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The Church on the Prairie

By H. H. Montgomery, D.D.

[London:] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1910.

Chapter XII. Navvies on the Prairie

Eighteen months ago it was impressed upon us by our own English Navvy Mission Association that Canada was embarking on an enormous programme of railway construction, that all these lines would cross the prairie, and that little was being done for the moral and spiritual shepherding of these men. It is indeed well to realise the extent of railway construction in this land. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway intends to build 4,000 miles of track in seven years. This of course includes Eastern as well as Western Canada. The Canadian Northern Railway, which begins at Winnipeg and runs west, has built at the rate of a mile a day for eleven years. The Canadian Northern Railway is extending its borders. It is now advancing north from Prince Albert and then not only west but eastward too. From Le Pas which lies east of Prince Albert it appears certain that the line will be continued to Fort Churchill on the western shore of Hudson's Bay; and wheat will then annually be sent for shipment during three months, from that landlocked sea, 3,000 miles from Churchill to Liverpool.

We gladly granted £500 out of the Western Canada Fund to be spent on ministrations to the navvies in [114/115] Western Canada; that is, beginning with the Diocese of Keewatin and going West. It is obvious that such work is just as important in Eastern Canada, but it was impossible to extend the benefits of the Western Canada Fund to the Eastern regions. If on the other hand any one is specially interested in railway construction and in the operatives, in Eastern Canada or elsewhere, we shall be delighted to become responsible for the spending of their money in any part of the Dominion.

A word generally on navvy mission work. In one sense such work is temporary in character. The men disperse, their shanties come down; yes, but what moral effect have they left behind? What is the very permanent effect of the incursion into a quiet, agricultural township of hundreds of men, many of whom are of a rough type? It may be, it often is, awful. There is hardly anything more magnificent from a physical point of view than a real navvy at work; he is indeed a splendid animal. Look at his splendid flat back, his powerful loins, free moving limbs all shown to advantage by his loose clothing. Watch him loading a truck or chucking spadesful of earth out of a barge into a cart invisible to him; sending twenty pounds of soil flying through the air as if it were two ounces. Splendid! I have often watched such a man with real delight. But what a weight of animal life his is; what an almost certain clog till the Lord takes him; remember his upbringing, his rough lodging; sometimes in England a drain pipe or floor of a public house, or behind a hedge when the job is a short one. Remember the tone of [115/116] many of his comrades, and their traditions of drinking and other vices. What is the result on a district of 500 men of this type? No doubt also a fair percentage of these men, not of the real navvy class but of those who turn to such work as a resort, of all classes, from university men downwards, settle in new districts and become permanently fixed. Navvy mission work then is not merely temporary in its effects in any place.

What is the type of worker and the general method? The converted navvy is probably the best agent, and if he stands six feet four and is broad in proportion and knows how to use his fists, so much the better. The man who has fought and drank and lived rough and sworn, when he is turned inside out by Divine Grace, has a directness of appeal not easy to emulate. Moreover, he knows the method of the appeal. Do you suppose that great splendid animal can take in questions of Church Order or beauty of collects or ordered ceremonial? No; it is the simple question--God, or the devil; a Saviour, or hell; absolute teetotalism and a life of prayer, or animalism; no reticence; a man must come out and testify; he must not mind talking of his own past; what shocks our sensibilities is the right thing where sensibilities don't exist. "Down on your knees and accept Christ; do it openly; take the consequences. Put up with being mauled; fly from the devil. There are no half-tints; it is black or white." The root of the matter is all that is generally possible with the real navvy and his coarse temptations and tremendous animal force; others of course have fallen from educated [116/117] positions; some even take up such work by way of change and for exercise. I remember entering the tent of a so-called navvy on the West Coast of Tasmania to get a cup of tea and to say my "midday prayers". I found he was a Melbourne dentist.

Turning to Western Canada, our navvy grant is being spent chiefly in the Diocese of Keewatin; £78 was spent in 1907. Part of a grant of £300 is being spent in 1908. The Archbishop of Rupert's Land has been asked to licence all workers along the line. We pay our money through the Navvy Mission and on the requisition of the Archbishop of Rupert's Land.

The Canadian Government had intended to get these railways constructed with "Empire labour". But it has not been found possible to obtain it. The supply of skilled navvies is small, and probably the English navvy, the best of all, is fully occupied in England. The result has been that every nationality is represented; language becomes a difficulty and in some camps it makes work virtually impossible.

