Ontario Marches North – by Douglas Lapham (Maclean’s May 1, 1931)

Thirty years ago North Bay was “Far North” in Ontario. Now the railway builder is reaching out 400 miles still farther north to a “back-door” ocean port and the power engineer is taming mighty torrents in the heart of the wilderness

Two big acts of a drama of winter are drawing to a successful close in the bleak wilderness that stretches north of Cochrane in Northern Ontario, in that No Man’s Land which lies between the Canadian National transcontinental line and James Bay, downthrust spur of Hudson Bay.

They are unrelated scenes in a panorama of development which for years has been changing this once distant North into an annex of the industrial South. But the same man is behind them both. The same dynamic figure is pulling the strings, urging , striving, fighting. He is Harry Falconer McLean, president of the Dominion Construction Company, Ltd., a twentieth-century figure as picturesque as any of the Dominion builders Canada has known.

But first let us get the two acts straight. One is the damming of the east branch of the Moose River at Murray Island, less than fifty miles from Moose Factory, the erection of seventeen concrete piers across the west branch of the same river for a million-dollar steel bridge, so that the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway – Ontario’s publicly owned railroad – may reach Moose Factory and tidewater before fall.

The other set, possibly of more immediate dramatic effect, is the cutting g of two tunnels through the west cliff of the Abitibi canyon to divert for a couple of years the Abitibi River so that the gorge may be drained dry and a $23,000,000 dam and power house erected for the Ontario Power Service Corporation, a subsidiary of the Abitibi Power and Paper Company.

North of Far North

Time marches. It is not yet thirty years since North Bay, A mere 227 miles above Toronto, was Ontario’s frontier town. Settlers had penetrated north of that, but they were regarded as distant adventurers indeed. Yet it was in answer to the demands of these pioneers that the province went into the business of building a railroad north, for gold and other minerals had yet to be discovered in this unknown Eldorado.

The first sod of the T. and N. O. Railway was dug in 1902 amide head-shakings and prophesies of disaster. But since that time, behold Cobalt, Timmins, Porcupine and Kirkland Lake mining areas discovered and developed; towns like Haileybury, New Liskeard and Cochrane arisen and flourishing; the Clay Belt settled like a Western Ontario countryside.

And now power is to be developed on the Abitibi, one of the half dozen rivers that rise on the height of land and flow north until they join to form the wide Moose, which runs mightily into James Bay at its southern tip.

This year the T. and N. O. Railway, long since pushing north from Cochrane, is to be extended to Moose Factory, making its total operated mileage north of North Bay 609.3 miles and giving Ontario a port on the back door of the ocean.

The Moose River, two-thirds of a mile wide, is the only real obstacle to a straight run to James Bay, forty-seven miles further on from Coral Rapids, the point the railroad has now reached, which is 142 miles above Cochrane. And it is being spanned by Harry F. Mclean and his gangs with a bridge that should be finished by July.

Let us consider this bridge job first.

The foundations of the Moose bridge had to be built against time. The earth fill damming the east channel, and the seventeen concrete piers in the west channel, had to be completed before the ice came piling down in the spring; otherwise they would be swept away.

Harry F. MaLean had just about finished the railroad line into Flin Flon in Northern Manitoba when one afternoon in March, a year ago, he signed a contract with the T. and N. O. Railway to lay track from Coral Rapids, where the line ended at the moment, to the Moose River. That night he had trainloads of men and equipment steaming out of The Pas toward Northern Ontario. He is not a man who lets the muskeg shake under his feet. He flames with direct action.

Between the spring and fall he built the line from Coral Rapids to the Moose. Now he is spanning the river itself. By the time these words are read, the concrete piers will have been finished, and if they withstand the downrush of ice there will be little t do but lay the steel beams across them. If the piers don’t stand – well, it will be Harry McLean’s first construction failure.

In bridging the river, he first erected heavy wooden trestles across the 1,000-foot width of the east channel and on across the 900-foot width of Murray Island. Then in October, his work trains began to trundle across these trestles and dump sand into the rushing water.

The river, threatened with a choking of half its ancient right-of-way past Murray Island, gathered force and swept the dumped sand off north toward James Bay, as it had been carrying alluvial soil for aeons.

