With much inexperienced help and with speed the keyword the quality of the roadbed was not first-class! Before very long the E D & BC became freely translated by more decorous people as “Extremely Dangerous and Badly Constructed”, while the early newssheets and the reminisces of the pioneers reported other less quotable interpretations.
At Grande Prairie on March 22nd, 1916, a work party of men with shovels — about thirty in number as pictured in an old snapshot — cleared the snow from the track. An engine and freight train was greeted at end-of-steel by a “crowd” of a few-score citizens of the small village where “minutes-of-the-council” were already recording the usual growing pains — water supplies, streets, hospitals, schools, fires and mud! The War put an end to construction beyond Grande Prairie at that time.
One might suppose that some upgrading and maintenance of the roadbed would be carried out. It must have been the least possible, for even in the early 40’s when I was forced to take an upper berth for the twenty-four hour trip to Edmonton, I knew the reason for the critical nickname. It would have been as well not to pay for “an upper” for I lay there all night grimly clutching the side of the rocking bunk. I lay apprehensively clothed in my dressing gown in case I found myself on the floor beside whoever it was that snored in the “lower”, and merely grunted now and again as we rocked and twisted. Luckily, no one seemed to get “sea-sick” although the pleasant Negro porter (who was putting four children through the University of Alberta) was ready for that contingency — like a modern airline stewardess.
That railway had more idiosyncrasies than a loco bronco! When I made the return trip, our timetable showed a long stop at Rycroft. It was a relief to stretch and get a breath of fresh air, after a day in a coach that was gritty with cinders, and that reeked of coal smoke, tobacco smoke, oranges, bananas and garlic. At first one supposed that the train, after a short “toot”, was just moving off to the water-tank, but when it kept on going a few miles away west a newcomer became apprehensive. After all, if you missed a train the next one would be following Tuesday or Friday! Nobody else seemed worried. Presently the rear car of the train began to reappear, swaying like a fat old cow and growing larger. Soon it stopped at the platform. Another passenger explained, “she had just pulled on to Spirit River, end-of-steel and come back again”. Much relieved but marveling at the ways of northern service I climbed aboard again.
Then something became clear that had often been mentioned at Dawson Creek. When the line reached Spirit River, a grade was constructed almost to the B. C. boundary. Some say it was thirty, others fifty miles long. Apparently it was heading for Rolla on Pouce Coupe’s Prairie. Dawson Creek did not exist yet on the “Beaver Plain” where it is now. In anticipation of the early arrival of the railroad, Rolla became a thriving little village with great hopes. Especially after World War I ended, many settlers moved onto the fertile prairies to farm. Rolla was in the federally owned “Peace River Block” and not yet part of British Columbia as far as land administration was concerned.
On the other hand, Grande Prairie had won over the other prospective “city” sites — old Saskatoon Lake, Bezanson, and Goodwin on the Smoky River. An amazing number of commercial establishments, churches, etc., had grown up at the end of the old Edson Trail. Pressure was brought to bear. A “branch line” was run from Rycroft to Grande Prairie. Rolla was left an orphan.
No steel was ever laid on the graded stretch west of Spirit River. With that beautiful, smooth, no-hill grade reaching nearly to the Pouce Coupe Prairie, the invitation was too good to ignore. Many still living were among the six hundred teamsters a week who drove horse-drawn loads of grain to Spirit River over “The Spirit River Trail”. It had only one drawback. Built for a single line train right-of-way, it was too narrow for two teams to pass at a “cut” or “fill”. Turnouts were at points where the track was almost level with the surface. An approaching team with a light load was supposed to turn off at those places. Some didn’t. It is said that at times the warmth of the language of the driver of a heavily loaded sleigh which tipped over with its precious freight was calculated to start a small Chinook. It took four to six days for the trip if you were lucky.
The whole line had a history, sometimes tragic — more often hilarious. Even the selection of McLennan as a divisional point and junction with the “North line” was a joke. In the days of steam, a sufficient water supply to pump into the elevated water tank with its flexible snorkel was important. Moreover, it had to be good water that would not corrode the tubes of the engine’s boiler. Near McLennan was a fairly large “lake” on the map. Locally it was called “Stinking Lake”. Officials of the approaching ED & BC grade wanted a sample, so they sent an old-timer to bring them some for analysis. Old Hughie Hunter knew river navigation but not locomotives. For a fee, of course, he would bring a sample to Edmonton. He filled some containers, and set out for Grouard, en route to Edmonton. The road was rough and somewhere the stoppers came out. Hughie reached over the side of the “Midnight Sun” boat and filled the jugs with sweet Lesser Slave Lake water and duly collected his fee. The analysis was satisfactory. The repair shops, water-tanks, and associated equipment were ordered for McLennan. That is why water for locomotives had to be hauled there in tank cars for years.