The Bishop of Keewatin started with one worker; this man worked hard but his health failed, and he resigned his post. Then the Bishop obtained the services of two theological students, one from St. John's, Winnipeg, the other from Wycliffe College, Toronto, for the summer months. They did good work; I note that as a rule they could gather of an evening from thirty to fifty men who were glad to be led to pray and to sing hymns. They often record the fact that these congregations responded as well as any in a church, showing that the men had been well taught in the [117/118] past. The question often recurs to these agents, "Shall we collect money from them?" It is not easy to answer. It is well that the men should be asked to contribute to expenses, but it may be very easy to create the impression that the missioner is there to make money. English, Swedes, Galicians, seem to form the bulk of the gatherings.

Railway construction is often very dangerous work. The falling of earth is a very common cause of death and maiming, and the hospital is a centre for the missioner's labour. I believe a navvy faces death almost as regularly as a soldier. One of the workers alluded to above became ill in consequence of the difficulty of obtaining good water on these construction works, and typhoid is a source of peril.

It would appear certain that ere long we shall have to minister for a long time to the railway constructors in the Rockies; the work is difficult, and it may take several years before they can pierce that chain of mountains. Money will be needed for this deeply interesting work, and how great is the prize. In contrast with the temptations of a navvy, perhaps because of them, there is probably no more splendid specimen of Christian character than one of these men who in his simple way takes his stand for God and is not ashamed of confessing his Master before all men.

In the autumn of 1909 Mr. J. Miller M'Cormick was brought up into the Alberta region by the Navvy Mission to carry on the work of the Navvy Mission, and the S.P.G. has felt it a privilege to pay his salary. What manner of work he is doing, and in what spirit [118/119] he is doing it, may be judged by the following extracts from his letters. Those who would like to know more of the work are requested to write to the Secretary of the Church of England Navvy Mission, Church House, Westminster.

The extracts refer to various parts of the line, but always in the Prairie region. Contributions towards this work are gladly welcomed.

It is hard for me to give you an exact idea of what camp life out here is like, things are all so different from the "old country". The bit (!) of railroad that I have been working on measures 249 miles (from Winnipeg to Superior Junction), and since January I have been the only navvy missioner travelling up and down it. This contract was let out to one man and he in turn divided it up and let it out to a host of sub-contractors. This new railroad will cross the Dominion north of the C.P.R. At some places the two lines are only a few miles apart, at other places about 200 miles apart. There being no railroads north of the Grand Trunk, the construction camps have to depend on the C.P.R. for their supplies. These are freighted in by teams of horses over what is called the tote road, which is a road cut through the bush by felling trees, and where there are marshy places, stripped trees are laid over cross-wise. On some of these roads you can find miles at a stretch of such "corduroy". Heavy rains and constant traffic make the road like the bed of a river--black mud interspersed with rocks and huge boulders; the horses plough through everything, sometimes up to the knees, pulling the jolting, screeching waggon behind them. I have had a few experiences sitting on one of these waggons for about twenty miles at a stretch. Personally, I would rather walk twice the distance as have the favour (?) of a ride over most of these tote roads.

The difficulties (to say nothing of the expense) of freighting over these temporary roads are indescribable. It's a whole day's work for a team of four horses pulling a waggon [119/120] to do about twenty miles, You can judge from this the amount of time required to do the greater distances up to 200 miles. Sometimes a friendly lake considerably shortens the distance with the aid of a barge; Nippigon Lake, for instance, is fifty miles across at the point where it touches the new line. At the freeze-up, toting is comparatively easy as the snow and ice make good trails for sleigh freighting. As far as possible the major amount of the freighting is done in winter when there are less obstacles.

When you see one camp you see the lot. They comprise a number of log shacks, varying in size and number to accommodate as many men as will be required on that particular bit of work; the camps are built about from one to two or three miles apart all along the "site" of the new railroad, each placed "out of range" of the dynamite blasting operations. Each contractor has what he calls a headquarters camp; it is here that he sometimes builds a bungalow for self and family. Say the contractor has a ten-mile limit; if he had a camp to mark each mile the headquarters camp would be built in the centre, five miles from the furthest camps. This method makes the distribution of supplies to each camp more simple, as everything passes through headquarters camp.