It was then that Jim Therrien, Harry McLean’s lieutenant on the job, stepped literally into the breach. He decided to stop the east channel with sandbags. One morning he lined up train-loads of them and set hundreds of men to lowering them around the base of the trestle bridge. It was dark when they finished the job, but the channel was blocked. The Moose was beaten. Against the breastwork of sand in the east channel the downpouring river beat in vain. Now it had only the 1,836 feet of west channel through which to pour.

It is over this west branch that the steel bridge will rise, from the end of the 1,900-foot fill across the east channel and island to the west mainland bank, along which the railroad will continue the remaining forty-seven miles to Moose Factory.

Long before Harry McLean’s men had finished the fill in February they had begun building the piers in the west channel. Two plants, one in the east, the other on the west bank, mixed, heated and rushed concrete to be poured into molds inside cofferdams of steel sheeting which shut off the water from the rocky bed into which the piers were anchored.

Seventeen piers, 110 feet apart, rose thus through the ice that sheathed the river. Men worked at them in below zero temperatures below the level of the river. The piers had to be finished by April 1, before the Moose rising and bringing down mountains of ice, could threaten their work.

The bridge will be finished by the middle of July. Then Harry McLean will rush the railroad on to tidewater in short order, for the right-of-way is cleared. He will be through by September. Thus by fall, Ontario will have rail right to the lower shores of Hudson Bay. A government hotel will be built, a little town will grow, and who knows how great will be the eventual development. Maybe a smelter will be built to handle the ore that lies plentifully in the Belcher Islands, especially if coal is discovered in the region. Probably there will be a pulp mill. A company has already been organized to develop commercial fishing. At least there should be tourists. Hunters should flock there in the fall to greet the geese that halt their flight at Hannah Bay.

Certainly there seemed less promise thirty years ago just north of North Bay, when the T. and N. O. was begun, than there is today at Moose Factory which it has almost reached.

So much for the first act of this Far North drama. Now for the second, in detail: the building of a dam and power house across the Abitibi canyon for the Ontario Power Services Corporation to develop an eventual 325,000 horse-power of electrical energy.

Power From the Wilderness

This mighty load of power, developed in the wilderness will be carried south through the bush to Hunts, where 100,000 horsepower will be delivered to the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission, who will carry it to Sudbury for use in the nickel plants, an aggregate of some 325 miles south of the point of generation, the longest transmission, it is said, of electrical power known.

The remainder of the power developed will be used by the Abitibi Company.

But that will not be for at least two years. For construction is a big job, fit for Harry McLean, well known as the doer of big jobs.

Wolfe in the eighteenth century may have climbed the Heights of Abraham. But is remained for Harry McLean in the twentieth to tunnel under them. He has just done that. A few weeks ago his gangs finished the Canadian Pacific Railway tunnel from St. Malo to Wolfe’s Cove to connect with the new docks being built for the Empress liners.

It was Harry McLean who built the railroad from Cranberry Portage, beyond The Pas in Northern Manitoba, into the Flin Flon mining area. It was he who originated the method of laying ties on the frozen muskeg and balasting later when necessary when the frost comes out.

Here is a man who fits into big construction. He is tall, well over six feet, and proportioned to suit. No matter where he is, in the Royal York hotel, in his Montreal offices, down east on a job in Nova Scotia, up north on the fringe of the Arctic, there he is king. A sort of melancholy seems to sit on the broad shoulders of this big man. He likes jesters and laughs boisterously, except when he is on the job. Then there is grimness about his heavily etched face with its eagle beak and high black brows. For Harry McLean is a dark man, a Highlander whose mother from Glengarry and father from Prince Edward Island were pioneers in North Dakota, where he was born. This self-made man, who can be rough as a rasping saw, is no roughneck but a man of feeling, of education. He reads a lot, often and always. He reads poetry and the Bible. His speech, the reverse of academic, pops out at times with strange quotations.

Harry McLean went to high school in Bismarck, North Dakota. He went to business college. But it was from living that he learned his real lessons. It was right in the construction game that he go his scholarship, for he began at fifteen as water boy for Winston Brothers, railway builders, in Minnesota. In 1902, the year the T. and N. O. started north from North Bay, he go a job as timekeeper with a Montana construction company.

He rose fast. Three years later, at twenty-two, he became general superintendent of the Toronto Construction Company. Fifteen years later, at thirty-seven, he became president of the Grenville Crushed Rock Company. He is still president. Now, still two years short of fifty, he is also president of the Dominion Construction Company, Ltd., and president of H.F. McLean, Ltd.

