JOURNEY DOWN THE RAILWAY THAT COULDN’T BE BUILT – by Peter Gzowski (MACLEAN’S Magazine – Novmeber 16, 1963)

A portrait, then and now, of the extraordinary feat that is the Quebec North Shore and Labrador line

THE SUN was inching into the bleak northern sky when Maclean’s photo editor Don Newlands and I checked out of the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Hotel in Wabush, Labrador, to begin the journey to Seven Islands, Que. We had flown into Wabush directly from Toronto and spent a few days there looking into life on the last frontier, à la 1963, and although we had both enjoyed our visit with the men and women who are opening up the wilderness, I for one was anxious to get going.

Our program was to drive our rented car to Labrador City, three miles away over a dirt road, and then take the passenger-express train from there to Seven Islands. Most of this journey would be over the QNS & L — the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway — and seeing the railway, I knew, would be an exciting experience for me.

I had spent the summer of 1952 as a beardless (though not for lack of trying) chain man on a survey party helping to build the QNS & L. And, although I hadn’t been back in eleven years, I had retained a sort of proprietary interest in the railway.

The QNS & L was one of the great construction projects of our time, a job that many expert engineers were certain could never be finished, and many of us who worked on it — there were as many as seven thousand men employed at one time — looked on the achievement much the way war veterans look on battles their regiments have won.

And battle it was. The QNS & L was begun in 1950, when a small coastal steamer slipped into the bay at Seven Islands and put ashore its cargo of heavy construction equipment. Within a few hours, according to a souvenir booklet later published by the Iron Ore Company of Canada, which paid for the project, “bulldozers were snorting and puffing to clear the bush for the first camp, just back of the harbor.”

In February, 1954 — in 56-below weather — Jules Timmins, the mining magnate, drove a golden spike at Knob Lake, three hundred and fifty-six rail-miles north; fifteen million yards of earth had been moved, a million and a half ties laid, seven hundred curves rounded; seventeen bridges had been erected over the boiling rivers of Labrador and northern Quebec, two tunnels had been blasted through the granite.

The rocks in the south and the mud in the north had been conquered. But no table of statistics could measure the effort put in by the conquerors. Seared by cold in winter, driven almost to madness by black flies in summer, these men were the pioneers of the 1950s. In later summers, I worked on the two other huge construction jobs of that time in Canada, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the aluminum project at Kitimat. B.C., but on neither of them was I able to capture or detect the spirit of slugging-it-out-together that existed in Labrador. On the QNS & L, it was us against the wilderness, and us working men against the company. Dirty, bored, lonely and almost always exhausted, we worked and fought and griped and saved our money to escape. But even such lowly creatures as laborers and bull cooks and chain men followed the progress of the steel the way the captain of the Queen Elizabeth measures off his daily mileage.

The northern terminal of the QNS & I. is still at Knob Lake, or Schefferville as it is now known, but in recent years a spur line has been built from Mile 240 (all points on the QNS & L are identified by their distance from Seven Islands) over to Wabush Lake, where both Iron Qre and a company called Wabush Mines are developing new sites. Newlands and I were to travel the thirty-eight miles from Wabush on this new spur, and pick up the twice-weekly passenger run on the main line from Mile 240 south.

The diesel engine on our train was purring away when we arrived, but there was no one around to tell us whether we could get on or not. In the station, a rough, wooden building, two Newfoundlanders were loading a variety of packing boxes into one of the four or five boxcars that were strung out behind the single passenger car, but there was no other sign of activity. We’d been told to arrive at seven, but that hour came and went without any sign of life. Around 7.30, a man in a heavy sweater and wearing a conductor’s hat came into the waiting room. “What time is it?” he asked Newlands, and when Newlands told him he strolled off into a small office.

The spur line of the QNS & L is so new that it has not yet got a formal charter to charge for passengers from Labrador City to Mile 240. Anyone who wants to go there just fills out a form and is given a free pass. Actually, this isn’t as great a benefit as it sounds, since when you get to Mile 240 you’re more nowhere than when you started. The fare from 240 to Seven Islands, though, is a little less than nine dollars.

