Railway Journal part 3
by dm gillis
Sechelt, BC 1888
This he had noticed when he first arrived, the strange way that sound travelled in the dense rain forest. The way a raven’s crackle would echo for miles. The way a woodpecker’s intermittent hammering would as well.
He was convinced now that that was the case with the blunt and increasingly emphatic hammering on the door of his cabin. Then there was the hollering of the priest from Sechelt. The confused and pointless shouting of a Christian extremist, misplaced in the northern wilds of North America. Those combined sounds must also be travelling through the rain soaked jungle of ancient pine, fir and cedar.
“Open up,” Father Breckenridge roared in his Belfast accent. “Brunel, you debauched heathen bastard. Let that young girl go. It’s Sunday. She should be in church.”
Leopold Liberty Brunel looked over at the woman sharing his bed. Nancy Pete was reading a book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ignoring the priest’s tantrum. She was sitting up with her lovely, firm breasts revealed, and her long black hair falling over her shoulders. The hot stove was nearby. She was seventeen, and their lovemaking the night before had been a wondrous rolling brawl that she had ultimately won. He wondered if the priest knew a single damn thing about women. Of course he didn’t. What a thought! All Breckenridge knew about was seminary buggery and sweaty confessional pedophilia.
“Go away, priest,” Leopold shouted. “This is a happy home. Your dogma is an anathema here.”
Nancy Pete smiled and turned a page.
“That ought to get him, eh?” Leopold whispered, then leaned over and kissed her ear.
“I’ve been sent here by Christ, Brunel,” Father Breckenridge shouted back through the locked door, “to protect this savage race of people from sin.”
“Then have the government stop feeding them whisky,” Leopold yelled. “Reinstate the Potlatch. Hell, go off to the Ottawa and have them stop giving the Indians blankets infected with smallpox. It’s not the Indians that need protection from sin. It’s the goddam politicians. Besides, mister priest, there’s a fine tradition of good Englishmen taking savage lovers throughout the colonies. I am purely doing my duty, and carrying on that tradition.”
“Am I your savage lover?” said Nancy Pete, looking at him over the top of her book. She was unapologetically Shishalh.
“When you really get going, you are,” Leopold said.
“We shall meet in town, Leopold Brunel,” Father Breckenridge said. He’d become calm now, in his own savage Catholic way. “You cannot avoid me.”
“This is amply obvious,” Leopold said. He threw off the covers and put his feet onto the cold cabin floor.
There was quiet now, no more cacophonic Christianity. The priest had gone, leaving behind just the sound of the forest shedding the most recent rain, in the form of drip-drops, the sound of Nancy Pete turning pages, and the most mysterious sound of all, the barely perceptible hiss of the rolling mist that almost always enveloped the cabin.
Leopold pulled on his long johns, put on his boots and walked over to the table where the surveyor’s map lay open. He drew out a wooden chair and sat down to study it once more. His design – his dream – was beginning to look like a railroad.
From Gibsons to Egmont. Along the coast and east from Garden Bay. Fifty-five miles over tough territory. To carry timber and passengers. Not bad for a beginner. It would modernise the region. Business would flow in. The people’s poverty would be eliminated. He’d be a hero.
A direct route over the peninsula was impossible. There were small forest company lines, moving logs to rivers and tidewater. But a direct and continuous line was out of the question. The surveyors and cartographers had said as much. The mountains, trees and deep valleys were the obstacles. Those and the land’s refusal to accommodate a straight line. The prairies would have been a better choice, but those had been sacrificed to the CPR. The GER, the Gibson Egmont Railway, was his alone. There were already depots built, twenty-three miles of track along the coast and an army of navvies camping along the way. He’d stun the world when it was done. He’d stun them even sooner if he could get the news out. Attract more investors. Every penny of his inheritance was gone, and his debts were enormous.
He said it out loud, “More investors.”
“Who, for example?” said Nancy Pete. She was dressing now.
“The lumber companies. The government. Surely they see the value in it.”
“They don’t surely see nothin’.”
“Am I a fool, then?” It was his self-doubting voice. She’d heard it before.
“No one knows that yet,” Nancy Pete said. She came and hugged him from behind, and kissed the top of his head. “It’s too early to say. Crazy men always secretly doubt themselves more than anyone else, until they do something magnificent. They thought your father was a fool. In the end, maybe he was.”
