Gimli:125thanniversary, the railroad

The Gimli train station of my childhood. 
First, the Icelandic settlers came by flat boat, towed until a storm caused the captain to cut the line. The awkward flotilla was meant to land at Riverton where there’d be shelter from the storms on the lake but, instead, ended up on the swampy, sandy shore of Willow Point. I cannot imagine a more inhospitable place to land.
The sand bar that is Willow Point is open to the north wind that sweeps down from Hudson Bay. On the far side of this narrow strip is a lagoon. It provides a harbour but in high water the lake and the lagoon rise up from both sides. The sand bar itself is not tillable. The trees, when I was a child, were all scabby poplar, poor building wood and poor firewood. The marsh extended westward, only gradually rising, with even the land not underwater year around being boggy and soft. There was higher ground only a few miles north of Willow Point but with no boat to tow the barges, the settlers were trapped in an area exposed to wind from every side. The protection that would have been afforded by copses of spruce trees against both wind and drifting snow was close but not close enough.
They hurriedly built crude cabins, one for every stove, and spent the winter crammed together, waiting for spring.
The lake both, in open water and frozen over, was the first highway. The government then hired the settlers to cut a trail through the bush. Hard, unaccustomed work for men not used to cutting down trees, not used to using an axe, not used to thick bush.
 Travel was slow, only possible in good weather. Getting goods to the market in Winnipeg was difficult, sporadic, often impossible. 
But the Icelandic settlers had seen trains in Scotland. They’d seen the power of the railway and, in Eastern Canada the first public railway started in 1836. In 1856 there’s a railway between Toronto and Montreal. In 1863, the first railway is opened in western Canada. In 1871, four years before the Icelandic settlers arrived at Willow Point, British Columbia joined confederation. A stipulation was that a railway would be built to join the Pacific with the rest of Canada. The Icelandic Mormons had walked from the East Coast to Salt Lake City. People traveled by horse back, on wagons pulled by horses and oxen, in canoes and on sailboats and lake steamships but none were efficient in moving people and goods over great distances.

In 1877, the Countess of Dufferin steam engine was brought to Winnipeg to help build the railway line. It is the first locomotive on the prairies. In 1878 the first train reaches Winnipeg. The railway owners saw settlers as their potential customers, receiving and sending goods, paying the railway in both directions. They know there are fortunes to be made.

