Friday, 27 November 2015

The Life of the Bohunk

The Life of the Bohunk
By W. Lacey Amy
The Canadian Magazine, 1913 January.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle November 2015

DEEP in the Northern Rockies, five hundred miles from a moving picture show, a bakeshop, or a brass bed, seven or eight thousand men toil slowly onward, each foot of progress taking them farther from civilisation, but cutting the way for civilisation that will follow closely on their footsteps. There are three gangs, two of them ever tramping—one going in, the other coming out—and the third at work, blasting, digging, hewing, hammering.
Next week the personnel of the gangs is changed. The workers of to-day are tramp-tramping out through the mountain passes; and their places are taken by those who were plodding westward.
The bohunk is a species, the tramp of the industrial world, the ennuied new-rich of the labouring classes. His feet and hands are his sole items of capital, and he uses them alternately, now digging, now walking, neither content to give way for long time to the other.
Out at Edmonton the bohunk lounges into one of the score of employment offices that crowd the streets around the railway station, makes a few inquiries about wages, signs a paper that adds nothing to his obligations as he conceives them, boards a Grand Trunk Pacific train at a cent a mile—if he is fortunate enough to have the money—and a couple of days later jumps stiffly into the heart of the mountains and looks around for the work he has come to perform. If he has not been able to purchase a ticket to the End of Steel, he rides as far as he can afford and then trusts to his feet. Fortunately the need of men in that provisionless country is so great that the contractors allow few to walk westward. Eastward it is different.
A hundred bohunks, loaded with bundles, from a bandana handkerchief to a trunk, tumble from the train at Fitzhugh, which is officially the End of Steel. Another train of flat and box cars is waiting there for the tedious, dangerous climb to the summit and the glide down the fifty miles beyond. Over these cars they distribute themselves where comfort offers most, and ten hours later are glad to strike the solid grade again at Mile 52, B.C. Here a siding has been built, and on it stands a long row of box cars converted by the most simple process into bedrooms and dining-rooms that fulfil all the requirements for rest and refreshment for the night.
A mile farther on, at the real End of Steel, where the Fraser River broadens into navigation for the long trip of three hundred miles down to Fort George, stands the main camp of the big contractors of construction. A labour office is there, and those who have not already signed their contracts push their way to a wicket and make their mark. Italians, Hungarians, Swedes, Russians, Poles, and a few Englishmen pass this wicket by thousands, to find work awaiting them at any time.
Those who are making for the grade where the “grade gang’’ stretches out over the next hundred miles of wilds, find their way there by following the freshly constructed grade, or are taken down in scows or gasolene launches. The other two gangs of construction, the track layers and the finishers, pick up their reinforcements as the men pass through to the larger crowd on grade.
All through the trip in from Edmonton a few big, impressive men have been moving among the crowd of incoming bohunks, encouraging, answering questions, picturing the pleasures of the life ahead and the profit of the work. At every stop beyond Fitzhugh another of the same kind adds a word. To the bohunk the coming life is to be one of easy work, grateful consideration from the bosses, and lots of money to make one grand spree of the next trip out. These “man-catchers” know their work and the men with whom they deal.
It would be expected that away in there so far from redress the foreigners would experience a rude awakening. They do awaken; they do change their minds and long for the outer world once more. But it is seldom the fault of the contractors, the big firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart, or of the sub-contractors who have taken over the work in small pieces. A bohunk would tire of a couch beside a dining-room table.
His wage runs from $2.75 to $3.50 a day, with a deduction of one dollar for meals and sometimes a dollar a month for hospital attendance. The rest is clear profit if the bohunk wishes it. His table fare surpasses anything he will ever taste elsewhere, and his bed is as comfortable as he would know how to use. The work is steady and never strenuous. The hours are from seven to six, with the time for luncheon that is required to get him to camp, give him an hour there, and carry him back. As the camps are sometimes six or eight miles from the work the luncheon hour spins into two or more, with a ride on a flat car each way.
