Harvest Excursions — army of farm labourers board trains to invade prairie wheatfields

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The first of four trains scheduled to arrive at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Winnipeg from St. John’s, New Brunswick, was late. The train had been slated to pull into the Higgins Avenue depot at 5:30, followed by the other three trains entering the terminal at 6:30, 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Aboard the four trains were hundreds of Maritimers, including 800 on the first train, who were coming to help bring in Manitoba’s 1901 wheat harvest. The failure of the “Harvest Excursion” to show up at its designated time on August 15 wasn’t overly worrisome as these special trains were regularly shunted off to side rails to allow freight trains carrying valuable cargo to pass. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for Harvest Excursions to be delayed for hours, since freight trains took priority as the main money-makers for the CPR.
Eventually, news of a rail accident reached Winnipeg by telegraph which explained the delay. The news from Ingolf, Ontario, was relayed from the CPR’s telegraph office to general superintendent J.W. Leonard, who then issued a press release explaining that two men had been killed and others injured when the first of the four Harvest Excursion trains went off the tracks.
An update from Leonard later that evening said:” Extra West, with harvesters from the Maritime Provinces left track three miles east of Ingolf this evening; cause said to be rail breaking under the engine while train passing over it. Engine and five coaches derailed.”
“I was on the last of the nineteen coaches on the train ...,” eyewitness W.A. Dyson of Calgary told a Winnipeg Morning Telegram reporter. “We were getting along at a 35-mile (per hour) clip when we stopped with a jerk which threw almost everyone out of the seats.”
The fact that Dyson was in the 19th coach saved him from greater injury — only the engine, tender and the first five coaches went off the rails, plunging 40 feet down an embankment.
“The coaches were all packed, and how so many escaped serious injury is a marvel,” said Dyson.
Dyson and others stood by helplessly as Donald McKegan, a Cape Breton miner, was pinned under the wreckage. While the Maritimer was hopelessly trapped, the tank of the tender burst, sending a torrent of water in his direction.
“We tried to dig him out and three men were constantly bailing out the water in the hole in which he was embedded ... Hundreds of men gathered around him and tried to lift off the wreck. We could not budge it, and the poor fellow lay there slowly dying.”
At 7 o’clock in the evening, a wrecking train (designed to clear the tracks) was dispatched with three doctors aboard to tend to the injured. The train was ordered to rush to the scene of the derailment “as speedily as possible and to make no stops except those that were necessary to take (on) water (for the steam engine),” reported the Manitoba Free Press.
As the clearing outfit arrived on the scene at eight o’clock in the evening from Rat Portage (now Kenora), the “poor fellow” succumbed to his injuries.
During the period from 1890 to 1930, Harvest Excursions brought tens of thousands of labourers to Winnipeg’s railway depots from which they were transported to farms throughout Manitoba and Western Canada. The Harvest Excursions grew out of the CPR “Homeseeker Excursions,” which were earlier established to bring prospective settlers to the extensive Western Canada land grant ceded to the company by the federal government. Sales of the CPR land were expected to help pay for the cost of building the nation’s first trans-continental railroad. 
In 1890, CPR land commissioner Hamilton was reported in the August 4 Free Press as having come up with “an excellent scheme for the supplying the farmers in this province with harvesting hands this fall. His plan is to run an excursion for farm laboroers from Ontario at a nominal return trip fare.” 
Hamilton decided to fill empty seats in the homeseeker trains with farm labourers, resulting in the birth of the Harvest Excursions, which proved to be significantly more popular and profitable to the railway — tens of thousands of paying passengers were eager to harvest the grain upon with CPR freight traffic heavily depended upon, and many were willing to pay for and settle on CPR land.
The Free Press reported that the first Harvest Excursion, carrying about 100 men in four cars, departed Toronto on August 13, 1890.
The wreck at Ingolf was just one of many tragedies that would befall the harvesters. The increased volume of trains at harvest time added greatly to the odds of accidents occurring on the railway main lines.
The Daily Nor’Wester, another Winnipeg-based newspaper, reported on August 16, 1895, that two young Ontarians had fallen off a crowded train and been killed.
“It was almost impossible,” said one man aboard the train, “to make the trip without accidents. In the first place the cars are too full, and then the trains run right through without many stops, and when they would stop almost everybody would jump off together to catch a glimpse of the country. The train would start up quickly and there would be scrambling and tumbling to get back on again.”
On September 12, 1906, two trains — one from Toronto carrying harvesters — collided near Sudbury, Ontario, killing 11 men and injuring another 40.