She meant the SS Great Eastern. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last great dream. It had been meant to sail from London to Australia, nonstop. It never did, and ended up laying telegraph cable. But before that there were the Great Western Railway, bridges, tunnels and a prefabricated hospital for the Crimean War.
The Great Eastern had given Isambard a stroke. But he’d worked right up to the end. Leopold would too, if it came to that.
“I need to get water for tea,” Nancy Pete said. She put on her coat. There was a well in the small yard.
“Yes, yes,” Leopold said, with a dismissive wave, looking at the map again.
“And I’m pregnant.”
He looked up from the map.
“How do you know?”
“I haven’t had a flow for two months.”
“But it’s impossible.”
“It happens every day,” she said. “It’s how we get little Indians. Though this one’ll be half a crazy Englishman.”
She opened the door and took a pail into the yard.
“Hey, babies,” he heard her say to the chickens as she exited.
This was the wrong time for a child.
Ha! A child! Imelda said, the voice of the ghost that had followed him since he was a young man. And shadowed his every move.
Leopold tried to ignore her.
A child will ruin everything. We didn’t begin this to be held back by a woman.
“It is becoming of a man to have children,” he said calmly, placing the illustration of the Fairbanks Morse twenty-three wheeled Mountain Master over the map. Locomotive 1022. The locomotive. The only truly tangible emblem of his success, so far — that anybody cared about. In the eye of the investors, it was more important than the miles of track laid. The colossus had already been manufactured to his specifications, and was on its way from Kingston. That and the custom passenger coach and caboose. He had agreements to lease the lumber cars and other rolling stock locally.
It’s fun to have a little Pocahontas, isn’t it.
“Please leave. You have no relevance to today’s undertakings.”
You’re already in hock for your toys, all that land you purchased.
“That’s business,” he said.
There was a consortium of mill and logging company owners putting up money, but not enough. They expected results. And then there were the banks, one in Victoria and one in Vancouver. The faces of the banker haunting his dreams.
A child will be another expense. I can make her not pregnant.
“You can’t,” he said. “You won’t.”
It would be easy.
“Leave her.” He needed to eat something and harness the horse to the trap, for the ride to the railhead.
You’ll have to marry her now. Don’t think she’ll accept anything less, her or her relations. And don’t forget how things are changing on the railroad. The first twenty-three miles of track were easy. But there’s a steep grade ahead, then the turn inland and your first deep gorge. The white navvies don’t like the Chinese, and the Chinese hate the whites. It’ll be hard to keep them separated when things get narrow.
It was true, he’d rather not have the Chinese in camp. But only the Chinese would set the black powder charges. Some had already died doing so. The Chinese were essential, but their presence was a complicating factor.
He went to the barn to harness the horse.
The first twenty-three miles was like a dream. Gibsons to Halfmoon Bay. The Gibsons, Roberts Creek and Sechelt depots were already built. The Halfmoon Bay depot was under construction.
There was an ocean on one side, most of the way, and steep cliffs and overhangs on the other. It was smooth and picturesque, a postcard of sound planning and investment.
But further up the line lay the first great challenge, where it would turn inland. A 3.4% grade with compensation for curvature. A spiral tunnel was an alternative, but there weren’t the funds. His Mountain Master would have to work hard, even with another engine to assist in the ascent. Then its brakes would work overtime on the descent.
Approaching Halfmoon Bay, he saw the navvies standing around and smoking. Something was wrong. When the mule finally stopped, his Foreman, Basil Duffy, greeted him. Duffy was a massive Scotsman with a razor sharp Scottish brogue.
“I thought we agreed the men would work Sundays,” Leopold said, as he stepped off the mule, “to speed things up. Why aren’t they working?”
“It’s the new rails,” said Duffy, walking up to Leopold. “They’re cracking when we hammer the spikes into the ties — at least some are. Too much carbon in the alloy, I’d estimate.”
“How many?” said Leopold. His belly sank.
“Five of the last ten we laid. I’m afraid to lay anymore. They certainly won’t take the weight of a train.”
“Then what?” Leopold said.
“It’s you railroad,” Duffy said. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But if a rail broke here and a train derailed, it could end up in the bay with all its passengers and freight.”
