Making Good in Canada
Chapter X - Navvying and Railway Building


The West to-day offers great attractions for unskilled labour, or rather for that class of labour which experiences great difficulty to secure steady and continuous employment under normal circumstances in crowded centres. This demand is emphasized most potently in connection with railway constructional operations, the foundation of new towns, the building of streets, and so on, where the requisitions for skill are confined to the manipulation of the pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. Railway building is exceptionally active, and will continue to be the first magnet to attract labour for many years to come, as the steel highway is essential in development work. Arrangements have been completed for building several hundred miles of lines to criss-cross the country in all directions, the greatest undertaking of this character being the completion of the second and third transcontinental railways. One, the Grand Trunk Pacific, is rapidly approaching completion, there being only a gap of about 300 miles in the heart of New British Columbia to be closed to provide a continuous steel highway 3,556 miles in length from the Atlantic to the Pacific seaboard. The third transcontinental, the Canadian Northern, at the moment is engaged busily upon its mountain section of 600 odd miles from Port Mann, near Vancouver, to the Yellowhead Pass. These two enterprises alone will command the services of 10,000 men, fit and able to use the above-mentioned tools. In addition, the Canadian Pacific Railway is pursuing an active branch-line policy to tap new and promising districts, as well as the improvement of its existing system to meet the spirited competition which is developing.

In the Great West navvying may be considered as being the most steady form of employment, because the work is pursued uninterruptedly upon such tasks as railway construction, the whole, year through, irrespective of the elements and seasons. The grader, as he is called, is a hard worker, but the pay taker, on the whole is adequate for the hire. East of the Rockies it averages about 8s. per day; between the Rockies and the Pacific seaboard, where labour is somewhat scarcer, the remuneration is proportionately higher, as much as 12s. a day being offered per man in return for the sweat of his brow. The reason is that keen competition for brawn and muscle prevails in the latter new country. During the summer in Northern British Columbia the navvy has no difficulty to earn as much as twenty shillings per day when accompanying prospecting and developing expeditions.

The navvy’s life in the West is vastly different from tha t which obtains in the Old World. Here a man can look forward only to a weekly income between 21s. and 25s. per week, and it is a precarious livelihood at that. Then a third of this wage approximately has to be expended on rent, so that precious little is left to keep body and soul together. Contrast this condition of affairs with a similar situation in Western Canada. The wages average from 40s. to 45s. for a six-day week, and fully one half of this amount is available to the worker to spend as he pleases. There is no deduction for rent, as the grader shakes down in the camp’s bunk-house. Living expenses absorb about 21s. per week, being an average of Is. per meal, or 3s. per day. The only remaining essential expenditure is the deduction of Is. per week, which is levied as a contribution towards medical attention, and this entitles the mail to the services of a physician and the supply of medicine during illness, aa well as entry into the C0mp-ho3pital with attention in cases of accident. The outlay over and above these two sums is governed entirely by the caprices and temperament of the worker. Clothes made for wear, ami not appearance, are the order of the day; alcoholic drink, except in very few instances, is not to be obtained for love or money except surreptitiously and illegally, owing to the prohibition law, so that the worker cannot fritter away his money in excesses. Tobacco is practically the sole form of enjoyment, unless one except cards and gambling, which, for some inscrutable reason, appear to be inseparable from the Canadian navvy's life.

The navvy’s existence, taken on the whole, is enjoyable. The men aro not so isolated or lonely as one might imagine at first sight. The railway camps are strung out over a distance of 100 or 150 miles, and are about two miles apart. Each little community may number from forty to 200 souls or more. The buildings, are as comfortable as massive logs and moss-chinking, together with the assistance of a wood-burning stove in winter can make them. The bunk-house is snug, with the beds cr bunks set out in a row on either side of a central gangway and in two tiers. The mattresses are composed of thin willow-poles laid longitudinally, covered with a thick layer of balsam boughs or loose hay and blankets. At one camp the contractor indulged the men to an extreme degree. The bunk-house was equipped with single iron bedsteads and blankets, while a special man was deputed to attend to the sleeping accommodation and the drawing of hot and cold water for washing purposes, so that when the men returned at night they might be able to perform their ablutions without having “to pack” the hot or cold water. This, however, was an extreme exception.

The men are torn from their slumbers about six o’clock in the morning by the clanging of the cock's gong—a triangular piece of steel fashioned from a bar about an inch in dir meter, beaten with a steel rod. Tumbling out of their berths, the men hurriedly don their attire, and, armed with soap and towels, scurry away down to the creek, beside which the camp is pitched, to have a wash in the crystal refreshing water. Violent drubbing with the towel brings a healthy glow to the cheeks, and then there is a scamper into the dining hall, which is another log-dwelling, to do justice to a substantial meal. It is safe to say that very few navvies in the Old World can point to such good square meals as their comrades receive in a Canadian railway-camp. There is a round of oatmeal or mush, followed by meat and vegetables in plenty, with a wind-up of pie in variety. Without the mush and pie no Canadian navvy would think of starting out upon his day’s work. Pork and beans; invariably figure on the menu, as they form an excellent support to Little Mary when the toil is hard and exhausting in the rock-cut or the sand-pit.

