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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.