From RAILROAD MAN’S MAGAZINE Vol. XX No. 3, April 1913.
Sunday, 5 June 2016
Finding a Railroad Route Over the Rockies
By W. Lacey AmyMany thanks to Cheryl Adams from the Library of Congress for taking the time to locate this article./drf
PublicIllustrated with photos by the author.
From RAILROAD MAN’S MAGAZINE Vol. XX No. 3, April 1913.
Public sentiment fondly wraps itself around the brawn of railway construction; the brain must content itself with the satisfaction of achievement. The footlights shine full on the bohunk, the automaton of fuse and shovel; but the engineers who built the plot must work the ropes unseen.
The initial desire in the mind of some big man to connect two points is the only stage of railway construction for which the engineer is not responsible. Before the desire has become more than a dream he is treading unknown paths, scaling heights previously reserved for mountain goats, gulfing gaps where only birds have passed.
From his lips comes the final word that changes that initial desire to a command. At the change he is immediately on the path again, this time with rod and transit, “on location.” Not a foot of ground can be ignored, unmeasured, unconnected with the last and the next.
For a month he views a difficult piece front every angle, planning and changing his plans, striking off into new trails and returning to compare, but never leaving the spot until each fill, each cut, each bridge, each tunnel has been laid out. After him follow a dozen of his fellows in order, each solving for himself the same riddles and straightening out the same tangles.
Driving the Level Line.
Through all this conflict of brains with nature the public rests uninterested and uninformed. Not until the contract has been let do the head-lines chronicle the coming task; and then it is upon the contractors that the public eye rests with wonder and admiration. But the real work of construction has been performed, the real difficulties overcome, the real hardships lived, the real drama played.
Driving a level line of steel through the mountains of the Yellowhead Pass in northern British Columbia is not the part of construction to be talked about. Months and years before the blast of dynamite broke through the mountainside the line had been drawn in the mind’s eye of a group of men whose responsibility will not cease for years after the railway is completed.
The difficulties of that Herculean task do not bear most heavily on the hands that perform it, but on the brains that conceived it and blazed the path. Long before the laborers had signed their contracts, the engineers, the aristocrats of construction, were plunging through pathless forests, staggering up dizzy cliffs, fording fierce mountain torrents all the time far from the comforting touch of civilization.
Through the wilds they tramped, thinking and planning at every step. They were there while the bohunk was slowly passing through, leaving a level trail behind him. They will strike camp only when the last spike has been driven to their satisfaction. The pick of the grade gang falls only where the blue-print directs: the grade gang is but the hand of the engineering corps.
When the first flying survey of the Grand Trunk Pacific broke into the northern Rockies only the grizzly was there to protest. Those two first teams—Van Arsdoll and his old woodsman, Jones and his Indian—had lived the life of railway spies down in the mountains of the Western States, and the terrible loneliness of the engineer’s life filled the circle of their existence.
Separately they worked for months and years, two pair of lone men whose movements were known only indefinitely to one man, the head engineer at Ottawa.
Jones and his Indian delved into every nook and corner of ten thousand square miles of mountain in search of the break the new railway should follow. From every accessible mountain peak the country around was weighed. Every valley, every niche in the mountain wall was explored until it ended in a blank precipice or in the valleys beyond the hills.
With only a sleeping-bag apiece and a little pork and beans this pair plunged into the unknown stretches of height and river and glaciered peak, trusting to theirs guns for provisions and to Providence for the protection that is owing men with a high purpose.
Forty passes they discovered—forty paths to pierce the mountains—and every inch of the forty they trod from end to end. The forty were cut to four, and Jones and his faithful Indian tried to pick out the points of the four that they had previously missed. Three years of banishment it meant, three years with but a single companion—an Indian; but the result was the easiest grade for transcontinentals in America, a passage from ocean to ocean that opposes no greater difficulties of transportation than the flat prairie. An engineer did it all, the uncredited creator.
Felled Trees to Cross Abysses.
Following Van Arsdoll—after Jones had planted his foot on every rock and rafted every river—came another group of engineers. The Yellowhead Pass was a valley reached by a score of other valleys.
Through those valleys the steel must lie on the best line to an inch. From the main camps little gangs broke away and climbed and jumped and hung over cliffs, plowed through muskeg and deadfall, where the fallen trees outnumbered the standing. They felled trees to cross abysses, wandered miles from their fellows, ran short of rations, and were threatened by grizzlies, landslides, and sickness. But a drop of an inch in the level, the shortening of a bridge by a foot, the straightening of a curve by one degree, the saving of one ton of blasting, was a reward to pay for it all.
