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When the Steel Went Through
Location of Railway, Regina to Prince Albert, 1889


I ARRIVED at Regina about midnight, and put up at the Windsor Hotel. The following morning, who should call on me but the ubiquitous "George" whom I had last seen in Maine. Holt, he told me, had gone north on an inspection trip to Saskatoon, but before leaving, had instructed him to take me to Neilson's camp; he had, he said, a team of mules and a buckboard waiting outside, all ready to take me there. So I set out with him at once.

The camp was in the Qu'Appelle Valley, about twenty-five miles north of Regina. There I learned that I was to be transitman, under Neilson, on the location of the railway which was to connect Regina with Prince Albert, by way of Saskatoon.

For the information of those to whom the word "Transitman" means nothing, I may say that on the location of a railway across a wide expanse of open prairie, the duty of the transitman was much the same as that of a navigator of a ship; for in order to reach his objective with any degree of certainty, he had to keep a log of the course run each day; and plot these in camp at night.

A company with the comprehensive name of "Qu'Appelle, Long Lake, and Saskatchewan, Railway, and Steamboat Company" had, some years before, built the part of this railway from Regina to the Qu'Appelle valley. This part, however, was not being utilized; and the roadbed was a tangle of weeds.

As its name would indicate, this company had planned to put steamboats on Long Lake, to be run in conjunction with the railway. With this object in view, a wharf had been built on Long Lake, at the end of the completed portion of the railway.

But by the time the wharf was built, a period of dry seasons had commenced; and the shore of the lake kept receding until the wharf was entirely on dry land.

That the drying up of the lake was not an extraordinary occurrence was shown by the fact that at the site of the wharf, and well past the end of it, there were old buffalo trails, and well-worn Indian travois ruts, plainly to be seen. This was good evidence that that part of the lake had been dry in the past, long before the wharf was built.

So the plan to navigate Long Lake was naturally abandoned; and an all-rail route was the project on which I was to be employed.

James Ross had undertaken the engineering and construction of this railway; and associated with him in this were Holt, Mackenzie, and Mann. H. D. Lumsden was the inspecting engineer for the government.

I started work under Neilson who, at first, was the engineer in charge of location. He, however, was shortly afterwards put in charge of construction; and Alexander Stewart took his place on location.

The starting point of our location was in the Qu'Appelle valley, at a siding on the built portion of the railway, called Craven; and Saskatoon was our first objective.

A few days after I had been at work, Holt called at our camp on his way back from Saskatoon, and had lunch with us. In the conversation I had with him, he referred to my new position. He said that seeing my experience had all along been on construction, it would be well that I now got some experience on location; and that was why he had placed me on location. I expressed my thanks for his consideration, and assured him that I was well pleased with my new job.

Some two weeks later, when we had moved camp from the valley, and were camped on the uplands, we had quite an alarming experience. This was on a Sunday when we were resting quietly in camp.

Stewart had gone for the day to Regina, and I was left in charge of the camp. One of our teamsters, too, had gone with his team to get them shod at Craven.

We were suddenly roused by the rumble of a wagon, tearing along with the team at full gallop, and a voice yelling "Prairie fire!" This was our teamster who had gone to get his team shod. He had seen that a prairie fire, fanned by a strong wind, was approaching in our direction; and he had turned back to warn us. And he was not a minute too soon.

We started immediately to create a safety zone by setting fire to the prairie on the lee side of our camp; and just had time to take down the tents and drag them, together with the rest of the camp outfit, on to the safety zone. We could feel the heat of the flaming billow, as it approached. But it snuffed itself out the instant it reached the border of our safety zone. There was nothing there to keep it alive. So our camp was saved in the nick of time; and perhaps ourselves too.

Not long after this encounter with the prairie fire, we had a visit from Ross and Mann, who stayed at our camp over night. Mann entertained us with stories of his experiences in South America. He had gone there after having finished his contract in Maine, to look into the prospects for railway construction, and had but recently returned. Some of his stories were pretty far-fetched; and they elicited the remark from Ross: "As true as you can, now, Mann."

I cannot recall who the leveller on our party was when we started. Noel Brooks, from Sherbrooke, was with us for a short time before being transferred to a construction camp. But whether it was he who had been our leveller, I cannot now say. Pyne, however, joined our party in this capacity about the end of August.

Between Craven and Saskatoon there was a great scarcity of good drinking water. Such water as there was, was strongly alkaline. Little wonder then, that we all longed to reach Saskatoon, and get a good drink from the Saskatchewan. But such was the irony of fate, that when we did get there about the middle of September it was a cold chilly day; and no one had any desire for a drink.

When we reached Saskatoon, Pyne was transferred to construction; and Kirkland joined the party as leveller in his stead. I had spent the winter of 1886-87 with Kirkland in the Magog House at Sherbrooke, and knew him well.

Saskatoon at that time consisted of a few houses on the south side of the Saskatchewan. The principal of these as far as we had any dealings with them was a general store; and close to it, a blacksmith's shop.

