Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Another thrilling chapter from the story of the conquest of the Rockies by the Riders of the Iron Horse

EDMUND E. PUGSLEY August 15 1930

Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Another thrilling chapter from the story of the conquest of the Rockies by the Riders of the Iron Horse

EDMUND E. PUGSLEY August 15 1930

Pioneers of the Steel Trail

Another thrilling chapter from the story of the conquest of the Rockies by the Riders of the Iron Horse

Four: Fighting the Snow Menace


THOSE who have listened to the terrifying thunder of a mountain snowslide will always breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to modern engineering when they enter the friendly shelter of the famous five-mile Connaught tunnel under Mount Macdonald on the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Selkirks.

Prior to the completion of this great bore, all traffic over this section of the road had to traverse the notorious Rogers Pass which, even when it was protected by every known modern device, was a nightmare to the men whose duty it was to keep it open. Imagine, then, what it must have been in the pioneering days before

snowsheds were even thought of, and man was pitting his strength against the wrath of the mountains for the first time.

Two of the few men still living, who were involved in the first attacks on this perilous obstacle to transcontinental traffic, are Edward E. Austin, one-time engineer, roadmaster and master mechanic, and Alexander Forrest, conductor and, for a time, trainmaster on the mountain division.

Austin's connection with the C. P. R. dates back to 1880, in which year he came to Victoria from the United States he was a native of Wisconsin—and signed on with Andrew Onderdonk

Battling the Snow Hazard

ON COMPLETION of the road, Austin got into the regular passenger service on the mountain division east of Revelstoke, and following a series of promotions finally became master mechanic.

When I mentioned Rogers Pass to him he shook his head reminiscently. “I have picked up many wrecks and helped to clear up many blockades,” he said, “but the worst of all these was the big disaster at Rogers Pass. I will never forget that experience. There was a regular blizzard on at the summit and the cut was blocked. We got out the whole rotary fleet to work on opening it up, and in the midst of it

who was then building the coast section of the Transcontinental. One of his first jobs was the fitting up and operating of a small work engine which had been brought north from San Francisco. This engine was officially known as “Number Two," being the second locomotive to operate in British Columbia, but among railw ay men it came to be known by the nickname “Curly.” In a much battered condition it still exists, and is one of the historical relics of the period. came the big slide at 23 o’clock at night (11 p.m.).

“It was so unexpected, and at so unusual a place, that we had no warning, and it buried a whole gang of men, sixtythree in all. That was a terrible week. We connected up an old line through Rogers Pass yard to get around the slide, and the storm raged continuously for an entire week while we worked. Timber and rock—

everything came down with the slide, and every man available was slaving night and day to help clear up the mess.

“Tom Kilpatrick at that time was superintendent of the district between Kamloops and Field and he was a demon for work. Night and day he was on the job, here, there and everywhere. There were new slides occurring almost every hour and sometimes a plow would get cut off with fresh fills behind it and another rotary would be sent to dig out the first one. The roar of slides could be heard for miles.

“When the Connaught Tunnel was opened it dispensed with nine miles of snowsheds. Some of these were temporary, where the track was doubled, the inside line being used during snow periods and the outside in summer. The present line leads straight up the Illecillewaet River Valley to the base of Mount Macdonald and then bores through, abandoning the old loop on the west slope of the Selkirks, which was very picturesque but highly hazardous.”

Alex Forrest, who is now in his seventy-fifth year, landed in Vancouver in 1886, just before the big fire wiped out the town. He finally got on a passenger run as conductor and then became trainmaster of the mountain division at Revelstoke, in 1897.

“That was the hardest job I ever held,” he says, “and I gave it up after three years, taking my old run back. It was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job and nothing but grief. In the winter it was snow and frost. In the spring it was snowslides, washouts, and every other sort of trouble known to railroading, and in the summer it was fires. Just one continual round of pleasure—if one liked that sort. Fires were devilish things to combat, too. When a whole mountain side is ablaze it is no child’s play to run the gauntlet with water tanks pouring puny streams on the trees that fall across the track, or hitching up to them to tow them off, with your eyebrows being singed while you work.

“The C. P. R. saved millions of dollars, as well as countless lives, when they built the Connaught Tunnel. I think Rogers Pass was the worst place for snow in the

“I remember I got word one night that there was a slide between Revelstoke and Griffin Lake. I called the rotary crew and we started out. We cleared the slide and went on to Griffin Lake yard to “Y” and back. When we were going back, with the rotary just turning slightly and the engineer doing some slight repair, we suddenly ran into another slide which b oke the rotary shaft. We were stalled, and in a very uninviting spot in the middle of the night with the probable chance of being buried in a fresh slide at any time.

“We couldn’t stay there and do nothing, so I said to the conductor: ‘Get a lantern and come on back with me!’

“ ‘What! Not me!’ he answered. T wouldn’t go back over that ground on foot for all the money the C. P. R. has got!’

“ ‘Well, someone’s got to go. Give me your lamp, then,’ I told him, and I started back myself.

Pass was the worst place for snow in the whole world. It was just one eternal fight to buck snow from early fall to the following summer. We kept 150 men and five engines with plows and rotaries on the jump all the time. And a man’s life was not rated very high.

“I wasn’t particularly keen on the walk, but neither was I strong for standing there doing nothing. And that was the longest two-mile walk I ever had, I think. I could hear the rumble of slides behind me all the way, but I thought they must be over on the other side of the valley. Finally I got back to where there was a telephone and ordered out another rotary from the other way to come and dig us out; then I started to walk back.

