Chapter 2 - The Railroad - Gordon Murchison Memoirs

Chapter 2 - The Railroad


            As mentioned above North Bay is 200 miles by crow flight from Wingham but the C.P.R. routed me to North Bay by way of Toronto, Smith Falls, Carleton Place and Pembroke to North Bay. Leaving Wingham at 7 A.M. I reached Toronto in early afternoon and took the night train to Carleton Place where I arrived early the next morning and had to stay there until late afternoon to get the westbound train to North Bay. And here in the little town of Carleton Place occurred my first real tussle with John Barleycorn.


    The local bus delivered me from the depot to the Queens Hotel (which still stands). Feeling like a grown man, I walked into the bar. The barkeeper looked over and down at me and said "what'll you have?” "Whiskey" says I. So he pushed out a black bottle and a water tumbler. Wanting to be sure I would get my money's worth I poured out a real hooker and downed it, neat. I strolled out to the writing rooms and selecting a comfortable bucket chair I spent the rest of the day in a very sound sleep. My first jag, and a good one.


            The hotel man woke me up to get on the bus and get to the train for North Bay. I didn't seem to be remorseful about this early downfall. Felt really grown up. It must have been good honest whiskey. That evening I arrived in North Bay about dark and found me a place to live with a Mrs. McDevitt at $4.50 per week for meals and lodging. I gave her all the money I had, which wasn't much. Went to bed and had a good sleep. The next morning I was ready to tackle my job whatever it was.


            At the tender age of 15 past I was just too young to be entrusted with a job as a telegrapher regardless of how proficient I was. My job was in the general freight office and a dusty one it was too. I was put to work in the records room which was just a disorderly mass of paper. The problem was to sort it all out, destroy everything over seven years old, bind the rest in order of dates and numbers and make a reference index. The records room was a hot stuffy little box of a place with poor ventilation. I finished the job but my health was turning bad. Then followed a transfer to the yard office as a night checker, which in some ways was a mean kind of a job for a youngster. In those days North Bay was the northern terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway, the southern terminus of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, the eastern terminus of the Soo line to Minneapolis-Moose Jaw and Spokane, and of course an important divisional point on the Transcontinental line of the C.P.R. Here I learned some of the tough side of railroading. North Bay was the jumping off place for all sorts of hard characters including "high graders" working the high grade ore cars enroute from Cobalt to Toronto. Those railway yards were not healthy at night for a full grown man who might become curious about the "going's on".  I had many a scare as I went about my work with a small lantern on my arm, but nothing serious happened. It was impressed upon me that my work had to be accurately done in order to record the movement through North Bay of thousands of boxcars, etc. Certain it was that the importance of doing things right wasn't reflected in my pay cheque of twenty- eight dollars per month. After paying Mrs. McDevitt $18.00 a month for board and room, there wasn't much left. In fact there wasn't any left. But my health improved some by being out of doors.



            About this time there was a bad train wreck near Azilda, a flag station near Sudbury. A trainload consisting of seventeen coaches filled with harvest hands bound for Western Canada and which I had checked out of North Bay a couple of hours later, was in a head-on collision with eastbound #2, the crack passenger train from Vancouver. Thirty-seven people were killed and equipment scattered all over the right of way. No. 2 included a couple of express cars loaded with fresh fish from the Pacific, and the wrecking crew hastily loaded a lot of loose fish in box cars and rushed them to North Bay to be repacked in ice. I earned some overtime money helping to pack those big halibut and succeeded in lugging a big one, say about 20 Ibs. to the boarding house and we all ate fish for about a week.


My main friend among the yard office staff was a great old railroader, named Fred Hawker the yardmaster, a gruff hard-spoken but kindly man who seemed to take a liking to me. Apart from him, my only pal was a crippled young fellow, Laurie Fyfe, who hailed from nearby Callandar, the place that became internationally known many years later as the birthplace of the famous Dionne "Quints". In my leisure hours during late afternoons I learned to fish for pike in Lake Nipissing and notwithstanding my chronic shortage of pocket money I got quite a "bang" out of being on my own and on my way as a railroader. But I had some other experiences ahead before I made further progress.


            I kept mother posted on my progress by regular letters, but winter was coming on and I hadn't saved a cent. I needed some new clothes but I felt it would be useless to ask for help from home. So I began thinking of ways and means to travel further in search of my fortune.


            One night during my car checking duties I stopped to chat with an elderly man who had 2 carloads of Settlers effects including some livestock. He was traveling from near Collingwood, Ontario to Kelowna, B.C. where he had a start in cattle ranching. The old gentleman seemed to take a liking to me and asked me how I would like to go along with him and help to look after his livestock. The next day I was on my way, tucked into a hide-away in one of his cars. This was in early November, 1905. I will never know why I didn't freeze to death on that famous trip. We were in the Winnipeg yards for two days and the weather was below zero. My steady companions were three blooded colts and a big shorthorn bull that weighed a ton. The horses and the bull were stern to stern and when the freight train started banging around the young horses would get excited and boy how they could kick that old bull’s ass. As for the bull, all he could do was lower his head and beller. The owner rode always in the train caboose, so I had the fun and the freezing all to myself. Many a time I huddled up close to my old bull friend to keep warm. I forget how many days it took to reach the Rockies, but I will never forget standing at a narrowly opened car door watching with fascination the lofty Rockies and the Selkirk Range.