The four trains from the Maritimes were said to be the first of an “army” of 2,534 harvesters from the region. The Free Press reported on August 15, 1901, that nearly 15,000 men had arrived or were leaving from the east to help with the harvest. But this was still not considered sufficient, as farmers located along branch lines in rural areas “are clamoring for more harvest help. The excursionists seem bent however on going to the terminus of the branch on which they are travelling, and though work at good wages could be secured by them at intermediate points they will not in many instances take the trouble to get off the train to meet the farmers desirous of securing hands.”
“Unlike many of the excursionists from Ontario points,” reported the Telegram, “they (the Maritimers) did not start out simply with the idea of looking over the country, but with the expressed purpose of making a ‘stake’ in the harvest fields, and if the country suited them, to take up land and settle permanently in the west.”
What was considered good for western wheat harvesting was disastrous for eastern industries. 
The fact miners were arriving in such great numbers was reported to have a detrimental effect on coal production in Nova Scotia.  The Free Press on October 16, 1906, said because Western Canada needed an extra few thousand men to help with the harvest, “the railroads came to the rescue, and such cheap rates were struck from points in the Maritime provinces that the young man used to hard work, and with a taste from travel, was induced to desert his employment and come west.”
The result of many young men arriving in the west from the Maritimes was a rise in coal prices due to the decrease in mine production.
Also adversely affected were the fishing, shipping and lumbering industries, since fewer men were available to work in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. “Fishing schooners lay at anchor, coast freighters remained docked while lumbermen had great difficulty in obtaining men to keep the pulp mills going ...”
Mine owners complained to the railroads, citing them to blame for the crisis in the Maritimes. But the railroads took no pity, replying that the crop had to be harvested “as to them it means much shipping of wheat (and more profits),” according to the Free Press report.
“Throughout the maritime provinces the farms are gradually falling into the hands of the old men while the younger sons are becoming prosperous homesteaders on the prairie lands.”
An August 13, 1906, Free Press editorial, said the number of harvesters arriving by train from Eastern Canada increased every year. “Not only are they required to assist with the crops, but when they see what others have done many of them become desirous of doing likewise and make haste to file their claims for homesteads.”
The same editorial said if the men did return east, they became “good advertising agents” for the opportunities available in Western Canada.
The annual excursions were an integral part of the harvest and were essential in an era when mechanization had not completely taken over western agriculture. In fact, harvesting the prairie wheat crop was labour intensive, since the only mechanized machinery available consisted of horse-drawn binders and steam-powered grain separators.
The short harvest season that ranged from mid-August to late-October required several times the labour  force needed during regular farming operations. Typically, a harvest crew consisted of about 20 to 40 men. 
Wheat was cut by binders pulled by horse teams. The sheaves of wheat tied by the binders fell to the ground and were stood on end by the harvesters into stooks of between six to eight sheaves. The stooks were then collected and piled into horse-drawn racks and taken to a threshing site where a steam-powered separator was used to separate grain from the straw. The straw byproduct was used to either provide fuel for the steam engine or as livestock feed or bedding.
Once the grain was separated, it was taken by wagon to the farmyard for storage in bins until it was time to deliver the wheat to the rail terminal for shipment to market.
In 1890, the first year of the Harvest Excursions, 2,175 tickets were issued to farm labourers from Eastern Canada.
By 1891, the number of tickets sold jumped to 11,004 and by 1912, the total number of tickets sold hit 26,500.
The Manitoba department of agriculture called the Harvest Excursions the “greatest movement of labouring men witnessed in the Dominion.”
An excursion ticket aboard a Canadian Northern Railway, Grand Trunk Railway or CPR train was usually half the regular passenger fare and could be as low as $10 for a round-trip — the fares jumped to $20 and then $25 in later years. To obtain a cheap return fare, a harvester first received a certificate in Eastern Canada signed by a Manitoba government agent. The certificate was later signed by a Western Canadian farmer who verified that the labourer had worked at the harvest for at least a month.
The railways maintained an interest in the excursions because of their immense land holdings, especially the CPR’s. Advertising cheap rates and the bounty of the West provided railways with the opportunity to sell land to potential settlers. As the first railway to link east with west, it was the CPR which originated the concept of Harvest Excursions, even advertising as far aboard as Europe in order to expand the pool of potential settlers.
Charles Baker saw a CPR Harvest Excursion advertisement in Somerset, England, and booked passage to work in Hanna, Alberta, where he and four friends from England were “treated as part of the family.” Baker returned to England, but two years later permanently moved to Canada.
