Building Railways
Building the Railways
Contractual Arrangements
Building the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway: A Typical Example
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Building the Railways

Contractual Arrangements

Building the Permanent Way
Building the Permanent Way
nce the location of the right-of-way had been determined, the services of a general contractor had to be engaged. The general contractor might be an independant company, a subsidiary of the railway company, or the company itself.

According to T. Regehr, the Canadian Pacific Syndicate used all three kinds of contractual relationships.1 In 1882, the Syndicate engaged Langdon, Shepard and Co., a large American firm to build the line across the prairies.2 The “contract provided the specifications according to which the new line was to be built and set the rates for the various classes fo work to be done.”3 Langdon and Shepard then hired sub-contractors for specific kinds of work. In 1883, the Syndicate obtained the services of the North American Contracting Co., which was but the “syndicate in another and foreign disguise.”4 This financial experiment having failed, the Syndicate then “assumed full control of all construction contracts and sub-contracts.”5 This meant hiring smaller contractors to undertake specific types of work such as “clearing of rights of way, building...road beds,...making road cuts, laying track..., ballasting...building snowsheds and station facilites.”6 The middleman had been eliminated.

William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, who had both sub-contracted for the CPR joined forces to create the Canadian Northen Railway. Because of restrictions imposed by the Railway Act they had incorporated the Mackenzie, Mann and Company Limited, which became the general contracting firm for the CNoR.7 According to Regehr, this compnay “usually did only the tracklaying. Much of the ...heaviest work, particularily in later years was contracted out.”8

Building the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway: A Typical Example

 Grading on Grand Trunk Pacific at Clover Bar
Grading on Grand Trunk Pacific at Clover Bar

In the case of the Grand Trunk Pacific the railway company relied almost exclusively on the firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart (formerly Foley Brothers and Larsen and Co.)9 The policy of the GTP was “to award contracts by classification of work rather than by sections.... There were dozens more contracts signed for other classes of work, but the job of clearing and levelling the ground and building the roadbed always went to the latter firm.”10 That is Foley, Welch and Stewart.

John Duncan McArthur, having been a successful contractor eventually acquired the charters and then built and operated three railway companies in Alberta. He operated through the J.D. McArthur Company, but often used his brother’s company D.F. McArthur Co. of Winnipeg as subcontractor.11

 Steam Shovel on the Grand Trunk Pacific
Steam Shovel on the Grand Trunk Pacific

However, whatever the contractual system employed, the technology of building the railways remained largely the same. Geoffrey Taylor, writing about the building of the GTP states that technology “had changed little in its essentials since Langdon and Shepard laid the roadbed for the Canadian Pacific in the 1880s... the pick and shovel gang, the horse and dump wagon, and the scraper were still the mainstay of the contractor.”12 And in replying to a request for information concerning the early construction of the McArthur railways between 1910 ad 1918, W. Lawton wrote, “Very little machinery was used in the construction of sub-grade. Station contract men with wheelbarrows did most of the grading across muskegs and light cuts and fills. Horse drawn fresnos, scrapers and elevating graders were used to a small extent. On the river valleys at Smokey, Peace River and Burnt River, a steam shovel was used in the heavy cuts, haul of excavated quantities being done by horse drawn dump cars. Bridge construction contractors for timber and pile bridges used drop hammer (steam) for pile driving and stiff-leg for heavy construction.”13

Along with the introduction of the steam shovel, the other major technological innovation was the track-laying machine known as the “Pioneer.” V.B. Bickersteth described it as “more like a large crane placed in a truck.”14 While G.R. Stevens likens it to “a great mechanical insect...whose profile...was that of a praying mantis.”15 Bickersteth, who was on one of his missionary rounds, was “conscripted” one morning to assist in laying rail. He described this machine which was located at the front of the work train carrying the materials for the track:

The first thing was to erect two trams, one on either side of the train. Each tram consists of two parallel steel beams joined together by rollers every eight feet. These steel beams are fixed to the train by brackets; the rollers which they support revolve at a great pace, and automatically carry forward on outside the train ties, and on the other side the rails. Both of these rapidly propelled from the back of the train to the very front of the Pioneer.16

Continuing, he writes:

From two long steel arms, placed of an angle of about 45 degrees, hang long steel ropes which catch the rails as they come off the train. Men rush forward, bear them down into place, and join them up to the last two already laid—the exact breadth of the guage is given by a man with a properly measured rod. Before this stage, the ties which fairly hurtle off the train on the other side of the train, have been caught, each one by two men, and placed in position for enough for one or two length of rail—then the tiemen stand aside, and,...the railmen place the rails in position. After two or three lengths of rail have been laid [and initially spiked] in this way, the Pioneer gives two short hoots...and the Pioneer and the whole train advance some twenty or thirty feet; the Pioneer then gives one hoot as a signal for the train to stop. The...whole process is put through once more. Some fifty yards behind the train comes the gang of spikers who drive the final spikes into the ties.17

Specification for Construction and Equipment
Specification for Construction and Equipment

The process of construction of the prairie section of the GTPR has been vividly described by Stevens in his book on the CNR, Towards the Inevitable:18

The contractors pitched a tented town with offices and cookhouses, a park of wagons, carts, scrapers and graders, piles of tools, heaps of forage, and horselines not of neat military pattern but scattered for convenience and shelter. The first task was the sub-division of the contract and the establishment of work camps. These camps were of standard size, designed to accomodate 120 men, which was the allotted labour force on a sub-division of six miles.

Before the last tent had been pitched the foremen and the straw bosses would be out to inspect the levels and to get the job in their mind’s eye. Next morning there would be a gash in the prairie and a welt would rise as the scraper teams in their monotonous unending circle built up the roadbed or transferred the spoil of the cuts to the nearest fills. Then the pick, shovel and wheelbarrow brigade would tidy up the edges and graders would smooth the surface. Meanwhile the culvert men had gone ahead to plan the drainage of the embankments and to imprison any small streams which must be crossed. If a coulee was encountered the bridge gangs would bring forward timber to erect a temporary trestle beneath which, when the work trains came forward, the fill would rise. With the sub-section complete, the prairie would be empty once more save for the dyke of the roadbed marching across the plain.

But not for long; as activity died on one horizon, it reopened on the other. A puff of smoke...announced the arrival of the rail-layer.

As soon as the track was down the specialists arrived. There were carpenters, bricklayers, concrete workers, plasterers, fitters, painters, and plumbers. Their tasks were to erect the permanent structures.

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. T.D. Regehr, Contracting for the Canadian Pacific Railway , in L.H. Thomas, ed. Essays on Western History , p. 113.
2. Ibid., p. 117.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 121.
5. Ibid., p. 124.
6. Ibid.
7. T.D. Regehr, The Canadian Northern Railway:Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies 1895–1918 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976), p. 47.
8. Ibid., p. 56.
9. G.R. Stevens, Canadian National RAilways, Vol. 2, Towards the Inevitable , p. 175.
10. G.W. Taylor, The Railway Contractors, p. 54.
11. E. Schneider, Ribboons of Steel, pp. 14, 75.
12. G.W. Taylor, The Railway Contractors, p. 53.
13. Provincial Archives of Alberta 86.587 File 1257 (old), 366 (new).
14. J.B. Bickersteth, The Land of Open Doors, p. 215.
15. G.R. Stevens, Canadian National Railways, Vol. 2, Towards the Inevitable , p. 175.
16. J.B. Bickersteth, The Land of Open Doors, pp. 215–16.
17. Ibid., pp. 215–16.
18. G.R. Stevens, Canadian National Railways, Vol. 2 , p9. 176–77.