Building The Railroad Through The Canadian Shield

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With the Pacific Scandal in the past, work would slowly begin on the transcontinental railway. While the majority of track would be built following Sir John A. Macdonald coming back into power in 1878, there was still some progress made prior to that.

In this episode, I am going to look at the building of the first parts of the track, from linking future Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, and the construction through the difficult Canadian Shield. I will jump around a bit on the timeline in this episode, but essentially, I will be covering the period from 1872 to 1882, focusing on building the railroad from Ontario to Manitoba. British Columbia’s railroad building took place near the same time after 1878 but that is for another episode.

Of course, to build the railroad, surveying needed to be done. When I talk about surveying, I’m not talking about choosing the official route. That will actually be its own episode on July 15. Nonetheless, to build through the country, a route had to be surveyed even if it was not known yet which pass the railroad would take through British Columbia.

For the government, the main objective was to choose the route that was the most direct, and most importantly, the cheapest.

The work of the survey fell to the Canadian Pacific Survey, which was a series of surveys that were done through the 1870s and into the 1880s. The most important part of the survey work was in British Columbia as that was the most difficult route, but again I will talk about that in a few weeks.

Surveying the route through the Canadian Shield was not an easy task. In Canada we tend to think of the British Columbia mountains as the toughest terrain in the country, but the Canadian Shield is no slouch.

The Canadian Shield is an eight million square kilometre piece of land of Precambrian and high-grade metamorphic rock. This rock forms the ancient geological core of the North American continent and due to the glaciation of the ice ages, it only has a thin layer of soil. It stretches north from the Great Lakes, up into the Canadian Arctic all the way to the Arctic Ocean. In all, it covers most of Ontario and Quebec, and half of Canada, as well as parts of Greenland.

Due to being bedrock, it is also difficult to build through and that was something the surveyors and builders of these first sections of the railroad would soon find out. They would soon find themselves blasting through 1,100 kilometres of near solid granite, on a landscape marked by patches of muskeg, trees and lakes. Ridges would consume up to three tons of dynamite to blast through and would take months to complete. In addition to the granite, there was also 480 kilometres of muskeg to build across as well.

Alexander Mackenzie, the prime minister from 1873 to 1878, would say of building across the Canadian Shield that it was, quote:

“One of the most foolish things that could be imagined.”

For the surveyors, moving through the dense bush and harsh land of the Canadian shield was anything but a pleasure walk through the countryside. They would live in tents and were often away from their families for months, and even years. There was also danger for the surveyors. The weather was often very cold in the winter and the risk of frostbite was high. In the summer they would deal with swarms of mosquitoes that tormented them, and food was also low at times and the risk of scurvy, despite being in the latter-half of the 19th century, was ever present. Even wildlife could pose a threat, so it was only the hardiest of individuals who took this job.

The threat of death was shown in 1871 when a forest fire north of Lake Superior resulted in the death of seven surveyors.

Even just getting to the Canadian Shield could be tough, never mind going into the wilderness to survey. On March 11, 1872, the Ottawa Citizen would report that a missing surveying party had been found safe. They had left Duluth on Jan. 16 for Fort William but did not arrive and were believed lost. Finally, they did arrive, having been in boats that had only reached within 50 kilometres of Fort William, forcing them to walk the rest of the way.

There were other options to building through the Canadian Shield. One option floated was to build a route across southern Michigan to Chicago, and then north to Manitoba. This route would have been easier and cheaper, but it would have linked the Canadian railroad with the United States, and no one knew the end result of that relationship. As I discussed in previous episodes, it was the all-Canadian route or nothing. A route along Lake Superior wouldn’t work either. In a report sent to Parliament, it was stated quote:

“What was really known of this country, particularly that long stretch between Ottawa and the northern bend of Lake Superior indicated that it was not favorable for railway construction. Along the coast of Lake Superior, the ground was reported most impracticable and forbidding.”

