19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“As a camel bears labor, heat, hunger, and thirst, through deserts of sand, and faints not, so the fortitude of a man sustains him through all perils.” ~John Ruskin
A few weeks after the fire, the C—s had another loss, in the sudden death of two cows. No cause could be assigned for it, unless there might have been poison in the wild hay they ate, put there by the Indians to kill the foxes. The difficulty of supplying their place on the line in the spring made the loss considerable, especially with children in the house, and no fresh meat.
Carrière had been so completely laid up with rheumatism that he had resigned his post, giving place for our old friend Cahill, who immediately undertook the charge of the garden, which he said he understood thoroughly. Looking one day into the hotbeds, in which he had taken much pride, I found he had filled more than half the space with different varieties of onions, and another part with caraway seeds!
When I asked why he put them in there, he said, “Shure, ye couldn’t have anything betther nor inions. Many’s the thousand I’ve raised in Ireland, when I was with Kurnel Kitchener in Limerick.”
After the cress had gone to seed, Mrs C— told him, to take it out, and sow other things in its place. Afterward, I saw the old fellow transplanting something carefully, which proved on investigation to be the cress.
When I told him it was not worth the trouble, he looked up and said, in an indignant tone, “Throw it away, is it? Shure, if I’d known that was all the good it was, it’s meself wouldn’t have filled me hotbeds wid it! The thrash!”
One day he received a long, narrow parcel and note through the mail. Early next morning, I saw the old fellow sitting on a stump in the garden, carefully spelling over the letter, which, it appeared, was not long.
When Harry [one of the children] ran up to him, Cahill brought the child back to me, and looking all about to see that no one else was near, said, in a mysterious tone, “See here, Miss F—. I got a parcel be the mailman yesterday, an’ here’s the spicification that came wid it. Would you read it, miss, and till me who ye think would send it? I think meself it’s a trick, an’ I’ll be even wid thim yit.”
He handed me a crumpled piece of paper about four inches square, on which I read:
To Michael Cahill, Esq, Office of the Civil Engineer, Lake Diception. Sirs, Hearin’ ye were lately appointed Governmint gardner, we sind a sample of our goods. Eny orders ye can sind will receive prompt attintion. Green and Brown, manufacturing company, County of Limerick, Ireland.
“Of course, it’s a joke, Cahill,” I said. “But where’s the sample?”
“Shure, I buried it behind the shanty; it’s a wooden hoe, cut out o’ the root of a three. I think I know who sint it,” he went on, drawing near, with another cautious look round. “It was wrapped up wid some copies of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, an’ there are only two min on the line that take it at all. So ye see I can spot them!”
Fumbling in his pockets, he produced a scrap of the paper, and, turning it this way and that, discovered some writing which, on close inspection, proved to be my own name. His tormentors had wrapped it in one of the papers I had lent him.
It is impossible to describe the old man’s wrath and astonishment, mingled with keen sense of fun (for an Irishman can see a joke, even against himself). I had little trouble persuading him that to take no notice of either parcel or “spicification” would be the best way to disappoint his foes. Long afterward, whenever I met him, he gave me a knowing side glance of mutual understanding that was irresistible.
Meanwhile the house was fast being rebuilt on the old site, but on a much improved plan. The former had been a two-story building of squared logs, and, to my eyes, an insult to the landscape. The new one, a low cottage of rough logs, seemed to fit into the valley without marring the view from any point. The beautiful wooded hall to the north, which had been completely shut out by the old house, now formed a lovely background to the cottage and garden.
The little Frenchman Martin, the master builder, was another character in his way—a lively, energetic little fellow, whose eyes were everywhere. Not the driving in of a single nail escaped him. Yet, with all his watchfulness, he did more work than any three of his men. The habitual use of salt pork and beans, added to the total absence of vegetable diet during the long winter and summer, had caused scurvy to break out among the men, and poor Martin was suffering much from it.
To keep him in better health until the house was finished, Mrs C— supplied him with potatoes, which he ate raw, sliced and soaked in vinegar; and I believe, from a conversation I overheard between him and one of his men, that these raw potatoes, bread, and tea constituted the man’s entire food for the last six weeks of his work on the line. Many others had not even the potatoes, yet they daily passed the garden, where lettuce and other vegetables, a cure for their sufferings, grew in profusion, and did not take a leaf. I know, if I had been in like case, early training would have gone to the winds, and the eighth Commandment have become a dead letter.
We had unusual opportunities of seeing the real life of a navvy [“navigator”: road or rail construction worker] while we lived in the shanty. Our men came from nearly all parts of the world—Russia, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Great Britain, and the Dominion. There were also many Scotch and French half-breeds, as well as full-blooded Indians, among them, the contractors finding that associating the various nationalities in camp was more conducive to peace and obedience than when a large number of fellow countrymen formed a gang. Next to us, in reality under the same roof, was the store, containing everything a navvy could want—from hats and boots to pickles and tobacco.