Since settlers were so important to the CPR, a land commissioner was sent east to organize with government agents from the prairies the transportation of the number of harvesters required.
Even Manitoba-based Dominion Immigration Commissioner William Forsythe McCreary, a former Winnipeg alderman and mayor in 1897, took an active interest in harvesters coming to the province. He kept a file of the applications from Manitoba farmers specifying their requirements for help during the harvest.
An article in the August 9, 1897, Free Press, quoted McCreary as saying that the applications received were unlikely to be the final total of harvesters required as reports to the Manitoba department of agriculture were indicating a more than average crop. “Farmers have been offering limited wages up to date, but the smaller number of unemployed will have a tendency to increase compensation to harvest hands this season.” 
The August 18, 1903, Free Press reported that the “excursions are of tremendous  importance to the country outside of the assistance they give in the rush of harvesting, for they afford to the easterner an opportunity to come out and view the land and view it at its best.”
The newspaper claimed two-thirds of the excursions returned to the West “in a short time to settle permanently. Thousands of prosperous farmers from Winnipeg to the Rockies can look back to their first visit to the country on a harvest excursion.”
But not everyone signing on for the excursions was interested in taking up farming. On August 16, 1895, the Daily Nor’Wester reported that many so-called harvesters arrived in Winnipeg who simply wanted to take advantage of the low fares to visit relatives, while others were seeking different employment opportunities.
To keep people receiving a cheap ticket from getting off before arriving at the prairie wheatfields, a circular was issued in 1902 to CPR agents stating that “all tickets must read to Winnipeg,” and each ticket purchaser was given a farm labourer’s certificate “with an extension coupon attached.”
Besides the later prospect of acquiring land, the original lure for harvesters from Eastern Canada was the high wages, which were often more than double those offered in Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes.
Although fewer in number, some harvesters came from the United States, who were also attracted by the high wages.
Bob Yates, a young excursionist from the U.S., said “harvesters constitute a race of their own ... Every walk of life is represented in a heterogeneous melee.”
J.J. Golden, a Manitoba government immigration agent for the department of agriculture (due to the importance of wheat to the province, the department handled immigration to the province), said labourers paid by the day received from $1.25 to $1.50 in 1902, “when paid by the month $26 to $30, with board in both cases.”
It was up to the harvesters to negotiate with farmers to be paid either by the day or the month for their labour, but always board was included.
Howard Stoner, a native of Cayuga, Ontario, worked on a Manitoba farm for $2.50 a day in 1908. By the 1920s, farm labourers were said to be making $6 or $7 a day.
The high wages more than made up for the discomfort and long travel time the harvesters experienced as they travelled westward. From the Maritimes, it took seven days to arrive in Winnipeg. To cram as many harvesters as possible into trains, colonist cars with wooden benches were employed and the men were seated two-facing-two. At night, the opposing seats were made into a double bed with the other two men sleeping in an overhead bunk.
One American, who arrived in Winnipeg after enduring a trek aboard a 1901 train filled with excursionists, while elbowing his way through the throng on the station platform was overheard to say: “You can’t conceive what that three-day journey was like. Why, if there had been another man to stow away, I verily believe a trained stevedore would have had to be employed to do it.”
The harvesters can be credited with helping make wheat “king” in the West. Without their labour, it would have been impossible for Manitoba and Western Canada to have expanded so greatly during the era.
Their labour also allowed Winnipeg to become a major player in wheat marketing, leading to the establishment of such well-known international grain companies as James Richardson & Sons. Early Winnipeg grain merchant Nicholas Bawlf played a key role in the founding of the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange (now the Winnipeg Grain Exchange) in 1887. He was president of the exchange in 1890 and 1897, and leased space in his Market Square building for the first “Grain Exchange Building” in Winnipeg.
By 1890, the various companies — called line companies or “syndicates” — had erected 103 grain elevators and 192 warehouses at 63 points in Manitoba and the West. By 1899, there were 410 elevators and 116 warehouses at 192 delivery points.
“The immensity of the Canadian (and Manitoban) debt to ‘king wheat’ cannot be measured,” wrote Fred McGinnis in Manitoba 125: A History. “Those golden kernels turned an agricultural frontier into a prosperous society; they fed so many millions around the globe that the Prairies became known as the ‘Breadbasket of the Empire.’ They made it possible for the Manitoba economy to shift quickly and painlessly from the fur trade to wheat.”
(Next week: part 2)