"Quite a Little Way from Civilization": The Anathan-Jacobs Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Collection
The early twentieth century saw major technological innovation, nation building, and westward expansion in North America. The construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was an attempt to bridge the continental divide between Asia and Europe to open trade routes for the continuous flow of goods. Building the railway was considered one of the greatest construction projects of its time and was sponsored by partnerships between the Canadian government and transnational private enterprise. The railway was both sign and agent of a new economic order and rapid social change.
Rail travel was the focus of considerable political, economic, and popular attention. Political and financial backers embraced optimistic (and often vastly unrealistic) projections as to the positive transformative and profit potential of the railways. Canadian cities were quickly populated with young men eager to work on the many railway projects which were transforming the physical, political, and social landscape.
Among them was Norman Jacobs, an Englishman, who corresponded with a friend in Pittsburgh between 1905 and 1910. His letters, diary, and photographs are preserved in the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway collection and form the basis of this exhibit.
Prior to 1896, ranchers of western Canada claimed that if farmers tried to cultivate the soil in the Northwest, they would face being “frozen out, hailed out, or eaten out by grasshoppers." In fact, 300,000,000 acres of exceptionally fertile soil for growing grain was discovered there resulting in a phenomenal increase in migration to the Northwest of Canada between 1896 and 1906.
In 1907, Charles Saunders tested a new frost resistant strain of wheat called Marquis at Indian Head, Saskatchewan. The variety was a sensation and caused the Canadian wheat harvest to grow in value from $6 million in 1900 to $45 million in 1915. Western Canada was advertised as “Britain’s granary“ and “The flour barrel of the world.”
Charles M. Hays, an American working for the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, oversaw construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific's western line. He served as general manager and president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Grand Trunk Railway, and was elected president of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1909.
The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s western route was set between the 50th and 55th parallels to take advantage of the near level configuration of land at that latitude. Hays determined from surveys done in the 1870s that the route would promote traffic of resources of timber, coal, and mineral deposits. The 1,743 mile route shaped trade and settlement patterns over a large portion of the Pacific Slope. The Western division was subdivided into two sections, the Prairie Section from Winnipeg to Wolf Creek and the Mountain Section from Wolf Creek to Prince Rupert at Kaien Island.
Hays chose Kaien Island as the Pacific terminus because it was 1,900 miles closer to Asia where he anticipated a growing and profitable trade. The terminus was named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine following a naming competition.The trade did not come in that century even though the average freighter could make three more trans-Pacific crossings in a year from Prince Rupert than from Vancouver and five more than from San Francisco. The trouble with the plan was that little or no outward cargo existed.
Surveyor Norman Jacobs observed:
Thousands of men poured across the American border-without money or knowledge of the country swarmed out west of Edmonton along the located line of the GTP having heard across the line that work was to be had for the asking.Contractors have no funds to pay off the men.
Country is in a fearful state of excitement of the coming  elections and we are in the middle of the bitterest fought political campaign the country ever had. It interests us very much owing to the fact that it is a railroad fight pure and simple all other issues sinking into insignificance beside the question of the Grand Trunk Pacific, The Yukon and Pacific, and the Hudson’s Bay Railway. It seems certain that whichever party gets in will build the Hudson’s Bay route and as this will cut the distance between Europe and the Orient by 1100 miles it will seriously affect the American transcontinentals which is a very satisfactory state of affairs.
Despite Jacobs's optimism at the level of interest in rail building, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway faced untenable economic pressures. Legal entanglements, labor issues, cost overruns, and persistent mismanagement plagued the company. Construction delays allowed competitors to consolidate their hold on prairie traffic and the Grand Trunk Pacific did not attract the volume of freight needed for profitable operations. The outbreak of the First World War, compounding internal disruption caused by Hays's death, placed further stress upon the company. Having been bankrupt since 1919, the Grand Trunk Pacific was forced in 1923 to merge with the Grand Trunk Railway, the National Transcontinental Railway, and the Canadian Northern Railway to form the new Canadian National Railway.
