Battle of Fort Whyte — confrontation was at site where Portage extension crossed CPR tracks

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

It was reported that William Whyte had gone to the Canadian Pacific Railway shops in Winnipeg to recruit the special constables, and that anyone who refused had been told they would be fired. About 250 men were enlisted for the “battle,” each receiving double pay for their time away from their regular jobs. The Free Press said the majority of the men were “unwilling” recruits.

“There was telegraphic communication from the car with the city, and the main telegraph line of the company, and Mr. (William) Whyte (the superintendent for the CPR’s western operations) was keeping the operator busily at work, communicating no doubt with Mr. (William Cornelius) Van Horne (the CPR president), the instigator of the trouble, who was keeping his own precious carcass out of danger.”

When the two forces met at the crossing 10 kilometres west of Winnipeg at Fort Whyte, there was evidently a lot of friendly greeting as each side recognized friends and acquaintances. The Free Press said the CPR men had no interest in fighting the other side, as “they recognized their interests were all in favour of the crossing of the track by the Northern Pacific, but their bread and butter depended upon their presence there ... The citizens on the other hand meant business; not even in the face of the large force did they show any signs of weakness.”

Besides Manitoba Provincial Police Chief J.M. Clark, his special constables and a handful of Winnipeg police under Chief John McRae, every member of the provincial cabinet, including Premier Thomas Greenway, had shown up at the scene of the showdown, as did Winnipeg Mayor Lyman Melvin Jones, who was also the provincial treasurer in the Greenway government.

“It was an extraordinary and unprecedented thing to see cabinet ministers and the mayor of a city leading an armed mob in an attempt to seize the property of a railway corporation,” Whyte remarked in a Free Press interview. 

Whyte claimed any bloodshed that might result would be the responsibility of the Winnipeg mob, whom he said carried revolvers and guns while the CPR force did not carry such weapons.

Months later, when the provincial government was introducing a railway crossing bill in the legislature, Greenway said he was not ashamed of being at Fort Whyte during the height of the crisis. While there, Greenway claimed he possessed neither a revolver nor an axe handle. The point of his presence was to see first-hand whether the CPR intended to resist the government by force, he added.

“The first thing that Chief Clark did was to serve notice on all the Canadian Pacific police that their appointment as provincial police had been cancelled. They were promptly sworn in again as special constables by Mr. T. Nixon ( a local magistrate).

“The outlook was decidedly ominous. Nearly two hundred men were standing around on the dump with their hands in their pockets, awaiting the arrival of the track-laying before making an assault on the enemy’s camp; while a still larger force sat in the cars of the Canadian Pacific line ready to repel such an attack.”

While the opposing forces waited, CPR officials sent a dispatch to Winnipeg requesting the presence of the militia.

“The Mounted infantry were ready to start, the ambulance corps and everything being ready, when word came that their presence would not be required on that day.”

The Free Press reported that the slowness of the Northern Pacific track-laying gang had averted bloodshed. By six o’clock that evening, the gang was still nearly a kilometre from the crossing and distance to the crossing could not be spanned until well after dark.

As the gang approached, the CPR workers attached hoses to the engines with the apparent purpose of bathing their opposition in scalding steam.

Without the track reaching the crossing, there was little reason to fight, and the Northern Pacific constables and track-layers boarded cars to return to Winnipeg. At the Water Avenue station, the arrivals were greeted as valiant warriors. The temporary Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad station was located on 20 acres of land the railway company owned on the Hudson’s Bay Flats, the beginning of the railway yards that would later be known as the CN East Yards in what is today called The Forks. All that remains from the early years is the NP&MR repair shop, built in 1889 and the oldest surviving railway repair facility in Manitoba, which now houses the Manitoba Children’s Museum. 

In the press, the efforts to block the track-laying gang had earned the crossing, where the new diamond was to suppose to be built, the name “Fort Whyte,” after the CPR man in charge.

