NOEL ROBINSON January 15 1924



NOEL ROBINSON January 15 1924




IN CANADA few pictures have been reproduced more frequently than the photograph—which appeared in MacLean’s two years ago with one of Col. Ham’s articles—of the scene upon the occasion of the driving of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway by the late Lord Strathcona at Craigellachie, among the mountains of British Columbia. This is not surprising, for that occasion marked the crowning moment of an enterprise with hardly a parallel, at that time, in the history of railway construction. It was appropriate that the central venerable figure of the photograph should be that of Lord Strathcona. Upon his immediate left in the picture you have Sir William Van Horne, a man remarkable in appearance, driving power and accomplishment. Between them, wearing the “plug” hat, stands Sir Sandford Fleming, chief engineer of the C.ÚR. when construction commenced, whom Mr. Cambie describes as “a statesman among , engineers,” and who conceived and saw carried to completion the Pacific cable. And last, but by no means least, Henry J. Cambie is there, the man with a beard and with a bowler hat tilted slightly over his eyes.

The occasion was a never-to-be-forgotten one, the consummation of years of intense mental strain on the part of at least three men, Lord Strathcona, Lord Mountstephen, and R. B. Angus—each one more than ninety years of âgé when he died—and physical strain on the part of many thousands of men, from the expert engineers and foremen to the humblest “bohunk” who blasted the rock in the rugged canyons of the Fraser River.

The reader who has followed the previous articles, which have dealt more particularly with Mr. Cambie’s explorations and adventures by flood and field, will have formed some conception of the type of man this was who now commenced the greatest task of his life, the blasting of a way through the Fraser canyons and the construction of the road-bed preparatory to the laying of the steel which should ultimately connect the Atlantic with the Pacific coast. As an engineer, explorer and practical railway builder of wide experience, and also as a judge of men, he brought to his task a combination of qualities possessed in a similar degree by few, if any, of his contemporaries. This, at any rate, is the opinion of those of his contemporaries of that time with whom I have talked.

Why Choose Yellow Head?

AT THE close of the last article some idea was A given of Andrew Onderdonk, the young contractor (he was hardly thirty years of age) to whom was awarded in the early spring of 1880 the contract for this important work. A hint was also given of the stupendous nature yfjt'ne mountain work which the undertaking demanded.

“Before you refer to the work itself I should like to give you a few reasons for the selection of the route via the Yellow Head Pass,” observed Mr. Cambie. “In the first place, that is the lowest pass through the Rocky Mountains in British 'Columbia—south of the Peace River. In the second place, it is the only one from which the Pacific Ocean can be reached without any adverse grades—that is, descending gradually all the way to the sea, via the Fraser River, or by a line via the Thompson River, with one rise of 300 feet over Albreda Summit—so that it had the best grades. In the third place, it was in what was called the fertile belt all the way from Winnipeg to Edmonton, and the country further to the South was then considered to be bairen or nearly so. And, in the fourth place, it was much further from the American boundary than the other passes and there would be less difficulty in borrowing money for its construction as a military road than had it been near the boundary, as in the case of the Crow’s Nest or Kicking Horse Passes.”

Hazardous Work — Grasshopper Trestles

QUESTIONED as to the laying out of the work —apart altogether from the difficulties of construction—Mr. Cambie admitted that this was sometimes very hazardous. He instanced particularly the Cherry Creek bluffs at Kamloops Lake.

“Quite a stretch of it was laid out by a very small proportion of our engineering staff,” he observed, “consisting of two sailors, who sprung ropes from rock to rock or from tree to tree, and a few engineers, who, steadying themselves with these ropes, went along in their bare feet to lay out the work, with a precipice and then Kamloops Lake of unknown depth immediately below them.” (I have it from the lips of two of his contemporaries who were there that Mr. Cambie was one of the engineers who took this risk most frequently—he would never let any man go where he would not go himself.)

“The only one of our engineering staff who came to grief was Melchior Eberts,” lie stated, “and he was killed close by the old Alexandra suspension bridge in January, 1881.”

Instancing the difficulties which had to be faced, Mr. Cambie remarked:

“When we commenced surveys in British Columbia they gave us a maximum of curvature of four degrees, a radius of 1,433 feet, whereas, as soon as we got really started on construction, the chief engineer decided that we should have much sharper curves. Mr. White, who was my principal assistant at the time, and who is now resident in Vancouver at the age of 73, and I went carefully into the matter and decided we could reduce the cost very much by adopting eight degree curves, or 716 feet radius. This reduced the tunnelling to one-half, and the expenses proportionately. We had to increase the curvature beyond anything we had ever seen up to that time on a main line of railway, and in order to get round the face of some of the bluffs we had to construct what we called grasshopper trestles with long posts on the outside standing in steps cut in the rock, and, on the other side, a very short post, if any, because very often we had only half a road-bed. These things have since been done away with and their place taken by retaining walls."

Heavy Loss of Life—Vice in Yale

IN AN article of this description it is not possible to go into technical details, but some idea will have been gathered from the foregoing of the character of the difficulties which had to be surmounted. Asked as to whether there was much loss of life, Mr. Cambie replied:

“Yes, the loss in this respect was particularly heavy and we filled a whole cemetery at Yale with the dead. Explosives were often used very carelessly, and the loss of life in that connection was principally among the whites, but the Chinese sometimes died wholesale of scurvy. More especially this loss of life took place upon construction work through the canyons of the Fraser, where all the work was in rock and where there was great difficulty in getting good cover when shots were fired. A great many men, too, were drowned, but I can give you no idea of how many men lost their lives.”

Very naturally, few travellers coming through to Vancouver and the Pacific in comfort, and—if they have the price—even in luxury, give a thought, as they speed smoothly along in the Imperial Limited, to the lives that were lost in order that they might travel through at ease. Few know that any lives were lost.

“The little wooden town of Yale, from which in the days of the Cariboo gold rush so many thousands started in to the gold diggings along the famous Cariboo Road, presented during this railway construction period the most singular picture of vice openly flaunting itself in broad daylight that it has ever been my lot to witness,” the veteran engineer remarked another time during our conversation, the observation being elicited by a photograph of Yale. “When we commenced construction it consisted of about 300 people, but during construction its permanent population would be about 1,000. It became a by-word for vice. The Toronto Globe jsent out a correspondent and he described in I lurid colors Yale on a Sunday morning .and described it as a den of iniquity. And I remember vaguely some blank verses which appeared in that old publication of the late J. W. Bengough’s, Grip. They began something like this:

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Continued from, page 15

“Far out in British Columbia,

Beside the Pacific slope,

On the western bank of the Fraser There stands the town of Yale—”

and they went on to refer to ‘the sights and scenes unholy.’ “I’m afraid it wasn’t much as poetry, or perhaps I should say that there was more truth than poetry in it,” commented Mr. Cambie, laughing.

First Chinese Importations

MENTION of the Chinese lad me to ask a question regarding their advent into British Columbia.

“In the main,” was the reply, “a much higher type of workman was engaged than is the case now upon similar work. Except for the Chinese there were very few foreigners in the country and most of the men on the construction work were English-speaking, many of them Englishmen. I was often surprised at the great number among them who were well-informed men who had drifted through most parts of the world, many of them highly educated. They were good workmen, too. Onderdonk supplied excellent camps and good sleeping-quarters and the food in his camps was all of really good quality and well served. I often dropped in and had a meal in the camps. The wages were $2 and upwards per day. At the start, however, the labor was not satisfactory.

“In the spring of 1882 Mr. Onderdonk found that the extra white labor that he had got from San Francisco—the only source of supply at the moment—consisted for the most part of clerks out of employment, broken-down bartenders and others of that ilk, men who had never handled a shovel before and who often appeared on the scene attired in fashionable garments in a rather tattered state and who might even be seen in the cuttings with patent leather shoes much the worse for wear and trousers sprung about the feet.

“So he determined to import a lot of Chinamen—the first large number of Chinese coolies to be imported into this country at one time—and he got two ship loads of 1,000 men each. They came in very bad weather and had to be kept below hatches most of the way, so, as soon as they got upon the work and began to take violent exercise, they developed scurvy and were decimated, actually fully one-tenth of their number dying. Being fatalists, as soon as a man was stricken with scurvy the others would not wait upon him or even give him a drink, and the government agent at Yale had great difficulty in getting them buried when they died. In fact many of their bodies were so lightly covered with rocks and a little earth that we became unpleasantly aware of the fact while walking along the line.”

(Mr. Cambie’s series of reminiscent articles will be concluded in the next issue, February 1; in the final instalment Mr. Robinson gives some of the more humor! ous incidents of construction work in the Rockies in the ’Eighties.) I