Charles Hays died on the Titanic in 1912, however his vision of opening Prince Rupert, BC as a terminus for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was finally realized in 2005. The Financial Times reported, “Asia Trade Boom Offers Canadian Town Chance to Realise Founder’s Vision.” What was nicknamed “Hays’ Orphan” is now a thriving container terminal owned by Maher Terminals Holding Co. and functioning as Hays imagined: a deep ice free natural port with ships using the Great Circle routes towards the North pole, making Prince Rupert nineteen hours sailing time closer to Asia than Los Angeles. Asian goods are off-loaded from ships on to Canadian National rail cars that travel the rails built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to markets in the mid-west.
Norman Jacobs succeeded at showing his talent and became a field topographer for the Canadian Transcontinental Survey. As a topographer, he described what it was like to travel over virgin country where dropped trees were piled up like matchsticks 12-16 feet deep and temperatures were well below zero degrees Fahrenheit; sometimes 60 degrees below zero. Teams of surveyors could be out of communication for long periods of time and had to be capable of finding their way anywhere and have no fear of being lost. At one point there were over 800 men scattered over half of Canada plotting the path for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.
From Saskatchewan Jacobs wrote:
There are about six big construction camps covering a line of about 154 miles. At first the snow being still shifting was very treacherous, slides on the hills or swampy ground hurling men and horses in rolling heaps and with the recklessness of the West we were continually mis-judging the thickness of the ice with resulting cold baths and much profanity...To drop suddenly through rotten ice at 60 below zero is rather a startling sensation and doesn’t leave one much room to swim in.
As to the forest of all this work I love the bush work most handling an axe....It is glorious fighting your way inch by inch through great stretches of giant trees crawling on your tummy and slashing up at dense bush or waist deep in water struggling with the most difficult thing, roots under water. You know that in running a trial line it has to go absolutely straight well through thick forest it would be impossible to see any sign put up to guide us so on the cry ‘All men forward!’ we all take our direction with our compass off the transit and get in anywhere you hear no sound but the ring of the axe the short cry of warning ‘ware left!’ or ‘ware half right!’ or then the crash of the fallen giant.
Our parties covered the Rockies from Fort George to the Pine pass (scaling Robson’s peak a thing never done before) following the Fraser Canyon from the Pass to the American border. Explored the Peace Valley to the Attabasca both sides of Hudson’s Bay and Keewatan Territory. Pushed up into the north of Quebec and opened up the whole of the Arbitibi district eventually coming out on James Bay.
The surveyor’s quest was to find the desired grade for the railway which was 4/10 of 1%, or 21.12 feet per mile for the Grand Trunk Pacific; curves were to be 4 degrees or greater. These specifications gave locomotives a gross hauling capacity seven times that of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the degree of curvature affected the speed of the train. The desired grade was achieved except in parts of the Rockies (elev. 3,723’) where the descent in the Yellowhead Pass followed the Fraser River and a section of 1% grade had to be used. An additional engine was stationed at these points to help the train over these “pusher grades.”
Boredom could be staved off by reading. Surveyors re-read whatever books and magazines were available and were always grateful for new material. The subject matter and timeliness were secondary concerns: a Royal Northwest Mounted Policeman swapped a copy of History of a Crime for a bundle of old newspapers collected by Jacobs’s survey team.
The favorite game is to sit in a circle & toast bread with home made toasting forks cut from willow. Now the reason of the circle is thus each man keeps his eye on the cookery outfit of the man sitting opposite and the bread having reached a desirable brown yells “Let her go!” A man who accidentally shot another whilst out hunting you be considered clumsy and might has some local trouble with the corpse’s relatives but the affair would blow over but the man who allows his companion’s toast to burn is an outcast forever.
Close to our tents were a great many Gopher holes & it used to be great fun to pour a basin of water down one hole & see the occupant come charging out at the other end to see what in the world has happened. One evening however instead of a gopher out popped right in our midst—a skunk! With a cry of “To your tents oh Israel”! we fled but not altogether in time and we hated ourselves for a week. The game of Gopher & the wash basin became suddenly unpopular.
