Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Railway Building in the Wilderness -Part 3

Railway Building in the Wilderness -Part 3
By Lacey Amy
From The Wide World magazine, Vol. XL, November 1917. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2014.

When men set out to drive a railway through virgin territory they find themselves confronted with all sorts of difficulties and dangers, and almost every mile of the steel pays a toll of human life. In these absorbing articles Mr. Amy describes the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the second great transcontinental line to pierce the Canadian Rockies. The road had to be carried across practically unknown country, through hundreds of miles of mountains that had never been named, never even been seen save by a few daring explorers and Indian hunters. The Author gives us a vivid idea of the human side of this great achievement, and the countless perils that swelled the casualty lists before the work was finally accomplished.

FROM Fitzhugh we slowly and laboriously climbed the Yellowhead Pass along the Miette River. Ours was the first train of passenger cars to cross the summit of the Rockies on the new transcontinental railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific, then under construction. In front were three cars of “bohunks,” and at the rear three private cars, one belonging to the Government, one to the superintendent of the division, the third—an overlong affair for such an untried railway—contained a canoe, supplies for a month, and the fishing and hunting outfit of my own little party of three.
That night, after the engineers and officials had departed on the motor-boat down the Fraser to inspect an engineering difficulty that was the reason for their presence, I crept back two miles from the construction camp to the engineers' camp pitched close to the end-of-steel village for that section of line—Mile 51, as it was termed officially; Sand Creek, as it was called by the citizens and “bohunks.”
Soon after darkness fell, in company with an engineer, I clambered down the gravel bank to the village in search of new experiences. I was not disappointed!
The night life of the place was only just commencing. “Bohunks” were wandering in by scores from the end of the street nearest the construction camp, and the “merchants” were busy hanging out their lamps and extending the word of greeting that would entice their prey within. As we approached a brightly-lighted “restaurant,” a small crowd was leisurely gathering before the door. Just as we reached its edge two madly-fighting men came plunging and staggering out, biting, tearing, and kicking, in wilderness fighting the vanquished stands a good chance of never being able to fight again.
There was no interference from the crowd, and no undue excitement, although it was composed of the mates of one of the combatants, a “bohunk,” while the other—the owner of the restaurant—was one of the human vultures who preyed on them all. For a couple of minutes the pair struggled on the steps of the store, panting, cursing, trying by every means, fair and foul, to disable one another. Suddenly the restaurant proprietor heaved his opponent aside, reached swiftly inside the door, and drew out a piece of wood resembling a rough chair-leg. The “bohunk” saw his peril too late. With a crash that seemed to be the expression of every ounce of strength in the wielder’s arms, the heavy club descended on the “bohunk’s” head, and he sank to the ground without a murmur. The victor merely shook his disturbed clothing into place, and stepped calmly back into his store, while the unconscious “bohunk’s” friends carried him silently and dispassionately across the street to a foul-looking shack with a sign reading, “Free Bunk House.”
My engineer friend took me by the arm with a short, nervous laugh and led me away.
“You’ll have to get used to it,” he warned me, “if you’re going to make the acquaintance of the end-of-steel village. I’ve seen uglier things than that many a time. To interfere would be your death, and not a man of the crowd but would say it served you right.”
Next morning I wandered down into the village with my camera. Never was there a quieter, more respectable hamlet. Scarcely a sign of life showed in the streets, and most of the windows were covered with heavy cloths to exclude the light. Sand Creek, by day, was asleep—getting ready for the night’s operations. The “bohunks” were somewhere miles away, yawning over their picks and shovels, but looking forward to the coming night’s revelry.
A cowboy cantered up the almost trackless street—a strange sight in the mountains, hundreds of miles from the nearest ranch. He pulled up beside me, and I learned that he was one of the cattle contractor’s men, occupied with the care of a herd of five hundred cattle, which he and his mates had driven in over four hundred miles of prairie trail and mountain “tote road” to feed the railway workers.
That night I determined to obtain a closer acquaintance with the village life. At its farther end stood one of the usual restaurants, a mere blind for what went on inside. Mingling in the darkness with a group of “bohunks,” I entered a side door and found myself in a large room filled with men seated at card-tables. As inconspicuously as possible, I slid into a chair near the door and looked about me. For a minute I seemed to be unnoticed. There were a dozen tables in the room, and the air was already thick with smoke, the abrupt words of men who must play together though ignorant of one another’s language, harsh laughter, and the clinking of bottles. The tables were home-made, the cards inconceivably filthy, and before most of the men stood bottles or tin cups.