He is a doer of million-dollar jobs. Railroads hand him giant tasks as the rest of us call in plumbers. He will undertake half a dozen jobs of this kind at once and keep them all going. In two decades he has developed an organization that works like clockwork. He drives men, but he finds them work and that means much in the construction game. His tasks are spread sometimes over half the face of Canada. His huge chores have stretched right though from the Maritimes to Manitoba. They have been done as far south as Kentucky. To get around to them he has bought an airplane. He has his own pilot. He uses his plane as other men use and automobile. He may be in Montreal for breakfast, in Toronto for lunch, up toward Cochrane by nightfall.

He thinks in millions. He plays chase with rivers and railroads. His brooding falcon face is that of a constant thinker. He faces and solves problems in the course of a day’s routine that spread over a year, would make most men prematurely grey. He flings out orders by long-distant telephone. He thinks of nothing of telling Chicago or Montreal casually to send along three or four locomotives at once. H is the nerve centre of a far flung but unified command. He is the One Big Boss of an empire of construction.

Wherever he is, there is his headquarters. It may be down in Nova Scotia, where he is building a branch line for the Canadian National. It may be in the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, where he is finishing a mole’s hole through the Heights of Abraham. It may be in Montreal or in his Toronto office. It may be up on the Abitibi, or by the edge of the Moose, or out West where his cohorts are ballasting track for the C.P.R.

He is usually to be found where the fight of the moment is the hardest. That is why he has spent nearly four months of the winter at the Abitibi canyon.

Such is the man who has undertaken to divert the Abitibi before spring and afterward to drain the canyon dry and therein build one of the greatest power dams in Canada.

Building Tunnels Against Time

One way to measure the man is by this big job and the way he talked it. He was already up North laying T. and N. O. track up from Coral Rapids and getting ready to build a bridge across the Moose, when the Abitibi Power and Paper Company laid on his shoulders the additional load of harnessing the Abitibi River in the heart of the great gorge that climaxes seven miles of rapids.

Thus on the verge of winter, away up North, he was faced with the task of conquering not one river but two. He had to bridge the Moose; he had to divert the Abitibi; and he had to finish both jobs before spring.

That is what he undertook to do. Now you have in clear perspective the two acts of the great winter drams. The same man has to play the chief part in each, while carrying on half a dozen other man-sized acts in half a dozen distant regions.

Did he hesitate? No he jumped at the chance to tackle the Abitibi and the Moose in the same winter. The two jobs were only seventy miles apart. Fine. He’d commute up and down by airplane. And that is exactly what he has been doing all winter, though his main concentration has been on the Abitibi.

That was a tough job, seventy-two miles above Cochrane, in the midst of what six months ago was undisturbed wilderness. There, three miles east form the extension of the T. and N. O. Railway form Cochrane north the Abitibi river flows through a long deep canyon . It is two miles long. Its walls are some 260 feet high at the point where the dam is to be built. The width between them is about 200 feet.

Here is the culmination of a series of rapids; the Lobster, the Burntwood, the Clay, the Birch, the Dilean, and finally the canyon. In the seven miles along which they spread in almost continuous succession there is a drop of 226 feet. It almost seems as if Nature had provided the setting ready-made so that Harry McLean might build there a dam to back up this mighty downpouring and chute it through a power house to make electrical power.

At any rate here in the canyon engineers decided that the vast dam should be build, and Harry McLean was given the job of building it. Last fall he was told that he must cut through the rock of the west bank tow parallel tunnels, each twenty-eight feet in circumference, 1,000 feet and 1,200 feet long respectively, and that he must have the work finished before the Abitibi rose in flood in the spring to choke out the chances of going ahead with the dam in 1931.

The tunnels were to divert the Abitibi and make possible the laying of the foundations of the dam on the area of drained bed.

Harry McLean was not only to have the tunnels gouged out by April 1, but he was to have the entire surface of them finished in concrete so that the diverted river might run through them speedily without risk of being blocked during the two years of building.

That was early in the fall. It was in September that he began the job. It was a job at which the boldest builder might have quailed, as he stood there n the wilderness and looked at the Abitibi rushing along between those great walls of rock.

Winter thus far north was already threatening. The bush was touched with the first frosts. Yet he was asked to get men in, carry tremendous machinery and vast equipment three miles in form the railroad and gouge two tunnels, totaling two-fifths of a mile long, out of that grim, grey rock – before spring! There was a job to make a man back up, if he did not have faith in himself and his outfit and the grit to start it and carry it through.

