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Canada Pacific

R. L. Kennedy

The first attempt at building a Pacific Railway began when the federal government granted charters in 1872 to two companies, Canada Pacific Railway, headed by Sir Hugh Allan, (biography) of the Allan Steamship Line and a group of Montreal financiers. It was in fact a front for the Northern Pacific and had no intention of building an all-Canadian route. The second, Inter-Oceanic Railway headed by D.L.MacPherson (biography) was centered with Toronto money and Grand Trunk interests which were connected with London. This latter group objected to Allan's seeking backing from American interests. It promptly collapsed.

A new company was incorporated in 1873 by Allan without American interests and the government promised to aid the venture with thirty millions dollars and a grant of fifty million acres of land. All seemed well until it was revealed that Allan had made a generous campaign donation to the newly re-elected Sir John A. Macdonald (biography) in return for control of the railway. The infamous Pacific Scandal brought down the Conservative government.

A third attempt was made under Liberal government Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie (biography) to build the railway. Little happened beyond continuing the surveys of Sandford Fleming (biography) started in 1872. A haphazard concept of creating a rail and water route to the west was seen as a more realistic possibility.

Pembina Branch

Finally, a contract was made August 30th, 1873 by the government with contractor Joseph Whitehead to build a railway line known as the Pembina Branch running 63 miles (fare $3) between St.Boniface and Emerson Manitoba on the US border where it was to connect with the St.Paul & Pacific being constructed in the US and leading to St.Paul. Construction was delayed until 1877 due to the financial panic of 1873. It finally opened to regular service on December 5th, 1878 and was operated by the contractor until February 10, 1880 when the government took over operation in the name of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In its first months there were numerous derailments due to poor track construction. An extension was contracted in May 1877 to build a further 20 miles northward to Selkirk connect with main line from Prince Arthur's Landing (Thunder Bay).

Steamboats on the Red River

The famous Countess of Dufferin CPR No.1 was built by Baldwin in 1872.

Its arrival on the steamer Selkirk on October 9th, 1877 made it the first locomotive in Western Canada. It was used by Whitehead who bought it secondhand from the Northern Pacific. It was eventually preserved and put on display in Winnipeg where it remains at the Winnipeg Railway Museum. Additional locomotives were bought including No. 2 Star.

Thunder Bay Section

The Dawson Route was a water and road route between Dawson's Landing (later, Prince Arthur's Landing, later still, Port Arthur and finally Thunder Bay!) at Thunder Bay, the northern tip of Lake Superior and Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). It began with a 45 mile road followed by 350 miles of water that included many portages through to the Lake of Woods and finishing with another road to Winnipeg. The trip took up to twelve days!

It was proposed by the Mackenzie Government to replace the two road sections with railway lines. Construction on the first 45 miles began near Fort William June 1st, 1875 with an estimated 500 onlookers. Contracts were awarded based upon political favourtism, crooked business deals, nepotism and waste affected the project until finally in 1880 a Royal Commission investigated the contracts. A decision was soon made to build an all-rail route and tracklaying began in 1876 to build to Selkirk, a distance of 411 miles. All but 50 miles lay through a spongy area of scrub pine, rock and muskeg. Some sections were quickly completed but things soon bogged down, literally! The area between Eagle Lake and Lake of the Woods was a hostile terrain of innumerable lakes, rocky outcroppings and bottomless muskegs. Great amounts of fill were required to get a firm base. Inaccuracy in surveys and cost overruns resulted in a Royal Commission that ended with the resignation of the engineer, Sanford Fleming who was replaced by Collingwood Schreiber. Biography
Flimsy timber trestles needed replacement with metal ones before regular traffic could be handled safely.

The infamous Julius Muskeg was six miles across and of unknown depth. Log mattresses of interlaced timbers floated on top of the muskeg which was later filled in. Cross Lake was to be the undoing of contractor Joseph Whitehead who spent eighty thousand dollars to dump 220,000 yard of gravel in it, yet it continued to sink, and with it sank his hoped-for profits. Whitehead was removed by the government in March of 1880.

The exact opposite situation was encountered when fortress-like rock confronted construction crews. Nitroglycerine was the explosive used and the unstable nature of it connected with careless handling resulted in frequent unplanned explosions. In one instance, thirty graves in fifty miles.

Illegal whiskey plagued the construction camps causing much trouble there and in the small communities created along the building railway including Rat Portage (later renamed Kenora) which as a headquarters had a temporary population of nearly three thousand and was considered the roughest town in Canada. While the contractors were responsible to pay for the police and build jails, it was the government that collected the fines which in the 1880 season totaled six thousand dollars in Rat Portage. Father Albert Lacombe was sent to this place of wickedness and quickly found the navvies far worse than the heathen Indians he had been used to.

