Cowboys that helped drive Pat Burns’s cattle to this area’s railway construction camps in 1913 pause for a meal near the Burns Lake telegraph cabin. (Submitted/Lakes District News)

Cowboys that helped drive Pat Burns’s cattle to this area’s railway construction camps in 1913 pause for a meal near the Burns Lake telegraph cabin. (Submitted/Lakes District News)

The food solutions during the construction of the Railway

How Pat Burns & Co. solved a huge problem for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway

  • Oct. 7, 2020 12:00 a.m.

© 2019 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway through the wilderness of Northern British Columbia presented the project’s prime contractors, Foley, Welch & Stewart, with a host of problems. Not only did the company have to hire and transport men to the work sites, but it also had to feed them.

Getting food to the construction sites was difficult. Initially, pack trains carried staples to temporary camps established along the right-of-way; later, after the route had been cleared, wagons and sleighs hauled mountains of grub over crude roads built through the bush.

The quality of food in the camps was often poor, and fresh meat was always in short supply. On several occasions during construction, camp cuisine was so bad that men walked off the job. Foley, Welch & Stewart responded to these incidents by threatening to withdraw food supplies altogether – thus earning the nickname “Fool ’em, Work ’em and Starve ’em.”

Yet with every crisis comes opportunity. Calgary businessman Pat Burns was quick to realize that there was a profit to be made supplying meat to the construction crews.

Burns, who’d been brokering livestock for years, had access to plenty of cattle, but still had the problem of getting them to the camps. Initially, the animals were transported to Vancouver, slaughtered, and then shipped to Prince Rupert. From there, the carcasses were put on riverboats and transported to the head of navigation on the Skeena River, at which point they were loaded on pack horses and wagons for the final journey to the camp kitchens. This proved to be problematic, because there were no refrigeration systems in operation at the time.

Burns solved the dilemma by making the cattle responsible for their own transportation. He bought them by the thousands and drove the animals overland to Foley, Welch & Stewart’s construction camps.

Pat Burns & Co. became the primary supplier of meat to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. To accommodate the herds, corrals were constructed at every eatery along the right of way. The animals were penned upon arrival, fed, and shot only when needed.

In 1913, a contractor for Pat Burns & Co. named Bill Jasper brought 300 head overland from Kamloops to the Lakes District. The animals were ferried across the Nechako River, driven to this area, and then transported by scow across Burns and Decker lakes.

William Gow, an operator for the Yukon Telegraph, was on hand to witness the event. He photographed the herd as cowboys drove them past his telegraph cabin in what is now Richmond Loop.

One hundred of the animals were left at the camp near Burns Lake and a similar number near the settlement at Decker. They supplied the area with meat for the remainder of the summer.

Burns Lake Lakes District News

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