Roughing It in the Shanty*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Frontier Days
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Endurance is nobler than strength; and patience, than beauty.” ~John Ruskin

We had plenty of strange visitors; almost every day men passing along the line came in, either to inquire the distance to the next shanty, or to ask for a meal or drink of milk. Some showed a friendly disposition, and would entertain us with their full family history. Others, with many professions of gratitude for our kindness, would eat enough to last them a week, one would suppose, and go on their way. Others, more taciturn and independent, took their refreshment in silence, and offered to pay for what they received.

One in particular, a tall, slight man, rather advanced in years, came in one morning, and made us understand by signs that he was hungry. When a meal was put before him, he sat down, took his hat off—this was something unusual—and with every offer of more edibles bowed his thanks with much dignity. He could speak neither English nor French, and looked like a Swede.

When his repast was finished, he offered by signs to mend shoes as payment. Thinking that he was begging for shoes, we screamed, as everyone so oddly does to foreigners—as if it made our language any more intelligible to them—that we had none for him. Seeing we did not understand him, he sat down and went through the pantomime of mending shoes. Still shaking our head, as we had no shoe to be mended, he, after fumbling in his pockets, produced a quarter, which he pressed us all in turn to take. In vain we tried to make him understand that his breakfast was a gift; going away a step or two, he came back again and again, still offering the quarter.

At last, out of all patience, Mr C— ordered him off the premises. The stranger went up the hill, but lingered until the coast was clear, to put the quarter on the ice at the door. Then, thinking perhaps that it might not be seen there by the right people, he stuck it into a crevice between two logs in the shed, and went away whistling merrily, his pride relieved of his obligation, as well as his pocket of his money.

Toward the end of the winter, the sleighing being a little better on the portages, we drove to Ostersund, the nearest house east of us. It was Sunday, March 3, and a bright, clear, cold day. Our conveyance was a sort of combination arrangement of a long, low platform, with one seat, on two bobsleighs, which platform turned on a pivot independent of the sleighs. This was supposed to be an invention that lessened the bumps and swings experienced by the traveler, who was jolted over the hills and hollows of the rough roads.

Rough, indeed, they were—up and down steep hills, among and over huge boulders thrown out by the blasts in adjacent cuttings, along the edge of narrow rocks, where Carrière had to hold on to the sleigh on one side, to keep it from swinging round, and down the face of the jagged cliff, into such deep gullies, that it was a wonder we were not tipped over on the horse’s back, or left behind when he went up the ascent. The problem that chiefly occupied me during this wild huntsman-like ride was: If the combination sleigh were indeed a success, what would my sensations have been without it?

On the lakes the road was smooth and delightful, and our old broken-down steed supplied by the Government, derisively dubbed “Pegasus” by Mrs C—, achieved something approaching a trot. Poor thing! Its hide had become so hardened by former cruel treatment, that there was no spot on which the whip had the least effect. We were accompanied by the usual number of dogs, who ran yelping after the rabbits in all directions.

On one of the portages we passed an old Indian, clad in a long blue blanket coat, with a red sash round his waist, and beaded leggings, and moccasins; his long hair was tied back, and a red silk handkerchief was loosely knotted round his brow. He leaned on his old brown gun, and the tall trees, through whose leafless branches the sunshine fell in long streaks on the snow and moss, formed a fitting background for his gaunt figure. Unheeding the hoarse barking of the dogs, he replied to Carrière’s “Bon jour” with a guttural “Bon jour, nitchee,” but until we were out of sight remained in the same attitude.

On March 26, an event happened that startled us all out of the even tenor of our lives. 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning, the roof of our house caught fire from the kitchen chimney, and having no engine or fire-extinguisher about the premises, we were houseless, with scarcely anything to call our own, in half an hour. The moment we discovered the fire, we ran to the nearest cutting, where there were twenty men, to ask their assistance. After vainly attempting to get at the fire by chopping away the roof, they could do nothing but save as much property as possible.

