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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Exploratory land surveys to determine route of CPR in many ways as "historically significant as construction of railway itself"

Surveyors at River Aux Sables 1876 National Archives Canada
Ian Macdonald and Michael McMullen share their research into the one of the main challenges of building the Canadian Pacific Railway which was to determine the final route to be taken  across Canada. In this article they focus on Northern Ontario with special attention on Chapleau. They look specifically at the exploratory land surveys. Two surveys informed the final decision in the  Chapleau region. What a daunting task it was, and they quote Pierre Berton to put it into context, Thank you Ian and Michael for sharing this insight  into an important part of our history. MJM My email is mj.morris@live.ca

By Ian Macdonald and Michael McMullen
One of the main challenges in the building the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was the determination of the final route to be taken across the country. This was even more so in Northern Ontario where granite, muskeg and major rivers had to be dealt with. The railway survey crews had to carry out survey options, recommend a final route, then survey the approved route for construction, and as well, complete a townsite plan for each of the new towns to be built along the line to service the needs of the railway.

In his book The Great Railway Illustrated published in 1972 , Pierre Berton wrote:
“No life was harsher than that suffered by members of the Canadian Pacific Survey crews. None was less rewarding. Underpaid, over-worked, exiled from their families, deprived of their mail, sleeping in slime and snowdrifts, suffering from sunstroke, frostbite, scurvy, fatigue, and tensions that always rise to the surface when weary and dispirited men are thrown together for long periods of isolation, the surveyors kept on, year after year. They explored great sections of Canada, scaling mountains that never before had been climbed, crossing lakes that had never known a white man’s paddle, and fording rivers not yet on any map. They walked with a uniform stride developed through years of habit, measuring the distances as they went, checking altitudes with an aneroid barometer slung around the neck and examining the land with a practised gaze, always seeing in the mind’s eye the finished line of steel. In the first six years of the Canadian Pacific Survey, forty-six thousand miles of Canada were reconnoitred in this manner”

The extensive exploratory land surveys that preceded construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway were in many ways as historically significant as construction of the railway itself. Canada was not yet four years old when Sir Sanford Fleming took charge as engineer-in-chief of the Canadian Pacific Railway in April 1871 and began the enormous task of establishing a route for the great overland railway. Surveys in every region of the new nation began in 1871 and continued until the end of 1876. Cost of the surveys totalled $3.136,615.75 which would be approximately $57,000,000.00 in to-day’s dollars.

Surveying activity associated with the Canadian Pacific Railway was documented in a 430-page report published in 1877 titled, Report on Surveys and Preliminary Operations on the Canadian Pacific Railway up to January 1877. This landmark report should be required reading for anyone trying to develop a full appreciation of Canada’s early years. This article reviews that document with a specific focus on the early surveys on the height of land region of Northern Ontario including Chapleau.

In 1871 the survey teams classified Northern Ontario north and east of Lake Superior as “terra incognita” or unexplored territory. This roadless country was accessed mainly by canoe with major lakes and rivers being the main reference points. The first step was to pierce the interior by a chain of connected explorations and actual measurements, both of distance and height. Survey activity was divided into the Mountain Region, the Prairie Region and the Woodland Region. The Woodland region embraced all territory between Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and Montreal including Northern Ontario.
Proposed early routes 1857 Sandford Flemin Report

Two important exploratory surveys informed the decision for the final route of the CPR in the Chapleau region. Both surveys covered the territory from Pic River near present day Heron Bay on Lake Superior to the then proposed Eastern Terminus of the Division at Lac Amable du Fond approximately 30 miles south east of the present-day City of North Bay. One survey explored a northern route from Pic River to the northern side of Lake Nipissing and another explored a southern option.

The northern exploratory surveys were carried out in 1873 and 1874 by W.A. Austin in the west and T. Ridout in the east in 1876 who would later have a railway siding east of Chapleau named after him. This route began at the east end of Lake Nipissing following the valley of the Sturgeon River and overland to the Vermilion River and on to the narrows at Lake Missinaibi. The route then descended from that point down the valley of the River Oba and finally to the valley of the Pic River and Lake Superior. Conditions for rail construction recorded in these surveys were very favourable and the route was actually preferred by Sandford Fleming.

The southern route originating at the proposed terminus south of Lake Nipissing at Lac Amable du Fond ran in a northwest line to Pic River on Lake Superior and consisted of several surveys carried out in different years. The majority of these surveys were carried out under the direction of J.L.P. O’Hanly and Charles Horetsky in 1876.

The first leg ran from the south of Lake Nipissing to Contin’s Bay on the French River and from there northwest to River Aux Sables in the Mississagi Provincial Forest. The route than ran from River Aux Sables to Wenebegon Lake, west from there to the headwaters of the Montreal River and on to the Michipicoten River at the southern end of Whitefish Lake south of present day Missinaibi. The final leg of the survey ran from this point to the Pic River on Lake Superior. Major river crossings on this route included the, Mississagi, Wenebegon, Little Jackpine, Shaquamka, Michipicoten and Magpie Rivers.

During one of these surveys, J.L.P. O’Hanly, while camped at Wenebegon Lake, recorded that the Ojibway guides from the area informed him that a short distance north of where they were that the water flowed in the opposite (Arctic) direction referring, of course, to the swampy plains forming the plateau of the height of land. O’Hanly concluded in his report that “a much better route would be found on the Western Division without materially increasing the distance, by carrying the line ten to twelve miles further north”. He goes on to say that “ the advantages of the proposed change seem to be that instead of crossing the numerous streams flowing into Lake Superior in deep valleys, involving steep gradients, heavy bridging and other works, its proper direction will be in rear of their sources”.

Subsequent deliberations concerning the route are known only to history but the decision for the final route of the Canadian Pacific Railway clearly heeded O’Hanly’s recommendations and the final route was located on the height of land ranging between twelve to twenty miles north of the original exploratory survey. This final route thus avoided major bridge construction over the Wenebegon, Mississagi, Little Jackpine, Shamaqua and Michipicoten Rivers averting these major expenditures in a period of very limited resources, reducing construction time and shortening the route. One of the distinguishing features of the roadbed between Cartier and White River to-day is a lack of large-scale bridges.

William Cornelius Van Horne officially became General Manager of the Canadian Paciific Railway on January 2, 1882 and amongst his first decisions was to commit to the Lake Superior/ Height of Land route. The notion of an eastern terminus at Lac Amable du Fond was abandoned and re- established on the north side of Lake Nipissing at Callander Ontario immediately east of North Bay.

Early division point locations Omer Lavallee "Van Horne's Road

Early divisional point locations were set out approximately 125 miles apart west from Callander. Winnibagon which was later to be re-named Chapleau was roughly located at mile 620 (620 miles from Montreal). Subsequent more specific survey information would re-position it at Mile 615.1. Divisional points at the 493rd, 747th and 874th miles would eventually be Cartier, White River and Schreiber.
Chapleau Townsite survey 1884 Ian Macdonald

Survey crews setting out the final route of the roadbed arrived in the Chapleau region in the fall of 1884 and staked out the one-mile square townsite for the Chapleau townsite. (see image and caption above) Unencumbered by major bridge construction, roadbed construction along the height of land proceeded from Cartier to Chapleau between May 1884 and February 1885 at a rate of approximately three quarters of a mile a day. Construction of the railroad in this region was completed on May 6, 1885 when the westbound tracklaying crews under Harry Abbott connected with the eastbound crews under the direction of John Ross twenty-nine miles east of White River at Girdwood on May 6, 1885. The surveyors would have been pleased.
CPR survey team at HBC sub post 1884

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Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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