Mr. George Robinson of Sexsmith has left us a graphic description of railroading before 1916. The method of building track differed from today’s. A track crew consisted of fifty to sixty horses and mules and an “elevating grader”. The grader required twenty horses. Twelve were hitched in front in two teams, six abreast. Ahead of that was a four-horse pull-cart, consisting of two wheels on an axle with a large grab-hook behind it and a seat like all implements of the day resembling a battered washbasin shot full of holes. The driver of this team had to unhook at the end of a cut, run his team quickly out of the way and get back, headed in the other direction, while the driver of the twelve-up turned the grader around. Then the pull-team hitched on again. There was another four-horse team at the back, on a tongue, harnessed for pushing, with an “evener” in front of, instead of behind them. The driver of this team had a special role — to swing his team sharply to the fill-side and push the hind end of the grader around in as tight a turn as possible — while the driver of the twelve-up was maneuvering his horses on a 180-degree turn without any of them trampling on each other or stepping over the traces. The push-team had to operate on the fill-side without slipping under the machine. If a mule went under, there was no stopping the twelve-up. Teamsters who could handle four horses were entitled to a rank of honour in some outfits. They could roll their pant-legs up one turn. A six-up rated two turns, a twelve-up, three. The driver of a twelve-up commanded a preferred position, second only to a good camp-cook, and got the princely wage of twenty-six dollars a month, with board, less a dollar for the doctor.
On top of the machine were the fourth and fifth men — the “boss” man who regulated the cut, and the elevator man who filled the dump carts as they drove alongside. A two horse grade-trimmer called for some reason a “Mormon” completed the outfit except for small scrapers and bigger “Fresnoes”, requiring two or four-horse teams and one of two drivers.
Add to the crew the overseer, timekeeper, the cook (on whom the peace and good relations of the camp largely depended), the “bull-cook”, water-tanker, the barn boss and a few flunkies and roustabouts “working for board” — and the tally was complete.
Hours were from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M. with an hour out for lunch. Mending harness, tending the horses’ feet and rubbing them down was on the teamsters’ own time or by arrangement with the laborers.
Bad stretches of muskeg where heavy equipment could not operate were sub-contracted out to workers with wheelbarrows for fifteen cents a cubic yard — 3 ft. x 3 ft. — dug up, moved and spread, usually on criss-cross logs and small “brush”. Such contractors furnished their own grub. As they were often homesteaders, they brought it from home. They might live in a caboose but more usually in a tent.
Men considered themselves lucky to get a “paying job” to make a grubstake, or to buy traps for winter. Or perhaps the wages would go to purchase a team and machinery for the homestead or perhaps to get glass and small hardware to construct a log cabin to fulfill homestead requirements for “proving up” their land.
No Unions in those days! And no loafers! “Go get your time!” meant “NOW”, and no “holiday pay” added. No “unemployment insurance” subtracted either.
Following the grading crew came the track-laying crew. “Ties” or “sleepers” — roughly squared logs which are still used — were carried forward off flat-cars and arranged on the top of the grade, a long step or short pace apart. The rails were likewise carried off at suitable intervals. In later years a power-operated hoist would lift and swing them end to end. In the early days laborers with a sort of huge tongs with bent handles carried them to place. Then the spike-drivers with heavy mauls would drive the iron spikes, so that the flat one-side head anchored the side of the rail to the “tie” or sleeper. Afterwards, hopefully, the track was ballasted with gravel, again by hand labour, to hold the ties in place.
Where the rails sagged they were supposed to be shimmed up to level. That was often labor lost, because such was the nature of the soil that it was rather alarming fifteen or sixteen years afterwards to see the rails sink four to six inches under the wheels and, in a way “float up again” when released from pressure. For miles a train could be pulling uphill, in effect, even on a flat stretch.
The maintenance crew, patrolling every day on a handcar had a never-ending job. Each pair of men covered a certain mileage — out in the morning, home ten to twelve hours later. The handcar had a gear system propelled by a bar, one man on each end. Down! up! down! up! On this line there was one good feature. No “flyer” passenger train could come zooming around a curve to make the men jump for their lives! When the gasoline-driven “speeder” was introduced, much of the daily drudgery was eliminated for these fellows.
In spite of all efforts, derailments were frequent. Mr. Robinson recalls when speed was a maximum of ten miles an hour for the passenger train on the “good” stretches. It was two or less where the track had been laid on poplar poles and brush criss-crossed on mud or muskeg. The soil in much of the area is underlain with a fine, compacted clay which does not let water sink away down, but collects on the top like a soup.
There is another hazard still encountered in highway building. Cutbanks on stream sides or gullies show that our soil was deposited in layers of clay, sand and gravel. In many places the clay is in thin sheets but is stable in dry weather. Also the mountain forming, after the last of the great seas had laid down their silted bottoms and retreated, had tipped and tilted the strata more or less. When a stratum is cut through by erosion leaving the edge of it exposed, and when rain or snowmelt penetrates to one of these clay layers, the surface can become as slippery as grease. The weight of the overburden causes one of these clay layers to be squeezed out, like the pulp of a grape when stepped on. Down come the upper layers which may or may not actually “slide” like an avalanche, but they do slump and the results are similar.
Another factor contributed to derailments, sometimes as many as three times in thirty miles. The road building had gone forward winter and summer. Mr. Robinson describes a side hill where a spring ran out all winter, the ice pilling up several feet thick. The grade and track were simply laid over the top. When the ice melted in the spring, he remembers seeing a loop of track two hundred feet long hanging unsupported like a Christmas garland on the hillside along the Smoky River.
On my first journey on the ED & BC the sight out of the dining car window nearly froze me with horror. It was about four hundred feet down to the floor of the valley. We were creeping at a snail’s pace. On one steep hillside nothing visible was holding up the track, but on the slope lay a lace-work of logs, the lower ends bunted into a ridge part way down. There were two vertical logs, actually long trees — then a cross-log, then another pair of trees, and another cross-log until finally one vertical log would disappear somewhere under the train. There was a considerable length of such lying-down trestlework. A steward who noticed my diminished appetite for dinner kindly explained that each top log supported one or more “ties” or “sleepers” on which the rails were spiked. At that time, in the early 1940’s, they had never lost a train over the side on that particular section of track — at least not yet. I had heard of too many other slides, though and even then trains were occasionally one to two days overdue.
The spring and early summer of 1935 were very wet, after a wet autumn. Lesser Slave Lake rose several feet over the rails which followed the shoreline. As long as possible, men walked ahead of the train with long poles, probing to see whether the track was still there or not. Eventually train service ceased for several weeks, but by this time airplanes were bringing in medicines, first-class mail and baker’s yeast. Nobody fussed much about it. Only a few years before passengers were accustomed in summer to get off, pick a hatful of blueberries or Saskatoons or a pail of raspberries along the right-of-way, run down the track and hop back on. One writer describes waking one morning to find the train stopped and apparently deserted. He found the crew and passengers in an especially good patch. When they had enough for the dining car crew — and the cook of the caboose — to produce fresh berry pie for dinner they got under way again. When the schedule allowed for the arrival at end of steel within a week of the designated day on the timetable, what was an hour or so?
Mrs. Esme Tuck relates an incident that illustrates the casual way in which the railroad was run. A short distance from the station the train stopped. The passengers assumed that it was a derailment for which the crew carried equipment to put the engine back on track again, with the help of male passengers for “man power”. Mr. Tuck came back again laughing, a few minutes after going to help. The engineer had a girl friend at the next stop. He hadn’t found time to shave before leaving Edmonton, so he had unceremoniously stopped the passenger train, and was “doing it now”.
The work of building and maintaining service was hard and ill paid, but the old-timers tell of their experiences with glee. Stories recount, for example, how one work crew, bored with camp life, stole the work-train one Saturday night and set off to the next town to a dance. They wrecked the train. There was only one casualty among the whole crew. The cook broke his leg — the [wooden?] one.
Probably horses and mules provided more material for humorous yarns than Diesels, cranes and belly-dumps will ever do. From Grande Prairie progress was not as speedy. Wartime made steel rails unobtainable. It took eight years to reach Wembley, fifteen miles west. Four more years to get to Hythe, another twenty-four miles — an average of three and a quarter miles a year. For two years the Peace River Block had two outlets Spirit River and Hythe which enjoyed a brief prosperity as “end-of-steel
The railway, which leaped the last fifty miles in two years, had one more half-serious, half-comic crisis. Pouce Coupe was the government centre, served also by many business enterprises, as described so amusingly by Mrs. Esme Tuck, in her booklet A Brief History of Pouce Coupe Village and District. It confidently expected the railway to establish a terminal there. After all there was only the little hamlet of Dawson Creek about eight miles west. Rolla was a few miles north at the crossroads of all the freighters’ trails.