The next day in Winnipeg, “everyone condemned unreservedly the conduct of the Canadian Pacific in taking advantage of a miserable technicality in order to block for this year the development of a competing railway line ...”

The blame for the incident was focussed on Van Horne, while “no one believed” local CPR officials had anything to do with the problems at the crossing. The Free Press referred to Van Horne as an “autocrat.”

Whyte later told a newspaper reporter that provincial rights were not being violated by the CPR, insisting the problem at the crossing was only a matter of law with the CPR having the power of the courts supporting their cause.

On Sunday, “the scene of war” at the crossing was peaceful. The CPR   still had about 350 special constables in place, but the track on the Portage extension proceeded without incident until work was ordered to be stopped as a result of legal action.

On Monday morning, CPR lawyers appeared before Manitoba Chief Justice Thomas Taylor seeking an interim injunction to stop the work on the Portage line, which was granted. On October 24, it was ruled that the injunction should continue indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Whyte heard that a Northern Pacific diamond had been built across the line controlled by the CPR at Headingly, so he rushed men and equipment to the scene in a special train and the diamond was removed. Another special train with Whyte aboard proceeded to Morris to prevent the construction of another diamond for the Brandon extension.

For days, both sides prepared for the worst at Fort Whyte, the name the CPR “christened the point where the Southwestern and the Portage extension crosses” (November 1, 1888, Manitoba Free Press).

The same newspaper reported a crew of 20 horse teams and 50 men arrived on the scene from Morris where they had finished grading the first 36 kilometres of the Brandon extension of the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway line.

“The new ascension of men scared the CPR forces and it has been rumoured around them that there was to be an attack made on them during the coming night.”

Further rumours spread that the CPR intended to tear up kilometres of track laid for the Portage extension.

In fact, track-layers for the Portage extension avoided the actual construction of the diamond, but laid the line from Winnipeg within about half a metre of the CPR track and then proceeded to the other side of the CPR track to lay more track towards Portage la Prairie.

On the afternoon of October 31, the CPR’s E.P. Leacock rode to the scene with a company from the Mounted Infantry (militia) school, “and with the practiced eye of the great general he saw the enemy making arrangements which he considered threatening to the CPR. So in the gathering gloom of the night Mr. Leacock spurred his horse along the highway running along the south bank of the Assiniboine. He was after the military. Upon reaching Fort Osborne the alarm was sounded, and forty-five members of the school turned out, mounted their horses and moved across the Osborne Street Bridge and across the prairies to the scene of the trouble, Major-General Leacock leading them.”

Of course, calling Leacock a major-general was meant to be highly sarcastic, as was referring to Whyte as a “generalissimo.”

“About half-past eight the Northern Pacific began to back a train of flat-cars down their line towards the CPR to prevent it (the line) from tampering with, and the CPR thinking perhaps they intended to run some of cars across their track, placed an engine in the way.”

The NP flat-cars carried too much momentum and struck the CPR engine with considerable force, according to the Free Press.

“There were a good many men standing around and it is possible that there might have been a lively scrap, but while the men were threatening one another Mr. Leacock ... (came) ... in sight with his forces, and again peace brooded over the camp.”

Hearing the news, the NP sent out MPP Chief Clark and other officials on a special train to investigate. Panicked, Leacock again fled to the city to enlist additional militia. He soon returned with more troops commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Villiers.

“A Free Press representative visited ‘Fort Whyte’ at 2 o-clock this morning (November 1). The glare of three engines could be seen a couple of miles off, but no sharp fusillade of rifles announced the beginnings of hostilities.”

The reporter also observed a train of CPR coaches filled with troops blocking the CPR line where the road allowance for the Portage extension crossed the track. On a spur track rested another CPR engine with cars holding some 300 men enlisted from the CPR shops in Winnipeg. On the Portage extension, to within centimetres of the CPR engine was a Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad engine with cars carrying special constables.