Mrs C— was at Kalmar, and being too excited to remain inactive, I deposited the children in the contractor’s shanty, persuading them to stay there until I returned, and went back to the house to save what I could. I had plenty of assistance. Never did men work better. I have seen many a fire in crowded cities, where engines and hundreds of people were at hand, without half the proportionate amount of goods being saved; and what was rescued from the flames was not destroyed by rough handling.

The house was built of logs, the crevices being stuffed with moss, and lined with thick brown paper, the seams of the latter covered with a narrow beading of pine. The roof was lined with tarpaper, which made a dense and blinding smoke. It had been built a year, and was so dry that it burned like a tinderbox.

The cook, a bright, pretty Canadian girl, in her anxiety to save her kitchen utensils, was caught by the flames, getting her eyebrows and hair singed while making a final dash for the boiler; and in the long weeks that followed before the house could be replaced, she never ceased to lament her failure. She was worth ten men, and saved many things which we did not think of at the time, but should have found it difficult to do without afterward.

We were a motley group, sitting and standing on the hill above the creek to watch our house burn to the ground. Navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew] of every nation; tall, brawny Scotchmen; jolly-looking Irishmen, their faces a mixture of pity for our misfortune and enjoyment of the “fun”; stumpy little French Canadians; solemn, stupid-looking Icelanders and Mennonites. Carrière was there on his crutches. Poor fellow! Standing knee-deep in the lake to cut ice out had brought on such a severe attack of rheumatism, that it was with difficulty he moved about at all.

We were surrounded by a heterogeneous mass of household goods: here a pile of bedding, surmounted by a looking glass, there a basket of crockery, glass, and china; here a dismantled stove, with the fire yet burning in it, there a clothes horse, still covered with clean clothes ironed that morning. A heap of wearing apparel, taken out of some cupboard, lay close beside one of the stovepipes. All round the house were trophies of household furniture, just as they had been carried out—the baby’s cradle full of books from the drawing room table, china vases underneath a heap of dinner plates, and rolls of plans from the office, blown into every corner of the fences.

And all the time the house blazed on. Then the fire spread, and ran up the hill at the back, burning the old icehouse and a large tree, which fell to the ground with a crash the moment after the roof fell in. At the same moment a stock of cartridges exploded, and a volley of musketry formed the fitting finale to our fire.

The poor children, who had been wonderfully good and patient, now became so nervous and frightened that we could scarcely pacify them. Our old friend, the contractor’s superintendent, coming back to his shanty shortly after the disaster, with his usual unselfish kindness insisted on giving it up to us, and going himself into a wretched lean-to behind the store, until the house could be rebuilt. It would be difficult to describe the discomfort of the next few days.

Mrs C— came home immediately, and we were all busy sorting out the salvage, retaining what was necessary to furnish the shanty, and storing the remainder in a loghouse used as a workshop. How we raked among the still hot embers in the hope of picking up a relic, or with regretful interest traced the shape of some favorite object in the ashes!

As my room was the first burned, I saved nothing but a few clothes, most of which were comparatively useless, silk dresses and a log shanty not being harmonious combinations. All my books, pictures, jewelry, and those odds and ends which, though of little monetary value, had grown priceless to me from association, were destroyed; and my desk also, containing my notes of dates and places, so that in these pages I have had to trust entirely to memory.

In dry weather the shanty we now occupied was tolerable, of rough logs, their crevices filled with mud both inside and out; the roof was of logs also, but cut in halves, scooped out, and ingeniously interlaced—thus, to allow the water to run off. During the cold weather these logs had been filled with moss; and when the spring rains began, the water settled in places, rotted them, and came through.

The shanty was divided into three by a partition reaching halfway to the roof. In the first room stood one bunk bed filled with straw, in the second were two narrow ones, so close together that two people could not get out of bed at the same time. One small window, halfway between each room, gave light to both. There was no door into the outer room, only a vacant space in the partition. In the center was an iron stove set in a box of sand. There were two narrow windows on each side, and the only door led into the outer world.