A silence had fallen on the table nearest me, but it was the entrance of the proprietor with a tray of bottles that seemed to direct general attention to me. I recalled immediately that whisky was forbidden in the Pass, and no one had yet given me a passport to the confidence of these men. Low murmurs began to cut off the loud talk and laughter, and, looking about as carelessly as I could, I noted that every eye was on me. The proprietor was standing with the loaded tray, staring at me malignantly. Abruptly he turned and passed back to the unseen regions whence he had come. Instantly voices were raised in a dozen languages. Not a man was playing. I began to feel the barometer falling ominously, and mentally calculated the distance to the door.
From a distant table a burly “bohunk” rose impetuously and ploughed angrily towards me, upsetting a couple of chairs on the way. Somehow, even in the menace of the moment, his movements seemed theatrical, exaggerated. Then I saw that he was a Pole whose wounded leg I had the day before bound up. With violent gesticulation and thunderous talk—not a word of which I understood, of course—he towered over me. The others in the room were adding to the hubbub. In the midst of it the Pole managed to mutter anxiously, “You go! you go!” Dropping his hand heavily on my shoulder, he pushed me with seeming roughness to the door, and a moment later I was out in the dark, only the lights farther up the street reminding me that I was in uncongenial surroundings.
The next day I discovered a different atmosphere greeting me throughout the village. Someone—I suspect the engineer, subtly assisted by the Pole—had spread the word that I was safe, and the first merchant I met revealed that my mission in the Yellowhead Pass was known and understood. After that I came and went almost as I wished, every door open to me, everyone eager to put himself out of the way to furnish me with information.
The end-of-steel village is, I suppose, known nowhere else in the world except America, and nowhere else in America except where a railway is cutting its way through untracked wilds. The real end-of-steel village in all its glory cropped up only along the grade of the Grand Trunk Pacific. Its predecessor, the Canadian Pacific Railway, was constructed at a different period in Canadian history, and in the time of the Canadian Northern, which closely followed the Grand Trunk Pacific, the law had had sufficient experience to cope with the evil.
As its name intimates, the end-of-steel village is built at, or near, the “end of steel,” the phase of railway construction where the rails end for the time being until the grade ahead is prepared for a further extension. The grade which precedes the laying of steel advances much more slowly, of course, than the rails themselves. A stretch of twenty to twenty-five miles of grade may occupy thousands of men six months—I refer to the work through the Rocky Mountains—while the steel, when the time comes, will overtake it by modern methods in a fortnight.
The rails are laid by a mechanical tracklayer known as the “pioneer.” This consists of a train that lays its own rails as is advances, sometimes at the rate of three miles a day.
The “pioneer” is a crude-looking but really wonderful mechanical invention. The car which does the major part of the work is at the front of a train on which is carried every piece of material necessary, from the sleepers to the “shims” that temporarily level the rails and the spikes that fasten them in place.
With a sufficient stretch of completed grade ahead of it to justify its operations, the “pioneer” takes up its work, and when it has overtaken the labouring gang ahead it lies up for five or six months until another stretch of grade calls it again into action. Where the “pioneer” rests there springs up the end-of-steel village.
Somewhere within a few miles is the construction camp that houses the thousands of “bohunks” working on the grade—the source of patronage for the village. Canadian law dictates that the head contractors shall have complete jurisdiction in wild lands over everything within a mile radius of their camps, and the end-of-steel village, therefore, establishes itself somewhere as close to the limits of that area as conditions of water and other surroundings permit.
Ostensibly made up of stores or legitimate amusements only, the sales of merchandise are trifling to the amount of money expended in the village. Three or four general stores may make a very good living from the sale of boots and clothing, cheap confectionery, and tobacco, always at extortionate prices; but the score of other places of business are almost always ‘‘restaurants.” I put the word in quotation marks because the sale of food is but an advertisement for the front eighth of the space within. Behind a rough, oil-clothed counter is a limited array of leathery pies and a few cups for recklessly brewed tea, but the real business is done farther back.
Sand Creek, for instance, boasted of three general stores, half-a-dozen announcing the sale of tobaccos, candies, and “soft” drinks, and twelve “restaurants.” There was also a bath house—“Larson’s Bath House, Price 50c.,” and later reduced to twenty-five—but bathing does not figure extensively in the life of the “bohunk,” and the bath house finally closed through lack of patronage. Larson must have been an optimist.