Drive from Winnipeg to Stonewall on Hwy 7. Look carefully at the land. High, not swampy, good to build on. Pay attention to the railway tracks. The railway reached Stonewall in 1881. That’s only six years after the Icelanders first landing on their windswept sandbar, only five years after they moved north to Gimli. Seventeen years later, in 1898, the railway reached Teulon. As you drive north, keep an eye on the land, on this high ridge created by Lake Agassiz. In 1907 the railway reached Kamarno. Nowadays, Kamarno is a handful of houses, a church, graveyard and a sculpture of a mosquito. But, in 1907, it was the end of the line, a place where goods could be picked up, where cordwood could be loaded for markets in Winnipeg. In 1910 the railway reached Arborg.
Railways are all about markets. No market, no railway. Not a big enough market, no railway. They live or die on passengers and freight. No one builds a railway for the fun of it or because it might be convenient for someone. Railways are built for profit. They cost enormous amounts to build and run. Land, grading, steel tracks, railway ties, track laying. The railways in Canada wanted settlers, settlers who would take land in the area of the railway line.
On the other side of the equation, settlers wanted railway lines. There was no point in producing goods: fish, grain, vegetables, cordwood, lumber, milk, cream, if it could not be shipped to a market that would buy it. To be bypassed was to be beggared.
In 1883 the railway reached Selkirk. It wasn’t until 1903 that it reached Winnipeg Beach. That was five years after the railway reached Teulon. For three years, Winnipeg Beach was the end of the line. All goods from New Iceland needed to be taken to Winnipeg Beach so they could be shipped by rail.
In my childhood, Winnipeg Beach was no longer the end of the line but the head start that it had got in 1903 had served it well. It had become an easily accessible summer resort. It had a boardwalk with rides and games. It had the Moonlight Special that brought people down to the large dance palace at the north end of the boardwalk. What it had lost was the business generated by people having to go there to ship produce to Winnipeg. 
The railway reached Gimli in 1906. The trip to the station was shorter, the time it took for a horse and wagon loaded with goods was shorter. Gimli, now that it was just a train ride from the city, became a summer resort. The train didn’t just provide the local Icelanders an opportunity to ship goods but also the Ukrainian settlers who also supplied cordwood. It also meant a market created by the people who built cottages, a local market for fresh farm goods, vegetables and fruit, eggs, chickens, milk, cream and, from the fishermen, fresh fish. With no middleman. The summer campers who came on the train also provided work for tradespeople, for cooks and babysitters, for all those things that better off city folk in a summer cottage needed and wanted.
Cordwood, though was the main cash producer. Winnipeg consumed vast amounts of wood for wood stoves and wood furnaces. The train was the cheapest and most efficient way to get it there.
For a time the C.P.R. considered extending the Winnipeg Beach line to Arborg. However, if that was done, the railway would not have been extended to Gimli. Instead it would have run along the gravel ridge that is five miles west of Gimli. Michael Ewanchuk says that this news sent the Icelandic businessmen in Gimli into a panic. That’s not surprising. In recent years, we’ve seen how building a highway west of the small towns of New Iceland has meant that businesses shut down. Transportation is critical.
There were two impediments two building the line from Winnipeg to Gimli. One was Willow Creek. The area on both sides of the creek was and is still marshy. Putting in a rail bed would be expensive. The other impediment was that there didn’t seem to be enough freight to support the line.
The Icelanders appealed to the Premier of Manitoba, R. P. Roblin and when that didn’t work, they approached the Federal Government. That got them an approval for the line.
 If the rail line had gone from Winnipeg Beach to Arborg, there was a good chance that a spur line would have been built to Gimli, although building it might have been expensive because of the marshy ground. 
Without the railway, Gimli would not have prospered. It would not have become a summer resort. It would not have become a transport hub. It wouldn’t have got the WWII airport because a rail connection was essential for both materials and personnel. The airport provided both jobs and business. When the airport closed, there was, temporarily, an industrial park on the airport property.
Today, there is a distillery just north west of Gimli. The daily passenger trains have long gone. Long rows of box cars are a thing of the past but the distillery still receives its supplies of materials by train.
 Team of horses moving house. You could move an entire town that way.
Barry Broadfoot, in his book, The Pioneer Years, includes a reminiscence about what happened to two towns that the railway bypassed. They were called Mountain City and Nelson. They were going concerns. Mountain City had stores, businesses and two hotels. There were general stores and a hardware store, a grist mill, a sawmill, blacksmith, harness shop, schoolhouse, homes and, he says, “even a Presbyterian church.” After the railway bypassed Mountain City, people put the buildings on skids and hauled them to the railway line.
No wonder the Gimli businessmen panicked. If the railway had gone from Winnipeg Beach to Arborg, it would have been necessary to put Gimli buildings on skids and move the town to a new site. Except, of course, Gimli was about fishing so the fishermen couldn’t move west. The summer cottagers wouldn’t have arrived. Who is going to build cottages at Gimli if it means getting off the train and having to take a long buggy ride to the beach?
It is hard to imagine what would have become of Gimli without the railway. Eventually, good roads would have been built but they might have been a long time coming.

Loftur: background notes INLreads

“Loftur” starts with Sigurbjörg, a pretty young girl being courted by a number of older men. She is pressured by her parents to choose one of them. This was very much the case. For a man to marry he had to have enough resources to prove that he could support a family. The minimum amount was four hundreds. Since the only means of support in Iceland was farming, that meant having enough land to support four cows or their equivalent. Few men could manage this before they were middle aged. 
S. E. Waller in his book, Six Weeks In The Saddle, gives a description of a wedding he attends where the groom is a fat, old man and the bride a pretty young girl. There was no birth control and families were often large. The houses were small, often with everyone sleeping in the same room, two to a bed, head to foot. 
Food was frequently in short supply, especially in the spring. When one could marry off a daughter to someone with land and cattle, it was an opportunity not to be missed. For the young woman, there were no other opportunities except taking work on a farm as a domestic servant. Not only was the work sheer drudgery but young women working on farms were often regarded as property like the cows and sheep and sexually exploited.
Sigurbjörg is fortunate. A young man, Páll, has inherited land and cattle and, although his holding is small, he can afford a wife. He wants to marry Sigurbjörg.
They marry but the scorned suitors decide to take revenge for their rejection. They hire a magician to capture the ghost of a man who has died during the Móðuharðindin, the death mist.