          At Secamius Junction our cars were switched out for the run down to Okanagan Landing, where all the stuff had to be trans- shipped on the lake steamer Aberdeen for the 50 odd mile sail down to Kelowna. My meal in the saloon of the Aberdeen was the first full dress meal I had had since leaving North Bay about 2 weeks before. All my eats had been snacks and cold ones at that. However, this was British Columbia. The scenery was grand and the weather perfect. My health was surprisingly good and I was enjoying every minute of it.


             At Kelowna all the stuff was unloaded again and although it was getting toward sundown I was told to lead my friend the bull out to Conklin's ranch on Scotty Creek, 10 miles away. So I set out with the bull on the end of a ring chain and a steer pole. About 1 mile out of Kelowna I met a couple of real cowboys ridin' hell for leather. They pulled up and looked me over, asked me where I was going with the bull. I told them about it and they insisted I ride the critter, assured me no bull would buck and one of them grabbed me and set me up on its back. The bull rolled his eyes a bit, gave a mild snort and then with the urging of these crazy cowboys it started off at its slow waddling walk. I just sat there crosswise on its broad back all the way to the ranch. I'll never forget that big friendly shorthorn bull.  I guess he must have sensed that I needed a friend. During the ensuing weeks I came to know those two cowboys very well, McClelland Bros. who had a ranch of sorts on the slopes of Black Mountain.


            My employer, Mr. Conklin, was a queer mixture.  Deeply religious around the house, he was one of the world's best at cussin' when things went wrong on the range.  One day I was helping him round up some stray horses to drive off his ranch. We got them cornered in a high rocky bluff but they wouldn’t budge out of there. So telling me to head them in the right direction he put his bay saddler up a very steep slope to laze them down. He was just about to the top when the stray herd broke to go down and his horse took a real tumble. Both he and horse just rolled over and over all the way down down and I sat on my nag in fits of laughter. Whereupon the good man let loose with a blast of profanity at me, at stray horses and ranching in general.


      I ate my meals in the ranch house but I was given a little frame shanty up on a bench about five hundred yards away to sleep in. Place had a little sheet iron stove and a couple of bunks. Scotty creek, a noisy mountain stream was just below it. The siding had dried out and I could lie in my bunk and count the stars. The shack had been used at one time by a couple of Chinamen who made their living doing placer gold washing in the creek. However the place was healthy for me, sheltered by towering big pines. I breathed the fresh piney air all night long.


            To be sure, I had an odd feeling of homesickness because I was still a youngster in years and I was a long way from home. Finally, I got up enough courage to write mother telling her where I was. Her reply was full of alarm for my well-being. Indeed, she went so far as to say that if I didn't come back nearer home she would ask the police to come and get me. I didn't relish that idea, so I wrote to the General Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Winnipeg with an outline of my affairs and applied for another job on the railroad and thus another change occurred which was to lead to many weird experiences.


      When I received a reply from Winnipeg there was enclosed a first class pass and advice of my appointment to a night job in the Box Car station at a place called Deception, about fifty miles west of Kenora, Ontario. Due to delayed mails, the pass was void when I received it. However, I talked things over with my employer and his wife and they urged me to try again.  I had little in the way of money but old Conklin came to my rescue with $25.00.


          I wrote Winnipeg again returning the outdated pass and requested new transportation good at least for a month from the date of issue. This duly arrived. Hearing about the dreadful cold weather in the prairies I just had to buy an overcoat. There was a fairly close neighbor who said he had no further use for a good coonskin coat he had bought from Ontario several years before, he was prepared to to let me have it for $10.00. So dressed like a millionaire, but with mighty little cash I set out for Deception, Ontario. That place was well named, believe me.


         The train I was on from Secamius was only 4 days late on arrival in Winnipeg and by that time I was down to my last 25 cents.  This I spent in the Union Station lunchroom and got back on the train to proceed to Kenora to report to the District Superintendent, J.J. Scully. The train arrived about 9 p.m. There was no Scully to be found. The Chief Dispatcher, Mr. Horne was sympathetic but asked me to come in the next morning about 9 o'clock. There was nothing for it but to bundle up in my fur coat and spend the night in the waiting room and man, was it a cold night around there. The next morning friend Scully was indignant about the delay in my arrival; said they had had to substitute help for nearly a month at Deception and only a couple of days previous had sent a man there to fill the job. He had nothing for me; said he was sorry but all he could do would be a pass back to Winnipeg or further on to Fort William. I told him that was no good to me. I had to eat and I had come a long way from a mild country for this job. I suggested that at least he could do would be to arrange for my transportation and expenses back to B.C. This he couldn't do and we parted with a warm invitation for me to come back and see him again later.


