Building The Crow Route

Construction of the Crowsnest Pass railway was let to contractors who were responsible for sections of the railway usually varying from one to 10 miles (1.5 to 16 km) although there were longer sections. Bridge work, track laying, ballasting, and the construction of section houses and stations was usually carried out by the company itself. The construction from Lethbridge to Kootenay Lake was managed for the Canadian Pacific by Michael J. Haney, an experienced but tough and uncompromising engineer. The chief engineer was Hugh D. Lumsden, C.E., of Toronto.

Hiring agents were appointed in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and for the area between Fort William and Montreal and labourers were recruited from many parts of Canada. Wages for the labourers was set at $1.50 a day and they were charged board of $4.00 a week. Early in 1898, although the wages were increased to $1.75 the board was raised to $5.00 a week. Most of the men had to pay their own way to Macleod and from there to the construction areas they had to pay transportation as well as board. The work force reached a peak of about 4,500 men in the winter and spring of 1898. Rudimentary construction camps were established as needed along the line of the railway but conditions were poor leading to many complaints from the workers. Tent camps seldom had any stoves and the labourers were often without blankets. Eventually a Commission was appointed to report to the House of Commons to examine the conditions of the workers and to make recommendations to Parliament.

These details are drawn from this report and reflect what must have been the dilemma of the Commissioners dealing with often conflicting and contradictory reports.

The cold weather and poor conditions took their toll and many workers suffered from coughs, mountain fever, rheumatism and some cases of diphtheria. Workers complained of not being paid for many days when they were not called to work yet were charged board. With other charges, men complained that they could work for months and do little better than break even. Others, if they had been sick and unable to work, or had travelled a long distance could end up owing the contractors after many months on the railway construction contracts. Labour was in short supply in Canada and the Klondike Gold Rush was attracting many men to the Yukon. Contractors found that there were many men coming to work on the railway who were physically unfit for the work or were unaccustomed to the hard labour of construction work. Unlike during the construction of the Canadian Pacific in the 1880s through the canyons of the Fraser and Thompson rivers of British Columbia no Chinese workers were hired for the Crowsnest railway work.

Apart from the primitive conditions of the camps, railway construction could be dangerous work. Accidents were not an everyday event, but they were almost inevitable. For example, in April 1898, the trestle over the St. Mary's River, near Lethbridge, collapsed. Three workers were killed and several others were injured. 'A strong wind was blowing,' reported Cranbrook's Herald, 'and while a number of men were working up the bridge a portion of the structure gave way, throwing several of them to the ground a distance of fifty or sixty feet [15-18 m]. The injured were quickly conveyed to a car and brought to the Lethbridge hospital.... The trestle, over 200 feet [60 m] long, collapsed like a pack of cards and without warning.'

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