The Railroad at Last*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Life is made up of marble and mud.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

We reached Tilford about 6 o’clock. How we pitied the pretty, sad-looking woman, wife of the engineer! For having to live in a house stranded on a bank of mud, just high enough to keep out the water! And with mud and marsh on all sides for miles, making it impossible to go out! The couple had no society and only the bare necessaries of life; mail and telegraph were their only means of communication with the outside world.

Excusing our travel-stained appearance, they persuaded us to stay to dinner. My hands were so muddy that I tried to keep them under the table as much as possible; but, finding this awkward, I looked to see if it was noticed, and was relieved to find I had companions in misery.

We left Tilford at 7 o’clock, and for some little distance the road seemed better. Fortunately, it was a moonlight night, or we should have had difficulty in keeping the trail. For some distance it ran along the muddy dump, then came a great open culvert, with a gang of men sitting round a fire at the bottom. One of them called out as we appeared, “Ye’s can’t git down here; ye’s’ll have to go round.”

Retracing our steps 100 feet, we found a track down the side to a submerged bridge, which we traversed as quickly as possible, but not without getting wet to our knees in ice-cold water. Next we climbed up a narrow path, so close to the edge that a false step would have precipitated us 10 or 12 feet to the rock below. A steep, uneven fragment of path had to be traversed, and we were in the middle of the cutting.

Beyond was another culvert in a more advanced stage. We walked carefully across a narrow single board, whose ends lay loosely over one another in the careless way in which men generally run up scaffolding, so that one nail is the only thing that keeps them in this world. The planks were slippery, and in the uncertain moonlight we scarcely breathed while crossing them.

On, on, through more mud and water, until, about 8:30, we saw the whitewashed walls of the telegraph office at the end of the track, and Mr M— came springing down the bank to meet us. “I have just been asking if you were still at Tilford,” he said. “I never thought you could get through but would give in and stay there all night. The engineer was getting impatient to be off, so I came to find out.”

When we reached the train, a load of ties blocked the way, so we had to climb up on a truck, jump down again, and go round a cattle van to the open truck or freight car, where our luggage was already piled, and on which we were to make our trip to Winnipeg. Spreading the robes on the floor, Mr M— piled the bags and valises in the center for us to lean against, and covered us with blankets and shawls. Before settling down, however, I took friendly advice, and trusting to the covering of the semi-darkness, changed my shoes, throwing the mud-laden ones overboard. Then, when well under the blankets, I was comparatively warm.

Carrière and Frank came to say good-bye before the train started. They, poor fellows, had to trudge back to the ranch that night, and I, being perhaps the only one of the party who was never likely to see them again, parted from the kindly, good-natured men with regret. Mr D— also left us, with many good wishes and good-byes.

The track was not ballasted [stabilized] for the first 45 miles, and the car rocked frightfully. The wind was bitterly cold, and we crouched down closer under the blankets, but were unable to keep warm until after 10 o’clock, when Mr F— stopped the train at Whitemouth and borrowed a roll of blankets from the engineer there. With this additional covering, we succeeded in warming our wet clothes.

The dear little baby slept all the time in its mother’s arms, as cozy and comfortable as possible. Her only dread was that it might be smothered, and many an anxious peep was taken under its many coverings to make sure of its existence. We talked in snatches, and until after 11 o’clock amused ourselves with learning some railway technicalities, that we might be able to talk of “when we were out on the line.” But as the moonlight faded, we grew quiet and drowsy.

Once, when I was just dropping into a little nap, Mrs F—’s caution, “Don’t go to sleep, or you will roll off!” roused me to the consciousness of not having a sofa or even terra firma on which to repose.

On that part of the line the country is flat and uninteresting, entirely muskeg or marsh, with the exception of one small rock cutting, where the necessary drainage formed the principal item in the cost of construction. On each side we could see the long “takeoffs” glittering in the moonlight, like silver ribbons thrown at random on the grass. The Jules muskeg, about two miles across, was at first only passable when frozen in winter, except for pedestrians. We heard of several gangs of men who were sent there to work, digging all day and being unable next morning to find any trace of their labor.

The only breaks in this monotonous marsh are Whitemouth and Broken-Head Rivers, flowing between wooded shores. The former is about 40 miles from Ingolf, and the latter nearly 70. Both are small streams flowing into the most southerly end of Lake Winnipeg. At the junction near Selkirk are a small store and barroom, apparently well patronized, if one may judge from the mental and physical wanderings of a man who asked the way to Winnipeg, and the wild notes of a fiddle issuing from the open doorway. While the train waited for the switch signal, we were too tired to take much note of our surroundings, the appearance of a rail fence between the track and the outlying country being more suggestive of approaching civilization to our Ontario eyes.

Receiving the signal, the train backed down the Pembina branch. There the wind was less trying, the road smoother, and we were getting accustomed to our cramped position. Gradually the train slackened, until it was almost at a footpace.