        I had a slip of paper in my pocket that I got from North Bay after I suddenly quit my job there. It said that I had $19.00 coming to me if presented to the Company paymaster. I also had a pretty good fur coat and a craving for food. So bolstering up my courage I walked into the Russell House in Kenora and had a talk to the Manager who turned out to be a real friend. He gave me room and board for two weeks until I could get my $19.00. The town was full of railway construction workers building the new Canadian National Railway 40 miles to the north. I made the rounds of the employment offices and the best offer was $25.00 per month in a rock cut. Sure didn't sound very attractive but I had to get work. I ran into a fellow one day who had been working in the construction camps for quite a spell and was out to civilization on a "bender". He was a short guy like myself. He had a brand new suit of mackinaws which he traded even for my fur coat and lo! I was ready to go to work. I'll never forget that trip out to a spot near where the town of Reddit was subsequently built. The stage consisted of an open box set of sleighs drawn by a big strong team of black horses. My company was mostly Italian workmen; about 20 of them. Most of them had been out there before. One of them was a foreman in a rock cut and he was pretty drunk when we started out just just about daylight. The further we went the drunker he got and the weather was so bitterly cold everyone had to walk most of the time to keep from freezing. This particular Italian was too tight to walk and gradually he sank into a real stupor. I knew the man was freezing and the driver agreed to stop while we built a fire on the road to thaw him out. His compatriots didn't seem to care much if he survived but I worked on his hands, both of which were very badly frozen, until the circulation began to return and then he nearly went crazy. Bit the skin off his knuckles, prayed in Italian and generally raised quite a rumpus. I finally got him settled down and lent him my mitts for a while. He swore by all his angels that he would give me all his next pay check for saving his life. I saw him in a rock cut about a month later he was barely civil to me. Bastard !


            In due course we reached the headquarters camp and I was assigned to driving a single horse hauling rock cars from the face of the cut to the dump. Years later as I rode over that part of the Canadian National Railway in an observation car, I could pick out the part of the right of way that I had helped to build. It was a hard but healthy life. I made my first acquaintance with body lice but this was not a unique experience. After several weeks in the rock cut I was given a fine team to drive with headquarters in another camp about 8 miles away. Little did I know the perils of the job.  It turned to be delivering black powder and frozen dynamite to about a dozen work jobs. Things went well for a while. I was more or less on my own when away from camp. But one day early in March I had fifty kegs of black powder and fifty cases of high power dynamite on board, when I was really flirting with death. The sleighs skidded going around a sharp curve in the tote road and the rear brake caught solidly on a sizable jack pine. The sleigh stopped dead, the double tree broke and the team just jogged down the road. I hesitated a second or two and then followed them, thinking every second that the dynamite would explode. I never went back to look at the load. I caught my team and headed right on to camp and told the boss I was through hauling powder. He wasn’t such a bad guy, - knew I had a bad scare. Told me to report to the camp cook and work there as a helper until I got over my scare.


            This cook was quite a fellow, name was Jack Currie, and he could really cook food. There were 150 men to feed three times a day and everything had to move like clockwork. I liked the job fine although the hours were from 4:30 A.M. until 9 P.M.  Lots of good food and a clean place to sleep. This fellow Currie was a stickler on cleanliness and order, but he had a fearful temper. Every day he would lie down for 15 minutes sleep after the noon meal and I had strict orders not to let him oversleep. One day just to be kind to him I gave him an extra five minutes, but when I woke him he flew into a rage and gave me a real cussin' out. In his rage he was looking for something to hit me with and he grabbed a good sized potato out of a tub and heaved it at me. His aim was perfect and I was hurt. My own temper flew out of hand and I grabbed the first thing handy to retaliate which happened to be a big meat cleaver lying on a work table. I let her go and Currie  gave a scream and dove under a table. The cleaver made about three turns and lodged solidly in the log wall of the kitchen. This ended my job as cook's helper. Currie went yelling to the office that his helper had gone nuts and tried to murder him. I was promptly fired and told to hit the trail.


            The next morning I hiked to headquarters camp and back for my time check. Just a little matter of sixteen miles, and I had less than fifty dollars coming to me. In the afternoon, with my worldly belongings on my back, I started the long trek to civilization, forty miles away. The nearest stop was on the Winnipeg river, twenty four miles ahead. How I made that lonely journey will remain a mystery. The trail followed frozen lakes most of the way and all of them had six to eight inches of pure slush on top of the ice. All the tote teams were off the roads as the going was too dangerous. Spring breakup was not too far off. By mid-afternoon I started throwing away my stuff. My feet were wet and numb with cold. The last stretch of ice was a long and weary ten miles. The sun was sinking and I had little idea how far I still had to go to make the stopping place. That part of the country was known to be invested with timber wolves. Suddenly a big bull moose walked out of the woods and gazed around. He gave one loud honk and within seconds wolves started to howl. I could only keep going and when I reached the portage and solid footing I tried to run but I was so damn scared and tired out I could only shuffle along. Thank the  Lord the stopping place was less than a mile away and I stumbled into the place completely beat.


            I woke up in bed. The proprietor, a Frenchman, urging    me to drink something hot, said I had passed out and he put me to bed. Place was comfortable, although rough looking and the fellow said I would likely have to stay with him until the ice broke up and a boat came to take us to town. Keewatin was still some fifteen miles away. I had some sleep that night but in the morning I knew I had some fever. The Frenchman urged me to stay, but I  wasn't having any, and I started off in a rainy morning to complete my trek. On arrival in Keewatin, I went to the old Bay City hotel, got a room and asked the clerk to get me a doctor. So there I was with a bad case of pleurisy and by the time I was able to get on my feet I didn't have enough money to pay the hotel bill and the doctor. In addition, I was as thin as a crow and weak as a baby. So ended my adventure into railway construction work in that part of the world.


