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Doctor Beyond the End of Steel

by Rosemary Malaher
Whistler, British Columbia

Manitoba History, Number 46, Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Dr. Gordon Ferguson.
Source: Medical Archives, University of Manitoba

The building of the railway to Hudson Bay began in the summer of 1908. Prior to World War I the line was cleared and graded almost to Port Nelson at the mouth of the Nelson River. During the war, however, construction slowed, stopped and finally some of the steel was torn up and sent to the war effort.

In 1927 work resumed on the railway in northern Manitoba. Farmers were still demanding another seaport for their wheat, closer to the source, and the “On to the Bay Association”, organized in 1924, brought political pressure on the federal government. The Palmerston Report soundly quashed the idea of a port at Nelson, and the new line turned north at Kettle Rapids and headed for Churchill. In April 1929, the track reached the mouth of the Churchill River and by August 1931, the port facilities were in operation.

In the spring of 1928, a young doctor, just finished his exams, was hired to work with the medical team looking after the construction workers. In letters to a friend, Gordon Ferguson provided a glimpse into the rough life of a bush doctor on the rail line to Hudson Bay:

[Winnipeg]
14 May 1928

The other day I got a wire from The Pas and I expect to leave Winnipeg on the 23rd of May to take up a practice in God’s Country. I hope the job is congenial and lasts five or six months. All my expenses are paid after I reach The Pas. All for now, but write again soon.

Sincerely,
Gordon


No Man’s Land
30 May 1928

It has been a big week and I have seen many strange things. We had an uneventful trip on the train. It was a very hot day and we sat around the coach in our shirt sleeves. We arrived in The Pas at 8:00 A.M. The next morning I was drilled thoroughly in the laws of the compensation board, and in the afternoon I looked the town over and then watched half-baked baseball game.

The next day I got an haversack and put in a sample of every kind of medicine and pill, together with an instrument set and tooth forceps. That, with a spare shirt and some sox—completed my outfit for the next three weeks. On Saturday morning I put on my riding breeches—woolen sox, etc. and started north. We travelled the Hudson Bay Railway in a gasoline car. It was a great trip and we saw many things. The first day we scared up a bear, two moose, several wild geese, a ptarmigan and numerous ducks. That night we slept in the hospital car at mile 214. We were away again in the morning and by night were at the end of steel—mile 356. There the car left me and went back.

The next morning I headed due north on foot along the right of way where the men are now grading for the railroad. Nine miles brought me to cache #1, where I stopped for dinner and met the other doctor coming out. Then set out again and did another eight miles to cache #2. That is situated on the Weir River and there I stayed that night. I slept at the engineer’s near cache #3. After dinner I set out for cache #4 which is at Silcox river, and that is where I am now. From cache #2 to cache #4 is nearly twenty-three miles, so you see I am now forty miles from the end of steel. That would not be far if the walking was good, but it is the worst I have been able to imagine. This country is all muskeg and I have not seen a rock or piece of gravel since I left the steel. In most of the places the timber is burned over and in the rest the average height is about eight to ten feet and the diameter 3”. Even at that the growth is sparse. And then the ground consists of one slough after another. My feet were soaking wet 1/2 mile from the steel, so at the end of the day I bought a new pair of high boots, and greased them well. The path is up and down and around old roots and stumps and nearly always up to your ankles in soft bog. It is very heavy walking. I landed here yesterday evening so tired I could hardly take another step. In many places the sloughs are impassible and the company have put board walks across. These help very much.

Cache #4 is my headquarters. There are quite a few buildings. First those belonging to the contractors. They are wood with tar paper covering. Then there are the engineers—and all engineers have four tents—office - bunk house - for 3 or 4 - cook house - and food cache. The third group is my hospital. I have a nice little tent of my own called the office. There is a bed - stove - desk and lamps - but no chair, and shelves of medicines, etc. Next is a larger tent called the ward and there are five beds - stove etc. Next is the cook house - orderlies quarters, dining room, etc., and across from it there is a log but where we store all our food.

You see, the country here is so impassible, that you cannot even walk a horse in, and anything coming in now has to be brought on men’s back. What they do is build these caches in the winter and sled the summer supply of food in by teams, and make storehouses at approximately every ten miles. My orderly is a pretty decent chap. He fills my box with wood, cooks my meals—looks after the patients when I am away, and may even answer calls if I am too tired.

To-day I have Laid around camp—resting and rubbing my sore muscles and tomorrow I will go on the trail again. I still go north and will be three days to the end—about mile 450. That will be on easy stages—about sixteen miles a day. I will probably rest one day at the top—and then come down again—being away about 7 days. As I go along I tell the men at work that I am the doctor and ask them if they want to see me. I have three men in the hospital now, a Swede, a Dutchman and a Slay. Some mixture.

I will draw a rough map on the back of this so you will have an idea where I am and will understand better the places I speak of in the future.

I must grease my shoes and take a hot bath ( yes—even up here) and other wise prepare for the next week; which I fear will be bad for the blisters on my feet.

Sincerely,
Gordon


Silcox River Hospital
23 June 1928

Another week has rolled by and again I have taken my pen in hand. This is Saturday afternoon and instead of being at the north end planning to move south the next day—I am at the south end—going north tomorrow.

