Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Snaring the Bohunk

Snaring the Bohunk
How the Man-Catchers of the Northwest Lure the Helpless Laborer to Intolerable Conditions in the End-of-Steel Villages
By W. LACEY AMY, Author of “Finding a Railroad Route O’er the Northern Rockies”
From The Advance Advocate, published by The International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Detroit, Mich., October 1, 1913  No. 10  VOL. XXII

Notes about this article: First, I preserved the spelling, ‘Employes’ as used in this 1913 magazine. This piece took a long time to locate. The search for the writings of Lacey Amy is now in its second year. The original reference to this story was through Google Books, which has many deficiencies for those of us in Canada, supposedly because of copyright issues…The reference located, indicated the publication The Railroad and Current Mechanics, (R&CM) XVII (May, 1913), 274-84. The terrific magazine index at http://www.philsp.com/ appears to indicate there is no such issue!!! An enquiry at the Library of Congress, resulted in Cheryl Adams of LoC, sending the Table of Contents for May 1913 of the magazine Railroad Man’s Magazine, which presumably indicates that R&CM did not yet exist, again!!! Anyhow, by doggedly using Google search, another magazine appeared, Advance Advocate, with the article and Lori B. Bessler, Reference Librarian with Library Archives of Wisconsin Historical Society, kindly supplied a perfect PDF file, yesterday. Some poking around this morning, showed that some of the issues of Advance Advocate are available on the Hathi Trust website, which sadly again has issues with Canada! Finally, the reader should notice the reference on the last line of this post which confounds! Anyhow here is the article:

Doggedly, dully, despondently, a line of weary men winds eastward along the rug­ged tote road that clings to the mountain­side a thousand feet above the tumbling Frazer River.
In the tar-papered, canvas-roofed hos­pital at Fitzhugh the helpless doctors watch the cold hand of pneumonia grip the unresisting foreigner whose dying wish they cannot interpret.
Beside the railway grade a cross of rough boards at the head of a rudely fenced mound bears only the name, “Rob­ert Mathers. U. S. A.”
Beneath the terrible whirlpools and rap­ids of the Frazer Cañon scores of men sleep forgotten and unnamed.
When the order goes out for the lay­ing of steel it is not the cost in men that is reckoned. When a railway cuts and blasts and digs its relentless way through a mountain pass like the Yellowhead of the Northern Canadian Rockies the pay­ment in human lives is the chapter of con­struction that is never unfolded.
Wandering Americans, derelict English­men, Poles, Swedes, Italians, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Russians who have yielded to the temptation of foreign gold, drop from the lists of the living unnoticed and unmourned.
These are the penalties of construction: the uncounted cost of humanity of the de­mands of commerce; the payment in blood for the gain in gold.
That long chapter of the pitilessness of progress in the history of the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific through the Yellowhead Pass is not the less interesting because it is unwritten. Danger to human life makes absorbing reading; but the contractor cannot be expected to recognize the whims of the public.
That wonderful “system,” the most com­plete in modern life, that entices the bo­hunk—as the laborer is called—into the mountains and keeps him there under the untrammeled control of his taskmasters, is at its highest point of development in the chloroforming of the public.
Its anxiety for privacy is not neces­sarily an acknowledgment of fault—the contractor has too lofty an idea of his share in the advance of civilization for that—but an appreciation of the suffering bohunk, ignorant, unsophisticated, unversed in the ways of the new country, stolid and uncomplaining, as the ideal object for hys­terical sympathy.
The hands of the contractors are too busy with the vagaries of such a man to allow him the added weight of popular sentiment.
Besides, there is that which the con­tractor dare not publish. Even the callous would cry out at the revelation. Truly, the greatness of the system is in its own con­cealment.
Between the contractor and the bohunk is a constant struggle of wits. The first has all the advantage of brains, experience, dol­lars, and the remoteness of the law, but the second stands almost on a level through his disregard for all restraint save the human fist.