“Creed is not a thing we bother about up here,” Jacobs asserted. Nondenominational services, lead by each man in turn, were the mode of worship in the field. This tolerance may have been uneasy, however: Jacobs was quite certain he was the only Jew (despite claiming to not know the religion of anyone but the Chief, a Quaker) and that his companions did not know he was Jewish.
Concealing his Jewish identity must minimally have involved self-censorship, but such a tactic may have seemed prudent. At the time Jacobs began his work on the railway, the Dreyfus Affair was in the news. The soon-to-be-exonerated Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying, was widely believed to be innocent, and the scandal was a focal point for antisemitic and anti-French sentiments. Actress Sarah Bernhardt fled Montreal when confronted by a mob incensed by alleged anti-French comments. Though the most explicit antisemitism was found in Quebec and the French press, Canada’s western press was not immune. Emphasizing a connection to a distant and often suspect community, at the possible expense of his relationship with co-workers, may have seemed an unacceptable social, financial, and physical risk.
Racial exclusion was more explicit: “There is a saying in the West. “He’s white I’d ride the plains with him.” The saying is too terse & expressive to need explanation.” The statement is indeed terse, but hints at complicated issues of personal and group identity. Despite discriminatory practices, complete exclusion was not possible. Surveyors may have been “white,” but several letters make reference to the interactions with and contributions of First Nations peoples.
The coexistence of multiple forms of transportation is a theme in Norman Jacobs’s letters. Involved in the construction of a railroad—one of the most advanced transportation systems of the era—the survey teams relied upon animals: cats, sled dogs, and horses.
A camp attracted unwanted vermin, such as field mice. Protection of food stores was not a domestic nicety, but a matter of life and death. Jacobs’s survey team requested and received a cat through official channels. The cat, Pa-Waka-Manito-itchee-pahawat (The White Spirit with a Noise Like a Kettle), travelled 600 miles to the team’s camp.
Though they were unsatisfactory mousers, dogs were an integral part of camp life. They provided companionship and curled up to sleep with members of the survey team. An English Setter named Punch was a particularly welcome companion on nights when wolves howled. The death of a puppy was cause for sorrow. Jacobs could not imagine a home without a “frantic noise mass of fur & wary tails to greet you on the threshold.” The most important canine contribution was as transportation. Dog teams pulled the sleds bearing survey teams' supplies.
Horses were a necessary part of the railway project. Surveyors rode on horseback, drove wagon teams, and relied upon riders for message delivery. In recognition of the importance of horses, when given authority in the field Jacobs ensured that horses ate before men. Horses were also ubiquitous in Canadian cities. Jacobs was entranced by the vitality of Winnipeg streets, where “shaggy horses,” “half-broken teams,” and “vehicles of all kinds careen wildly up & down.”
Despite his professional commitment to advancing transportation systems and his familiarity with mixed transit systems, Jacobs could not immediately reconcile the effect of technological changes upon familiar settings. He expressed some skepticism when Edmonton installed trolley lines in 1908: “Considering that absolutely everyone owns horses out here & even the bricklayers & plumbers & school children go to work on wicked little cayuses tearing up & down like race horses I fail to see how it is going to pay.”
But the investment did in fact pay: Edmonton’s rail system expanded until 1930 and remained in operation until 1951, when buses and automobiles replaced streetcars.
In order to transport people and products into and out of Western Canada, the National Transcontinental Railway Act was passed on October 24, 1903. To encourage pioneers, the Canadian government passed the Dominion Lands Act that gave immigrants 160 acres of western land if they lived on the land for three years and paid a $10 registration fee. In tandem with generous land policies, Clifton Sifton, Minister of the Interior ran a successful marketing campaign in Europe and America. Initially, he thought citizens from the British Isles would be best suited to cultivate the prairies, but in fact immigrants from Ukraine, Gallacia, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Russia and Scandinavia proved most capable of adapting to the harsh climate and conditions.
