The following account of the “Building Through Northwestern New Brunswick The Railroad now known as the Canadian National Railroad”, was written in 1970 by Vinal Christensen of New Denmark. It describes the construction from 1908 to 1911, through Victoria County, especially concentrating on New Denmark, although it mentions the area of Plaster Rock to Davis Mill. It provides an interesting and original account of those times and the people who made it happen. Hard copies are on file at the New Denmark Museum, the Grand Falls Museum, and the Plaster Rock Public School Library.
Thanks to Joyce Petersen for submitting this paper, who also submitted the following comment:
"The 1911 census of Victoria County, NB, listed many foreign railroad workers, including at least 96 unnamed men in Gordon Parish. They were from Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria. In the Parish of Drummond, NB, which at that time included the New Denmark and Blue Bell areas, at least 44 men were named who appeared to be part of the railroad crew. Thirty seven were identified as Italian labourers. Several other men were identified as Canadians.
The Canadians included Bertram Robertson, Watchman; P.B. Duff and X.R. Rivers, Civil Engineers; James Barnes, E. Staff; B.G. Currier, Chairman; C.O. Linton, Proprietor and Timekeeper; A.L. Gunn, E. Engineer and Frank McMelkin, E. Staff.
Records from St. Ansgar’s Anglican Church in New Denmark attest to deaths during the construction of the railroad. During that period, New Denmark’s population consisted mainly of Danish immigrant families. The church register lists the burials of two men who were most likely railroad workers. They were Fernando Peruggini, who was born in Italy and died in July 1908 and Demetir Criboter from Laugosbone, Austria, who died in July 1909.
Joseph and James Deleavey were two Italian brothers who came to Canada to work on the railroad construction. James brought his wife Magdelena Festa and their two sons from Italy. They settled in Blue Bell and had nine more children. James, with his second wife Annie Rasmussen, a Danish girl, had six. Many descendants of this family remain in the Blue Bell and Anfield regions of Victoria County, NB."
(photos provided by Joyce Petersen)
Building Through Northwestern New Brunswick
The railroad now known as
The Canadian National Railway
Train Trestle at New Denmark behind home
of Pauline & Norman Christensen
Work on building the railroad through this area, mainly Victoria County, New Brunswick, started in 1908 and finished in 1911. At that time this railway was known as the “National Transcontinental” and was built from Moncton to Quebec City.
This line was not known as the C.N.R. until 1918 when taken over by the government. The C.N.R. was composed of many railway lines and was an amalgamation of the Grand Trunk, Grand Trunk Pacific, Intercolonial, Canadian Northern, and the National Transcontinental and others. This last named line was actually built from Moncton to Winnipeg, and the last spike driven in 1913.
The general contractor in this area was Kitchen Brothers., one of which was Doug Kitchen’s father. Doug was since a partner with Oran Davis in lumbering and milling and who lived at Davis No.2 for many years until he passed away some years ago.
There were several sub-contractors in this area, Scully & Bateman at Drummond, Hennigar near Blue Bell Station, Andy Wheaton & Harry McLean, south from Plaster Rock, and Johnston at Blue Bell Station and at Davis No.1, also known as the “Tie Camp”. Powers & Brewer had charge of all the concrete work and a Mr. Gunn was the resident engineer.
The men who worked on this undertaking were mainly Italians, Swedes, Scotch, and other nationalities. Some of the young men from New Denmark worked there also, to name a few: Jens Adams, Henry Brinkman, Viggo and Carl Bronnum, and two of my brothers, Andrew and Cris.
Alfred Neate who resides at Plaster Rock told me that in 1908, while he was just a young boy, and shortly after arriving here from England with his father, mother, one brother and one sister, remembers starting to cut the right of way together with his father and my brother, Cris, around what is known as Hennigar’s Camps. This was about one mile north of Blue Bell Lake.
The Neates had built a cabin and were living there at the time. There were also several other camps where the workers lived, some of whom were married and had their families with them. Some of the large undertakings of interest would be the tunnel put through a hill a few rods south of Hennigar’s Camps and several steel bridges over brooks, rivers and gullies. The largest bridge is across Salmon River at Davis Mill. That bridge is ¾ of a mile long and 228 feet high.
Hills were cut through and the earth and rocks used to fill in low places and gullies. The filling was done by building wooden trestles on which rails were laid, and the fill hauled on cars operated by small engines called “Donkey Engines” and sometimes hauled by horses or mules. The loads were dumped over the end of fill as it built up. My brother Andrew worked on one of these trestles as he was a carpenter, and Mrs. Bert Paulsen’s father, Mr. Niel Nielsen, was the foreman there.
M.G. Hennigar had the contract to build the tunnel near Blue Bell Lake. This tunnel was about 400 feet long and put through a hill of almost solid rock. The rocks taken out were used to fill in for the track bed that went through the centre of Blue Bell Lake, and also to make a fill at the Tie Camp “Davis No.1”.
They ran into trouble at the lake as the fill kept settling, and on some mornings when the crew came to work they found the fill and track laid from the day before had completely disappeared. However they kept on and at last the settling stopped and the track through the lake has kept up good since.