Sunday, the only day off work, was the general shopping day; and as it was also mail day, the place was crowded, and the week’s news discussed. A little below the store was another large shanty, where about a 120 men lived, the kitchen ruled over by a tall and rather good-looking Frenchman, who had lived among the Indians at Fort Francis so long that he spoke their language as well as they did. “Black Joe,” as he was generally called, was an authority among the men, and was fond of a little black poodle, which he cared for as a child, spending all his leisure moments in fondling it and teaching it tricks. He had an assistant named Ironsides, who was not only “cookee,” but could sew up and dress a cut as well as the doctor, and his services were often called into requisition.
Sunday was washday in camp too. Every tub was in use, and every low branch or rude fence hung with the men’s clothes. In one place you would see a man sitting on a stump to have his hair cut; in another place, a man repairing the week’s wear and tear of his garments. A group of interested listeners lay or sat round the happy possessor of the latest paper, who was reading it aloud. Others, of livelier tastes, gathered round an accordion-player, who rendered the “Marseillaise” with the fire and feeling of a true artist. Some hard workers, whose idea of pleasure was perfect rest, lay on their backs in the sun, with their hats tilted over their faces, sound asleep, heedless of the roars of laughter from a cluster of men, to whom old Cahill was relating one of his most wonderful stories. Others stood before a small looking glass, hung against a tree, performing their toilet [grooming] with immense satisfaction; while more active spirits were on their way to the lake, with their fishing tackle, for a long day’s sport.
Card-playing was forbidden in camp. Of course, there were a few who gambled in defiance of orders. When detected, they were at once dismissed by the superintendent, who declared that they ought not to profane the Sabbath. Mr K— was strict, and apparently severe with the men, yet he was a general favorite. He avowed one day that he could manage any number of men, but the “weemin were beyond him.” The contractor had tried employing women cooks, believing that they would be more economical than the men; but those he engaged were such a trouble to look after, that he declared “either he or thim weemin would have to leave the line.”
One woman cook was called by the men “7-10,” from her great size, and her camp being at 7-10 station. On her way across the Lake of the Woods after her dismissal, the big steamer, as usual, ran on a rock, and the passengers had to be transferred to a rowboat large enough to hold 30 persons. “7-10” refusing assistance, and attempting to jump into the boat, jumped completely over it, and was dragged out of the water by the laughing crew, who dubbed the rock “7-10’s Leap.”
Mr C— had all the provisions saved from the fire put into a small roothouse under the north hill. The ice in the lakes having broken up unusually early, the bad state of the roads during the winter made it necessary for all supplies brought out on the contract to be “packed”—that is, carried on men’s backs. Each man being paid $2 a day, and not averaging more than 16 miles, made this an expensive process; consequently, our supplies became valuable, only what was absolutely indispensable being sent for till the Dawson Road was passable and the steamer running.
One morning I saw Cahill peering into the roothouse, and evidently watching something with great interest. Then he ran to the shanty for his gun; and my curiosity being aroused, I inquired what was the matter. Touching the brim of his old straw hat, he replied, “Shure, it’s fine prey I’ve got to shoot this mornin’, Miss F—. As beautiful a skunk as ever ye see!” and leveling the gun, he was about to shoot, when memories of former odors made me implore him to desist.
“But he’ll ate all the pork!” the old fellow remonstrated, much aggrieved at being deprived of so fine an opportunity of displaying his prowess. I assured him that, if let alone, the “beautiful skunk” would go quietly away when he had enjoyed a good meal; but, if disturbed, he would use his natural weapon of defense, and destroy everything in the roothouse. But “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” and old Cahill, though he shouldered his weapon and walked away, grumbled as he went.
We paid frequent visits to the roothouse that morning to see if the intruder had gone, but he did not leave until the middle of the second day. Skunks, or polecats, are not numerous in that part of the country. The dogs sometimes came in from a hunt strongly scented by them, but, with the exception of our visitor, we never saw one about the premises. They abound in prairies and swampy grounds; and when attacked, they emit an overpowering, indescribable odor, without exception the worst that ever assailed our nostrils.
As the spring wore on, we spent the brightening days in gathering wildflowers, going fishing, and repeating the weekly routine of a quiet life in the woods. The weather grew hotter, the flies more plentiful, and our highest gratification, it seemed, was to make a good smudge [smoky outdoor fire] in the evening, sit round it, and talk.
How gladly we welcomed the first strawberries and blueberries, which pretty Mrs Bucketee, as we called her, brought to us! She got the name from always being hungry (bucketee) when she came, and she laughed merrily one day when called so inadvertently. We ourselves went out and gathered several pailsful from the rocks on the first portage. Blueberries, or huckleberries as they are called in Ontario, grow much larger in the Northwest than I ever saw them elsewhere, being sometimes as large as small Delaware grapes. The little bushes grow thickly in the crevices of the rocks, and are so completely covered with fruit that their tiny leaves are scarcely visible. They have a beautiful bloom on them when fresh, and are cool and delicious to the taste.
Summer swiftly passed, and the time drew near when I was to leave Lake Deception, and, after staying a day or two at each of the other houses on the line, turn my steps eastward, back to what my friends called civilized life. It was not without many a heartache that I bade good-bye to the wee bairns [small children] whom I loved so dearly, knowing that, though my regrets might be lifelong, in their childish hearts the pain of parting would be but the grief of an hour.
“One may go a long way after one is tired.” ~French Proverb
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Lake Manitoba
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 13. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.