Saturday, 21 May 2016
The End-of-Steel Village
Lawless Settlements of Rude Shacks That Spring Up Along the Trail of Railroad Construction Camps, Spreading Vice and Crime and Mulcting the Lowly Labourer of His Wages.
By W. Lacey Amy, in “The Railroad and Current Mechanics.”
As Reported in the Fort George Herald, Saturday, September 20, 1913.
Yellowhead Pass was put on the map of Canada only a few moons ago. Yet all through these mountain fastnesses lie the wrecks of villages that would in civilization have had their mayors and their social distinctions. But they never had mayors; they never had even the law that makes mayors, and their inhabitants knew no distinctions for the simple reason that most of them were equally undesirable.
The little groups of shacks that stand with empty doorways and the mere skeletons of roofs beside the new railway could not boast even of names in their palmiest days. The necessities of location were amply filled by the mileage along the railway grade, just as everything else is designated where steel precedes civilization.
“Mile 29” would convey nothing to the uninitiated, but to the bohunk of construction it pictured a six months’ career of revelry and dissipation. “Mile 50, B.C.” while specifically locating a spot 50 miles west of the summit of the pass, the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia, really meant a collection of log shacks that housed a number of “bad citizens.”
It wasn’t worth while to think of a name. They weren’t there long enough to pay for the trouble. The “end-of-steel” villages they were called, and the term explained their existence. Wherever the “Pioneer,” the mechanical track-layer that pushed the steel ahead of it, lay up after overtaking the grade gang there, sprang up one of these villages. The Pioneer—an ungainly, dirty, overgrown box car, with the weird, semihuman arms—never made a friend that clung so closely to it as did the end-of-steel village.
For where the Pioneer lies resting hundreds of men are anchored within a mile or two, at work on ballast until the grade ahead is ready for another spurt of the track-layer. And only a few miles farther on a portion of the grade-gang offers a week-end patronage that is not to be ignored by the village—the parasite of construction.
When the Pioneer decides to work for another few weeks every eye in the village watches for its next resting-place, and when the first information comes a flitting takes place—an impromptu affair that is distinguished only by its simplicity and speed. There is no regret for a deserted home, only a careless ripping off of canvas roofs, a piling on flatcars or tote-wagons of the necessaries of trade, and a scurry for the choice locations of the new site. A day’s work completes the place and the paraphernalia of the end-of-steel village is ready for operation without inconvenience to its patrons.
There is no indecision as to the location of the village once the end of steel is known. Just three miles away it settles down, that three miles is positively the only restraint it knows; for within that distance of the end of steel the contractor has complete legal control in unsettled districts. And, knowing the hell that lives in those shacks, he pushes them to the extreme of his authority.
Within easy reach after his day’s work, the ennuied, hungry bohunk, with money but no luxuries, no entertainment, no other means of expenditure, finds at the village every excitement and dissipation even he can desire.
An end-of-steel village is made up of booze, billiards, and belles. It is the home of the illicit liquor traffic of construction, the location of enough pool-tables to stock a large city, and the residence of women who never elsewhere enjoyed so much freedom.
Three-quarters of the shacks are restaurants in front—for about six feet. On a short counter appear—uncovered except by flies—sandwiches, pies, and cold meats. A patron of the restaurant alone is no more popular with the proprietors than is the restaurant with the average frequenter. The restaurant is merely an outward, plausible excuse for the existence of the shack.
Back of the little counter is the pool-room—perhaps a score of tables that are only a shade less respectable and infinitely more a surprise than a restaurant. And then, through a small doorway, up a short flight of steps that breathe exclusiveness and privacy, is the real object of existence—the card room, where cards are but the means to an end.
Liquor knows no limits of location in the shack. You can buy it in the restaurant if you can’t wait to go farther. It is at your elbow between cue-strokes. The card-room reeks with it. That room puts the finishing touches on the bohunk who has passed from the front door through the several stages of poison. The bohunk who escapes the card-room with any satisfaction to himself has a petrified interior, is a better manipulator of cards than the experts, or was able to draw first.
Pay bunk-houses exist precariously against the competition of their free brethren. The free bunk-house is a provision of the contractors for the disabled, helpless bohunk who has spent the evening and everything else in the other shacks. A glance in one of them would carry conviction that the bohunk who patronizes them must be very, very helpless.
At Mile 50, B.C., there was even a bath-house, but it failed ignominiously, but not unexpectedly. And at Mile 79 there was a constable’s quarters—meaning a place where he could find protection from the weather and lend to things an appearance of law and order.
In the daytime an end-of-steel village is respectable. There may be a little repairing to do after last night’s carousal, but beyond that the only evidence of life is in the store signs. The tradesman—and every one is that—concocts the wording of the sign and figures out the spelling. Most of his figures are more expressive than correct And the only quality of art required is that the sign must be big and striking.
One big “general store,” with a main sign that had evidently seen the hand of a professional, had accessory notices that within were cider, shooting “gallary”, a “restaurant,” some one had afterward superimposed a small “a”, and the “reparing” of shoes. That was a respectable sample. Education in an end-of-steel village does not run to letters.
At night the place comes to life, for then its victims are free to offer themselves. The poor bohunk is just aching to clear the dust from his throat and to limber his body. In the village he finds everything from faro to frocks, pie to poison, dancing to death. In the lure of the first of the couplets he is thrust into the last.
If the open swindles of the camp fail to clean him out the men who make a living there have few compunctions against “rolling,” or even murder. The life of the bohunk is in the hands of his hosts, and they yield it to him only when his pockets are empty. An end-of-steel business has but one end in view, with few distinctions between fair and foul means.
In the Yellowhead Pass there were a half-dozen of these villages, with a dozen suburbs that sprang up where some exigency of conditions, such as a ford, congregated men or demanded a resting-place. At Fitzhugh, which is within the Province of Alberta, the lid was kept closed a little by the mounted police, but their jurisdiction ended at the border of British Columbia, and there, at the summit, right on the boundary, the doors were opened wide, and down through Mile 17 and 29 and 50 they remained that way.
Mile 29 had a reputation of which even its inhabitants refused to be proud. Situated in the heart of a difficult part of construction, it had an extended life that grew wilder with age.
A special collection of shacks grew up at the western edge of the pass, on the site of the Tete Jaune Indian village, where the Grand Trunk Pacific emerged into the valley between the Rockies and the Selkirks, and where the Canadian Northern, hastening after its rival railway, would branch southward for the Thompson River.
An old negress ran the town, and she possessed all the qualities of a publicity commissioner. One of her week-end dances was warranted to drive ennui from the bohunk for a week—and often did more. An end-of-steel village is a disgrace, but Tete Jaune was indescribable.
The only thing endurable about the settlements is their impermanence, but all the value of permanence is given by their wonderful resurrective powers.
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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.