            During my employment in the railway construction camps I had struck up a close friendship with two English chaps from Sheffield, Fred and Alf Kenworthy. Alf in particular came to be a very close friend. I wrote him during my convalescence ion the hotel in Keewatin and before I was able to be up and about, Alf had quit the construction camp and found a job in the new Barkers & Brooks sawmill near Keewatin and had located in a nearby boarding house. So thither I went when I was able to move around. I was too weak to try any kind of work for about a week, but Alf staked me to food and lodgings. This couldn't last long because Alf wasn't making big wages at the mill.


            I had to try to get something I could do so I paid a visit to the big mill yard and hunted up the yard superintendent. I told him my plight and he inquired if I knew lumber stocks at all. I must have convinced him that I wasn’t altogether dumb because he hired me as a shipper. I had a crew of three Russians to do the work of loading mixed car lots of lumber and got by for about ten days by discreetly asking another shipper for information and advice when I got balled up. However, the superintendent caught me cold one day and knew I was only bluffing my way along. He was very descent about it and in place of firing me on the spot, he sent me into the mill to see Flanagan, the mill boss. This Flanagan was a real Irisher and after looking me over he said “Just the laddie I’m lookin’ for. I need a spry young fellow to tie lath in the lath mill. Your pay will be $2.75 a day and go to it”


            The job wasn’t a heavy one but I had to move quickly to keep the lath racks clear from the gang saws. I was a very tired young fellow for the first few days but I got hardened into it and looking backward now, I can say that I enjoyed doing that simple job. I got my debts paid and bought some new clothes and generally Alf Kenworthy and I spent a pleasant time in the Kenora-Keewatin part of the Lake of the Woods.


            It’s funny how things work around in a way that alters the course of a person’s life. One evening Alf and I were having a bull session at the boarding house with some of the mill hands. I was being kidded about being too small for a real mill hand, that I could never amount to anything but a hand in the lath mill. I let those guys in on my secret ambition to be a real railroader in the operating end and all I got was a big laugh. So I made a small bet with them that I could get a white collar job on the C.P.R. within a week. And I did.


                     I took a day off from the mill and went into Kenora, only 3 miles away~to see one J. J. Scully, Divisional Superintendent to whom some reference has been made heretofore. Scully was apparently glad to see me. He offered me a job at once as Assistant Agent at a place called Dinorwic about 100 miles east of Kenora. Of course I

accepted and immediately quit the job at the big sawmill. Scully gave me a pass to the job and I must record that Dinorwic at that time, and still is, a mighty small village, but even so, it meant a fresh start. My wages were again $25.00 a month and when I think back over the years I don't wonder why the C.P.R. made a lot of money for itself during those times. They certainly didn't pay me much, but that was before the time the ordinary railway workers were unionized. My boss, the Agent, was a fine fellow by the name of Ernie Hocking. He was born and raised in Listowel, Ontario, only a few miles from Wingham. He had a night operator by the name of Art Rolph who lived in the railway depot. Hocking and I stayed at Poiles boarding house.


        In addition to being a way station on the main line of the C.P.R., Dinorwic was then the headquarters office for Foley Bros. Construction contractors on the Canadian National which was building some sixty miles north. It was also a distributing point for the

Hudson Bay Company. I started to work in August and before long the wheat trains were rolling east from Winnipeg to Fort William. All in all it was a busy spot. Recreation was scarce. Neil Buie had a pool room. Jack Joyce ran a restaurant and a blind pig, but I didn't have any money to squander on riotous living. Kept me busy paying my board and buying my clothes, but I was learning a lot about the business of being a station agent.  Had to practice up again on my Morse, but my main duties were looking after the freight and express business, selling tickets, etc., and dealing with claims. So I made a small bet with them that I could get a white collar job on the C.P.R. within a week. And I did.


                     I took a day off from the mill and went into Kenora, only 3 miles away to see one J. J. Scully, Divisional Superintendent to whom some reference has been made heretofore. Scully was apparently glad to see me. He offered me a job at once as Assistant Agent at a place called Dinorwic about 100 miles east of Kenora. Of course I accepted and immediately quit the job at the big sawmill. Scully gave me a pass to the job and I must record that Dinorwic at that time, and still is, a mighty small village, but even so, it meant a fresh start. My wages were again $25.00a month and when I think back over the years I don't wander why the C.P.R. made a lot of money for itself during those times. They certainly didn't pay me much, but that was before the time the ordinary railway workers were unionized. My boss, the Agent, was a fine fellow by the name of Ernie Hocking. He was born and raised in Listowel, Ontario, only a few miles from Wingham. He had a night operator by the name of Art Rolph who lived in the railway depot. Hocking and I stayed at Poiles boarding house.


       Late that fall there were a few of us scattered along  the line who decided to go to Dryden for a bit of a holiday. One  of them was a fellow named Murphy, the night operator at a place named Tache, about thirty miles east of Donorwic and another guy from Hawk Lake, west of Dryden.      I was in on the deal too and we all foregathered in Dryden about 30 miles west of Dinorwic, one cold forenoon and proceeded to celebrate a little. When it came time to head back to respective jobs Murphy, who was a real boomer operator, wasn't near ready to come along, so we left him in Dryden.