Breakfast finished, the men scatter to their stations on the grade, and by the stroke of seven have bent their backs to their jobs, continuing without interruption until midday. The blare of whistles precipitates a stampede to the dining-room once more, as the keen virgin air and the grinding work produces a big appetite, which is assuaged by bowls of steaming soup, with a following of meat and vegetables, pork and beans, or fish. Stewed fruit and rice, the inevitable pie, bread in plenty, and cheese help to provide a substantial foundation for the afternoon’s work, which is started at one o’clock.

There is another five hours’ pull with the tools until the screech of the sirens at six o’clock sounds, cessation of work for the day. The men, as a rule, have a good wash and brush-up on the banks of the creek, and then file into the dining-hall for the third and last meal, which, in point of variety and substance, compares with the midday repast. The camps are well stocked with provisions of a most assorted character, which, though canned, are invariably of a most tasty description. The only liquors permitted are lime-juice, which is drank liberally to nullify the effects of the preserved comestibles impregnated with salt, and thus tends to counteract the chances of an outbreak of scurvy, together with tea and coffee ad lib., with as much sugar and milk as fancy dictates.

The meats are not exclusively of the canned variety, however. These are regarded more in the light of reserve provisions. When the camps have settled down steadily to work, facilities are provided whereby the men are insured a steady supply of fresh meat, cattle being driven along the route and killed at suitable points for distribution among the scattered communities. In one instance the builders of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway contracted for the supply of no less than 5,000 head of cattle in the course of one year. These animals had to be driven in huge droves for over 600 miles across country to the most central point among the camps. On the Skeena River the contractors set up a large slaughterhouse, and the meat as dressed was conveyed down the waterway to a cold storage, which likewise was specially erected to hold the food in plenty for distribution wherever required, so that there was little possibility of the men running short of fresh meat. The contractors have learned from experience that a good meat diet is essential to enable the labourers to withstand the bard gruelling of five hours’ steady and unremitting toil, throwing earth anti rock about to make way for the parallel bands of steel.

When a camp is established, as a rule the community can rely upon being settled there for eighteen months or two years. The grade is driven outwards from the camp on each side to meet the highway similarly driven from the adjacent camp on either hand. Under these circumstances the men can add to their diet by growing vegetables and ingredients for salads, which form a welcome change to the canned articles of diet. As a matter of fact, a large lumber of men turn their leisure time to cultivating small patches when the soil is suitable, and the succulent lettuces, spring onions, and radishes arc devoured with ill-disguised relish.

After the evening meal the men while away the time according to individual inclinations. As a rule, a couple of hours are beguiled in lounging, reading, and smoking, or indulgence in some hobby, the arrival of nine o'clock seeing the majority making way to the bunks for a well-earned rest.

Sunday is a blank day, the one day’s rest in seven being rigidly enforced, except when rush-work such an the building of a steel bridge which is holding up the advance of the track-layer, is necessary. In the morning the banks beside the little creek are busy with the navvies carrying out their laundry duties, for every man has to complete his own washing, which, although not extensive is yet imperative in the interests of health—that is, if the wage-earner is alive to the advantages of hygiene. In the afternoon many will wander off to visit pals in other camps, go out on a hunt for “bar” or any other game in the forests, while others, with a rod fashioned from a willow-branch, a few feet of cord, and a hook, will ensconce themselves in shady nooks to indulge in the Waltonian art. Visitors stray in from neighbouring camps, and around the camp fire peak of laughter will ring out over anecdotes and reminiscences. The average grader is a born raconteur, and many and varied are the stories which he can reel off concerning his own experiences or those of people whom he has mot. Then various institutions, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association and Bible Missions pursue active campaigns for the improvement of the mind, not with vapid discourses upon the differences between heaven and hell, or an endeavour to lead the rough diamonds from the latter to the former upon orthodox principles, but in homely talk in which religion is well veiled. Sometimes a “frock” attached to one or other of the various denominations will appear in the camp and will make a special pleading for some purpose or other. Such strangers invariably meet with a hearty welcome, especially if they are expert in preparing the mental pabulum for such strange flocks. The services are as unlike those connected with religious enterprises as it is possible to imagine. The shepherds for the most part have a wealth of stories which they relate, seizing every opportunity to drive home the moral unconsciously. If the preacher is a “great stuff,” his work will not be in vain, for the navvy is hearty and liberal in his response to the call for financial assistance. Woe betide the grumbler who displays hostility to the collection-plate, or is niggardly in his contributions thereto. His comrades have their own way of bringing him to his senses, and making him see eye to eye with them in supporting the preacher's claims.

