Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Two: “Two Streaks of Rust”

EDMUND E. PUGSLEY June 15 1930

Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Two: “Two Streaks of Rust”

EDMUND E. PUGSLEY June 15 1930

Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Two: “Two Streaks of Rust”


TWO streaks of rust stretching away into the wilderness.” That was the prediction of the opponents to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1875, when George Munro, witness of the turning of the first sod and the driving of the last spike, crossed the Great Lakes from Sarnia to Fort William on the steamer Quebec with a small gang of men to commence work on its construction.

“I was born in Scotland, May 21, 1845, and was first employed in construction work on the Inverness and Perth Railway, in Ross-shire,” he told me when I asked him for his story. “In 1866 I came to Canada, and my first work was with the Canada Southern or Michigan Central Railway, in Oxford County. I stayed with this until 1875 when I secured a place with the vanguard of the C.P.R., being sent to Fort William to clear a right-of-way and erect telegraph lines. Adam Oliver was the contractor who employed me for this work.

“We had quite an eventful trip up the lakes.

Lake Huron was very rough for the small steamer, and when we got through the Soo Canal we had to dodge ice floes in Whitefish Bay.

“There was another boat heading north at the same time, the Asia, with a load of FrenchCanadians from Quebec and a party of farmers bound for Winnipeg, via Duluth. There was such a terrific storm on that the two boats kept in touch with one another, and it was a good thing for us that they did, for our boat became surrounded by ice when we neared the north shore and the Asia had all she could do to tow us out of danger.

“The food supplies on the ships dwindled on the long, tedious trip and finally the rations carried for use of the construction men were broken into. We had but half a barrel of hard tack left on the Quebec when we landed at Port Arthur. Dog teams were used to transport the passengers ashore across the ice.

“I was still working at my contract of

erecting telegraph lines when the contractors for grading arrived, Purcell, Ryan and Ginty. It seems you can’t go very far without finding a contractor named Ryan, even today. Pat Purcell was a genial old fellow and the men all took kindly to him, working overtime readily enough when necessity demanded, for everyone understood the great need of pushing the work on the road as fast as possible in order to overcome the extraordinary hardships of travelling by the old way of lakes and portages.

Turning of First Sod

rT"'HE first sod was turned at Fort William on May 21, 1875, by Pat Purcell himself and without ceremcny. There were only a few of us present—the men concerned and a stray neighbor or two.

“I had the task of unloading the first locomotive from the steamer at Fort William. It was the Asia that brought the load of material, including rails. I laid a track from' the boat down the wharf and ran the engine off by cable. It was an old locomotive sent out from the Intercolonial Railway. When I had steam up on the engine I found that the engineer had not arrived, so 1 invited the hotelkeeper’s wife to come over and blow the first whistle before I moved it off the wharf.

“When I finished my job of clearing and line stringing. I commenced laying track and ballasting, and in wintei we ran freight to end of steel for the subcontractors. W&lt made our own snowplows and bucked snow with the engines. It had been no easy job—that stringing the first wires out of Fort William, for the wire had to bí carried across swamps for miles and miles, and we hac to cut poles from a burnt-off area. I sent the firsi message from Fort William with the key set uf on a stump.

Early Days in B.C.

T WAS over five years working at the east enc of the road and in 1880 one of the sub contractors went out to the coast to hook uj with Onderdonk, who had contracted for a bi¡ portion of the British Columbia territory. H&lt spoke to Onderdonk about me and in 1881 Onderdonk wired for me to go out. I wa: thirty-one days making the trip from Pori Arthur to Yale. I took a dog team from thi end of steel to Rat Portage, a distance of 15( miles, making that part in three days. Froir there the line was finished right into Winnipeg by contractors working east from Winnipeg, sc I travelled the rest of the way in comfort From Winnipeg I went south to St. Paul, ther to Omaha and on to the coast at San Francisco Waiting there five days, I got a boat to Victoris and again another for the Fraser River, landing some miles below Yale at the head of navigation.

“I had charge of a construction gang from Yale east to Sicamous. This portion includes the famous Fraser River Canyon. The work

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More tales of the men who served Canada’s first transcontinental in the days when rail' roading was an adven' ture in the wilderness

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was dangerous at times, and we lost a few men in blasting operations and other risky work. I remember the last car of rock to come out of the big tunnel east of Spuzzum had some men on it and a rock fell from the ceiling of the tunnel and killed one of them.

“One day we were ballasting, running through and east of the big tunnel. The foreman told one of the men to walk out and pick up some shovels that had been left on the road. As this man passed through the tunnel he heard a noise, and turning around saw about ten feet of the face of the tunnel cave in on the track. He just had time to run and flag the train, succeeding in stopping it a few feet before the pile of rock. It took us five weeks to clear that slide. There was just enough room for me to crawl through a hole at the side of the fall, and I had to keep that train there and arrange for wood and water and erect another boarding house for the men. But incidents such as that were mere details in construction through such rugged country. We moved 35,000 yards of rock and dirt to clear away the mess.

