On March 20, I wrote this post about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The question I could not answer was, “Where did the iron for the railroad tracks actually come from?”
Everyone had an answer for me, but no one had the proof.
You see, my queries about a one-hundred and forty-year-old railroad track were taking up too much of people’s precious Game of Thrones watching time. Like moths to the flame, they were too distracted with all the bright screens all around to focus on the question that had been keeping me up at night.
I would have to talk to a historian, someone who lived and breathed this stuff. But first I would check with my Pops. Since I had already been to the library, and could only find info about the railways in the United States (and not much about the steel and iron), I asked my Dad what he had in his collection.
He had ten or so books about the railroad, some Canadian, some U.S. The books had some interesting pictures, but nothing showing big piles of iron or steel rails. Once again, there was no mention of where the metal came from.
“Thanks anyway, Dad.”
My search continued.
A buddy of mine was able to dig up his Canadian History textbooks for me. I regret to say I have not had a chance to pick them up yet. My guess is that they will be more focused on the politics around the railway, than the specific source of the steel, but you never know.
In the meantime, I reached out to the Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. They had posted a picture of a train on Instagram, so I thought maybe someone there could help me out.
Their response was that the rail came from various mills in the UK and Europe. That is actually what my Dad thought as well, but I was looking for cold, hard evidence. Was it really possible that the rail just showed up here, without a paper trail? I had to keep searching.
I resumed Googling as I had been for several days. Finally, I found something promising. The Central Alberta Railway Heritage Preservation website has a picture of a 3-foot section of rail with the following inscription, “B V & Co. 1890 C & E R”. The website goes on to explain the rail was manufactured by Bolckow, Vaughan & Co, a rolling mill in Middlesborough, Great Britain.
Now, the CPR was completed in 1885, so this rail couldn’t be one of the original rails, but the same mill might have also produced those. At least I had one more search term to type into my browser.
So I did and I found this amazing resource: Journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada
The journals document the political activity at the time. They include letters, the results of items put to a vote, and accounting ledgers. Since the main project in the country at the time was the railroad, there are many ledgers that specify where the iron for the railway came from.
The journals are broken down by year and are downloadable in .PDF format. When I searched the journals between 1881 and 1885 (The years spanning the railway’s construction), I found several hits for Bolckow, Vaughan & Co. I also found that what my Dad and the museum curator were saying was true – the rail came from multiple sources in Great Britain (and in a small part, Canada).
It would take months to digest these journals, and although they are interesting to read, I will probably not be reading them in full. I was able to pull out several names of manufacturers and importers of iron (see below). This is enough to satisfy me that the iron did not materialize out of thin air (as it seemed previously) and that indeed I have solved The Case of the Missing Iron.
I am still dumbfounded that the same humans who routinely suffer injuries from “Distracted Walking” were able to procure the materials, organize a mobile workforce, and build a three-thousand-plus-kilometre-long railway across some of the harshest environments imaginable (in just four years). Absolutely dumbfounded.
Anyway, here’s that list (albeit incomplete) of some importers and manufacturers of iron during the time of the building of the CPR:
- Coldbrook Rolling Mills (New Brunswick, Canada)
- Haws and Co (importer?)
- Clews, Habicht, and Co
- Guest & Co (manufacturer)
- Sanders Bros
- Fraser, Reynolds, and Co
- Bolckow, Vaughn, and Co (manufacturer – Middlesborough, Great Britain)
- Mersey Steel and Iron Co (manufacturer – Liverpool, Great Britain)
- Ebbw Vale Steel Iron and Coal Co
- S.S. Richmond – Cardiff to St.John