The engineers of the Yellowhead Pass took levels from rafts tumbling and tossing at anchor in mountain torrents that threatened momentary destruction. At the ends of long ropes they hung over mountainsides to plant their feet on every yard of the coming line.
On hands and knees they crept along the tree-trunks slippery with spray from tremendous falls that dropped below them into bottomless gorges, merely to see if the level beyond could be improved. And the world was not yet aware that a new railway was in plan.
For days they were forced to forge ahead without food, sleeping in the rain and snow—no news of the outside world, no sympathy in suffering, no thought but the grade they must find. And this is one instance of the result: From twelve thousand miles of trial lines and surveys along the Skeena River they picked out one hundred and eighty-six miles of railway.
Later the contractors came. While the hands kept pulling and shoving and filling and blasting nine hours a day. the brains were at work twenty hours. Around Brule Lake the winds of that mountain funnel tore up the sand as quickly as it was placed: the bohunks dumped and dumped mechanically, but the engineers had to find a way to hold the dumpings.
At a hundred mountain streams the contractors did their work, only to see it washed away by torrents. The machines repeated their tasks to no effect, but the engineers planned and built and forced the streams to behave. A mountain stood straight in the way; the brains of construction led the way through or around, and lay awake with the responsibility of it.
Through every minute of their share of construction the engineers faced the dangers that make heroes of ordinary mortals. They struggled along regardless of the outside world, some of them starving, drowning, freezing, or dying from sickness or accident. Winter and summer were the same to them. Their brains were active always, however their bodies might suffer. Weather was no obstacle; the seasons but altered their clothing. Only an order from the rear turned them back.
When the Grand Trunk Pacific discovered a new path from ocean to ocean, crowding mountains, tumbling torrents, abysmal cañons could not stay the plan.
Early in the winter of 1910-1911 a party of engineers on location were ordered down the Fraser River. From the head of navigation at Tete Jaune Cache progress was simple enough so long as the scows floated and the river remained open; but a drop in the mercury forced a change of plan.
Facing the impossibility of completing the work for which they had started, the order came to return. But that was a different matter. Against the current of the Fraser they were powerless to move three scows. In the deepening frost they broke them up and built them into two; but still they were unable to pole up stream. So, for three days, some of the men pulled from the banks while the rest kept the scows out in the water. In that time they covered five miles.
The cold settled down for a closer grip, and before them, instead of open water, stretched ice of varying thickness. In such straits they added runners to the scows, but the soft wood of the first set wore away, leaving the knots to catch in the rough ice. With great difficulty they managed to shape new runners from hardwood, and after that progress was faster.
Two small camps of resident engineers offered only a temporary warmth, and they were provisioned only for the men in camp. So the party passed on. Twice the hardwood runners wore through; and then the snow came and the sleighs had to lie abandoned.
The men split into pairs, each taking one hundred and fifty pounds of bacon, bread, beans, sugar, tea, and canned milk, and a share of the valuable instruments. For a few miles more they struggled along; the stronger working to the front, the weaker dropping behind.
It was every man for himself now. Clad in their mackinaw’ coats and trousers, wool caps, moccasins, and German socks, they were as well fortified against the cold as clothing could make them; but their moccasins were in bad condition from the water they had waded through and, also, from the sharp ice.
A level man gave up while yet he had strength to drag himself back to the last camp they had passed. Doggedly the men clung to their instruments, the tools of their profession, but at length one by one dropped everything but the necessary provisions and made for the camp ahead at Mile 17.
Only one pair refused to sacrifice their instruments. Just when they had reached the point where the sacrifice seemed to be their death-warrant a delayed “swing”* came along from behind.
That tramp of eighty-five miles in midwinter had occupied thirty days.
A party of engineers working up from Fort George during the winter months, received sudden orders to retrace the hundred miles to camp. With the thermome
ter forty below zero
they commenced the trackless trek. In the soft snow and tangled deadfall their
strength began to yield before the loads they had to carry.
Half-way back the surveyor in charge reluctantly gave orders to throw away everything not necessary for their lives. Ten miles from Fort George there was nothing left but the transit and level, and with that they staggered into camp, famished, frostbitten, and delirious with fatigue. A week later they were back over the same trail, and not one had hesitated to obey the order.
* A swing is a caravan of half a dozen sleighs, four mules to a sleigh. It is the common method of freighting in the pass.
Leaped on the Rabbit.