Of course some temperaments cannot be held in check; the prohibition law hits such worthies hard, as it means that they have got to make a weary and expensive journey of perhaps 200 miles to gratify their desires for a carousal. They set off with a substantial wad of dollar bills representing several months hard-earned wages, strike the nearest licensed town, paint it red the first night, get pitchforked into some dive by the human vultures always on the sharp lookout for such prey, are robbed of everything, and then are compelled to return to the scene of their former labours as best they can, probably borrowing the wherewithal from the contractors to regain the camp, and having it deducted from their wages when the latter are due.

Yet steady workers have no difficulty in improving their positions. There always is room higher up if a man has the capacity to occupy the vacant post. I have met several who started picking and shovelling on the grade at two dollars a day, but who soon climbed the ladder to become timekeepers at £14 per month all found, foremen, and so on. Sir N. D. Mann is a case in point. It was not many years ago that he was gruelling on the grade and tumbling sleepers about for less than two dollars a day; now he is one of the moving spirits in the third trans-continental railway. Many of the contractors handling large jobs in the West, when they grow reminiscent, will relate how they struggled hard at the worst work on the grade for a few shillings to eke out a miserable existence as it was then.

As a matter of fact, there is no reason why a navvy should remain a mere navvy if he has any initiative and pluck, as well as being thrifty. A few months’ work and its accumulated equivalent in coin is a positive stepping-stone to better and more remunerative occupation. The contractors are always disposed to let out stations, as the lengths of 100 feet into which the grade is divided are termed, on contract or piece-work. They let the job tor a certain price, and their profit is represented in the difference between what they receive for the task and what they pay the piece-worker. A man with less than £lo can get a start as a subcontractor. He will either recruit his labour himself, paying the usual wage, or in turn will put his men upon piece-work rates, and will take a hand in it himself. Maybe the station is easy, requiring practically no plant beyond a few planks, picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. The chief contractors will let out these requisitions to him at a low rate. The subcontractor can only hope to make the job remunerative to himself by getting it through at high pressure, and he accordingly spares no effort to bring about such a consummation. A man toiling on piece-work will put more effort into ten hours than a man who is content to draw a day’s pay, and without any ambition to better his position. Accordingly, the contractors foster “subbing.” It means that the job is completed in shorter time than is possible with day labour, and it is immaterial to them how much the subcontractor makes or loses over the job, so long as it is carried out in accordance with specifications. The Scotsmen are particularly keen upon subcontracting, and many working upon the co-operative principle to complete a station, have cleared substantial sums as a result of their enterprise.

This tendency is responsible for reckless plunging at times; the man thinks that he can see his way to make a good thing out of a station or two, and although it may involve the laying out of perhaps several hundred pound;! in plant, he will embark cheerfully upon the enterprise with a capital, perhaps, of only £30 or £40. If fortune i3 kind, and he works hard, and knows how to set about the task, he pulls through all right and smiles satisfactorily as he draws a fat cheque and weighs up the balance representing profit on the transaction. If he comes a cropper, he turns over the unfortunate station to the contractors and resumes work at a daily wage until he has amassed a few more pounds, with which to feel his feet and try his luck anew.

Subcontracting does not involve the quotation of a lump sum for the completion of a station. Such a system is impossible, as no one can tell what is lurking beneath the surface of the ground. Maybe what looks like soft soil may spring a surprise in the form of slippery clay, or dense rock, demanding skilled labour for blasting. The subcontractor works upon the payment by cubic yard basis. The engineers have plotted the path of the line, and it demands the removal of so much material to fashion the pathway, either from the spot to drive a cutting, or from a ballast-pit to build up an embankment. The debris is divided into three ratings. Ordinary soil is classified as “common”; earth associated with stones and small boulders as “loose rock”; while that requiring the aid of explosives is known as “solid rock.” The first named receives the lowest payment because it is the easiest to handle, and requires practically no tackle; the latter receives the highest pay, as it demands first-class skill in boring and handling the explosives, while the second named receives a price between the two. The subcontractor’s work is measured by the engineers, who also decide what is essential to this end in accordance with the specifications, and for this total the1 man is paid. If he has removed too much spoil, then his labour has been in vain, and he must pocket his loss; this is practically whore the risk comes in, especially in rock, but if a mar. is careful he will not err on the side of doing too much work; it is his own fault if he does.

The winter is possibly the worst period for the navvy; then he is often imprisoned virtually by an encircling wall of snow-bound forest, more effective as a barrier than steel bars. With the thermometer down so low that to pick up an iron bar with the naked hand is to produce a blister, and with the blast so keen that it cuts like a knife unless furs and woollen clothing are liberally donned, it requires some pluck to rally out into the rock-cut.

In these islands navvying is regarded practically as being on the lowest rung of human endeavour, but in the Dominion, where the moulding process is still being actively pursued, the navvy is regarded as an indispensable unit. Without him the foundations of the country cannot be laid, and for this very reason the task is regarded as a positive stepping-stone to better things, provided the wielder of the pick and shovel has an average amount of enterprise and brains. As a matter of fact, although he may arrive in the country with no more ambition than a tramp, this faculty soon becomes kindled and developed under the spurring effort of his pals’ successes, so that he labours to attain greater heights on the ladder of success himself.


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