by George Robinson
I came to the Peace River country on railroad construction and arrived at the end of steel on the E.D. & B.C. Railway in early June 1915. This was somewhere in the vicinity of Culp and it may have been the Culp siding where we unloaded the outfit. Culp, by the way, was named for Joe Culp, a conductor on the E.D. & B.C. in those days, it is, and was, located some few miles from the top of the Smoky River banks. Our contract was across the Smoky and a couple of miles up the hill from where the bridge was to be built. Quigley & McPherson built this bridge during the summer of 1915 and the following winter and it was completed in May or June 1916.
Our railroad construction outfit, C.S. Wilson Construction of Edmonton, consisted of some 50-60 horses, two graders, 15-20 dump wagons (Strouds) with a stenciled sign on them which advised that “If booze and business don’t mix, cut out the business”, many tents including two large ones for the horses and much rough camp furniture. All this was unloaded in the bush at the end of steel and after the four days on the train from Edmonton, unloading was a welcome chore for us and an equally welcome release for the stock as they had been cooped up in stock cars and had also endured a very rough trip on an unfinished road bed.
The Smoky River banks here are some 450 feet in height from the plateau to the river, rough and covered with bush, mostly poplar and willow with just a bush trail roughed out down the hill. My job with the outfit was time keeper, a position I had held with Wilson Construction the summer before where we graded the Grand Trunk Terminal yards at the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers there, and in the winter of 1914-15 we wintered the outfit and also opened and operated a coal mine near Twining and the Three Hills Creek.
I had never driven a team before but this accumulation of horses, wagons, and camp had to be moved down the hill to our campsite on the Smoky flats and there were few men with the outfit to do it, so I soon heard the call from the barn boss (the man in charge of the horses) “All right George, here’s your load” and he handed me the lines of the team and I climbed on a dump wagon piled high with camp furniture, tables and benches and dishes, etc. I was in my very early twenties in those days and ready to tackle anything so I climbed aboard and followed the team ahead of me for the roughly six mile drive to our campsite. The trail down the hill was crude, to say the least! There were stumps all the way and some pitches so steep that a man was posted at the top of each where the teamster stopped while the man poked a poplar pole through the spokes of both hind wheels to act as a rough lock.
I got to the bottom of the hills O.K. though a few spokes were broken out of the rear wheels, and through the town of Pruden’s Crossing and across the river on the cable ferry which was operated by a huge man, Alex Munro, who had been the champion wrestler of Scotland and was quite famous in wrestling circles. There was quite a good trail on the west side of the river and across the open flat to our campsite but after successfully navigating down the really bad trail down the Smoky hills I came to grief on the quite good trail on the west side. I was congratulating myself on my success as a teamster when I turned around on my high driver’s seat to see how my load was riding, for it was a high and awkward load, but as I leaned over the right side my left front wheel hit a stump and I was pitched over on my head among the stumps on the right side. I was knocked cold but luckily it was opposite a small log shack being operated as a cafe by a Mr.. & Mrs. Conklin and the first thing I remember after my spill was Mrs. Conklin pouring cold water on me. The team was standing there waiting for me so after shaking my head and thanking Mrs. Conklin I climbed back up again and finished the trip without further incident.
Pruden’s Crossing was quite a place in 1915, some 25-30 buildings, as I remember, and all logs. One street ran parallel with the river with buildings on both sides, there were a few stores, Crunnry Brothers. is one I remember the name of and many other log shanties occupied by ladies who carried on business which was not advertised in the papers. There were also many blind pigs and moonshines. At that time north of 53 was considered Indian Territory and liquor was barred though always in plentiful supply, if you know what I mean. Besides the moonshine, much good liquor was always on hand and, being illegal, no business licence was required to dispose of it and it should have been quite a profitable business. I do not know what the cost of a bottle of whisky was to the operator of a “blind pig” but I do know that it was sold in a tiny glass about an inch deep at 50¢ a shot. I imagine it was about as much as an eye bath would hold.
There was a N.W.M.P. post near Pruden’s Crossing but I do not remember its location and every so often the ladies and the bootleggers would be raided and after such a raid as many as 30 women would be hauled before the magistrate and fined $100 or so. These raids were pulled about once a month and, though not quite as profitable as today’s sales of oil rights, would have been quite a financial boost to the Provincial government of the day, provided they got it!
On many of these police raids the women had been forewarned and they had hideout shacks some 3-4 miles over the hills at the mouth of the Little Smoky River and I was told that their trail was easy to follow by the pieces of silk torn from dresses by ladies in a hurry and caught on the willow along the trail.
When I first saw Pruden’s Crossing it seemed to me that nearly every one in town had wild animal pets. I remember seeing two young moose, with bells on, wandering all over town. Also, there were pet bears which went where they pleased and were often harried by dogs, foxes and young coyotes until they were tied up to kennels like dogs. This being my first experience in the bush, except for a winter trapping in the Crows Nest Pass, these naturally interested me and I took note of everything I saw. Later that summer when Quigley-McPherson started building the railroad bridge another settlement of ladies and bootleggers was started on the east bank about two miles upstream and just below the bridge. I visited this place several times trying to persuade some of our men to come back to camp and go back to work – names would be out of place here though I do remember a few. Also during this summer a third town, and this time quite a respectable one, was started on the west side of the Smoky and became the Watino of today. Most of the business places of Pruden’s Crossing moved to Watino. One I remember was the drug store and post office of Mr. Curtis who later moved to Clairmont and was in business there for several years.
