The Lives Of The CPR Workers

Play episode
Hosted by

We have almost come to the end of the series but before we reach that last spike, I wanted to look at the lives of the workers who spent their time on the railroad to see what it was like for them. Obviously, depending on where a person worked their lives would vary dramatically. Those who were on the prairies had a comparatively easy job compared to those who were in British Columbia or the Canadian Shield.

Even with that, they all shared something in common. They were far from home, making little money and working hard in dangerous and difficult conditions.

I won’t be covering the Chinese workers in British Columbia as I devoted an entire episode to them. This episode will primarily look at the European immigrants who worked on the railway between Calgary and future Thunder Bay in groups called navvies. It wasn’t just Europeans who worked in these navvies but men from Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and even the United States. They would be strung out along hundreds of kilometres of land, in small hard-drinking and brawling camps that moved along with the work along the railroad.

Simply getting to the rail line for a worker was difficult, and not cheap. Nearly everything a worker did was deducted from their pay. Workers were paid differing rates, usually $20 to $50 per month but they would have pay deducted for Sundays and any days they could not work due to bad weather, as well as other circumstances of which they had no control over. Getting to the line also cost money. The cost to get a worker to their spot in the line was deducted from their pay, and the worker had to remain on the job to fulfill their contract of about six months, in which they would get the money for their transportation back. Of course, few ever stayed the six months. One worker would state quote:

“Of every hundred men who engage at manual work and sleep in the bunkhouse, you can count on the fingers of your left hand all that will be in camp six months after they have entered it.”

Workers typically lived in many different types of structures on the line. The station men were housed in shacks, while the engineering staff and supervisors had the best places to stay and were fed better. The men who worked in the line as navvies typically lived in tents or stayed in box cars that were outfitted to provide them with a bunk. These bunks were three tiers high, with a passage way between them of only two feet. Each bunk would measure 4 feet six inches in width and six feet in length. Between each bunk there was only two feet three inches clearance from the one above you.

One worker would write years later, quote:

“I wish you could have seen those men. They came in covered with mud from head to foot and proceeded to divest themselves of their wet boots and socks and overalls, which they hung up from every conceivable corner. Some put on dry socks, but most stayed with bare feet. The floor was soon muddy as it was outside, with men coming in and out and of course, everyone spat where they wished.”

Washing was only done on Sunday and the men would deal with vermin and infections that would have many scratching their skin raw.

Workers had to buy their own supplies, and the CPR would have a markup of 10 per cent, but the subcontractors would mark up goods another 20 to 40 per cent on top of that. As a result, a worker could expect to pay $12 for a pair of boots, $5 to $10 for a pair of blankets, 45 cents for a 25-cent packet of tobacco and 25 cents for a 10 cent bar of soap.

One of the most dangerous aspects of life for a worker was when they were handling the highly volatile nitroglycerine. The workers, either not realizing the danger or not caring, seemed to almost have a careless attitude when it came to handling the explosives. They would toss cans of nitroglycerine with fuses attached along the roadbed despite safety regulations, or they carried the explosive with a reckless attitude that resulted in the fluid splashing on rocks where it could suddenly become volatile in cold weather. When the weather did get cold, the explosive became highly volatile and was known to explode suddenly, killing entire groups of people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The engineers would keep a fresh eye out for anything to tip them off that the explosive had been spilled. They often saw the men working with the explosive in ways that boggle the mind, including one who was repairing a leak in the tin of explosive by scraping mud over it with a knife, not realizing that one bit of friction from the grit of the mud could cause an explosion.

During one stretch of railroad in the Canadian Shield, Sir Sandford Fleming saw 30 graves from men who had not handled the explosive carefully.

On Oct. 14, 1878, the Ottawa Daily Citizen would report, quote:

“The party retired to a place of safety and awaited the explosion, which did not occur for a considerable time. Mackenzie approached the spot to see what was wrong when suddenly the charge exploded, blowing away the foreman’s left hand, both eyes and a partition of his nose. At such a distance from civilization, the services of a surgeon could not be had, and the wounds were bandaged up as best the navvies knew how.”

The man was eventually taken to a hospital and the paper continues, quote:

He presents a sickening spectacle. The cavities, once filled with lustrous eyes, the nose hanging to one side, an aperture near the eye, through which the air passes, and the face distorted generally, presents a most displeasing sight, which evoked the sympathy of all observers.”

On Jan. 13, 1881, the Manitoba Free Press reported the following incident, quote:

“On Thursday afternoon, a glycerine magazine at Hawk Lake, containing three cans of the diabolical stuff, was blown up. A blaster named Thomas McCaugly, it is understood, was endeavoring to pry a can out of the snow and ice with a chisel when the congealed glycerine exploded and blew him to fragments, there not being a hundredth part of him obtainable in one piece. In fact, in the surrounding debris there were only occasional spots of blood and grease and minute fragments of flesh and bones.”

Mary Fitzgibbon, who was going to her homestead in Manitoba, saw a group of Irish packers carrying the liquid explosives on their back, making comments that seemed to highlight the dangerous nature of their work. She wrote down one exchange that went as such, quote:

“It is a warm day.

That so but maybe ye’ll be warmer before ye camp tonight.

That so, d’ye want any work taken to the devil?

Where are you bound for Jack?

To hell, I guess.

Take the other train and keep a berth for me, man

Is it ye’re coffin ye’re carrying Pat?

Faith ye’re right and the coroner’s inquest to the bargain Jim.”

The lives of the immigrants, along with the Chinese workers in British Columbia, were considered to be cheap.

Alex Woods, a homesteader near Calgary who worked on the line, would write of the construction crews he saw, quote:

“I suppose, dear reader, you think we were a lot of brutes driving other brutes and I suppose we were but by such practices was the west opened up and developed. There was a saying about 60 years ago that in every mile of the grade of the old CPR was the grave of a working stiff. The bad water on the prairie took a heavy toll of life.”

Arthur Lower would also state, quote:

“Immigrant lives went cheaply. Taking out rock by hand drill and dynamite is dangerous and the young doctor at the hospital would say unconcernedly, oh we have nine of them buried back there in the bush.”

Medical services were basic at best, and a labourer was charged one dollar per month for medical services. There were no field hospitals and the doctors on the line admitted that the medical supplies were not sufficient. One doctor may be required to cover 15 or more camps, and each camp was a day or two journey away from the next one.

To get through the dangerous work and mind numbing loneliness that the navvies felt, alcohol was something nearly everyone used to get through the day and night. I covered a bit of this in my episode on the Canadian Shield.

It was believed that there was not a single engineer, contractor or worker who was not a hard drinker and every transaction along the railroad construction was consummated with a glass of alcohol.

While there was great effort to keep the camps free of alcohol, this was a losing battle. Whiskey peddlers would leave kegs of liquor at various points along the way and even the raids of the whiskey peddlers only resulted in other people taking the alcohol to enjoy themselves.

There was a big business in alcohol as well. While a gallon of alcohol would sell in Toronto for 50 cents, it would cost $45 along the railroad.

The Toronto Globe would write after a reporter visited Rat Portage, stating quote:

“It is more than hinted that of the enormous amounts collected here in fines and costs, the Dominion Government received only a very small share, while some of the officials would have been rich men ere this had not been for the large sums they have squandered on profligacy and dissipation. It is also stated on good authority that in some cases whiskey peddlers secured a certain immunity from the severe penalties by contributing regular stated sums, destined to appease the cravings for justice in the breasts of the officers of the court.”

In the winter of 1877-78, one whiskey peddler was caught with a toboggan load of whiskey and he was placed in the hands of the local blacksmith. Two justices of the peace were on hand to handle the trial. In the trial, the whiskey peddler was found guilty and was sentenced to pay $25 in fines. The peddler then said he would not pay it and he would appeal. This then brought up the issue that there was no jail closer than Winnipeg, a distance of several hundreds of kilometres. There were no funds to send the man there either. In the end, he was kept a few days in a bunkhouse and then allowed to go on his way, without any of his whiskey though.

Sometimes contractors would solve the alcohol problem by working with the peddlers not to sell alcohol during certain times in order to ensure work gets done. Of course, that didn’t always work and sometimes the lure of money from hundreds of men was too much. One contractor relates coming to camp to find his entire work crew completely drunk. He quickly rounded up all the peddlers, made sure they were fined $3,600 and they were shipped off to Winnipeg and told if they ever came back, they would be jailed. In this case, none returned.

Occasionally, priests would come to the camp and were often scandalized by what they saw. Father Lacombe was sent by the church to Rat Portage, now Kenora, where he gave his first sermon in a boxcar after hearing the navvies talking. He would write in his diary, quote:

“It seems to me what I have said is of a nature to bring reflection to these terrible blasphemers who have a vile language all their own, with a dictionary and grammar which belongs to no one but themselves. This habit of theirs is diabolical.”

He would write in his diary, describing Rat Portage as, quote:

“My God, have pity on this little village where so many crimes are committed every day.”

