Steel’s March to Flin Flon

It took 330 trainloads of gravel to fill one 250-foot stretch of the Flin Flon railroad!

JACK PATERSON October 15 1929

Steel’s March to Flin Flon

It took 330 trainloads of gravel to fill one 250-foot stretch of the Flin Flon railroad!

JACK PATERSON October 15 1929

Steel’s March to Flin Flon

It took 330 trainloads of gravel to fill one 250-foot stretch of the Flin Flon railroad!


WHEN in December, 1927, with only a trail blazed through the northern wilderness, Harry F. McLean, president of the Dominion Construction Company, made the astounding statement that he would have steel into Flin Flon for freight hauling by December, 1928, there were many who shook their heads dubiously. Others made not the slightest attempt to hide their mirth. “These people may know railroad construction, but apparently they don’t know the North,” was the general verdict.

And this attitude was not altogether confined to outsiders. There were those long associated with the company who, in the privacy of their quarters, voiced grave doubts regarding the outcome of the project. ‘Their association with the company and its head had more or less accustomed them to miracles, but here was something that aside from a question of loyalty struck them as being entirely hopeless. To run a new railroad of— including sidings—well over a hundred miles, through a virgin country of timber, muskeg, lakes, and heavy rockcutting in a year, seemed an idea worthy of only the wildest dreamer.

Under ordinary conditions a hundred miles of railroad would require two full seasons to build; and here conditions were everything but ordinary

In the North, stormy and far below zero weather in January and February is an assured thing. The rightof-way and the gravel deposits would be frozen solid. To build a road-bed in winter would be impossible, and in summer wet ground and muskeg would make things nearly as bad.

The contract called for the completion of the road by September 30, 1929, with a bonus of a quarter of a million dollars, if the construction company could deliver freight at the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company’s Flin Flon property by December 31, 1928, nearly one year earlier—the stipulated amount of freight being 2,000 tons.

Not satisfied merely to finish the job within the allotted two years, the contractors went after the bonus; and the handing over of the new road to the Canadian National Railways on July 25 of this year marked the completion of a piece of railroad construction work that from start to finish was a series of surprises and broken records.

Building Against Time

ON JANUARY 3, 1928, a start was made Qn the new road, and on March 17, only two and a half months later, fifty-one miles of main-line steel had been laid, the shrieks of locomotives had pierced the wilderness, and freight was being delivered to the end of steel at Cranberry Portage.

On September 22, 1928, Premier John Bracken travelled by rail to drive the golden spike at the Flin Flon mine, this having been made possible by the construction of eighty-seven miles of line, with twentyeight additional miles of Y-s and sidings, in the recordbreaking time of nine and a half months, or an average of twelve miles a month.

Long before December 31, which bonus date had called for the delivery of 2,000 tons of freight, trains were running regularly into Flin Flon, and many thousands of tons had been delivered. By March 31 of this year 36,581 tons, approximately 175 trainloads. of freight, had been hauled for Flin Flon, besides some fifty trainloads of foodstuffs and supplies hauled for other properties and settlements at different points along the line. An interesting sidelight which helps to show the condition of the road is that during all this haulage there was not a single derailment—a remarkable record for a road under construction.

Besides freight, a passenger service, with rail trucks in summer and mixed trains in winter, had been maintained, and showed a revenue of $78,000 up to the date of taking-over. This amount, added to a gross freight revenue of approximately $310,000, less a three per cent administration allowance, was required to be handed over to the railway company to apply against the cost of the job.

So here we have the substantial sum of $388,000 earned incidental to the actual building of a railroad in such record time that it was handed over on July 25 rather than on the following September 30, as called for by contract.

“How Did They Do It?”

NOW the job is complete. The trains of the Canadian National Railways are running over the new stretch of road, but even as they ride in comfort over a roadbed that not long ago looked to them like a crazy man’s dream, the sceptics continue to shake their heads and ask in wonder: “How did they do it?”

And on that question hinges the whole remarkable story. The manner of doing it was a distinct departure from the ordinary technique of railway construction.