            In the meantime his boss, the Agent at Tache, had to hold down his trick on the train wire. The following evening Murphy dropped off a freight at Dinorwic and came in for a visit. He was very tight but we put him back on the caboose and urged him to get along to his job. We told his Agent he was on his way. About three hours later Murphy was back in Dinorwic . Said he had looked in on his boss in Tache and he seemed to be doing O.K., so he decided to head back to Dryden to continue his binge. We prevailed on him to wire his resignation in to the dispatcher at Kenora, which he did, and then went on his way. We learned a few weeks later that Murphy had been picked up in Winnipeg as a vagrant and given twenty four hours to get out of the city. Poor old Jimmy climbed on a blind baggage heading for Minneapolis, but when he was pulled off at Emmerson, both his hands were so badly frozen they had to be amputated. I mention this incident mainly to illustrate the carefree, devil-may-care attitude of many people in those days. Jimmy was a grand fellow, an expert telegrapher but he couldn't stay away from booze.


        In December of that year both Hocking and I were transferred to Dryden, and whilst I didn't know it at the time, I was heading into another crisis. Things went along smoothly for a couple of months. Then one day our night operator, a chap named Ripley, arranged for a night off and for me to work his trick from 7 P.M. to A.M. At that time the main line of the C.P.R. was being double tracked and a section of it ran west from Dryden. I had the "Board" on all trains in both directions, even if only for clearance. About 10:30 P.M. a west bound freight extra came in. The conductor came in and signed the train register. I gave him a clearance into the westbound track, he pulled out of town and I registered him "by" to the dispatcher in Kenora. In about 20 minutes the dispatcher asked me for a report on that same freight extra. Told him I had reported it "by" at 10:30. He denied that I had and some hot Morse began to go and come. He called me a liar and I told him to go to hell. Naturally, he ordered me off the wire and demanded I call the Agent, which I did. Hocking didn't like losing a night's sleep but there was nothing else for it because the whereabouts of brother Ripley was unknown. I went to bed sore as a boil. When I came down to the station in the morning there was a wire from the Chief Dispatcher ordering me to report to him in Kenora by the first train. I sent him a wire instead and told him where to stick his blasted railroad, asked for my time and quit the job as of that minute.


                  What crazy things a young fellow does sometimes?  A couple of weeks later I got a very nice letter from the old chief, regretting that I had lost my temper and quit the company; All he had wanted to do to me in Kenora was to give me a good scolding and he even invited me to come back to work because I had been doing very well. My answer was still "no" and I was again in search of a job.


        I returned to Dinorwic to visit my acquaintances there, including the Factor of the Hudson Bay Company. I don't recall his name but his jurisdiction for the Company extended as far east as Nipigon, Ontario, and North to the foot of James Bay. At the  time the Company had a freighting contract for delivery of supplies to the Canadian National Railway in the area of what was later to become the town of Sioux Lookout; also to the Northern Pyrite Mine and for delivery of supplies to some of the scattered Hudson Bay Company trading posts. To facilitate this freighting service the Company established a chain of overnight camps at intervals of approximately fifteen miles. Some of them were closer than that. The Factor offered me a job to run one of their line camps on Big Vermillion Lake, about sixty miles north of Dinorwic. The wages were small but I was in no position to be choosy.


       So off I went with a freight swing of 6 double teams, each hauling about 4 tons of mixed freight. The trip took two and a half days. My camp consisted of a log stable to house up to 12 horses, a log bunk house for the teamsters and a cook tent. This was in late February and weather more often than not well below zero. My job was to see that teamsters were fed at night and on the road at the break of day in the morning. It was a chilly business cooking breakfast before that cook tent got warmed up. I was invariably alone all day and amused myself by taking hikes over the frozen lakes, doing a bit of fishing for lake trout through the ice. One day I came across an otter doing his slides down a snow bank into a small pond. One night after my teamsters were fed I decided to go and visit the man in charge of the nearest camp which was about ten miles down the road. In those days I weighed about 120 Ibs. and could walk or run more or less indefinitely. So I jogged down the road in bright moonlight. Going over a long portage through thick woods I was certain I heard a wolf and increased my speed a bit. I heard it again and again and in a few minutes I was in full flight. I ran until I was absolutely winded and had to stop for a breather. Suddenly a big owl flew into a tree almost overhead and gave out with the noise I had thought was a wolf. But I had been a scared young man out there all alone. I went on to my destination, had my visit and a snack and lit out for my own camp which I reached in about 2 hours feeling fine.


        During this job I had plenty of time to think and consider what kind of a fool I was being, instead of sticking to the railroad and making something of myself. As Spring approached, the freighting job had to be suspended. I had orders to close my camp on a certain date and come into Dimorwic. That was a trip I always feel proud about. I covered it on foot - 60 miles- in one long day. Pretty well done up when I got in but I had seen Indians working for the Company who had covered that much ground in a day. I doubted they could, but I proved it could be done.