At the first stage of negotiations the bohunk is at a disadvantage. The em­ployment agent is willing to promise any­thing. Agents in the eastern provinces and in the United States, who know nothing of conditions, and care less, pocket their commissions and leave the contractor to settle with a disgusted workman.
At Mile 53, B. C., a lump of a youth wandering hungrily around the cookhouse caught my attention. The day before I had noticed his big shock of fair hair and his face unaccustomed to the razor. This day, as I came from a hearty dinner, his hollow eyes and ravenous face spoke plainly of starvation. I spoke to him and, after he had eaten with the avidity of long hunger, controlled only by the embarrassment of novelty, he told me his story—one of a score I heard.
Boy Helpless in Wilderness.
A week before, full of the idea of get­ting into an engineers’ camp on construc­tion as a start to an engineer’s career, he had approached an employment agent in Edmonton.
Of course the agent had just what the boy wanted, and, after the commission had been paid, the boy was shipped into the mountains.
Only as far as Fitzhugh could the young fellow buy his way, and the next seventy miles he covered on foot or bumpers.
When he arrived there was no posi­tion for him; the contractors have nothing to do with the engineers’ camps. The only thing open to him was work on the grade with the foreigners a hundred miles further on in the wilderness, and this he would not accept.
For a day he had wearily watched us coming satisfied from the cookhouse, but there was no way to slip in unnoticed where a man stood at the door and col­lected tickets.
I bought him several meals, and one early morning, just before the uncertain train left for Fitzhugh, he came to my tent and bade me a shaky farewell. He was going to try to steal a ride out.
He would accept no money. He was in a humor that would make him shoot the man who opposed him. I never saw him again. Perhaps the train-agent had pity on him.
The agent in the employment office at Edmonton, Alberta, is the last public step of the system. The door closes on the bohunk as soon as he leaves the front and, with the shutting off of the outside glare, he passes immediately into the clutch of the man-catcher, a trusted employee who is a vital part of the struggle to keep the grade manned.
How Man-Catchers Work.
The man-catcher is a big personality, strong in mind and muscle, a man whose pay-check calls for diplomacy, daring, bluff, and heavy fists.
At the door of the employment office his hand closes on the bohunk and grips until the end of steel is reached. Alone he must handle thousands of lawless, reck­less foreigners. Alone he must watch their every mood, anticipate every moment of repentence, rush them along to the tune of his own wishes, and finally deliver them to the camps far in the mountains.
Back and forth between the work and civilization he flits, bringing in a half hun­dred men today; turning back a half-dozen deserters tomorrow, and rushing out to the front for another gang before the last has made up its slow mind.
Promising, threatening, wheedling, even fighting viciously, he spends every waking hour in the effort to convince the “hunk” that the work of construction is best for his pocket—or his skin. The man-catcher is a strategist first, but always a slugger and bully.
At Mile 28, B. C., the end of steel at that time, a man-catcher unloaded a crowd of foreigners for the grade many miles beyond. Weighted down with the variety of impedimenta affected by the bohunk, they staggered along the rough grade to Mile 44.
Then, tired and disgusted, they de­termined to turn back. The arguments and petitions of the man-catcher had no effect. Thereupon he promptly backed against a rock, drew a revolver, and fired straight into the crowd.
One man took the bullet in his hip—and the rest trudged terrified on to the end of grade.
Sneered at New Victims.
Later an itinerant constable heard of the affair and arrested the man-catcher. He was fined one hundred dollars. It was a cheap gang at that. Only one man-catcher has been fined for carrying a re­volver—just one—and his estate would draw the first week’s wages of a man-catcher without a revolver.
Arrived a couple of miles from the end of steel and the main construction camp where the train dumps its living load, the bohunk is like a stranger in a great city.
The man-catcher has completed his work at that point and is glad to drop the res­ponsibility.
Two hundred foreigners stepped off the train one night there at the far edge of the Rockies. On a siding about forty box cars poured forth their clamoring occu­pants to meet the crowd that climbed doubtfully from the colonist coaches of the train.