A few remarks on the methods of grade construction and wages paid may be of interest. We operated with a horse drawn elevating grader and some 10-15 dump wagons also fresnoes and scrapers and a grade trimmer. These were pulled by a two horse team called a Mormon — why, I do not know. The foreman was Jim Pease and he and I occupied the only log building in camp, quite comfortable in fine weather but it had a sod roof and if it rained on a Monday the ceiling dripped until Wednesday! The grader was pulled by sixteen horses and pushed by four more. Twelve horses were hitched directly to the machine and were controlled by one driver, they were six abreast and six ahead of them. Then there was a pull cart consisting of two wheels and an axle and a seat with a large grab hook behind and pulled by four small and active horses. The driver of this had to pull the grader through the cut then unhook from the end of the grader tongue at the end of the cut, turn his team quickly and be in place to hook on to the end of the tongue again and pull down the other side of the cut and repeat the performance at the other end. Then there was the push cart consisting of two wheels which could be steered by a wheel, an axle and seat, and a tongue which was attached to the rear of the grader. The driver of this also had four horses and he pushed the machine through the cut and at the end, by manipulating his wheels, he swung off to one side and pushed the rear end of the machine sideways so that the grader would make a shorter turn. I took over both these jobs when the regular drivers were-eh- “visiting.” The pull cart was fun but I had some trouble with that push cart on the turns. The first time I got half way up the side of the cut trying to make the turn and finished up with one mule down and under the tongue. The driver of the machine thought that was lots of fun and would not think of stopping the outfit to let me get untangled.
This was rough work and dusty and we worked from 7 a.m. till 6 p.m. with an hour off for noon but, of course, it was a very well paid job for the time. Drivers got $26 a month and board, less $1 a month deducted for the doctor. I never saw a doctor on the job all summer and do not know where the dollar I deducted from each man’s pay went even though I was time keeper.
Some of the grade was built by what were called station men who were sub-sub-sub contractors and in swampy country used wheel barrows or, where dry enough, used dump cars on a narrow 20-inch track. These people were really well paid and got 15¢ a cubic yard and furnished their own camp and board. The supplies were purchased, as were ours, at the J.D. McArthur Cache 19, the only place where they could be obtained closer than McLennan, the divisional point. This system did not do much to keep the prices of supplies in line.
The station men contracted for a certain section of the grade and their work was all done by hand, shoveling the dirt into the dump truck, pushing it along the track onto the grade and dumping it and going back for another load, working in the hot sun and plagued by swarms of mosquitoes all for the princely sum of 15¢ per yard. None were known to make large fortunes!
When the work was finished in the fall a friend and myself decided to try our hand at trapping as there appeared to be plenty of fur in the area. Our summer work provided just enough cash for traps and a winter grubstake. We found a suitable cabin along the track which had been built by the station men and abandoned when their contract had been completed. The site is now the town of Tangent but at that time the country was all heavy poplar timber and small lakes and there were no settlers so far as I know between Watino in the valley and Rycroft. Our cabin was alongside the right of way and near a small cut and the steel was laid through this cut around Christmas time. There was a spring in this cut and during the winter it had overflowed and formed ice to a depth of well over a foot. To give an illustration of the way this E.D. & B.C. was constructed, I can tell you that the steel was laid right on top of the ice and no thought was given as to what might happen when the ice melted in the spring. And plenty did happen, especially to the grade down the Smoky hill, about 7 miles, as the same slipshod methods were used in steel laying there. At one place, after a warm spell, I saw at least 200 feet of track hanging clear and only the bolts holding it as the grade had washed out from under it. I was able to inform an extra gang of this and they repaired it before a train came to grief.
By spring I had been nearly a year in the Peace Country and decided that it was a very good place to put down roots, a decision which in over 50 years I have never regretted. And so I boarded a train for the Grande Prairie district to look for a homestead. The train journey was quite an experience! I do not think that at any time we reached ten miles an hour, which was a very good idea for four miles an hour would be the limit of safety. The cars rocked and swayed to an angle where we thought that she would sure upset and in the worst places we sneaked along at one or two miles per hour. In many places the track was laid on poplar poles and bush criss-crossed on the mud and great caution was needed to cross these without upsetting. Derailments were frequent and thought nothing of and if the locomotive itself stayed on the track it was not too much trouble to get a car back on, provided it was daylight. But on this, my first trip to Grande Prairie, we were off the track three times between Rycroft and Grande Prairie, a distance of about 31 miles which took over 24 hours. First time off the track we got back on again without much trouble but the second time it was nearly dark and the conductor told us to make ourselves comfortable for the night. He sent a brakeman down the track on foot to tell an extra gang to come and help us in the morning. We jumped the track a third time on a fill just before getting to Sexsmith and as we were going faster this time, we broke 110 ties before stopping but we did stay on the grade. I enlisted in June and for the next three years spent my time in England and France and on my return I was shocked to find that the E.D. & B.C., was in little better shape than it was during its first month of operation.
