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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> Lord Strathcona > Chapter 12

Chapter XII

The Building Of The Line

The foundations of C. P. R. finance were not easy to lay. Tantæ molis erat Romanam condere gentem—"such fearsome toil and moil it was to plant that corner-stone." What made it much worse than it would normally have been was the extraordinarily hard times then prevailing. The old stocking has seldom in fairly recent days been quite so much in vogue as during the unexampled constriction of the late seventies. A very transient gleam of returning confidence did, it is true, shine out from a rift in the clouds to cheer the dawn of the new decade. Unfortunately it did not fall on our side of the hill, being intercepted by our neighbours who were so much nearer at hand "to stand up and take" the top of the "morning." The years 1881–1883—the critical years—were marked in the United States by an entirely unprecedented boom in railways. The great heart of New York was all turned into the capacious arteries and veins that radiated to every limb of the great body which it must in the first instance supply from its hard-pumped auricles and ventricles. By 1883 the flow had touched high water mark and spent its force. Just at the time when the C. P. R. coffers were quite dry and the rapidly revolving mill-wheels of construction were creaking and clappering for water the ebb had set in. London, as we have seen, was frozen solid as a brick. G. T. R. shareholders, threatened with formidable competition in their best districts, and the unceasing brekekekek coax coax of Canadian croakers, from the ooze of their Slough of Despond, took good care of that. New York did a little better. Not much, for the reasons given and for another weighty one besides. The omnipotences in New York in these things were the Northern Pacific, now fully awake to its slipping sceptre, and the hitherto good Canadian James J. Hill. At that time he was the oracular authority on all continental transportation problems. In 1883, over the old bone of contention, the weary Lake Superior section, he struck his old friends a slugging blow, by far the heaviest of the many they took in every round of this contest, by deserting them to devote himself entirely to the service of their most dangerous rival, the Great Northern. Canada was thrown back upon her own slender resources, and as that stout-hearted fur-trading pioneer Henry, once said of his experience—"found that despair was not made for man." It was a weary business, that quest of the reluctant dollar. Nothing but the "faith that moves mountains," and does not boggle even at muskegs, could have been equal to it, and the devotion that does not stop short of the bottom dime. Both were there in the Board of tenacious Montreal Scots surely the reincarnations of the long dead agents of the North-West Company, with Van Horne, as we shall see, for their trans-Kaministiquian bourgeois in Beaver-land. Above all, they were there in George Stephen. It was he who found the money and passed it through his pores. His foresight, the manly vigour that radiated from the high-hung lamp of his face above his broad Speyside shoulders, his unlimited resourcefulness and indomitable courage, were the driving power, like the great steep grade engine's piston, and the beacon light of the enterprise. He never once looked back. When things were at their worst the tread of the one way through and out was always flashed upon by his hawk-eye. He had the priceless gift of a contagious confidence. You were his friend because he knew you would be. No one who ever looked him in the face would doubt his word. He was a born leader. Donald A. Smith, though far less brilliant and prominent, was scarcely less essential. He had already done two or three life-days' work between the wilds, Riel, and Ottawa. A great part of his contribution was the store of living knowledge and the upward lift of reasoned hope he had gained in doing it. He was the embodied past stepping out, like old Homer's sleepless Læstrygonian shepherd, towards the rising sun with the glow of the setting sun still upon his brow. The right to let his juniors whom he had started on the rocks and bogs of this portage do most of the more sunlit conspicuous fly-plagued perspiring of its strain upon the tump-line had been well earned by him. He was rather "uncle" than cousin to George Stephen by age and precedence as well as by nature, if not by height of pile. Still scarred and partly lamed by those battles of ten tines which, wholly of course without the least foreknowledge or suspicion on his part of such a result, had cleared a free field and open arena for his younger and more dashing comrades in arms, he lay low like heavy ordnance in the rear, in a well-stored stronghold and base of help, healing and comfort, a sure refuge in times of trouble. Several times over, just in the nick of time he shook out unexpected succour from his wide sleeve. At one moment all his St. Paul and Minneapolis holdings, like Stephen's, stood pledged to the last quarter. Though well back under the shadow of that rosebush, he was all in it, and up to the skin of his teeth in its sharpest thorns. The large enveloping unobtrusive sound sense and natural justice of mind, the rare power of listening, the gift of weighing and sifting grains of solid reason, and the unblemished financial prestige of R. B. Angus made a close third at the council-board. If the ship had gone upon the rocks, not they only but all their friends—nearly all Scots like themselves—in Montreal would have gone down with her.