When about half way through the tunnel a fault was found and a survey made (work was halted for about two weeks) to see if it would be feasible to by-pass the tunnel, but it was decided that the only way was through the tunnel and lake.
In those days there were no heavy machines and much of the labor was by hand and by horses and mules. A few steam shovels were used and compressed air was used for drilling at the tunnel.
When first starting a tunnel, or a cut through a hill, blasting was done to get a so called “face”, before any large load of explosives was used. This was done by drilling eight or ten holes which were then loaded with dynamite or blasting powder. Then the foreman and one worker would light the fuses, each taking half, and as soon as the fuses were lit they would hurry away to a safe distance. They would then count the explosions, and when all had fired, could go back. One time a shot failed to go off, and after waiting some time the worker said that he would go back to see what was wrong, thinking that perhaps the fuse had not lit properly. The foreman advised him not to go back but still he went and had no sooner got there when the blast went off and he was killed.
After getting a “face” on the end of the tunnel and the debris removed, “coyotes” were made. This was a hole bored up to 300 feet long and as much as thirty tons of explosives used to load one hole. A bottling was used to set off those large blasts and everyone in the immediate area was evacuated, especially the women and children. I remember when one such large “coyote” had been waded at the tunnel. The people in the area were invited to come and see it, (at a safe distance, of course). On that day a number of people from the settlement including myself and some of my schoolmates took a stand on a wooded hill about a mile from the site, where we had a good view of the tunnel. I will never forget that day. After anxiously waiting what seemed to me a long time, we at last saw a great billow of smoke and earth and rock flying high in the air. I distinctly remember the report coming just a few seconds later. It was a miracle that none of us was hurt, as rocks as big as grapefruit and larger were hurled all around us, some of them knocking pieces of bark from some of the larger maple trees.
The steel for the bridges came by rail to Grand Falls and Martin Siding, just north of Grand Falls, and was then transported by wagon and team of horses to where it was being used. All supplies for the contractors were hauled by team from Grand Falls. I remember tote teams going by our home every day with such things as dynamite, machinery and other supplies.
Heavy wagons were used, made with large wheels, with tires about a foot wide, with another narrow tire in the middle and outside of the wide tire. This was so that it would roll along quite easily on a hard road but when getting into soft places, the wide tires would help to bear up the load.
An undertaking like this one is not without casualties and people getting hurt. One man was killed by a steam shovel at the Tie Camp gravel pit, another while blasting at the tunnel. Two men named Ryan and Hogan were seriously hurt while blasting near Salmon River. Ryan died but Hogan survived. No doubt many more were hurt and some killed.
These people were generally treated at The Caldwell House, formerly Hart house at Grand Falls. This building was used as a hospital by Drs. Puddington and Guy. The nurse in charge was Mrs. Caldwell, John and Charlie Caldwell’s mother. John still lives in the same old house with his sister. Charlie is away most of the time.
I also remember at least two murders at that time. One was a jewellery peddler named Paddy Green, who was robbed and murdered by Italians, somewhere between Wapske and Longley. The two murderers were apprehended and hanged at Andover. One Italian was shot in the road near where the new New Denmark Post Office now stands. (presently Route 108). I never heard if anyone was arrested for this or not.
Some humorous stories were also told from that time. For instance, one is about a man named Owen Saunders, who was driving a four horse team hauling dynamite from Grand Falls, when his horse balked on the Mill Hill and backed the load over the bank and upset it. Saunders ran as far as he could and threw himself down in the ditch waiting for the big blast which luckily did not take place. So after a while he went back, unhitched the horse, and carried all the dynamite up over the bank, to be loaded again after getting the wagon out.
The first passenger express left Moncton for Edmundston on November 28, 1912.
This railroad was first operated by a commission headed by an uncle of our Hugh John Flemming for some months, then came under Intercolonial management at Moncton.
The first ties used were softwood cut in the area. These did not last very long and were replaced with hardwood ties treated to prevent rotting.
All this happened about sixty years ago and times have certainly changed since then, but when you see the mighty bridges, the cuts, and fills, we have to admit that those men who did this work certainly did well with what they had to work with, and their work has stood up with the years.
The tunnel at Blue Bell was replaced with a by-pass in 1963. The tunnel had to be guarded continually over the years, due to falling rock, and for that reason had to be discontinued.
The old coal burning steam locomotives are now a thing of the past, and have been replaced with oil burning diesel units, many of the stations along the way have also been closed and discontinued, with trains being operated by electronic devices.
Our passenger trains that have passed through here for many years have also been taken out of operation in the last year and replaced by a Day Liner. The coaches on these and other passenger trains today are models of elegance and comfort, also clean as compared with the old steam locomotive days. I remember when travelling on trains in the old days a white shirt would become black in a few hours from the coal dust seeping through the coaches. Now I believe you could travel all the way across Canada, and your clothes would remain clean.
These are just a few views of what has taken place, and the many improvements that have been added since the railway was built.
Perhaps many more changes will take place in the future, who knows?