Building Through The Prairies

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While the construction of the railroad through British Columbia and the Canadian Shield was extremely difficult, the portion in between those two segments was a completely different story.

The prairie portion of the railroad was a cake walk compared to the portions where entire segments of muskeg would swallow track, or the immense gorges and mountain passes that had to be navigated.

Today, on the podcast, I am looking at building through the Canadian Prairies.

The building through the Canadian Prairies was easy but the role of the prairies, at least for Sir John A. Macdonald, was important. It was the hope of the federal government that settlement would soon spread through the prairies, which at the time was a vast area occupied by few settlers and the Indigenous. As we saw in my episode on the Numbered Treaties, the government would push the Indigenous to reserves in order to settle the land along the railroad.

Building through the Canadian Shield was no easy task and it would take several years to blast through the hard rock of the Canadian Shield, and navigate the near bottomless bogs that swallowed whole sections of track. That section had been built by the Department of Railways and Canals, and the next section would be turned over to the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Work would then begin on moving along the Prairies and it would progress incredibly quickly.

The construction of the railroad would cause several of the most important communities in the prairies to spring up. Without it, Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, would not exist.

With no granite or hard rock to blast through along the prairies, work continued at a fast pace and track laying records were broken on a regular basis. Throughout the summer months, with the long hours of daylight, and experienced crews, it was possible to lay up wards of eight to 10 kilometres of track in a single day for a single crew.

On July 14, 1882, it was reported that the line main line had been completed as far as 200 kilometres west of Brandon, which would put it only about 135 kilometres west of the present site of Regina.

Prior to the railroad, the spot where Regina would be was simply called Pile of Bones, which came from the Cree phrase “oskana ka-asasteki”, which translates as Bones, which are piled, due to the large amount of bison bones that were placed at Wascana Creek, a runoff channel.

It was up to Lt. Governor Edgar Dewdney to choose the territorial capital of the North West Territories and most people expected him to choose Battleford, which was much more developed. Instead, he chose the location of Pile of Bones, which was little more than a bunch of tents. Not coincidently, this location was chosen because Dewdney also owned land around where the new capital would be. The CPR decided not to accommodate this and instead they placed the CPR station away from his land, near where the RCMP depot is today in Regina. The community was named Regina by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, the wife of the Governor General. She named it for her mother, Queen Victoria, since Regina is Latin for queen. Within a year, Regina had become an important spot along the railroad with six large lumber firms, the head offices of three land companies and the agencies of four others and several banks.

The Regina Leader would state on April 26, 1883, quote:

“The article commences by stating that the town which was put on the market in October 1882 is now one of the finest places in the North West Territories.”

If not for the changing of the route of the CPR, which I talked about in a previous episode, which would have sent the railroad to Fort Edmonton and through the Yellowhead Pass, Regina may have never existed and Saskatoon or Battleford would be the current capital of the province.

While the terrain was easy, it was the distance that was the challenge.

The amount of materials used to build through the prairies, a stretch that ran about 1,300 kilometres, required an immense amount of materials for the railroad. The distance was 45 per cent longer than the distance that would be put down in British Columbia, and almost twice the distance between Fort William and Winnipeg. For each 1.5 kilometre of track put down in the prairies, 2,800 railway ties were needed. For the prairies, that meant 2.4 million railway ties were put down during the construction. All of these ties were carried on shoulders from flat cars to waiting wagons for transport to be taken to the front of the work line.

Typically, the workers who built through the Prairies were immigrants from Europe, many of whom would later settle along the track that was built. As many as 200 men would work in a single crew, putting the track down through the prairies.

As the railroad continued, it would give rise to new communities. Moose Jaw, at the time called Moose Jaw Bone Creek, where the Moose Jaw River and Thunder Creek joined, was chosen as a divisional point for the CPR.

Grading work would reach that point in August of 1882. A report in the Montreal Gazette would state, quote:

“Grading is being pushed rapidly between Moose Jaw Creek and Swift Current and the contractors feel satisfied they can now distance the track laying, notwithstanding that they are doing big work. The latter laid nineteen-and-five-tenths miles of track during six working days last week and were about 13 miles west of Regina on Saturday evening.”

Grading work had begun from Regina to Moose Jaw in July, and was completed by the end of August. It was expected by the middle of September, grading would be done as far west as Old Wives Lake, about 50 kilometres west of Moose Jaw.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“Langdon, Shepard and Company have sent a large number of graders via Fort Benton, Montana to the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing of the South Saskatchewan to complete the heavy grading in that vicinity on the main line, in order that track-laying may not be delayed. Piles for the temporary bridge over the same stream are now being hauled from Cypress Hills.”

The water supply at this location was important for steam locomotives and settlement soon began as soon as the railroad passed through. Moose Jaw sat in a good spot as it had a good line not only to the Kicking Horse Pass, but the Yellow Head Pass well to the north in the mountains as well.

