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Pioneer Bridge Builders

How Pioneer Bridge Builders Always Kept Ahead of the Track, Recalled by Norma E. Clayton

can never see a picture of a bridge under construction, or read of progress on the Hudson Bay railway, but I experience a thrill of longing to see it with my own eyes.

My father, H.H. Hagney, was a true pioneer railroader. For forty years he was a bridge-builder, working "ahead of the track," when the Canadian Pacific railway was being constructed and after for the Grand Trunk Pacific. Among other bridges, he constructed those at Glacier House and Kicking Horse Canyon, and the one at Ottertail Creek, which was at the time the highest wooden bridge in the world, measuring 297 feet from the base of the central tower to the track.

My older brother and sister were with my father in the days of the Canadian Pacific railway construction, my sister being the first white child born in Calgary. But my own experience of western construction camps began when I was thirteen years old, when we came out in the fall of the year, to join my father, who was building a bridge at Rivers.

I shall never forget the drive from Pettapiece across the country to the bridge. The leaves were a glorious mass of colour everywhere. A haze hung over all and the air was clear and cool. We came to the top of the hill and could see the camp beside the bridge in the valley. It was my first glimpse of a camp, but it looked like home.

To see one bridge camp is to see them all, as they seldom vary, except in surroundings. There is always a shack for the dining-room and kitchen, covered with tar paper, as a rule, with its long board table and benches on each side. The table is covered with oilcloth, and the plates are all in place, turned upside down, the cups the same way. Outside the cook shack is a tall pole extending away above the roof, like a flag pole. A quarter of beef is hauled up and down by a pulley and rope. The outside of the meat hardens in the air, and it is cool up there, and there are no flies. It keeps well.

A camp is a busy place. All day you hear the hammering and shouting. At noon and at supper time the cook steps to the door and hammers on the gong hanging outside. The sound echoes down the valley. Soon the men come trooping up, 20 or 25 of them, and there is joking and laughing. Beans, meat, pie, hot biscuit, vegetables if the camp is near farms, condensed milk, dried fruits, etc., form the bill of fare. Cooks were sometimes good and sometimes otherwise. I can remember one who baked wonderful things when half tipsy. He excelled himself then. Puff pastries, pies, doughnuts, and a profusion of iced cakes would be the outcome of his spree. I rather fancy, although liquor was strictly taboo, that some people kept him supplied for their own benefit.

There had been rumours of a timber wolf around the camp for a time, and one evening just at dusk, after delivering a telegram to our shack, the cook had gone halfway back to camp when he met the wolf. "There 'e was, standing looking at me! Wot did I do? I yelled, get aht! and ran orl they way back." [sic] This was the story he gasped out when he burst into the dining-room, white-faced and trembling. The men teased him unmercifully: but he stuck to his story, and they never will know whether or not he saw the wolf.

It was at this bridge that just as the men were coming down to dinner one day, a man slipped and fell 40 feet to the ground below. Father ordered out the democrat to take the poor fellow to the nearest town, but when the men went to pick him up, the men found he was only stunned. His clothing had caught, too, at intervals; and I suppose that had broken the fall.

Then next summer we went to Langenburg, and drove across the country to Spy Hill to the Cut Arm valley bridge site, and camped there all summer. This was a wonderful bridge, 129 feet high, and very long. It was in a ranching country and herds of cattle dotted the prairie between the bridge and Tantallon, where we drove sometimes for mail. One day, just at noon, when the gong was sounded for dinner, one of the teams of mules on the scrapers at the dump at the end of the bridge slipped at the top turn and fell. Head over heels they went rolling down the steep incline, with the scraper handles banging against them at every roll. Before the men could reach them they had got to the bottom, and rose to their feet, shaking themselves vigorously. Such is the hardiness of mules.

We walked over this bridge one Sunday evening. I should say crawled, as I lost my nerve and had to get down on my hands and knees and hang on to father’s trouser leg with one hand. It seemed that the end of the bridge would never come. We were 129 feet above the ground when we reached the centre. We could see the men like so many flies walking around. The river seemed like a mere thread of silver winding in and out. It was so still up there it seemed as if one were a whole lot nearer Heaven, and so far removed from trivial things. That was my last summer of camping. As the work went west, I was sent to Gladstone to high school. My father died in 1912, after 47 years of building bridges. Two coast-to-coast railroads bore many examples of his work, although most of them are now replaced by steel, I believe.

My three sons may not all be bridge builders, as they have pioneer farm blood in their viens, too; but I hope at least one of them will be able to look back in later years to a life of something accomplished, of something done that is really worth while, as his grandfather did, bridging the wilderness "ahead of the track."

Source: Manitoba Free Press, June 22, 1929.