Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: September 2015


The School Teacher, the German Prisoners, and the Jig Saw Puzzle

It started with a phone call at home one evening.

“Are you Bill Waiser?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Author of Park Prisoners?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered again. “Go get the book,” she told me.

Park Prisoners tells the story of the thousands of men (enemy aliens, transients, conscientious objectors, prisoners of war, interned citizens) who worked in Western Canada’s national parks during the two world wars and the Great Depression and built many of the facilities, especially roads, that visitors enjoy today.

When I picked up the receiver again, with book in hand, she told me to turn to page 235. That was the part of Park Prisoners where I talked about the German prisoners of war held in Riding Mountain National Park during the Second World War.

The page in question was about a raid on a farmhouse in February 1944, when camp guards found the local school teacher socializing with two prisoners.

“I’m the school teacher,” the caller announced.

Catherine Chastko was from Shoal Lake, Man. Because of a shortage of teachers in rural areas during the war, she had been asked to help out at the end of Grade 11. After a six-week training course in Winnipeg during the summer of 1943, she was placed at the Zaparoza school, near the southern boundary of Riding Mountain National Park. She was just 17.

Catherine wanted to talk to me about the February 1944 incident. That was the reason for her call. Having just moved to Saskatoon, she was anxious to tell her side of the story – what was not in the official report about the wartime incident.

Over coffee, Catherine explained that she felt isolated during her first few months in the one-room school and welcomed the opportunity in the new year to attend a Saturday dance at nearby Seech. At the dance, Catherine was surprised to find German prisoners of war. That is when she learned that they were regular visitors to the area. Local people also told her that she should not be afraid of them.

The Germans were based at a large wood-cutting camp in the heart of nearby Riding Mountain National Park.

What was most unusual about the camp was that there was no enclosed compound, let alone guard towers. Canadian authorities believed that the men were unlikely to wander off into the wilderness after a hard day’s work at the end of an axe and saw.

But the prisoners of war quickly became bored with wood cutting and would steal away at night, in small groups, to visit the outlying communities. They would return before roll call the next morning. The Germans were apparently favoured guests at the local dances and parties because they carried with them rationed goods.

Rumours soon began to circulate about the prisoners and their night-time antics, and the camp guards decided to conduct a raid one wintry Saturday night in February 1944.

That was the same night that Catherine was babysitting some local children and heard a knock on the farmhouse door. Outside stood two prisoners who wanted to come in and warm up.

Catherine hesitated, but let them in because it was snowing heavily. The Germans introduced themselves and offered to help with the jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table.

No more than an hour later, there was another knock at the door. This time, it was a camp guard who ordered the two prisoners to come with him.

The camp patrol then proceeded to Seech, where it broke up a wedding dance and nearly provoked a fight with the locals when five German prisoners were taken away.

Catherine returned home at the end of the school year. Her teaching days were over because a formal complaint had been filed with the Manitoba Department of Education. She headed east to Ontario in the summer of 1944 and found work on an assembly line in a munitions factory.

The Riding Mountain wood cutting camp operated until the spring of 1945, when the Canadian government decided to transfer the German prisoners to other work projects.

The dances at Seech were never the same again.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo courtesy: Bill Waiser 

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca

Follow Bill @billwaiser.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

CPR Route 1877

CPR rerouting changed map of Saskatchewan

One of the most controversial decisions in Saskatchewan transportation history was the rerouting of the Canadian Pacific Railway main line.

Throughout the 1870s, it had been assumed that the railroad would travel along the North Saskatchewan country from Winnipeg to Edmonton and then through the mountains via the Yellowhead Pass. In fact, the federal cabinet formally endorsed the route in 1879.

But in the spring of 1881, the new CPR Syndicate boldly decided to build directly west from Winnipeg across the southern prairies and through a more southerly mountain pass.

This decision profoundly altered the region’s development by focusing settlement activity for the next two decades along a thin line through the grasslands. Places like Prince Albert and Battleford, which had anxiously awaited the arrival of steel, found themselves over two hundred miles north of the main line. As one observer remarked, “The North-West, for practical purposes, became replaced by the West.”

Many reasons have been advanced for the abandonment of the Yellowhead route.

It has been suggested, for example, that the southern route was shorter. That may be true but it overlooks the fact that the CPR had still not found a suitable pass through the Selkirk Mountains at the time of the decision. The Syndicate faced the prospect of sending the rail line north from present-day southern Alberta and through the Yellowhead Pass.

And even after the selection of Rogers Pass, the CPR faced significantly higher grades than those of the Yellowhead. Trains had to be broken into shorter sections and hauled by more engines before a system of spiral tunnels was introduced.

It has also been suggested that the re-assessment of the agricultural potential of the dry mixed prairie district brought about the route change. Botanist John Macoun, for example, claimed in the 1870s that all that was needed was “the mere scratching of the soil” to bring forth bountiful crops.

