The Railroad

In Western Canada the development of an agricultural area is closely linked with the development of the railroad because the great distances created problems in the transporta­tion of people, settlers’ effects and commodities.

Numerous small railways, some of which were only a mile or two long, were built in Eastern Canada beginning around 1832, to service growing communities. The manufac­ture of the first American steam locomotive in 1830, a lighter copy of George Stephenson’s engine tested in Liverpool, England, the previous year, began a completely new era in land transportation. Resources and people could now be transported faster at a fraction of the cost of horse drawn vehicles.

The history of the railroad in Western Canada really began in 1871 when Sir John A. McDonald guaranteed the people of British Columbia and the prairies a railroad within ten years to unite them with the rest of Canada. There had been prior indications that British Columbia might join the United States and that the States might extend their border northward to include the prairie settlements. This Federal plan was estimated at $100,000,- 000 for an Atlantic to Pacific railway, a distance of 3000 miles.

The proposed railroad was to be called the Pacific Railroad, financed by the Federal Government from the sale of land in the west. The original trans-continental plans were for a proposed route through the Swan River Valley. The Dominion Telegraph following this line was completed from Selkirk as far as Fort Livingstone near present day Pelly in 1876. (see Dominion Telegraph)

In 1881 the Canadian Pacific Railroad was formed as a private company and given large grants of land of all uneven numbered sections on each side of the railway for ten miles, to finance the venture. They were also given a monopoly on railroad construction in Western Canada. For a number of reasons, political and otherwise, the C.P.R. decided to take a more southerly route, bypassing the Swan River Valley and other areas north. Settlement in the west progressed slowly at first, high freight rates being the main reason. However, the monopoly encouraged settlement close to the actual railroad.

Pressure was put on the politicians to break this monopoly. A decision of the Greenway Government in Manitoba allowed the chartering of a number of small rail lines, resulting in the breaking of Federal powers to allow provincial legislation. This meant the country was in a position to seek competitive railways.

In Manitoba, one of these small companies, the Lake Manitoba Railroad and Canal Company, built a line from Winnipeg to Dauphin, then continued to Sifton Junction, completing it to Winnipegosis in 1897. The Winnipeg Great Northern continued north­ward from Sifton Junction to the Swan River Valley. William Mackenzie and Donald Mann merged these two companies into the Canadian Northern Railroad (CNR) in 1899. This company had extensive rail lines in Ontario and later completed a line to Vancouver in 1915.

With the expectation of the railroad into the Swan River Valley and the surveying of a number of townships, the influx of settlers began in spring and early summer of 1898. By fall of 1898, the railroad had reached Cowan and one year later, in fall of 1899, Swan River. A more complete description of the original settlement known as Tent Town will be given elsewhere, but a short sketch of the terraine should be included at this time.

The Railroad from Dauphin to Cowan generally followed a gravel ridge referred to as Campbell Beach, the remaining shoreline of Glacial Lake Agassis. A few miles west of Cowan the railroad left the higher land and entered a number of miles of low, swampy ground which made construction more difficult. Conditions improved as the construction reached the East Favel River at the site of present day Minitonas. A bridge was required here, and the right-of-way now proceeded between the East Favel River and the West Favel, a mile and a half to the west.

Eugene Godin of Minitonas, now in his ninety-sixth year, recalls being paid fifty cents a day to carry drinking water to the men clearing the right-of-way east of Minitonas. His brother was responsible for this chore on the section between the two rivers.

Supplies used for the railway construction were transported ahead by wagon or sleighs deposited at suitable points. One such depot, known as Jacksonville, was at the West Favel River near the site of Tent Town.

The first commercial train arrived in Swan River in October, 1899. An auction sale of residential and business lots was held by T.A. Burrows, a well known figure in politics, lumber and railroad circles. People soon began building residences and businesses on their purchased lots.