 The Móðuharðindin, the Mist Hardships of 1783-85 came after the Laki eruption. This was no tourist eruption like Eyjafjallajokull. Lava continued to flow for five months. But worse than that were the poisonous gases. Even if a lava flow is large, it is still localized. Poisonous gases can spread over vast distances. Florine and sulpher dioxide from the eruption destroyed and poisoned grazing areas. Some historians believe that 80 percent of the sheep and cows died. Eighty percent in a country where life depended on milk products. 

There were 50,000 people in Iceland at the time. Ten thousand of them died. Imagine what it would be like if, when Mr. St. Helens erupted, twenty percent of the population of North America died. In a small municipality like Gimli, Manitoba, with 8,000 residents, that would mean 1,600 people would die. How would we cope?

Loftur died at this time. Crazy times make people crazy and he is treated unjustly. Turned away from farm after farm, he dies of starvation and exposure. His angry ghost is vulnerable, available for revenge.
The belief in magic and magicians was wide spread. So was the belief in ghosts. Today, with the magic of antibiotics, surgical procedures, etc. we have little experience of death. In the 1800s there were four doctors for all of Iceland. Their medications were, on the whole, useless. Operations were largely confined to chopping off arms and legs. Diseases like measles and diphtheria killed people in massive numbers. Inoculations were not available. Poor nutrition weakened people and made them susceptible to disease. With death appearing suddenly, unexpectedly, frequently, it is no wonder that people believed in ghosts. How could people, losing loved one´s time and again, having their lives shattered, their hopes destroyed with a cold summer, a sunken row boat, an avalanche, an outbreak of smallpox, not believe that there were malevolent, unseen forces at work?
There were Móri and Skotta, male and female ghosts. There were sea ghosts and talking skeletons, ghosts for every occasion. These Icelandic ghosts weren´t like North American ghosts, like swamp gases, insubstantial. They were like flesh and blood, they ate, drank, fought, committed murder and mayhem. They could be called up and controlled, given tasks. Many of them were angry and why wouldn´t they be? There was lots to be angry about.
The farmers were not satisfied with having Loftur torment the young couple. They also started law suits against Páll. Their goal was to beggar the couple, have them separated and to have Sigurbjörg under their control. As paupers, neither Páll nor Sigurbjörg would have any legal rights. Accept help from the parish and all rights were extinguished until the money loaned for your keep was paid back. Sigurbjörg says she doesn’t want to have any children except Páll´s. She knows what is in store for her if they are made paupers. In some syslas, one third of the children were born out of wedlock. The attitude of some farmers toward young girls can be seen in Laxness´s novel, Paradise Reclaimed. Bjorn of Leirur, a wealthy, married farmer, travels the countryside buying sheep and cattle for the Scots and leaves a trail of pregnant young women behind. To make sure we understand that it is not just Bjorn, Bjorn´s friend, the sherrif says that he is kept busy having to find men to bribe to marry young women whom Bjorn and his friends have got pregnant. In Independent People the woman Bjartur of Summerhouses marries is pregnant with the child of the wealthy landowner´s son.
Páll and Sigurbjörg flee to North America. There, they escape the lawsuits but not Loftur. Times are hard but there are opportunities. The new world also creates new possibilities and solutions.
 When Pál and Sigurbjörg are talking about Loftur, they mention that with his bones were found a copy of The Passion Hymns. The Passíusálmar or Passion Hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson were frequently placed in a coffin. The hymns were well known, revered, and the fact that Loftur kept them with them all through his suffering means to Pál and Sigurbjörg that no matter what he did as he struggled to survive, he must still be redeemable.
Local histories frequently say that a newly arrived family stayed with so and so for the winter or until they could get their house built. The sharing of food is a common occurrence. In some ways, in the new world, kindness is more possible. 
As hard as pioneering was in Canada, the land was good, surpluses were possible. The struggle, as told by pioneers in books like Broadfoot’s The Pioneer Years, was because the settlers were naïve, inexperienced, not because the land was marginal. Hard, endless work in Iceland on poor land, subject to an unpredictable climate, often didn’t produce enough for people to survive. In Canada, a wide range of crops of grain and vegetables and fruit could be grown. Even the wilderness, once people learned about the plants and how to hunt and fish, provided abundance.
The ghosts who have come with the settlers, like their memories, gradually fade. The circumstances that gave rise to them have changed. You might say that like Loftur, there is a place for them, for people´s memories of past injustices, but it´s a new world and, although it is not perfect or anything like it, there has been food and shelter, slavery (indentured servitude, serfdom) has disappeared or mostly so, and it is possible to be at peace with the past.