My grandfather, Dan Alton, was a railroad pioneer. He built and re-built railway bridges in the Rocky Mountains.
After he retired he wrote a brief memoir of his work life from Ontario to Australia and points between.
Don Payne, my cousin's husband, recently edited this memoir and published it through lulu.com. You can download an electronic copy for free or buy a hard copy of Life & Experiences of Dan Alton for $6.95 or you can read the second chapter below and then go buy or download it.
Both versions come with maps and illustrations that the excerpt does not.
n May, 1890 1 saw
in the London Free Press where a man by the name of Campbell
was hiring men to go to British Columbia to
build bridges for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Kootenay District, from
Sproats Landing (now Castlegar) to Nelson along the banks of the Kootenay River. There are six big power plants on the
river today, known as the West Kootenay Power Company.
Well, I hired with Campbell
for $2.50 a day and sixty-five of us left London
via Canadian Pacific Railway. The trip along the north shore of Lake Superior
and across the broad, barren prairies, as they were in those days of 1890, was a
revelation to me and to others in the crew. The trip through the Rockies and
the Selkirk mountains to Revelstoke was a
wonderful sight. At Revelstoke we boarded the old stern-wheeler
"Kootenay" for the trip down the Columbia River and the ArrowLakes
to Sproats Landing where the railway to Nelson was to begin.
Our first trestle to build was out about
three miles, and very close to the tomb of Peter Verigin, the chief of the
Doukhobors, people who came into that district years later.We
lived in tents. We did not have mattresses to sleep on.In those days we got some small boughs and
lay them on the poles of our bunks.Our
dining tent was a big one; twenty by thirty feet.
Mick McGrath was our foreman and a good
fellow was Mike. To build those bridges we had to go into the woods, fall the
trees, haul them out, frame them, and put up the bents. Our power then was a
team of horses pulling on the fall line from a gin pole. The posts of the bents
were made out of round trees with the bark taken off. The caps and sills were
squared and hewn with the broad ax.
I did most of the hewing and, as I only
weighted 150 pounds in those days, ten hours a day wielding an eleven-pound
broad ax was pretty heavy work. I was so tired that when I turned in for the
night my brush bed felt better to me then than my spring mattress does today.
We put in the summer of 1890 and the
winter of 1890-91 on those bridges and got the track into Nelson in May 1891.
That was a gala day in Nelson. Before the railway came there was only a pack
trail. My first visit to Nelson was over that pack trail. Joe and Blake Wilson
ran one pack train and Angus McIntyre had another one. Joe Wilson and Billy
Purdue ran a butcher shop to supply the town and camps with beef.In the fall of 1891, Joe Wilson went to
Bonners Ferry in Idaho
and bought a scow load of cattle. In bringing them across KootenayLake,
the scow being towed by the little tug "Gelena", a storm came up. Joe
went back to the scow with the idea of quieting the cattle, but sorry to say,
the scow upset and Joe and the cattle were drowned. He was a grand man and we
all mourned his loss.
In the summer of 1891 we had to do a lot
of work on those bridges. During the winter of 1890-91, no boats could come
down the river from Revelstoke, as the water got too low in the Columbia. That winter we
got mail every two weeks, as it had to be packed in from Markus in the US.Pat Wilgress, the paymaster, could not get
down the river when the steamers stopped running, so we received no pay from
November till the next April.
The summer of 1891 was quite a boom year
in Nelson. The Hall Mine and the Poormen Mine were working, so there were lots
of prospectors in the hills. There was a building boom at the same time and I
left the bridge gang for a while and worked for Hill Bros. at building some
stores on Vernon Street.
During this time I boarded at the Maden Hotel, which was run by Tom and Hugh
Maden. Every week we used to have a dance in one of the hotels and I used to
call off the square dances "Swing your partners - etc."We had many a pleasant evening.
I had the pleasure of attending the first
wedding in Nelson in the autumn of 1891. Angus McIntyre was married in the
Silver King Hotel. When they went to get the marriage license they found there
wasn't such a thing in town. Eventually, they got a wire through to Victoria and the
marriage license number was wired back.The license itself was sent by mail.The Reverend Turner performed the service and we all had a very
enjoyable time. Angus McIntyre now lives with his daughter in Kelowna in the Okanagan District.
