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When the Steel Went Through
Mountain Division C.P.R., 1886


Construction of Snowsheds

DURING my visit to my old home, I got great pleasure from calling on all my old friends in the neighbourhood. I paid short visits too, to my numerous relatives at Ballantrae, Rothesay, Blairmore, Coatbridge, and Linlithgow. I also spent a few nights in Glasgow with various friends. My Uncle Hill was one of these. It was it will be remembered through the letters of introduction which he procured for me, to Mr. R. B. Angus, and to Mr. Duncan McIntyre, that I got my start in my profession in Canada. So he naturally was greatly interested in hearing of my experiences on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

When on this visit to Glasgow, I called at the office of Kyle, Dennison & Frew, with whom I had served my apprenticeship. I got a hearty welcome from both Mr. Dennison and Mr. Frew. They too were highly interested in hearing of my engineering experiences in Canada.

I returned to Canada early in the spring, accompanied, not by Mather this time he was not leaving till later but by my cousin Bryce Wright who was keen to try his hand at farming and ranching in the Canadian North West Territories.

We landed at Halifax, and proceeded to Chatham, New Brunswick, to spend a few days with our mutual cousins, Peter Turner and Peter Turner Wilson, both employed by Mr. J. B. Snowball in his lumber business. This was a unique meeting. Four mutual cousins were here all met together for the first and only time. Three of us, in different combinations, had at times met before; but never the four.

Mr. Snowball was a member of parliament, and was then at Ottawa. But Mrs. Snowball entertained us whole-heartedly in his absence. She was a sister of Peter Turner's mother, so Peter was her nephew. Although the rest of us were in no way blood relatives of hers, she looked on us as her nephews too. She gave us all a most enjoyable time, pleasant memories of which I still cherish.

On reaching Montreal, I called at the offices of the C.P.R. to find out what the situation was regarding the construction of snowsheds in the Mountains.

This work, I was told, was going to be done; but would not commence till later, when the railway in the Mountains would be clear of snow. There was at that time still lots of snow about Montreal. So I decided not to wait, but to push on to Calgary with Bryce. But before leaving, I put in my application for a position on this work, giving Calgary as my address.

We stopped on the way for a few days at Toronto, to visit our relatives at Hornby. John Turner, the fourth son, had by that time reached an age when he had ambitions of starting out for himself, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered for farming and ranching in the West. So he made up his mind to go with us to Calgary.

I thus arrived in Calgary accompanied by these two cousins of mine. I was confident of getting work for myself on the snowsheds very soon, but I was anxious to get my cousins settled on land before I left them. I felt responsible for them, as it was largely on my representations that they had come with me. I therefore joined with them in looking for land.

We found suitable homestead and pre-emption land, all in one section, in the Davisburg district some twenty miles south of Calgary. I decided to purchase the adjoining section, and go into partnership with them in their ranching venture; and thus have a home to go to when I might happen to be unemployed in engineering.

Having thus decided on our land, we lost no time in taking possession. We bought a team and a wagon which we loaded with some lumber, two tents, full camp outfit, and a stock of provisions; and set out on our journey. We had lunch at Sandy Watson's stopping place at Pine Creek, on the Macleod Trail.

At a short distance past Pine Creek, we got stuck in a mudhole. A man living close by, who told us his name was Ingram, kindly came to our rescue with his team, and pulled us out. But before he could do this, we had to unload our wagon of everything. By the time we had loaded up again, it was getting late in the day; and Ingram invited us to stay with him for the night. He and Mrs. Ingram entertained us most hospitably, and we passed a pleasant evening in their company. In the course of conversation, Ingram told us that a prairie fire had swept over the district in which our land lay; and that Thomas' haystack had been burned. But who this Thomas was, he didn't say. He evidently thought that we knew; and we did not enquire.

On the morning we proceeded on our way eastward over the blackened prairie, and pitched camp on an unburned patch at the edge of Snake Creek, a small tributary of the Bow River. This Creek ran through our land.

Early the following morning, a horseman dressed in the latest cowboy fashion, came galloping up to our camp. He got off his horse and peered into our tent, with a look as much as to say: "If you fellows give any back talk I'll put a ball through you." He then let loose, in real Western language, against the fire which, he said, had burned his haystack the still smouldering remains of which lay close by. His mentioning the haystack made it quite evident that he must be Thomas about whom Ingram had spoken to us. So Bryce Wright made the remark to him: "Oh, you'll be Mr. Thomas." "Well," he replied, "I'm generally known as "Thomas"; since I came to this country the Mister has gone all to blazes."

So that was how I first met R. C. Thomas. He had then a ranch on the bottom lands of the Bow River, at the mouth of Pine Creek, where he kept Bachelor Hall. In later years he became prominent in the business and municipal life of Calgary; and was dubbed with titles much more pretentious than the disparaged title of Mister. For a time he bore the title of Alderman; and is still to the fore as one of Calgary's live business men.