The office shack and stores are usually under the same roof. The dining shack, large enough to seat from 50 to 250 men, has an ample kitchen adjoining. The bunk-houses are all sizes, large and small. The usual method is to have the beds built around the shack one above the other, in two tiers in Scotch fashion--as a rule there is an ample amount of new-mown "Michigan feathers" (hay) to doss on. The foremen (or bosses as they are called) and teamsters have shacks to themselves. Then there are the Stables, Blacksmith Shop, Pumphouse, Powder House (located for safety about 300 yards away). There are well-equipped Hospitals built of planed timber, and separated from each other by about thirty miles. There is a resident doctor and staff in charge. The camp stores carry most things the men require, such as boots, clothing, tobacco, [120/121] etc.; when any purchases are made, these are debited in the store books against the purchaser and the amount deducted from the month's cheque. Everybody is paid by cheque, monthly, and these can be readily cashed by any bank in the nearest town. No intoxicating liquors of any kind are allowed in any of the construction camps. Dominion police patrol the "right of way" to see the law observed--smuggling is tried sometimes but at [the risk of confiscation and imprisonment. If men are thrifty they can save lots of money. In the winter ordinary "muckers" get about 7s. a day at least, and in the summer from 8s. to 9s. per day, and often plenty of overtime. Of course, work in the winter is not so plentiful on account of the snow and frost--rock excavation proceeds as usual. There is a saying here, that in the winter there are half a dozen men for every job and in the summer half a dozen jobs for every man. For my own part, I believe that to the man willing to work hard this country affords 100 opportunities to every one at home. The food in camp is the best in the land--two or three kinds of meat (at every meal), potatoes, bread and butter, coffee and tea cakes of several kinds, cookies, pies, sauces, puddings and plenty of fruit. There are three meals a day--breakfast, dinner and supper. Every camp has a bakery with cooks, cookees and chore boys (bull cooks as they are called--their work is to cut cordwood for the fires and carry water, etc.). Outside the camp there are usually in a pen a few cows kept for the slaughter and others for the supply of milk; the butcher in some of the larger camps is a very busy individual.

A preacher is always welcome in camp, perhaps because they are a scarce commodity.

Camp is reached at last, a bit tired, perhaps, and stung by mosquitoes, but with a keen appetite. "Hello, Cook! how is business to-day?" "Oh, not too bad." "How many men have you?" "Oh, one hundred and four or a little better." "Let me see, what is the name of the walking boss?" "Jimmy Thompson." "Why, sure! I know him, he was dinkey skinner at camp three and I had been [121/122] wondering where he had been 'side tracked'." "Well, sir, it's the same old tale. He drew his stake, about 800 dollars, 'hit the trail' to D------ and 'blew it in' every cent in a week! Of course they 'doped' him at the saloon and pinched his 'dough'." "Sorry to hear that, he told me that he would 'go easy' in future, no more 'kicking the high spots' when he got to town." "He's strictly on the 'water waggon' ever since; I guess he has learned his lesson."

We have had a big day's work, so should sleep--by the kind permission of the mosquitoes.

"Up, boys, there's daylight in the swamp!" is the music of the cook's first bell, about 5 a.m. Breakfast at six, and by that time the barn boss has a horse ready saddled for me and I am soon off with bag strapped on for a twenty-six mile canter to the next camp, a few finishing-off camps lie between, where we refresh and literature is distributed. I seldom get a horse, indeed a horse would be no use to traverse some of the impassable muskegs lying between some camps that one has to somehow get over--some days the preacher has a tramp of thirty miles before him. The life out here is a very strenuous one; day after day one's energies are taxed sometimes to their utmost; but I count all loss gain if I am only given the strength to do the will of God in preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ's Gospel.

In giving the men tracts I get in touch with them, and often I am told the story of their lives. One cook said that he was sure that I had nothing that would suit him. I pulled out from the bundle a tract entitled "Pie Crust Promises," which he smilingly accepted.

You will remember the great Lancashire murder case about two years ago, when B------ was tried twice in his own town and the jury on both occasions disagreed, then he was tried in Liverpool and acquitted; well, B------ is working in one of these camps and he gladly comes to the services. One day, as he was telling me of the agonies of his trial and imprisonment, and how he appreciated his freedom, before leaving I wanted to give him something helpful to read, and [122/123] the first tract that came to my hand bore the most suitable title "I'm a Free Man Now"--I trust that he may soon experience the freedom in a double sense.

One other incident where the title of a tract seemed to aptly apply was in a bunkhouse while a gang were playing poker round a table. One of the players read aloud for the benefit of the others; the title of his tract was (everybody screamed and laughed at him for his experience had been printed large upon the tract) "Bad Luck".

Travelling through these forests day by day is unique from many points of view; for instance, the bush simply throbs with wild life of all kinds. Moose, caribou and deer, fox and mink, an odd she-bear turns up in search of her cub which has been trapped to serve as a camp pet. The insects would seem to number so many to the square inch, they swarm and hum all the time, night and day, especially the mosquito.