        After loafing around Dinorwic for a week, I had a talk with a man named Swenson, Superintendent for Foley Bros & Larson, who asked me if I would be interested in taking 2 carloads of horses out to Tofield, Alberta, for delivery to a railroad contractor named Jackson, who was building the fifty mile stretch of grade east of Edmonton, Alberta. This was duck soup for me.  I knew my way railroad-wise, and I had some experience with carloads of livestock. What a trip that turned out to be.


        Swenson gave me some expense money for the trip and his only orders were to do my best to deliver the horses in good shape. In those days Tofield was an island village, 38 miles south of Chipman, Alta., which meant that the last 38 miles were overland.


        My first problem happened in Kenora, Ontario. My horses came into Kenora on a local and I wanted to be sure they were switched into the fast west-bound freight to Winnipeg. I went to the yard office to check on this and lo and behold if the yard- master wasn't my old friend Fred Hawker, who was yardmaster at North Bay during my period of service there. He assured me the nags would be on the fast freight and that I had lots of time to go uptown and have some breakfast before the train left.  I took him at his word but when I came back to the railway yards the train had left town and so had my two carloads of horses. This wasn't a very auspicious start. However, I barged into the dispatcher's office to get transportation on the first passenger train that would overtake the freight train. The dispatcher's name was McIntosh and he readily recalled my fairly recent employment as Assistant Agent at Dryden and Dinorwic. In the circumstances he arranged for my transportation on the westbound Imperial Limited which would overtake my horse train at a point fifty miles west of Kenora. And so I regained my cars of horses. When we reached Winnipeg the horse cars had to be transferred from the C.P.R., to the C.N.R. through St. Boniface and it was not until after dark that I could get the cars switched into the stockyards for unloading and watering. What a hell of a mud hole those stockyards were. However I got the nags all watered, fresh hay into the feed racks and reloaded by daylight in time for a switch engine to put them on a westbound C.N.R. freight.


       In those days the C.N.R. freights west of Winnipeg made daylight runs only. By evening we arrived at Dauphin, Manitoba, after a cold drizzly day enroute. The horses were all shivering and since we would proceed no further  until the next day I decided to unload again. One of the horses was quite sick and shortly after unloading reared up and fell over dead. It took me a full day to get them cleared away with the local veterinary, but in due course we were on our way again. The weather improved and after a 2-day run to North Battleford, Sask. I had to unload again to feed and water. Things were primitive around those stock yards, too. There was no water other than having a local fellow haul a tank full from the Sask. River about 3 miles away. I got that arranged and then my troubles and fun started over again.


        I had picked up an English immigrant who was beating his way west and concealed him in one of the horse cars. The switch engine engine left us with the leading car spotted at the unloading chute and after unloading it we uncoupled and let it roll out of the way. I put my hobo down at the chute and I manned the hand brake on the second car. His job was to tell me when to stop the damn thing. It was as dark as soot and between us the car ground to a halt about three feet foul of the chute. So we had to get it back in place to lay down the gangway. At that time of night I couldn't get a switch engine to help me out. I couldn't find a pinch bar to inch it back by ourselves. The teamster who arrived with the tank of water hitched his horses to it but couldn't budge it. It is noted here that the car was loaded with eighteen head of big horses. By this time, I was getting a little desperate. A little earlier I had seen a fellow unhitch a pair of oxen from a wagon and bed himself down for the night right beside his cattle. I had never even seen a yoke of oxen before but I had heard some tall tales about how they can pull. So I woke up the sleeping owner and told him my problem. He was a Frenchman homesteader from some place north of the town, and we finally made a deal. One dollar per foot plus a small bottle of rye whiskey I was carrying for emergencies. He harnessed up his oxen and brought them over to the stock car and hitched on. Well! Was that ever a performance. The Frenchman yelling at the oxen - threatening to cut their hearts out and brandishing a mean whip but he never struck them. The bulls just settled down to work and I mean "settled" because they sank their feet between those railway ties right to the knuckles. Suddenly the stock car gave a squeak and began to move. The good old oxen kept her coming until the car door was flush with the chute and my trouble was over. He took his money, drank the whiskey and he and his oxen were back on the bedding ground in a matter of minutes.


        The next morning we loaded one car and waited for the switch engine to spot the second one. When loading was over I was pretty tired and a sleepy young fellow. The cars were shunted onto a westbound freight and the conductor, fellow named McCullough, told me to go back to the caboose and get some sleep. A couple of hours later one of the train crew woke me and said breakfast is ready. Sure enough, ham and eggs, bread and coffee right in the caboose. The crew had discovered my "helper" in one of the cars but raised no fuss about it. I was entitled to a second man anyway.


        Those were the days when the west was rapidly filling up with new immigrants, and notwithstanding the tremendous building boom going on there were thousands of men looking for work of any kind. It was a common saying that each construction job had three gangs,- one coming, one working and one going. Wages were pitifully low. Twenty-five and keep per month. As might be expected there were crowds of these drifters beating their way over the country by riding freight trains. Ours was certainly no exception. We stopped at a wayside water tank and the conductor sent his brakemen up to two gondola cars to make a collection from about forty of these free riders. All they got was a pair of work gloves.