We decided to call our ranch "Ailsa Ranch", after the Marquis of Ailsa, on whose estate Bryce Wright and I had both been brought up. For our Brand, we adopted the letters "A. 1."; and for the name of our firm, "Bone, Wright, & Turner".

My stay at the ranch at this time was very short; for I received word, soon after we had got settled, to report for duty in the Mountains. So I had little time to get acquainted with our neighbours other than the Ingrams, and Thomas. The few others that I did meet were Bill Andrews and Mrs. Andrews; T. S. C. Lee; Mr. and Mrs. Bannister and their large family of fine lively boys, and good-looking active girls.

The scene now shifts to the Mountains again. The work there this time was the construction of snowsheds in the Selkirks. J. H. Armstrong was Chief Engineer.

Under him were two division engineers: Sykes on the east slope; and Earle on the west.

It was with Sykes, as his assistant, that I was at first placed. Although I had heard often about him, this was the first time I met him, as during the construction of the railway he had always been far to the front, on location. Vindin was his other assistant. He was one of those who had spent the winter in the Mountains taking observations on snowslides.

On my arrival at this camp, I was agreeably surprised to find Griffith there too. He had left the previous year on account of his illness, and gone to his home in Wales to recuperate. He had now just returned, looking quite his old self again. His cousin, Teddy Williams, was also at this camp for a time; and these two made full use of this opportunity to keep up their native Welsh tongue. Griffith, however, shortly after my arrival, got moved to Armstrong's camp at The Summit, to resume his old position as Armstrong's chief assistant.

William Mackenzie was the contractor for the work on Sykes' division, with Tom Holt in charge of supplies; Ross and McDermid were the contractors on Earle's division, with W. G. Neilson in charge of their supplies.

The snowsheds were quite simple structures composed of heavy timbers. They had a sloping roof, corresponding to the slope of the ground at the site on which they were built, to allow the snowslides to sweep over them. So there was no great problem involved in building them.

As the railway, however, was now in operation, and trains were passing regularly to and from the coast, care had to be taken to keep the track over which the snowsheds were being built free from obstruction.

I well remember the particular care that had to be taken when the first train, with tea from the Orient for the New York market, passed through. This train had the right of way over all other traffic; and we were well forewarned of its coming. As we stood by the side of the track on the look-out for it, it passed at express speed down grade on the eastern slope; with brakemen on top of the cars, holding on to the brakes; and the mountains re-echoing the siren sound of the engine whistle.

On another occasion, when the train on which Sir John A. Macdonald, Premier of Canada, was passing through the mountains, we saw him viewing the scenery from a seat fixed up for him on the cow-catcher in front of the engine. As the engine came puffing up grade, it was not going at anything like the speed of the tea train. So we were able to get a good close view of the distinguished traveller; and to note his facial expression. Facing the wind as he was, his eyelids kept up a continual blinking; and it is doubtful if he was really enjoying his ride.

After being on Sykes' division for some time, I was moved to Earle's division. Stoess was on that division too. He was in charge of the laying out of tanks and pipe-lines for a water supply to provide fire protection for the snowsheds. He was camped with Earle at the summit of the Selkirks.

I was stationed at Glacier; and for living quarters I was given a hand-car house in which two bunks were built, one for myself, and the other for my rodman, Tom Armstrong. He was no relation of our Chief, J. H. Armstrong. For meals we went to a standard passenger dining-car which stood on a siding at Glacier, pending the building of the Glacier Hotel. Passenger trains stopped at this siding while the passengers had their meals in the dining-car.

At this camp we had more in the way of social life than we had had in the past. There were a number of artists camped at Glacier, with whom I got well acquainted; and I had the opportunity of seeing their paintings of the surrounding scenery; and, at times, of watching them at work.

These artists were: Forbes, Bremner, and O'Brien, all Canadians; and J. A. Aitken from Glasgow, accompanied by Mrs. Aitken. He was brought there by Van Horne; and had his quarters provided by the railway company. We generally all got together in the evenings; and made a happy party.

When the building of the Glacier Hotel was sufficiently advanced to permit the use of the dining-room for concerts in the evening, we had many pleasant evenings there. Among the carpenters who were employed in the building of the hotel, there was good musical talent. So we all looked forward to these entertainments, which were held at least once a week. Aitken generally presided.

The building of the snowsheds proceeded under most favourable weather. In 1884, in the Kicking Horse section, we had heavy rains during the summer; but little or none in the fall. In 1885, in the Selkirks, it was dry in the summer; but very wet in the fall. Therefore, from our experience of the weather during these two years, we wondered whether, in 1886, we would have the rain in the summer, or in the fall. But the rains never came at all; it was practically dry the whole season.

