Press tour of 1882 — rapid construction of rail line across prairie called a feat never to be duplicated

by Bruce Cherney (part 5)
When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) decided to erect its station at Regina, the company claimed its own chunk of land, leaving the acreage owned by the North West Territories’ Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney and his syndicate outside the sections the railway controlled. Government House and the North West Mounted Police (NWMP, later RCMP) barracks were also outside the CPR claim. 
“Not only did the railway determine the actual location of the townsite, but as one of the largest landowners at Regina, its plans and decisions were to profoundly influence the street layout and the general location of the city’s commercial and residential areas” (Regina Before Yesterday: A Visual History 1882 to 1945, edited by J. William Brannan).
After Regina, the Canadian Press Association excursionists arrived at a siding about 22 kilometres west of the new capital. In one of the more inspired moments of the CPR courting the goodwill of the press, Egan announced that the station at the siding was to be named Pense in honour of the president of the Canadian Press Association. To commemorate the event, a bottle of champagne was popped open.
In A History of Canadian Journalism, 1908, David Creighton, who took part in the 1882 tour, also told the story of meeting a Cree woman near “End of Track” carrying a newborn in a papoose, and “an impromptu ceremony was got up to name the baby Climie Pense,” after W.R. Climie, the secretary of the press association, and Edward J.B. Pense, its president. It was another example of courting the goodwill of the press, which, of course, was the point of the tour sponsored by the CPR.
Major James “Bob” Walsh of the NWMP entered the baby’s new name “in the books of the Indian Department” (Manitoba Free Press, September 1, 1882).
According to the Free Press reporter who witnessed the christening, the mother was “made rich by the collection taken up by the excursionists.”
At End of Track, near the newly-named community of Pense, “ties and rails were being laid so rapidly that the excursionists had to walk briskly in order to pass ahead of the workmen.”
William Cornelius Van Horne, the American railway man who arrived in Winnipeg in January 1882, had promised that the CPR would build 800 kilometres (500 miles) of main line tracks and 260 kilometres of branch line tracks in the coming months, and it was a promise he intended to keep. A year earlier only 268 kilometres of track had been laid across the prairie from Winnipeg to Flat Creek (now Oakbank, Manitoba).
Van Horne had an ace up his sleeve as he knew of a U.S.-based company noted for its success in laying extensive lengths of track. A contract was signed on March 1, 1882, with Langdon, Sheppard & Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, which was willing to attempt to meet Van Horne’s objective.
In order to achieve his goal, Van Horne transformed Winnipeg “in that early spring of 1882 into a gigantic supply depot,” wrote Pierre Berton in The Impossible Railway: The Building of the Canadian Pacific — A triumphant Saga of Exploration, Politics, High Finance and Adventure. “Stone began to pour in from every available quarry, railroad ties from the Lake of the Woods, lumber from Minnesota, and rails from England and from the Krupp works in Germany ... Van Horne had the steel shipped to New York and New Orleans and dispatched to Manitoba by way of St. Paul ... As fast as the supplies arrived they were hauled away to the end of track.”
The need for speed was also essential to the CPR’s bottom line, as the federal government only handed out a portion of its $25-million subsidy to the railway company upon the completion of each 32-kilometre (20-mile) section of track. And when tracks were in use by trains, freight and passenger profits also flowed into the CPR’s coffers.
The only problem for the contractors was a long delay caused by a devastating flood in Manitoba that April in the Assiniboine River and Red River valleys.  Another delay was caused by a blizzard in May, which added more moisture to already soggy ground. Until new supplies could be brought up from Winnipeg, construction began at Flat Creek using materials that were already on hand from the previous track building season. It wasn’t until the end of June that material from Winnipeg could be transported to the railway construction  gangs. 
Once the water subsided, Van Horne journeyed down the line to ensure that the contractors and workers were building the tracks at the tempo he had earlier announced. 
R.K. Kerrigan, a Winnipeg Daily Sun columnist, referred to Van Horne as “the terror of Flat Krick (slang for Flat Creek). He shakes them up like an earthquake, and they are as frightened of him as if he were old Nick himself.”
In the end, the floods in the spring conspired against Van Horne’s promise, but 671 kilometres of completed track were laid as was 45 kilometres of siding and another 29 kilometres was graded in preparation for the following construction season. In addition, 160 kilometres of track for the Southwestern branch line of the CPR in Manitoba was laid. Van Horne had been ever so close to achieving his objective.
E.T. Abbott, an American engineer hired by Langdon, Sheppard & Company, who took part in the construction of the rail line in 1882, said: “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 of 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 tribute to the company to say that everything money would buy was sent to make the engineers comfortable” (American Contract Journal, March 28, 1885).
