Friday, 8 January 2016

The Old Steel Trail

The Old Steel Trail
By R. G. Macbeth
Author of The Canadian Pacific Railway
From The Canadian Magazine, March 1925

A LITTLE while ago I was east over the old steel trail that was the first of all its species to make its way westward over the plains and across the moun­tains to the western sea. We have now two trans-continental railways in Canada, but those of us who wit­nessed the advent of these roads with their shrieking locomotives breaking in upon the silences of the prairies and the mountains, do not say with Thoreau, who objected to the noise of civilization and moved into the woods, “The railwayswe do not ride on the railways, they ride on us”. We all grumble at times, after the manner of humanity, about rail­way rates and regulations and such like, and hence we understand the satire in the saying of a veteran rail­way president in New York to Mr. E. W. Beatty, shortly after the lat­ter’s election to the office of Presi­dent of the world’s greatest trans­portation system: “It is not hard to be a railway president—one has only to please the public.” To please the public is one of the impossible tasks of life. Nevertheless, the public, which swears at the railway, knows perfectly well, in its thoughtful moments, that railways are the real colonizers of the earth. They open up the waste places and take the set­tler to land which is of little value till brought into contact with the world by the railway. And if it be objected that the railways in Canada have been too highly bonused with lands, one recalls that a great Ameri­can statesman once suggested offer­ing half of Illinois to any railway that would build through that splendid State. The railway would make the other half valuable. True, it looks as if we in Canada may reasonably think that at present we are rather over­stocked with railways. But each of them will minister to vast new spaces and by these roads settlers will pour in.
The title of this article is intended to designate the railway pathfinder of Western Canada: the Canadian Pacific. Born in the hermit Selkirk Colony on the Red River, I can re­call the advent of the mysterious- looking wires on poles which we children were told would bring mes­sages from across the world in a few hours. This was a long step in ad­vance of my father’s boyhood days in that same colony, for I recall hear­ing him tell how, though they had friends in the Highland regiments battling against Napoleon for the liberties of Europe, the people in the Selkirk Colony on the Red River did not hear of the battle of Waterloo for many months after it had been fought and won by the Iron Duke. So we, in our generation, were making pro­gress. By and by the railway came to Manitoba. It came from the south, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway, though the ele­ments of force in its direction were considerably Canadian, in the persons of the redoubtable James J. Hill, Donald A. Smith, George Stephen and others. But Canada, with her ambitious Confederation expansion, could not remain long dependent for communication between her east and west on an outside country. More­over it was part of the Confedera­tion pact that British Columbia should be reached by the Steel Trail from eastern Canada and thus be made an integral part of the new Dominion.
Accordingly Ottawa began to strug­gle with the situation. Public men and capitalists worked on the problem, and governments rose and fell on the difficult question of a Canadian Pacific Railway. Some men there were who considered that such a road across the wilderness “would not pay for its axle-grease” and others who thought that such a tremendous un­dertaking was too high a price to pay for a “sea of mountains” like British Columbia. We must not be too hard on these early skeptics. For, apart from the fact that one of the func­tions of an opposition is to prevent a government from too hasty action, there were not many men of that day who had visioned the illimitable pos­sibilities of Canada’s new West. When we think of the immense stretch of rock country on the north shore of Lake Superior, without much hope of productive business, and with very great difficulties in the way of construction, then of the thousand miles of practically unin­habited prairie and, farther on, the apparently impassable barrier of the Rockies and the Selkirk mountain ranges, we still marvel at the men who, even at a great price, undertook the task. Perhaps one may be par­doned if one thinks it was not an accident which led to this work being undertaken, and accomplished by men like Strathcona and Mount Stephen and Angus, who hailed from the country where they have a saying, “A stout heart to a stey brae”. They must have had in their Calvinistic creed the conviction that diffi­culties were in this world in order that they might develop strong men in the overcoming of them.
Of all these early railway builders I recall Lord Strathcona (then Mr. Donald A. Smith) best. The first time I saw him was in my father’s house in the Red River country, when Mr. Smith came to talk with my father, a massive old Highlander who was the last survivor of the famous Selkirk Colony. I was not old enough to know what they were discussing— but I remember Mr. Smith, slight, erect, energetic and wiry, his beetling brows like the crags over his native glen, his reddish hair and beard even then sprinkled with the snows that never melt. The last time I saw him was in his own house in Montreal at a great dinner, where the magnates of that city were gathered around his festal board. He had then come to be Lord Strathcona, High Commissioner for Canada in London. His hair and beard were as pure white as the frosts in the north, and his brows were more than ever like crags under drifts of snow. But he was still simple-hearted, unaffected and kind to the most unknown guest at the table, because that guest was the son of his old friend, the Highland colon­ist on the Red River. A great trio were Strathcona, Mount Stephen and R. B. Angus, men of distinguish­ed appearance and unaffected bearing, giants who loved to grapple with im­mense questions and overcome obstac­les without making any ostentatious noise about it all.
The first time I travelled any dis­tance on the Canadian Pacific Rail­way was in 1885, when some of us students dropped our books and joined up with regiments enlisting at Winnipeg to deal with that strange megalomanic, Louis Riel, and any Indian allies he might secure. From Winnipeg to Calgary was largely an uninhabited vastness, only little wooden shack towns dotting the plain along the steel trail. I recall, at Crowfoot Crossing, seeing the lordly Blackfoot Chief, Crowfoot, boarding the train and riding up to Calgary. He was head of the formidable war­like confederacy of Blackfoots, Bloods, Piegans, and other tribes. It would have been easy for him to have swooped down some night with his braves upon that newly-laid railway, scatter it in wreckage on the plain, and thus prevent troops getting into the far west. That he remained loyal to the great White Mother, despite Riel’s runners, was due mainly to the fact that the White Mother’s match­less corps, the North West Mounted Police, had proved themselves to be the friends and protectors of the In­dians in the frontier days when white whiskysellers, horsethieves and such like were on the fairway to destroy these Indians altogether.