Some further remarks on the early railroad conditions may be of interest. As noted previously, the E.D. & B.C. (“Extremely Dangerous and Badly Constructed” it was said the initials stood for) reached Grande Prairie in the spring of 1916 and the previous winter I and a friend had a trapping cabin alongside the grade near what is now Tangent. Within a few hundred yards of our cabin was a cut about 15 feet deep and there was a spring near the bottom of this cut which caused some twelve to eighteen inches of ice to build up in the bottom of the cut. The steel was laid while we were there and sure enough they set the ties on top of this ice and it is not hard to realize what that piece of track looked like when the spring thaw came! In many places, especially between Rycroft and Sexsmith, there were stretches which were very boggy but this difficulty was easily overcome — they simply placed willow brush and poplar poles criss-crossed under the ties! A construction problem quite easily solved.
At another point on the Smoky River banks on the South side was a quite high, possibly 40 foot, fill on a rather sharp curve. To keep the track on the grade here, logs were laid vertically on the fill, cross logs put horizontally across the top of these, another vertical log placed on the middle of the top horizontal log which butted on the end of the nearest tie. The trains sneaked over this at about four miles an hour and it must have worked for I never heard of a train rolling down a fill guarded by this method. But I do know of one train which went over the fill though the locomotive stayed on the track. This happened on a section of the grade built by us and was entirely the fault of our foreman. Our construction outfit had finished their work further up the Smoky hill and had to go back down the grade to where the trail led down the hill to camp. It so happened that the steel had been laid over the last fill that we had to cross in order to reach the trail. The track was not all the way across the fill but nearly so, and blocked our road as the top of the fill was too narrow to allow passage past it. Naturally we had to pry the track over until it hung about halfway over the edge of the fill. That was fine and the grader got down to camp with no trouble at all. But it so happened that the contractor on the contract above us was to have loaded his outfit onto flat cars that were to be spotted at the end of the new track and that evening Jimmy Pease, the foreman, and I were standing outside the office shack when we heard a train moving up the grade, I looked at Jimmy and said “Did you put that track you moved back on the grade Jimmy?” He was white as a sheet as he answered “No, I didn’t.” It was much too far to run up the hill and flag them down so we just stood there in the dark and listened. The locomotive was backing up the grade with a boxcar and two flats and, of course, when the end of the train got on the overhanging track two flats and a boxcar went down the side of the fill, luckily on the high side, nobody was hurt though I heard there was a man in the boxcar who got shaken up a bit. Fortunately the locomotive stayed on the grade.
My trapping partner left for his home near New Norway but I stayed in the cabin until spring and then took the train for Grande Prairie to look for a homestead and it was a nerve wracking ride though the train never got up a speed of over six miles an hour and often less than half of that and on a track that was laid on willow brush and poplar poles that was plenty fast enough! Settlers were coming in by train at that time and with all their effects with them. Of course there was no sleeper or diner at that time but we slept in our seats and ate what and when we could. It was on this first trip over the road that I had to feed a bunch of women and children who were out of grub. I had a large and heavy packsack with me filled with groceries, dishes, and blankets from the trapping cabin. The conductor saw this and asked me if I had anything eatable in that large packsack. When I told him what I had he asked if I would come back to the caboose and cook up a meal for some women and kids who had nothing to eat that day, so I went back with him and filled them up with coffee and flapjacks.
We eventually got as far as Spirit River and were only derailed once, somewhere between Tangent and Rycroft, but we were not so lucky from there to Sexsmith. From Rycroft to Sexsmith the grade ran through hills and swamp most of the way and it took us thirty-six hours to make fewer miles, we were off the track three times on this stretch and it was remarkable that we were ever on it! That train would lurch and sway its way over the willow and poplar brush and I am sure it was often 15 degrees from the perpendicular which means 30 of sway. The second time we left the track we were probably 20 miles out of Rycroft, in swampy country and nearly dark and of course we all piled out to see how bad it was and lend a hand to get it back on if needed.
But this time it was bad and the crew looked at it and shook their heads. There was an extra gang we had passed a few miles back and the conductor told us it was useless to try anything that night and he would send a man back to the extra gang and they would come and help us in the morning. So we piled back in and had a good sleep without the rocking motion we had become so used to.
However we eventually arrived at Sexsmith (then called Benville) but before getting to the station had still another derailment and this on a curve on solid ground, we broke over a hundred ties this time and from there on I proceeded on foot, however that train did eventually get to Grande Prairie. After enlisting in Grande Prairie in June of that year I travelled to Edmonton by E.D. & B.C. and if I remember correctly, we made that trip in three days which was considered very good time. On discharge from the army in 1919 I was rather disgusted to find the E.D. and B.C. in little better shape than it was when I left.