Harry McLean had the faith and the grit. He undertook to trim the Abitibi. At the time of writing, the job is on the way to being finished; that is, the tunnel part of the job. Success is in sight. The tunnels will be finished. Some day not very far in the future a cofferdam will be built just north of the entrances of the near-twin tunnels, right in the river, and the Abitibi will be blocked and sent running through them, off to one side. Another cofferdam will be built just south of the two exits and the river kept from backing up.

The space between the two dams, nearly a thousand feet long, will be pumped dry. The bed of the gorge will be laid bare. And here, without interference from the water that will be rushing north through the two tubes, will be erected the great dam and power plant.

All this is temporary. Two years hence, when the power plant is built, the tunnels will be plugged. For these tunnels, costing over $600,000 to hew through the rock, are merely expedients to get the river out of the way. Two years hence, when they are plugged, the river will rise over the lower cofferdam, up against the face of the great power dam. It will rise there some 250 feet and it will back up south for a distance of nearly twenty-five miles.

A Half Million Dollar Platform

This all sounds dimple. But remember, this was virgin area six months ago three miles back from the railroad, when Harry McLean was given the job of subduing and subsequently harnessing the Abitibi. He started. He laid in three miles of railroad from Mile 72 on the T. and n. O. extension right to the canyon.

There along the crest, he cleared half a square mile of bush and cut the timber up for cordwood. He began a camp. He built the construction town of Fraserdale. He sank a shaft 235 feet deep into the precipitous west bank of the canyon and began tunneling. He timbered the shaft with great planks of Douglas fir. He built a wooden platform with railroad tracks out over the edge of the cliff to the head of the shaft, strong enough to carry away the dump cars that came out of the depths. He flung a foot suspension bridge across the canyon form the crest of the west bank to the crest of the east. He through across a mighty cable capable of carrying ten-ton loads on a pulley. He began the construction of a great cantilever bridge to cost half a million dollars, 450 feet long and containing over 1,000 tons of steel, solid enough to bear the International Limited thundering across – just to make a platform across the river that would be handy from which to pour the concrete down for the dam and the power house.

This great bridge already taking shape across the gorge, leads to a dead end. There will be tracks on it to bear the concrete-laden trains, but they will lead nowhere. ON the far bank there will be just wilderness. The bridge is only an expedient, like the tunnels, to make possible the building of the dam. Like the tunnels, it will be scrapped when the dam is built. At least it will have no further use, though it may be left, since it might cost more to take down than it would be worth as old iron in the wilderness. So in the wilderness it is likely to remain as a memorial to a magnificent gesture in construction.

All this Harry McLean build and more. Not all at once, of course, but gradually, several things at a time, by co-ordination. He laid in his three miles of track. He brought in his trains, his machinery, equipment, material to build a town; his army of men, engineers, superintendents, woodsmen, carpenters, locomotive drivers, explosive experts, miners, drillers and common laborers. The bush was cut down and a clearing made on top of the rocks. Buildings from machine-shops to bunkhouses went up at the rate of one a day until there were seventy of them; trackage was laid all over the place; sewers were installed; a double chlorination plant was set up; electrical power was brought up though the bush from the development at Island Falls, thirty miles south.

A compact vivid little industrial centre was established at the same time that the work of diverting the Abitibi by tunnels got under way. At the same time as some men were building houses fit for family units to live in, other men were out on the ledges of the west precipice of the canyon chipping off the shale rock, setting great cranes on them and sinking the shaft; while still other men, right down by the edge of the water, began quarrying at the entrances and exits of the two tunnels, working from both ends.

Later, they were to attack the problem of finishing the tunnels more rapidly by working on them north and south from the bottom of the shaft whose base struck right in the middle of the two of them. Thus, eventually the two tunnels were cut out form eight headings, four to each tunnel, both ways from the centre at the bottom of the shaft and from both ends.

A Made-to-Order Town

So the town of Fraserdale, scarcely six months old, has arisen seventy odd miles north of Cochrane, almost halfway to Moose Factory, right on the rolling west bank of the Abitibi Canyon. It is by way of being a miracle town, for it is no old-time construction camp but a modern, comfortable if bleak little city. It has electric light, chlorinated water, showerbaths, sewers. It has a school, for a number of Harry McLean’s men have wives and families living in houses built specially for them. It has its private police force, and a hospital with doctor and nurses. It has hygiene. It has health. Every man who enters must undergo inspection; prove that he is free from contagious disease and, if necessary, be inoculated.