“The workers were largely Chinamen. On one occasion I had as many as 15,000 Chinamen and 1,500 white men under my control. The Chinamen were easy to handle if they were properly dealt with.

“I remember the first pay day. Through an error in the payroll department the Chinamen received a cent an hour less than they had agreed upon, and there was a little war declared right there. They stormed the Company’s stores like madmen, and it didn’t take the men at fault long to discover their mistake. The Chinamen were paid their cent and peace reigned once more.

“Gambling, of course, was rampant in Yale at that time, and the saloons did a roaring business. Big stakes changed hands every night, but crime was remarkably rare, considering that there was only one policeman.


'T'HE last spike was driven on November 7, 1885, by Donald Smith, who had come west with a party of officials for the memorable occasion. I was finishing the track west of Revelstoke in order to get the first train through, and witnessed the ceremony at Craigellachie. Afterward, when the golden spike used for the occasion had been withdrawn and taken east with Van Horne’s party, I in turn withdrew the spike that replaced the golden one, and recently when President Beatty was in Vancouver I presented him with this spike for a keepsake.

“Of course, this was not actually the last spike, but merely the last spike driven at the point where East met West in the construction. The road was not finally completed into its present terminal, Vancouver, until the spring of 1887. As a matter of fact, following the hooking up at Craigellachie the operation of trains was practically abandoned during winter months due to overwhelming snow conditions east of that point.

“The ceremony of driving the last spike was almost as simply carried out as the turning of the first sod. Donald Smith was given the distinctive honor of using the hammer, and beside him stood Van Horne. The train bearing the officials had arrived before the connection had been quite complete and they stood by, watching the final connection.

“When Smith had finished driving the spike there seemed to be a period of silence in which everyone wondered what was coming next. Then suddenly someone opened with a lusty yell and that started things. The standing locomotive whistles shrieked and cheering followed for several minutes.

“Finally Van Horne was asked to make a speech, but it was very brief, yet intense with feeling and meaning:

“ ‘All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way.’

“In the following spring, 1886, I was given charge of a section of track from Kamloops West as roadmaster, and sent east for my family, continuing on in service until 1910, when I was retired through the inevitable rule of age limit.”

A Pioneer Engineer

TOU PATRICK, now living at St. La Boniface, Manitoba, is another of the old-timers whose experiences hark back to the stirring “first things” of Canadian railroading. For thirty-four years he braved the elements through the mountain divisions of the C.P.R., and he it was who drove the first locomotive over the ice of the Red River into Winnipeg.

A native of South Durham, Quebec, 1854, young Lou, like many another Canadian boy of that period, wanted to see more of the world beyond; so at the romantic age of sixteen he ran away from home. His first point of foreign contact was at St. Johns, Vermont, where he succeeded in persuading the railway superintendent that he was old enough to railroad and was sent out as brakeman on the Vermont Central.

After eight months of this he became afflicted with homesickness, collected his savings and earnings of eighty dollars and sped homeward, where he remained in content until he had reached the age of twenty-two.

His next journey was westward, and in 1878 he hitched his wagon to the brightest star in the Canadian west at that time— the C.P.R., securing a place as brakeman on the Pembina branch, St. Boniface to Emerson, Manitoba.

“All you could see of Emerson that spring was the buildings, and everybody travelled around in boats. I waded around in water up to my waist, trying to find switches. You couldn’t see any of them, and once I threw it wrong and ditched the train. We were stalled there from that for eight days and I decided that I had enough of that, so I quit braking and went firing.

“I fired eighteen months for a man named Dick Smith and fourteen months for Wallace Perley, later master mechanic. They were getting ready then to build west of St. Boniface, so they wanted a lot of material at Winnipeg, but there was no bridge over the Red River. As soon as the river froze over, we commenced to haul the stuff over the ice. We built a track flat on the ice and I fired engine Number 10 all winter, hauling ties and steel across into Winnipeg. We worked that summer building west to Portage la Prairie and in the fall I was promoted to engineer, running a switch engine all winter in Winnipeg yard. I thought that was the coldest winter I had ever put in.

Back on Construction

T WENT back on construction work -*■ again the next summer and stayed with it right through to Craigellachie. I’d save all the money I could in the summer months, and as soon as the weather got bad I would go back east to the old home, and splash my money around. When spring came again I usually had to borrow money to get back west to the job.

“After we had finished up at Craigellachie I took an engine back light to Winnipeg. I just stopped where I liked to eat or tie up for the night, and when I was ready to go again I asked the dispatcher for orders. I took three months

ive after I got to Winnipeg to go east id was back on the job in March.

“They started me out again with a ;tle Baldwin engine, Number 145, to anmore, Alberta, and I ran a passenger ain from there west as far as the line as clear of snow until June, when the irough service was opened from Mondial, reaching the coast at Port Moody irly in July, 1886.

