Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Making Good in Canada
Chapter XV - With his Majesty’s Mails

The Royal Mail Service, like time and tide, waits for no man, and will brook no interference with its ordained movements. No matter whether the round is along city pavements, across sweltering deserts, through cavernous forests, over frozen snow bound wastes, or by miasmic swamps, if the fiat has gore forth that letters are to be delivered to, and collected from, the spot beyond, the mail service must be maintained at all hazards. He who enlists in the service, and undertakes to get the bag of correspondence through, must be prepared to face any contingency; to surmount any obstacle. The postman must complete his round.

It is one of the outstanding features of British colonization or settlement and developing work, that those engaged in pioneering shall not be denied the postal privileges of civilization. The delivery and collection may be erratic from causes over which man has no possible control, but the frontier town accepts the inevitable without a murmur. Directly a little settlement springs up in the remote wilderness the threads of the postal service of the country are rewoven, so as to bring the new arrival within the meshes of the net by mean3 of which letters are swung to and fro.

Within the purlieus of the city the postman's round is humdrum, but in the “rural districts,” as the wilds are euphemistically called in official parlance monotony gives way to romance and adventure. The round may be one of 200 miles from end to end; its completion out and home may mean three weeks’ hard travelling, over a trail which is scarcely recognizable, by any type of vehicle that may be available, from a raft to horse’s back, and when transport fails them “Shank’s pony” becomes the only alternative. The elements may conspire together to defeat the most carefully laid plains of the authorities and the grim determination of the man on the round— but he must get through. It may rain as if presaging a second Deluge: the forest fire may smoke every trace of animal life out of the bush, converting the country into a scorching inferno; the blizzard may rage in frigid fury, sucking the life out of all that comes within its rimy embrace, blotting out the trail beneath a white blanket several feet in thickness; the rivers may swell and bar the path with a frenzied rush of white bubbling froth— but the mails, must go on.

It comes as a shock to the city dweller with the postal service running like a clockwork machine to strike the conditions which prevail in the wilderness. A shack, decrepit and tumbling, which would be passed in disdain because appearance tends to show that it has long since come of age, compels earnest attention, for there, over the rhomboid shaped doorway are the magic letters “G. R. Post Office.” Along the trail a slouching figure is seen mushing with mechanical tread. He is a sorry-looking piece of humanity when espied in the distance, and with his bag slung over his shoulder, gives the impression of being a hobo who has struck a rich vein of bad luck. You give him a cold hail, and the figure answers back just as monosyllabically and freezingly. As he approaches you are prompted to hold him up for conversation, but the stranger presses on, answering questions as he proceeds; and then, as he swings his arm round you catch sight of the badge “Mailman.” If the country happens to be so far advanced as to boast a crude frontier road, ever and anon you may hear the jangle of bells, and a light buggy comes reeling along at a breezy pace. As the driver lurches by he gives you a nod, but never the offer of a lift. He has His Majesty's mails aboard, and the bag of letters is of far greater importance than a hundred pounds or so of human flesh. Or, perhaps, you have hit the stage coach, as the tumbling-to-pieces aggregation of rough wood slung on four wheels without the intermediary of springs, is called. The chances are that: it is packed to creaking point, with baggage and passengers, but there is only one bag aboard which occupies the mind of the driver. This is under his dickey, and he sits on it tightly to make doubly sure of its safety, because it is the property of the Postmaster-General.

I met one of these frontier postmen one day on his lonely “rural” round. The trail led through a swiftly running creek, not very deep, because it could be forded without one getting wet higher than the thighs, but tricky because the boulders forming its bed were always about. The postman had forded this creek safely times without number, but on this particular occasion he fouled a large, slippery boulder, and before he realized what had happened, he bad measured his length in the water, while the mail-bag went careering downstream. With great difficulty he recovered his charge, and when I came across him, he was seated before a roaring fire, which he had kindled, drying his precious letters one by one. Some two or three days later he crawled into the camp where I was staying, and as he tendered the misives apologetically, explained what had happened. The boys laughed heartily as they tore their respective letters open, and although some fearful ejaculations were muttered as frantic endeavour unravelled the pages stuck together, there was not the slightest complaint. They thought themselves mighty lucky to have got their letters at all under the circumstances; a vivid contrast to the habitual growler in the city, who is ready to send a sour pago complaint to the authorities because a letter happens to be delayed half a day through inadvertence. In the wilderness it is far better that a message from home should be delivered in a semi-mashed-potato state than not at all.