Despite his later praise, when Abbott first arrived at Flat Creek in May 1882, he was among the sceptics who believed it was impossible to build 800 kilometres of track that year. He, similar to “railroad men in general,” regarded Van Horne’s promise as a “huge joke, perpetrated to gull the Canadians.”
But it was no joke and when the press tour arrived at End of Track, they witnessed methodical and well-drilled gangs of workmen grading and laying tracks.
“To any one who has never seen the work performed  in the systemized manner now approved of, the pace kept up would seem almost incredible,” wrote the Free Press correspondent travelling with  the press association tour. “A number of teams are busily drawing ties from the flat cars in the rear of the construction train, the ties being kept laid some distance ahead of the iron. To convey the rails, bolts, &c., from the construction train, which is kept as near the end of the track as possible, a lorrie is quickly loaded with iron from the front of the train and drawn by horses, canal-boat fashion to the very end of the rails already laid. 
“Here each man springs to execute his appointed task, no one ever getting in another’s way. Two men on each side of the lorrie pull a rail out into position, and even before the load is stopped at the end of rail previously laid, four others have taken hold of these loosened rails and let them fall deftly into the right position on the ties. The outer ends of these rails are then held in place by a gauge, and the lorrie is immediately drawn to this new terminus, where the operation is repeated. At the same time fish-plates, bolts, spikes and paper washers are being distributed in their places. Then along come men with wrenches who fasten on the plates with wonderful rapidity. Following those come the spikers, each pair of them spiking on certain ties and missing certain others. They leave the track in readiness for the surfacers and ballasters, who are not far behind.”
One observer commented that each man knew his exact place in the gang and did his work “at the right time and in the right way.”
At the time, the construction crews were laying an average of 6.4 kilometres (four miles) of track each day across the prairie.
According to Creighton, the navvies (railroad labourers) took a break and let each association member drive home a spike. “It is to the credit of the newspaper men that they put the spikes in good and tight, and though over a quarter of a century has passed there has never been any trouble from loose rails at that point.”
On the return trip to Winnipeg, the excursionists stopped again at Broadview, where the only building was the CPR’s railway station. Creighton related that the railway staff “had liberally spread a table in the wilderness, and under a mammoth tent, brought for the occasion, gave a banquet which still lives in the memory of those who participated in it.”
After the Broadview picnic, the tour stopped at Brandon, the first town on the prairies specifically established by the CPR. The railway had intended to cross the Assiniboine River at Grand Valley, but a dispute arose over the amount to be paid for the townsite.
Grand Valley was established by Dugald and John McVicar in 1879, when a town grew around their original 160-acre homestead. Toward the end of April 1881, Maj.-Gen. Thomas L. Rosser, a Virginian who was the chief engineer for the CPR, visited the McVicars offering the brothers $50,000 for their land (the amount offered varies in other accounts and includes a low of $25,000). 
But so-called friends of John McVicar told him to hold out for $60,000. The homesteader refused Rosser’s purchase price and asked for $50,000 down and a half interest in the future sale of lots.
A frustrated Rosser was said to have commented, “I’ll be damned if a town of any kind is built here.”
Rosser then moved the townsite three kilometres west to the present site of Brandon, which he purchased for a pittance compared to the Grand Valley offer, setting the policy that was continued whenever the CPR created new townsites.
The railway reached Brandon from Portage la Prairie within weeks of Rosser’s purchase in April 1881, but the first official passenger train didn’t arrive in the community until October 11. 
Brandon grew so rapidly that it was incorporated as a city on May 30, 1882. It started out as a city, although it boasted just 1,500 residents, because it was discovered that a charter for the more lofty status cost just as much as one for incorporation as a town. And at the time, there was no population requirement in Manitoba to declare a community a city.
At 9 a.m., the excursionists were taken to Brandon city hall where they were addressed by Mayor Thomas Mayne Daly, who mentioned that public opinion was a factor in the development of the community and that it was fortunate that so many journalists were visiting. Their presence would have the beneficial effect of “extending a more perfect knowledge of Manitoba and the North-West” (Free Press, September 2, 1882).
He hoped that when the party returned home, “you will not forget your friends in the city of Brandon.”
With the end of the speeches, the members of the press association were given a carriage ride through the young city.
“A pardonable pride is taken by the people of the western metropolis in the wonderful growth of their city,” commented the Free Press.
At the time of the press tour, Brandon’s population had in the space of a few months swelled to 3,000 people.
“Every member of the excursion party had to yield to the conviction that the people of Brandon had a future in store for them as prosperous as their hospitality.”
(Next week: part 6)