Later in the night, the men from both sides wearied from the lack of action and simply went to sleep. A fire lit up the night along the track with a few watchmen from the CPR on one side and five government police on the other maintaining a vigil.

“Although they warmed themselves from the same fire no communications passed between them and they sat there watching one another through the long hours of the night in the falling snow.”

A day later on Friday, November, 2, 1888, the Free Press reported all was quiet at Fort Whyte with the CPR men and militia still on hand. A siding was built for the cars carrying the men from the CPR lines across the prairie right up to the Portage line.

“It looked at one time they (CPR) intended to build it right across the Government line, and fully a hundred men gathered to offer vigorous resistance, but construction ceased when the spur neared the other line.”

The government force present included 120 track-layers and 180 special constables.  

During a subsequent court hearing on the CPR injunction, Manitoba Attorney-General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Martin said the CPR had injured the province and its railway interests by procuring the disallowance of the first Red River Valley Railroad charter, by preventing the province from raising money by inducing the Canadian government to obtain an injunction against the province a year earlier, by delaying forwarding material in collusion with suppliers for construction of the road, by threatening to take away the use of workshops if the government continued its support of the line, by using the newspaper the Call as a propaganda weapon, and by sending a large force of men to prevent the crossing of the Southwest line of the CPR by blocking it with engines and a fence.

“The province has been waging a great fight to get relief from the (CPR) monopoly,” said Martin. He claimed the crossing of the Portage extension over the Southwestern line presented no harm to the CPR because it was on level and open ground. 

Furthermore, it was a government public works project and the NP&MR did not control the Portage extension, Martin added.

Martin, a Portage la Prairie lawyer originally from Ontario, gained his nickname “Fighting Joe” for his fearless attitude in championing Manitoba’s interests against perceived CPR and Canadian government injustices. He is credited with being the founder of the Liberal Party in Western Canada. Later in his Manitoba political career, he became embroiled in the Manitoba School Question, introducing legislation in 1890 to end French-language schools in Manitoba.

By November 14, the Free Press announced a lull in hostilities at the crossing, claiming the war was over. A day earlier, the government had ceased all work on the track — the track-layers were discharged, the special constables were released from their duties and all returned to Winnipeg. The reasons given for the cessation was the exorbitant cost of the track construction and the arrival of colder weather.

Although the government workers and “specials” were no longer present, Whyte said CPR men still guarded the line, as his instructions were to prevent any crossing of the CPR Southwestern until the Supreme Court decided the issue. He said the injunction hearings were merely the preliminary proceedings before the Railway Committee of the Privy Council (cabinet) presented the case to the higher court.

Actually, the Manitoba government had earlier petitioned the Canadian government to resolve the matter of crossings over rails owned by the CPR. With regard to crossings, the Macdonald government declared “the CPR and all lines which may cross them now or hereafter, to be for the general advantage of Canada,” and no line was permitted to cross another railway line without the leave of the Railway Committee of the Privy Council.

“By this miserable scheme it was long ago sought to tie up the provincial legislature,” editorialized the Brandon Sun on October 25, 1888, “and place them in the hands of the Dominion authorities. The act in question violates our rights in precisely the same way as the disallowance of railway charters (by Ottawa to maintain the CPR monopoly) formerly did.”

The Sun argued that the actions of the Canadian government went against the spirit of the earlier agreement reached between Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Manitoba Premier Greenway and Attorney-General Martin. The Canadian government should have immediately complied with Martin’s request to cross the CPR line, said the newspaper, “but instead of taking this manly and patriotic course the Dominion government deliberately played into the hands of the CPR and referred the application of the Manitoba government to the Supreme Court.”