An interesting venture of the Mackenzie-Mann Company was the operation of what became known as the “Company Farm” at Minitonas. This farm included Section 13-36-25 and 19-35-35 cornering the first section to the north-east. A manager was employed, along with a number of laborers. On the western edge of Minitonas a spacious residence, barns and other buildings were constructed near the East Favel River. Large equipment was used on the farm to produce quantities of grain and hay used to feed the many horses used on the construction jobs of Mackenzie-Mann. Here many of the animals were raised and pastured as well.

In the winter of 1899 the Swan River station and a railway bridge spanning the Swan River were built. Construction continued northward with a bridge on the Woody River and a station on the Bowsman in 1900. By 1904, the railway had reached Fishtown Creek, about four miles north of present Birch River, where a turn-around was situated. The village of Birch River was not established until T.A. Burrows started a lumber mill on the Birch River at that site.

The Canadian Northern Railway built a large sawmill at the present site of Mafeking to produce the bridge timbers and lumber required for continued construction on the Swan River-Prince Albert line. As they progressed onward, this mill was sold to Muchenbaker Brothers in 1908, who continued to operate in Mafeking until 1918.

Ed Reeves was a cook employed by the contractors building the railway from Dauphin to Swan River. When he reached the Valley, he took a homestead in the Big Woody District, returning to his cooking job in 1904. The first camp out at this time was in the Bellsite area. During the winter, the men cleared the right-of-way and cut timber for bridges, lumber and ties. All accommodation for animals, cooking, sleeping and eating were in tents. The only real building in the camp contained the supplies, food, etc.

Very good food was prepared for the workers, with plenty of fresh meat, vegetables, potatoes, lots of prunes, bread, biscuits and pies. Two hundred men were fed by a cooking crew of six – the cook, second cook, and four assistants. The late Wes Hood states his father was a butcher with a railroad crew. A small herd of steers was cared for; the animals were slaughtered for meat as the need arose.

Many immigrant people worked on the construction gangs: Italian, Doukhobors.

British, Swedish, Ukrainian and some French Canadians. The Italians, hungry for their ethnic dishes, attempted to make their own macaroni by dipping a piece of wire in a pancake mixture but this turned out an unappetizing dark color from the wire.

When grade construction was taking place, a crew using sixty horses and forty mules was in operation. A tote road or trail was situated beside the grade to be used by teams hauling supplies and men from the nearest end of steel. Ed Reeves was in charge of ordering supplies for the camp. A small store was also looked after by Mr. Reeves for convenience of the workers and trade with local natives.

Information in a brochure published by the Swan River Board of Trade in 1907, states, “Service to Winnipeg via CNR, tri-weekly service with sleeping cars on all passenger trains. Dining cars expected soon on all passenger trains, Winnipeg to Prince Albert.” We also get a further insight into the state of development of the lines from this comment in the brochure, “Hudsons Bay Railway is now in the course of construction starting from Hudson’s Bay Junction, Saskatchewan, a point seventy miles north west of Swan River. This will be a decided advantage when completed.”

The need for a shorter route from the prairies to the sea was apparent as far back as the 1880’s. A seaport on Hudson Bay, connected by rail with the interior, was a suggestion well received by all concerned. The Federal Government made a standing offer from 1886-1908 of a land grant to any company that would build a railway to the Bay from the western interior. This offer was finally taken by the Canadian Northern which began by construct­ing a line from Hudson’s Bay Junction to The Pas in 1908. Public sale of land in the west was to help pay for this project. Though $22,000,000 was collected for this fund, the money found its way into the public treasury instead of for the purpose intended. In 1908 the provision was withdrawn. The Department of Railways and Canals appointed their own engineer to organize surveys and estimate costs from The Pas to the Bay.

Progress was slow and World War I brought a complete halt to construction until 1926, when work was resumed and the Canadian National was authorized to complete the line to Churchill. This was accomplished by April of 1929. The last sixty miles of steel laid on the frozen tundra could not be used after the thaw in summer. By September, after enormous quantities of gravel had been hauled and placed under the rails, the railway was finally ready for service.

