(Six years after the crash of the stock market in 1929, a quixotic cross-country adventure threw a harsh light on all the misery engendered by short-sighted political response to the economic collapse. Here, The Chesterfield breathes life into one pivotal moment in a momentous protest that surprised even its members — while galvanizing a nation.")
Certain geometries of arm, leg and spine are ill-advised, uncomfortable soon enough and agony soon after.
As the train eased into the station above the milky, mineral rush of the Kicking Horse River, the ranks of men atop the freight cars gratefully unkinked knees, unlocked fingers clinging to narrow catwalks, raised rumps blistered by weathered timber during the bone-rattling ride from Golden. The hiss of steam from the slowing locomotive might have been a collective sigh of relief.
The men clambered down, taking turns on the brakeman’s ladders at the ends of the boxcars, and formed loose ranks beside the tracks. It took time. There were almost 1300 of them now, 25 or so on the roof of each car, 50 cars stretching back beyond the outskirts of the tiny CPR outpost. They stood before a modest log train depot — Field, said the sign above the platform — and looked up at a genteel jumble of turrets and gables overshadowed by a great grey peak. Once a retreat for European gentry on rustic Rocky Mountain jaunts, Mt. Stephen House had been reduced to warehousing CPR crews in the six years since the market crashed.
There had been vats of coffee in Golden before embarkation that morning, anoeven ther blessing marshalled by Ma Sorley. The day before, Mary Ella Sorley, Golden’s most colourful Bolshevist, had induced hard-pressed townsfolk to contribute the makings of the biggest feed of Mulligan stew the Kootenays had ever seen. A dozen washtubs of beef, mutton, carrots and spuds had simmered over open fires in the pine glade where the men made camp. Half the town had turned out to dine with the travellers; the day had taken on the air of a church social. The welcome had warmed the hearts of the men as much as filled their bellies.
Now, Ma Sorley’s coffee was impressing itself on their bladders. On this stop, however, relief had to be forestalled.
Most of the riders were within hailing distance of adolescence, but there were a few old enough to have seen action in France. The old-timers had counselled specific precautions for the ordeal ahead. So, before unbuttoning or unbuckling, the men pulled bandannas from necks, or kerchiefs from overall pockets. Others reached into rucksacks to tear strips from shirts.
A few must have paused to turn troubled gazes to the station platform, where two men in brown serge and flat-brimmed Stetsons stood waiting. Not nearly enough Mounties to be seen as a threat to what newspapers were now affectionately calling“the hobo army,” but enough to warrant caution. Especially now that Slim was gone.
Arthur “Slim” Evans was a zealous, uncompromising labour organizer since before the war. Gimpy from a bullet he had taken during the 1913 massacre of striking miners at John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Ludlow, Colorado, mine, he had once been briefly jailed for diverting union dues to starving strikers instead of sending the cash to union headquarters.
Slim had reluctantly left the trek in Golden, recalled by the Workers’ Unity League. His union bosses had never warmed to the harebrained scheme of shipping hundreds of striking relief camp workers across the country to confront federal politicians on their home turf. The Communist-run Workers’ Unity League had been tickled with the positive publicity for socialist causes the young men had won during seven weeks of carefully orchestrated grandstanding in Vancouver. But as the goodwill generated by the strike waned, the League had expected the men to quietly disperse back to the same gulag-like camps they had left in protest.
Life in relief camps was effective imprisonment: rough living in remote locations, and long days of meaningless labour for 20 cents a day. This “temporary” response to the economic times — more about the containment of young, disaffected men than relief — had lasted years. Thousands of lives had been put on indefinite hold. There were few alternatives to the camps if you were youngand unemployed, conditions that had been pretty much synonymous for years. Nobody was anxious to go back.
So when one man rose from the glum herd at what should have been the final meeting of relief camp strikers at Vancouver’s Avenue Theatre late that May, and suggested taking the protest to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’sdoorstep — a project that would entail hundreds of men riding rough on the roofs of box cars across 2000 miles of narrow mountain passes, searing prairie and bug-plagued backwoods — the audacity of the notion at first startled, and then galvanized, the crowd. “On to Ottawa,” they cried and, one by one, voices took up one of those rousing old gospel songs purloined by the labour movement, untilthe auditorium shook with a baritone rumble: “Hold the fort for we are coming. Union men, be strong! Side by side we battle onward; Victory will come.”
Standing on the dais that evening, witness to the precipitous clamour, Slim had to have known his union would be appalled. He was not even a little inclined to dampen the enthusiasm.
The truth is, the moonstruck notion should never have gotten off the ground. Riding the rails was illegal and, more to the point, perilous. If the railroads bulls didn't stave in your noggin, the chancy physics of swinging 160 pounds of hobo onto a moving boxcar might kill you anyway. Hundreds of men swarming railway yards would be hard to miss.
So when Canadian Pacific Railway announced it would be happy to accommodate the strikers on an east-bound freight, Slim knew something was up. Well-padded men in tailored pinstripes had decided the strikers’ delicate fraternity, stretched thin over long weeks in Vancouver, would snap after a day of riding rough. Meanwhile, Vancouver would be rid of them, to the relief of the city’s embattled mayor, Gerry McGeer.
Only the strikers resolve hadn’t wavered. They had toughed out a cold welcome in Kamloops and been revived by the outpouring of affection in Golden. The true test of their mettle, however, was just a few miles up the track from the Field depot. It was what the Mounties had come to warn the men about. It was why Slim Evans’ communist bosses had ordered him back to Vancouver before they were implicated in a tragedy. It was why the men now turned their backs to the Mounties, pulled out their plumbing and urinated into their handkerchiefs.
The precaution was next to useless. Urine-soaked rags may have helped during chlorine attacks in the mud of France, but they could not neutralize the deadly cloud of carbon dioxide, arsenic, choking ash and hot cinders that would soon envelop the men.
Since 1909, the CPRhad crossed the Continental Divide by means of a prodigious piece of engineering. Two looping tunnels, each as long an 10 football fields, had been cut through the limestone peaks on either side of the Kicking Horse Pass. Trains climbing from Field passed through one loop and doubled back to the other. The switchback made the steep pass traversable, but for long minutes the the tunnels were choked with dense, hot coal smoke, alive with embers.
It was the custom of hobos to leap off the train before the first tunnel and climb to the mouth of the second to await another ride. The strikers wouldn’t have this option, however; they were too many. They either gave up and were sent back to the camps, or rode willingly into a sulphurous hell, smoke thick around them them, burning their throats and filling their lungs. Retching, weeping and gagging were a given, passing out a deadly possibility.
Some of the men looked at each other; others lifted their eyes to the mountains ahead. Then, with almost military discipline, they lined lined up in ranks to mount the brakeman’s ladders, found perches along the catwalk, arranged their limbs in familiar positions of torment. There was no turning back.
They could not know it then, but beyond the tunnels, the strikers would become folk heroes. Their numbers would swell and their trek would inspire crowds of well-wishers whose support would overwhelm any official censure in the cities and towns they passed through. Slim Evans would be allowed to rejoin them.
They could not know that further up the track, the Ottawa politicians they had intended to confront would derail the strike with malice and deception. Or that in a Regina market square, 2000 kilometres from their starting point, an ambush by scores of mounties and city police would abruptly turn them into what authorities had said they were all along: violent agitators.
The strikers would never reach their destination, but would not fail their cause. Within months of the riot in Regina, the architects of the relief camps would be turfed out of Ottawa in a federal election.
As the train entered the first tunnel, 1300 men ducked their heads and raised acrid-smelling bandanas to their faces, riding miserably into history.