Just before eight, the two Newfoundlanders who had been loading freight boarded the passenger car to light the wood stoves, one at each end of the car. Although it was only mid-September there was a clean bite in the air, and we could imagine the temperatures in the passenger car on a Labrador morning in February. So, apparently, could one of the Newfoundlanders, for he soaked his wood with kerosene, and flames erupted from his stove like a Roman candle. He tried to damp it down and the smoke problem got worse than the fire, rolling back through the car and choking the passengers. By now there were perhaps a dozen people in the car and smiling at the devil-may-care attitude of the Newfie who had goofed, we groped our way to fresh air. At the still-clear end of the car, the Newfie who hadn’t goofed chattered away partly to himself and partly to anyone who passed about his partner’s incompetence.

The man who got out next to me on the platform turned out to be a Gaspésien. Gaspésiens, wâth their thick, guttural jouai accents, make up, after Newfoundlanders, the predominant labor force for the newly opened areas of northern Quebec and Labrador, and, as I tried to pass the time of day with him — I learned my own French in construction camps and have less trouble with workers’ jouai than with Montreal cabdrivers — I reflected that perhaps the greatest difficulty in our intranational relations is evident not in parliament but in Labrador. Since English Canadians can barely understand Newfoundlanders in full conversational flight, and French Canadians look with contempt on the patois of the Gaspé, how on earth are Newfoundlanders and Gaspésiens supposed to understand one another?

In fact, of course, the north breeds good fellowship nearly as well as it breeds black flies, and men in the campsites and new towns — Portuguese, Italian, Canadian, canadien, Indian — get along better than their compatriots at the United Nations. (An incident that occurred in Labrador City during our visit demonstrates the internationalism of the north as well as anything I’ve heard.

At breakfast in a small cafe, I happened to sit beside a Negro in a hard-boiled hat and wearing a caterpillar operator’s emblem from his belt. We struck up a conversation. He told me he was from Trinidad, and had been in the north nearly six months — enjoying it quite a lot. How long had I been here? Just a few days, I said, to which he replied: “Willcome to Lawbradoah, mon.”) The same attitude of good will pervades the trains in the north, too, and when the smoke had cleared and the train had pulled out of Labrador City, most of us passengers were on chatting terms with one another.

A Percheron among railroads

Aircraft, which opened up the north, are still the most important form of transportation for nearly everything but iron ore. A man can fly from Wabush to Seven Islands for twenty-one dollars, and, although the train fare is only half as much, the traveling time by train, ten hours, is more than five times as long. Most people leaving Labrador are, I imagine, both rich and impatient enough to fly. The dozen or so passengers in our car included a couple of employees of the railway, a construction foreman on his way out with a bad back, and a family with three young children, who had been visiting grandparents in Lab City.

The QNS & L is a Percheron among railroads, designed to carry iron ore in great quantities, not for the comfort or convenience of the people who need to travel it. Its track is among the heaviest in the world, a hundred and thirty-two pounds a yard. Its ties are of extra-heavy oak. The trains that travel it are huge: four diesels, each generating more than fifteen hundred horsepower, pull as many as a hundred and fifteen open cars, each carrying eighty-five long tons of ore. The total weight of one of these trains is more than double what the main line of either the CNR or CPR would call a heavy load.

The main line is only a single track, with some thirty sidings along the way. A central control board in Seven Islands, with a giant map of the line and an intricate system of lights and switches, dictates which train shall pull over onto a siding to let another pass. Thus directed from hundreds of miles away, the ore trains — seven to nine of them every day — move down the line from Schefferville by stages, never exceeding forty mph. taking about fifteen hours to make the southbound run.

Northward, empty, the trains are even longer, running to a hundred and thirty-five cars, and they make the trip in about twelve hours. The passenger express goes back and forth twice a week, leaving Seven Islands on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and leaving Schefferville on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Given priority over the ore at most sidings, and allowed to travel faster than the ore trains’ forty — even at forty it takes more than a mile to stop eight thousand tons of ore — it can make the downward trip as quickly as twelve hours.