Before starting the new job Harry F. McLean chose carefully the men who would handle it for him. From the half-dozen contracts handled by the Dominion Construction Company at that time he brought certainpicked men for each department. Superintendents of rock, steel, bridge, train, office, and supply work. Tractor drivers, skinners, clerks, cooks, and certain dependable roustabouts. December, 1927 found them assembled at The Pas ready to hear how this new thing was to be tackled

Then came the announcement that, as it was deemed impractical to build a roadbed in winter, it had been decided to lay the steel first, rush supplies to different strategic points along the line, and after the spring break-up, to work simultaneously from these points.

And so it was done, to the amazement of even some of those doing it, the head of the company remaining on the ground for several weeks, until to him the success of the venture was assured. After that, it was just another construction job to be visited at intervals, the work being carried on meanwhile by the various heads under the able supervision of Colonel Ramsay.

It was late in December before men and supplies were mustered at The Pas, and on New Year’s Day, with the thermometer registering forty-five below, the first of them left by snowmobile to establish a camp supply depot for the north end of the new job. This camp was located sixty-five miles from The Pas on the shore of Lake Athapapuskow at a point where during the war, while hauling high-grade ore from Mandy Mines to be shipped to a smelter, Charles Morgan had maintained his old Camp Two.

Here they bought the old buildings, including a store and stopping house run by Durie and Akers, now of Cold Lake. Hardly had they finished fitting up the camp for men and teams, when the first tractor train arrived from The Pas with supplies for the camps to be located along the opposite side of Lake Athapapuskow, and along the length of Schist Lake as far as Mile 85.

From then on, the camp was the scene of day and night activity. Hundreds of tons of foodstuffs, hay and oats, and general camp supplies were dumped at the depot to be checked, sorted, and relayed to the different camps across the lake by team swings pushing before them specially devised snowplows.

Each incoming tractor, besides its following of capacity-loaded sleighs, hauled a caboose packed with men who continued their journey by team through bitter cold, across the windswept stretches of lake, to the various points where timber was being mowed and cuts blasted ready for the crawling steel.

And in the meantime the steel was moving northward. Starting from the Hudson Bay Railway five miles north of The Pas, subcontractors had been steadily clearing the hundred-foot right-of-way, secure in the knowledge that with a start of seVeral miles they had a perfectly safe clearance. On January 3 came the word that the actual steel laying had begun, followed soon by the disturbing news that there was danger of the steel gang overtaking them.

Steel Races Clearing

HPHEN began a type of race new in railroad building. Hearing continued reports of the approaching steel, the subcontractors and their men worked furiously.

Stripped to their undershirts in thirty and forty below zero weather, they kept great fires continually blazing for warmth and illumination as they worked long into the winter nights.

Behind them the pioneer track-layer crawled, leaving in its wake a network of naked ties and ribbons of steel, stretching back over humps and depressions like an endless picket fence laid flat. Ties were scattered ahead with teams, it having been found that in the intense cold it was all one locomotive could do to handle the cars of steel.

Steadily the steel gang closed the gap until at Mile 16 the hard-driven clearing gangs were at last overtaken. It was imperative that the steel-laying should not be held up, but ahead the right-of-way was nothing but a blazed path through the timber, located by men of the C.N.R.

Engineering Department working under similar hardships. A solution was soon found. The full clearing force was concentrated on a strip thirty feet wide.

Gangs were sent on ahead to clear, and, with the various clearings connected up, a big stretch was soon available for steel laying, the gangs later working back to widen the right-of-way to the required one hundred feet.

Due possibly to the special efforts of Irish foremen, the steel reached Cranberry Portage, then a ridge of virgin timber, on March 17, a spur being laid to the lake shore the same day. Fifty-one - miles of track laid through a bush country in only fifty-six working days was the record hung up by the steel gang on this first stretch of road, the longest distance for any one day being 8,700 feet.

A few days after the arrival at Cranberry, the distributing depot was moved from Camp Two across the sixteen miles of ice to the end of steel, where officer, warehouses, bunkhouses, and cookeries for a permanent base were erected.

