The Case of the Missing Iron

I’m sipping hot, black, acidic liquid mixed with the processed cream from a cow’s teet (Not tit, that’s derogatory).  The curtains are drawn (does that mean open or closed?)  The curtains are open.  I have one hand on my coffee, one hand on my keyboard, one eye on the screen, and one eye looking outside.

It’s the kind of day that makes me want to close the lid of this laptop and go outside.

It’s the kind of day that the founders of this country would have appreciated.  Catching that little whiff of spring signalled to them that the long, cold winter was behind them and life would soon become more bearable.

They were living amongst the trees and animals and the Rockies and the rivers.  The landscape they saw from their own backyards was that of a Group of Seven painting.

Soon there would be a threat to the majesty of the great nation.  A sound on the horizon that was in sharp contrast to the call of the loon or the chattering of squirrels.

It was the sound of the iron horse and it was coming to Canada.

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago (Or six score and eighteen years ago, if you prefer) the inhabitants of this newly formed Dominion called Canada embarked upon an undertaking to join the country from coast to coast with a ribbon of steel.  The man with the plan was Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada.  A syndicate of money men came up with the funds and The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated.

MacDonald pledged to have the coast-to-coast railway completed in ten years.  They did it in four.

That was the part of the story that was giving my friend NotOvine a little trouble.  He wondered how a country of only about three million was able to complete such a project in such a short time.  He argued that there are streets in his city that they can’t get fixed in four years.

“Times are different,” I told him, “They could get a lot more done back then.”

And I started to explain my point of view:

There were crooked dealings and government corruption back then (Okay, times weren’t that different).  It was easier to come up with money and favours.

The contractors were allowed to use Chinese labour to complete the project.  The workers were paid unfairly and given the most dangerous and difficult jobs.  Some 15,000 workers came to Canada to build the railroad.

“But,” NotOvine said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Where did they get the resources?  Who made the iron rails?”  Who made the railroad spikes?  What about the long winters?”

So I thought about it.  I did some exploratory internet searches.  I did some deeper internet searches.  All I found was fluff.  No details.  I watched a documentary.  Then two.  The story of our railroad revolved around the politics behind getting it started and the unfair use of Chinese labourers (not Canada’s best moment – more about that here).  On every internet resource I found, I saw this photo called the “Last Spike”:


A bunch of money men and railway hot shots posing for a photo op.

NotOvine was right.  There was something missing from this story.  Nothing I have found online talks about the iron or the railway ties (sleepers, if you’re British).

So I did something I haven’t done in a long time.  I went to the library.

There were two or three promising books about the Canadian Pacific Railway, but they were either checked-out or missing.

I did find a book called The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar.  The tagline: The History of Trains in America.  Maybe this book could shed some light.  It did, well, sort of.

In the introduction, the author states, “I have ignored the Canadian and Mexican railroads, although they are in a way part of the same interconnected system…”

So much for finding any examples specific to the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Okay.  This is the Case of the Missing Iron.  So let’s find out where that came from.  I looked up Iron in the index.  Nope.  I looked up rails:  Iron-covered, L-shaped, steel, toothed, T-shaped.

I learned about how the initial rails in America were made of wood.  This was no good when trains got heavier, so metal strips were strapped to the top.  Heavier trains were causing these to fly off.  These “snakeheads” could pierce the wooden floors of passing coaches.

Back to the drawing board.  Eventually, it was decided to use the T-shaped style of iron rails which were already in use in Britain.  At first, the demand for these could not be satisfied by production in the United States, so they were imported from Britain.

In 1845, the Montour Iron Works of Danville started pumping out the T-rails in Pennsylvania.

Good.  Great.  Grand.  Wonderful.  But what about Canada?

Construction of the CPR did not begin until 1881, so did we import the iron from the United States?  Were we reliant on British supplies?  Did we have an industry of our own?

There is plenty of data that talks about the booming mining industry after the railway was constructed.  I have not been able to find anything that shows where the iron for the tracks came from and who rolled it into rails.

This is weird.  We think that the green stones for Stonehenge came from such and such a quarry 170 miles away, and the blue ones probably came from Northern Wales.  We know that the Temple of Jupiter’s foundation was quarried from about a mile away.  Almost every ancient site has a theory of where the rocks were dug up, but a track less than two centuries old…no data?

Apparently, we know where the United States got their iron rails from.

I’m going to invoke the f-word pretty soon if I can’t find out where the fricking fudge we came up with three thousand plus kilometres worth of iron rail for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

This is supposed to be our crowning achievement.  It is our symbol of unity, the project that joined Canadians from sea to sea.  There should be more information about this.  The iron was the MAIN COMPONENT of the whole thing.

I can’t find a single detail about an iron mine or a foundry.  Not an artist’s rendering or a black and white photo.  Not a wagon full of rails with a caption saying, “These were produced by Johnson and Sons Iron Foundry in Quebec City.”  Nothing.  Nada.

If I don’t find something soon, I’m going to assume ancient aliens came down and laid this track for us.

It’s the Case of the Missing Iron and I need your help.  Historians.  Canadians.  Wayne Gretzky.  Anybody, please help.

Tomorrow, join me for The Case of the Missing Ten Million Railroad Ties.  I have no idea who produced these either.



8 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Iron

  1. Someone made a LOT of money on that steel. There cannot be that many successful steel companies from that era… ones capable of that kind of production. Why not check their histories starting from the railway’s conception… or, maybe newspapers from that era…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the tips. I’ve been looking all day. I found an essay from 1937 that says the steel came from England, but no specific companies mentioned. I’ll keep up the search.


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