The providing of food for these thousands of men reveals more clearly than anything else the completeness of the system of railway construction. Hundreds of miles from the prairie into the mountains herds of cattle are driven and kept there under the charge of cowboys wherever grass can be found. A herd of hundreds of fat steers wanders through the valley at Tete Jaune Cache, with two or three cowboys rounding it up at night and cutting out those required for slaughter. Until the railway reached navigation every pound of provisions had to be carried in over the tote road built by the contractors for this purpose. The road will soon be lost and forgotten in the twists and turns of the new railway or covered up by the mountain slides, but its construction through the Yellowhead Pass was only a smaller bit of engineering ingenuity than the railway grade itself.
In the food they provide the contractors realise that they possess one of the strongest inducements for steady work. Nothing but a railway contractor could afford the table of the construction camp. For days I ate the same fare as the bohunks all around me—hundreds of us under the same roof—and in variety of food, in quality of cooking, in abundance there was nothing lacking. A camp chef receives his hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, and at fifty dollars a month he has all the assistants he desires. It is a matter of preference with most of the chefs that they are not at some large city hotel. In the kitchens a battery of four or five large ranges flanks the wall, long, tin-covered tables fill the centre of the room, and every tin and pot known in cookdom is there. Hot water is provided by a pipe running from the stoves into a couple of large barrels. In the matter of convenience there is nothing to prevent meals that would be served elsewhere in French on an embossed menu card.
A representative meal, such as I was served in several camps, commenced with soup—and not restaurant soup, either. In the wilds they would not stand for that. Beef and ham were the meats, and often eggs as well, the beef usually cooked in two ways. Invariably there were two vegetables, one of them being potatoes, natural, if they could be obtained, or desiccated if the supply ran out unexpectedly; the other vegetable was usually turnips, tasty, well-cooked turnips. For desert there was a milk pudding and two kinds of pie—apple and cocoanut—as well as a couple of varieties of cake or cookie. Morning, noon and night tea and coffee were served, bread and butter, the latter canned, but as good as fresh; and on the tables were pickles, catsup and sometimes chili sauce. In general the three meals of the day vary little, except that for breakfast there is a cereal, and for supper two kinds of canned fruit. Right in the midst of the mountains I have eaten ice cream, lobster salad, pie with whipped cream, raspberries with cream, and cake with ornamental icing; but they are not usual on the bohunk’s bill of fare; he would scarcely give thanks for them.
In the dark granite dishes there are few chips, and never is there a shortage of cutlery, cups or plates. On the tables large pots contain the tea and coffee, distinguished only by their odor. Behind each long table stand a couple of “cookees” or “flunkies,” whose duty is to fill the plates and pots as they empty, and to clean up each place as soon as it is vacated. The meat house outside is a netting-covered shack; in that air the meat keeps thus for days. Although the lakes around teem with trout it is only by dynamiting that sufficient can be captured to feed a large camp—a fracture of the law which many a chef and cookee risks.
The men purchase tickets for their meals and must present them at the door of some camps to enable the cookee who stands there to protect the camp from the wandering labourers. Anyone but an employee must pay fifty cents a meal or present a letter from the contractor. At Mile 53, the main camp of the Pass at the present time, a narrow gangway like a platform for loading cattle runs up to the “grub-house” door, and through this each of the three hundred bohunks must pass single file and show his ticket.
The bunk-houses are shacks of logs with canvas covering, in which the bunks are built along the sides. On these boughs or dirty straw form the mattress; the bohunk supplies his own blankets. It is not the royal suite of a high-class hotel, for the bohunk supplies many other things besides his blankets, but it is better than he lay in last month and may be looked back to with longing next month. Over his head is canvas, sometimes a very tough, waterproof material, called buckyre, and sometimes the home-made shingles that locally go by the name of “shakes.” On the many beautiful nights of the mountain summer, there could be nothing better than the ground outside.