At times it is a mighty hard struggle to get the mail through. We struck one waggon road, and were held up completely by the devastation wrought by a bush fire. For half a mile the highway was littered with the trunks of huge trees, which had crashed to the ground because the flames had undermined their roots. While we were pondering upon the situation, the mailman in his buggy came up. lie was not perturbed. He looked at the healthy maze of trees, and then at his axe. A few seconds’ reflection convinced him that it would lake him days to clear his way through, so he backed his buggy into the bush, detached his mount, pulled out the bag of mails, hitched them on the back of his animal, and shouldering the reins, trudged into the scrub, following an Indian trail. It was a wide detour, but it led right round the burnt area for a distance of fifteen miles, to the next station, which he completed on foot, arriving at his destination about six hours late. That was all the inconverience the bush fire had caused. He spent the night at the post, made his collection-performed once every three weeks--shouldered his bag, and tramped back to the spot where the buggy had been abandoned temporarily. Once more his horse was harnessed up, and with a whittle and a “git up,” he started off on the homeward jaunt, as if bush fires and burnt fall were the very last obstructions encountered on his journey.

There are plenty of openings for those who wish to serve His Majesty the King in the humble role of postmen through the “rural” districts. Periodically advertisements are issued, calling for men and tenders for the delivery and collection of letters over a certain distance. The scale of pay varies. In some cases it will run to £10 per month; in others a higher rate of wages prevails. It all depends upon the country to be served and the difficult nature of the task.

For instance, in New British Columbia I found that the postman started off from Quesnel with his vehicle bound for Fraser Lake, following the frontier road, and completing from twenty to thirty miles a day, the night being spent at the stations of the Yukon Telegraph. The Telegraph cabins serve as post-offices where stamps may be purchased, letters posted, and parcels handed in. On the other Land, the Skena River was the highway for postal communication so far as Hazleton, whence the mails were sent so far south as Bulkley Cabin, a distance of about 100 miles. For points between Bulkley on the one, and Fraser Lake on the other side, the postman had to make a big cross-country jaunt from Bella Coola, a small cove on the Pacific coast, and consequently the Telegraph cabin at Burns Lake, which is mid-way between Bulkley and Fraser Lake, was in an isolated position, and the mails were infrequent—but sure. I posted a letter home at Bums Lake, while making the North-West Passage by land, and then pushed on towards the Skeera River. I arrived home about eight weeks after I left this cabin, and the letter I had posted followed me a week later—but it reached its destination safely and soundly.

The authorities make a point that all people engaged in pushing back the veil of the unknown shall be supplied with a mail service. Accordingly, the very uttermost camps of those engaged in railway surveying and construction receive letters as close to a regular schedule as is humanly possible. The letters are sent forward by train to the railhead. Here they are picked up by the post-master of the end-of-steel town, and by him handed over to the postman. The latter starts off on his trudge from camp to camp, strung out over a distance of 150 miles. The general day’s round is about twenty miles from one resident engineer's camp to another. He will breakfast about seven at one camp, start out, reach the next in time for the midday meal, and pushing on, stop in the succeeding camp for supper. He will put up for the night at this point, hitting the trail again about seven the following morning. He is well tended, receives first-class meals, and a good shake down for the night, these requirements being supplied free of cost, so that his £10 or thereabouts is clear, unencumbered pocket money. On the outward jaunt he drops letters only, collecting correspondence on his return trip.

The scene on the latter occasion at a camp where the postman is pausing for meals is a busy one. Every member of the community will be found writing as for dear life, so as to complete his letter in time, because the postman makes no delays. He discusses his meal and packs his bag at once, because he knows just how long it is going to take him to reach the next camp in time for the evening meal.