Scarcely had we begun to wonder what was wrong, when the speed suddenly increased, and after rushing madly along for a few minutes slackened again, without any apparent cause.

The man who had held a lantern at the back of our truck from the junction now began to grumble. “What can the driver mean by going at such a rate!” he exclaimed. Then, when the train slackened, he growled, “Hang the fellow, he’s gone to sleep!”

At last Mr F— said he would go in the engine car and keep the man awake. When we stopped to take in water a few minutes afterward, he left us.

We reached the station at St Boniface, the terminus of the railway, at 3 o’clock, without any further anxiety. There were only a couple of sleepy porters at the station, so we left the blankets, etc, lying on the platform until one porter found the man who had the key of the storehouse. Picking up our satchels, and shivering as the cold morning air came in contact with our wet clothes, we went over the prairie 100 yards or so to a hotel, hastily put up for the accommodation of benighted travelers, there being no means of crossing the Red River for Winnipeg before 7 o’clock.

The house was crowded to excess, the barroom was full of noisy revelers, the landlord was in bed, and there was no room to be had. We waited at the head of the narrow flight of stairs, while a sleepy porter roused five men from their slumber in the sitting room, and overheard a grumbling discussion going on behind a half-open door near us. A woman in an injured tone was protesting that, “It weren’t no good wakin’ her! She couldn’t help the house not bein’ big enough, nor more people coming nor it would hold,” while the man was saying, “It weren’t his’n, neither, but places must be found to put ‘um in.”

Presently the sitting room door opened, and a young man, looking as if he had slept in his hat and used his coat for a pillow, emerged, staring at us as if taking an inventory of our wardrobe. He disappeared downstairs. With a great yawn, and a muttered remark about something being “a d——d shame,” a man who looked like a cattle dealer followed. Then his partner appeared, an energetic, scrubby-looking little man, who informed us that we might enter: which we did, glad to get a place to sit down, but hastily retreated on discovering another man getting up from the floor, and one busy lacing his boots.

When the latter raised his head, we recognized our clergyman from the Contract. He had come in over the Dawson Road with the poor man who had lost his eyesight and arm by striking the rock where nitroglycerin had been spilled. His fellow workmen had among themselves collected $1,100 toward supporting him, or getting him into an asylum [home]. He was now returning by the line.

Mr M— went back to the station to fetch a robe and some blankets, which we spread on the floor, and lay down, to wait for morning. The room was small—8×10 feet—the furniture, a short uncomfortable sofa, two chairs, a table, and a couple of pictures, of Pope Leo IX and St Joseph. Daylight seemed a long time coming.

Mr M— looked more like a ghost than anything else. The poor man had walked up and down the station platform all the time. Neither storekeeper nor key being found, he had feared to leave our luggage lying about unguarded. Crossing the river in the clear bright morning among tidy-looking women going to market, and natty men in clean white shirts and well-brushed clothes, made us feel more disreputable than ever.

And we were disreputable! Our skirts, draggled [dirty] and muddy halfway to our waists, clinging and wet still; our hair unbrushed, our faces bespattered with mud, and blackened with smoke and dust from the engine and our night’s travel—the railway hotel not having afforded us sufficient water to wash them; the fatigue and wakeful night gave us a haggard, wobegone, been-out-on-a-spree appearance quite indescribable. is a long walk from the Red River ferry to the Canada Pacific Hotel, but our anxiety to arrive there before Winnipeg was abroad [“out and about”], made us get over it as quickly as possible. Haverty, the manager, received us, regretting that until after breakfast he could only let us have one room.

Fortunately, I had some friends whom I did not mind disturbing at that early hour, so leaving my satchel to be sent after me, and taking the back streets as much as possible, I went in search of them. The maid who answered my knock was a stranger to me, and, putting on a forbidding expression of decided refusal, was not, until I told my name, inclined to let me in. My friend was not up, but a few minutes afterward I was warmly welcomed and given a bath and clean clothes before anyone but her husband saw me.

We were detained in Winnipeg nearly a week, waiting for our luggage. Fortunately for me, the friend with whom I took refuge was about my own height, and kindly lent me what I needed until I could procure garments of my own.

This was, however, a great cause of trouble to a little English terrier. Recognizing her mistress’s slippers and dress, the pet rubbed her head against my feet and was affectionate; but glancing up at my face and discovering that of a stranger, she jumped back growling. Shortly afterward, tempted by the familiar clothes, she again made friendly advances, only to snarl out her disapproval on hearing my voice, evidently feeling so puzzled and imposed upon, that, until I had my own clothes, she declined to make friends with me at all.

Everyone was so kind that the days in Winnipeg were all too short, but the luggage arriving on Wednesday, October 10, left us no further excuse to remain; and with many regrets at parting, I said good-bye.

“I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.” ~Anonymous

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Canadian Pacific Railway

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 18. 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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