At six in the morning the first bell rings. A camp bell is a six-foot drill bent into a triangle. On this the cookee clangs with another drill, or, where real music is appreciated, such as in an engineers’ camp, with a wooden stick. That first bell never seems to fulfil any purpose in a construction camp except as a reminder that there is but a half-hour’s sleep longer. Nobody rises. All the awakened sleepers do is to curse in their respective languages at the overzealous efforts of the cookee. At six-thirty the last ringing alters things. The bohunk pushes aside his blanket, pulls on his boots, and is in the dining-room three minutes later. Some of them wash for breakfast—that is proven by the illustration; but the three bohunks pictured had just come into camp and still had a towel and a past.
At the table they never talk. Most of them would not be able to make themselves understood by their neighbours. They just eat, earnestly, seriously, quickly, and plentifully. Invariably I was the last to leave the table, and Fletcher is not a personal friend of mine. While I would be helping myself to my first piece of pie the last bohunk would straggle out, leaving me to the hurrying glances of a dozen cookees impatient to commence preparations for the next meal.
The day’s work commences when the bohunk presents himself at grade at seven, ready to walk or be carried to the place of operations. It may be an hour later before he wields a shovel—and when he does it requires some imagination to discover where he earns his three dollars a day by his work. Some time before noon he quits work for the journey back to camp, where an hour is always allowed him, however long the trip takes.
At night, unless there is a demand for special work (for which he receives extra pay), he is free to do what he likes. In that northern country there is daylight in the summer until ten-thirty, and the bohunk is not the weary labourer of popular imagination. His evening he fills with a visit to the end-of-steel village, or he loafs around the camp with another bohunk with whom he is able to converse.
In his fights he is more strenuous than in his work. An Italian and a Pole seldom see eye to eye when they happen to be sufficiently interested in each other to try it; and both exhibit little reluctance in filling up the chasm of conversation with a knife or pistol. The Swede prefers his fists, the Italian a knife, the Pole and Russian a revolver, and the Hungarian uses anything from a rock to his teeth. Whichever is at hand is utilised solely with the idea of speedily ending the engagement. The only sign of defeat is a hors de combat condition. Without these fights the life of the bohunk would be a wearisome existence.
At the end of his month—or perhaps he remains two months—the bohunk is possessed of one idea. Railway construction, or, at least, construction in that particular locality, is the worst job he has ever toiled at, he thinks. And the next day finds him shouldering his baggage for the long tramp out. Endless lines of departing labourers dot the grade eastward or trail along the tote road high up on the mountain sides. Loaded with valises or trunks, fore and aft, they move in twos or threes or half-dozens, quiet, solemn, dogged, looking forward only to getting away from the old life. Weeks and sometimes months they plod along right baek to Edmonton and uncertainty. Any kind of clothing satisfies, any kind of gait, any place to sleep, any load of luggage makes no difference. If they have fulfilled their contract they may possess a letter from the contractors that will provide them meals at the construction camps they pass; if not, they must trust to luck and what little money they may have saved from the end-of-steel village.
One sturdy bohunk at the head of a string of six ploughed past me under a load of a trunk and a suit case in front and behind; and those trunks were larger than steamer trunks. Behind him came one wearing two hats and two coats. One day a bohunk came stolidly along minus his trousers. As he could speak a few words of English he explained that, being warm, he had removed his trousers and had tied them on the stick at his back with his suit cases. When he came to look for them on approaching Mile 29 they were not there. As there was a store right ahead and little chance of finding the trousers had he gone baek for them, he decided to purchase a new pair. The old ones had probably served their time. All along the tote road dirty underclothing and overalls and hats, some of them neither old nor ragged, adorn the trees. When an undershirt really demands washing it is simpler when on trail to throw it away; and it lightens the load.
Frequently the returning bohunk clamours at the injustice of paying four cents a mile out when he went in at one cent, but the contractors leave no doubt of their desire to place every obstacle in the way of the departing workman. Even at the four-cent rate hundreds use the flat cars or colonist cars that are precariously run over the uncompleted track.