After completion of the line to Swan River in 1899, farmers who had established to the west, south and south-west, farther in the Valley, began demanding a railroad to service their area. Considerable urging brought about the building of what is generally referred to as the Thunderhill Branch Line in 1904. Starting from a point two miles south of Swan River known as Thunderhill Junction, the railroad was started in a south-westerly direc­tion. Villages of Kenville, Durban and Benito established along this line.

John Kennedy of Swan River was given a contract to build a grade for an approximate distance of twenty-five miles to a point on the Saskatchewan border one mile west of present day Benito. The right-of-way, much of it though heavy bush, was cut out in 1904. The first work camp was established two miles south of Swan River on what was known as the “Peach Place”. As work progressed the camp was moved so it would be centrally located between work crews. Generally, this would necessitate a move of about three miles, so accommodations had to be portable. Tents were erected to shelter about sixty­five teams. Others were set up for eating, sleeping and cooking. Two shallow wells were dug at the campsite, for camp and animal use.

John Lambert Sr. was foreman of the building gang. His son Jack (former Counsellor and Mayor) was water boy earning $1.00 a day and board. This would seem a very inflated wage compared to that of Eugene Godin who earned fifty cents in 1899. Jack’s father improvised the pails used by shortening the handles, making it easier for the twelve-year­old boy to carry the water on his rounds to the men.

The grade was built up with two-horse-slushers and four-horse-fresnels. These large scoop affairs had handles attached to the back end. As the teamster drove the team, a second man held the handle allowing the sharp front edge to cut into the ground and fill the bucket or scoop. This load was then hauled to the grade and dumped, gradually building the grade up and forward. Other teams on ploughs rooted up the soil to make it easier to load the full. Trees and stumps had been chopped out previously during the cutting of the right-of-way. However, many small roots were left to be scooped into the grade, resulting in a very rough roadway on which to lay ties and rails. When it was necessary to haul fill a greater distance for a low area or ravine, teamsters used “wheelers” which were two­wheeled scrapers, guided by a tongue between the horses. The scoop device was sus­pended on this cart while transporting. This was very hard on a team with the heavy weight on their neck as well as the tongue whipping their sides as they transported over the rough ground.

Much of the work on this grade was sub-contracted to local people. Farmers took the opportunity to make a little cash during the summer months. Horses were always in demand, as well as people to drive them. A considerable number of horses were lost due to swamp fever and glanders. The dead animals were hauled into the right-of-way and the grade built on top. Epidemics of diphtheria and typhoid fever confined many of the men to quarantine tents to await recuperation. Several deaths resulted.

The big year for this branch line was 1905 when the grade was completed to the Saskatchewan border and the rails laid.

December, 1905, saw the first official train arrive in Benito. This train always turned around west of Benito, returning to Swan River later in the day. As mentioned, this grade was extremely rough with the ties laid on top without balast between. Railroad crews were not obliged to make this run because of the danger. Many times extra men were taken along to help jack the train back on track. It moved so slowly people could climb on or get off as it went along.

At that time the railroad was required to build and maintain a strong fence to prevent livestock from straying onto railway property. Jack Lambert recounted how, as a young boy he helped his father who contracted stringing this fence wire from Thunderhill Junction to Benito. Jack rode a horse which pulled an eighty rod roll of wire which unrolled as he travelled down the side of the right-of-way. Four wires were laid out in this fashion on either side, then attached to posts. Other men clamped on upright wires every two feet. Mr. Lambert recalls often being pitched off his horse when it stopped suddenly as the wire unrolled and tightened up.

From 1906-1909 the train turned around west of Benito but the building of the grade continued west, reaching Snake Creek west of Pelly in 1909. During this period an item in the Star and Times states that three carloads of mules destined for work on the Benito-Pelly line had been unloaded at Durban. Obviously this was an attempt to avoid the great loss of horses as encountered in the earlier construction. It should be noted that mules were not subject to the usual diseases of horses. Mr. Charles Barker, who had a farm six miles south of Swan River, took a contract with a crew clearing the right-of-way in the Hyas area. He had about twenty-two horses working on the grades. The horses were returned to the farm in the Kenville area to winter.