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Pioneers of the Steel Trail

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“I had only gone a little way when I met a lineman. He had seen my light and wanted to find out who it was.

“ ‘Where are you going?’ he asked me. “ ‘I’m going back to the rotary,’ I told him. ‘We’re broke down a couple miles back there.’

“ ‘You can’t get back there,’ he said.

“ ‘I’ve got to,’ I told him.

“ ‘Well, you can’t go,’ was all he said. ‘Come and I’ll show you why.’

“I walked with him, and just outside the yard where there had been a switch when I came over a few minutes before, there was nothing now. The whole thing was buried.”

“Not a Good Place To Be”

WE WAITED there for the other rotary, and when it came I got on to ride with them. Ed Austin was engineer. And we were just forty-eight hours clearing that stretch of track. There wasn’t ten feet of that two miles that I had walked over that wasn’t buried. That was one night when I sure carried a rabbit’s foot.

“And when we got into it with th~ rotary we were often almost buried. Sometimes we’d have to get shovel men to dig the engine clear so we could get a start. Once I was leaning out of the cab directing a shovel man to dig out the engine wheels when a small slide caught me on the back of the head and nearly stunned me, burying my shovel man. We had to work fast to dig him out, and just got him clear when another pile came down on us again.

“It was seldom that Ed Austin ever expressed any worry about his work, but that day he looked up at the mass of soft snow hanging like a headsman’s axe over our heads and said:

“ ‘Alex, this is not a very good place to be.’

“It wasn’t much, but it meant volumes coming from Ed Austin in that tone of voice.

“The slide that buried the Rogers Pass Station was one of the worst during my term. Hermit Mountain, behind the station, had a regular bill of fare each year, but everyone was used to it and knew where it usually went. But this time it turned traitor and when the slide came to a certain point, for some unexplained reason it suddenly turned and swung the other way.

“There was an old Italian employed at coaling engines and he was standing by the fire in the waiting room getting warm. He happened to look out the window and saw a slide coming.

“ ‘Catoe!’ he called to the agent, ‘come, see the slide!’

“Catoe took one look and ran out to grab up his two children who were playing near, but when the slide turned it wiped out the whole building. It caught the roundhouse first and buried it, picked up a string of hoarding cars full of Chinamen, carried them along but didn’t bury them or kill the occupants; and it is thought by those who watched that the wind from the slide had crushed in the station before the snow reached it; so great was the force.

“The agent and his family were all killed, and also an operator asleep upstairs. The old Italian was carried up on the crest of the snow and left with only his head and feet buried. Those who rushed to the scene found him like an ostrich that had buried his head in the sand, and the poor fellow made no attempt to free himself, thinking he was buried. It was thought that when the station building collapsed he was dropped clear through a hole and then caught like a straw or a chip on a stream and carried along on its crest.”

Forrest was at Port Moody, twelve miles east of Vancouver, when the first through trains from Montreal arrived.

“When the second train came in,” he says, “Sir John A. Macdonald and Lady Macdonald came with it, and Lady Macdonald rode on an armchair fixed on the pilot all through the mountains. I often thought that she didn’t know just how much of that scenery she was gazing at came down on slight provocation, or she might not have been so eager to ride where she did.”

A “Lifted” Rail

ANOTHER old-timer whose experience of the early days embraced the Rogers Pass, is Horace T. Currie, who went West in 1878 from New Brunswick.

“One could always get a job those days,” he says. “There was no great unemployment problem. I got on pumping a cofferdam on the Medicine Hat Bridge over the Saskatchewan River for the C. P. R. and later went back to Winnipeg on a steam shovel. The following year I headed to the Pacific Coast and got on with Onderdonk in the shop at Yale. Soon after that, I got out on the road running an engine east and west between Yale and Port Moody. We used three tanks of wood and five of water in ten hours on a 180 miles round trip.

“I ran material out of Kamloops after that until the connection was made at Craigellachie. Billy Armstrong, the master mechanic, and Jim Trodden, conductor, took M. J. Haney east in his old private car, ‘Eva’, to Revelstoke after the connection and there he got a section boss to cut a rail the same length as the one that was laid last at Craigellachie. We then came back and lifted the ‘last rail’ and replaced it with the one we had brought from Revelstoke and took the relic to Yale, where it was cut up into small sections and scattered among the men as souvenirs. There were but few men who knew that this was done, but it is a fact.

“In May, 1887, just a few days later, I was running engine 365 on Rogers Pass. We were standing still, watching a snowslide on the opposite side of the valley and thinking what a grand sight it was, when, as we watched, it came right on across the bottom and climbed to where we were, burying our whole train before we could do a thing to escape. Six of my crew were killed and I escaped by a miracle, being buried with my engine for thirty minutes. I was black in the face when they dug me out, and I suffered indescribably. Since that time I have had a horror of snowslides.

“I was in plenty of wrecks. Joe Callan and I went into Eagle River one time in a washout. I was pushing two cars ahead of me and they told me we were all right to the washout, so I was letting the engine plug right along, when I suddenly saw the brakemen who were riding the cars, jump. I looked out in time to see the cars disappear into a hole ahead. Of course I horsed over the bar, but we went down into the hole and right on up the other side, then dropped back into the hole again. When we stopped, the driver was right up on the tank, but we got her out of that hole on her own steam after some skilful manoeuvring and went cheerfully on our way with no one hurt.”

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a series by Mr. Pugsley narrating the experiences of pioneer railwaymen. The fifth and concluding article will appear in an early issue.