There was no word of greeting, no smile of welcome; only a few sneers and gibes and gapes of frank curiosity at the men who willingly undertook to sell them­selves into the life they were living.
Perhaps the old hands were of a different nationality and knew not how to welcome, but it was more like the sophomore criticising the freshmen with­out the restraint of civilization.
The newcomers dropped stiffly from the platforms, looking hesitating about at their future home, blinking feebly at the cynical workmen drawn up, hands in pockets, to laugh at them as they had been laughed at a month or two before.
Inside the Jaws of Death.
Some of them struck up the track for the first empty cars that offered a roof. The rest wandered into the bush beside the track leading to Sand Creek, an end-of-steel village not far away.
It was the first step in “doing as the Romans do.” For the end-of-steel village is the beginning for most of them—as it is the end of many.
An end-of-steel village is a wart on the face of the earth. It is a blemish no doctor treats; it goes on fostering its own corruption until it spreads to the poor bohunk wild for excitement and relief and forgetfulness.
It settles down just three miles from the very end of steel, for the contractor maintains control of that three-mile radius and does his best to keep the men from the baneful influence.
The score of log shacks that form the village extend along an indefinite street and close in on the visiting bohunk after a wink of invitation.
But inside are jaws of death. Pool-rooms are the most respectable of the buildings, and the entire gamut of crime and debauchery is covered, down to the little hut whose red blind is its advertise­ment.
“Free Bunk House” is the sign over the door of a dirty hovel provided in the end- of-steel village by the contractors with the knowledge that the life of drink and car­ousal there is best met by a place close at hand wherein to sleep it off.
Perhaps the bohunk reports for work next day—perhaps he doesn’t. Some of them make their last report with a doped glass in their hands or a knife between their ribs.
Divekeepers Fleece the Bohunks.
In Sand Creek one night a dozen gam­bling hells were drawing their last cents from some bohunks blind with the glare and blare of the excitement.
A crowd surged out from one bright door. It was following a struggling, tearing pair of men—one the proprietor of the place and the other a bohunk.
“It’s such drunks as you put this place on the bum!” shrieked the proprietor.
The sentiment, not the humor of it, caught the crowd and there was a cheer of applause. A group of men ran from the doors of surrounding shacks. There was a sudden furious mix-up in the mob —and the next minute they were tossing to one side the limp body of the foreign workman.
There is no chance for the poor bo­hunk in an end-of-steel village where all the divekeepers club together for their mutual welfare.
The character of the bohunk himself is largely responsible for the dangers of con­struction.
There in the wilds the foreign nature of him maintains its course unimpeded. His instincts bring his own destruction, his resistance to sanitary control makes him his own victim, his carelessness adds daily to the list of dead and injured.
Civilization is too far distant to force him into conformity with its rules. The contractor has not the power, even if he possessed the wish, to incur the opposi­tion of the foreigner to sensible conser­vation.
The bohunk sees no necessity, except under compulsion, of observing anything but his own untamed desires. He sickens, he dies—it is fate, just fate. He kills him­self or his friend—it is not his business except to revenge.
Late one night last summer the engineers at Mile 47 were awakened by agonized cries from the grade below.
Poisoned by Desperate Tramps.
Rushing down, they found a half-clad bohunk lying on the rocks, evidently in the throes of death. With great difficulty they carried him down the five-hundred-foot cliff to the barracks of the provincial police on the banks of the Frazer River.
Two hours later the man died, but he had managed to unfold a tale that was not uncommon in the Yellowhead Pass.
With two unknown companions he had been tramping out to the front. For sup­per that night he had been given a cake by one of his companions. Its bitter taste was remembered when a terrible pain seized him a few minutes later. When he at­tempted to escape along the grade to the barracks his erstwhile friends stripped him of everything but his underclothing.
The murderers were never caught. Among the thousands on construction two foreigners can too easily escape detection—and no questions are asked of the bohunk.
