It could have been a scene from a movie about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
After botanist John Macoun extolled the southern Canadian prairies as an agricultural eden awaiting the ploughing, James J. Hill, a member of the CPR Syndicate, pounded the map-covered table with his fist and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, we will cross the prairies and go by the Bow Pass.”
This decisive moment, captured by Macoun in his autobiography, profoundly altered Saskatchewan’s development in the late 19th century.
But it is doubtful whether the spring 1881 meeting in Hill’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota ever happened. Or that Macoun was responsible for the re-routing of the proposed transcontinental rail line.
Throughout the 1870s, it had been assumed that the CPR mainline would travel through the North Saskatchewan country, the so-called “fertile belt,” to the Yellowhead Pass.
But in the spring of 1881, the Syndicate boldly decided to build directly west across the southern prairies through present-day Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, and Maple Creek.
The route change, one scholar noted, “shifted the whole axis of development in the North-West.”
Many reasons have been advanced for the abandonment of the Yellowhead route — and the over $4 million in survey work in preparation for construction.
But the most common explanation was John Macoun’s championing of the agricultural potential of the plains.
In Men Against the Desert, for example, James Gray argues that, “It was Macoun’s report (to the Syndicate) which helped guide the CPR through the southern Prairies.”
Pierre Berton also highlights the St. Paul meeting in The Last Spike, entitling a chapter subsection “How John Macoun Altered the Map.”
But did the meeting take place?
A faithful recorder of his activities in the field, Macoun makes no mention of it in his 1881 field notebook, 1881 diary, or correspondence for that year. Nor does he mention it in his massive Manitoba and the Great North-West (1882), a compendium of his activities in western Canada over the previous 10 years.
The James J. Hill papers, moreover, do not contain any reference to a meeting or to Macoun in 1881. In fact, the only account of Macoun’s meeting with CPR Syndicate members appears in his autobiography, dictated from memory some 40 years later, when the botanist was nearly 90.
There’s no doubt that the railway builders were aware of Macoun’s highly favourable assessment of the southern prairies. But the location of the railway had more to do with strategic business decisions than the quality of the land.
Ottawa’s insistence that the CPR follow an-all Canadian route made for engineering and construction challenges.
It also did not make business sense.
Building across the shield country north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast would be expensive and time-consuming. Nor would these sections of the line generate much traffic for the railway. The losses from these non-revenue producing sections would have to be made up by the railway on the western prairies.
But that, too, was a problem from the outset.
The rail line was being built in advance of significant western settlement.
George Stephen, who headed the CPR Syndicate, was concerned about these operational disadvantages. During the CPR contract negotiations, Stephen told Prime Minister John A. Macdonald that the Syndicate could probably “construct the road without much trouble, but we are not so sure by any means about its profitable operation.”
He was particularly worried about a rival U.S. line siphoning off prairie traffic and undercutting the costly Superior section.
“Now what do you think would be the position of the CPR … if it were tapped at Winnipeg, or any other point west of that,” Stephen asked the prime minister. “No sane man would give a dollar for the whole line east of Winnipeg.”
The main line consequently was constructed as close to the international border as Ottawa would allow —even if it was not the best quality farmland — in order to keep out American competition.
Branch lines would be built north to the Saskatchewan country (Regina to Prince Albert and Calgary to Edmonton).
A more southerly route, through the Kicking Horse Pass, was also necessary if the railway was going to capture all the traffic of the North-West and offset the costs of operating the expensive Superior and Rocky Mountain sections.
As for John Macoun, he provided the agricultural justification for a route chosen for business reasons. Meeting or no meeting, Macoun was not responsible for one of the most controversial decisions in Saskatchewan history.
PHOTO: The Saskatoon train station (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan R-B1754).
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
Was it deliberate? That certainly seemed a possibility in wartime Saskatoon.
At 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1943, a Canadian National freight train ploughed into a Canadian Pacific passenger train at the diamond crossing northeast of the Union stockyards. It was the kind of incident that screamed sabotage.
During the dark days of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied western Europe, Saskatoon readied itself for an enemy invasion.
In September 1941, and then again in October 1942, mock attacks were carried out on the city’s government and communication services. The exercises were intended to prepare citizens for the day when the war reached Saskatoon.
There were also regular fire, police, and first aid drills — involving more than 1,000 men and women — in anticipation of an air attack on Saskatoon. Many citizens genuinely believed that the Luftwaffe might bomb the city. Some might even have lost sleep over the prospect of U-boats prowling the South Saskatchewan.
Salvage drives, meanwhile, encouraged the collection of rags, metal, and rubber for the war effort. The campaigns featured such slogans as “Get in the scrap with your scrap” and “Heap it on Hitler.”
The greatest worry, though, were enemy agents — known as “fifth columnists” — embedded in the city and bent on sabotage. This fear was fed by military officials with overactive imaginations.
The local Canadian Corps claimed the city was home to thousands of pro-Nazi sympathizers disguised as ordinary citizens. And a visiting member of the British Admiralty warned that Nazi spies could relay compromising information to Germany in only minutes.
The January 1943 train collision occurred against this backdrop. Star-Phoenix coverage of the crash was found among war stories about the Allied bombing of Berlin and the North Africa campaign. Those who were already paranoid might have easily concluded that the collision was an act of subversion.
After all, both the CPR passenger train and CN freight train had received all-clear signals on their respective tracks. There was no reason for either train to slow down or even wait. How was that possible?
The initial response from the two railway companies was that it appeared to be a terrible accident — a finding that did not change.
Indeed, it was incredible that this kind of collision had not happened earlier.
Saskatoon prided itself from the early 20th century as the “hub city.” Three railway companies — the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Canadian Northern — had lines to and from the city. (The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern were folded into Canadian National Railways after the Great War.)
By 1912, a remarkable 27 passengers trains passed through Saskatoon daily. Freight trains added to the railway traffic.
Because of the number of lines, tracks of competing companies sometimes had to cross one another; these level crossings were known as diamond junctions.
One was located on the city’s west side, northeast of the Union stockyards (east of Dundonald Avenue), where the north-east Canadian National line crossed the east-west Canadian Pacific line. Traffic over these diamond crossings was regulated by lights on the tracks.
CPR passenger train #51 left Saskatoon an hour late on Jan. 16, 1943. It’s not known why the signals were green — probably human error — but the westbound train reached the diamond at the same moment as CN freight #782.
The two locomotives collided and spilled down an embankment, one engine rolling on top of the other. It could have been much worse. If the CP train had reached the diamond only seconds earlier, the CN engine would have ploughed into one of the passenger cars. As it was, only the CP engine and tender went off the track.
Surprisingly, there was only one fatality. Fifty-five-year-old Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN freight, was badly scalded by steam escaping from the locomotive. He died the next day in St. Paul’s hospital.
The other crew members from both trains, including CN fireman H.W. Hall (father of future NHL goalie Glenn Hall), sustained only minor injuries.
Railway crews working with a crane quickly cleared away the wreckage and opened up both lines. Traffic resumed shortly after midnight.
There was a war to be won. And nothing was going to stand in the way of an Allied victory.
A special thanks to Harvey McKee, who told me about the collision.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Wrecking crews clear away two locomotives from collision.
Photo Source:B-1864 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.