Sir Sandford Fleming was one of the surveyors of the railroad, and he would be its chief engineer responsible for its design. I am not going to talk about him much here as he has his own episode coming on Sept. 2. In order to find the best possible route to Winnipeg, Sandford divided the country into three sections, and he sent men to survey each section. Fleming would lead a small group of men himself to head west to Fort Garry, which would be Winnipeg and the end of the first section from future Thunder Bay, then called Fort William, to the beginning of the Canadian Prairies. He would arrive, with his son, Reverend George Grant and his party of men at Fort Garry on Aug. 2, 1872, and would write, quote:

“At 3 p.m. we reached the Red River, which flows northward, at a point below its junction with the Assiniboine and crossed in a scow, drove across the tongue of land, formed by it and the Assiniboine coming from the west, into the village of Winnipeg, and from there to the Fort where the Government House is at present.”

 In order to survey, surveyors used long survey chains that were divided into lengths of 30 metres or 100 feet. They would also use an instrument called a transit to measure the angles between landmarks and this allowed them to calculate distance.

After the chain men went through, the transit men would travel, calculating the angles of each bend and estimating distances that could not be measured by a chain. Following the transits were the rodmen and levelers, who reckoned the altitudes and inscribed them on bench marks every half mile. In all, there were 25 thousand benchmarks done by 1877 and more than 600,000 chainmen’s stakes scattered from the shield to the pacific.

By that point, the cost had reached $3.5 million just to figure out the route, while also costing 38 lives due to fires, drowning, illness and exposure.

The line from Mattawa, near North Bay, to Fort Garry was subdivided by Fleming into eleven different surveys or divisions each from 120 to 144 kilometres in length. By 1877, surveyors had covered 19,000 kilometres of countryside and 800 men had work the surveys.

Fleming would write of the surveyors, quote:

“Many of those we were obliged to take, subsequent events proved, were unequal to the very arduous labour they had to undergo, causing a very considerable delay and difficulty in pushing the work.”

Fleming would write, quote:

“The whole country along the line of projected, surveys, embracing an extant of not far short of one thousand miles, being densely wooded and without a road or trail of any description, made the prosecution of the work unusually difficult.”

Fleming would recommend, based on the surveys done, that the CPR mainline west of Lake Superior take a route from Fort William to Manitoba. He also felt that the route would work best if a bridge was built over the Red River near present-day Selkirk, to the north of Winnipeg.

He would write, quote:

“Wherever the railway forms a convenient connection with the deep water of the river, that point will practically become the head of navigation of Lake Winnipeg. In course of time, a busy town will spring up and the land of the townsite will assume a value it never before possessed…This large block of land abuts the river, where a bridge may be constructed with least apprehension as to the safety of the structure in time of flood, and where its erection could, under no circumstances, involved questions of damages.”

Now, the bridge would not come in at Selkirk. Sandford had wanted the bridge at Selkirk because of the height above the water but the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to cross the Red River at Winnipeg, despite the risk of flooding. In return for the bridge crossing the Red River in Winnipeg, the CPR was given $200,000 for aid in the construction of the line, a free right of way worth $20,000, and the city would build the bridge at a cost of $250,000. In return, the CPR guaranteed the city’s position on the main line.

Work on the Fort William to Winnipeg line started in 1875. By 1880, 1,000 kilometres of track had been finished, and most of that was through the Canadian Shield, but trains only ran on 500 kilometres of track.

On Jan. 12, 1875, the Ottawa Daily Citizen would write quote:

“The road from Fort William to Fort Garry will also at no distant day be placed under construction. As a means of solving the difficulty of carrying a railway across the continent and as a matter of friendly international rivalry, the commencement of this important section will be anxiously looked for.”

To build that section, 30,000 tons of rails were ordered by the government.

The first locomotive to arrive in Manitoba was the Countess of Dufferin, which pulled six flat cars and a caboose along with construction materials, which arrived on Oct. 8, 1877.Named for the wife of the Governor General of Canada, it was the first steam engine on the prairies. She was then used to construct a line from St. Boniface down to St. Paul, Minnesota.

While Sir Sandford Fleming was the lead surveyor, it was Sir William Cornelius van Horne who was hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway to manage the building of the railway from Fort William to Winnipeg, as well as beyond into the Prairies and to the Rockies.

Van Horne was born in 1843 in Illinois and had begun working on railroads at the age of only 14. Van Horne was highly involved in railroads in the United States, and he considered the railroad to be a vital communication and transportation service. It was why he always convinced builders to also include a telegraph line. By the time he was in his 40s, he was extremely wealthy and would actually go on to become the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888 and chairman of the board in 1899.

Railway tycoon James Hill would state of him, quote:

“I have never met anyone who is better informed in the various departments. Machinery, cars, operations, train service, construction and general policy which with untiring energy and a good vigorous body should give us good results.”

Van Horne would officially take over in 1881 as the building of the railroad began to reach high gear. He would separate the building of the railroad into three sections. Fort William to Winnipeg was one section, Winnipeg to the Rockies was the next section, and the final section was the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Another person who was vital to the success of building across the shield was Robert Gillespie Reid. A Scottish engineer and self-made businessman, he would supervise the building of bridges and laying track across the Canadian Shield. One of his crowning achievements was the 137-metre-long tunnel blasted through the Jackfish Bay section of the railway. Building the railroad through that area cost $700,000 per mile, which would be over $20 million today.

Crews were set up with various tasks to build the railroad through the Canadian Shield. Navvies were the first to go through, clearing out the trees and brush along the railway route.

If it was mountainous terrain, then the dynamite blasters were tasked with blasting through the rock to create the line for the railroad.

Grading crews came next, and they would grade and elevate the roadbed using teams of horses and pulling scrapers and plows through the newly cleared land.

Next up were the tracklayers, who put down wooden railway ties across the roadbed two feet apart. Then steel rails that were 12 metres or 39 feet in length were put on each side of the ties and iron spikes were then hammered in to holds the rails in place.

In the area of the Canadian Shield, workers typically came from Europe, the United States and eastern Canada, unlike British Columbia where 15,000 Chinese men and boys were brought in to build the railway. I will be talking about their ordeal on Aug. 5. The labourers in the Canadian Shield were typically paid $1 to $2.50 per day depending on their job.

The construction of even short sections through the Canadian Shield was anything but cheap. From Fort William to Selkirk, a distance of 659 kilometres, the cost for grading, bridging, track laying and ballasting was $12 million, or upwards of $300 million today. The cost for rails and fasteners was $3 million or upwards of $90 million today. This came to a cost of $136,570 per kilometre. As for the cost to build from Selkirk to Edmonton, and then to the Rockies, the cost was over $27,00,000, at least estimated. The cost would of course go much higher than that before it was done.

In all, it is estimated there were 9,000 railway builders working through the Canadian Shield. For those workers, they would dig up earth in the hope of building an embankment, only to find bedrock, and some of the hardest rock in the world.

The dynamite used was not what we think of today. While dynamite had been around for about a decade by the time the railroad work started, nitroglycerin was instead used. It was 10 times more explosive but far more unstable than the new dynamite. Workers would pour the explosive into holes drilled by hand, each about six feet deep, and set off by a fuse. In just one section, over two years, $300,000 was spent on nitroglycerine. All along the railroad, cans of nitroglycerine were left with fuses attached in a careless manner. In the winter, due to the chemical being highly unstable when frozen, entire work crews would suddenly be wiped out when one of those cans exploded.

One young man climbing a hill with a can of the explosive slipped. All that was found of the young man was his foot in a tree 100 yards away. Another work man was handing a can of nitroglycerin to one of the drillers and his foot slipped and in moments, three men were maimed, and four men were dead. Another worker brushed past a rock where some of the explosive had been spilled. He lost his arm and his eyesight.

One of the worst incidents was at Prince Arthur’s Landing near present-day Thunder Bay. An entire nitroglycerine factory exploded, sending frozen pieces of ground half a kilometre away and leaving a hole 20 feet deep and 50 feet across.

The previously mentioned muskeg was something that provided a whole host of problems. For the workers that had to build the railroad through the hundreds of kilometres of muskeg, in what we call Lake Country today, they could have never known that their own personal hell would become a tourism destination a century later. One legend of the building of the line says that near Fort William, one stretch of muskeg swallowed an entire train and 1,000 feet of track.