In one respect the financial policy they adopted was quite unique. Most tangible properties, above all such as are likely to be substantial instruments for the production of wealth, are usually to a large extent constructed by means of a reasonable discounting of what they are going to be when once they are up and standing there completed. But these builders of the C. P. R. were chary of this convenient anticipatory method of living on next day's manna. They had seen too much of this way of capitalizing Hope's fine-feathered birds in the bushes of Eden. They could not forget what the St. Paul and Pacific had looked like before they made it—a water-logged derelict sunk in the mud by twenty-eight millions of mortgage bonds (which they had acquired for less than the accumulated interest) attached by a rotten string to a puny cork life-belt of six millions in paid-up shares. Their railway was not going to repeat this mess; not until such time as it had become a piece of very real estate, indeed, would they borrow a copper upon its security. They stuck to their solid hand-to-mouth procedure. They grew their Scottish thistle and made it thrive among the big-belled pumpkins of new-world fairy finance. And it did in the end "out-redden all voluptuous garden roses." But they just missed martyrdom for an honesty which was so entirely original. As they had nothing but shares to look to for the means to go on with the work they were compelled to make the shares attractive. So—expensively original again—they took to issuing dividends from the beginning. But even that did not content them. They proceeded to guarantee those dividends some years ahead. By the end of 1883, sixty-five millions worth of shares had been sold. The total authorized share capital being only one hundred millions, the reader will say they had done very well indeed, considering. Alas! the gay sixty-five meant no more than thirty-one in the strong box, and only angel visits of the thirty-one at that, for they were but rapidly flying summer swallows bound for British Columbia and impatient for their widely scattered perches on the no less rapidly extending leagues of rails there. And yet, in order to make quite superfluously sure that those migrant thirty-one would come home again to the eaves to roost, and to lay their eggs handily for the happy house-holders that had sped them upon their westward flight, they chose this time to set no fewer than thirty-eight nestling millions more in the chambers of the public incubator and lock them up there from other much more pressing uses. In plain words, they deposited in the hands of the government what for them in those days was the enormous sum of $38,000,000, half of it cash down, with good pawns for the other half, as a fund to secure three per cent. interest per annum for ten years upon the thirty-one millions which had been received for the par value of the sixty-five million shares sold. Then they sat down and waited. They naturally expected that the $35,000,000 shares out of the original $100,000,000, the balance still unsold upon their hands, the dividends upon which also they proposed to make snug with the same solid anchors fixed behind the veil, would disappear in a twinkling under that stroke of white magic, fetching no end of fuel for their now empty bunkers and enabling them to go on with their construction full steam ahead. It did not. No coup could possibly have been more unfortunately timed. For that very moment, as it happened, had also been chosen by the American Northern Pacific for a smash that resounded all over the world. The railway whose prosperity had been meant to preclude the need or possibility of the C. P. R. came very near by its clattering ruin to nip the C. P. R. in the bud and drag it down in the long trail of devastation. The whole West was red with the lurid warning of that blaze. Coming as it did on top of a succession of bad harvests in Manitoba which had followed close upon the heels of the boom caused by the first active operations there, it effectually sickened all investors everywhere of both the American and Canadian West, railroads and railroaders and all, and scared away their money to the furthest possible remove from the region of such cyclones. Everything short of invincible optimism and intimate knowledge gave Manitoba the widest possible berth for a long time. Settlers and speculators vanished in a night from Winnipeg like green leaves before the locusts. The prospects were for a fine crop of hay in its high street next year—and owls in the birches of the two rivers. The blow just missed being a coup de grace. The thirty-five million shares, the one realizable asset not used up—we shall speak of the land in a moment—would not budge. It looked as if they might just as well be given away to the navvies and the Blackfoot Indians with a pound of tea. And all this at a moment when dollar-devouring construction was in fullest swing and the last tough bit of the weary way was still to travel. Their stubborn ill-timed "safety first" deal had launched an avalanche upon them. They had locked up their funds in the refrigerators of the State to drip out doles of three per cent. dividends when every liquid copper was sheer life-blood to them. It was a bad quarter of an hour.

Where could they look for a rock or bush or tuft of grass to cling to? Their cash-grant of twenty-five million was gone long ago. But was there not something said, too, about a land-grant? Could nothing be begged, borrowed or stolen upon that? They were still surely at least "spacious in the possession of dirt." What had they done with their estate of 25,000,000 acres? They had done their best with it. But that was amazingly little. They had at first coöperated with the benevolent government which gave away its land to homesteaders gratis, in the hope of bagging settlers and freight-providers generally. It had been a costly process on which they ought to have been allowed a compensating grant, for it had let them in for a fairly successful but highly expensive advertisement and publicity campaign in England. When the coast had thus been at least partially cleared, they next went on to issue mortgage bonds—not hesitating this time for conscience sake, because the solidest of all possible stuff was there—upon their own 25,000,000 acres, which they valued very modestly indeed at a dollar the acre. Ten million of those land bonds sold at 92½ leaving them fifteen. Varying fractions of the unnegotiated balance were utilized at odd times to cover government advances extorted upon promise of pomptitude in the completion of the contract. Another five million of their acres, reduced a little later to the more tractable total of 2,200,000 acres had been handed over to be dealt with by a subsidiary company with a strong family likeness to Smith's old favourite Puget Sound Agricultural Association, and no doubt born out of Smith's long head. This subsidiary company, in which of course several of themselves, including Smith, were heavy holders, was called the Canada North-West Land Company. In one way or another they had by the end of 1883 netted about $11,000,000 upon this account—by far the greater part of it now, if not with last year's snow, at least sunk in painful rails that seemed at that hour to have but slender chance of dodging their predicted doom of rust.