The significant increase in Saskatchewan’s population—from 91,000 in 1901 to 492,432 in 1911—can be attributed to a growing discontent among some Europeans. Overcrowding, high taxes, unemployment, religious discrimination, and the looming threat of war led many to emigrate. Fertile soil, a new frost resistant strain of wheat, rail transportation, and lenient government land policies made Canada an ideal destination.
Capitalizing on the rapid growth in population, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway purchased 86 town-sites—to be at distances no less than 7 miles and no more than 15 miles apart—establishing towns along its route even before settlers arrived.
A gender imbalance affected all aspects of life in the West, and the effect was heightened among the vanguard of colonization efforts—the railway workers. In addition to physical labors (Jacobs’s account of survey work is a clinic in masculinity), men took responsibility for domestic duties: cooking, cleaning, and performing other support functions typically considered women’s purview. Jacobs wrote of the importance of household management, but also indulged in efforts to beautify his campsite, planting flowers and hedges. His efforts as a “landscape gardener” did not further the survey goals, but did offer the team some of the feminine comforts of home.
More rare were women on the railway. Bernice Medbury Martin, married to a Grand Trunk Pacific employee, wrote of a life which was both more and less circumscribed than it had been in her hometown. She was often left alone in her cabin and hunted for game, but she remained responsible for domestic work (or the management of employees hired to perform it). When she travelled propriety dictated that she have an escort. Though gender roles were blurred, they were not forgotten.
In “Diary of a Tenderfoot,” the short holographic diary in the collection, Jacobs remarked on a conversation en route to Winnipeg where the man claimed: “Winnipeg is the coming city of the dominion, the gateway to the imperial west that will one day feed all of Europe.” The railway was a sign of a new economic order and rapid social change. Part of the appeal of Western living was freedom from constraints. Everything was large—landscapes, building, people—and the newness of the cities contributed to an attitude of excitement.
But there were downsides to rapid growth. The gender imbalance was obvious on the streets of Winnipeg, and the “lack of [women’s] refining influence” was not a positive attribute. Thirty years after its incorporation, Winnipeg still retained the feeling of an outpost.
Entertainment options were limited and residents hungered for cultural institutions. They were willing to wait for hours to buy tickets, and the first performance of the Grand Opera sold out. Jacobs wrote extensively of his impressions of musical performances, critical of the story of Lohengrin and effusing “I never enjoyed a thing more in my life than Tannhauser!” This imported culture served as a link to friends and family in older, established cities in the east.
While the consumption of cultural performance was important, its mere existence served a function as well. Organizations like the Grand Opera and the Mozart Choral Society and Orchestra in Pittsburgh were cultural markers, worthy of support and evidence that a city was capable of supporting the arts. A city’s cultural institutions were a marker of civilization, vital to the elevation of western cities from boisterous frontier towns to imperial polities deserving of national (or even international) respect.
What about the people who called this great wilderness home? As the railroad became a harbinger of a new social and economic order, Canada’s indigenous populations became a hindrance to progress and were often times displaced from their lands. In theory, land rights were protected under the Indian Act of 1876 which stated that:
If any railway, road or public work passes through or causes injury to any reserve belonging to or in possession of any band of Indians, or if any act occasioning damage to any reserve be done under the Authority of any Act of Parliament, or the legislature of any province, compensation shall be made to them therefore in the same manner as is provided with respect to the lands or rights of other persons.
Reserve land dispossession became a highly contested debate amongst politicians, outside interests, local residents, and First Nations, in the early part of the twentieth century. Those in favor of removing the Natives from their lands argued that oversized reserves were “vacant and idle” barriers to development. Laws could not slow the progress of modernization and traditional Native lifeways were altered by the onset of industrialization throughout the Canadian provinces. Many bands, dependent upon hunting, fishing, trapping, and agriculture, were reluctant to surrender parts of their reservations for rail construction. Yet, shortages of food became common due to a sharp decline in game and fur animals resulting from “white settlement and overhunting.” As a people tied to the land for food and shelter, the First Peoples of Canada had a hard time adjusting to the rapid advancement of technological change and the surrender of reserve land to Canada’s burgeoning national railways became commonplace. Furthermore, if any Natives opposed the appropriation of reserve land they were up against “the combined forces of God, Law, and Business.”