“I stayed on the same run west out of anmore for twelve years, running to »onald, BC.; then both places were ispensed with as divisional points and I in between Revelstoke and Field from 899 to 1919.

“When the Connaught tunnel was pened in 1916, dispensing with the erilous and expensive route over Rogers 'ass, I was deadheaded from Revelstoke y orders of Vice-president Grant Hall to ull the official train through the tunnel.”

The Box-car Bride

AN OLD box-car had been sidetracked TV and Set up in Laggan, one end for se as a telegraph station and the other nd as living quarters for the operator. )ne bitter cold day Lou slipped down rom his cab at the head of a heavy reight train. He flopped his arms about lim to restore circulation, then decided o seek the friendly warmth of the iperator’s stove while he waited for irders on an opposing train at Laggan. íe entered the tiny station boisterously, md was about to greet its occupant with a :heery, man-to-man salutation when, on aising his eyes, they met, not the unhaven face of a banished knight of the cey, but a face enchanting as it was istonishing—the face of a graceful young vornan.

The effect was mutual and thereafter nany meetings were planned or plotted, vith the happy result that the box-car jffice lost its tenant—the only woman operator in the west at that time—and ;he railway lost an efficient operator, but a sold engineer won for himself a wife and a tiappy home. Undaunted by the rigorous sixty degrees below zero weather, the poung couple hied them back to Winnipeg for the nuptial event, and returning settled in Revelstoke in December, 1886.

Lou himself sums up the situation in considerably fewer words, which are characteristic of him and of his railway career:

“I took my first orders from her in that box-car at Laggan, and I’ve been taking orders from her ever since.” Judging from his well-kept appearance, the orders have not been very hard to take.”

And not only orders but “hunches” as well. In the spring of 1908 his wife’s premonition saved Lou from the fate of being buried beneath a mountain snow slide in Rogers Pass. He had intended, and was insisting on, making his usual run, but eventually acceded to Mrs. Patrick’s pleading and asked for relief for the trip. The unfortunate man who took his place in the cab window was killed as the train ran into a slide, together with his fireman.

A Close Shave

^"XN ANOTHER occasion Patrick’s ready, cool nerve averted a very serious wreck. With Jack Hopgood as conductor—now trainmaster—he was pulling Number 2 transcontinental and had reached a point about one mile and a half west of Albert Canyon when he saw a coal dump car coming down the two per cent grade head on to him. He promptly stopped the heavy passenger train, released again and opened the throttle in reverse position, moving the train backward. On came the loaded car, gaining speed with each yard of distance it covered. But the hand on the throttle was steady and the clear, blue eyes above it measured the distance with a precision hat permitted the runaway car to couple

to the engine without the slightest jar. This done, there but remained the simple task of stopping again and shoving the car back up the hill and into the siding from whence it had escaped, and then proceeding with the train on a delayed schedule.

The intense joy of the section crew, who had been the unwilling cause of starting the car they were loading with material, may well be imagined when they saw that car coming back undamaged, and the wreck, which they had believed inevitable, averted. For this splendid act in his daily routine Louis Patrick was awarded twenty-five merit marks.

Of another experience with a snow slide Lou says:

“We were going up the Kicking Horse one day with a snowplow running ahead, clearing off the small slides that appeared here and there. I had the regular passenger train and I’d have to stop often when I caught up to the plow.

“We had to follow close to offset any slides that might come down between us and the plow. I was waiting for the plow to get out of the way when we heard a slide coming down behind. I tried to pull the train ahead out of the line of the slide, for we could both see and hear it coming, but I couldn’t get her moving in time, and the snow caught the second last sleeper and gently turned it over.

“There was a lot of confusion and screaming from the women, who thought they were being swept right down the mountain, but they all scrambled out O.K. with no one hurt and very little damage done.

“I’ll never forget the look on the face of the colored porter. He was like a ptarmigan that changes to white in winter, and he was so scared he couldn’t move.

“There was another time the porter got a bad scare. That was when Bill Miner held up the passenger train near Ducks. Joe Callan was the engineer on that train. Two men came over the top of the tender at him, made him stop and cut off the express car and run a couple of miles ahead with it before they blew it open.

“When it was all over someone asked the porter where he had been and he told them he was in under a Pullman seat.

“ ‘There wasn’t very much room in there, was there, Mose?’ someone asked.

“ ‘Room?’ he said. ‘Why I seed room enough under there for three or four more niggers like me—I’se so scared!”’

“After that Bill Miner hold-up I had two North-west policemen ride on my engine for two weeks looking for him, for there were many reports of people having seen him, and it was thought that he was hiding out in the mountains.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles by Mr. Pugsley on pioneer railwaymen. The third will appear in an early issue. The interview with Mr. Munro is published posthumously, his death having occurred since this article was written.