Such, then, was the cleft stick in which the syndicate found itself in this annus mirabilis of theirs. The sink-hole north of Lake Superior, to swallow up their money like a hippopotamus or some worse monster of the slime. In the treasury-cupboard, not one dry bone. For assets, uncertain potentiality, thirty unsaleable millions of shares, and much land. But all that broad expanse of acres which had not already gone the way of cold mutton was for the present little better than a white elephant. No bidders could be seen. The Manitoba slump, the late series of wretched harvests still marching, it seemed, in indefinite process onwards to barren autumns yet to come, had shooed them all away like frosted flies from the Red to the Plate River. Who was to pay the piper for the steam-whistle tune, the marching-music along the black Superior leagues of the all-red railway that might yet paint the earth? Now was the time for sacrificial faith. Nor was it to seek. Stephen, Smith, MacIntyre, Angus threw all they had, from railway scrip to shoe-buckles, searched every nook and cranny of Montreal by daylight and by candle-light, and threw all they could worm out of their friends, too, into the gulf. The gulf still yawned. The only consolation was that they had kept nothing out of it for themselves. Their hands were clean of coppers craftily reserved. They had at least willed mightily and well.

However, there was one resource still left. That was the pride and power of the government, which meant the Canadian people. On the C. P. R. side, too, there was still something in reserve. They had kept whole one stick with which to knock down the precipitations of that power and pride, one stout pole or scaffolding, even, to stack them round, if and when they should fall—the value of the road itself. After all, the almost pedantic honesty of their miraculous finance, which had got them into it, might help them to climb up to the light again out of that fearful hole. The worth of their property—every inch of it still their very own—now visible and substantial enough, had hitherto been kept jealously in an inviolable integrity. Now in the last desperate strait it might be offered, with very similar feelings to Abraham's when he offered his only-begotten, as a pledge to the government. A paternal government might advance a loan of $22,500,000 in view of certain other considerations and upon the basis of a really and literally first mortgage upon all the syndicate owned in this world, their railway then approaching and now certain to attain completion, the railway, the whole railway and nothing but the railway. What were those other considerations? Just one, but cheap at millions on several accounts and above all as an object of true art, a luxury of pride. An offer of crushing yet blameless triumph over foes, it dangled brighter than any diamond before the astonished eyes of Tupper. The contract should be completed by May, 1886, that is to say, five years before its time and within half the term which the Liberals, with one voice consenting, but so unfathomably in error, had denounced and held up to scorn as impossibly, nay insanely, short.

Would the government assent? If they did it should be fame and fortune. If not—? When George Stephen, on his way to see Sir John with that last writing in his satchel, took his seat in the train for Ottawa at the Bonaventure Station, he had something to occupy his mind without the need of spending any coppers on the newsboys. He was like a gunner, with just a few miles left of the march upon victory, but surrounded on every side by an overwhelming superiority of hostile force, and hopelessly cut off on every side but one, not only from reinforcements but from supplies, who solemnly takes out and turns over again and again in his trembling hand the last shot in the locker. It was there in his satchel. He felt every now and then to make sure it was there. A heavy shot and should be well-aimed at least! Heaven steady the poor gunner's hand and guide his shell to the mark! Ruin rides upon its wings or else salvation. . . . The more he thought the more impossible it seemed that he could miss. Sir John was not the sort of poorhouse politician either to drop in his tracks within a yard of the goal, or to pick up the chestnuts—if that could be done; it would at the best be extremely risky—and turn his back on those who had picked them out of the fire for him and for Canada. The offer must tempt him beyond all resisting! To be twice as good as a word flouted for the pledge of delirium, to forestall by half a decade an appointment which had been derided and tossed aside as antedated by at least two whole decades from the first—what a crow for the old game cock with which to hail the morning of his country's greatness across the shattered dunghills of those tame barnyard economic precisians and all their dame Partlet's and capon chicks. And on the other hand what shame, confusion and discredit to collapse, and that so near the winning post!

As to the risk, there was some, no doubt. But surely, in spite of momentary clouds, it had never been less. And that peril was as the dust in the balance compared with the certain disgrace and loss of letting a company go down when it could hardly fail to drag down with it the government, the Bank of Montreal, and indeed all Canada.