Although we would be on the main line for only two thirds of the journey, Newlands and I would see all the scenery that makes the QNS & L. one of eastern Canada’s grandest, if least known, scenic attractions. For most of the first two hundred miles south of Schefferville — down nearly to Mile 150 — the railroad runs through barren land and muskeg, mile after mile of soggy, stringy swampland, dotted with scraggly spruce. The mud was one of the great construction problems. It mired men and machines and it swallowed whole sections of track in great slurps. The engineers hauled thousands of tons of rock and gravel fill from the south, and at times they seemed to be dumping it into bottomless pits.

About Mile 190, with the train still rattling along between the stretches of swamp, Newlands and I made our way forward to the dining car, which, except for a more informal atmosphere, turned out to be quite like a dining car on one of the major Canadian railroads’ transcontinental lines. The prices were equally inflated — $1.75 for a western omelet; $3.50 for the steak I chose. I got to swapping yarns with Johnny Mailloux, the dining car steward, who, like nearly everyone I met on the staff of the QNS & L, was a North Shore old-timer, having been there since the early 1950s.

We talked of Seven Islands when it had been a boomtown, with thousands of construction workers descending on a fishing, trapping and trading village of about one thousand; of how the men would go down to meet sailors from the cargo ships, paying as much as twenty-five dollars for a bottle of liquor; of how the construction companies found it all but impossible to keep girl employees in the cafeteria and even offices in Seven Islands — the rewards of prostitution were too high to compete with. Johnny, who has since become a family man and settled in Seven Islands, told me that I wouldn’t recognize the old frontier town now, but that it still had elements of wildness.

It was, he said, a new, small Montreal for vice. There were now more than thirty licensed liquor outlets, for its population of twenty-five thousand, and one or two of them at least had reputations as bad as anything along Montreal’s infamous Main, John chuckled.

As I worked on my steak, John told me of some of the famous people who’d been riding our railroad in recent years: provincial premiers and diplomats, millionaires and sportsmen. He excused himself and went back to the counter.

A minute later I heard a telephone bell ringing. Then Johnny called me. For me? The office wouldn’t know where to find me, but I remembered I’d called ahead to Seven Islands to ask for some appointments with officials of the railroad. I got up to answer.

“Hello,” I said into the receiver. Silence. Uh. they don’t have telephones hooked up to trains.

As I made my way through the laughter of the crew members in the dining car Johnny explained that I wasn’t the worst sucker he’d ever had aboard. He has a little bell under the counter that he rings by hand. A couple of years ago, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox was on board, going on a fishing trip. Johnny had got him the same way. Williams hadn’t given up quite as easily.

“There’s nobody here,” he told Johnny. ‘Talk louder, it’s probably long distance.” HULLO! I still can’t hear anything.”

And so on. Having done less badly than the greatest natural left-handed hitter in history, I went back to the passenger car.

At Mile 166, we stopped to pick up a party of fishermen, including Norm Despard, owner and publisher of the Seven Islands Avenir. Despard is another Labrador old-timer, having worked with Hollinger-Ungava Transport, the company that flew more than fifteen million ton-miles, freighting men and materials up the railway line during the construction years. (Virtually everything had to be flown in ahead of the steel, and the construction of the QNS & L was the biggest civilian airlift ever carried out.)

He started his bilingual local paper “as a hobby,” he says, and when the construction ended he stayed on to run it. Like many of the men who saw business opportunities in Seven Islands, he is now rich. (A French-Canadian Seven Islands family named Ferguson recently turned down six hundred and fifty thousand dollars for their farm on what is now the outskirts of town. They want a million.) Despard. too, began exchanging yarns with me — how strange to be talking of truly historical events only a decade old! — and time passed pleasantly as we neared the height of land.

