Almost every leading figure connected with the building of the CPR has been immortalized in a Canadian place-name. There were stations named Langevin, Tilley, Chapleau, Moberly, Fleming, Lacombe and Revelstoke. Abbott and Cambie got streets in Vancouver and Shaughnessy a whole subdivision. The top dogs had mountain peaks named for them or in the case of Cornelius Van Horne, a whole mountain range. But what about the men who actually built the railway? Where are their names recorded, except on tombstones along the way?
The railway navvies were a mixed lot. Charles Peyton who walked down one stretch of track looking for work saw a band of Italians at one spot and a team of Englishmen a few kilometers later. He met a scholar who could speak and write Greek, a surgeon from Montreal and a pastor from Chicago. Generally, though, Peyton found the men to be a rough lot with ill manners and disagreeable mouths. They were there for the $2.00 to $2.50 a day, which was good pay for the time.
The worksite on the prairie section seemed like chaos to Peyton, but it was organized down to the last detail. The track layers worked like a drill team. The ties were dumped and then hauled into place by mule teams. Right behind came the hand truck loaded with rails, fishplates and spikes. In a steady rhythm men tossed the rails into position and hammered home the spikes.
Conditions were harder for the men north of Lake Superior, where the blasting of the Shield came at great cost in human lives. The sublime scenery concealed a torment of flies in summer and a frigid wind in winter.
But the most extreme working conditions, perhaps in the world at that time, were in the mountain ranges of British Columbia. Men were mangled or killed by falling rock, by slides, by avalanches, by runaway horses and above all by the incessant blasting. Huge rocks hurtled out of tunnels like cannon balls. So many men were injured and killed that the hospital and cemetery at Yale were filled to the brim.
Andrew Onderdonk estimated that he needed at least 10,000 men to build his section of the railway from Port Moody to Eagle Pass. His solution of bringing workers from China horrified the racist population of British Columbia. The BC government tried to ban the Chinese, but Prime Minister John A. Macdonald knew, “either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway." Onderdonk paid the Chinese less, only a dollar a day, forced them to buy all their supplies from the company store, and made them build their own camps. All this they agreed to do, for the money they saved would serve them for life in China.
There were concerns for the slight build of the Chinese, but Onderdonk reasoned that if they could build the Great Wall, they could surely build a railway. In 1881-82 Onderdonk shipped at least 6000 workers from Hong Kong. The railway would not have been built without them.
Death was far more frequent among the Chinese than the other groups. The litany of death reads “crushed by a log," “killed by falling rock," “drowned," “smothered by cave-in" and of course death by explosion. Scores also died of scurvy, 200 in the first year alone. They received little notice or medical care.
After the dignitaries left on that gloomy November morning, the workmen persuaded the photographer to insert another plate and they posed for their own version of the “Last Spike." They knew who really built the great railway to the Pacific. James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.