The small area of the shacks devoted to the restaurant business was always backed by a pool or card room, sometimes by both. In Sand Creek there were eight “pool halls,” the total number of tables in the village being something like forty. Six of the restaurants were merely entrances to pool halls, three to card rooms, the other three were careful to offer no opportunities for examination.
There was one common offering of every building in an end-of-steel village. Anyone known to the proprietor, or obviously a “bohunk,” could poison himself with the vilest alcoholic beverage human ingenuity ever concocted. It was prepared not so much for deception—the “bohunk” was too experienced to be deceived— but to provide in the least amount of liquid all the sensations of a glorious “spree.” After results were immaterial. The “bohunk ” entered the shop, threw down a handful of money on the counter, and proceeded to incapacitate himself and ruin his constitution. After a very few glasses, before the stock in hand was seriously depleted, he was beyond the worries of this life.
At this stage began the usefulness of the only other structures in the village—the “Free Bunk Houses." These were Samaritan efforts on the part of the contractors to sustain the “bohunk” for further work on the grade. There were two in Sand Creek—mere piles of logs roofed with earth, and fitted inside with straw-covered bunks. Into these, when the “bohunk" became incapable of imbibing or paying for more liquor, he was carried by his less helpless mates. Usually he was in condition to imitate a labourer in the morning, for his interior had been calloused by a life of such risks. The contractors acknowledged their inability to deal with the situation in any other way, and the “bohunk” saw no reason for a change. There was nothing else in all the wide world of his experience but to spend his money on that which gave him momentary sensations that seemed pleasant, and nobody was to blame if these sensations were certain to make a physical wreck of him in a few years.
The appearance of an end-of-steel village is illuminating as to its character. Simplicity is the keynote—simplicity meaning neglect of every convenience that it is possible to do without. Trees grew everywhere in the Yellowhead Pass, and the construction of a shack merely meant the felling of a few spruce trees and their preparation with an axe. When a village was abandoned the most important parts for the next village, the canvas roofs, were lifted off, rolled up, and carried to the new site. In the Rockies there were three end-of-steel villages of the lawless type—one at Mile 5, five miles beyond the summit, the next at Mile 29, and the one I knew in its prime, at Mile 51. Each deserted one stood as it was left, save for the canvas roofs.
Of course there were end-of-steel villages before the summit was reached, but the mounted police of the prairie provinces saw to it that the law was decently observed. At the summit, the boundary of British Columbia, the jurisdiction of the mounted police ended, and thereafter the end-of-steel village flourished and grew fat.
The one at Mile 29 is reputed to have been the worst of the lot. When I was in the Pass it was still operating, but the business had passed along to Sand Creek, and Mile 29 was dying a slow death. What reason there was for its continued existence was not apparent its only open trade was with a near-by engineers’ camp, and with the wandering “bohunk” on his way in or out. Its real trade was underground, and it died hard. I visited it first on a Sunday afternoon. A number of young fellows lounged before a store, and a few were tossing a baseball about the street. A quarter of a mile from its outskirts a lonely police hut edged the path, an indolent policeman yawning in the doorway as a memory of days when life was swifter and more exciting.
There was, however, another village that sprang from a combination of conditions. It was not, strictly speaking, an end-of-steel village, for it did not owe its origin to the “pioneer.” But it included every other characteristic to its worst form, and was sufficiently near to the main construction camp at Mile 53 to provide counter-attractions to Sand Creek. Indeed, on Saturday nights Sand Creek almost closed up to move over to Tête Jaune Cache to join in the fun.
Tête Jaune Cache—pronounced locally “T. John”—was an offspring of the old Indian village of that name which had been located in the Tête Jaune Valley, between the Rockies and the Selkirks, long before the coming of the white man. The collection of tepees invited the advances of the early white man looking for a location whence he could prey on the “bohunk," and there arose a new village bordering the Indian one. It was practically a one-night-a-week place. Its “mayoress”—self-appointed, of course—was a stalwart negress. The village was more than a mile from grade, but its location on the tote road brought it custom long before the steel arrived, and the promised coming of the next transcontinental, the Canadian Northern, close by its doors, gave it reason for continuing in active operation even when the best trade from the Grand Trunk Pacific had passed.