To the men working on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, the indigenous populations were a peculiar people. In Norman Jacobs’ letters we find an idealistic young man, romantic about the world around him. Parallel to the story of the railroad, the young writer saw modern technological development as an extension of empire and also as a way to advance his own personal expansion west. Living in the age of conquest, Jacobs was well versed in the language of the times. In his journal, “Diary of a Tenderfoot,” Jacobs claims that, “Methinks the East Indian Company, the Hudson Bay Co., and the South African Co. were something more than mere gigantic mercantile enterprises, a nations mission, greater by far than the mere preaching to the world of dreams and religious theories, send out your sons Mother England. Send them out willingly and with rejoices to death by sea and plains, jungle and swamps! Go forth and colonize. Assuredly, Allah is Allah and it is good to be an Englishman.” Though cheeky, Jacobs's words are exemplary of the dominant British attitude at the turn of the last century. The letters illustrate that upon Jacobs’ first encounter with indigenous populations he saw them as childlike beings. Their lack of exposure to new technologies led him to believe that they were “quelled from a different part of the evolutionary chain then he was.”
However, as the journey progressed the surveyors became comfortable living among the natives. Their patriarchal attitude subsided as many men began to view the natives with a newfound respect for the way in which they manipulated the untenable Canadian wilderness.
Living among the native populations in Canada had a profound effect on Norman Jacobs. His evolution from an idealistic youth to a man trying to understand the world around him can be seen over the course of his five year correspondence with Bessie Frank. In fact, by the time he wrote his last letter in 1910, we can see how the four year period spent living among the North American populations may have affected his spirit. In this letter Jacobs, then living in London, had grown tired of the general apathy exhibited by the public toward the British empire’s imperialistic ventures. His brief stint working on the railroad left him feeling sympathetic to the colonized peoples of Australia, Africa, and of course Canada. Watching the culture of the Habitants—French settlers in Canada—slowly disappear before the “ever-advancing ware of the Anglo-Saxon” was unsettling to the young man. His experience showed him that technological advancement in Canada, though good for progress, also necessarily displaced the lives of those who called it home.
The letters, diary, and photo books of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway collection were donated to the APS in 2009 by Dr. Ellen Lehman. Conservation and processing of the collection was supported by a monetary donation from Dr. Lehman.
Processing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway collection involved cataloging the materials, performing conservation work, and scanning the originals.
The letters are relatively straightforward. In some places, the handwriting is less than clear, but since the letters are little over a century old, the style of writing is easily recognizable. Words written in pencil have smudged and faded over the years. But generally speaking, they are quite legible. Most are dated, and with only a couple of exceptions a date can be reasonably inferred where it is not explicitly stated.
Assigning dates to undated letters is a matter of close reading and familiarity with the other items in the collection. Taken together, the letters map Norman Jacobs’s movements, so the inclusion of a return address can also point to a date. A reference to the “month of strawberries” implies a June date.
The conservation department cleaned the letters and built new boxes to house the photographs. The two photo books include handwritten descriptive notes about the pictures, which were produced using a variety of processes. Both of the photo albums were in pretty poor condition. The pages were tattered and torn, and the binding was unable to be salvaged. Because the pages had handwritten notations for many of the photographs as well as decorative embellishments, it was important that they be kept. The albums were unbound, and each page was interleaved with non-buffered tissue. Since the albums were now in loose sheets, a wrapper was made to hold them together, and then a clamshell box was made for each album. The original covers were ultrasonically encapsulated, and the original ties used for binding were included in the boxes.
Since the letters were written on a variety of papers and in different media over the years, they required different courses of action. All were surfaced cleaned with eraser crumbs grated to increasingly finer grain. Letters written in graphite pencil were then ready to have corner folds relaxed and tears repaired with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. The thin but strong Japanese papers were toned to match the colors of the original papers.
Photographs and letters were scanned at high resolution using a flatbed scanner. The resulting images were not merely used for the online exhibit, but incorporated as part of the finding aid. Though the original materials are available for researchers’ use, anyone with access to the Internet can view high quality images of the entire collection.
