The sun was barely up when the train rounded a curve and Lake Superior suddenly appeared. It was a stunning panorama—a huge body of blue-black water with dramatic red rock shores littered with massive ice floes, some that looked the size of tennis courts. Superior was beautiful, but it could also be deadly, as Coo wrote: "At times calm, but at other times so violent that waves have been known to sweep right over the dome of the Canadian."
For Van Home's builders, the area was maddening no matter what the temperament of the lake. The laborers, known as navvies, were paid 15 cents an hour, a meager wage even for those days, and they worked in cruel and dangerous conditions. Pierre Berton, Canadian author of two often eloquent books about building the railroad. The National Dream and The Last Spike, wrote of the conditions along Lake Superior: "To the men on the job—throats choked with the dust of shattered rocks, ears ringing with dynamite blasts, arms aching from swinging sledges or toting rails, skin smarting and itching from a hundred insect bites, nostrils assailed by a dozen stenches from horse manure to human sweat—the scenery was only a nuisance to be moved when it got in the way. The summers were bad enough but the winters were especially hard; in the flat light of December, the whole world took on a dun colour and the chill wind blowing off the great frozen inland sea sliced through the thickest garments."
Berton's description of the workers" camps in the area made them sound like a gulag in Siberia: "The navvies lived like men on another planet in gloomy and airless bunkhouses, which were little better than log dungeons. Into these hastily constructed temporary structures...between sixty and eighty men were crammed. They slept in verminous blankets on beds of hay in double decker bunks.... The [winter] nights were fetid with steam from wet clothes that habitually hung over the central stove. In the summer, the air was rancid with smoke from burning straw and rags set afire to drive off the maddening hordes of mosquitoes.... Baths and plumbing were unknown...medical attention was minimal."
The dense old rock of the Shield yielded to railroad construction only after constant, repeated explosions. Three dynamite factories were built in the area to supply the blasting crews, but some ridges consumed three tons of dynamite a day for months on end before a track bed could be blown out of the stone. Dynamite was a relatively newfangled explosive patented only a few years earlier, and at times there wasn't enough of it. Then workers were forced to fall back on nitroglycerin, which came in a terrifyingly unstable liquid form. The stuff had to be transported in 10-gallon tins on men's backs instead of being hauled on bouncing wagons over the corrugated log roads.
Despite the deprivations and danger, there was a nobility to working in that magnificent setting. A road superintendent named John Egan was quoted with rare eloquence in a Canadian newspaper: "The scenery is sublime in its very wildness.... God's own handiwork stands out boldly every furlong you proceed. As to the character of the work, it will remain an everlasting monument to the builders."
And so it does.
The Canadian sped past the western end of Lake Superior and arrived in a land crisscrossed by necklaces of small lakes. In summer, the, water glistens blue-green and leaves are yellow-green and wildflowers are everywhere. But in winter, the landscape was chill and monochromatic, white and gray and black. Whereas the railroad builders' worst enemy had been the rock, in this section they came upon just the opposite kind of obstacle: ooze. The region was pocked with sinkholes and swamps and with lakes whose bottoms would not support bridge pilings until they had been sunk nearly 100 feet to bedrock. At first the builders spanned the mud and slime by laying the tracks on mattresses of logs. Later, it all had to be filled in with gravel and sand at enormous expense.
After almost 33 hours, the Canadian rolled out of Ontario. We were now in Manitoba, and the land flattened into farms. Next came Winnipeg, a town as dull as its name. Here the train crews were changed, with the Montreal-Toronto bunch going back, while new service attendants came aboard for the next leg of the trip.
I was standing on the Winnipeg station platform with a crewman who was getting off. He told me he had been with the railroad for 31 years. I asked, "Do you like the scenery out west better than what we've been through so far?"
He said, "I don't know. I've never been one foot west of Winnipeg."