Force is the only arbiter of their quar­rels. The pistol may be less bright than it was years ago and the knife better con­cealed, but both still flash at slight provo­cation.
When the result is fatal none saw it happen or can speak intelligible English. Many an unmarked grave awaits the ran­dom spade of the years to come. Men with wounds of evident pistol or knife origin conceal them so long as they dare, and then receive medical attention in stolid silence.
The law cannot requite them; some day they will be well enough to hold the knife again.
One Sunday morning, on the irregular train between the end-of-steel and Fitzhugh the railway divisional point of the moun­tain section, a big Swede sat sullenly nurs­ing a bandaged hand.
Driven Insane by Wound.
Suddenly he sprang into the aisle and tore up and down in a frenzy of pain that he bad long been fighting. After a fierce struggle we managed to force him into the baggage car and there unbound his swol­len hand.
A long cut on the back of it, evidently the slash of a knife, had been concealed so long that the poison had driven him momentarily insane. From my medicine case I was able to give temporary relief, but only constant bathing kept the man down during that long ten-hours’ trip through the mountains to the Fitzhugh hos­pital over the seventy miles of unballasted railway.
The Swede stubbornly insisted that he had fallen on a piece of glass, but a friend admitted that his antagonist in the fight was in the hospital with a bullet through his chest.
When the knife cut would not heal the wounded man had first applied soap, then a piece of pork, and at length, when the poison was sealed in the wound, peroxide of hydrogen.
Perhaps he recovered. If he did there has probably been another fight since—if the bullet-hole through the chest resulted as fortunately.
Many of the maddest fights can be laid to the account of the horrible concoctions of liquor surreptitiously served in the Pass.
Bad Liquor Smuggled In.
The laws of construction forbid liquor, but that only adds to the profit of the whis­ky runners. Eight dollars a bottle—more than four days’ earnings, after meals are paid for—is not a prohibitive price for the bohunk to pay.
At the end-of-steel villages the liquor is doped with poisons that sap fear and vitality alike.
Police and contractor combine against the whisky runner, but the cry for more is too insistent, the reward of success too great. Baggage is searched, wandering men are questioned, but the discovered liquor is only a small fraction of what reaches cache near the camps.
Lying one night on the shores of a lake beside the grade I was awakened by a sudden noise from the blackness over the water. An instant later another sound came from a different direction and close along the shore beside me.
Then a deep silence fell. It was broken quickly by the rattle and splash of furious rowing out on the lake, answered close at hand by equally energetic paddling.
For some time the course of the chase could be followed by the noise. It was evident the rowers were drawing away from the lone paddler. The pursuer stopped, a revolver shot rang out, but the rowing continued.
Next morning I learned that another load of liquor had succeeded in slipping past a dangerous point on the grade, a favorite watching place of the police where the mountains crowd tightly down to the water’s edge and passage is possible only by the narrow grade or by water.
Eat Dynamite in Bravado.
The whisky runners had taken to the water far back on the grade, and sailing silently before the wind under cover of the darkness, had been revealed to the watch­ing policeman only by an accidental noise.
Within the next five miles they would be forced to the shore by the rapids of the Frazer, and would creep forward to their cache through the forests of the wider valley.
Where foreigners, rocks, dynamite, axes, and cliffs mingle accidents are bound to happen; but the majority of them come from carelessness. Ignorance and famil­iarity are certain to pay a heavy toll to dynamite and rock slide. The worst dyna­mite disaster occurred in the fall of 1911, when a heedless act blew a gang of eight to the big list of fatalities.
The little shacks sunk in the sides of the mountains far from any camp reveal the care of the contractor* in the storing of that which the “rock-hogs” treat as lightly as a stick of candy—a simile all’ the more appropriate since bits of dynamite are sometimes actually eaten in bravado.
The system of construction is itself a menace to the workmen. The actual work of a mile of grade may be divided among a score of little contractors, many of whom perform their portion with the assistance of a few friends or relatives.