        Later we stopped at Paynton, Saskatchewan, were there was a lot of way freight to be unloaded. This job is normally done by the train crew, but remembering all the free riders they had one of the brakemen slipped over to a nearby hotel and got the "Mountie" to go with him and get all this free help to do the hard work. They were all quite cheerful about it. The fireman came back and looked them over and selected a couple to move up to the tender to shovel coal. When the freight was unloaded the conductor yelled "All Aboard" and everybody scrambled on again. Those were the good old days. That conductor was a big burly fellow and looked as tough as nails, but he had a heart of gold in him.


        By evening we reached Vermillion, Alta. where the train tied up for the night. I didn't unload again because rail journey would terminate at Chipman early the next day. My helper and I had some supper and sat around in the hotel for a bit. Had a few drinks and generally felt satisfied with progress. A bunch of the "free riders" were hanging around and a self-appointed leader of them, a man with an obviously good education, came up and proposed that some of his buddies ride the horse cars next day. We weren't having any, and we hiked out to the railway yards and made sure the cars were locked. In one of those cars the space between the doors was fenced off to hold a few bales of hay. Here we took up our position and waited to see what might happen. Sure enough, along came a bunch of the bo's. They tried our doors but couldn't get in. Then they decided to get in through the small end door high up in the car. I yelled at them to keep out or the horses would probably kill them. That didn't stop them, but when the first fellow dropped down into the car the first nag bit him and the second one started to kick the hell out of him. He let out a scream for help and one of the guys reached down and pulled him up out of danger. That ended the trouble.


      The next morning about 10 o'clock the trains reached Chipman and shoved our horse cars into the little stockyard siding. The horses had been penned up for quite a time and when they got into the stockyard they were feeling full of play. Nice spring morning, bright sun shining and everything seemed right. There were two saddle horses in the bunch but my helper friend decided he would not attempt the 38 mile cross-country drive to Tolfield. So I saddled up one nag and opened up the stockyard gates. Away went the horses every damn way.


            Chipman at that time was only a tiny village. One big black horse was running real wild. He'd jump and squeal and take off again. In his course was a nice new little frame bungalow with a small garden all prepared right near the front door. The woman had set out a few geraniums, but my big black horse decided that would be a good place to land with all four feet which he promptly did, and then, with a high kick and a loud squeal he took off for the open prairie. I still laugh every time I think of it.


        It took me an hour to get my horse herd rounded and headed south over a very dim prairie trail, but from there on, things went fine. My actual destination was Jackson's main construction camp about four miles west of Tofield and there I arrived with my herd intact just as the sun was going down. The camp straw boss tallied the horses in and gave me a place to rest my tired bones for the night. In the morning I reported to Jackson himself. He asked me to stay until the horses were paired up in teams and put to work, but he had no steady job for me. Here I was back on a railroad again but with no job and very little money.


         A few days later, I started walking the right of way toward Edmonton, fifty miles away, in the hope of finding work at one of the subcontractor's camps. I fell in with another chap who was in the same fix, but he was a dumb specimen. At noon we came to a sizable camp just as the crew was coming in to eat. I promptly went to the cook tent with them. My walking mate was afraid to try it. I had my meal about half done when a foreman spotted me and asked me who the hell I was. My argument was that Jackson had sent me there for a job. He cussed both Jackson and me, but I ate the rest of my meal. When I came out, the other fellow was buck sawing wood for the cook to pay for his dinner, so I just headed up the right of way.


         Along towards sundown I came to a wheel scraper outfit building an eight foot grade. All the men were Swedes including the boss. I asked him for a job and he asked me if I could "build the dump" which meant putting the wheel scrapers over at the right places and in the right numbers. I took a crack at it. Dumped about half a dozen scrapers and then it was quitting time. My boss seemed satisfied and took me on. I had a good supper and was given a place in a tent to sleep. Sometime after midnight there was a bit of a disturbance by some half-tight newcomers, also Swedes. In the morning the boss looked me up and told me that a Swede friend of his came last night and he had to give him my job. He was sorry but he didn't need me any more. Anyway I had a cheap supper and a place to sleep.


        The next day at noon I struck a camp run by another Swede named "Stockey". He had a big grader outfit and a crew of about a hundred men. It just happened that he had fired a couple of teamsters and I got a job driving a dump wagon, $25 per month and found, and there I stayed for about 2-1/2 months.


        This contractor had a pair of buckskin bronchos that he used as a driving team and he wanted to get them broke to ride. None of his other teamsters would take a chance, but I was getting fed up driving a dirt wagon, so I told him I'd break them. The crew gathered around that evening to see me get pitched into the scrub and pea vine, but young Murchison had no scruples. Hadn't I ridden a strawberry roan on a cattle ranch in far away Okanogan Valley? This brave bucked some and then took off down the trail like a real race horse. I let him run for a piece and then quieted him down. But when I came back I had him lathered in sweat and offered the opinion I would have him gentled in a  few days. That suited the boss and I laid off the dump wagon. A few days later the camp cows wandered away and couldn't be found, so he added that job to the breaking of the broncs. I didn't hunt the cows very much but spent the most of a week just ridin' around the country including a trip to Tofield where there was a pool room. Finally old Stockey

said to me one evening "Bv Yesus Murchison ay don't tank you look hard for dose cows. I'm sending another fellow to look". The other fellow came back with them the next day and I was again driving the dump wagon. And so it went until early August in the year 1908, by which time I had enough of railroading of that kind.