Both had a number of businesses but Rolla, having a newspaper, “The Peace River Block News”, got the publicity favoring that rich farming area as the end of steel.
When the purchasing agents of the N. A. R. arrived to buy a site for their station and roundhouse, they approached an old-timer who owned a desirable piece of land. His idea of a price did not match theirs. It was thought in the vernacular of the country that “he had the railway over a barrel”. Quietly they went west about six miles, where Dunc McKellar was willing to sell at a price they would pay. They bought and proceeded to lay out a townsite, although it meant the construction of a long, high log-trestle bridge over the Dawson Creek. Rolla was chagrined, some in Pouce Coupe were furious. But the hamlet on the south branch of Dawson Creek just picked itself up and moved to the new townsite where the North and South Dawson Creeks meet. The old site lies just beyond the Canalta subdivision of Dawson Creek. Later some citizens, feeling belittled by the “Creek” in the name put on a drive to have it changed to “Hart City”. To many old-timers it seems quite suitable to commemorate the name of the famous geologist who first saw our valley. The stream was first recorded on a map as “Dawson’s Brook”.
The move had its comical features also. The buildings, still functioning as places of business, were either skidded or winched to the new site. The two large stores, the Dawson Co-op, and Harper’s, on mail days were the meccas of as many settlers and wives as could make the trip. Teams were tied to the fence post nearest the moving store. As it lurched forward the women traded eggs, butter and vegetables, for clothing; the men sat and spat around the stove as usual. When all the news and gossip was exchanged, they ran back for the team, caught up with the moving shop, collected families and goods and went off home to do the chores.
On December 29th, 1929 Mrs. Fred Chase and Frank DeWetter drove the golden spike (which promptly disappeared). January 15th, 1930 became the official time marker by which “old-timers” are dated.
It was on June 3, 1930 that Mackenzie King, campaigning for election as Prime Minister of Canada made a solemn promise — at least it sounded that way — that if elected he would provide a Peace River outlet to the sea within six months. It has been a long six months. In the end British Columbia made amends to her long neglected area by building the Pacific Great Eastern Railway herself — later naming it the British Columbia Railway.
Indirectly this was the result of another serious, comical event in our history. When the area elected its own member of the Provincial Legislature in 1937, Mr. Glenn Braden happened to sit next to a Mr. W.A.C. Bennett in the house under a coalition government. Glenn was a Peace Booster. The remainder of the Province scarcely knew that its long-lost child had “come home” to British Columbia. They didn’t care very much. In fact the difference between Dawson Creek and Dawson City, Yukon Territory, over a thousand miles north wasn’t clear, even in the Department of Education as late as 1957!
One evening a group of twenty-six Dawson Creek businessmen had a meeting. Someone remarked facetiously, “We should join Alberta!” As a joke, each “chipped in” a dollar and organized the “Join Alberta Association”. It was reported in the “Peace River Block News”. In due time his paper was sent to Mr. Braden in Victoria. He had made appeals for some notice to be taken of the problems of his far-away constituency, which could be reached only by making a long loop east to Edmonton, Alberta, then by C.P.R. or C.N.R. to the coast. He hadn’t made a dint in the unconcern.
Then a page brought his mail to his desk. A few moments after opening the paper, he rose and brandishing his paper bombshell he asked leave to address the Legislature. He read the headlines. The shock was electric. What was this? Secession from the old and august province? A Victoria newspaper printed the scoop. The Edmonton paper reprinted it. By the time the circuit was completed, Peace Country readers of the Edmonton papers found the joke was suddenly NEWS. Probably the most comical aspect of the whole affair was an alleged inquiry from the Alberta Government to the Federal Secretary of State, asking what, under the British North America Act, should be the attitude of Alberta if the B.C. Peace River country attempted to secede and “Join Alberta”.
Mr. Bennett told the story at a political rally in Fort St. John. Within a year or two, a phenomenal number of cabinet ministers found it necessary or desirable to visit “The Peace”. To such a beginning we may attribute the coming first of the John Hart Highway, and then of the P.G.E.
About twenty-two dollars of the original twenty-six, left after receipts books were purchased and other expenses covered, must still be resting in some bank in this city. This probably sets a record for the least expensive political campaign, in history!
The ED & BC became the Northern Alberta Railway but it is now  just a branch-line of the Canadian National Railway. There are rumors, from time to time, that its days may be numbered and it may suffer the same fate as many other prairie rail lines.