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The Railway Labourers: The Navvies
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The Railway Labourers: The Navvies

 “Station Men” at Work
“Station Men” at Work
ailway labourers or Navvies—a term used in England that first described the canal builders, that is, navigators, and was transferred to those same men and others who built the rights-of-way of the railways—in Canada during the boom years from 1898 to 1913 were mostly immigrants of various nationalities and ethnicities. Generally speaking, their lives as railway labourers on the grade were nasty, brutish and often shortened due to accident and disease, the result of unsanitary camp conditions.

Alex Woods, a homesteader with experience digging irrigation ditches east of Calgary and, who had observed railway construction wrote:1

I suppose, dear reader, you think we were a lot of brutes driving other brutes (horses and mules) and I suppose we were, but by such practices was the west opened up and developed. There was a saying about 60 years ago that in every mile of the grade of the old CPR was the grave of a working stiff. The bad water on the prairie took a heavy toll of life.

J. Burgon Bickersteth, a young Anglican lay reader, who spent 1912 along the Grand Trunk Pacific west of Edson doing missionary work, wrote following the death and burial of a Russian worker who could speak no English: 2

So there we left him, (on the bank of the Athabasca River) and another is added to the number of those who never return. It is a tragedy which is enacted over and over again. Pioneer work demands its toll; and nowhere a heavier one than in railway construction.

Arthur R. M. Lower, one of Canada’s most distinguished historians, recalling his experiences (during his university student days) as a fire warden along the National Transcontinental in 1910 wrote:3

Immigrant lives went cheaply. Taking out rock by hand drill and dynamite is dangerous and the young doctor at the hospital could say unconcernedly,"Oh, we have nine of them buried back there in the bush."

Edmund Bradwin, an instructor with the Frontier College wrote of the conditions in railway construction in his book, The Bunkhouse Man. Though his observations were on the National Transcontinental, they applied to all railway construction at the time. He perceived that the callousness exhibited towards the workers was based on the system of sub-contracting: 4

The whole contract system is top-heavy and lop-sided; it fattens the purses of the fortunate head contractors—it gives good pickings to the sub-contractors, but it begrudges living conditions and a human wage to the navvy who handles the barrow and the shovel.

It was at these sub-contractors that the majority of the complaints were directed.

The Life of the Station Man
The Life of the Station Man

It should be noted, however, that there were different classes of labourers. Writing on the Grand Trunk Pacific in British Columbia, Frank Leonard states that those working as day labourers for the company fared much better in terms of wages and housing than those who worked for contractors or as station men.5 While T.D. Regehr in his definitive work on the Canadian Northern states:6

Track layers, by the nature of their work had more contact with the outside world and often enjoyed more of the amenities of civilization than their compatriots who worked in isolated advance camps clearing bush, grubbing stumps, making heavy rock cuts, or moving dirt and rock onto the embankments or into fills on the future railway.

Before examining the problems that led to the genuine dissatisfaction on the part of the labourers, a cautionary word is required. Conditions at the time of construction of the Crow’s Nest Pass Railway, and the deaths of two workmen, led to an 1898 Royal Commission to investigate the situation. The Commissioners in their report wrote: 7

It can be easily understood that amongst the great number of men employed on such a work there are many who are not strictly honest or deserving. Some will take advantage of everything to defraud and cheat...; others will be a source of obstruction...; a certain proportion will never be satisfied with whatever good treatment they receive...; many...are insolent and indifferent...employers have to guard themselves against falsehood, misrepresentation and exaggerated or unfounded complaints. Strict rules and regulations are necessarily to be established and adhered to.

Of his own experience Bickersteth wrote:8

I gathered that there was a good deal of ill-feeling between the contractors and the men. There is probably fault on both sides. The contractors don't treat the men any too well, and the men often treat the contractors badly.

The problems began at the start with the way the labourers were recruited and continued with the terms of transportation to and from the worksite, wages, housing and food, the provision of supplies, and the medical treatments available to the sick and injured.


The railway and contracting companies relied on private recruiting agencies to obtain the needed labourers. Men were recruited who were unaccustomed to the physically rigorous nature of railway building and who quit because they could not perform the work. This was evident in the building of the Crow’s Nest Line.9 Others were misled. Though signing contracts for a specific type of work at a given rate of pay, either by the month or day, a labourer could find himself a victim of duplicity upon reaching the worksite. On the Crow’s Nest line this meant10

...that having been hired as axemen, they had to work with pick and shovel for weeks; and having been engaged by the month at $20 to $26 and board, they were deducted for Sundays and for days they could not work owing to bad weather, or other circumstances over which they had no control, and that on these days they were charged for their board.

