How Doukhobors Build Railways, 1906

Manitoba Morning Free Press

In the early 1900’s, many hundreds of Doukhobor men worked as “navvies” or manual labourers in railroad construction to earn much-needed income for their community. At first, they were hired individually by railroad companies to perform this demanding and difficult work. Eventually, the Doukhobor “Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood” (CCUB), on behalf of its members, entered into contracts directly with railroad companies to carry out the work. The CCUB was awarded its first contract in September of 1905 to construct 17 miles of grade on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) line in the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle River valleys near St. Lazare, Manitoba. This contract involved some of the heaviest work on the GTP line and took the CCUB nearly a year to complete. To carry it out, the CCUB mobilized over 1,000 men and 300 teams of horses and supplied all its own tools, equipment, food, fodder, supplies and shelter. The following article, published in the Manitoba Morning Free Press on June 30, 1906, describes a correspondent’s visit to one of the Doukhobor railroad construction camps near St. Lazare. It describes in detail the orderly and efficient manner in which the camps were operated to support the Doukhobors’ railroad building. 

Foxwarren, Man., June 27 – Your correspondent was one of a number that took a drive out from here to the Doukhobor railroad construction camps, a distance of about eleven miles to St. Lazare, where the road is first seen, and then four miles up the Qu’Appelle River to the end of the Doukhobor contract, which is seventeen miles – thirteen miles in the Assiniboine valley and the above four miles in the Qu’Appelle valley. This last is all completed but a few days’ work at each end; consequently, all the outfit but two camps have moved down into the Assiniboine valley on the east side of the river.

The most westerly camp was the first one visited. Here the first man interviewed was the man who goes back and forward to see that the grade is kept straight. The Doukhobors have no boss and no man gets more wages than another. This man proved to be a very amiable host, as his English was very good and consequently a lot of information was gathered.

Doukhobor railway construction crew, 1907. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

“How many men have you here?” was the first question asked this well-built, fine-looking man. “About eighty,” was the reply, and in answer to the question, “How many camps are there along the seventeen miles of your contract?” his reply was, “Eleven, with a total of about 975 men in all.” It was also learned that they expect to finish their contract in September.

The visitors were then asked if they would like to see through the encampment, which consisted of seven camps for the men to sleep in, one for the women to sleep in, one for the women, a store tent, besides kitchen, blacksmith shop and stables. When an affirmative reply was given, this Canadian Doukhobor kindly consented to show the party through, and we were soon escorted to the cook house, where the cook (who was also a fair English-speaking man) explained how his work was accomplished. He has a separate store for baking and another for cooking. His baking stove is made of stones and clay, the under part of both with a large dome-shaped top of clay above. A large fire is put in this rude [simple], but nevertheless cleverly-built stove, and made to burn till everything is thoroughly hot. Then it is taken out and the bread is substituted. Three hours are taken to cook after the fire is removed, owing to the loaves being so very large.

Grading railway prior to laying track. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

The stove where the soup (which, with bread, is their chief food) is prepared, is built up square with small, short poplar logs, and this is filled in with earth. Next stones about 10 inches in diameter are placed all around the edge, excepting the front, and on them is laid a large, heavy piece of sheet iron, on which the kettles are set to boil. About eight or nine large kettles will heat at once. Then the genial cook exhibited a loaf of his bread, and although not so light as other bread, it to all appearances would be quite eatable. The tables were constructed after the style of picnic tables, and were out in the open air, but a tent is being made to put over them.

From the cook house to the blacksmith shop, and here was met another sociable Douk[hobor], who explained how he made his own coal. He excavates a large hole in the ground, in which he puts a balm of gilead [a variety of poplar tree] poles. Over this is built a roof, practically air-tight, excepting enough draught to keep the fire burning. This is left till there is nothing but charred coal, which is used profitably instead of the real article.

Doukhobor railway construction crew, 1910.  Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Next, the interesting guide took the party to the tent where the women lived – four of them – fine-looking, clean, jolly women, busy making the tent for the tables. They could speak comparatively no English, so the escort did the talking, but that made it no less interesting. The women do no cooking or anything connected with the eatables; their work is to wash and sew, and when the four women do this for eighty men, they have not many idle hours. Their style of sewing is entirely different to the Canadian style, as they hold their needle point back and their thimble on the first finger. The Doukhobors have their own cows and the above work and milking the cows completes the duties of the women.

The party was then taken up to the grade, where the carts and wheelbarrows were working, and this scene closely resembled a hive of bees. The wheelbarrow men have plank walks built up to the dump, and there is a continual stream upward and back, passing on to the wagons. It was here where one got an idea of the care given to the horses. Everyone is in fine shape, the dapples showing plainly on their glossy hides, and this in an outdoor stable, with no sides and only tent cloth for roof. The work of one man is to prepare food for these horses. The baled hay is chopped and soaked, and this, with about a gallon and a half of oats, comprises the diet of the equines. The road here, four miles up grade, is barely one-third of the way up the hill.

Leaving the foreign friends, the party drove down the Qu’Appelle valley, along the completed grade, and to say that these uneducated Russians are good road-builders is putting it mild – they are simply experts. Large cuts and big grades are all built with the same accuracy, and are as level and straight as the sight. There is no carelessness or recklessness among these men, none whatsoever. Arriving at the camp, on the banks of the Assiniboine, the same busy spectacle was witnessed. The men were just completing a grade 15 or 20 feet high and about a quarter of a mile long, reaching right to the waters of the murky Assiniboine.

The Doukhobors are a clever, clean class of people, and all they require is to intermingle with the many other nationalities of this broad land, and in time there will be nothing but Canadians for Canada. The interesting pictures mentioned above can be seen all along the river valley, and with the completion of this national transcontinental railroad, this country will undergo a complete transformation – thanks to the Dominion government and the G.T.P.


For More Information on Doukhobors as Railway Builders

For information on the difficult working conditions of Doukhobor navvies on the Manitoba and Northwest Railway near Swan River, Manitoba in 1899, see The 1899 Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Dispute with the Doukhobors by Victor O. Buyniak. For a story of how one French-Canadian family obtained extra income selling foodstuffs to Doukhobor navvies on the Grand Trunk Railway near St. Lazare, Manitoba in 1905-1906, see the Belhumeur Homepage by Larry Quinto. To find out how the Doukhobor Community built a 30-mile grade between Canora and Yorkton, Saskatchewan for the Grand Trunk Railway in 1910, see Doukhobor Development in the Ebenezer District by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Finally, for a list of 86 Doukhobor navvies constructing the grade for the Canadian Northern Railway between Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan and The Pas, Manitoba in 1911, see the 1911 Canada Census District 212, Sub-District 1, pages 2122.