When the Northwest Rebellion broke out, the military was needed to stop the Métis and Native uprising. Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, offered to transport the troops to the location of the rebellion within ten days. There was just one problem. The railway wasn't finished. A total of 86 miles of tracks were still missing in four different places, north of Lake Superior.
The Midnight Tramp of the Royal Grenadiers, by W.D. Blatchly
Illustration, by H.H. Haig, of colonial troops marching over the ice of Nepigon Bay, Lake Superior, 1885
On March 30, 1885, troops left Toronto aboard the first train. Over the next few days, other troops left from other cities. At Dog Lake, the first gap in the tracks, the men were put into sleighs pulled by horses. The sleighs often overturned in the deep snow, tossing the men overboard. Frostbite was a constant danger. At Birch Lake, they boarded a train that had only open cars and no escape from the cold.
At the gap at Port Munro, the men had to march across the ice of Lake Superior. One soldier wrote home: "I can tell you I'll never forget that march, ... We dared not stop an instant as we were in great danger of being frozen, although the sun was taking the skin off our faces. One man of our company went mad and one of the regulars went blind from snow glare."
The Great Railway: Illustrated, by Pierre Berton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, ©1972, p. 294
After the third gap at Winston's Dock came the final and worst gap. It was a ten-mile march over the melting ice of Nepigon Bay (Nepigon Bay is now spelled Nipigon Bay). The men stumbled in exhaustion, and many fell and couldn't get up. When at last they reached the final train, many didn't have the strength to drink the hot tea they received.
Even with the gaps in the track, the 8,000 troops were able to make the journey in nine days. In 1870, it had taken troops three months to travel to the West during the Red River uprising. The railway had proven its usefulness and the Canadian government provided the money Van Horne needed to finish the Canadian Pacific Railway.
"In the cars the men, as soon as they were quartered, began putting their heads out the windows and bidding affectionate farewells without any sign of grief, to their friends. As the train moved at a snail's pace past the Union Station, ... handkerchiefs, tuques, forage caps, side-arms, socks, and even undershirts and drawers were waved, in response to the hearty cheering and hat waving of the immense multitude...."
"Gone! Tens of Thousands See Them Off", The Globe, March 31, 1885, p. 3
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Telegram from Father Lacombe assuring Prime Minister Macdonald of Crowfoot's loyalty, March 30, 1885
Father Albert Lacombe, faithful friend of the Blackfoot Nation, around 1913
On a summer day in 1883, in recognition for his service to the Canadian Pacific Railway, Father Albert Lacombe was guest of honour at a luncheon aboard the private railcar of Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the railway. Father Lacombe was made president of the Canadian Pacific Railway for one hour. He immediately gave himself two lifetime railway passes, free telegraph service for life, and free freight transportation for the Oblate missions.
Van Horne's private railway car is now in the Canadian Railway Museum at Delson/St-Constant, Quebec. It still has its original furniture, rugs and mahogany wood panelling.
Big Bear, Chief of the Plains Cree, recommended peace during the Northwest Rebellion. However, some of his followers killed nine white men and burned Fort Pitt. Poundmaker, a Cree chief and the adopted son of Crowfoot, did not participate in the Rebellion. He was able to stop his men from chasing the retreating soldiers who had come to attack their camp, but some of his followers ransacked the abandoned village of Battleford and attacked the fort. Despite their efforts at peace, both Big Bear and Poundmaker were tried for treason-felony and sentenced to three years in prison.
Group photographed during the trial that came after the Northwest Rebellion, 1885. Front row, left to right: Horse Child (son of Big Bear), Big Bear, Alex D. Stewart (Chief of Hamilton police), and Poundmaker
Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney, Chief Piapot and his warriors, and the Montreal Garrison Artillery, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1885
Soldier Boys, by David Richards, Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1993, 254 p. Ages 11 to 15
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