The most vulnerable, however, were those immigrant workers who could neither speak nor understand English. Of their plight, Edmund Bradwin wrote:11

Many such agreements used by private employment sided. The rate of pay and the charges for board were alone expressly stated, but the dozen and one discrepancies and minor losses usually incurred in camps were not fully anticipated by newcomers to forms of frontier works. Too commonly things were skillfully misrepresented if not deliberately falsified and men engaging thus were hastily bundled off to find out for themselves the conditions of work and pay in isolated camps.


In most cases transportation to the worksite was provided by the railway company, although at times this meant walking miles from the end of steel to the worksite and the commencement of paid time. The cost was deducted from that labourer’s pay, unless as specified, the worker remained on the job by fulfilling the terms of the contract, usually six months, in which case he would be re-imbursed. But given the working conditions along the line few remained to benefit. As Bradwin wrote:12

of every hundred men who engage at manual work and sleep in the bunkhouse, you can count on the fingers of your left hand all that will be in camp six months after they have entered it.

And by quitting or being forced out, an individual would then be required to find his own transportation out, which meant, in most cases, walking. Nor would he be welcome at any of the camps along the way.


Wages were such that any savings, after all the deductions and personal expenses, were small, if non-existent. In fact, a labourer would still be in debt even after fulfilling the conditions of his employment. The Crow’s Nest Commission estimated that after working an average of 21½ days a month at $1.50 per day for a year and clearing $387, a worker would only realize $5.10 after the deductions and expenses of $381.90.13 Bradwin cites the example of one individual who worked from June 22 to August 27 only to realize $15.80 and who, if he was to save anything had only one alternative and that was to walk out.14 Hnat Barabash went to work laying track on the Alberta and Great Waterways railway at $1.50 an hour for a ten hour day. Because of the conditions of the ground, rail-laying was delayed and the men were transferred to the lift gang, hand loading gravel into wheelbarrows to be placed on that part of the line already laid out with steel. The men demanded and got a 2 ½ cent an hour raise. Insulted by the intimidation of the foreman to work faster, the men, once again, threatened to walk off the job unless they received another meager raise. This was refused and they went on strike. Their time sheets were forwarded to Edmonton, and after considerable hardship, some of the workers having to walk the full distance to Edmonton, Mr. Barabash had less than $20 coming to him after two months of work.15

The methods of payment were another cause of hardship and complaint. Cash was rarely given on payday, rather bank cheques, time sheets and time cheques were the norm. Nick Gill, an immigrant from the Ukraine, joined a station team on the Canadian Northern just inside British Columbia. After 281 days of unremitting labour he had $281. He received a time-sheet and statement about his work, which necessitated a 103 mile walk to Fort George to get his pay.16 Men paid by cheque and who needed cash were victims of discounting. This was between 10 and 50 percent on the Crow’s Nest line,17 and Bickersteth remarked, “This cheque-cashing business is quite a thing with the train crews. They charge 10 percent commission.”18


 CPR Construction Train on Calgary and Edmonton
CPR Construction Train on Calgary and Edmonton

Workers were housed in a variety of structures, the meanest being the shacks of the station men. A company’s supervisory and engineering staff were paid, housed and fed well.19 Those who laid the rails fared less well but much better than the campmen. At one time the Canadian Pacific used “Jumbo” cars. Approximately seventy feet in length, its interior comprised of three tiers of bunks on each side separated by a passageway of 2 feet three inches. Each bunk measured 4 feet 6 inches in width and under 6 feet in length. There was 2 feet 3 inches clearance between bunks. Windows were provided for each tier of bunks for ventilation.20

Bickersteth described the accommodation of the steel-laying gang as “...a huge string of box-cars...each of them converted by the insertion of a door and a couple of small square windows into a bunkhouse on wheels.”21 That they were filthy was not surprising when an occupant stated, “It’s a waste of energy and time to keep clean.”22 Tents were also used even under the most inclement weather as was attested to by the Crow’s Nest Commission.23 But given the state of personal hygiene, they could not have been any better than the conditions of box-cars and cabins. As Taylor points out, “Most of the camps were built in haste with inadequate sanitary facilities, and little concern for drainage. The bunkhouses, the main buildings of any camp, were unventilated, unlit and unclean.”24

 GTP Russian Station Men and Shack
GTP Russian Station Men and Shack

Again, Beckersteth:25

The bunkhouse was long, but narrow. The bunks, of which there were two tiers, ran down both sides, and only left a very narrow aisle down the middle. At the far end was a heater, and we all sat at that end facing each other on two benches, while quite a few preferred to lie in their bunks.