But if the CPR was so confident about the southern grassland’s potential, then why did it insist in its contract that its 25-million-acre land grant not only had to be “fairly fit for settlement” but could be selected anywhere in the territories? And why did the CPR deliberately schedule its transcontinental passenger service between Regina and Calgary at night in order to play down the marginal land along the route?

The reason for the re-location – found in the 1896-97 correspondence of CPR officials – was a strategic business one.

Even though the CPR deal included a 20-year monopoly over western traffic, the Syndicate still wanted to construct the main line as close to the international border as possible in order to keep out American competition. A more southerly route was also necessary if the railway was going to capture all the traffic of the North-West and offset the costs of operating the otherwise non-revenue producing sections north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains.

The CPR Syndicate actually wanted to send the railway through the Crow’s Nest Pass. But when the Canadian government objected for security reasons, it settled on Rogers Pass and its higher grades. Once construction was complete, the CPR had to devise a way to cover its operational expenses. It was not easily done because some sections of the line ran through regions (southern Ontario and Quebec) where there was stiff competition from cheaper water transport.

To survive and make a modest profit during its early years, the CPR took advantage of its western monopoly and set exorbitant freight rates that put many pioneer farms in jeopardy. The 1883 prairie schedule charged 30.6 cents to carry a bushel of wheat from Moose Jaw to Thunder Bay. That was almost half the price of a bushel of wheat at the time.

Perhaps there is some truth to the story that when it hailed, farmers would shake their fist defiantly at the heavens and shout, “God damn the CPR.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca

Follow Bill @billwaiser.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Lost Child Creek

It was a parent’s worst nightmare.

After supper on April 24, 1906, 11-year-old Ruth Hoffman and her nine-year-old sister Nellie had been sent to retrieve a team of work horses. They never returned home.

It had started to rain after the girls had set off, and turned to driving sleet with darkness.

That was nothing unusual for the Wood Mountain uplands in the early spring. Unpredictable weather was the one constant of the ranching frontier in southwestern Saskatchewan, and it made life more difficult for those who chose to settle there.

Nor was it unusual for the two girls to be given the job of getting the horses. Children who grew up on homesteads were expected from an early age to perform any number of chores under all kinds of conditions. In fact, the entire Hoffman family had worked incredibly hard ever since they headed north from Poplar, Montana, in May 1903 to start a new life in Canada.

The German-speaking Edward and Bertha Hoffman and their six children (five girls and one boy) originally planned to head to Alberta.

But when they reached the North-West Mounted Police post at Wood Mountain, with the prairie wildflowers in full bloom, they decided to homestead about two miles away (SW, section 16, township 4, range 3, west of the 3rd meridian).

They built a one-room home and a barn with poplar poles, mud, and hay. They also planted potatoes and some seeds in a garden dug by hand.

Then, they went to work for the local mounted police detachment. They put up hay, cut wood, and dug coal. It was the only way the family could make a living during their first few years. Only two acres of land were broken during their first three years on the homestead.

When the father Edward and only son Walter went to work for other settlers in the area, the daughters picked up the slack. That included doing laundry and making butter for the Mounties.

Because of the isolation of the region, it took a week’s travel to secure supplies. The Hoffmans made the trip usually twice a year. One fall, they forgot the coal oil and had to get through the dark winter months with the few candles they had.

In mid-April 1906, Edward set off for supplies with his two eldest daughters. The rest of the family remained behind with the mother Bertha, who had given birth to another girl in January.

As the land began to green up that spring, the horses were put out to pasture during the day. They were never left out because they were too important to the family’s survival on the land and meeting their homestead requirements.

That is why Ruth and Nellie were sent to bring them home that evening.

When they failed to return, Walter spent an anxious night on horseback trying to locate them in the numbing sleet.

It was not the first time that a member of the Hoffman family had gone missing. Bertha had been lost twice, once during a heavy fog, but managed to find her way back home.

Edward and his daughters returned with the supplies early the next day and immediately reported the missing girls to the mounted police. The police visited local ranches and checked the nearby coulees and benches, but found only the horses about four miles south of the homestead on the Poplar trail.

The search continued for the next week. The girls’ footprints were found in several places, but nothing else to indicate where they might be.

Edward and Walter made one last exhaustive search of every coulee in the area. Nothing.

By the time the census was taken that June, the two girls had ceased to exist in the official record.

Nine years passed before a child’s shoe led to the discovery of the remains of Ruth and Nellie.

Bertha, according to her daughter Augusta, was greatly relieved that they had been found at last. She solemnly picked up every little bone she could find and buried them at one end of the homestead garden.

The place where Ruth and Nellie had sought refuge from the storm is known today as Lost Child Creek.

As the father and grandfather of two girls, I like to believe that Ruth and Nellie, cold and frightened, found some comfort wrapped in each other’s arms.

Photo: The Hoffman Daughters with their mother: Nellie, left front; Ruth, right front.

Photo Credit: Wood Mountain Historical Society.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Questions or comments? Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca.

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser