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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mileage 615.1 becomes Chapleau as Canadian Pacific Railway contruction makes impossible dream a reality

Chapleau Plan 1886. courtesy Ian Macdonald
Just imagine for a moment that you were moving to Chapleau as the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks were nearing Mileage 615.1. The train stops seven miles east of the fledgling community, and you are told that is the end of the road. Pack up your belongings and children and walk the rest of the way pushing a cart that is provided. Or, perhaps, you might have enjoyed the experience of walking the entire CPR line from Sudbury to Chapleau, and maybe even as far as Port Arthur, a distance of about 2,000 miles.
 Maybe you were coming to Chapleau from James Bay by canoe with some family members walking along the shore as there was only limited room in the small crafts. Just imagine!

You have learned that Sir John A. Macdonald's government had decided to turn the impossible dream into a reality. Across this vast land called Canada, a nation only since 1867, a transcontinental railway was being built to link it from sea to sea. The Canadian Pacific Railway would stretch from settled sections of the young nation, through the forests, muskeg and rock of Northern Ontario; across the flat lands of the Prairies; through the Rocky Mountains into the valleys of British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.

First station. courtesy Ian Macdonald
 Welcome to Chapleau. In 1885, instructions were given to put a spur for a car to be set out at Mileage 615.1 on the CPR line, which was in the centre of the new community of Chapleau. This car became the first station, office building and train dispatcher's office. In no time, or so it seemed, a roundhouse with turntable and water tank had been built. A station and office building were under construction and Chapleau had become a town made up of surplus boxcars and tents with a population of about 400 people, ninety-five percent of them men as 1886 began.

 Reports from the time indicate that the first winter was very strenuous for the early citizens of the community. That is really an understatement as they had left their old way of life to build a new one far from any comforts they might have known. Apparently it was also one of those bitterly cold winters, to which Chapleau citizens became accustomed, and disease was also rampant.

 Lambert Lafrance arrived in Chapleau in 1885 and was joined by his wife Adele Roy and children in 1886. According to a biography of Father Albert Burns, their grandson, the train stopped seven miles east of Chapleau and they had to walk the rest of the way pushing a cart with all their worldly belongings. Members of the family still live in Chapleau.

 Rev. Gowan Gillmor, commonly called 'The Tramp' because apparently on many occasions he walked the railway track from Sudbury to Chapleau and on one occasion at least to Port Arthur. Rev. Gillmor, who was in Chapleau in late 1885, conducted a meeting in the partially completed CPR station which resulted in the decision to proceed with the building of St. John's Anglican Church. The first St. John's was on the old tennis court and was opened and dedicated on July 1, 1886 with Rev. Gillmor in attendance.

 As an aside Rev. Gillmor was also instrumental in the establishment of Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury where Thomas Corston was the rector before becoming Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Moosonee. As many readers will know, Tom was born and raised in Chapleau, the son of Frances (Jardine) and the late Henry 'Chicken' Corston.

 Rev. Gillmor provided an insight into his life and the situation along the CPR line. "I ministered to the construction people numbering about 5,000, holding services as I went along in camps, shanties and box cars and sleeping in these overnight; my experiences were the roughest. These people were from all parts of America and Europe. "Typhoid fever was the scourge of railway construction. Hospitals (Note: Not in any sense, a hospital as we would know one today) were filled with the sick and dying. My experiences ... were varied, solemn and awful."

For many years, he literally lived with the railway men, often pushed a handcar from section house to section house, drank tea from the same pan, ate green bacon from the same plate and often slept under the same blanket, according to Archbishop Robert J. Renison. Although First Nation people had travelled through the Chapleau area, they now began to move to the new community and settle there. Although Rev. John Sanders, perhaps the first aboriginal Anglican priest in Canada, never lived in the the community, members of his family have moving from James Bay by canoe. One of his trips after becoming based at Mattagami, was to go to Flying Post and then reach the Loon (Borden) Lake portage to the Chapleau River into Chapleau. He did conduct services at Chapleau.

 Although there were a number of Roman Catholic Jesuit priests in Chapleau, Father Louis Cote may have been the first to live in Chapleau, and helped establish Sacred Heart Church.

 Notwithstanding the horrendous challenges facing them in the beginning, by the summer of 1886, the tents and shacks which had comprised "Old Chapleau" -- a term used by the settlers to distinguish it from the "New Chapleau" -- were being replaced with permanent structures. The thoroughfares of the community were being set out, as land was cleared and replaced the forests.

John Young who became Earl of Lisgar
 The CPR prepared a diagram of the community including the streets -- north and south after Governors General of Canada and east and west after trees. Interestingly, and I only discovered it as I was examining a copy of the diagram, provided to me by Ian Macdonald, Chapleau has two streets named after the same Governor General -- Young and Lisgar. John Young became the Earl of Lisgar.

 Meanwhile, general stores were established as well as private residences. The CPR had completed its station and office building. It had also built a general store, fueling plant, freight sheds, two boarding houses and residences for local officials. Life was not easy. For example in 1888 an outbreak of diptheria struck and several, including young children, died during the epidemic. Fire was also a constant threat.

 However, these amazing pioneers, who really did carve a community out of the wilderness, never looked back as they established churches, a school, curling and skating rinks, a town band, sports teams, organizations, businesses, and continued to lay the foundations of their community in so many ways despite the obstacles.

 By 1901, with the leadership provided by George Brecken Nicholson, as the first reeve, Chapleau became incorporated as a municipality, and continued to move forward, demonstrating so often that the greatest resource any community has is its people.

 Ian Macdonald, who is always so helpful, has kindly agreed to share his research into the building of Chapleau in a future column. Ian who lived in Chapleau and attended Chapleau Public and Chapleau High schools also worked for the CPR. He is retired head of the department of architecture and professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. My email is mj.morris@live.ca

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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