In February 1880, the government took over operation of the section from Selkirk eastward to Cross Lake at the same time as it took over the Pembina Branch. Later in 1880 a two mile branch was built from Selkirk to Colville Landing on the Red River to connect with steamers. These lines were all turned over to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company on May 1st, 1881. A forty mile section eastward from Cross Lake to Rat Portage (Kenora) was turned over on January 12th, 1882.

The Government purchased a small six mile long railway, the Prince Arthur's Landing & Kaministiquia built in 1877 between Prince Arthur's Landing and Fort William, relaying it with steel rails.

The balance of the Thunder Bay section was not completed until June 19th, 1882. The delay resulted in the earlier sections requiring rebuilding before they were fit to turn over to the CPR in May 1883 who were anxious to use it to forward construction materials to the West.

Canada Central Extension

The Brockville and Ottawa was one of the earliest railways in Canada having been incorporated in 1853 to build to Pembroke in the Ottawa Valley timber lands from Brockville. It was opened to Smiths Falls with a 12 mile branch to Perth, in February 1859 and as far as Sand Point, 12 miles past Renfrew on the Ottawa River, in 1867. It included the first tunnel in Canada; opened December 31, 1860 a 1,730 foot bore under downtown Brockville to reach the harbour and wharves, and where the railway built its shops. The B&O was built to the Provincial gauge of 5 feet, 6 inches.

The Canada Central, incorporated in 1861, built a line between Carleton Junction and Ottawa, opening it in September of 1870. It was controlled by Duncan McIntrye, biography a Montreal capitalist who soon went on to become Vice-president of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. It too was broad gauge.

In 1873 the two railways built a large stone roundhouse and shops in Carleton Junction. The latter substantial structure still remains in existence having been taken over by the CPR and used for some years.

On the way to Douglas, Sand Point had been reached in 1867, which was 74 miles north of Brockville. In November 1874 the government authorized a subsidy to extend the line westward to meet the line from Georgian Bay being built by the government. This Georgian Bay branch was an 85 mile line from the mouth of the French River to connect with the Canada Central as part of the rail and water route. The line continued from Sand Point through Renfrew to Pembroke reaching there in 1878 by which time a decision had been made to extend the rail line instead. The B&O and the CCR were amalgamated in 1878. Known as the Canada Central Extension, the CCR continued to slowly build on through Chalk River finally reaching Mattawa.

The Canada Central was still a broad gauge railway, one of the last and this presented a problem. Conversion to standard gauge was made on Easter Sunday of 1880 as far as Mackey, 46 miles beyond Pembroke where it had been completed to. Construction continued beyond this point to Mattawa using broad gauge equipment. It was changed in early 1882 when work was finished on the line. It had already been amalgamated with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company on June 9th, 1881. It became the Eastern Division.

Prairie Section

In September 1878 the voters returned a Conservative government under Sir John A. Macdonald and the push was on. In 1879 a contract was awarded to John Ryan who had one Donald D. Mann superintend the work on a line of 100 miles west from the Red River. The locomotive J.G.Haggart started the work in December of 1879 building a 16 mile branch from Winnipeg to Victoria Jct. where it would meet the main line after it had crossed the red River at Selkirk. Work continued on westward but the government took over the contract fearing he would not meet the completion date. By the end of 1880 rails had been laid almost to the border (Manitoba-North-West Territories) at mile 97 with service as far as Portage La Prairie.

The mainline alignment was later changed by the CPR to a direct route from Winnipeg via Rosser to Portage la Prairie and the Ryan line between Stonewall and Portage La Prairie was abandoned. Nothing had been built for the 16 miles between Selkirk and Victoria Junction.

Pacific Section

In April of 1879 British Columbia presented a motion in the House of Commons in Ottawa for the peaceful separation of British Columbia from Canada. The electorate of BC were indignant over the failure of Canada to honour the terms of union in 1871 which called for construction of a railway to begin within two years and be completed in ten years. This prompted action by Sir John A. and in late 1879 negotiations began with one Andrew "A.O." Onderdonk, (biography) an experienced railroad contractor to start work on several contracts.