The first Sports Day held in Nelson was on
July 1st 1891 and, as there were a lot of Americans in town, we
celebrated both the 1st and the 4th. I was on the
Committee and John Huston was the Secretary/Treasurer. He was editor of the
Nelson Miner at that time and, I am told, he was the first mayor of Nelson. We
had to do a lot of work on Baker
Street in order to have horse and foot races. I
took part in the sports and won $45.00 in prize money. Mike McGrath and I won
the double canoe race on the river. Both days' sports wound up with a dance
over Bob Lemon's store.What with taking
part in the sports during the day and acting as floor manager of the dances at
night, I had a pretty busy time of it. Very few of those old-timers are in
As the work on the bridges was finished
and there was no prospect of more work, we decided as a crew, to go to
Revelstoke. So on December 16th ten of us got a big bateau, or boat,
at Sproats Landing and started off up the ArrowLakes
on the 160-mile journey to Revelstoke. The boat had 4 oars, one man to an oar,
and we changed every half hour at the oars. When night came we went ashore to
camp for the night. After four days of hard rowing, we got to the head of the ArrowLakes
where Arrowhead is now situated.
There was no railway from Revelstoke to
Arrowhead in those days, so we set off up the Columbia
River. The water was so low in the river, and running so fast, we
could not make it by rowing. But as we had a long towline, nine of us jumped
over and by wading through water and deep snow and leaving Dunc Weir in the
boat with a pole to guide it, we managed to keep the boat in the water. When
darkness came we had to go ashore. By this time it was snowing heavily and continued
to do so all night. We felled a dry cedar tree to make a fire, and spent the
night standing around the fire. We thought we would make Revelstoke by noon the
next day and had planned accordingly but had not anticipated such an arduous
trip. By this time our provisions were running low - half a loaf of bread and a
small piece of cooked ham to feed ten hungry men. It was dark when we reached
Revelstoke having taken six days to make the trip.
We stopped at the VictoriaHotel
run by Billy Cowan, had a few drinks of good whiskey to take the chill out of
our water-soaked bones, changed into some dry clothes and had a good dinner. We
all felt okay and suffered no ill effects from the trip. The men who made this
hazardous journey were Mike McGrath (Foreman), Ed Endser, Ed Price, Harry Hays,
George Wilson, Jack McGregor, Charlie Hartell, Dunc Weir (now living in
Victoria), and myself. As far as I can learn, Dunc Weir and I are the only two
of the crew who are still alive today.
When we originally signed on in London, it was agreed that if we stayed on the job six
months, we were to get free transportation back to London. I was the last of the sixty-five men
to be granted this transportation and, as the town of Donald was Divisional Headquarter at that
time, I went east to Donald and was given my free pass to the east. While in
Donald, I visited Tom Kilpatrick who was Bridge Foreman. In 1893 he was
promoted to Bridge and Building Master and later was made Superintendent at
Revelstoke. I think he was one of the best men ever to be employed on the
Canadian Pacific Railway.
As soon as my transportation ticket was
issued, I left for the east and passed through Winnipeg on Christmas night. A few of us, who
had got acquainted on the train, went for a walk downtown during the stopover
there and saw a big roast turkey in the window of a restaurant. We went in and
bought it to take back to the train. And, with some drinks we had bought, we
spent a very pleasant Christmas night on the train as we travelled east.
My family was glad to see their son from
the "Far West" again. After a nice
visit at home, I went on to Toronto and London and had a
wonderful holiday. After my holiday, I returned home for another visit, and in
April headed for BC again.
On arriving in North
Bay, I met Bob Lowery of Perolia,
Ontario who I had met in Nelson
during the summer of 1891. We chummed together till we arrived in Revelstoke.
This man Lowery was a smart newspaperman, and he later started a paper in New
Denver called the "Denver Ledger". We remained warm friends and I
always enjoyed reading his paper. He was offered many good positions on large
city papers, but Bob wanted to run his own paper and be his own boss.
Doukhobors were a Christian sect who were persecuted in Russia because
of their pacifism and their rejection of secular government.They were welcomed to Canada in the
late 19th century.Perhaps
the most well-known leader of the Doukhobors was Peter Verigin, who was killed
in a Canadian Pacific Railway train explosion on October 29, 1924 near Farron,
between Castlegar and Grand Forks,
Repairs were common on late nineteenth century CPR
tracks.The original wooden CPR bridges
were designed to last only about 10 years.Although the original route and method of construction accomplished its
purpose in allowing the CPR to rapidly complete the railway, it turned out to be
expensive to operate.The CPR later constructed
new routes on better gradients to bypass the original line in some sections.
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