Making tracks

🕔Jan 29, 2009

April 7, 1914 was a warm sunny day in northern British Columbia. People traveled along the muddy spring trails, some on foot, some in wagons and some on horseback. They were going to Fort Fraser for the last spike ceremony, marking the completion of Canada’s second transcontinental railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.
Ten years earlier in March of 1904, the first president of the GTP, Charles Hays, stood before a meeting of shareholders and preached the advantages of a northern rail route like only an optimistic visionary could. Hays said the railway would open up the north, providing access to mineral wealth, large stands of timber and the agricultural potential of the land. He believed investing in the prospective townsites would be wise, as the railway would encourage settlement and travel among the new towns. The envisioned crowds of eager settlers needed a way to travel and an efficient way to transport their goods, and the GTP was the answer. Hays was especially fond of the planned city of Prince Rupert, which he said would quickly grow from barren land into a port metropolis to rival Vancouver.

The most difficult railroad
The board of directors believed in Charles Hays and construction began on the prairie section of the railway in 1905. By 1908 construction had pushed westward to Edmonton. The crews made good progress and crossed from Alberta into BC in November of 1911. Over the next three years they built onward, to and through the newly established city of Prince George.
Construction began eastward from the terminus of Prince Rupert in 1908. This piece of the railway, from Prince Rupert to Hazelton, proved to be the most difficult section of track ever laid in North America.
Railway construction along the Skeena River was very challenging and slow. The rail bed was situated between the rising and falling Skeena River on one side and massive rock mountains on the other. Over 12 million pounds of explosives were needed to build the 80-mile section of track between Rupert and Kitselas Canyon. A substantial amount of rock was blasted away to create the rail grade and build tunnels, three of which are 400, 700 and 1,100 feet long. There were many bridges built over temperamental streams and creeks. Bridges that took many men years to build now take just a few seconds to cross. Snow slides, rockslides, floods and tunnel collapses resulted in fatalities and narrow escapes. The rough terrain and challenging work continually set back construction schedules.
Work camps were established every two miles along the route. Food and shelter and even medical services varied according to which sub-contractor was in charge of the camp, and how financially supported he was by Foley, Welch and Stewart, the main contractors for the GTP. Foley, Welch and Stewart struggled to retain workers. For every man arriving in a camp, at least one was leaving. Wages of $2.50 to $3.75 per day for eight to ten hours’ work were simply not competitive enough to retain most workers. The workers of the day referred to the F.W. and S. Company as “Fool’em, Work’em and Starve’em”.

Supplying the camps
Newspaper accounts during this time point to inadequate camp conditions, shortages of food, supplies and equipment. One camp was described as having bunkhouses “…so filthy even a self-respecting pig would refuse to die in them.” All camps on the western end faced the challenge of importing their supplies by stern-wheeler from Prince Rupert; they were all at the mercy of changing water river levels of the Skeena. Goods would be ordered for camp and a wait of months was not unusual. Some goods were transported over the rough track to the end of the rails, then hauled by man or horse upriver to the various camps.
The Grand Trunk Pacific and Foley, Welch and Stewart had five sternwheelers operating on the Skeena River between Prince Rupert and Hazelton. They were named the Operator, the Conveyor, the Port Simpson, the Distributor and the Skeena. These paddleboats were dedicated to hauling freight to the end of steel and the construction camps beyond. Tens of thousands of tons of railway construction materials and camp supplies were brought upriver this way, fighting through rapids and canyons with names like Hornet’s Nest, Devil’s Elbow, and Whirly Gig. First Nations men, who knew the Skeena best, worked on some of the sternwheelers securing towropes to ringbolts and restocking the boats with wood for the engine.
Due to a continual shortage of workers, labour disputes, extreme conditions and very challenging terrain, the rails didn’t reach Hazelton until 1912, four years after construction began in Prince Rupert.
At the same time the tracks were being laid over the newly constructed Skeena Crossing bridge, in April, 1912, Charles Hays was one of the unfortunate passengers on the Titanic and drowned at sea. The death of the GTP president was a blow to the company; he was the stubborn visionary for the railway’s ‘mountain section.’ But the work continued.
With the Skeena River behind them, the workers progressed eastward with contracts being let in sections all along the proposed line. The rail grade was built, rocks moved, creeks and rivers crossed, and cuts filled. Goods traveled along First Nations trails and rough wagon roads to the various camps or along the rough track to the end of steel. Roadhouses and ranches were scattered throughout the area. Camp conditions improved with easier access to the pioneer communities of Hazelton and Aldermere, the newly established village of Telkwa, and the soon-to-be town of Smithers.
Progress was steady eastward past Barrett Ranch and along the new settlements of Decker Lake and Burns Lake. The end of steel had neared Fort Fraser by April of 1914.

The race for the finish
On April 6, R.A. Harlow, an engineer on various contracts through the Bulkley Valley section, had knelt in the mud and marked the designated point of completion. An equal distance was measured on either side, and the track-laying teams from the east and the west were shown their starting marks for the race to the point of the last spike.
The next day, April 7, people traveled from all around to see the last spike ceremony of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. A train came from the west with prominent passengers and railway officials, and another arrived from the east with chairmen, head engineers, board commissioners, and managers of the GTP.
Officials in crisp black suits stood in the mud amidst the melting snow. Behind them stood rows of working men in overalls, watching the crews as they feverishly laid the tracks for the last section of the railway. The two teams raced towards each other; it was the team from the east that finally won.
Short rails were cut and secured in place to bridge the gap, and GTP President Edson Chamberlain drove the last spike in Canada’s second transcontinental railway. At a cost of $112,000 per mile, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was complete.
Mr. Chamberlain then presented a gold watch to each of the two men in charge of track laying, and R.A. Harlow painted “Point of Completion, April 7th, 1914” on the last rail. The rail was later taken up, sliced into paperweights, engraved, and given to GTP officials.
The main line was cleared of work trains and the president’s train, with seven coaches and a dining car and decorated with ribbons, headed for Prince Rupert. This was the first train to cross the newly completed line. The Interior News reported that it swept along the line “like a giant meteor with rainbow trimmings.”
Despite shortages of workers, obstacles of terrain and tragedies, the Grand Trunk Pacific railway had been completed, and the vision of deceased GTP president Charles Hays was realized.