Next along the line was Swift Current. Grading and track preparation began in 1882 and the railroad soon came through. Within one year, settlers arrived and the community started to grow.

Grading would be completed to the current Alberta-Saskatchewan border by the beginning of December in 1882 and it was expected that the track would be laid down to Maple Creek, just to the east of the border, by the fall of 1883.

As it turned out, it would be a bit quicker than that.

Well before the track was even graded to Medicine Hat, by October of 1882, there were throngs of squatters waiting at the new town location ready to buy up land. The Ottawa Daily Citizen would report on Oct. 2, 1882, quote:

“There is a great nest of bogus squatters, the paid agents of land sharks, to the Medicine Hat Crossing, on the South Saskatchewan, where a town is expected to be located. All the land for miles is held by these dummy settlers.”

After a break for the winter, the railroad, grading and laying of tracks, had reached Medicine Hat by May of 1883. The distance from Winnipeg to Medicine Hat covered about 1,042 kilometres.

The railroad would have to build across the river. The CPR would build a single track truss bridge, which would stay in use until the 1900s when it was replaced but the original stone pylons still form part of the base of the current bridge.

Within weeks, one man would take the train from Regina to Medicine Hat and back.  

“When we got out on to the platform of the car and looked at our watch we found it was 6 a.m. We jumped on to the track and look about. A plain, a mile and a half in diameter, covered with sage brush and tansies, surrounded on all sides with hills, a town of tents about a quarter of a mile from where we stand, with lots of mosquitoes and a few rattlesnakes, such was Medicine Hat as it shown in the early sun.”

Work would begin to lay the track down towards Calgary at this point. It would progress well, but things would be delayed due to some heavy rain and a hail storm. At this same time, work was being done to grade the first 30 kilometres of what was deemed the Rocky Mountain Division west of Calgary.

By July 10, 1883, General Superintendent Egan reported that he had taken a trip to the end of track, which was at Crowfoot Crossing, to the west of Calgary. The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“He reports grading about completed to Calgary and that some big work is being done in tracklaying. Shortly after leaving Calgary, rock cutting in the foothills will commence and it is believed that a half-mile tunnel will have to be bored ere reaching the summit. The tracklayers are expected to reach Calgary on the 10th of August, if not earlier. Telegraphic construction also keeps abreast on the tracklaying.”

As the track approached Calgary, there were 3,000 men employed working on the track along the way, with another 1,500 about to be thrown in during the march to the foothills.

On July 30, the Ottawa Daily Citizen would publish its account of the building of the railroad, stating quote:

“No road in the world has ever built at the rate of the Canadian Pacific Railway. They took hold of the road on May 1, 1881 and since then they have made unexampled progress. By the end of the year they will have completed 925 miles of road, that is to say, on the Western end and the Ontario and Quebec.”

On Aug. 9, a telegram was sent to Montreal. The Gazette would state, quote:

“A telegram received here states that on Thursday evening last, the 9th instant, the Canadian Pacific track had reached the Bow River opposite Calgary. The track has only now to be laid across the bridge to reach that point.”

On Aug. 10, 1883, right on schedule, the track reached Calgary.

On Aug. 21, the Directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway, along with several prominent citizens, would leave Calgary on a trip out to the end of track to celebrate the opening of the line to Calgary. This party not only included CPR directors, but also Prince Hobenlohe of Prussia, Count Gleichen the Earl of Latham, Lord Elphinstone and John LaSage, the editor of the London Telegraph. Also joining the party was the Honourable A.G. Archibald, the former Lt. Governor of the North West Territories who had travelled out to the Calgary area over a decade previous when nothing was there but prairie. The directors would travel on a special train that included two private cars, three sleeping cars, a dining rom and a baggage car.

The train would run at about 50 kilometres per hour through the landscape. Along the way, they would visit the Bell Farm west of Regina, and several other stops along the way. On Aug. 30, the party arrived in Calgary at 6:35 p.m. The trip from Winnipeg would take only 32 hours.

The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“The line was found to be in excellent condition and the coal used on the engine was mined in the vicinity of the line, a fact of great significance, looking not only to the economical working of the railway but to the prosperity of the country as well.”

Upon the return of the party to Montreal on Sept. 4, the Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“The contrast between the settlements along the railways in Minnesota, and the absence of settlements, along the Canadian Pacific Railway, is most marked and the advantage to the former, and the positive injury to the latter, from this contrast is unfortunately too apparent.”

By Dec. 1, the Rocky Mountains had been reached and the work to build through British Columbia would begin.

Information from The Great Railway 1871-1881, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Regina The Early Years, Canada’s History, CP Connecting Canada, The Montreal Gazette,

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