We made it as comfortable as we could. The outer room had to be both dining room and telegraph office (the instrument keeping up such a continual ticking that we blessed an odd day when the wire was down). The big table filled up half the width of the room, and the sideboard a quarter, leaving the remainder for the sofa, small tables—under which were stored boxes and trunks of various sizes—safe, and chairs. We covered the walls with pictures, nails on which to hang everything that would hang, and small shelves. The matting saved from the hall covered what was otherwise unoccupied of the shanty floor.

In fine weather it was not at all unpleasant, as the children and I almost lived out of doors. Even in the shanty we kept our hats on, ready to go out again the moment our office was called on the line, as it was impossible to impress children, aged two and five years respectively, that their merry chatter and a telegraphic message in course of transition were incompatible.

In wet weather, we were cooped up, with the roof dripping in a dozen places, their number increasing after every storm. All our tin pans were called into requisition to catch the falling drops. And the children felt it a duty they owed to society to empty their contents on the floor the moment our backs were turned. With the instrument at work, and the current bad, I was often made desperate by the utter impossibility of keeping the children quiet. Rolling them in a shawl, I would rush out to a tent pitched about 10 feet from the shanty door, and used as a kitchen, rather than endure any longer the strain on my nerves in the shanty.

This kitchen tent had a few rough, heavy planks for floor, and a stove at one end, with the pipe up through the canvas, and the ridge pole and uprights studded with nails, on which hung cups, jugs, pans, and tins. Two tables stood under the slanting roof, with rows of nails beneath to hold irons and everything else with a handle. There was a small cupboard in one corner; the others were filled with boxes, barrels, and the maid’s trunk. The tent had been used as a cookhouse so often that it was perforated by small holes made by flying sparks, and to touch the canvas with one’s head was to invoke a shower bath. Soaking in wet weather and broiling in fine, it was anything but a paradise of cooks, yet it was wonderful how well the maid managed in it, and how neat and tidy she kept it.

We were intensely interested in the blasting of the cutting about 300 feet from us. At the sound of the horn we were on the watch to see the men ran off behind the rock. Then the smoke curled up, and the report followed, sending the flying stones well into the air. In a second we could hear them rattle down all round us, on the roof of the shanty and far out into the lake.

One day, hearing the horn—believing myself at a safe distance, about 500 feet from the cutting—I turned to watch. I saw the stones falling, thought it a heavier charge than usual, and heard the hiss of one fast approaching. Before I could decide whether or not to run, it whizzed past—so close to my ear that I could feel the wind. It buried itself in the sand not two feet behind me, while in front another fell within inches of my feet. Snatching the child who was with me up in my arms, I hastened up the hill before the next charge exploded.

One of the engineers told me he had seen stones thrown 1,300 feet from a cutting. They use nitroglycerin, and have had several serious accidents while handling it. One poor lad who was carrying a can weighing 50 pounds up the dump, tripped, and was blown to atoms; part of one foot, stuck in the fork of a tree about a 100 feet off, being all that was found of him. A man lost his sight and one arm from merely striking a rock where some of the horrid stuff had been spilled. Often have I watched the long train of packers coming down the hill, each with a can of nitroglycerin on his back, and wondered how they dared carry it over the rough roads, knowing that one false step would cost them their lives.

Once when I was out with the children, the dogs barked furiously at one of these poor men. Calling them off, I seized the opportunity to make some remark about his load.

“Ay, miss!” he said, sadly and bitterly. “‘Tis a main mean load fur any man to ha’ to carry.”

Yet, in spite of the danger and the many accidents, I have heard these packers chaffing each other when passing.

“It’s a warm day,” says one.

“That’s so; but maybe ye’ll be warmer ‘fore ye’re to camp tonight,” is the reply.

“That’s so. D’ye want any word taken to the divil?”

Then again, “Where are ye bound for, Jack?”

“To h—, I guess.”

“Take the other train, and keep a berth for me, man!”

“Is it ye’re coffin ye’re carryin’, Pat?” asks another.

“Faith, ye’re right, an a coroner’s inquest into the bargain, Jim!”

The wretched expression of these very men proved that they felt the bitterness of death.

“When your dreams turn to dust, vacuum.” ~Anonymous

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Pioneer Loghouse Canada

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 12. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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