With the located right-of-way swinging west and north from Mile 52 to follow the shoreline of Athapapuskow and Schist Lakes, construction and camp supplies were rushed through to Cranberry by rail, and after the spring break-up distributed to the camps by water route. Great rafts of bridge timbers were towed up the lakes, and on Schist Lake, where for miles the roadbed edged the water, whole camps, including bunk tents, cookeries and offices, were built on a series of rafts to be floated along as the work progressed.

At Mile 51 steel laying was allowed to rest for some time, while all forces were concentrated on bridging and rock cutting up ahead, and ditching and ballasting where track had been laid. Where muskeg and soft spots appeared with the spring thaws, the track was raised, and a network of native spruce poles built underneath it. As this cross-logging was completed, gravel hauled from the several pits along the line was dumped on either

side of the track.

Then came the lift gang. The loose gravel was spread evenly over ties and rails, the track was hoisted with great jacks, the gravel pushed down between the ties, and when lowered again the track rode on its first gravel foundation.

In early summer, with temporary trestles built over . several depressions that later would be filled, steel laying was continued, Flin Flon being reached in midSeptember, months ahead of schedule.

During all this time daily passenger service by rail truck was maintained between The Pas and Cranberry Portage, and much freight was hauled for the inhabitants of that rapidly growing settlement. Mail was delivered three times a week as a matter of courtesy, and later, ■with the establishment of a post-office, twice a week by contract. With rail communication broken, every effort was made to fill the gap. Alternate layers of cross-logging gap. and gravel were swallowed as fast as they were laid, while fifty feet away, on either side of the track, the muskeg heaved, cracked, and slowly disgorged the displacement. Day after day men and trains were concentrated on that spot, and eventually the mighty maw was filled, at an extra cost of much time and worry, many thousands of feet of timber, and no less than 140 trainloads of gravel.

Even before the steel reached Cranberry, a telephone service between that point and The Pas was inaugurated and thrown open for public use, until commercialmessages reached such numbers that it was found necessary to levy a small fee. Later, this service was extended to Flin Flon, where it now connects with the line recently strung to the power-site camp at Island Falls.

Sink-holes and Grey Hairs

ALTHOUGH the building of what is generally referred to as the Flin Flon road was done in record time, this was not accomplished without the many heartbreaking setbacks usually met with in railroad construction work. Sink-holes alone are said to be responsible for more than one prematurely grey head in the organization.

Of these bottomless pits there were no less than eleven encountered within one thirty-four-mile stretch of road. What one minute appeared to be a solid piece of roadbed, the next would be a heaving, hungry quagmire into which might disappear bridge, cross-logging and grade, leaving ties and rails suspended in space.

At Mile 52, with a temporary trestle fifty per cent filled, the bottom suddenly dropped, a 300-foot length of roadbed sank from sight, and a gravel train which was standing on it at the time crashed through the skeleton track, and was saved from complete engulfment only by the speedy use of a derrick.

Two miles farther along, practically the same thing had to be done, an enormous amount of cross-logging, and 130 trainloads of gravel being required before bottom along the 150-foot stretch was finally reached.

A Visitor from the Past

BUT at Mile 60 was met the sink-hole that threatened to beat every effort of the already harassed construction men. And here during the height of activity a strange sight was witnessed by the gangs of men at work.

Several times they had stopped work at night, with the fill-up to level, only to discover the following morning a yawning gap with a ladder of ties and rails suspended over it. Days there would be when it seemed bottom had been reached; then from far below there would arise a disturbance, thousands of dollars’ worth of material and many days labor would be lazily absorbed, and a like amount of slimy black muskeg material pushed upward, far out on either side of the right-of-way.

This day things had been worse than usual. As fast as material could be offered it had been swallowed without even the usual preliminary hesitation. With the arrival of darkness not the slightest headway was noticeable. Standing in the glare of lights, a number of men were discussing the problem and regarding what was, literally, a bottomless pit. Gazing across the morass, one of the number stared fixedly a moment, then suddenly pointed. Sixty feet from the track, where for days the underneath pressure had caused the exudation of tons and tons of slime and muck, the end of a boat was plainly visible.