With some such reflections we may be sure George Stephen assuaged the fever of that journey. He was one who "never doubted clouds would break," and always kept his head in any case. He had a sore disappointment and disillusion when he reached that journey's end. Sir John, he soon discovered, had reached the end of his long suffering with the C. P. R.. He simply could not stand one ounce more of it. The last straw had been laid on the broad back of that good ship of our desert. He had already done his bit here. Every man has his breaking-point. That long, searching, fiery ordeal had found the premier's at last. He could not look at the proposal. It gave him a headache. He did not dare to face the caucus of his own party with such an offer in his hands. Neither Parliament nor country would stand it. Unfortunately, Tupper was not there to stiffen his back as he had once not long ago, needed to stiffen Tupper's. The late minister of railways was in London, where he was making himself very useful as High Commissioner. Pope was there, however—a shrewd appraiser of party chances. Frank Smith, all powerful among Irish Catholic Conservatives, and the right fighting sort of Irishman, was also there, with no less sharp an eye for tactical dynamics. They saw plainly how the wind blew, and held up the sinking arms of their old leader against its violence. They were young and fresh. They had had no Washington treaties and Pacific Scandals. They had not made their last political will and testament over this business or turned their faces to the wall and laid themselves down to die of it. The C. P. R. was not for them a deep, deadly old wound scarred over by time and now throbbing with angry life again and blinding pain. It was a pang of travail to them, the stimulating stound of one final paroxysm of effort, the herald of conclusive delivery, the last fierce contraction in a mighty birth. How weak the strongest man may be at moments! How good it is that there are such things as friends!

George Stephen had packed up his things. His paper was in the bottom of his portmanteau. The alabaster vase of precious spikenard had been broken among the iron pots and was now on its way to the scrap heap in Montreal, which would soon be piled high with the wrecks of other fortunes as well as his own and Donald A. Smith's. Frank Smith called on Stephen in the Russell House. The crumpled protocol was disentombed and smoothed out again, a shining weapon once more. Well wielded, too. There were several more hearings and anxious moments in cabinet anterooms, where a tall man might be seen sitting with bent head between his hands. One can imagine the light and fire of that pleading in the intervals, and the looks of the tall man as he spoke. Something had to give way, and in the end the Cabinet saw that acceptance and mending of the ills they had was the less of the two evils. Tupper, summoned by cable from London, roared and windmilled the same conviction into the heads of the caucus. On his way home to Montreal in the Grand Trunk train reading the daily papers, George Stephen had a new paper in his satchel. It was good for $22,500,000. The old one—good for Heaven knows how much more—had been left in Ottawa. The road and the precious speedy end of it were now in the hands of the government.

One last hurdle was still to clear. Quick work meant lots of money. The $22,500,000, sweated out of the scarcely less refractory and stony veins of Ottawa politics, soon melted away or burst into hundreds of million fragments of dynamited débris among the dolomites of Lake Superior. More money and still more was needed and needed at once to break the rocks and fill the greedy moving gulfs. Where was it to come from? The last accessible security upon which it could be borrowed lay immobilized in the government dockets. They held a blanket-mortgage on the line. In the other safe, it is true, there were still two assets, the unsold land and the thirty-five millions of unsold stock. Unless by some kind of alchemy these could be transmuted into some other shape, it was quite hopeless to attempt to liquidate either. One fine morning came when the greatest corporation in the world, which can give you a visiting-card that belts the globe for you with continuous leather and links of its own, and would highly honour and oblige any decent banking house in London, New York, Paris or Montevideo, by a request for the commodity of five million Sterling after or before banking hours was within three hours of dropping hammers and gathering up drills and wheelbarrows because there was no one in sight to bring out our hundred thousand dollars. That was the last vertiginous ledge, fifty yards from the peak and all the kingdoms of this earth and the glory of them. The trestle work did not stop. One crystallizing stroke of financial wizardry, George Stephen's again, was enough to clear things up. They had waited and everything came to them. All their odds and ends began to roll with a rush at last. By permutations and combinations, by dint of splicing loose leavings from here and there together, a rod and line and gaff took shape stout enough to land George Stephen's biggest salmon at last and lay him gasping among the Grande Métis blue berries. With the sanction of Parliament the thirty-five millions of unsold stock vanished in that unlovely form of stock from the books of the company, to rise again in soaring columns as an exactly equivalent thirty-five millions of first mortgage bonds. The rose smelt sweeter under that name—a name once feared, but now in all the fuller flavour when the exhaling flower, wholesomely delayed by fear in its maturing, hung there before all eyes. But besides, in that evening hour when all things came home and all fragments were gathered up and turned to steam, the land's turn came too. It proved quite a pièce de résistance. Just as insoluble as the frozen stock which by one stroke of the pen had passed out of as good as nothing into full being in a higher state of matter, it served as an eke and stiffening to that.

Between the resuscitated two of them they rolled away the stone. They wiped out the whole $22,500,000 government loan, once a savour of life indeed, and lifted the grinding weight of that body of death off the springs of the railway's credit. By this—to the syndicate—"new way of paying old debts," twenty million bonds, subtracted from the thirty-five newly created out of the comatose thirty-five million shares, sprang up into immediate operation and made a clean sheet of the blanket mortgage to the tune of twenty millions, while the still uncovered selvage of two million and a half was taken care of and neatly obliterated by a clout cut off from the unsold lands. So the burden had all rolled away. The line stood elastic and clear as a Rocky Mountain goat. Better still, the dumping had not tumbled the whole cart-load away. There was still a nice little farm to plough. There were also fifteen million bonds, unsaleable no longer. They sold at 95! The great British investor had at last—better late than never—been provoked to jealousy. So that now not only was there enough to finish the road, but quite a tidy and much needed balance on hand to operate it after it was finished. On the fifth of November, 1885, the last spike was driven by Donald A. Smith, who had earned some right to the honour by wagering his last dollar upon it, at Craigellachie in the conquered Eagle Pass of British Columbia. It was the last nail in the Eagle's coffin so far as the Lion's share of this continent was concerned.