Returning one Sunday from the End of Steel I had for companions five colonist cars packed with bohunks. More than four hundred men were taking advantage of the train to leave the work, and the train agent was seizing the opportunity to make a few dollars for himself. From every check that was presented, save those of the Grand Trunk Pacific, he deducted five per cent, for cashing it. Since there is little cash in the Pass, almost every bohunk was forced to pay by means of his month’s check. In the baggage car I watched the agent counting out a pile of checks he could scarcely hold in one hand. He was willing to admit that it was one of his profitable days.
Part of what was left of the bohunk’s check was finding its way into the bank account of the news agent. On this train there is no provision made for feeding the fleeing labourer, and the newsy undertakes to fill the need—without much sacrifice to himself. A sandwich costs twenty cents, a small tin of sardines or canned beef or a pound of dry soda biscuits twenty-five cents, a piece of apple pie that has forgotten its crisp period ten cents, a dozen apples seventy-five cents, and a dozen oranges a dollar. The jolly voice of the newsy as he shouts through the cars, “Yellowhead apples, Fraser oranges, Tete Jaune bananas, good cigars and bum cigars,” is proof that he is not dissatisfied with his lot. Never yet has he carried back to Edmonton any part of that with which he started, and his sandwiches last only part of the way to End of Steel. The previous newsy is now on a trip through Europe, and the present one has an assistant whom he allows to do the real work.
Should the bohunk select the westward trip down the Fraser as his direction of exit, he must risk his life on a raft or a scow, or pay to Foley, Welch and Stewart fifteen cents a mile, seventy-five cents a meal and a dollar a night for the privilege of using one of the overgrown steamers that ply as far as the Canyon.
The lack of cash in the Pass is the cause of frequent embarrassment. Almost every day someone was offering me checks to cash, and they usually were not bohunks. As a protection to the careless men, some contractors refuse to cash checks not presented by the owners themselves. Trainmen running to Edmonton go out with their pockets full of checks and return loaded with money. The discount is of little importance when a man has been gazing for weeks at a bit of paper that is worth nothing to him in that condition.
When the bohunk sickens there is a hospital near for the treatment he requires. All through the Pass deserted hospital buildings mark the location of former large camps, and farther along near the active camps the new hospitals have been established. Experienced doctors are in charge, with younger men and nurses under them. Operations are performed and diseases fought under conditions that would not disgrace a city hospital. The head doctor has been on construction work for many years. On his little white pony he rides along the line inspecting the work of his corps and locating the new hospital sites as the camps move onward. Typhoid fever and pneumonia are the principal diseases, but the accidents are as varied as dynamite, mountain slides, careless work and fights can provide.
And the bohunk is not neglected even when dead, for his friends are immediately notified, if their addresses have been given, and if the body is not claimed it is interred in one of the cemeteries demanded by law.
Of course, in this world of labour the unions have attempted to secure control. Once a party of union officials visited the camps incognito, influenced by the gossip of poor fare that had reached the outside world. After a few meals they struck back for civilisation as quietly as they came, envious of the bohunks who were served such meals. The organisation known as the Industrial Workers of the World has been influential among a few of the camps on the Pacific end of construction, but when they attempted to interfere with the work through the Pass, the contractors promptly shut down their camps, and the walking delegates were glad to get away where they could get a place to sleep and something to eat, and where the hungry bohunks were not so threatening.
The life of the bohunk up to the End of Steel is no summer holiday, but it is as near an approach to it as most labourers attain. He must live under conditions that might shock the over-sensitive reformer, but the provision for his comfort is the surprise of construction. That such food can be served so many hundred miles from its source is an education in the system of supply. Just what are the conditions in the financial end of the connection of bohunk and contractor, and how well the latter lives up to his promises, it is almost impossible to discover. The contractors can scarcely be expected to expose themselves, and the few bohunks who can speak enough English to be intelligible are not reliable. Tales are told of worse conditions of life and treatment on isolated sections of the grade, and their persistence may show that there is some thing to criticise, but up to the End of Steel and a few miles beyond the bohunk is his own worst enemy, and most of the unpleasant conditions of his life are of his own making.

A bohunk is an interesting bit of machinery, but, being human, he demands all that can reasonably be done to make his life in the heart of the Rockies comfortable and profitable.

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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.