Have been interrupted here by a new patient and my trend of thought has been broken. A man has just come in with a nicely infected hand, and it will be my duty to perform some minor surgery tonight after supper. I may be a surgeon yet—if I persevere.

The last I have heard from The Pas is that I am going to be left on the line here instead of being appointed orderly at another hospital. Evidently the boss is satisfied that I can hold the job down. There is more money in this job.

The heat to-day has been the worst yet - probably because the absence of the breeze is so conspicuous. A few days like this and all the snow & ice around Caches 8 & 9. I have not seen a snow flurry or any ice on the ponds for ten days now. The flies & mosquitoes are coming but the nights remain cool. I enjoyed the fire in the stove last night when I was writing out my report and sending in compensation papers.

It is a month to-day that I left Winnipeg and almost a month since I have smoked a British Consols cigarette. Out here we buy tobacco by the 1/2 lb. tin and roll our own. I think if I ask the mail man he will bring me some from the end of steel where there are a few stores or trading posts.

I must close now ...

Sincerely,
Gordon


Residency #8
18 July 1928

This is not a week-end, but since I am farther north, I must write earlier to get it in this week’s mail.

I arrived here a little after six this evening, after leaving the Owl River—eighteen miles south, this morning. Have had supper, smoked, changed clothes, for I got caught in a rain storm, built a fire in the stove to dry my wet ones, and am now listening to the sweet strains of a mouth organ. This morning was very hot, and the insects were out full force. They do not bother much when walking, but unfortunately, I had to stop and dress a few cut hands, and then the flies played havoc. About three o’clock the sky became black and it rained for about an hour, and then the mosquitoes did their work. But I fooled them with a bee veil over my head.

Had a funny sensation today. It was just before the rain, when the sky was lowering, and dark, with that creepy feeling in the air, when I heard a peculiar sound like a baby crying—short wails, repeated at intervals. I listened and heard it repeated, and reasoned that since there were no babies for miles around, it must belong to something of the cat family. The only thing of that class that we have around here, is the lynx, and with wobbly legs, I advanced to my first meeting with one of those creatures. But what do you think I saw a few hundred yards on—nothing but a fool loon—swimming in a pond, howling away with perfect contentment. I reproved myself for being afraid and was glad there was no one around to see my nervousness.

Tomorrow I am going on the residency #9 where I hear there are a few cases of grief for me to chew on. That has been my northern limit, but now there are men working six and a half miles above that. This trip will see me at mile 448 1/2 HB Ry. And Churchill only mile 510. Some of the men on the south end of the work where the steel has passed, are finished, and are moving north to do another piece of work. The steel gang must be about to ride out on the train.

.... Am now so used to walking that I can think about far away places and still my legs keep puffing along like a sturdy little engine, altogether separate from the rest of my body.

Another episode of the bear serial may now be published. The latest report that I have heard is that the bear has been shot. That brings the serial to an end.

Must close now and garner some sleep so that I may be on the trail in the morning.

Good luck ....

Gordon


Silcox River
29 July [1928]

Doc. Stewart went south this trip and had quite a time. Got called back one night to see a man who got injured. They found him alone in a shack with an upturned table and a piece of two X four. There was a long gash in his scalp—(six or seven stitches) and two arms and one leg broken. He was stranger around and seems to have been in that condition three or four hours. He admitted playing poker & drinking whiskey, so the theory is that he was caught cheating and his fellow players did not like it. The other men are not known.

But Doc. Stewart was not the only one to get a call. I was north and had started back, when I got a call to tend a cut foot twenty miles back. I went back as fast as my little legs will carry me & sewed a cut on the instep. That was a second day for me because I walked 281/2 miles that day. Was a little stiff the next day but managed to do twelve miles in return.

But that was not all in this patrol. I found a sick man at cache #8 (mile 438) who was weak—could hold nothing on his stomach & had difficulty in breathing & therefore got very little rest at night. His heart had played out with the strain and was going about 214 per minute—impossible to feel at the pulse. I watched him for a day, and decided he must go out, because I could not adequately treat him. He could not walk out, and it would take four or five men a week to carry him out. So I hiked over to Deer Lake Air base, 100 yards away & had a conference with the O.C. He is a great chap, and said he would take my man out—first thing in the morning—and me with him to see to any complications in the air. Then I got a ride back. The next morning the man caught the “Muskeg” at mile 356 and on the 3rd day was in the hospital at The Pas. On the way back, the pilot (the O.C,) did a few mild turns and slips—just to show me what it was like. We were 2 hrs. & 25 minutes in the air and I made a report of the patient’s condition and a request to the O.C. after we got back. That was just a formality & a paper to send to Ottawa. The next day the planes were caught in high seas at Churchill & damaged and had to be taken away to Winnipeg and points east.

There—I have got the “Big Adventure” off my chest and can now think about signing off. Am going south near the end of this week and who knows?—may have another ice- cream. The steel is now less than 20 miles south and moving slowly north. Please try to find time for some more letters ... Mail time especially makes me feel & think about the exile.

Sincerely,
Gordon

P.S. I promise not to play poker at end of steel.

Dr. Stewart is having a fine time blowing fly-tox around & watching the mosquitoes get dizzy and fall to the ground.

Gordon Ferguson’s rough map of the Hudson Bay Railway and the “end of steel” in the summer of 1928.

Page revised: 9 September 2010

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