A Sun reporter later interviewed Martin, who said, it “was thoroughly understood between Sir John, Mr. Greenway and myself that he was going to arrange fully with the CPR (to end the monopoly), and then we got the letter from him which we brought back with us, (that) we were free to go back to Manitoba and build as many railways as the province saw fit to build ... It seems to me, as a matter of fairness, that if any one is to blame in not guarding against the attack of the CPR upon our province, it is Sir John Macdonald, who paid out such a very large sum to his company (guarantee of a $15-million bond) in order that Manitoba and the Territories should be freely allowed to build railways.”

When the Battle of Fort Whyte became a war of words, both sides knew the higher court would soon be hearing the case.

The Greenway government said weather permitting it would resume track-laying if the Supreme Court ruled in its favour.

On December 22, 1888, the justices of the Supreme Court were “unanimously of the opinion the said (provincial) statue is valid and official as to confer authority  on the railway commissioner on the said statute of Manitoba mentioned to construct such a railway as the Portage extension of the Red River Valley Railroad, crossing the Canadian Pacific Railway, the railway committee first approving of the place and mode of crossing, and first giving their direction to the matter ...”

When the news of the ruling reached Winnipeg the same day, “There were many many happy smiles on the faces of the citizens that afternoon,” according to the Free Press, “the fact that Van Horne had been done up seemed to give great satisfaction to the average individual.”

In Portage la Prairie, people celebrated with a huge bonfire in the town square, speeches by enthused town officials and music provided by a brass band.

The Free Press called the decision “a sweeping blow at the efforts of the Dominion to secure control of local railway lines.” 

“Manitoba has never received anything from the CPR that was not forced,” wrote the Commercial, “and any freight rate reduction received during the past two years are due to the threatened competition, which is now a fact in Winnipeg, and will soon be in other portions of this prairie province.”

The Brandon Sun said the Supreme Court ruling was of the “highest importance,” as it established the concept of provincial rights. 

“Mr. Martin has led us to a grand victory,” said a Sun editorial on January 2, 1889, “one that will rebound to the advantage and honour of the province for all time to come, and one that the people of Manitoba will not refuse to credit to the men to whom it is due.”

The Battle of Fort Whyte had been resolved in the Supreme Court without a single bullet being fired, but it was mostly a hollow victory for Manitoba, as the CPR and NP&MR soon came to terms and diverted rail traffic among their respective companies in order to maintain freight rates at CPR levels.

Still, the CPR’s monopoly had been effectively broken, paving the way for the creation of other competing railways across Canada.

Meanwhile, work on the Portage extension continued, but it was not completed until August 1889. Cold weather played a role in delaying completion of the extension, but the greatest impediment was the Railway Committee of the Privy Council, which took months to approve the crossing at Fort Whyte. Once approval was granted, construction of the line progressed at a rapid pace.

The Free Press on June 25, 1889, reported a party of dignitaries took “ a run” over the Portage extension four days earlier. A reporter from the newspaper  aboard the train wrote the portion of the line built during the winter was in “excellent condition.”

“Several gangs of men are at work fixing up the line in anticipation of opening it up for traffic to the Portage. Section houses have been built to Portage Junction, Headingly Crossing, La Salle River, and Assiniboine River, and a water tank has been put up at La Salle. The party went as far as the bridge across the  Assiniboine River four and a half miles southeast of the Portage. The centre pier of the bridge is finished and while the party were there a gang of bridge men arrived from Chicago, who will at once proceed with the construction of the swing span. It is expected the bridge will be completed in time to permit the line being opened to the Portage by the 1st of August.” 

The first passenger excursion over the new rail line from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie occurred on August 27. The NP&MR also announced at the time that the rate on its trains for trips between Winnipeg and Portage was to be $1.65 per passenger, five cents cheaper than the rate charged by the CPR on its line, prompting the rival railway to reduce its ticket price.

The Northern Pacific & Manitoba Railroad completed a total of 482 kilometres of track with two principal lines running from Emerson through Morris to Winnipeg and from Winnipeg west to Portage la Prairie as well as a number of branch lines.