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When the Steel Went Through
Winnipeg and Medicine Hat


HAVING now severed my connection with the O. and Q., I made preparations to leave Toronto as soon as possible, to take up my new position on the C.P.R. I felt, however, that I could not very well leave without saying good-bye to my uncle, aunt, and cousins, at Hornby. So I went there and paid them a farewell week-end visit.

I had planned to return on Monday by the morning train, and was at the station in good time. There was another passenger waiting for the train there too, and we naturally got into conversation. I did not at first know who he was, but later developments made it evident that he held some position on the railway — roadmaster, most likely.

Hornby, as I have already stated, was a flag station. But on this occasion the flag system failed to work; for although we had flagged the train in the usual way, it roared past the station without stopping. I was flabbergasted.

However, my fellow-traveller was fully awake and knew what to do. He told me to wait where I was while he hunted up a hand-car, and set off at once to a gang of section-men who were at work close by. A short time after, he returned on a hand-car with some of the section-men, and invited me to get on board with him, for a hand-car ride to Toronto. I was only too glad at this opportunity of getting there without more delay, so I accepted his invitation with pleasure. Although there were plenty of hands for pumping the hand-car, I took my turn on the job. It was my first experience in this class of work; but I didn't find it too hard.

We made the journey to Toronto in good time, and I was able to get ready to leave for the West that same day, by the night train. I packed my trunk with such things as I didn't want to take with me, and arranged with the Erskines to keep it for me, until I should return. I took with me just my field and drawing instruments, and a dunnage-bag well stuffed with a miscellaneous collection consisting for the most part of old clothes, engineering textbooks, and a rifle.

On the journey to Winnipeg there was much of interest to be seen on the way: the ferrying of the train across the Detroit River — between Windsor and Detroit; the stern-wheel steamers on the Mississippi; and the seemingly endless expanse of plain between Minneapolis and the boundary.

I got to Chicago late in the evening, and was immediately transferred by bus (horse-drawn, of course; no motor vehicles in those days) to a station in the other end of the city; and there I got on the night train for St. Paul. So I saw little of Chicago; all I can say about it is that I was driven through it in the night.

I spent a night in St. Paul and left the following morning on the last lap of my journey, and arrived in Winnipeg early in the evening.

At this point I am faced with what would appear to be an anomalous freak of memory. For I have no recollection of the name of the hotel I went to; where it was situated; nor whether I walked to it, or was driven to it from the station. And yet, I distinctly remember my registering at a hotel. My memory of this may be due to the fact that just as I was registering, a man came in and handed to the clerk at the desk a sheet of paper — which evidently was an open telegram — and said, in quite a joyous tone: "The track has crossed the Saskatchewan!" That information was naturally of great interest to me; and hearing it just as I was registering has left this dual event, the crossing of the Saskatchewan by the C.P.R. track, and my arrival in Winnipeg on the same day, firmly imprinted on my memory.

The next morning — as instructed by Holt — I called at the engineers' office for a pass to the End of Track. W. D. Barclay was the engineer in charge, and it was there that I met him for the first time.

Having got my pass I took a walk around to look at the town. The boom had by that time burst, and the outlook was, to say the least, depressing. Moreover, recent rains had made the streets almost impassable. Wagons and other vehicles slowly made their way through mud, almost up to their axles. Mud seemed to be everywhere; it was even on the board sidewalks; a sticky greasy mud which made walking anything but a pleasure. So it is by no means an inviting picture that I retain in my mind, of Winnipeg as it was, when I first saw it.

Early next morning I left for the End of Track. There was a sleeping-car with the train as far as Moose Jaw, which I reached the following morning. So the journey up to that point, although slow in comparison with present-day speeds, was pleasant. But from Moose Jaw, west, only freight trains ran. So from there I continued my way perched on the top of a car-load of telegraph poles. I quite enjoyed the novelty of this ride for a time; but it was an all-day journey, and I arrived at Medicine Hat in the small hours of the morning, feeling pretty stiff.