The weekly event that drew every “bohunk" almost every human being within ten miles who could secure the means of getting there—was the Saturday night dance. For this every conveyance in the camps was called into service, and those who could not ride started early on foot. The fare by wagon from Sand Creek, only two miles away, was two dollars, a sum willingly paid by many times the number who could be accommodated. The female portion of the gathering consisted of the dance-hall girls and the few other women of the surrounding camps and villages. There was no class distinction there; now and then even the engineers went. The affair lasted from eight at night until weariness came with daylight, something like six o’clock the next morning.
The mistress of ceremonies was the negress, and her income for the night must have run into hundreds of dollars from the dancing alone. In addition she ran an open bar and other things that give such a village its reputation. Usually she was capable of handling the uproar and riot without more than the consequences to be expected, but sometimes her art failed.
I heard from a variety of sources the story of a fight that must have been a record even in the Yellowhead Pass. One day I was attracted by a huge figure of a man swinging down the railway towards me, six feet four, square-shouldered and heavy-jawed, handsome and clear-eyed. He wore no coat, and his khaki trousers were thrust into high prospector’s boots. In every movement was tremendous strength and agility. We met on the bridge spanning the McLellan River, then under construction, and I learned to know much of him in the days that followed. This man, a bridge foreman, was the hero of the story.
One Saturday night he secured a seat in the Sand Creek rigs and joined the crowd at the Tête Jaune Cache dance. I suppose his handsome face and easy manner won him any partner he wished; at any rate, the “bohunks,” egged on by the negress, began to feel the pangs of jealousy. He was the man to revel in it, recklessly, laughingly, and revenge came swiftly. Someone sneaked up behind him and banged him over the head with a weapon too thick for his skull, and he went down unconscious. In that condition they kicked him out.
The following Saturday he was on hand again, this time with a powerful engineer friend as companion. The row commenced early. Then, back to back, the only two “white men” in the room faced the mob of murderous “bohunks.” Their salvation, counted on beforehand, was that the very density of the crowd prevented the use of guns, and they were prepared for anything else. One after another they laid out the attacking “bohunks” with their fists, both being experienced boxers and possessed of enough muscle and weight to make one blow sufficient for each opponent. Against the one or two knives that appeared they used their feet, but some sense of fair play held back weapons of that kind.
Seeing her business interfered with, the negress with a scream of rage hurled herself against the bridge foreman. It seemed that he was waiting for that. He caught her round the waist, threw his muscles into the heave, and slammed her up against the board partition at the side of the room. With a crash the whole wall fell, and in a minute the room was empty save for the two victors and the groaning negress. The two men trudged home satisfied. The “bohunk” requires his lesson periodically.
Spite of the hideous nature of the life they led, the citizens of the end-of-steel village retained for it a peculiar affection and loyalty, as well as a frank pride in the notoriety they assisted in winning for it. That it shifted its location every six months did not lessen the feeling. The proprietor of the largest store in Sand Creek grew sentimental when recalling past glories and the imminent completion of the railway. For two years he had been reaping the inordinate profits of his trade among the “bohunks,” and his little family had grown and increased since he had come up from a western American town. The big sign that fronted his store—painted away back in civilization for a store of more pretentious proportions—was a matter of personal pride to him. Neglecting no opportunity for augmenting his earnings, he had attached in conspicuous places about the doorway additional evidences of varied aptitude and offerings, the laborious products of his own uneducated hand: “Cider,” “Shooting Gallary,” “Resturant,” “Shoes Repared Here." With kindly pride he begged me to call upon him for anything I wanted. The limit of his fraternity came when his little boy brought to the engineers’ camp for me a specially baked blueberry pie, with the scrawled dedication,
“Four the nu man. John S—.” But these things happened in the light of day, when the end-of-steel village was just like any other hamlet of such modest pretensions.

There will never be another end-of-steel village in Canada worthy of the name. The smuggling of liquor is now more difficult in a country that has “gone dry” almost from coast to coast, and Governments have learned that something more than law enforcement by trust or proxy is necessary where thousands of the most undisciplined races of the world are shut off from the subduing influence of civilization and thrown on their own resources. And soon the most lurid chapters in Canadian development will be but a memory to those well-intentioned officials who were forced to accept conditions as they found them, as well as to those few of us from the “outside” who unofficially looked on in the feverish days that started and ended with one of the greatest works of railway construction in history.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.