By 1910 the railway had reached Norquay, a distance of four miles from Snake Creek.

The railway was so bad, it is said one trip took four days from Pelly to Norquay. The train had de-railed six times in the last four miles.

The CNR had a number of basic station plans. Before long a station was built at each village, the plan dependent on what could be expected at the particular point in regard to volume of business. The two major railroads, the CPR and CNR, made a point of building dissimilar depots. The most common design was referred to as Class 3, built in two sizes with slight variations, 42 by 22 feet or 46 by 22 feet. They were constructed with: a high, peaked roof; two dormers, 14 x 10 foot waiting room; 10 by 10 foot office; 20 x 20 foot office; living room; kitchen; four small bedrooms. Stations of this type were constructed at Kenville, Durban, Benito (now a home in the Mountain Crest-Pretty Valley District), Arran, Pelly (part of their museum), Hyas, Sturgis, Norquay, Canora and Veregin. Class 4 stations, single-stories with only a small living area, were built at Birch River and Mafeking. The old station from Bowsman is now part of the Swan Valley Museum, as a lasting reminder of this important part of our social and commercial past.

Until quite recent times, these stations were the focal point of each town, their chief communicator. The station was all a-hustle at train time as many gathered to meet the “daily.” This was the arrival of mail, strangers from exciting and far-away places, and the daily paper that kept you informed of world events. It also was an opportunity for those so inclined to check their watches to judge how closely the train was following the schedule and how accurate your watch might be. Here you would meet your neighbor or perhaps a stranger from the city or “up north” who would invariably furnish a bit of news to pass on at the livery barn, store or cafe. The station was the home of the agent and his family.

Each village, town or siding always had a “Section Gang” consisting of a section foreman and his crew of two or three others, whose duty it was to keep the track in good order. During the earlier years, the men travelled by means of a four-wheeled pump car, which was propelled to motion by two handles, pushed up and down in similar fashion to a well pump. The three-wheeled velocipede was also used for transporting a single person that might be inspecting the railway but this was not a conveyance for a working crew. Dave Baudin owned a farm at Renwer but spent most of his time working at a blacksmith shop in Swan River which he later purchased in 1910-11. He used to rent a velocipede to visit his family on weekends. People were able to rent these machines for special purposes. Many trips were made by doctors and ministers on railway hand cars and jiggers. As time went on these were replaced with motored “jiggers.”

Up until 1925 the railway was responsible for protecting the country adjacent to the tracks from fire which might be caused by the carelessness of railroad workers or sparks from the engines. They were responsible for extinguishing fires within three hundred feet of the track. Frank Hoar of Swan River was in charge of fire patrol from Swan River to Sinclair River, east of Minitonas. He travelled on a three-wheeled velocipede that was sometimes called ”a go from me, come to me.” Later he graduated to a gas-powered jigger and took patrol from Swan River to Garland.

All communication on the railroad prior to 1972 was by telegraph. A station operator was required to receive and send messages by Morse Code. Telegraph lines attached to poles on the railway right-of-way carried the messages. Poles and wire were subject to many break-downs caused by fires, fallen poles, broken wires, broken insulators, icing in winter, and power failure. A linesman was employed to patrol the lines to watch for problems, and repair wires and equipment when necessary.

James Somerville was employed as linesman from 1922-1951, working from Swan River to Mafeking, to Kelvington a distance fifty miles west and east to Pine River. He travelled on a small gas car without a windshield for a number of years, until he obtained a more comfortable vehicle but still an open one. Somerville was an ardent curler and horseshoe player. It may have been just a coincidence that he so often made his inspections through a town when a bonspiel or horseshoe tournament was taking place. With the discontinuation of the use of telegraph, this position as linesman became redundant.