When the Hon. David Laird, an­other great figure, came to make treaty with Crowfoot and his allied chiefs, he found that the services of the Mounted Police had prepared the way. In his eloquent camp-fire style, Crowfoot said: “It is some years since Stamix-oto-Kon (McLeod) came. He promised me many things and he never broke his word to the Indians. He has kept all his promises. The Mounted Police have protected us as the feathers protect the bird from the snows of winter.”
Speaking of the Mounted Police, one recalls numberless instances of the way in which this remarkable and silent corps kept guard over the con­struction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At Calgary we met Perry (later to become the able Commis­sioner) with his men from MacLeod in the Blackfoot country, and Steele (later Sir Samuel Steele), who had just come down from the mountains where he and seven Mounted Police had quelled a riot at the Beaver, when several hundred desperate and dangerous navvies wanted to destroy the railway property. But that is another part of the frontier story.
When I look back over the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway I re­call no more outstanding figure in the west than that of Mr. William Whyte (later Sir William Whyte), a princely man in appearance as well as in char­acter. He had charge in a very diffi­cult period. The agitation for competing roads was constant, clamorous and not always wholly reasonable in the West. The Canadian Pacific had to build across a continent where there were enormous stretches that would be unproductive for years. And anyone can see that the allow­ing of rival roads to capture traffic in the choice areas might easily cripple the bigger undertaking which had to be completed to hold Confederation together. Yet many railway charters were granted in Manitoba, only to be disallowed at Ottawa, and much bit­terness resulted. During that period William Whyte was a tower of strength to the original road. Men, in their excitement, might curse the Canadian Pacific but no one could dislike Whyte, the quiet, gentlemanly, cool and courageous man who held on his way steadily, even though at a point southwest of Winnipeg he had to build a barricade against a rival road which tried to cross the line he served.
Whyte had a wonderful place in the esteem of the men on his railway, due partly to his approachable, kindly manner and partly to the fairness with which he tried to meet their de­mands. Once he said to me: “I see every man who wishes to see me, whether he is a wiper from the round­house or a director of the company— they are both important and they are both men.” Two incidents occur to me as I write. There was some trouble in one of the railway organi­zations at Winnipeg. Sir William Whyte was coming down Main Street to his office and met one of the men involved, who was passing with his head down. Sir William stopped and said, “Jack, what have I ever done to you that you should pass me on the street without speaking?” And the man said, “Sir William, the fact is that I, being mixed up in this diffi­culty, was ashamed to look you in the face after all your kindness to me and my family”. And Whyte, shaking hands with the man, said, “Jack never be ashamed to meet your friends. If I can do anything for you, come in and see me any time”. How could anyone have anything but kindly personal feelings towards that kind of man?
The other incident occurred in my own experience. Some twenty years ago I was asked by the men in a C.P.R. organization who were out on strike in Vancouver to address them at a mass meeting in the City Hall. During the course of my address I raised the question as to why Mr. Whyte, who was then the last court of appeal in such cases, had not been seen by the strike leaders before they called the strike. No one seemed to be able to answer satisfactorily be­yond saying that Mr. Whyte was away. This did not meet with the approval of the men, a group of whom came to me after the meeting and said: “This strike is going to break up. Mr. Whyte may not be able to grant what we ask but he will do his best to meet us half-way and we are going to end this strike.” And they did.
Though the Canadian Pacific is no longer in the experimental stage, it retains in a remarkable degree its human-heartedness. It treated with extraordinary liberality the men who went to the war, and crowded its de­partments to get them work on their return. It built fine and costly monu­ments to the gallant men who fell.
Out on the Coast, men like the General Superintendent, Mr. Frank Peters, who once worked in the freight sheds on the prairie, keep the human element strong in dealing with the employees of the road. Strange what has come to pass in a brief generation. The other day I attended a dinner of “Old Timers” in Van­couver. It seems only a few years since Mr. (later Sir) William Van Horne, the master-builder of railways who had forced the pioneer road through every obstacle to the Western Sea, swung off the first regular train to reach the terminus. An artist too with keen sense of the fitness of things, he said in his terse way, “This place shall be called Van­couver”. For that train was seventy-five years later to reach the spot than Capt. George Vancouver in his wooden sailing vessel around the Horn.
And so amongst the “Old Timers” at that dinner the other day, were many who had known the city from the beginning. There was that notable but unassuming man, Mr. Henry J. Gambie, who explored through the mountains as far back as 1874 and who was a prime factor in locating the Canadian Pacific through the Mountain passes. Over at another table sat men who had cleared the forest for the C.P.R. hotel where we were meeting. And a few seats away were some of the train­men who had brought their garlanded engine to awaken the silence of the great harbor of Vancouver. Down on the harbor history is also in evi­dence. A few days ago I was on that beautiful C.P.R. ship, the Empress of Australia, superbly fitted from stem to stern. It used to belong to Germany, but the exigencies of war brought it into the hands of the Canadian Pacific, and the very plumb­ing fittings on the boat, brilliant as silver, teach history. The words which mean “on” and “off” or “hot” and “cold” are engraved in the Ger­man language, but along with them the same words appear in our good old English spelling. There they re­main togetheran engraved history of the transfer of power from the Hohenzollerns to Britain, the Mistress of the Sea.

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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.