I encountered one or two experiences of this adherence to system, even in the bush. The engineer at one camp had not completed a report which he was anxious to mail to headquarters. The postman had started off at his stated hour, but the engineer, to catch the mail, had paddled a horse and ridden full tear after the walking mailman, had handed over his letter, and returned, making a twenty-mile ride. In another case an Indian was pressed into service. The postman had about four hours’ start. But the Indian, springing on to his cayouse, as he calls his pony, had sped off under the incentive of a 5-dollai bill, if he caught the mailman. At every constructional camp the Indian jerked out the query: “Mailman gone?” Receiving an acquiescent grunt, he asked: “How long!” The information forthcoming, the Red rider dug his spurs into the flanks of his steed, clattered forward over deadfall, and crashed through creeks as if the going were as easy as galloping over a green sward. But he caught the mailman in the middle of his supper, handed over the letter, hastily swallowed a meal himself, and then, jumping astride his mount, tore off into the waning day, to notify the fact that the letter was safely mailed, and to pick up his hard earned 5-dollar bill.

The postman, as a rule, under these conditions, follows the best route open to him. He is not supplied with any conveyance, so has to walk from point to point shedding or accumulating his load as he plods through cutting, over embankment, across swamp, slipping and sliding among boulders, fording creeks, and braving rushing rivers as best he can.

The mailman’s lot is facilitated so far as the conditions will admit. If he is forced to proceed afoot, his load comprises first-class mail only—that is, letter-packets. Newspaper's, books, and parcels are sent along at irregular intervals. If a freighting team happens to be going in the direction of certain camps, and has room aboard for a consignment of heavier mail-matter, it takes it, but no delivery is guaranteed. Postal packets, apart from letters, are regarded more in the light of luxuries; it is the letter which receives such unremitting care, and for the safe conveyance of which much hardship and toil are suffered. Of course, when a frontier road, with rivers and creeks spanned by bridges, are open, then the wheeled vehicle which is pressed into service carries all kinds and descriptions of mail matter, the contract between the individual and the Government being drawn up to this end. Even then the undertaking only holds good throughout the summer months, when wheeled-traffic is possible. In the winter different arrangements prevail, book packets and parcels being held up five months or so in some cases.

On the waterways, so far as possible, the mail is handled by the shallow draft steamboats, which proceed up and down, the passing vessels being hailed by the mailman through the intermediary of a flag. Even boats which are not scheduled to stop at certain points for passengers or freight will halt momentarily to pick up the mail.

Winter demands the reorganization of facilities and methods for handling the mail, and this is the period when the task of the authorities is beset with innumerable perils and dangers. The rivers being frozen almost into solid blocks of ice, navigation is out of the question. Delivery on foot is equally impracticable. On the frontier road it may be possible to maintain a service with horse-drawn sleds, when all descriptions of postal packets may be handled with ease, but otherwise there is only one possible means of keeping the service going—by dog trains.

The Government concludes arrangements with private individuals who are in the possession of well-equipped vehicles of this description, and the man is left absolutely to his own devices to complete his undertaking. Rut it is rough and exciting work. A train of huskies can handle a weight of 200 pounds, but this available weight has to be divided between the mail-load and the requirements for the man upon his journev. As may be supposed, nothing but letter packets are handled under these conditions. While sometimes a single man will set out with his precious load, the train more often comprises a party of three, each having a team and train, and with the mail divided between the three sleds, while a fourth man will go ahead on his snow-shoes to pick up the trail. This method is preferable, because often the mailmen encounter obstructions or get into such tight corners that extrication is only possible by combined superhuman exertion, and would be quite beyond a mailman travelling alone.