[The last spike]
Driving the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, November 7, 1885

On their side, then, the syndicate had delivered the goods—five years in advance. In March, 1886, they had their full discharge from the other side. Without the preliminary of one cent's rebate, boot, drink-money, or douceur in consideration of the sour sweat of the pace which had so nearly killed, or of the free gift of priceless time—those five years which were then worth to Canada "cycles of Cathay" and many millions from the mines of Ophir—they drew a pen through their complicated accounts with Sir John Macdonald's government. They had forever glorified it, and it had not coddled them. They had not taken one grain more than their pound of flesh. The government had taken more than every ounce of theirs. The only discrepancy between bond and fulfilment, besides the gap in dates, was thirty million dollars received instead of twenty-five and per contra fifteen million acres of land instead of twenty-five. The other ten in land had been accepted at the very reasonable figure of one dollar and fifty-five cents an acre. In spite of the closely-figured verbosities of Edward Blake, the bargain had been none too good. Are brains worth nothing? They are the scarcest commodity in our Empire and yet they seldom command a very high market price there. We should rejoice when by some miracle they do. After all, it is but an infinitesimal percentage on the wealth which they create for others. And what about wear and tear of heart? That, too should count for something. What of faithfulness and honour that stakes its all! How many could purchase the gains of that bargain by the expenditure of spirit it had taken to make it good with so much to spare? How many would if they could? Just the few who have faith enough to descend even for three days into hell. If only the Grand Trunk Pacific bargain had been as good as the Canadian Pacific one!

God made the country, and man, not without help from mammon, made the Bank of Montreal. It is a relief to turn away to the fresh air from the stuffy Cabinets where poor George Stephen, with financial forceps in a brawny hand that had lost, alas! the right angling tan and freckles of the Gulf, was doomed to draw teeth, and with wry enough face of his own administer laughing-gas to leathery ministers and sleek cashiers through a hard-labour term of five weary years. Let us close by having a look at the real lords of creation—the gangs of cheerful navvies filling in the wholesome earth, the true smell in the nostrils of mortal man, and drilling amid puffs of pipes and of exhililaratingly effective explosions their comparatively penetrable rocks. They had the best of it! Happy if only they could taste their boons! If they could get some taste of the "sweat and grunt" of that other kind of life which deals mainly with the obstacles to be dug and bridged and blasted out of the way of great things in the littered strata of man's mind! If they could know "the law's delay"—and the lawyer-politician's—the "insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes" until it cheats its opponent with his contempt, and is crowned by manifest success and the thorns of his envy! They had the air, the streaming pores that make the easy mind, the blessedly sufficing good and evil of the day, the sleep that a king cannot command of buy—the dead, deep sleep of a ten year old—on the pine-needles for nine hours out of the king's twenty-four, the bacon and beans by the flashing rapid, the jolly bursts of emulous work, the horseplay, the songs, the tall talk and deep tobacco round the camp-fires which make all three a newly-found wonder. Uneasy lies the head that has to do most of the thinking for all "that glowing mass of fiery valour" and muscle "Rolling on the foe and burning" with abundant bully beef. Everybody worked but Fathers Donald and George. They had only to toss from side to side upon their beautiful brass beds and luxurious spring-mattresses in their tottering palaces, staring into empty chests, and planning to fill them; they had only to balance their plans on the eternal tight-rope of uneasy dreams which hung like a spider's thread over the cataract dancing down below ready to whirl them along like two spinning leaves upon its foam if they made one false step. Fortunately, they had others to help them that could think of almost as many matters as they, and had more reason then to give Heaven thanks for the colour of their thoughts. The first thing they did was to set up an office in Winnipeg with two Americans in chief charge, General Superintendent A. B. Stickney, Chief Engineer General Rosser, neither of whom kept their jobs long. In 1881 another American took command. A roving commission to do for the Republic—the smaller one—whatever came under his number eight hat, was to the entire salvation of the project entrusted to William Van Horne. This really great Dutchman, then in the full plenitude of his extraordinary powers—he was still under forty—had all the railway experience there was, packed tight along with much else in an unusually capacious and fervidly active cranium. He was born, as it were, in a caboose, and cradled in a steam-engine, had played in his childhood with all colours of signals, and from fourteen on had worked at telegraphs and every other arm and branch of the transportation business. He had many other interests to occupy his leisure moments. He was both a collector—he had begun with buttons and gone on step by step to minerals, Japanese vases, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Impressionist pictures—and, what a collector seldom is, an artist. A great architect, if not a great painter, was not far below the surface in the soul of the railway maker and close bargain-driver. He could hold a great deal well together in his mind's eye. A whole complicated system found room there, ramifying and growing, down to its minutest clearly outlined detail, in perfect proportion and harmony, round a centre that gathered all up into itself and smoothly unfolded itself in all. That was the root of his talent. The plan of an immense trunk railroad, with all its intricate branches, twigs and sprays down to the last leaf, could hang up there in his great head clear and worked out fully to scale like a map on the wall. He could divine the lie of a country, see how the roads would go from one end to the other and how they must get over or round obstacles which seemed to vanish, when steeped a while in his thoughts, like the rocks in the Alps under Hannibal's vinegar. He would draw you a Swiss châlet, that seemed to grow from its spot for a wayside station among the Rockies, in the interval between his sixth and seventh chop in the dining-room of his private car. He had a plan for everything, seemingly all ready to shake out at a moment's notice. Above all, he understood men, could lead them or drive them and get a greater amount of work out of a given number of navvies and their gang-leaders in a shorter time than any other boss on two continents; "a first-class tyrant," as Donald Smith once said of him. Once he took hold, the wheels of construction began to hum. All records were broken small. But for him, Heaven knows when that job would have been finished. The prophets of indefinite protraction might never have got the lie. Their calculations, though well-enough conceived according to their own scale and standard, were vitiated by the natural incapacity of the calculators to foresee or imagine such a phenomenon as Van Horne, a force at the wheel far outside the ken of any "flies" upon it.