A couple of men will dig or blast through a score of feet only, and since their one idea is to make all the profit pos­sible. there exist conditions that insure the minimum of safety.
Trusting to luck, they neglect precau­tions obviously demanded by the work to be performed. Dynamite is carelessly placed, the distance of retirement for the blast is inadequate, and no time is wasted in waiting for unfired charges.
Dirty Quarters Breed Disease.
Into a huge bank that must be removed they' run a weak crib that may crumple like paper beneath the pressure of the earth. Inefficiently housed and fed, they think to profit at the cost of their bodies; and they fall victims to every disease that threatens.
Pneumonia and typhoid fever are fought single-handed by the contractors. The pen­alties exacted by neglect of sanitary pre­cautions never impress themselves on the men. Inconvenience and momentary dis­comfort are more disagreeable to the bohunk than germs.
The dangers of typhoid are preferable to the bore of cleanliness.
The selection of a camp’s location is an important care. A contractor pitches his camp on a dimpling mountain stream, but the. best of conditions are negatived by the carelessness of the bohunk. He dies with­out self-censure, or recovers without a les­son, recklessly spreading the disease among those who realize the danger.
The stream that seemed so permanent when the camp was located may have been but the irregular flow of mountain rains or uncertain glaciers, and the week after­ward the bed may be dry.
Perhaps a mile above the first camp an­other contractor locates, mindful only of his own convenience. Immediately safety ceases for the camp below.
During 1912 the freedom from typhoid was unusual, but the previous two years had their moments when something like a panic seized the workmen. The number of deaths among the engineers in 1910 proved what a general menace the bohunk can be.
Gang Buried in Slide.
Indigenous to mountain construction are snow and rock slides that sweep away grade or tote road with Little warning. Here and there a thunder of rock from the heights above tears down upon these trails of men and blots everything out be­fore it in a smother of debris—and none can tell of the wandering bohunks who went down with the slide.
Five hundred feet below grade in the shadow of Mount Robson a li^ige gouge a hundred feet deep is torn in the op­posite bank of the Frazer River.
A year ago a mountain lake that had nestled thousands of feet up in the moun­tains unknown to the engineers and con­tractors broke through its banks, rushed down upon the grade, swept it smooth to the last shovel, and bored its countless tons of water and rock into the valley a half mile below.
During the rains of the early spring of 1912 a gang of foreigners was trudging in to work. They were warned by workmen they passed that the tote road was danger­ous. and while still within sight, the warn­ing was verified.
The entire gang was caught helpless in the rush of an immense snow-slide. Only one was rescued alive. The rest smothered before they could be released.
It is not the dread of these dangers that drives the bohunk back through the mountains at the end of his first month’s work. Men pass into the shadows of the hills hopeful for the profit of their hands, but their fickleness and instability seldom allow them to remain to the realization of their hopes.
Still hoping, still unsettled, they wander listlessly back to civilization. Ever the stream of weary workers pours out through the Pass, staggering, lifeless, sick of every­thing behind, the victims of their own vacillation.
Scores of Men Disappear.
Through that four hundred miles to Ed­monton they fight their way or drift down to Port George on the river currents; eat­ing when the chance offers; trudging over tote road or grade, or hugging the bump­ers—all to reach that new life ahead that is ever beckoning.
Unprepared they commence the long trek. Trusting to unsettled mountain passes they may walk for days with no more to eat than the berries beside the trail, or drop exhausted to await the mercies of the tramps who follow.
A gang of engineers in rapid travel down to Fort George came upon a lone bohunk wearily making his way out from construction. With more than three hundred miles of manless wilds before him he had but two pounds of rice in his “tur­key”—no gun, no fishing tackle, nothing but a dogged blindness to the future.
Taking what the engineers offered, he sat down to lighten the load by eating to his capacity.
In the cañons and rapids of the Frazer the Goat and Giscom Rapids, and the great canon, that monster of relentless fury—lie the hidden remains of bohunks who have tried this seemingly easy, down-grade escape from construction.
