contained within the limits of the bill of fare of a single meal.

The commissariat department is equally lavish with the engineers. These superior beings—the aristocrats of the road—are not fed by the contractors but by the Government. They are part of the great T. C. R. — the Transcontinental Commissioners’ Railway—and as such they are entitled to the best that is to be had. Their camps are isolated from those of the laborers, being placed as a rule some half a mile from the railway and near some river or lake. A cook is detailed to provide for their wants and one of the log houses, which comprise the camp, is assigned for his use. flere he reigns supreme and only at meal times is the engineering staff permitted to invade his quarters.

The life at an engineer’s residency is not without its attractive features, albeit the young men there are so very much cut off from all those frills which help to make life worth living. As a rule they are a congenial company of ’welleducated young fellows, who have possibly been at college and know7 a few7 things about the w7avs of the w7orld. They understand how to make themselves comfortable and they keep their quarters spick and span. They are not too far outside the postal limits to miss the enjoyment to be derived from the receipt of letters and papers, while there is customarily a fair assortment of books to fall back upon in the long evenings.

Practically everybody dabs a little at photography and the residency that cannot produce an album of photographs for the delectation of visitors has

yet to be discovered. It is an easy way to show what the staff has accomplished on the road and to illustrate feats of prow7ess in various fields of effort. Then your average residency boasts a gramophone, unless it be that members of the staff are themselves musicians. Sometimes a camp can even go to the extent of mustering a little orchestra, as at Low Bush residency.

A dogless residency is unknown, the number of canines being considerable, and there are sometimes other pets such as bear cubs and foxes on the place. Some camps have cows and chickens, from wdiich they derive their own milk and eggs. In every case there is a garden where root crops grow exceedingly well and flowers bloom profusely, for it must be known that one’s residence at a camp is not a matter of days or weeks or even months, but extends over whole years, so that it is worth while to go to some trouble to cultivate the ground.

Splendid opportunities for enjoying outdoor life in a new and unspoilt country are the lot of the young fellows in the residencies. Necessarily there is work to be done, often of a strenuous and exhausting nature, but as construction, proceeds, the stress is removed and more time is available for other pursuits. Hunting and fishing are to be had in plenty at the proper seasons, while in wunter trapping is carried on. Chances for taking canoe trips on the rivers or sailing on the lakes are frecpient and in fact there is no end to the free and untramelled enjoyment of outdoor pursuits.

The foregoing depicts one phase of life in the railway camps. But it is not all beer and skittles. There is a sterner side to it. Just as in a military campaign officers and men may on the whole fare plentifully and have many means of enjoying themselves, yet they must keep ever before them the object towards which they are aiming. The

railway must be built and mixed with the lighter moments come those of more serious import.

When one is told that the country through which the railway passes, for many miles east and west of Cochrane, is comparatively level, it would appear as if the task of railroad construction would not be particularly difficult. A little extra effort in felling trees would seem to be the only additional outlay of labor that would distinguish its construction from that of a railway across the prairies. Unfortunately for the ideas of those who are unfamiliar writh the nature of the country, actual construction did not work out so smoothly. It is true the grade was made wdth comparative ease and the steel followed expeditiously, but wffien it came to running trains over the track unforeseen difficulties arose. ■ At certain points— not numerous it is true but sufficiently frequent to be a source of much vexation—the road caved in. Frequently these saggings were in the neighborhood of streams or hollows, where temporary trestles had been erected to carry the track across, pending filling in, and the result was that the trestle would sometimes capsize and dump a passing train into the ditch. Or else it was just an ordinary piece of track, which would sink beneath the weight of a locomotive. Only one remedy was possible and that was earth. It became necessary to fill up the pores of the spongy ground with ballast. Trainload after trainload would be dumped into the voracious hole, until at last it could swallow no more and the track would have a solid foundation.

Sometimes the presence of these muskegs would not become noticeable for some time after preliminary construction had been completed. Then one day a sag in the track wT>uld become noticeable, would grow more accentuated every day and finally would call for immediate attention. At other times it would become necessary to build a deviation around the sink-hole to carry traffic, while busy ballast trains would labor to fill in the gap. However, the worst muskeg must have its limit and patient effort at length succeeds in reaching that limit. The obstacles which nature has placed in the way of the advancing army of railroad ‘builders, have always been surmounted.

One is sometimes inclined to wonder why it is taking so long to build this new railway, why the work of conquestis proceeding so slowly. The answer to this is simple. Such a high standard of construction has been called for that it has been impossible to build any more rapidly. Here for instance is a stretch of track, over which a train could readily run its fifty or sixty miles an hour and that as smoothly as on the best road in the older part of the country. It seems as if nothing more would be required before the contractor could hand it over as a finished piece of work. But it comes as a surprise to learn that all this track must be gone over again and dressed up with a final load of ballast.

Here is where much time and labor is being spent—not in the actual track laying—but in the dressing up of the roadbed.

Bridge building is another operation that delays construction. Where so many rivers have to be crossed, the item of bridges becomes indeed an important one. It has been the policy of the Government to put in permanent steel structures at the outset, not to w^ait and shoulder the expense on to a later day. For temporary needs, trestles have been erected to one side of the locations of the permanent bridges and, as quickly as the structural steel can be hurried to the place, the latter have been swung into position and bolted to the concrete foundations. This portion of the work is carried on independently of the regular railroad work, the engineering and contracting forces being specially mobilized for the purpose.

It must be conceded that most railways have been built to fill an existing need. Even in the case of roads in the newer portions of the West, there have been some settlers and some development in advance of the steel. But if the ultimate goal of the National Transcontinental be eliminated, and its transcontinental features be put out of the reckoning, it is almost unique in that it has been built through hundreds of miles of absolutely uninhabited territory. Stations have already been erected all along the line, but there is not a human being to make use of them. All the equipment is ready for the accommodation of a big population but the people are non-existent. This circumstance renders the achievement of the railroad builders all the more notable, in that they have carried on their work in an unpopulated region. There can be no doubt, however, that in their wake will follow thousands of settlers, for the country is potentially rich. Already some settlement has taken place near Cochrane and this will spread all along the line, until the history of the Westwill be repeated in this new land of abundant promise.