Despair’s favorite anecdote — a true one, it turned out when I checked later — was about the bank manager who arrived in Knob Lake with the first workers. His bank, like everything else in the camp, was housed in a tent, and he was worried about the safety of his cash deposits (though where a thief might have taken them to, neither Despard nor I could guess). The banker hit on the idea of mounting his safe on a raft, and floating it in the middle of the lake. The raft sank. The safe is probably still sitting on the bottom. The ice-cold lakes of Labrador run fifty feet deep and more.

The height of land is at Mile 150; there the southbound trains start their long run down to Seven Islands, and quickly the scenery begins to pick up. Gigantic rocks loom out of the flat land, and in autumn the green of the spruces on the rolling hills is gently tinted by the yellowing tamaracks. Rivers charge foaming along the side of the grade. Cataracts leap down from the granite; at one point, the line passes within yards of the edge of a canyon into which crashes a waterfall nearly three hundred feet high. We stopped for a moment to admire it. and from the edge of the roadbed we could feel the spray drifting into our faces.

Enthralled by the unwinding scenery on this bright fall afternoon, I could easily forget the grim summer 1 had spent among the men who built the railroad. For a week or so, the survey party to which I was attached worked around the gang laying the head of steel at about Mile 30. The steel gang lived in railway cars, pulled up by a locomotive along one or two miles of the track they had laid that day. They were crowded tightly together, and there was little chance for them to wash or do laundry.

Their morning and evening meals were served at the work train, but usually they took lunch with them, a package of sandwiches. Around mid – morning, someone would set a fire under a fifty-gallon drum of water at the side of the grade. Since some of the men wanted tea and some wanted coffee, the man in charge would simply dump a few pounds of each into the boiling water. For cups, the gang used empty tin cans, which were stacked for them on the roadbed. When they broke for lunch, they’d scoop the tins into the drum to get their own tea-fee, or whatever it was. Dirt from the grade would cling to the tins, and drop off into the boiling mess.

These men worked ten hours a day — more if they were allowed to. A few lucky ones, like the man who looked after the airplane fuel at an airstrip, were paid around the clock, but common laborers worked for ninety cents an hour, perhaps fifty-four hours a week.

The biggest bane was the black fly. The construction companies — more out of a desire for efficiency than out of humanity — I suspect — often sprayed the line by airplane; they sold us commercial concoctions in the tuckshops and doled out a variety of gooey messes used by armed forces. In even the hottest weather we worked with our sleeves rolled down and our pants tucked into our socks, and frequently we built smudge fires, but there was no relief. Everyone I saw was bitten behind the ears, down the neck, in the belly. One man in a camp I was in — a bulldozer operator who had to keep both hands busy and couldn’t slap — actually suffered a minor nervous breakdown because of the flies; he had to he taken out.

The one pleasure that offset the drudgery and the boredom of life in the camps was fishing. For its southerly thirty miles or so, the QNS & L follows the Moisie, one of the world’s great salmon rivers. Not far from the railroad’s Mile 17 is a super-private millionaires’ fishing camp — it was there before construction was begun — and we lowly construction workers could spend our evenings fishing the same waters and getting bitten by the same black flies as the very rich. The fishing along the railroad, in fact, was so good that it bored us. At one point on the Moisie you could actually catch salmon by dropping a wire noose into the water and jerking it back up — you’d get one about every three jerks — and I have heard tales, which I believe, of men pulling in twenty fish, trout and pickerel and the landlocked salmon called ouananiche, on twenty successive casts.

This hardly seemed like sport to many of us, and in the latter part of my summer I went back to spending my evenings with well-thumbed copies of True or Ace Detective or the other magazines that filled construction camps before the advent of the Playboy class, or playing a little poker, or just sitting around trying to make my beard grow.

How different it was now, rushing down a smooth, completed railroad at fifty miles an hour, on my way to a bath and a cocktail and two clean white sheets! How strange to see the campsites I had known — the airbase at Mile 55, Camp 44, Camp 22 — overgrown by the bush, and clean white section – gangs’ houses every twenty miles or so, with fences! What a pleasure to be able to stretch back on a railway carriage seat and enjoy the scenery of a country whose beauty I had forgotten, first in the monotony and discomfort of camp life and then in the city years between. ★

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