We spent some two or three weeks there running trial lines for a crossing of the river. When we had finally established the site of this crossing, we moved camp to the north side of the river; and continued the location of the line on that side, on to Prince Albert.

We made good progress until we got to Duck Lake; but there we entered a bush country, and this slowed down our progress considerably.

This was a district of much historical interest. It was here, and in the neighbourhood, that the battles in the Riel Rebellion had been fought in 1885. We camped at one time close to where General Middleton had had his headquarters' camp. Empty tin cans, and other camp debris, were still there in evidence.

Toward the middle of November winter set in, with sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfalls. But being in the bush, we were well sheltered, and did not feel the severity of the weather as much as we would have felt it had we been on the open prairie.

We finished the location to Prince Albert about the end of November. The length of this location starting from Craven was approximately 230 miles.

As soon as we had finished, our camp outfit started back, in charge of Kirkland, on its way to End of Track, which by this time was about half way between Saskatoon and Craven.

Stewart and I, however, stayed for a night at Prince Albert, at the Queen's Hotel; and on an invitation from Charles Mair well-known Old Timer of Prince Albert, and poet and writer we spent the evening at his home. He had two attractive young daughters, whose presence added much to our enjoyment of the evening.

The following day, we were busy getting together our own outfit for the journey back. This consisted of a small sleigh, or jumper as it was called, and a pair of ponies. We loaded the jumper with a small tent, our blankets, and some provisions.

We set out on our journey about five o'clock in the afternoon and made for the home of a settler named McInnes, who, we had been told, would put us up for the night. We had supper with him; and spent a comfortable night.

Our next stop was at Duck Lake. We put up at a hotel for the night; and I had a pleasant surprise in meeting there, two old acquaintances Madigan, who had been a contractor on the construction of the C.P.R.  in the mountains; and Watson, whom I had met at Sherbrooke. They had a winter's job there, cutting ties for the railway.

We crossed the Saskatchewan the following day on the ice, near Batoche the scene of one of the battles in the Rebellion. There was still evidence of that battle, in the shattered trees which bordered the river.

We had our mid-day meal almost opposite Batoche, on the south side of the river, at the home of a French Canadian. We then continued our way, hoping to reach Saskatoon by night. But we were now on the open prairie; and a strong wind was blowing, sweeping the snow before it, and obliterating the travelled trail. The air was so filled with snow that we could scarcely see ahead of us. We therefore had to plough our way through the snow without having any definite idea where we were going; and to make matters worse, darkness overtook us.

After thus wandering for some time, we saw a light and headed for it. As we got near it, we saw that it came from a log house which loomed up through the darkness. So we drove on to this house and there made our plight known.

The occupant, who was keeping bachelor's quarters, kindly invited us in to stay with him for the night. And he cared for our ponies too. He turned his own team out of the stables, and let them fend for themselves in the yard, in order to let our ponies in and be sheltered for the night. He then set to work and cooked a good supper for us. His hospitality knew no bounds; and we certainly appreciated it to the full.

After supper we had an interesting talk with him; exchanging stories of our experiences. His name, he told us, was Clark.

When it was time to go to bed, we spread our blankets on the kitchen floor, beside the well-filled stove, and passed the night in perfect comfort.

By morning the storm had blown itself out; and we continued on our way. We caught up with the rest of our party about noon, at Saskatoon, where they had camped the previous night. The storm had played havoc with the cook's tent. It blew it over, and in doing so, it upset the cook's alarm clock into a pail of water, where it was found in the morning encased in a solid mass of ice.

We had our mid-day meal there, and then set out for Blackstrap Coulee, which we reached about 10 o'clock at night. There we found Brooks and his party in bed in a hayrack, among a load of hay. They were on their way to a job for the winter in the bush country around Duck Lake, to superintend the cutting of ties.

Our next stop was at a place called Springs, which we reached in the evening after a long cold drive, in a temperature well below zero. Here we found the bridge carpenters' camp; and two of my old associates in the bridge-building days in the Mountains. The first one I ran across was Weller. He had been one of the foremen carpenters then. Now he was in charge of the bridge building on this railway.

His first greeting to me was the exclamation: "Where have you come from; the North Pole?" With the buckskin coat, and the tuque I was wearing and very likely some icicles hanging from my beard I may well have appeared to him as having come from some frozen region in the Far North.

Whom should I meet next but my old Chief, George Ellison; and his greeting was most cordial.

We had supper at that camp; and stayed for the night. Next day we got to the End of Track; and from there by train to headquarters, in the Qu'Appelle valley, close to Craven.

There, Stewart and I stayed a few days finishing our plans of the location; and, incidentally, getting the latest word regarding future developments. We learned that work on the Calgary and Edmonton Railway would, in all likelihood, be under way the following year; and that in that event we would both be employed on it.

Construction work was now being closed down for the winter; and many were leaving for their own winter quarters. So as soon as I was free to leave, I made my way to Ailsa Ranch, which I reached a few days before the end of the year; and settled down there, quite contentedly, for the winter.


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