During the winter, the workers would build huge fills that seemed like they were stable but as soon as the frozen muskeg melted in the spring, the entire foundation would heave and totter. Muskeg holes would be filled, only for the muskeg sinkhole to appear once again. The Poland Swamp was one terrible place to work, but nothing compared to the Julius Muskeg that stretched for 10 kilometres and was of an unknown depth.

Lakes were another issue. They would seem shallow but due to the quick surveys, no one realized that the bottom was not the bottom but a false blanket of silt and muskeg. Crews would put earth fill into the lakes only for it to seem like a bottomless pit. Lake Macquistananah was said to take 250,000 yards of earth fill, while another lake took 200,000 yards nearby. Joseph Whitehead was hired to put earth fill in Cross Lake and after putting in 220,000 yards at a cost of $80,000, and the line still sinking when it went over, he was relieved of his contract by the federal government.

At Lake Deception, James Ross had a huge team of horses and freight cars putting gravel into the water, but the banks slid away faster than the gravel could be poured in. He then built huge retaining rocks using rocks from the tunnels he blasted. It didn’t help. In one day, the walls sunk 25 feet in only a few minutes, pushing the bulwarks of rock 100 feet out into the lake. He then hammered pilings deep into the lake bottom, built a trestle over it and then filled the trestle with rock and gravel. Then, a work train went over the causeway and the pilings sank 50 feet.

Near Bonheur, a construction crew thought it had filled in a muskeg hole, but the entire track soon vanished into the mud. Entire trainloads of gravel were dumped into the muskeg and a track was put forward. A locomotive went across and soon the track began to sink. With a pole, workers found there was still at least 30 feet of muskeg below the track, and there was no sign of the gravel they had dumped into it.

Near present-day Schreiber, Ontario, to the east of Fort William, one section was extremely difficult. Chief John Ross would write to Vane Horne and state, quote:

“When we came to the North Shore, we thought that everything was solid and that good foundations would be found everywhere, we did not anticipate the treacherous bottom or the tremendous power of Lake Superior.”

At the Nipigon River, it took two years to construct a bridge because the riverbed kept shifting the masonry piers.

In the winter, heavy snow caused delays, while spring brought floods and black flies. In the summer, devastating storms off the Great Lakes would batter the workers on the rail line.

All of this difficulty naturally made alcohol something a lot of the men looked for to relieve the stress and boredom. Michael Henry would write, quote:

“There was not an engineer, contractor or traveler who were not hard drinkers. Particularly every transaction was consummated with a glass.”

Prohibition was in effect all along the line, but whiskey peddlers kept kegs of liquor stored at points along the way.

The Thunder Bay Sentinel would write, quote:

“The knowing ones can obtain a bottle of a villainous article called whiskey by following certain trails into the recesses of the dismal swamps.”

A gallon of whiskey would sell for 50 cents in the cities but would go for as much as $45 along the line. Even if caught, peddlers only faced a fine, which they could easily pay, if they did at all. Many of those in charge decided not to prevent whiskey from getting to the workers, but instead worked with the peddlers to have a schedule so that it wouldn’t impede work.

Along the way, speculators did what they could to make money off the building of the railroad through the area. John Clark is an example of this. He had bought property at Fort William in 1871 for $4 per lot. He bought five lots for $20. He then sold the lots to Joseph Davidson out of Toronto and received $60 for four of them, and $100 for the fifth one. Not as much of a profit as others saw, but still a very large profit, nonetheless.

Along the way, it wasn’t just the railroad that was constructed. As the tracklayers built the track, behind them, crews were putting up poles and stringing a telegraph line along the tracks. The stringing of this line would connect many communities along the way to the growing modern age of communication.

On April 29, 1879, the Montreal Gazette would report that the section of telegraph line from Fort William to Edmonton had 1,931 kilometres of telegraph line ready for use, with 1,000 kilometres of line still needing to be finished east of Fort William and west of Edmonton. The telegraph line from Fort William to Winnipeg was completed in 1878.

Information comes from the Port Moody Station Museum, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Red River North Heritage, Sandford Fleming 1872 Survey Report, Montreal Gazette, Historica Canada, The National Dream,

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