Chapter 4:   Laying the Rails

The task of building a railway across the vast prairies was a mixed blessing.

True, the terrain offered few obstacles, no mountains, only a few deep river valleys…. and long stretches of dry, flat, terrain. But the distances were truly immense, and the materials all came from far to the east.

Wood was in short supply on the prairies.

Today it might be easy for us to forget the sheer effort required, the thousands of trees to be felled, ties to be cut, rails to be forged; the huge amount of material to be transported and assembled. The National Dream was in addition to being an undertaking of incredible optimism and foresight, an enterprise that relied heavily on brute force and  manpower.

The first task was surveying the line. Great care was taken to follow the “path of least resistance”.

Surveyors near Brandon – Archives of Manitoba

The goal was to go around hills rather than over them, and always to find the easiest crossing of any valley or creek.


The CPR Bridge at Millford  – Archives of Manitoba

Creeks and rivers were crossed with wooden trestle bridges that were later filled in for stability. One advantage of the CPR route through Westman was that it avoided deep valleys like this crossing of the Souris River on a branch line south of Brandon.


Ties – Archives of Manitoba

A flat, level bed was the first construction task, followed by the laying of the wooden ties, and the attachment of the steel.

Unloading – Archives of Manitoba

On a good day three to five kilometres of track could be laid. Brandon pioneer Beecham Trotter said ten kilometres was the record.


Placement – Archives of Manitoba

Rails were unloaded from flat cars and carried up the bank by hand, twelve men to a rail, placed on hand cars, pushed to the end of steel and carried in to place.

They were placed 4 feet, 8 inched apart (standard gauge) and spiked into place.

The conditions weren’t for everyone - turnover was high – especially as the nights grew cold. Workers usually boarded and slept in rough two-storey Pullman cars – with rows of bunks three deep on the upper level dining on the main level.

In the summer of 1882, as the line pushed west from Brandon, 5000 men and 1700 teams of horses were at work. Just three years and (1,568.2 km /973 miles) later Van Horne, MacTavish & other officials were there at Craigellachie,  BC for the ceremonial last spike.

The construction over the summer introduced thousands of lonely single men to the fledgling city.