The dogs are powerful brutes, lithe and active, and able to keep going, when the emergency arises, upon the most slender fare. Their stamina is wonderful, equalled possibly only by their ferocity, which occasionally finds an outlet when the brutes rise in rebellion. Then lively times are witnessed. The murderous whip is the only means whereby they can be made tractable once more, but the process of subjugating their tempera is one of considerable exertion on the part of the mailman. One of the boys who ran one of these trains on the outskirts of Ontario for three successive winters, concluded that he had the most unruly and vicious huskies that ever were harnessed to a sled. When they got into their stride, they ate up the miles one after the other in fine record-breaking form, but the great trouble was to get them to start. Every morning there was a row. First they started fighting among themselves, letting pandemonium loose in the heart of the wilderness. The mailman’s usual procedure was to jump among them with his whip, letting it out right and left indiscriminately in a determined endeavour to separate the brutes. Ten minutes exercise of this weapon generally brought about the desired result. Then came the difficulty of harnessing them up. One and all were sullen, snarling, and evil-looking. The mailman had to keep both his eyes and ears open, with whip handy to let fly at the slightest sign of attack. They watched him to and fro like a coyote stalking the trail, and he recognized that it was only the fear of the whip which kept them submissive. The safer practice was for one man to harness up and pack the sleighs, while the other stood by vigilantly watching the animals with whip upraised, ready to bring the steel-like thong down with enough force to cut through a brute’s back-bone.

Another mailman, who ran the mail by dog train in the Yukon country, related how every morning there was a tussle between him and the dogs. He had a long pull of about 300 miles with his train, and sometimes went accompanied and sometimes alone. Under the latter conditions the brutes thought they had the upper hand— at least, they fought desperately to gain it. When they were called to be harnessed up, they point-black refused to stir a muscle. Even the threat of the whip did not provoke a blink. Every dog in the team had to be lashed and thrashed before he would submit to harnessing, and then when the whole train was ready they had to be given another liberal dose of whip-lash before they would move. When they got going there was no holding them in, and in favourable weather he was hard put to it to keep up with them. Those huskies’ interpretation of the word “kindness” was a sound thrashing of five minutes’ duration, by the end of which time both animals and man were somewhat distressed.

As may be supposed, the mail, being consigned to such a tender vehicle as a dog sleigh, and having to be carried under such adverse conditions, suffers severely from the ordeal at times. When a dog train gets into its stride, and the snow has packed hard, it makes a good, healthy pace; but the heavy carpet of snow conceals dangers untold, and the sled is not built to withstand too prolonged or heavy a game of battledore and shuttlecock. It bounces and lurches from side to side, although the mailman tries valiantly to keep it steady. If it strikes a tree stump smartly it shoots oft like an arrow shot from a bow glancing off at the most unexpected angle, often to pull up against another stump on the opposite side of the narrow pathway. Now and again the sled will give a shoot into the air, and come down with a healthy crash to hit a tree stump a fair end-on smashing blow. When 200 pounds is moving at the velocity of four or six miles an hour and hits an immovable mass, something happens, and it is not the tree which suffers; then the animals have to be hitched up while the sled is beirg repaired as best the conveniences at hand will permit.

Occasionally, as a result of a collision, the contents get scattered to the four winds. One of the boys related an experience which befell him during the previous winter. He had an average load aboard, and had a clear 100 miles run in front of Mm. The snow was hard, giving a surface like an asphalt roadway, and the train was making fine time. He calculated that he would pull into the shack serving as the night camping-place in excellent time, and be able to get a good rest, which had been denied him for some nights previously, owing to the thick heavy weather which had rendered the going slow and arduous. They were sailing along, and he was humming merrily at the prospect, when suddenly there was a crash, a lurch, the sleigh flew into the air like a rocket, he measured his length on the snow, and ploughed along for about three yards on his head. He picked himself up and found himself being wreathed in what he thought were the biggest snowflakes he had ever seen in his life; the sleigh had cannoned a hidden obstruction with healthy force, had leaped into the air, and In so doing the mail bag had been ripped up by a murderous snag. What he thought were snowflakes were the letters from the bag! They were scattered all round him like leaves.

“Three hours that smash cost me,” he growled, as he related the episode. He hitched up the dogs and then went very carefully over the ground searching for letters.

Some were caught in the scrub, others were impaled on snags, while others were blown twenty feet or more from the point of the smash. Fortunately the weather held up, and there was very little wind, otherwise, as he significantly muttered, “I guess some of the stiffs would be still wondering where their letters had gone astray.” In his own mind, however, he did not think that a single missive was lost.