Van Horne always began with a plan. In this case he made out a careful time-schedule in advance, and it was astonishing how little he was afterwards forced to deviate from it. Beginning simultaneously at both ends, eastern and western, he hurled the weight of his first attack upon the centre. Mackenzie had found himself constrained in the long run to bend to the tears and maledictions of Winnipeg. That city was not to be sidetracked after all, but was to become the metropolis of the West, linked hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, and elevator by elevator, with the port of Montreal. But now in the light of recently acquired knowledge, the line of the railway was to take an even more southerly direction than was necessarily implied in that enriching intersection of Winnipeg. In 1879, Professor Macoun had demonstrated that our astonishing North-West, which has never ceased to improve on closer acquaintance and beat its wildest boosters by the splendour of its slowly unfolding realities, was much better than at first sight it looked on its south side; just as on the north side we have since discovered, to our immense surprise, that its wheat-fields thrust their illimitable bounty close up to the ice of the Mackenzie and Peace Rivers, far within the Arctic Circle. Up to the time of this excellent Professor's researches, made so remarkably in the very nick of time people were very seriously afraid of the American desert. They believed with good reason, that a monstrous cantle of our good land was cut out by the long dry wedge which protrudes like a parched tongue from south of the border, its withering rusty rim not fringed with living green until it is softened by the waters of the North Saskatchewan. That was the general view in the early "sixties," based on the explorations of Palliser, Dawson and Hind. Professor Macoun knew better. His timely diligence restricted the really arid belt within comparatively narrow limits. It was a great thing for the C. P. R. Calgary became the objective for the wandering theodolite, not Edmonton—a gain of fifty miles! That meant a vast deal. The country to be traversed acrossed the plains was the least self-sufficing possible for their purpose. Their war could not support and feed itself. It was as yet mere belly without feet. Everything they could make the road out of had to be hauled. Not a stick of timber grew along their track; their ground did not hide iron enough for a pound of nails. The nearest carriers were the American trains. They were now, indeed, fifty miles nearer these along a great front. So much the less danger, too, incidentally but most momentously, of any rival roads springing up like choking weds between! It was a bonanza; but it was also, as indeed most things were in this most sporting of all human ventures on the cool side of absolute insanity, the giddiest of all gambles. What of our Yellowhead Pass? Had not the good Fleming fixed that as firm as fate? So goodly an approximation of the perpendiculars of supply along a parallel so many leagues long was all very fine indeed. But might it not turn out to be the blind fiddler's short cut if it should chance at the same time to be an exactly similar and similarly situated recession from the one gap in the hedge that bristled at the end of it? It would not profit much on a striking of balances if it meant that the acute heads which had devised it were to be rewarded for their sapience by being run up against a dead wall. Could another pass be found? The answer was wholly on the knees of the gods, and Van Horne trusted them. Once more these plungers, who never left a stone unturned that sweat and faith could move—and what can that team pulling together not move?—threw themselves back hard, grasping their own pick-axes mightily all the while, into the arms of Nature with a faith that seemed next-door neighbour to downright impudence. A pass must be found! Therefore, it could and would be found. "We ought; therefore, we can!" And sure enough the pass wasfound. It was the whole brig history of that road gathered into one luminous point, and for that matter pretty much the whole history of man's progress on the face of this sublunar globe. They knocked at the Southern Gate and it was opened to them. As we shall see in a moment, they had to bruise their knuckles rather badly. But who grudges skinned knees or even shrunk sinews after a successful wrestle with that tough old angel, Mother Earth? It has always been her way to maul her minions. There is ever a pinch in her caresses; teeth behind her lips.