It is drier that most towns in the old prohibition days. Harry McLean’s police see to that. Liquor is kept out. Bootleggers may not enter. Neither may unattached females. Thus pioneering, while not yet exactly ladylike physically, has been made socially above reproach. There is too much danger drilling and dynamiting, too much at stake, to take a chance on drunken weakness.

The men are fed well in fine dining rooms with varied food prepared by chefs in kitchesn worthy of a city hotel of the first rank. An amusement hall provides over a dozen pool and billiard tables. There are reading rooms for the foremen. At Christmas there was a Christmas tree and Harry McLean played Santa Claus to the children. Then there was a dance. Movies are shown sometime.

But grim work is this comfortable camp’s reason for being. All through the harsh Northern winter work went on endlessly to the tune of three shifts a day. Night and day, over two hundred feet down in the rock, men drilled ceaselessly with power drills and placed thousands of charges of dynamite to blast through the tunnels before winter should cease and the river rise in spring flood to chase them out. Night and day the bleak rolling roiling rocks in back from the canyon, shorn bare of trees, grumbled and rumbled with the reverberations of the explosions.

Down in the tunnels it was bitterly cold, a damp raw cold that started men coughing. Above ground it was zero most of the time. Down in the rock caves which the men were gouging out, below the level of the river, it was still colder. But men and machines, air-driven drills with the compressed air coming from the power house through long surface pipes kept from freezing by fires at regular intervals, big steam shovels and mucking hoists, drove tirelessly at the rock in the blaze of powerful search-lights which found it hard to pierce the subterranean murk in order that the job might be done in time.

In the spring when the tunnels are finished, the river blocked by cofferdams and diverted, and the site laid bare, hundreds of men will undertake the hewing out of foundations in which to anchor the dam at the base and at the ends and for the power house. They will attack the shale that has laid for centuries on the surface of the bed now laid bare, and cut well into the underlying rock. By that time synchronizing the various phases, the steel bridge will have been finished and the pouring of concrete will begin.

The dam alone will take over 400,000 cubic feet of concrete. The power house, retaining wall on the west side, core wall and spillway on the east, will take 200,000 cubic feet more. Altogether, over 600,000 cubic feet of concrete will have been poured when the job is ended a couple of years hence.

In order to provide concrete in fast, wholesale fashion for this tremendous feat of pouring, Harry McLean has erected a rock-crushing plant and a cement mixing plant, the two joined by a conveyor belt 800 feet long to form a unit of continuous operation. These plants, tall as young grain elevators, are built of timbers hewn from Douglas fir. High up in one is the crushing machinery, the mortars, the screens that will grind and grade the rock excavated from the tunnels to selected sizes. High in the other is a battery of five steel mixers that will pour as they revolve a ceaseless supply of heated concrete. For, until summer comes the cement will have to arrive at the job, hot enough to pour fluidly.

Like the steel bridge, like the tunnels, these rock-crushing and cement-mixing plants 

erected thus in the wilderness are only temporary. When the job is over they’ll be worn out, but they will have poured over 600,000 cubic feet of concrete at a cost of some two cents a cubic foot. That is how Harry McLean does big business.

The dam will arise. It will be some dam, nearly 1,000 feet long at the top , anchored at each end deep into the canyon sides to hold back the enormous pressure of the river that will have to be backed up twenty-five miles almost back to Island Falls. It will be 250 feet high, high as a skyscraper of twenty stories. It will be 200 feet wide at the base, twenty feet wider than University Avenue, Toronto, and will taper to forty feet at the top. This great dam will give a head of 240 feet of water which will pour down through five penstocks to turn five generators in the power house below, each with a capacity of  68,000 horsepower.

The contours today south of the site of the dam will largely disappear, the Abitibi Canyon south of it will vanish, covered by a lake which will be the forebay.

Such is the mighty work for which the toil of Harry McLean and his men all through the harsh Northern winter has only been by way of a preliminary canter. Two summers and two more long, hard winters of stern work must be carried out before it will have been finished. But a couple of years hence it will be done, and power will go flowing on its long trip south to drive wheels, light towns and give comforts to thousands.