An engineer with an axman was out one winter on reconnaissance along the Fraser valley. With four dogs and two light sleighs they were traveling fast. In a blinding snow-storm they lost their way, and for two days and a half neither dogs nor men ate a mouthful.
On the third morning they crawled from their sleeping-bags facing the fact that food must come that day or the cold would win out.
The prospects were not bright. Even in the summer one might travel for days through the mountains and neither see nor hear a sound that betokens life. In the winter it is work. Everything seems to have wrapped itself in sleep to forget the biting cold and storms that sweep through the valleys.
At length they came upon the fresh tracks of a rabbit. The helper, with this forlorn hope to spur him, left the engineer and the dogs huddled out of the wind and set out alone to stalk. Hours afterward he came upon the rabbit in a thicket.
Fearing the uncertainty of his aim in his weak condition, he crawled slowly toward his game and, when a yard away, leaped upon it. He returned with his prey to the engineer, whom he found drowsy with the cold. Every dish had been thrown away, but the rabbit was cooked on a stick.
Then appeared the unselfishness of the man who lives in the wilds. The ax man made his master take the flesh, while he satisfied himself with the entrails. The dogs picked up a little strength by devouring the skin.
Battling with the Long Winter.
During those winter days, when the sun drops from sight in the early afternoon and all nature lies stiff in the clutch of frost and snow, the life of the engineer in camp is one long strain.
Most of the time he is busy with the work of the office, deducing from last year’s surveys, planning for next year’s: but the long darkness, the utter silence without, the monotony of life and food and work have been too much for the minds of some of them.
One spring the divisional engineer received a number of curious reports from one of his resident engineers fifty miles along the pass. With the first break in the winter the reports began. For a month, while still the frost was in the ground and the snow lay deep in the ravines, they persisted. The one who sent the reports had in his district a proposition that had troubled him all fall. At all hours of the winter night the axman would waken to see the light glowing in the room of his chief. Seldom did he sleep or eat. Then, when the spring came, his reports went to his superior, each of them working out in detail the many fantastic schemes that had been tried out in the light of that ever-burning lamp.
At last came this one: “I—, being of sound mind, do charge that—” and there followed pages of wild accusation against his men and the contractors, and even against a lone rabbit that had been the only evidence of outside life in all that dreary winter.
The divisional engineer rushed four men to the camp, but they arrived too late. With the first contractor’s boat down the Fraser the weary worker had gone to visit the spot that had held his mind captive for months.
On the way back he leaped from the deck into the rapid water and floated swiftly toward the rapids below. A small boat gave chase and, only after a fierce struggle, pulled him to safety. The poor fellow’s brain had broken down. His winter’s work was lost.
The same winter a lonesome young clerk, on his first Christmas away from home, succumbed to the seclusion. The missing stocking was too much for him. With frowning glaciers all about, he had to be kept until the passes back to his home were broken through by the spring rains.
After the worst of his hardship arc over, the engineer’s work does not cease. Along construction a camp is established every eight or ten miles under the direction of a resident engineer. With him is an instrument man, a rodman, a chainman, a cook, and, possibly, an axman as general roustabout.
The resident engineer reports to an assistant divisional engineer, whose jurisdiction, extends over fifty miles. He, in turn, is responsible to the divisional engineer at Fitzhugh,* whose camp is now being moved two hundred miles (by grade) down to Fort George. At the last-named place the chief engineer has maintained his camp, and from it periodically covers the whole route through the mountain district.
*Fitzhugh is now known as Jasper, Alberta.
Telephone Connection Between Camps.
The resident engineers visit each day every bit of work in their section—grading, steel laying, and bridge-building. After it is completed, they measure the work for the estimates. In the case of the Grand Trunk Pacific, government engineers reside in the different camps to check off the estimates and report progress to the government.
The daily life of the engineer on construction is based on honor. They have their work to perform and aim only at its completion. All through the daylight they are out on location on grade; through most of the night they are figuring, drawing, planning.
In regular camp they breakfast at seven thirty, dine at twelve, and sup at six; but that is all the regularity of the day. Under a big oil-lamp their pencils ply when there is work to do until weariness stops them. On location there is not even regularity of meals. They eat when they are hungry, rest when their legs refuse to move, sleep when their eyes close from weariness.
But in all this struggle with nature they do not mold their lives to conditions. In regular camp there are all about them evidences of a close acquaintance with the comforts of civilization. Away there in the heart of the mountains, in the camp of the divisional engineer at Fitzhugh, the head camp of the pass, the provision for comfort and entertainment is like an Arabian Nights accomplishment.