But first we must go on with Van Horne and his stride across the plains. It got longer and longer as he got into it, until you would have said that the Dutchman was an Arab. By the end of 1881 he had made one hundred and forty-five miles. The engineering was happily as yet smooth travel; the transport was the only trouble here—and bad enough. As soon as better arrangements had been made on that head, and ambitions had warmed up, they quickly began and went on to do better and better. By the end of 1882 the pace had been mended to nearly two miles a day. By the end of 1883 it had come to swallow three and a half miles daily. Van Horne was no great employer of those that eat their bread in the sweat of their tongues. He was too busy to put up platforms for walking or rather ass-riding delegates where they might stand Industry on its head and themselves on their own forked and braying tongues. There was one particularly black day for the principles of these propagandists of maximum wage and minimum work. The joys of slacking, the dolce far niente, had steamed into space in a vapour-bath of sweat on that occasion. Other less obvious joys had come to take their place. The bolters and spikers quite forgot their union orthodoxy of otium cum dignitate. Another kind of union was suddenly revealed to them. It was, perhaps, some little consolation that, by way of amends for any loss, they made the most exhilarating discovery that ever dawns on any workman, that finding of himself, namely, which comes of putting out to the very uttermost every ounce of force that is in him. They had not known, till that great day awoke him what a hero slept in the deeps of every man of them. Those deeps answered to the call of the deeps, moving right down to the ocean floor, in the will of their leader. That is what a leader is there for. Each lead- and gang-spiker lay down on the balsam that night and tried to sleep in the glory of a working-day, each of whose fourteen hours had run to the music of six hundred blows from the plectrum of his hammer. There was the sort of man, and not the walking-delegates' pet best of burden, to raise and rivet the walls of New Jerusalem, the only nursing "mother of us all." The moon, when her silver light came out to cool those burning brows, ran back along gleaming lines of six hundred tons of steel stretching behind them there—much too far away to look round and see, ever so far after their parallels had met and run into one—in two long-drawn rays six and one-third miles long. The ruddy glow and shadows of the camp-fires rested, or flickered along with the lingering beams of the setting sun, that night upon the summits of the Rockies only four miles away.

The Rockies at last! and much sooner than even Van Horne himself had dared to dream. But what if they had run their record race only to find an impasse for goal? At first, they seemed to be in amazing luck. It took no very long time of anxious looking to find a gap between the teeth of the Rockies. The Kicking Horse Pass opened up right in the path of the bolters. They had struck their "slap in the dyke," knocked at an open door—only to look through it to triple bolts and bars beyond. Behind the Rockies were the Selkirks. Over against the door, open to command a line view of it, stood, not a dead wall only, but a rotten one, a crumbling precipice. No goat could climb it. It was not hard enough to give foothold for a spring. Rain-soaked as it was, strewn with huge fallen trunks, and rank with an incredible luxuriance of undergrowth, your goat might leap from tree to tree but at any moment he might start a land-slide that would be too quick even for his airy bounds. Nature's insuperable sign-post, her own authentic hitherto shalt thou come, not to be disregarded by the most audacious, seemed to have been reached by these trespassers at last. In their sore straits they were reduced to sending for the man who, they had flattered themselves, had been made a back number by their modern engineering. If any one could find a sheep-walk through débris of mountain tangle Sandford Fleming could. Hurry to the spot, at the literally break-neck speed of two miles and a half a day over the last stage of his journey, he found waiting for him the last bequest of James J. Hill, waiting with such good tidings of great cheer as almost atoned for Hill's bitter defection. Major Rogers, lent by the president of the Northern Pacific for the mountain section work of the C. P. R. which the donor had dropped because of its black bog-hole of muskeg section, took Fleming for the walk of his life, well-wandered as that had been amid just such slippery jungles. It was up the hill now pierced by the great Rogers tunnel, from the sheer side of which the traveller, leaning unconsciously against the frightful slope to hold the train up, and hanging like a fly in the crack of a wall, looks down over beetling perdit, down, down, all the way to a brawling torrent a thousand feet below. After that promenade, however, Fleming went home to Ottawa to say the thing could be done, and it was done. Gradients of one hundred and sixteen feet to the mile were needed both for the Kicking Horse of the Rockies and for Roger's jaw of the Selkirks. The climb, however, did not in the end amount to more than forty miles, and was found to yield without too desperate sobs and grunts to the snortings and sneezings of a second great Mogul's nostrils as he pushed out his long, round, stiff, steel rod with rhythmic pulses straight with the black sheath. Miles on miles of snow-shed-tortoises, combined with great piles of dwarfing timbers driven in deep high up to the ridges, shed the rattling and gliding avalanches as a pent-house shoots the rain. There is less trouble from snow on the Canadian Pacific than on the Pennsylvania railway—one more example of the universal fact that ills are least felt where they are most expected, because they are most plainly visible.