In June, we heard of the burning of the town of Vancouver, which was then but a few months old. My work was so well advanced by that time, that I felt I might reasonably ask for a short holiday. This was readily granted; and I paid my first visit to the Pacific coast.

Port Moody was then the terminus of the railway. On my arrival there, one of my fellow-travellers with whom I had got acquainted on the way but whose name I can't recall introduced me to a gentleman who was standing on the platform. This gentleman happened to be Marcus Smith, one of the stalwarts among the engineers who had surveyed the line through the Yellow Head Pass. I was introduced to him as "one of the engineers on the construction of the snowsheds". "If you had taken our route for the railway, you wouldn't have had to build any snowsheds, look you," was the prompt remark he made to me. This remark implied that I had been one of those who had changed the route. He was thus placing me on a high pedestal. But apart from this implication, the words "look you", with which he closed his remark, left no doubt in my mind as to his being Marcus Smith. For I had heard many stories about him from Griffith; and the key-note of these was his peculiar habit of continually interjecting in his talk the words "look you".

I pushed on from Port Moody to Vancouver, which was then, phoenix-like, arising out of the ashes. I put up at a hotel, at which I had the pleasant surprise of finding Balfour, who had been Mackenzie's manager on the construction of the bridges; and was now taking an active part in the management of this hotel. I learned from him that Henry Bell-Irving had opened an office in Vancouver, as an architect. So I went to see him, and found him busy in his office. He seemed to be doing pretty well, judging by the number of plans that lay on his table. In after years, however, he rose to much greater heights in the fish-canning business.

After a day or two in Vancouver there was little to be seen there but burned stumps I spent a few days in Victoria. From there I took a trip by boat to one of the newly started towns on Puget Sound, and spent a night with my cousin Peter Turner. He had by this time left Chatham, N.B. to try his luck in the West.

Among some of the people whom I met in Victoria, I found considerable misapprehension as to British Columbia's position in relation to Canada. In their view, it was a country entirely independent of Canada; and they would not acknowledge that they were Canadians.

One man with whom I got talking about the North West Territories remarked: "Canada must be a very cold country, with all those blizzards it has." In pronouncing the word "blizzards", he accentuated the last syllable so strongly that he seemed to accentuate also his conception of the terrible cold in Canada.

On my return to Glacier, I found my artist friends still there, carrying on as usual. One evening, Forbes related a thrilling experience he had had on the wreck of the Cambria. The mere mention of that name immediately awoke in me memories of my boyhood days; for 1 well remembered hearing of the wreck of the Cambria then.

Forbes had been a passenger on that ship an Anchor Liner sailing from New York to Glasgow. He held us fascinated as he told his story, slowly, and with great deliberation. The charm, however, would occasionally be broken, by his making a digression at some particularly interesting part in his recital. But we were not at all interested in these digressions; so they elicited such questions as "But what did you do next?" or, "Where did you land?" interjected as a hint that we wanted him to stick to his subject. But to these interruptions, Forbes paid not the slightest heed. It was his story; and he persisted in his dogged determination to tell it his own way.

The story in brief was, that on the wreck of the ship, through its having sprung a leak, all the passengers had to take to the life-boats. After tossing about in these for several days, they were picked up by a Dutch steamer which took them round the north of Scotland, and landed them at Aberdeen. But the steamer that had saved them, Forbes said, in concluding his story, was itself lost when on its way from Aberdeen to London. That was the real tragedy of his story.

To show the nature of Forbes' digressions when reciting his story, I may here cite one example. At the stage in his story when he was telling of all hands having left the Cambria, while they were standing by in the boats watching her sink, he casually remarked that he afterwards painted from memory a picture of that scene; and went on to tell us the history of that picture; and the various places at which it had been exhibited, etc., etc. But no one cared a rap about the picture. It was the story of the wreck we wanted.

The snowsheds were completed about the end of October, or the beginning of November. By that time we heard rumours that the C.P.R. was about to start the construction of a line usually spoken of as the Short Line from Sherbrooke in the province of Quebec, on through the state of Maine; and that James Ross would be in charge of that work.

So, as soon as we were free to leave, some of us headed for Sherbrooke. On the way, I made a stop in Calgary, and spent a day and night at Ailsa Ranch. A comfortable house had been built by that time; and substantial stables and sheds. And a goodly-sized herd of cattle stocked our range. So the ranch had every appearance of having got off to a good start.

On arriving at Sherbrooke I reported to Ross. He received me with his usual encouraging smile; and said he hoped to have work for me before long.

So, pending the forthcoming of this work, I took up my abode at the Magog House. There were a number of other engineers at this hotel, also waiting for the word "go". And we were still waiting for this signal when the year 1886 came to a close.


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