More unfortunate was the result of another accident. The mailmen reached camp dead beat from battling with a fierce blizzard for over ten hours. It had been exhausting work getting the dog train along that day, and even the animals bore signs of the fight with the elements. The men fed the dogs, piled up a huge fire, prepared their supper, and before it was completed they fell asleep. When they woke in the morning they sat, up, looked round for the laden sleighs, and then rubbed their eyes. The vehicles were nowhere to be seen! They could not have been stolen in the night, since the dogs would have given the alarm. What had happened? They jumped hastily to their feet and rushed to the place where the sleds had been stacked. The truth was soon told. Being dead-tired they had not noticed that the vehicles and their precious freight had been left standing near the fire. The flames being fanned that way by the wind first had scorched and then had consumed them. Not a letter was left, only small heaps of ashes, some charred leather, and a few screws and nails!

Another dog train mail had a very narrow escape. The party were cutting across a frozen river. The ice appeared safe enough, for there was not a smirch on the white covering. The train was about halfway across when the dogs in the front vehicle gave a loud, frenzied yelp and jumped madly forward; they were up to their girths in water. The mailman on snowshoes let out with his whip, and the whole safely cleared the hidden danger; but the following sleighs did not fare so well. They crashed into the hole left by the first vehicle, and the dogs were soon swimming madly for their lives, in danger of being dragged down by the laden vehicles. The mailmen grabbed the sleighs, and smartly whipping out their jack-knives cut the mail-bags loose, throwing them clear of the hole, and hacked the traces in twain to give the dogs a chance. One man slipped through the ice, but shooting out his arms kept his head above water and was pulled out shivering with the cold. Two sleighs were lost, but the dogs and mails were saved. The party, in crossing the frozen river, had stumbled upon an unseen crack in the ice, and but for the presence of mind of the mailmen a nasty accident would have had to be chronicled. All they lost was two sleds, a greater part of their outfit, and half of their provisions. Regaining the bank they hastily improvised a sled and pushed ahead. Fortunately they were only about thirty miles from their destination when the accident occurred.

One of the hardest stretches of country over which the mails have to be handled at present in Canada is the winter pull from the inland terminus of the Yukon and White Pass Railway to Dawson City. During the summer months the waterway is the channel along which the Royal Mail flows to and fro, but in the winter, when the Yukon River is gripped in ice, the mails have to be sent overland. And over what a road! In the summer the mails could not go that way even if there were no other available because pack animals would sink to their girths in a slime more tenacious than glue; because the road traverses wicked muskeg and tundra for practically the whole distance between the two points. Subterranean springs innumerable, the thawed snow, and the melting glaciers transform the whole ground into a kind of soddened sponge, where horses cannot get a foothold, and where wheels slip out of sight.

When the ground is frozen hard and is covered with snow, the surface offered for the sleigh is excellent, but now and again everything is thrown sixes and sevens by a warm spell which catches the passing traffic at a heavy disadvantage. Also the grades are fierce, ranging from 1 in 5 to 1 in 10. So heavy is the travelling that the sleighs carrying the mails have to be drawn by six horses, and these have to be changed every twenty-two miles, three relays being made in the course of a single day’s travelling lasting about twelve hours. The road is well defined so far as this task is practicable in such a country, though at times it is wiped out of existence by playful antics of Nature, and it costs the Government a neat little sum every year to keep it open. At intervals of every twenty miles there are convenient shacks— memories of the “blood-freezing days of ’96” when the North-West Mounted Police were keeping law and order, so far as Canada was concerned, in the Klondyke.

This stretch of mail road is considered to be about the worst in the whole Dominion. Certainly it would be difficult to find one more arduous and exasperating. When first opened, dog trains sufficed to meet the situation, but the traffic during the winter between the two posts developed to such a degree that to-day only horses can cope with it. One is able to mail a letter from London to the Klondyke for a penny, but every missive must be carried at a dead loss between Whitehorse and Dawson, owing to the demands upon twenty-four horses, and with hay at £20 per ton!

The mailman’s life is decidedly varied and exciting, but apparently there appears to be no difficulty in getting an adequate supply of right men for the work. It certainly constitutes a means of earning a respectable living in Canada, and one which has many decided attractions for men of the true British temperament.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.