It all began on May 14th, 1880 at Yale, BC near Emory's Bar, the head of navigation on the Fraser River where the railway would be built for 128 miles northeast to Savona, at the west end of Kamloops Lake. Ahead lay a formidable challenge, so rugged was the way twenty-seven 15 tunnels, one 1600 feet long, along with six hundred trestles and bridges requiring forty million board feet of lumber needed an incredible force of over 7,000 men to build the line. Blasting and compressed air drills advanced the work a mere six feet a day. It took eighteen months to blast out the first four tunnels which were within a mile and a half of the beginning. This was incredibly precarious work requiring men to hang down the face of the cliffs to drill blasting holes. Indians were fearless at this and were topnotch rock workers. Engineers were likewise required to take their measurements and cross-sections suspended by ropes.

In the Fraser Canyon was crammed the Fraser River and the corduroy Cariboo Road, the only connection to the interior of British Columbia. It carried passengers in stagecoaches and freight from the mines using twelve-mule teams and prairie schooners pulled by sixteen oxen plus six spare animals. Through this the railway had to be built all the while keeping the busy road open which was also required to supply Onderdonk's men. Two tons of nitroglycerine a day was being manufactured at a factory built in Yale for the work.There were many deaths brought about by the dangerous work particularly amongst the Chinese labourers who had the most dangerous tasks.

Six thousand of Onderdonk's workers were Chinese (Cantonese) coolies, whose presence was resented by British Columbians mainly because they would work for less than any white man but also because they were seen as an alien race that would not assimilate with the Arian population. There simply weren't enough men in BC which had a population of only thirty-five thousand whites, to do this work without bringing in thousands of foreign workers and Onderdonk had considerable experience with the Chinese having employed thousands of them to build the famous Central Pacific in the United States. That they would work for $1 a day while white labourers were paid $1.50 was a further advantage. A bonus was the fact they were more self-sufficient than the white workers. He brought them in from the Northern Pacific in Oregon in 1880 and the Southern Pacific in 1881. Beginning in 1882 he brought them by the shipload from Hong Kong, ten shiploads in fact, for a total of about six thousand. In China they could earn seven cents a day which accounts for their eagerness to come to Canada. Although they hoped to make a fortune to bring back to China the living expenses during winter layoffs ate up their earnings and when the work ended many thousands were stuck in Canada, like it or not.

Despite millions in labour savings from using the Chinese workers Onderdonk was in trouble with the high costs involved in the contracts leaving him with a loss of two and one half million dollars so far. He brought in Michael Haney and gave him complete management. He brought about improvements the most important of which was the building of mill to cut lumber at the rate of one hundred and fifty thousand board feet per day. This was all numbered and shipped off to the trestle sites. It was prefabication and it ended delays as well as cutting costs significantly.

Onderdonk brought in five secondhand locomotives, the first named Yale and lettered Canadian Pacific Ry. as were all contractor's locomotives. Yale was the ex V&T 3 Storey, a 2-6-0 built by Union Iron Works in San Francisco in 1869. He later added four new locomotives. The first shipload of rails arrived in Port Moody from England in the spring of 1880. A sternwheel steamer was constructed to move construction supplies.

A further contract in February 1882 was for 85 miles between Yale and Port Moody to reach the Pacific. The first train ran eastward between those two points on January 23rd, 1884, a work train hauled by the Lytton. Onderdonk was operating a scheduled freight and passenger service over the line. The fare was $5.50, an amount complained about for the trip of about nine hours!

The main line extended from Port Moody to Cisco, 136 miles, where a steel cantilever bridge was being constructed over the Fraser River. When it was completed service was extended on June 19th. to Lytton.

In the Black Canyon of the Thompson River about half way between Spences Bridge and Savona trouble visited the construction forces when a 580-foot tunnel built through a mud cliff. It was unstable and had collapses until finally on September 27th, 1884 the entire tunnel filled in. Other mishaps with construction and the trains occurred over and over as the difficult task continued.

Finally, by the summer of 1884 Savona was reached and Onderdonk's contracts were over, however the CPR Company gave him a contract to continue the work eastward to Eagle Pass. He remained in possession of, and continued operating the line until July 1st, 1886, and on July 3rd. the main line between Port Moody and Donald became the Pacific Division just as the first Pacific Express was making its way across Canada.

The standards of construction on Onderdonk's government section were well below that which had been imposed upon the CPR Company and they sought funds to bring things up to main line standards. Just as with the Thunder Bay Section of government construction things were done poorly. Van Horne stated that the "truss bridges are the worst I ever saw in a railway." The federal government in the form of J.H.Pope, Minister of Railways and Canals angrily refused and insisted it be taken over as is. Landslides, bridge failures and washouts continued until finally the government was forced to accede to the demand although it would take a commission several years before sustaining the CPR's claims with a large award.


Onderdonk's Way (link)

Canadian Pacific Railway Company


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