Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Building of a Railroad

Building the CPR across the prairies (Source:  Minnesota History Society)Rapid Construction Of The Canadian Pacific Railway
By E.T. Abbott, Member of the Engineers' Club of Minnesota. December 12, 1884.

During the winter of 1881 and 1882, the contract was let to Messrs. Langdon, Sheppard & Co., of Minneapolis, to construct during the working season of the latter year, or prior to January 1, 1883, 500 miles of railroad on the western extension of the above company; the contract being for the grading, bridging, track-laying, and surfacing, also including the laying of the necessary depot sidings and their grading. The idea that any such amount of road could be built in that country in that time was looked upon by the writer hereof, as well as by railroad men generally, as a huge joke, perpetrated to gull the Canadians. At the time the contract was let, the Canadian Pacific Railway was in operation to Brandon, the crossing of the Assiniboine River, 132 miles west of Winnipeg. The track was laid, however, to a point about 50 miles west of this, and the grading done generally in an unfinished state for thirty miles further. This was the condition of things when the contract was entered into to build 500 miles - the east end of the 500-mile contract being at Station 4,660 (Station 0 being at Brandon) and extending west to a few miles beyond the Saskatchewan River.

The spring of 1882 opened in the most unpromising manner for railroad operations, being the wettest ever known in that country. Traffic over the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad, between St. Paul and Winnipeg, was entirely suspended from April 15 to the 28th, owing to the floods on the Red River at St. Vincent and Emerson, a serious blow to an early start, as on this single track depended the transportation of all supplies, men, timber, and contractors' plant, together with all track materials (except ties), all of these things having to come from or through St. Paul and Minneapolis. The writer hereof was appointed a division engineer, and reported at Winnipeg the 15th of April, getting through on the last train before the St. Vincent flood. No sooner was the line open from St. Paul to Winnipeg than the cotillion opened between Winnipeg and Brandon, with a succession of washouts that defied and defeated all efforts to get trains over, so it was not until the fifth day of May that I left Winnipeg to take charge of the second division of 30 miles.

By extremely "dizzy" speed I was landed at the end of the track, 180 miles from Winnipeg, on the evening of the 9th (4 days). My outfit consisted of three assistant engineers and the necessary paraphernalia for three complete camps, 30 days' provisions (which turned out to be about 20), 11 carts and ponies, the latter being extremely poor after a winter's diet on buffalo grass and no grain. On the 18th day of May I had my division organized and camps in running order. The country was literally under water, dry ground being the exception, and I look upon the feat of getting across the country at all as the engineering triumph of my life.

On May 20 a genuine blizzard set in, lasting 24 hours, snowed five inches, and froze the sloughs over with half an inch of ice, a decidedly interesting event to the writer, as he was 18 miles from the nearest wood, therefore lay in his blankets and ate hard tack. I stabled my ponies in the cook tent, and after they had literally eaten of the sod inside the tent, I divided my floor with them.

On 28th day of May I saw the first contractor, who broke ground at station 7,150. On the 1st of June I was relieved from this division, and ordered to take the next, 50 miles west. On the 13th day of June ground was broken on this division, at station 8,070, or only about 62 miles west of the east end of the 500-mile contract. It looked at this time as though they might build 150 miles, but not more. But from this time on very rapid progress was made. On July 17 the track reached station 7,000, making however up to this time but about 50 miles of track-laying, including that laid on the old grade; but large forces were put on to surfacing, and the track already laid was put in excellent condition for getting material to the front. The weather from this until the freezing-up was all that could be desired. Work ceased about the 1st of January, 1883, for the season, and the final estimate for the work was as follows: 6,103,986 cubic yards earth excavation, 2,395,750 feet B.M. timber in bridges and the culverts, 85,708 lineal feet piling, 435 miles of track-laying. This work was all done in 182 working days, including stormy ones, when little, if anything, could be done, making a daily average of 33,548 yards excavation, 13,150 feet B.M. timber, 471 feet piling, 2-38/100 miles track-laying. We never had an accurate force report made of the whole line, but roughly there were employed 5,000 men and 1,700 teams.

The admirable organization of the contractors was something wonderful. The grading work was practically all done by sub-contractors, Messrs. Langdon, Sheppard & Co. confining themselves to putting in the supplies and doing the bridge work, surfacing, and track-laying. The grading forces were scattered along about 150 miles ahead of the track and supply stores, established about 50 miles apart, and in no case were sub-contractors expected to haul supplies over 100 miles. If I remember rightly, there were four trains of about forty wagons each, hauling supplies from the end of track to the stores.