Initially, we had very little information about the writer of the letters. We only knew that the letters and photographs had been in the possession of the donor’s grandmother, Bessie Anathan, and that there were references to the building of the railroad and encounters with First Nations peoples.
Our first research breakthrough was an answer to a very basic question: Who wrote the letters? A lighthearted photograph of soles with the letters “N” and “J” and the writer’s self-directed advice to “Buck up, Jacob!” offered hints. A return address, buried in the text of one letter, confirmed the writer’s name: Norman Jacobs.
Now we knew who we were looking for. The next stage of research involved tools familiar to genealogists: birth certificates, census data, and travel records. We established that Norman Leonard Jacobs had been born in Bath, England in 1885, that his parents were named Isaiah and Josephine, and that he had two younger sisters, Ruth and Dorothea. We were able to map out the family’s travels, unearthed references to a maternal grandfather serving as Chazan of the Great Synagogue of London, and traced the descendants of Ruth and Dorothea. We discovered that Ruth had a successful career as a journalist and poet, writing under the names “Sheila Rand” and “Wilhelmina Stitch.” We saw the Jacobs family “wanderlust” end with Dorothea, who settled permanently in Milwaukee.
Conspicuously absent in our research were any references to Norman Jacobs himself. The latest reference, discovered in an online search, was in 1913. His sister Ruth’s 1936 obituary in the Winnipeg Free Press made reference to many other members of her family—grandfather, parents, sister, husbands, son, and grandchild—but said nothing about the existence of a brother. This raises questions about whether Jacobs had predeceased his sister by a significant period of time or if he had become estranged from his family.
Thanks to an oral history from 1975, Bessie Frank Anathan—-the silent half of the conversation represented by Jacobs’s letters—does speak in her own voice, albeit at a significant remove from the time of her correspondence. She describes her family history, growing up in Pittsburgh, a whirlwind courtship in 1913, and her community and philanthropic work for the Crippled Children’s Home, Irene Kaufmann Settlement, the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice), Planned Parenthood, Montefiore Hospital, and Anathan House. But events six decades and thirteen hundred miles away still resonated: the disappearance of Jacobs was one of the “great tragedies” of her life.
Bessie Anathan provided tantalizing hints about Jacobs’s activities. She spoke of a boyfriend who worked on the railroad in Canada and proposed marriage. She declined and he subsequently proposed to another woman (“whom I knew he didn’t love”). After the engagement was announced, Jacobs returned to Canada and “lost himself somehow.” His father and uncle mobilized a search, hiring detectives, but Jacobs was never found.
This account provides a useful sketch of a few years in Jacobs’s life. Given the 1910 date of the final letter to Bessie Anathan, in which Jacobs declared his intention to return to Pittsburgh, and the 1913 reference which placed him in Canada, we had a narrow window to look for other evidence of romantic entanglements. In a September 1911 issue of The Jewish Criterion we found an announcement of his engagement to Flora Baer, a Germantown resident and former Pittsburgher. Discovering the name of his fiancée did not bring us any closer to learning Jacobs’s ultimate fate, but was viscerally satisfying.
The 1913 reference was to a Manitoba court case, a follow-up to an earlier case in which Jacobs, along with his partner in a company contracted by the railroad, were successfully sued. (Was it related to the labor issues plaguing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, or a more mundane contractual dispute? Unfortunately, the county court records from that time period no longer exist, so the details of the original lawsuit are unclear.) Presumably contemporary investigators would have learned about the business and legal problems, and while Bessie Anathan might not have learned anything of Jacobs’s life after 1911, it is quite reasonable to assume that his family did.
Was he effectively disowned? Did the broken engagement rouse familial disapproval? Did he die in some mishap in the field? Or did he wish to make a complete break with his old life? London was oppressive. Pittsburgh, which he had happily left years before, was now a site of great disappointment. But Jacobs had written with great fondness and enthusiasm of the Western wilderness. Might Bessie Anathan’s words—“he lost himself somehow”—correctly reflect a conscious choice?