As I got off the train in the dark, I was in somewhat of a quandary as to where I was going to put up for the rest of the night. But a man with a lantern approached, and in response to my inquiry, kindly piloted me to a large marquee tent which bore the pretentious name ROYAL HOTEL. Here I was given a cot. I had a real good sleep, and got up for breakfast quite refreshed. The man with the lantern, who thus befriended me, was the night watchman for the C.P.R. His name was Thomas Burns, afterwards well known in Calgary for many years, as Assessor and City Treasurer.

I had now to give some thought to the problem of getting to the End of Track, which by that time was some twelve miles past Medicine Hat. There was no scheduled time for trains leaving for there, so I had to hang around the station for a while, keeping an eye on a train that was being made up of flat-cars loaded with ties and rails and other track material. When this train was finally made up, I got on board one of the cars; and in due time reached the End of Track, and reported to Holt in his private car.

He gave me a cordial welcome, and after a short conversation of a general nature, he outlined the work I was to do. I was to form one of a staff of three in an engineers' office which he was establishing at Medicine Hat. W. A. Doane, who had been assistant engineer on the O. and Q. at Peterborough, was expected to arrive shortly, and would be in charge of that office. In order of precedence, I would come next; and T. K. Thomson, a student at Toronto School of Applied Science, then spending his summer vacation as a draughtsman on a car at the End of Track, would be the junior.

During this interview with Holt, I happened to notice on a table close to where I was sitting, some sheets of paper which had for letter-head, "North American Construction Company".

My curiosity led me to ask him what company that was. He seemed rather amused as he replied: "That is the company you are working for." That was surprising news to me, for I had been under the belief that I would be working for the C.P.R. But he further informed me that the North American Construction Company was a subsidiary of the C.P.R., organized to take charge of the location and construction of the Western section of the Railway.

In the public mind, however, that company and the C.P.R. were just one and the same thing. One rarely ever heard it mentioned; nearly everyone spoke of it as the C.P.R.

When I had finished my talk with Holt, he asked me to stay the night with him. So I was free for the afternoon to stroll about and watch the track-layers at work. This was the first time I had seen track-laying, and I was much interested in the various operations.

Some writers, when referring to the construction of the C.P.R., have stated that a track-laying machine was used. But not in my experience. The track was laid entirely by manual labour. I can still picture the busy scene, and can hear the clang of the rails as they were dropped on the ties.

End of Track was something more than just the point to which track had been laid. It was a real live community, a hive of industry, in which teamsters, tracklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, executive officers, and other trades and professions all had a part. They had their quarters on a train composed of cars loaded with rails and other track material, followed by large boarding-cars for the workmen, and by sundry smaller cars for the executives. This train was pushed ahead as track-laying proceeded; and at the end of a day's work, it might be three or four miles from where it was on the morning.

I returned to Medicine Hat, along with Thomson, the following morning; and a day or two later, Doane arrived. Of what Thomson and I. did in the interim, I have no distinct recollection; but on Doane's arrival we had a tent set up for an office, and soon got started to work.

Medicine Hat, at that time simply a canvas town, was being established as a divisional point, and our work consisted, in part, in laying out, and looking after the grading of sidings for yard tracks; and the building of a round-house.

Of the people I first came to know, I may mention Neil Curran, the chief accountant, and his staff. There was a small office boy on the staff, about twelve or fourteen years of age, who answered to the name of George. He was messenger and general chore boy. What his surname was I didn't know till long afterwards. He was just George. He didn't need a surname, for everyone round about knew who George was. But many years later he was more widely known as George Webster, Mayor of Calgary.

We bunked in a car-shaped building and had our meals in a similar one with Curran and his staff. Besides the staff, there was a former member of it who made one of our party too. He had been in charge of supplies for engineers' camps, but had given up that position, and having studied law, had opened an office in Medicine Hat. But force of habit, or maybe some other reason, made him still patronize the company's boarding-house. His name was James Lougheed, for a long time afterwards a prominent lawyer in Calgary, and a Senator; and later known as Sir James Lougheed.