The other day as I was walking along the "right of way" from camp to camp, I found two dogs belonging to one of the Government engineers, that had strayed about ten miles out of their way; they knew me at once, so I encouraged them to follow on in the direction of home. They were big husky dogs, strong and powerful through the exercise and work they have to do in the winter by pulling sleigh loads. We had gone about two miles together, when a huge timber wolf crossed the "grade" from the north side and stood confronting me at the edge of the bush, a few yards off. I had always dreaded meeting a wolf, yet here was one, the dread of the bush, real and live, glowering at me; strangely enough at that moment all fear and dread had gone. Walking on, getting nearer and nearer (of course had I had a rifle I would have shot him), I was hoping every second that the dogs would soon draw level with me; when they did, I was surprised that they did not show any signs of putting the wolf to flight. I had not long to wait, for in an instant they had caught the scent of the wolf-trail and were both of them leaping and bounding in hot pursuit of Mr. Wolf away into the bush. They plunged and delved at lightning [123/124] speed until they got out of sight. After being away for a while they came back barking and panting and looking up into my face with an expression as if to convey that all the danger was past. It's unlikely that one wolf would tackle a person unless very hungry, but they are not pleasant to meet because you can never tell how hungry they are or how many are lurking behind in the pack. Every day brings new evidences of God's gracious and tender care in the work, it is only proof after proof that the work lies near His own heart.

I have found a knowledge of ambulance work useful; as already said, the hospitals are about thirty miles apart, and just where an accident might occur may be as far as possible from the doctor. It so happened last week. It was at a camp of about 125 men. They were stopping work for the day, and while a dinkey train was proceeding in the direction of camp, an unfortunate fellow, thinking to accelerate his speed camp-ward, tried to jump the last but one pedlar dirt car; he missed it somehow, and was thrown among the wheels of the last car, his feet and legs were badly torn and lacerated. The doctor arrived about an hour and a half after the accident. He said that the first-aid treatment had saved the poor fellow's life, as the applied turnkey had stopped the haemorrhage. That was Friday evening, and on the following Sunday, farther east, the same doctor and I helped to bury a navvy who had been drowned in one of the great lakes. I read eloquent sermons from the little graveyards, planted every so many miles apart and hidden away beneath the big, sobbing pines of the lonely forest--ten in one, twenty in another, all brave men who have given their lives as the price of a railroad. Soldiers they have been without the red coat and show, but with all the grim and deadly realities of war--war with a stubborn enemy--rock, muskeg, forest.

God's spirit is working in the hearts of the men, giving them a keen interest in spiritual things; there has been abundant evidence of this. One striking instance came before me a little time ago, while driving to one of the camps from the nearest C.P.R.. station. Along with the driver on the front [124/125] seat of the "democrat" (a light, four-wheel spring rig to carry four persons) sat one of the "black gang" from one of the camps; he was making the journey to seek fresh work. I did not remember seeing him before, but he evidently knew me, for he said that he had been to one of the camp services eighty miles farther west. He did nearly all the talking during the fifteen mile drive; I confess at first I hardly took him seriously, but soon found that he was in real earnest. The chief point of his story was that since the camp service he attended he had grown most miserable and "sick of the whole thing". He besought that I spend some quiet time with him and explain "more fully" God's plan of salvation. "My life is without a purpose, I don't seem to accomplish anything or arrive anywhere; I just drift on and on, hoping some day that things will suddenly change; but they get worse and worse and I am helpless to put them right. The certainty of that vast eternity beyond, and wrapt up in it, man's destiny, worries me night and day. I have sought help from others, won't you try to help me? if I can only get put right I would be willing to give my life to preaching it." Here was a man "thirsting" in the Bible sense. The trouble with the people nowadays is that they are satisfied to drink, drink, drink at the broken cisterns of the world, and never be satisfied. Satan's object is to keep the spiritual palate moist lest people should thirst for the living water of Life. Christ says, "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink". Arm-in-arm, out from the camp, away into the woods together we walked and talked. I realised that the eternal destiny of that soul may swing on the time we were together, so it must be spent by God's help profitably. God's plan (as best I knew) I delivered unto him until the horses were "hitched up" ready to convey him away on the return journey. Before we separated he accepted some helpful books to read, then I prayed fervently for him and placed him trustfully in the tender mercies of our God who delights to save. The religion of Jesus Christ and the salvation He gives fits the hearts of men of every creed and denomination, and all attend the camp services--this thirsty soul belonged to the R.C. Church.

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