Serving the Nation
Canadian Pacific Railway
Arrival of railway at White Horse, Yukon. Mrs. Z.T. Wood driving last spike. NWMP Superintendent Zachaery Taylor Wood standing with M.J. Heaney (Contractor of Railway), June 8, 1900.
The Mounted Police were called on to protect the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the early 1880s as the steel lines were laid across the Prairies and into the mountains of British Columbia. Serious crime was rare along the lines, likely because of the force's presence.
As the railway pushed west from Manitoba, the Mounted Police became increasingly involved. In 1881, construction employed some 4,000 men, "some of them exceptionally bad" in the opinion of one NWMP officer. The force made enormous efforts to prevent the smuggling of liquor into the hands of railway navvies.
When construction resumed in April 1883 (no work took place during the winter months), it was the signal for the Mounted Police to begin their work, too. From mid-April through the end of November 1883, some 376 miles (605 km) of track were laid. In the words of Commissioner Irvine, the work "taxed our resources and vigilance to the utmost."
Fort Calgary, 1885
The police followed the graders and track-layers as they inched their way across the West. It was important to maintain order among the workers, to prevent the importation of liquor, and to deter horse-stealing. At times, the NWMP helped the CPR by breaking up small strikes or protecting company property from striking workers. But it also averted trouble at Calgary, when complaints from workers about unpaid wages threatened to result in violence. The NWMP intervened and ensured that the men were paid.
With the railway came increased population and more work for the Mounted Police. In 1884, a Peace Preservation Act created a 20-mile (32-km) buffer zone on either side of the railway, but the navvies themselves were a challenge.
The Mounted Police followed construction of the CPR into British Columbia where an ugly confrontation between rioting workers and police took place at the end of track in April 1885. When the men were not paid, they called a strike. When Constable J. Kerr attempted to arrest the ringleader, "a well known desperado" named Behan, the policeman was attacked by strikers. Retreating to barracks, Sergeant William Fury and three men returned to confront the strikers, at least 200 in number. Only when Sam Steele ordered Fury to shoot and wound a striker did the confrontation end. The NWMP investigated the non-payment of wages, the funds were forthcoming within the week and further trouble was avoided.
The completion of the CPR was important to Canada, and certainly to Macdonald's plan for the country. Its speedy construction was guaranteed by the presence of the Mounted Police. It also made the movement of new recruits easier and more efficient. Before the CPR's completion, all new recruits traveled west through the United States, a long and often perilous journey by ship, rail, steamboat (on the Missouri River) and finally, an overland trek from Benton, Montana to Fort Walsh. This incredible journey for new recruits was now a thing of the past.