The last two train messages sent by Morse Code in Western Canada were sent from Dauphin to trains in Swan River. Stan Pawlinsky was operator in Swan River at this time. “Train order 71, No. 894, Engine 1387 to meet a northbound train at Ethelbert” was the first of the last two messages. The second and final one was “for all southbound trains to wait in Swan River No. 894, Engine 1387 arives at North Junction.” It was dated June 5, 1972.

The early steam trains had a number of requirements not necessary with present day locomotives. Water towers were constructed every thirty to fifty miles along the track so water was always available for the engines. Even if an engine crew felt they could skip taking on water, the rules required a train never passed a tower without filling reserves. The first water tower in Swan River was situated on the river bank, west of the track on the north edge of town. Later a larger one was built to the south, up the tracks a piece. Water was pumped into the tank from the River by a “pump man” employed by the railway to look after the tower and keep it filled. Later, National Utilities was paid to pump water to the tower from its location closer to the river. As well as Swan River, water towers were situated at Cowan, Birch River and Snake Creek near Pelly.

Steam engines and cars from time to time required repair. The engine shop in Swan River, better known as the “roundhouse,” had two sets of tracks running through, which allowed two engines with tenders on each track to be serviced at one time. A locomotive hauling a train of cars from Dauphin, a distance of one hundred miles, was required to be checked, refilled with water and coal, oiled, and a thorough inspection of brakes given. Should a train be going farther north, engines would be changed in Swan River before continuing to Hudson Bay Junction.

Twelve to fourteen men were employed at the Swan River shop. One remembrance of the shop by a former employee was that the outside of the 40 x 50 foot building received a coat of red CNR paint each winter whether it needed it or not. The paint was mixed with kerosene to thin it enough to spread during the cold weather.

In 1954-55 train engines in this area were converted to oil-burning steam engines because of the shortage of the proper kind of coal. Engines for use in the mountains had been converted in the twenties to lessen the danger of starting forest fires. This conversion seemed to create a whole new set of problems. The heavy bunker C type oil went practically solid during winter. This was solved by heating the tank car for several days with steam at 140°F. The oil then became thin enough to be pumped into the tender of the train. Two cars of oil were kept on hand in order to always have one ready for the pump.

The oil was forced into the fire box of the engine by a blast of steam that vaporized the oil before it was burned. Inadequate heat resulted in a heavy carbon build-up which became saturated with oil, creating a sticky, heavy mass in the fire box. When an engine arrived at the shop, a worker was required to climb into the firebox as soon as it had cooled sufficiently to remove this carbon. An assistant was always at hand, as this job was done at a high temperature, and the worker could be overcome by heat. There was also a chance the carbon would ignite when exposed to air. The carbon was chipped away and shovelled out a lower damper door. Fine sand was carried on the engines to help keep the fire box cleaned out. The sand was drawn into the box when it was hot, causing the engine to spout huge clouds of black smoke that could be seen for miles. The roundhouse crew could easily spot a lazy fireman by the condition of these fire boxes.

Diesel-electric power took over in 1959 or 1960 but the main lines had already converted by this time. People accustomed to hearing trains all their lives were particularly disappointed when hearing the horn of a diesel which was described not unlike the sound of a sick cow.

This change brought about the closing of the shops, resulting in the loss of many jobs for our area. Thousands of miles could now be made before servicing became necessary. A number of engines together could pull numerous cars with the same crew.

Many services provided by the railroads through the years are now just memories.

Before highways improved enough to allow private vehicles and bus travel to become common, railways were the main means of transportation. At one time special trains were available to transport people to special events such as sports days, Dominion Day celebrations, Orange Lodge parades, etc., held in Preece ville, Pelly, Benito or other places on the line.