One of the most important men on any navvie crew was not the spikers, or labourers or even the foreman, it was the cook. Harry Nash was one such cook, and he went by the nickname of Montana Pete. Meals were welcomed by work crews who had just spent hours working away but often there was not much variety in the meals, although Harry would do what he could with the little he had for supplies. Typically, he would make ham or beef stew, with pork and beans, fresh-baked biscuits, covered with maple syrup, three times a day. He would make sure there was plenty of tea and coffee for the workers at the same time. Out on the prairie, some workers would shoot wild partridges and other birds and bring the meat to Harry. Along with duck eggs and berries, he would make them a feast fit for a king.

At the same time, while navvies had more contact with the outside world, and larger crews that meant better meals, the men who came before them had a hard life that made the navvies lives look like resort living. Frank Leonard would relate, quote:

“Track layers, by the nature of their work had more contact with the outside world and often enjoyed more of the amenities of civilization than their compatriots who worked in isolated advance camps clearing bush, grubbing stumps, making heavy rock cuts, or moving dirt and rock onto the embankments or into fills on the future railway.”

Now, Rat Portage had been a community for some time before the railway arrived and it became a base of operations for construction through the Canadian Shield and into Manitoba. Gold had been found there in the 1850s and 20 mines operated there for several years. Along the line through that wilderness, all the way to Winnipeg, it was also the only permanent town, and it was where the men wanted to go to spend their money. A correspondent with the Winnipeg Times in 1880 would write, quote:

“For some time now the railway works in the vicinity of Rat Portage have been besieged by a lot of scoundrels whose only avocation seems to be gambling and trading in illicit whiskey and the state of degradation was, if anything, intensified by the appearance, in the wake of these blacklegs, a number of demi-monde with whom these numerous desperadoes held high carnival at all hours of the day or night.”

As the headquarters for the section, the population bordered around 3,000 people but this was a floating population and few people stayed in the community for long.

Law and order were almost non-existent as well. When a company constable named O’Keefe seized four barrels of illegal liquor, he didn’t destroy it. He took it back to his rooms and drank it with his friends. O’Keefe was fined for having liquor in his possession. O’Keefe paid the fine and then arrested the magistrate for having liquor in his possession. He then put the magistrate in jail for 24 hours stating that the magistrate had, quote:

“Treated him like a dog and now it was his turn.”

A new magistrate was appointed for the 24 hours the old magistrate was in jail, and that new magistrate then fined the old magistrate $100.

O’Keefe tended to be sometimes on the side of the law, sometimes not. On Dec. 14, 1880, it was reported he confiscated 50 gallons of whiskey which was hidden in flour barrels. He also arrested 36 illicit whiskey peddlers in the month of November 1880 alone.

For a construction gang along the railroad, the day began early and ended late. Stephen Pardoe, a worker on the line, would relate, quote:

“Early dawn brought the cry of roll out, and by the time the men had shaken themselves out of their blankets, the horses had been driven in ready to be caught and given their feed of oats and water. Then breakfast, followed by the cry of hook up from the foreman and the whole force would commence its first five-hour stretch of work. Unhook at noon and dinner, another five hours of work before supper and then the blankets, till the morning of a new day.”

Many of the men who worked in navvies were hoping to save money to find their place in what was to them, a new country. Wasyl Hryholczuk was one such man. He had come from the Ukraine with little money and by the time he reached his homestead, he had nothing left. He would build a one-room shack and then he left the homestead in the care of his wife and children. He then began to work on the railroad, making $1.50 a day as an unskilled labourer. He spoke no English and was given the roughest jobs on the line, but he would save every single penny that he earned. In four months, he had earned enough to return to his farm but wanting to save money, he walked 160 kilometres to his home. He then bought a cow, put two windows in his hut and hinges on his door.

Lars Peterson was another man who went to the railroad to build up his savings. He was from Finland, and he was known as one of the best spikers along the entire railroad. In fact, when William Van Horne, the president of the CPR, held a contest to see which team could put down the most track in one day, Lars was chosen to be a member of a team due to his skill. There was good reason he was chosen. His crew beat all the records, putting in 8,400 hammer blows on the spikes per person, completing 10.3 kilometres of track in only ten hours.

I am going to end this episode with a navvies camp song, it goes as follows, quote:

“For some of us are tramps, for whom work has no charms

And some of us are farmers, aworking for our farms

But all are jolly fellows who came from here and far

To work up in the Rockies on the CPR.”

Information from The Great Railway 1871-1881, Steel Ribbon, University of Alberta, Ottawa Citizen, Manitoba Free Press,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: