The NWMP & the Railways

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.


There was an unwritten rationale for the implementation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) force in 1874, and it is not a surprising one.  British Columbia was owed a railroad, as terms for entering Confederation.  But those rails had to cross the newly opened territories of the plains, a wild land where the Canadian government had yet come to terms with the First Nations residents.  Sir John A. Macdonald’s western policy required a civilizing force; not only to deal with American traders, but to preserve law, and to show the flag when required.  The Police were there to prepare peaceful conditions for the laying of tracks across the prairies.


The fact was apparently short after the NWMP’s arrival to Fort Edmonton in 1874.  Residents of Fort Edmonton believed that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) would come through their vibrant fur-trading community, but in 1875, when Inspector William D. Jarvis received authorization to build an NWMP fort nearby, he chose not to build it anywhere near the Hudson’s Bay Company fort.  With a keen eye to engineering demands of a coming trans-continental railroad, Jarvis had the fort built 20 miles downstream from Fort Edmonton where the river cliffs were gentler.  As the Fort Edmonton resident’s fumed, Jarvis built Fort Saskatchewan purely with trains in mind.  But by 1881, with the transcontinental railway under construction, northern settlements like Edmonton, Prince Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, and Battleford were disappointed to find the actual route was modified again to not run anywhere near their communities.  For Fort Saskatchewan, the only railroad they would get was the Canadian Northern Railway, and that didn’t occur until 1905!


It was presumed that the railway would travel through the rich “Fertile Belt” of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and cross the Rocky Mountains via the Yellowhead Pass, a route suggested by Sir Sandford Fleming based on a decade of work.  However, the CPR quickly discarded this plan in favor of a more southerly route across the arid Palliser’s Triangle in Saskatchewan and via Kicking Horse Pass and down the Field Hill to the Rocky Mountain Trench.  This route was more direct and closer to the American border, making it easier for the CPR to keep American railways from encroaching on the Canadian market.  The sudden change of the route caused other changes as well – the newly formed North-West Territories in 1870 capital was even moved from Winnipeg to Regina.  Its location was chosen by Edgar Dewdney, the territorial lieutenant-governor. Dewdney had reserved for himself substantial land adjacent to the CPR line on the site of what became the town, and thereby considerably enriched himself.  This was the occasion of a considerable scandal in the early days of the Territories.


Constructing the railroad was an arduous process.  The influx of thousands of laborers to the plains, and the reality of boomtowns that popped literally out of the prairie, gave a new mission to the NWMP.  The ‘end of the track’ camp that moved with the railway’s progress west created special problems relating to gambling, liquor, labour disputes, and prostitution.  In response, CPR and the federal government were able to have assigned a special ‘end of the track’ detachment of NWMP that would enforce the rule of the law among the railway workers.  The contingent was led by Superintendent Sam Steele.  The NWMP drew upon the Canada Temperance Act, and the Public Works Peace Preservation Act to patrol & enforce a corridor of 20 miles (32 kilometers) on either side of the route.  Challengers to the authority ensued, as many wily bootleggers snuck liquor into the corridor; in baggage, cartons of eggs, canned vegetables, pork, barrels, and even locomotive boilers!  Though Steele thought it was an ‘detestable duty’, the need for peace and order along the route ruled over the worker’s need for an drink.  With the economic hazards that the CPR board of Directors had to deal with, the harsh reality that workers may occasionally go unpaid led to strikes, and threats of violence.  Construction money was tight, and that often held up railway construction materials being delivered to the work site.  The government recognized the political fallout if the railway would fail, which increased the pressure on the NWMP to keep the peace between CPR and the grumbling workers.  In 1883, Sam Steele acted against a labor strike of 130 laborers at Maple Creek, arresting the troublemakers while other prompt steps were taken to suppress the revolt.  The NWMP had to add to their many duties the role of ‘strikebreaker’.


That same year, economic conditions led to the CPR reducing the wages of locomotive engineers.  The engineers struck for wage restoration, and the NWMP was called in to protect railway property from being damaged.  But the Mounties ended up in other capacities, and some of them even ran trains during the strike!  When other workers tried to interfere and stop the trains, in sympathy for the striking engineers, they were surprised by the NWMP.  Superintendent William Herchmer surprised them at the rail yards, and the NWMP ‘proceeded to clear the premises with loaded rifles in hand’.  Despite the unusual role the Mounties performed, Sgt. Fitzpatrick reported ‘Our men took charge to some of the mail trains, and ran them from Winnipeg to Calgary.  It was strange, but our group seemed to possess men who could almost do anything when the situation demanded it’.  It was an odd relationship, but for CPR it was effective.  The engineers returned back to their jobs but the wage problem still lingered.


In April 1884 Steele was assigned to accompany the CPR into British Columbia.  He had no doubt that the completion of the railway was a work of national importance and that his job was to further that work by any means at his disposal. He increased his power by having Ottawa double the area of federal jurisdiction over the construction route, from 20 miles on each side of the track to 40 miles (64 kilometers).  In the spring of 1885, at Beaver (Beavermouth), B.C., in the Selkirk Mountains, a serious labour dispute developed over non-payment of wages by subcontractors.  Gravely ill with fever, Steele rose from his sickbed to read the Riot Act to an angry mob of strikers and, though he was armed, he dispersed them through sheer force of personality.  The action was pure Sam Steele, though it should be noted that major discrepancies exist between the official reports he wrote at the time of the strike and his published reminiscences many years later.  The strike had escalated to the point of violence in part because Steele’s detachment had been stripped of men to respond to the crisis on the prairies created by Louis Riel‘s proclamation of a provisional government in March.


The breakout of the North-West Rebellion called forth troops to put down the revolt, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was called on to assist.  CPR general manager William Van Horne pulled out all the stops and spared no expense to move the troops on his tracks.  Before the main forces arrival, it fell to the NWMP and local militia to keep a lid on the situation.  Superintendent William Herchmer was instructed to organize an ‘flying column’ and gathered fifty of his best men to board an special CPR train that would take them from Calgary to Swift Current to guard the river crossing, to Medicine Hat where the CPR bridge and steamboat flotilla needed security, back to Swift Current to stem an rumored Cree invasion, to Qu’ Apelle, to Regina to pick up orders, to return to Swift Current, and join the Battleford column – all within weeks.  Van Horne’s cooperation in the troop movements were the railroad salvations.  Before the rebellion, they were almost broke – not being able to pay all their employees’ wages.  As Pierre Berton wrote “the CPR had saved the country…now the country saved CPR.”  Badly needed funds were forwarded to finance the final phases of construction, and CPR’s debt to the federal government was re-organized.  On November 7, 1885 the last spike was driven at Craigallachie, in British Columbia making good on CPR’s original promise to the federal government.  Present at the event was Sam Steele, even though he stood at the back, well out of the famous photograph.  Four days earlier, the last spike of the Lake Superior section was driven in just west of Jackfish, Ontario.  The successful construction of such a massive project, although troubled by delays and scandal, was considered an impressive feat of engineering and political will for a country with such a small population, limited capital, and difficult terrain. It was by far the longest railway ever constructed at the time.  The CPR was not the only railway that needed protection during the Rebellion.  At Lethbridge, the North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) was building a narrow-gauge line to Medicine Hat, to supply coal under contract to the CPR.  The NWMP and the local militia, the Rocky Mountain Rangers, accompanied the line to prevent attacks on the workers from any revolting natives, enforce the prohibition, and keep the workhorses from being stolen.


With the CPR completed, a new era of settlement in western Canada ensued.  The close of the Rebellion led to the doubling of the NWMP under Commissioner L.W. Herchmer.  With an new era, the NWMP though an still horse-bound force, was greatly assisted by the railroads, and set up detachments in towns whose existence was owed to the coming of the rail lines.  High profile manhunts brought the Mounties to the tracks.  The Almighty Voice incident on October 29, 1896 near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan was one as Almighty Voice was wanted for murdering NWMP policeman Sergeant Colin C. Colebrook.  After a year and a half of following up rumors and false leads, the NWMP obtained an accurate report: Almighty Voice and two companions had shot and wounded a local Métis scout near Duck Lake on 27 May 1897.   NWMP reinforcements, including a group of civilian volunteers from Prince Albert, with a seven-pound brass field gun, arrived shortly afterwards on the nearby railroad, and surrounded Almighty Voice’s position, and bombarded it.  Another example was the manhunt of train robbers near Kamloops at Monte Creek (then known as “Ducks”), although the NWMP had no mandate to operate in that area.  A trio of bandits had stopped a CPR train and robbed it, although only $15 dollars and some medicine were stolen.  But an unsolved robbery near Mission, was still on the books of the Provincial Police, and was believed to be the same gang.  The hunch was proven correct, and an combined search of the mountainous ranch country near Douglas Lake turned up the gang, led by the American-born Bill Miner, and his two accomplices, Shorty Dunn and Louis Colquhoun.  The Ernest Cashel case also brought an embarrassing chapter to the NWMP.  A Mountie escorting Cashel to Calgary on a nuisance case was shocked when his prisoner escaped through the bathroom window on a moving CPR train!  The escape was bad enough, but in the ensuing months Cashel led the NWMP on a 15-month wild goose chase.


The relationship between the NWMP and the railroads of Canada has provided a wealth of historic lore.  Anyone who considers the story of Canada dull, needs only to open the records of the CPR & the NWMP to get back on track, and back in the saddle!



Cowboy Calvary – The story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers (Gord Tolton)



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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Steele’s Scouts of the NWMP (1885) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-936-22









Col. Lawrence Herchmer, Commissioner of the NWMP (1895) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-354-3



‘H’ Troop Band of the NWMP at Lethbridge, AB (1888) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-2328-2









Policeman on horseback at Barrack Square, in Lethbridge AB (1909) Galt Museum & Archives P20071043001-006











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