Last came the great bone of contention, the Lake Superior section. Hill could not swallow it—he had better fish to fry. Even Tupper had well nigh choked over that nasty fish-bone, had not Sir John been by his side to nip it out. The Grand Trunk had twice refused to touch it. Even Van Horne found it quite as tough a morsel as he could wish to try his teeth upon. Each foot along the shore of the lake had to be blasted into space. Each mile cost half a million. The rock was Laurentian, the oldest and hardest of the ribs that make the frame of earth. Van Horne soon found that he could not bore the whole of it. Two dollars a cubic yard was too much for that lean land. So, instead of going through, he made up his mind to go over, turned the spider from the mole, and threw out flying filaments in the air. That dreary waste became the scene of the most extensive of all conceivable varieties of trestle-work that has ever been seen anywhere. The cost was just one-tenth of the discarded dynamite and teams for hauling and, better still, the rate of advance was enormously accelerated.

There was need. The Lake Superior bit had not been done before the doing of it was amply justified and repaid ten times over in the saving not of treasure only but of blood. It was found that railways may be useful in spite of enlightened Liberals' kingdom of kitchen love and millenial peace through political economy, may be useful even where they earn few dividends, may carry other things than wheat-freights. Safety is worth much fine gold. The world is not so wise that trucks of soldiers may not sometimes been a good insurance for philosophers who value their throats almost as the freest and most facile exchanges of the stuff they can only swallow with them. In 1885 Riel was back again—on the Saskatchewan this time. It was a race between Van Horne and the prairie grass. Thousands of Blackfeet ponies and their riders were waiting impatiently for that flower-starred verdure. Would it return before the white man's steel curb and iron yoke had tamed it down to settler's cow-fodder, and robbed the Redskin chivalry of it forever? They were straining at the leash there, and pawing the ground they felt ready to sink under them, waiting to sweep over the North-West as an autumn fire sweeps over that grass. If the grass had outstripped Van Horne it would have been, to put it mildly, a "serious set-back to the North-West." The damage to mere property would have been cheaply estimated by a great deal more than the total cost of the railway which, in fact, prevented it, to say nothing of the damage in reputation to the "New Dominion." What did Custer's campaign against Sitting Bull cost? Something to appal our Sitting Blakes both in purse and in good name. The Canadian government allowed a rebate to the member for the Hudson's Bay Company and the other members of his syndicate on several grounds. Among other items on the per contra bill, the saving of the very features, not to speak of the colour, of their face which he effected in the North-West would have figured high, just as he had earned much for the Hudson's Bay Company by a similar stroke of sculptural surgery. For in the one thing in which the Hudson's Bay Company had really rather shone, the treatment of the Redman, the Canadian government had come closer to the American level than to that of the sovereign Company, their predecessor in office, and but for Smith & Company they would have covered themselves with no more glory in the expensive manufacture of dead Indians, with which their wretched and corrupt administration had made a pressing national industry, than had crowned their bad models in mal-administration, and the efforts of poor Custer. Van Horne did what General Rosser would scarcely have done for them, plucked them out of the bloody mud—worse than Riel had stamped for them on the Red River—like brands from the burning. The railway they had been forced against their grain to save strangled the snake before it was able to strike. There were still one hundred and fifty gaps between the boards of it just at the spot over the bogs which most needed planking. Van Horne, however, and the man whose brains and will were behind him, had spent their days of late, as all true men have done all along in this world, in pushing back the bars—among which the government themselves were not the least stubborn—of that rusty black encircling cage of ours which consists of the things that really cannot be done. Apart from the limits inspired by the multiplication table—Stephen's peculiar province—there were not many limits which could not be lifted by the man who had swept up to Roger's crux by that day's work we saw, and, byway of wages, had met the need to find the Pass or else "go bust." He and his Irishmen—O'Learys with the square head of Joffre to make plans for them—could do most things when really "incensed." The gaps disappeared as if by magic. Rails were laid on snow and ice. It was like the great Brandenburg Elector going to meet his Danes. For where rails could not be laid and shortcuts were impossible across those hockey-playing redcoats slid across the gaps. Sometimes they were carried in sleighs, packed in straw and furs "with care, this side up," like the most first-class of all possible freight, a very valuable wheat just then in that barren land which had at last produced a paying load. In four days after their good reverend sapper and miner, Principal Grant, waved them a God-speed from the platform at Kingston the soldiers were in Smith's courtyard among the huskies at Fort Garry and no doubt breakfasting sumptiously at his expense, an expense which he could now very well afford. Soon after they were in that other Hudson's Bay Fort at Qu'Appelle, whence the Métis had marched to the Seven Oaks massacre. What would you call it? A somewhat unusually cogent solution of the great geometric Q. E. D. which was for the C. P. R. people, as it always is for humans generally, to show that the dismal men of science are too modest, that a straight line is not necessarily the shortest distance, that shortness depends much more on the points than on the line, and that the true policy in the matter of railway points and lines is to take the shortest distance to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the end it always pays to seek that first, and empatically not to follow the gravitating line of least resistance.

Before it was made, that all red road carried its very best freight, red-coat medicine for the Red-skins. Had you seen it then you would have lifted up your hands and blessed General Van Horne. The very first thing it did after it was made was to drag up Kicking Horse and Roger's Passes a train full of munitions of war from Halifax to Esquimalt. Of what it has since done for Canada and for Great Britain there is no need to speak.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1963 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1963. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.