I wish you could have seen those men. They came in covered with mud from head to foot, and proceeded to divest themselves of their wet boots and socks and overalls, which they hung up from every conceivable corner. Some put on dry socks, but most stayed with bare feet. The floor was soon as muddy as it was outside, with men coming in and out, and, of course, everyone spat where they wished.

This lack of personal hygiene meant vermin were present. Sleeping in their clothes, and infrequently washing except on Sunday, the men were subject to infections of one sort or another. Nick Gill, “developed an itch...and aggravated by sweat, dirt and chafing the rash festered and the skin turned raw.”26 His only relief was to boil sulphur matches in water and use the concoction to ease his discomfort.27


The quantity and quality of the food varied, depending on the contractor. Contractors like Foley, Welch and Stewart would provide nutritious and plentiful food. Sub-contractors having to purchase their supplies from the head contractor would and did introduce economies, which meant a less varied fare for the workers. Station men being their own “contractors” had an unbalanced and monotonous diet.

Nick Gill, who with some companions having walked miles, finally joined up with four men who had a sub-contract to excavate a cut 700 feet long. They subsisted on a diet of bread, beans and cheese, the meat obtained too often was spoiled and inedible.28 Table manners were non-existent, as Bickersteth experienced.

There must have been 200 of us or more. There was plenty of food on the table, but unless one was very hungry it would be difficult to eat a good meal, because the conditions under which it is served are distinctly unattractive. One man sticks his fork into the potatoes, another puts the spoon he has just had in his mouth into the sugar, or dumps a dirty plate right down in the cake. Everyone eats as if his life depended on it, only raising his head to ask a neighbor to pass something else.29


The purchase of supplies constituted a running irritant for the workers who had to purchase the necessities from the sub-contractors who, in turn, had to buy them from the head contractor. Granted, that it was costly to bring in huge quantities of supplies, nevertheless the mark-ups were unconscionable. While the CPR could declare that a 10 percent mark-up was adequate, sub-contractors on the Crow’s Nest were charging from 20 to 40 percent.30 And Bickersteth felt it was excessive for a worker to be charged “...twelve dollars for a pair of boots, five to ten dollars for a pair of blankets, forty-five cents for a twenty-five cent packet of tobacco and twenty-five cents for a ten-cent bar of soap.”31 But Foley, Lock and Larsen of Winnipeg, owned and operated by Foley Bros. and Larsen made comfortable profits in supplying the camps along the GTP.32 As Geoffrey Taylor points out:33

In most cases, under their agreements, the sub-contractors were compelled to buy all their supplies from Foley Bros. and Larsen. This gave them a captive market in the grocery business and the subsidiary generated handsome profits of between $50,000 and $70,000 a year. Both John W. Stewart and Patrick Welch were shareholders and directors. Being a major contractor in the boom days of the early 1900’s was a very profitable business.

Medical Services

A usual fee of $1 per month (50 cents on the Crow’s Nest) was deducted from a labourer’s wage for medical services. On the Crow’s Nest there were no field hospitals. As the Commissioner’s report indicated, two of the doctors were “forced to admit that medical supplies were not sufficient, that the distances were too long, and that they could not properly attend generally to their duties.”34 Medical services like other works, were contracted out. As Taylor explains:35

A doctor under written contract to Foley, Welch and Stewart would be assigned a certain district. He would be required to set up an office and a small hospital near one of the head quarters' camps of the contractor to serve the surrounding camps of the sub-contractors...he was also required to make periodic visits to the camps. When it is remembered that there might be 15 or more camps...each one or two days' journey away, it is not surprising that camp visits were few and far between.

Bradwin indicated that when the contract was for an extended length of time, subsidiary hospitals manned by student doctors would be established. He had high praise for these young men, who, nevertheless, were not immune to the problems of isolation and the loneliness of the job and “jumping is chronic even with them.”36 But he had harsh critisism of the contractors who generally ignored the unsanitary camp conditions:37

 Grave of an Unknown Railway Worker
Grave of an Unknown Railway Worker

Back of each work in frontier places there upon a hillside was the place of crosses. That could be expected, life is not leased to any man and all camp tasks bring particular hazards; but of a dozen graves, mostly unnamed, situated in a birch grove, whose flattened mounds now scarse mark the place where once a busy camp was noisy with the sounds of construction, how many were laid there through accidents and other unavoidable causes, or were the greater number carried hence for sepulchre, having paid prematurely, the penalty of living conditions in unsanitary camps?

Bradwin summarized the complaints about the medical systems by stating:38

1. That little was return for the fee deducted.

2. That the service was irregular and uncertain.

3. That quite frequently the so-called hospitals were a pretense.

4. ...that the medical systems suffered from its very relation...the medical men...were beholden by the system to the very parties responsible for the existing condition.

Liquor and Prostitution

 Construction Hamlet
Construction Hamlet

Professor Lower in recalling his experiences, wrote: “The only law that seemed to be taken seriously was that forbidding alcohol. Alcohol led to fighting and idleness...'fancy women' were different. They kept the men comforted.”39 And he goes on to recount the arrival of “Boxcar Rosie” and her retinue.

The labourers who built the railways were robust and lusty young men and diversions were few. Though alcohol was proscribed by law, bootlegging occured. And the end-of-steel town was, for Bickersteth, “...a wicked place. Every other log shanty or tent that you see is either a gambling joint, drinking saloon, brothel, or pool room.”40 Scant solace for the rigours of railway construction.


Given the conditions of work along the grade, it is not surprising that the turnover was great. Immigrant labourers were necessary but the conditions elicited Lower’s harsh indictment that “Canadian management of the immigrant labourer consisted largely in the art of exploiting him.”41 Bickersteth observed that foreigners as opposed to English-speaking workers remained longest at the hard work along the grade.42 He also mentions that labour unrest resulted in constant enquiries.43 Gang bosses would berate the workers to speed up the work. This verbal abuse infuriated and demoralized men like Hnat Barabash,44 but as Taylor points out:

Unfortunately, most of the foremen had come up through the ranks and their strength was displayed in the power of their fists and a biting tongue. It is no wonder that working under such conditions there was continued unrest.45

He also is at a loss to explain why “ one in the railway management or on the staff of a contractor ever suggested that improving pay and living conditions would attract and hold more men.”46 But Bradwin’s poignant epitaph sums it up best. “It is not to be wondered that darts with barbed points, enter the souls of men.... They view with deep hatred a system which holds life so cheaply.”47 As Alex Woods said, “ such practises was the west opened up and developed.”48

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. A. Woods, “Digging the Ditch in '08” The Western Producer, Thursday, 1 March 1973, p. C2.
2. J. Burgon Bickersteth, The Land of Open Doors (London, Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., 1914), p. 152.
3. A.R.M Lower, My First Seventy-Five Years (Toronto, MacMillan of Canada, 1967), p. 65.
4. Edmund W. Bradwin, The Bunkhouse Man: A Study of Work and Pay in the Camps of Canada, 1903-1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928,. Re-issued in 1972 by University of Toronto Press with an introduction by Jean Burnet), p. 247.
5. Frank Leonard, A Thousand Blunders (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1996), p. 95.
6. T.D. Regehr, The Canadian Northern Railway:Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies 1895–1918 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976), pp. 56–57.
7. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 20.
8. Bickersteth, p. 146.
9. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 16.
10. Ibid., p. 6; Bradwin, pp. 74–75.
11. Bradwin, p. 55.
12. Ibid., p. 76.
13. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No. 90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 17.
14. Bradwin, pp. 66–68.
15. A.B. Woywitka, “Strike at Waterways” Alberta Historical Review 20, no. 4 (Autumn 1972).
16. A.B. Woywitka, “Labouring on the Railroad” Alberta History 27.1 (Winter 1979): 30.
17. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 13.
18. Bickersteth, p. 225.
19. G.W. Taylor, The Railway Contractors: The Story of J.W. Stewart, His Enterprises and Associates (Victoria: Morris Publishing, 1988), p. 72.
20. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 9.
21. Bickersteth, p. 206.
22. Ibid., p. 210.
23. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 8.
24. Taylor, p. 38; Bradwin has much to say on this subject.
25. Bickersteth, pp. 194, 195.
26. Woywitka, p. 29.
27. Ibid., p. 29.
28. Woywitka, pp. 28, 29.
29. Bickersteth, pp. 194, 195.
30. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 13.
31. Bickersteth, p. 162.
32. Taylor, p. 56.
33. Ibid.
34. Dominion, 61 Victoria, Sessional Papers (No.90A), 1898, Report of the Commissioners in re: Crow’s Nest Complaints, p. 15.
35. Taylor, p. 77.
36. Bradwin, p. 174.
37. Ibid., pp. 181–82.
38. Ibid., p. 182.
39. Lower, p. 65.
40. Bickersteth, p. 199.
41. Lower, p. 64.
42. Bickersteth, p. 195.
43. Ibid., p. 162.
44. Woywitka, “Strike at Waterways,” p. 2.
45. Taylor, p. 78.
46. Ibid., p. 56.
47. Bradwin, p. 92.
48. Woods, p. C2.