As can be readily seen, the vital point of the whole work, and the problem to solve, was food for men and horses. 1,700 bushels of oats every day and 15,000 pounds of provisions, Sundays and all, for an entire season, which at the beginning of the work had to come about 170 miles by rail, and then be taken from 50 to 150 miles by teams across a wilderness, is on the face of it considerable of an undertaking, to say nothing about hauling the pile-drivers, piles, and bridge-timber there. To keep from delaying the track, sidings 1,500 feet long were graded, about 7 miles apart. A side-track crew, together with an engine, four flats, and caboose, were always in readiness; and as soon as a siding was reached, in five hours the switches would be in, and the next day it would be surfaced and all in working order, when the operating department would fill it with track material and supplies. From the head of the siding to the end of the track the ground was in hands of track-laying engine, never going back of the last siding for supplies or material, and my recollection is that there were but six hours' delay to the track from lack of material the whole season, at any rate up to some time in November. The track-laying crew was equal to 4 miles per day, and in the month of August 92 miles of track were laid.

The ties were cut on the line of the road about 100 miles east of Winnipeg, so the shortest distance any ties were hauled was 270 miles; the actual daily burden of the single track from Winnipeg west was 24 cars steel, 24 cars ties, aside from the transportation of grain and provisions, bridge material, and lumber for station houses. The station buildings were kept right up by the company itself, and a depot built with rooms for the agent every 15 miles, or at every second siding. The importance of keeping the buildings up with the track was impressed on the mind of the superintendent of this branch, and, as a satire, he telegraphed asking permission to haul his stuff ahead of the track by teams, he being on the track-layers' heels with his stations and tanks the whole season. The telegraph line was also built, and kept right up to the end of the track, three or four miles being the furthest they were at any time behind.

It might be supposed that work done so rapidly would not be well done, but it is the best built prairie road I know of on this continent. It is built almost entirely free from cuts, and the work is at least 20 per cent. heavier than would ordinarily be made across the same country in the States, on account of snow. 2,640 ties were laid to the mile, and the track ballasting kept well up with the laying; so well, in fact, and so well done, that as 100 mile sections were completed schedule trains were put on 20 miles an hour, and the operating department had nothing to do but make a time table; the road was built by the construction department before the operating department was asked to take it. The engineering was organized in divisions of 30 miles each, and as each was finished the parties moved ahead again to the front, the engineers usually finding men sitting on their shovels waiting for the work to be laid out for them. It was as much as the locating parties could do to keep out of the way of the construction.

The roadbed was built 14 ft. wide in embankment and 20 in the very few cuts there were, there being no cuts of any moment except through the Coteaus and the Saskatchewan crossing, and these have since been widened out on account of snow, so that the road can be operated the year round and the bucking-snow account cut no figure in the operating expenses.

The country is a virgin desert. From Winnipeg to the Pacific Ocean there are a few places that might attain to the dignity of an oasis - at Brandon, Portage la Prairie, etc. - but it is generally what I should call worthless; 100 miles to wood and 100 feet to water was the general experience west of the Moose jaw, and the months of June, July, and August are the only three in the year that it is safe to bet you will not have sleighing. I burned wood and used stakes that were hauled by carts 85 miles, and none any nearer. It is a matter of some pride that both the engineering and the construction were done by what our Canadian neighbors kindly termed "Yankee importations." However, there was one thing that in the building of this road was in marked contrast to any other Pacific road ever constructed, that is, there was no lawlessness, no whisky, and not even a knock-down fight that I ever heard of the whole season, and even in the midst of 12,000 Indians, all armed with Winchester rifles and plenty of ammunition, not one of the locating or construction parties ever had a military escort, nor were any depredations ever committed, except the running off of a few horses, which were usually recovered; and I think there were but two fatal accidents during the season, one man killed on the Grand Coulee Bridge, and another from being kicked by a horse.

The track was all laid from one end, and in no case were rails hauled ahead by teams. Two iron cars were used, the empty returning one being turned up beside the track to let the loaded one by.

The feat in rapid construction accomplished by this company will never be duplicated, done as it was by a reckless expenditure of money, the orders to the engineers being to get there regardless of expense and horse-flesh; if you killed a horse by hard driving, his harness would fit another, and there was no scrutiny bestowed on vouchers when the work was done; and I must pay the tribute to the company to say that everything that money would buy was sent to make the engineers comfortable. It was bad enough at best, and the Chief Engineer (J.C. James) rightly considered that any expense bestowed on the engineering part of the work was a good investment.

(This link/story was sent to me by William Ash...)