At every log-jam are piled their crude rafts and broken scows, silent testimony of the scores who have disappeared. Any scowman, any laborer along the banks can tell of the sinking men he has helplessly watched.
The contractors have not been guiltless in this easy method of transportation. One of them sent a boat-load of fifty-three through the cañon, a risk that savored so strongly of attempted manslaughter that it is hard to see the humor in the laughing description of how the Italians prayed and the Swedes cursed as the scow began to stand on end in the whirlpools that line the perilous course.
Another contractor, after starting his en­gine. shoved it, with an Indian aboard, into the currents above the cañon. All the In­dian could do was to hang on, and only the fortunate flooding of the engine below the rapids enable him to paddle ashore. The story is invariably ended with the laughing remark, “or the damned thing would have been going yet.”
To run the scows through these river dangers the contractors keep expert river- men and Indians, but even they sometimes fail to clear the great hole of one danger­ous whirlpool or the rocks that, protrude from the boiling waters.
A rude railway has been built around the cañon, and now all the supplies that admit of it are trans-shipped by this method. Those who realize the danger walk around the point that juts out to form the narrow gulch through which the waters rush, and from the cliffs above look down on the scowmen in their struggle for life.
One has caught in his camera the hope­less fight of four Indians, once as they entered the race of water, and next as they were disappearing to their deaths in the whirlpool; but the pictures will never be published.
The chief engineer of construction looked on as his spinning boat, in the charge of two Indians, whirled its freight of supplies into the water while the Indians hung desperately to the ropes as the boat stood on end in the whirlpool.
The treatment of the bohunk far beyond the end of steel will never be fully known. Along steel the contractor realizes the ne­cessity of meeting the ease of desertion and the possible visits of annoying reformers with conditions that make life worth liv­ing.
But far in on grade, away beyond the reach of visitors, where the bohunk in flight from his work takes life in hand, and where detention may be practiced with immunity—there it is different.
The bohunk who struggles out knows not the ropes of publicity, or imagines the life he left characteristic of the country—and is silent. Or he babbles loudly, extrav­agantly, with the imagination of the excit­able foreigner. And the public is non­plused for a moment—and then turns to the latest scandal.
Away in there life is necessarily severe. The conveniences and comforts of steel are impossible, and frequently the com­plaints arc based on our demands from civ­ilization.
One dollar a month is deducted from the men’s wages and, on grade, most of that dollar is profit. There can be no doubt of the imperfections of the service. Suffering men are often treated with scant con­sideration; innumerable instances of this could be given.
In the wilds there has been found a system that is close to peonage; for the men scarcely dare resist the absolute power of the only authority present, and retreat into the wilds is seriously perilous.
But it is easy to blame too harshly. The bohunk is ignorant and careless, conveni­ences are impossible, the law is very far away, and the work must be performed by reluctant workmen.
The railway is blameless. The construc­tion is solely in the hands of the contrac­tors. In fact, the railway company is as sedulously kept in ignorance as is the public.
Blame attaches to the contractors. While not directly responsible for much that merits criticism, they have the power to stop it.
It is the dearth of men, not inherent heartlessness, that is the trouble.
Along that several thousand miles of un­broken mountain and forest six thousand men cannot perform the work of sixty-thousand without some one suffering.
It is little wonder that the methods em­ployed make theorists rave. Only the con­tractor knows that the strictly legal ways of civilization would provide only a big junket for the foreigner of fuse and shovel.
The government of Canada has not been blind to conditions. Commissions, secret and open, have investigated. The reports would make interesting reading. For rea­sons sufficient these reports have not been made public, nor will they be.
Gradually the government is being forced into a position of inspection over construc­tion. The public of Canada and of the United States is being aroused. The Con­sul-General of the United States at Winni­peg has made formal complaint and further announcements are expected in the near future.
And the reckoning will be complete—

Courtesy Railroad and Current Mechanics.

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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.