About a week after my arrival in Medicine Hat, we had a spell of extremely hot weather. I evidently considered this so unusual that I made a note of the temperatures on the fly-leaf of an engineer's pocket-book which I still possess. From 26th June to 2nd July, the temperatures as there recorded were 96°, 99°, 100°, 107°, 96°, 76°, 58°. As these temperatures were taken with an ordinary thermometer which may not have been exactly in the shade, I cannot guarantee their absolute correctness. But they serve to give a fair comparison between the daily temperatures during that period. The drop from the high temperature of 107° to the low of 58° on the 2nd of July resulted in a storm which struck like a flash, and blew down almost every tent in town. And it was a blinding storm, for the air was thick with the dry sandy material with which the yard sidings were being graded. There was little left of these, and the work had to be done all over again. Our office tent shared the same fate as the rest; tracings of plans on which we were working were ripped from the table to which they were pinned, and nothing was afterwards seen of them.

When the storm had blown itself out, tents were again set up and business resumed its former activities. We, however, were spared setting up our draughting tent; it was so badly wrecked that we were given a box-car for an office instead.

Among the various points of interest around the Hat — as the town was beginning to be called, for short— the Saskatchewan held quite an attraction for me. The very name had a smack of romance, reminiscent of tales of Indians in the Far West, which, in my schooldays, had stirred in me a spirit of adventure. But it didn't appeal in this way to everyone. I have been told of a more prosaic individual who held that the name sounded like a sneeze; and that the only way in which it could be pronounced was to substitute a sneeze for the two middle syllables. He no doubt considered himself quite a joker.

Be that as it may, I ventured a swim in it — down stream, for the current was too strong to swim up stream. This swim was, in itself, quite enjoyable. But I paid full toll for it in blood, to the swarms of mosquitoes through which I had to pass on shore, as, bare-footed, I gingerly picked my steps on the rough shingle, on my way back to the spot where I had left my clothes. There was not much romance in that adventure; and one was quite enough for me.

Shortly before I left Medicine Hat, W. B. Scarth, Manager of the Canada North West Land Company arrived from Winnipeg to put the lots of the town-site on the market. The town-site had been laid out some time before, and many of the lots had already been selected by prospective purchasers who were occupying them as their business premises. There seemed to have been a sort of gentlemen's agreement among the businessmen, to regard such occupation as a pre-emptive claim which they would respect when the lots came to be sold.

When Scarth announced the prices of the lots there was an indignant protest from the prospective purchasers; for these prices were much higher than anyone ever thought they would be. So, following the custom of the day, an "indignation meeting" was called to air their grievance. "Indignation meeting," I may here say, was the name then used — and for a long time afterwards — for any meeting called to protest against an action done, or proposed to be done, of which the protesters disapproved. I have attended a number of "indignation meetings"; the name was the drawing card; it clearly spelled fireworks.

At this "indignation meeting", Lougheed took a prominent part. He was one of the prospective purchasers, and by way of registering his claim to a lot, had placed some building material on it. I attended the meeting — held in the open air — and I can still hear him declaiming against the iniquity of the Canada North West Land Company in exacting such extortionate prices. What these prices were, I don't remember; but as a result of this meeting, the sale of lots was postponed indefinitely.

A few days later, the whole staff in both the accounting and engineering departments, got orders from Holt to move to the End of Track which by that time was nearing Calgary.

But this move did not entail any packing up. For the living- and office-quarters, the dining-room and kitchen — with all they contained — were simply loaded on flat-cars; and we thus made the trek undisturbed.

We had planned to do some office work on the way, but — as the track had not as yet been ballasted — the train rolled and pitched like a ship in a choppy sea, so that it was impossible to do any draughting; and we had just to pass the time as best we could. At times, following a clatter which sounded like broken dishes, as the car gave an extra roll, we could hear a burst of strong language coming from the cook. Thus we were not without entertainment on the way.

We reached the End of Track in the evening, and there we settled down for a time. But after I had been there a day — or perhaps two — Holt sent me to Calgary to help out, temporarily, in the office of Moses Burpee who was Chief Engineer, on construction. The track was then some twenty miles from Calgary, and I was driven there in one of the company's wagons. To get to Calgary, we had to cross the Bow River; and the only means of crossing it was by a ferry run by the North West Mounted Police. The ferryman, when I crossed, was a tall slim, and active young man — Corporal Ralph Bell. He was the first Calgary man I met; and, like myself, was destined to play his part in the development of the West.

The teamster who drove the wagon landed me safely at Burpee's camp. But what I did there must form part of the next chapter, dealing with my work in Calgary.


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