The location of the camp is probably the most beautiful in the pass. From a rise in the center of the valley at the junction of the Athabaska and Miette Rivers it looks straight into three of the most remarkable mountains of the northern Rockies—Geikie, Hardisty, and Tekarra.
About them crowd the Colin, Miette, and Malign ranges, and behind towers Roche De Smet. The entire horizon is bounded by peaks. Mountain lakes by the dozen lie within a half-dozen miles.
On an island in one of the lakes the engineers have erected a tent, and there they retire on Saturday afternoons during the summer. Up that five miles of rugged climb they have carried a canoe and a rowboat. Even there in the mountains they have their “week-end.”
Pipes have been laid to a beautiful little lake up the mountainside, and fresh water comes directly to the table and basin. Even the neighboring tented town of Fitzhugh is watered through a continuation of these pipes—a town of thirteen tents with a water system!
The camp consists of a dozen shacks and tents, all canvas-roofed, but comfortable. warm, and cozy. The sleeping-shacks are a revelation of the possibilities so far from civilization. The head engineer’s sitting-room, where his wife welcomes the guest with the assurance of a city hostess, invites with every comfort in literature, easy chairs, soft cushions, artistically decorated walls, Oriental rugs, window-blinds, and curtains.
The floor is hut hewed logs, but the duck covering and choice rugs conceal any defect in grain or po1ish. The walls are rough logs, but builders’ paper stretched tightly over them and covered with ingrain paper makes a sightly background for the pictures that hang from a molding of natural boughs. The windows are covered with wire netting and open outward from the bottom by means of a home-made contrivance that would be patented elsewhere.
The other shacks are furnished and decorated only in the lesser degree of comfort and elegance that marks the difference of position of the occupants. In the shack of the head clerks stands a large cabinet graphophone, and on the table are the favorite beverages of each. With doors open, the fires are kept alive from morning to night, for the mountain air is seldom hot and dampness from the ground immediately beneath the floors must be avoided. Before rising-time a boy goes from shack to shack lighting the fires and carrying water. When the meals are ready, electric bells ring in every shack.
There is telephone connection between the various camps along the grade, a touch of civilization that runs ahead of construction. A special mail-service comes direct from Edmonton. In the double-walled ice-house, thirty tons of ice guarantee grateful delicacies throughout the summer.
For almost two years the camp has been there, and the leisure hours of that period have been spent in luring the comforts of civilization.
Only a comic paper would suggest a golf course. But the course was there, cut into the forest through the valley. Most of the boys had been enthusiastic golfers at home—that was sufficient to guarantee a continuance of the game in the wilderness. Then the railway came along—or rather they brought it—and the inconsiderate thing ran through the center of the course and ruined it.
Then the men turned their attention to a tennis court. In the building of this some of the difficulties may be imagined from a picture of the surroundings. Horses, stone-boats, scrapers, plows, shovels, axes, and dynamite figured in the work. After three months of evenings there was laid a court that rivals any in the cities.
An eighteen-foot fence of netting had to be built around it to save the balls from the surrounding forest. Replenishing the stock of balls from Edmonton, three hundred and fifty miles away, is a matter of several months.
The camp will leave it all soon to settle down hundreds of miles westward at Fort George.
Mile 25. B. C., the next camp and the second in rank, is in a choice location on the shores of Moose Lake, with mountains behind and in front. In the midst of tall spruce-trees the camp looks like a summer resort. Here the assistant engineer has lived with his wife and three children, content and happy.
In full sight of Mount Robson stands one camp of four tents, inconvenient to water and a mile from the grade, but straight in front of the grandest mountain of the Rockies. The resident engineer at Mile 47 lives with his wife in twin tents—one a sitting-room and the other a bedroom. Inside there is little evidence of tent life, for the furnishings are complete. There is a couch, Morris chair, bookcase, and even Oriental rugs. From the roof edges to the floor is stretched chints of pleasing design, and only the canvas roof speaks of things temporary.
In the evening, when work is not pressing, his permanent camp life is the bright spot in his day. After supper the big oil-lamps are lighted, the fire poked into a glow, the talking-machine started.
Then, after the stars are out, surrounded by the latest magazines and books, he settles down for the only quiet enjoyment that is his. Not for a moment does he neglect the life that is passing back in the outside world. The daily papers may come to him weeks late, the magazines may be two issues old, a dozen letters may have been penned since the one he is reading; but never does he allow the wild life in which he works to make him careless of what civilization is doing.
He is always fresh, always interested, always active. That is how he is able to continue in the most severe share of the most severe task of modern progress—throwing across a mountain district the bands of steel that make civilization.
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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.