Open-mouthed and silent they stood, as it came slowly into view on top of the quivering slime. A great dugout, hewn from the trunk of a mighty tree probably hundreds of years before, it lay now in plain sight, an axe blade deeply embedded in its prow.

Realizing its historic value, the onlookers made every effort to reach it, but over squirming, treacherous mass this was impossible. For ten minutes it remained there, a past brought to light again, after many years, before the eyes of man; then, as continued efforts were made to reach the spot, the ground opened up and the great pit leisurely redevoured its prey.

At this, the worst of the sink-holes, 330 trainloads of gravel were used to fill its 250-foot length, with an added cost on the one hole of something like $45,000. With the word perseverance taking on a newer and broader meaning for those concerned, one by one the eleven sink-holes, were tackled and eventually conquered, at an extra cost in the neighborhood of $150.000.

Then, too, there was the problem of rock-slides along the lake edge; not an avalanche from above, but the sideslipping of whole sections of grade, down what proved to be sloping rock formation below ground. At several points, roadbed that appeared to be perfectly stable suddenly skidded from its foundation and disappeared in the deep waters of the lake. On one occasion an engine and caboose accompanied it, fortunately without loss of life.

In such cases it was found necessary to throw the line back some thirty feet from the water’s edge, with, of course, considerable loss of time not only at that point, but all along the line.

Griefs of Pioneer Construction

A GOOD example of the suddenness of these slides is found in an occurrence at Mile 73, within two weeks of the date the line was to be handed over. A temporary trestle that for a year had carried trains over an arm of Schist Lake was being filled. No trouble was anticipated, and on the night of July 12 the foreman reported, “Trestle Mile 73 filled to base of rail. All O.K.” One hour later a watchman newly arrived from the Emerald Isle sent in this terse message, “Trestle fill Mile 73 under twenty feet of water— Hell!” The added weight of the dirt filling had simply whisked the trestle from its shelving base.

Timber, men, and supplies were rushed to the scene by water and rail, and a few days later the job was complete—the roadbed set back some thirty feet, and a permanent eighteen-bent bridge installed.


A myriad of things may happen to interfere with the completion of a railroad. Less of time and material by fire is an item which on this particular job was greater than the average. Many times it was necessary to take whole gangs off work to combat this menace. Hundreds of men might be required to fight fire or cut fireguards, while construction along the whole line was retarded not only at that particular time, but for days afterward, until the great machine could again function normally in every department.

In the recent fire at Cranberry Portage, which wiped out more than half the settlement, the loss of construction material, equipment, and records was a heavy one. Only the tenacious battling of a hundred already exhausted employees and two locomotive pumps saved the complete destruction of the material yards, with equipment and supplies valued at close to half a million dollars.

Although finished in such record time, it may be truthfully said that this job carried with it, if anything, more than its share of grief. Camps burned out, bridges destroyed, cross-logging and ties burned, leaving the bare rails; miles of telephone line put out of commission, temporarily cutting off all communication and traindispatching; half-burned trees, toppled by the wind, falling over the wires for weeks following a conflagration; wrecks, accidents, the loss, unavoidable in construction work, of a certain number of human lives; withering cold, blizzards and frostbites; floods, sickness, maddening insects, and still more maddening sinkholes; all obstacles to be battled and overcome that the railroad might go through.

And not only does the early completion of this work bestow on a Canadian concern a world’s record in the hazardous game of railroad building. To the success of this job must also go the credit for much of the present and proposed rail activity in Canada’s new North.

For years the question of railway construction in the wilderness had hung fire; then, due in a great part to the vision and work of two men, Harry F. McLean, of the Dominion Construction Company, and Major J. G. MacLachlan, of the Canadian National Railways Engineering Department, the spell was broken.

With the ultimate success of the new road vividly apparent, increased activity has pushed steei, on the Hudson Bay road, into Churchill; the building of a number of other proposed branch lines has become almost a certainty; and the opening of the doors to what well may prove the world’s richest treasure house is at last assured.