Leopold thought for a moment. Isambard would have a solution. Another shipment of rails was essential. But it would arrive only after a long, time consuming series of telegrams between him and the steel mill in Hamilton, ordering and making sure the next load was properly manufactured. Then there was the matter of a refund, and what to do with the current stockpile of defective rail. It could be a month or more of delay. He did the arithmetic in his head. It could mean ruin.
“Lay off the navvies,” he finally said. “I’ll arrange for them to receive a week’s pay. They can leave if they like, but I’ll feed the ones that remain in the camp until we’re back laying track.”
“There’ll be a riot, Mr Brunel,” Duffy said. “You know there will. Some of ‘em will leave the coast. But most’ll make it back to Sechelt and tear the place apart, after they’re done with Halfmoon Bay.”
“They must understand the situation. We can’t lay inferior track.”
“They understand a hard day’s work, grub and payday,” Duffy said. “And some whiskey, thrown in. That and the fact that they were guaranteed two to three year’s steady employment. After that there ain’t much they understand, at all. They’ll use that week’s pay to get terrible drunk. The local constabulary’s too small. It’s beyond them to handle this alone. I’d call in the RCMP, if I was you.”
Beyond them…. Duffy said it with unqualified Macbethian gravity in his voice, as was his ethnic right. He knew his navvies better Leopold, better than anyone. It sent a shiver through Brunel. But there was nothing for it.
“Just do it,” he said. “The locals will benefit from the railroad in the end. For now, they must suffer the inconvenience.”
For a moment, Duffy seemed to hold his ground. As though he might refuse the order. After all, what was he if not a high-rate navvy himself? Then he sighed deeply and kicked the gravel at his feet.
“I’ll announce it, but I won’t try and hold ‘em back. And after that, I’ll be leaving for Vancouver. You’ll have to finish this alone. There won’t be one goddam Foreman in the country or the continent that’ll work for you now. It’s a shame, though. This railroad was a dandy idea.”
Duffy grabbed an empty dynamite crate and stood up on it. Then he made the announcement.
“It’s bad news boys. And I guess some of you figured as much.”
His voice boomed but was slow, giving the English speaking Chinese Foreman time to translate.
“There ain’t no track for the time being. You all seen how it busted driving spikes. It could take more than a month….”
“More than a month?” came a voice from the crowd. “Wadda we do in the mean time?”
“You wait here. You’ll be fed and taken care of. You’ll get a week’s pay on top of what you’re already owed.”
“That means no pay after that until we get more track,” came another voice. “More than a month, you say. Probably longer, I say.”
“You won’t need no money. There’ll be grub, coffee and shelter for you here.”
“My children need money, though,” said a young man. His was the loudest voice yet. “I didn’t come to Canada to sit around waitin’ while they go hungry.”
“Then there’s work in Vancouver,” Duffy said. He had no stomach for this.
“Vancouver?” It was a shout, an accusation. “But we were promised work here.”
A man hollered, “I want my money now.”
The crowd yelled and shook their fists in agreement.
Now Leopold stepped forward and waved his hands for the men to be quiet. They went silent. Even the birdsong had disappeared.
“The money’s in the bank,” he said. “In Sechelt. It’s Sunday. I’ll have it for each and every one of you tomorrow.”
“You mean you get on mule, steam back to town and catch next boat to Vancouver.” This time it was the Chinese Foreman with his broken English, hated by the whites. But he’d incited them, all the same. The crowd was becoming violent. A rock shot past Leopold’s head.
“It’s not like that.” He couldn’t shout louder than the navvies.
“Says you,” a man shouted, followed by another rock. This one grazed Leopold’s forehead.
Meanwhile, Duffy had signaled the mule driver, using sign language to tell him to get ready for a quick escape. Then he grabbed Leopold, put him over his shoulder and began running. The engine was already moving backward, away from the uproar. Duffy sprinted as fast as a man his size could, and was helped up onto the mule’s platform by the fireman. He dropped Leopold onto the floor, as the locomotive gained speed, and began kicking navvies off on one side as the driver and fireman did the same on the other.
Soon they were moving too fast for the navvies to catch up.
“I think I just sold my soul to a wicked Englishman,” said the driver. “Ain’t no place on this coast for me now.”
Duffy pulled Leopold to his feet by the lapels of his coat.
“There’re foot paths,” he shouted over the steam engine. “They can follow the track. Them boys’ll be in town by tomorrow for sure. And they’ll be looking for you.”
“I can pay them then.”
“That’ll be just the start of your troubles.”