One such excursion is well-documented by the Loat brothers in their diary, the event being the football game between the “Minitonas Thistles” against the Winnipeg Civics held in Dauphin, when Minitonas won the Provincial Championship in 1908. They walked to Swan River to catch the train going to Dauphin for this game, later playing in the event. The story will continue in their words … ” Turned out to be a real exciting day for the folks that went. A tall spruce tree was lashed to the smoke stack of the engine with Boomer Johnston at the throttle … Going down we were on schedule, a bit of cramping for the style of our engineer. He was doing the best he could under the circumstances and gaining on each stop for picking up passengers … I remember a good friend of mine, Grant Keith living in the Lidstone District, climbed aboard and joined the fire-man to help him shovel coal … Somehow Grant lost his hat before he got very far … and when the train stopped in Cowan, slipped over town to pick up a new piece of head-gear, but found all the stores closed for the day and everyone getting aboard the train heading for Dauphin.”

The diary goes on to describe this long-remembered game that brought provincial recognition to the Valley, and in particular, the small town of Minitonas. He then goes on to describe the return journey on the train … “The day passed … and we headed for home and country. Our engineer was given a clear track for our return and that suited “Boomer” to no end. He would be right in his element. We pulled away with the whistle going and the bell ringing. The spruce tree was still lashed to the smoke stack. The first stop out of Dauphine we had cut the time by several minutes. I believe the whistle cord must have been tied back, as one could hear it just about constantly. We got about half way … still gaining, gaining at every stop and my brother and I thought it would be a good idea to make a trip through the long string of coaches to see how everybody was doing. In one of them we came across Davey Reid our piper, the bag pipes slung over the back of a seat, at ease. Davey was sound asleep, dead to the world. We let him sleep on. No one that day earned a rest more then he.

Between coaches, stepping from one to the next, there is an open bit. We must have been going around a curve in the track . . . because we caught sight of our engine spewing out sparks from its smokestack … the spruce tree bent back with the speed we were travelling and the whistle still going … Swan River was reached and we were given to understand … that nearly an hour was lopped off the regular time. I have a sneaking suspicion that our “Boomer” took a lot of satisfaction out of how fast he made those old drive-wheel turn.”

Railways were responsible for delivering the mail, doing the job in a fast and efficient manner. Mail put on the train was sorted in the mail car as the train travelled along.

Every village and town had a weekly livestock shipping day. Farmers delivered, cattle, hogs, sheep, or horses to the railway stockyards at their local shipping point. Here they would be loaded on box cars to be delivered to slaughter houses of the owner’s choosing. Dozens of horse-drawn wagons or sleighs would be in town on “shipping day” delivering stock to be sold. The farmers took the opportunity to shop for groceries, pick up mail and do other business before returning home.

Most farms in the earlier years kept flocks of poultry. People caring for poultry usually culled their flocks each year of older, unproductive hens to make room for those raised during the summer. A special rail car was brought in and outfitted with small wire compartments for the marketing of such birds. Each bird was quickly checked for disease and other faults by the buyer before placing it in the cages.

Trains played their part in the medical services of the area. In the Star and Times of April, 1922 we read “Mrs. Jazean of Barrows Junction gave birth to a son on the train to Swan River. They are doing well at Mrs. McVeety’s nursing home. The boy was named Charles Newell Roscoe (CNR). ” Dr. Fargey of Bowsman made scheduled trips by train up the Hudson Bay line to attend people along the route. (see Hospitals and Medical Care) Trains were used frequently to transport seriously ill people to hospital.

Crews at times performed extra services beyond the call of duty, being extremely sociable while going about it. The Harvey family lived close to the railroad near Durban. They had their daily paper dropped off as the train went by. Their little dog was trained to pick up the paper and bring it to the house. In return for this service, Mrs. Harvey cooked Christmas dinner, and gave it to them as they passed by. The famed “Boomer Johnston” was so sociable that he would occasionally hop off the train for a visit as it passed the homestead of his friend Jim Mills, near Kenville. The train would be sent up the line to Benito in charge of the brakeman and fireman. On its return later in the day, the train would slow down at Mills’ place to allow Boomer to hop aboard once more.

Farguharson’s “Histry of Canada” it says “the reasons there were two railroads in Canada was that construction began on each coast and they missed each other.”

Railways and their services have changed a great deal in our time. In the changing, some things were gained but much was also lost.