Troop trek of 1885

June 2020

Most Canadians know the story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the “impossible railway”, across this vast continent to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was a railway that would forge the nation of Canada as we know it. Many accounts abound of the CPR’s construction from the east, through the prairies and across the Rockies. But there are only a few records of how the tracks were laid through Northwestern Ontario, north of Lake Superior, and in particular one event surrounding them. In his book, Troop Treks of 1885, William Skrepichuk brings to life the movement of 3,000 plus troops over an unfinished railway from Missanabie to Red Rock, then on through the Lakehead, and on to Winnipeg. They were sent west to put down the second Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan. To chronicle this epic journey, Skrepichuk painstakingly amassed many historical documents, 300 telegrams, 10 troop testimonies and assembled a collection of over 70 rare and contemporary images selected to illustrate the April 1-18, 1885 transit of these troops through NWO. His work records an important episode in the early history of Northwestern Ontario and the challenging part it played in building and connecting our nation.

The second Northwest Rebellion
By the spring of 1885, the CPR was nearing completion. Still, long stretches of track were yet to be laid. At the same time as they were laying the tracks, the CPR constructed a telegraph line alongside them to relay construction information. It provided vital communication regarding which sections of track were complete, problem areas and the supplies needed. By chance this first Canadian telegraph line would also furnish the federal government with fast and vital news of a second Northwest Rebellion lead by Louis Riel. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was alarmed by this news. His concerns grew that the unrest could fuel American westward expansion into Canada and more Fenian agitation. By early spring 1885, the Prime Minister desperately wanted to stop Louis Riel, but how could he send a militia west to put down the uprising? The Great Lakes were frozen. The CPR route was incomplete. The railway west of the Lakehead was finished, but four gaps totalling 98 miles (158 km) of tracks above Lake Superior were yet to be laid. Moving troops west over Lake Superior and the Dawson Trail to quash the first Northwest Rebellion, 15 years earlier in 1870, took 96 days. That was far too slow. Macdonald knew as well that he couldn’t send the troops and equipment by rail through the US.

Van Horne’s solution
William Van Horne, the CPR’s vice president in charge of construction, proposed a solution. If he was given charge of transporting troops, he would have them at Qu’Appelle River, Saskatchewan in 12 days. Van Horne’s price for this was that the government must agree to give him enough money to finish constructing his railway. The CPR was heavily in debt and close to bankruptcy. The government agreed, but it didn’t have the troops to send. It only had a few small garrisons and militias. The call went out and over 3,000 men from Southern Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia signed up within days. But these men were not hardened soldiers. They were office clerks, shopkeepers and factory hands many of whom did not have adequate winter clothing. Had they known what the trek ahead of them would be like, they probably wouldn’t have enlisted. Van Horne transported the poorly equipped troops by rail as far west as he could. Where there were gaps in the tracks, the troops endured forced marches day and night at double time through slush and snow, rain and cold over rough trails and frozen lakes. The men were fed well enough, but only when the weather and camps permitted. Sleep periods were in shelters that were cold and damp. Despite the harsh conditions, Van Horne lived up to his end of the deal amassing the troops in Saskatchewan in just 9 days. Battles ensued and on May 15, 1885, Louis Riel surrendered. Ottawa immediately rewarded the CPR with the money it needed to finish the railway. The CPR track was connected by late spring with the last spike driven near Jackfish on May 16, 1885. The returning troops would either ride the rails all the way back east or board steamers at the Lakehead to Collingwood, Owen Sound or Sarnia. Ironically, Louis Riel was hanged for treason in November of 1885, yet it could be said he is probably responsible for saving the CPR, the national dream to unite a nation with a single ribbon of steel.

A unique snapshot
Troop Treks of 1885 is divided into three parts. Part 1 begins with rare images, maps and sketches illustrating the 1885 trek through NWO. Part II covers the invaluable communication roll provided by this first newly completed Canadian telegraph service. The final Part III presents selected testimonies from ten regimental histories and other writings. These provide a unique snapshot of this under-reported event in Canadian history given to us by men who lived it. Part III also shows us the legacy this 1885 trek through NWO has left behind. It notes the CPR sections along the route named after commanding officers. They are Trudeau, Montizambert (Mobert), Ouimet, Bremner, O’Brian, Amyot, Grasset, Williams, Otter and Turnbull. Most of these CPR section names still remain to this date.

Mr. Skrepichuk has left behind a legacy of his own through dedicating Troop Treks of 1885 to his grandchildren and all grandchildren of Canada. He quotes Ken Burns, 2018:

“Who may seek knowledge from well told history stories, to help them grow in respect and wisdom on their life’s journey.”

Thanks to William Skrepichuk, this important part of Northwestern Ontario history has been well told. His other local history articles, written for TBHMS Papers & Records 2016 & 2017, address the building stone era (1880-1910), highlighting Nipigon Bay sandstones.

Mr. Skrepichuk continues work on his next book unpacking the construction history of the CPR during 1883-85 with illustrations along the north shore of Lake Superior.

Brian G. Spare PhD is a local author, freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview magazine. Watch for Brian’s upcoming memoir “The Boy Who Couldn’t Smile” to be published later this year. Contact him at

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