        One of the crew was a middle-aged fellow from North Dakota. He suggested we quit the job and head for the harvest fields in Dakota where he would get a job running a threshing machine and see that I had work too. And here began another series of adventures. A lot of things were due to happen.


        We spent two days in Tofield, the most of which my Dakota friend spent in the local barroom. I had some difficulty getting him on the buckboard stage for Chipman and we had a tiresome drive back over those thirty-eight long prairie miles. In Chipman my traveling companion resumed his heavy drinking and was nearing the end of his funds, so I decided to ditch him and go it alone.


        On the train between Saskatoon and Regina I struck up a conversation with a nice chap who looked a bit weary and worn. Told me he was returning from a trip into the virgin prairie country 150 miles west of Saskatoon where he had been locating homesteaders on free land. He told me some wonderful things about the land in that area and suggested I might take down the legal description of a quarter section of land which had been filed on but was probably subject to cancellation. I had to change trains in Moose Jaw and before going further I decided to file a cancellation in the Dominion Land office in Moose Jaw. My money was just  about gone in buying railway tickets and all I had left was enough to buy a ticket to Milestone on the Soo line south of Moose Jaw. The Canadian harvest was said to be about ready so I went to Milestone and arrived there practically penniless.


        It developed next morning that no work was to be had. Harvest would not be active for another two weeks, which meant that I was face to face with my first experience of real hunger and no place to stay. Fortunately, the weather was mild and I didn't mind sleeping on the ground for a couple of nights but something to eat became a must. The third day I tackled a man who was installing a basement under a store in Milestone. Told him I just had to have work, But I couldn't start until I had something to eat. He sized me up and gave me an advance of twenty-five cents which paid for a fair meal in the Chinese restaurant. My job was to put wheelbarrow loads of rocks down a steep incline into his new basement. About the second or third trip I slipped and twisted my back very badly and was unable to do any more. This earned me a bit of a cussing out by my boss who figured I was just another bum. Anyway I laid all that day in the sunshine beside a grain elevator and slept there that night - all without any more food. The next morning I went back to the job and pleaded for another chance to work. The boss was skeptical but he agreed and gave me another quarter for a meal. I worked for him for two weeks and he turned out to be a very fine fellow. I caught up with my eating and got a few dollars in my pocket.


        I then hit the harvest fields and worked for 52 days driving a "stook team". Wages were $2.75 per day and a working day lasted from 6 A.M. until 7 P.M. After paying for some work clothes and blankets and allowing for a little money wasted in learning to play poker, I wound up with the large sum of about twenty-five dollars when the western winter set in and prospects for a job pretty gloomy.


        The next move was to Moose Jaw where I inquired about the results of my cancellation entry on a piece of homestead land a little over two months previous. I learned that it was successful and I was eligible to file a homestead entry by paying the usual fee of $10.00 which I did. I was now a landed proprietor with less than ten bucks to my name and a hard winter ahead of me. I couldn't be choosy about a job and I finally got a team to drive hauling gravel out of a frozen bed of Moose Jaw Creek. Usual wages for a bum job - $25.00 a month and board. After a few months of this it dawned on me that if I was to ever get anywhere I would have to discover ways and means to earn more money. While cogitating on this problem, my employers had a couple of carloads of baled hay shipped into Moose Jaw, and I had the job of unloading them and storing the hay in the barn loft. Up to this time there hadn’t been much snowfall, and we were using wagons. Then came some snow and I hitched on to a set of sleighs to finish the hay job, but made the mistake of hitching to a sleigh the boss didn't own. The real owner discovered this and had me arrested for stealing his sleighs. I called my boss from the police station and he got me bailed out and retained a lawyer named Willoughby to appear for me the following Monday. When my case was called there was no complainant and I was dismissed. Apparently this complainant owed my boss some money and to avoid a suit over this bill the case against me was dropped. My lawyer was later appointed to the Canadian Senate but history will not likely record that this incident had much bearing on his appointment. Many years later I was to become associated with the Senator's brother in Ottawa. But I never told him that the Senator and I had been mixed up in a "thievery" case in Moose Jaw, Sask.


        Seeking to improve my fortunes I succeeded in getting a job in the new Robin Hood Flour Mill in Moose Jaw. The head miller thought I was a spry young fellow and turned me over to the millwright as a sort of apprentice-helper. This was a nice kind of a job, although I had to work every Sunday with the millwright in making adjustments to the machinery which ran constantly from twelve midnight on Sunday until twelve midnight Saturday. But I wasn't accumulating much money.


        Standing on the upper floor of the mill I could watch the vast sweep of the prairie land on all sides and this gave me the idea that I should join with thousands of other land seekers moving into the south and western part of the province to settle on free land. I had never seen my own homestead entry which was located some 250 miles to the northwest. So in a moment of weakness or perhaps with the spirit of adventure stirring me strongly I said good-bye to the flour mill.

Submitted by
G. W. Murchison

E-mail Bibliography
Date: Sun, 8 Jun 2003 15:01:34 -0600
From: "G. W. Murchison"
To: Can-Sk-Kindersley Mailing List
Subject: Homesteading in Kindersley

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