Frontier College Remembered
I first heard of Frontier College early in my studies at the University of Toronto; when hitchhiking my way to class, a station wagon bearing the name of Frontier College stopped to pick me up. My next contact came from the Principal, Dr. Edmund Bradwin, as he interviewed me in his modest second floor office in downtown Toronto a few months before his move to spacious new quarters on Sherbourne St. It was the beginning of four summers as a labourer-teacher and two thereafter as a supervisor.
Because I was majoring in mathematics and physics, Dr. Bradwin sent me, that summer of ‘48, to the atomic energy establishment at Chalk River where we spent the greater part of that season building the concrete housing for the big Van de Graf generator that would soon be placed within its three-foot thick walls. With greatly reduced manpower, we then moved to an open area just a stone’s throw from the reactor itself and built a Quonset hut. Returning from the reactor with our drinking pails filled we would quip that we got our supply from the tap marked ‘heavy water’.
I was billeted in a former prisoner-of-war camp at the north end of the lovely town of Deep River, 13 miles upstream from Chalk River which scientists and workmen together bused to and from the job each day. Right off I had a problem in that the men I worked with, and was supposed to live with and teach, lived miles away in Pembroke. My camp companions were all trades people: plumbers, electricians, tinsmiths, none of whom I ever saw at work. Apart from discussions as occasion availed I never did any teaching per se. Still, I am indebted to Dr. Bradwin that I was associated even in a small way with the Chalk River project and at least got to rub shoulders with the academic side whether at the beach, the library or church.
Undeterred by the non-frontier aspect of that summer, I gave it another try in ‘49. Possibly to make amends I was now sent to a large C.N.R. steel gang in the Hornepayne region of Northern Ontario. There were some 150 men, most of them newly arrived in Canada as Displaced Persons (D.P.s) who by a government ruling had to spend a year in a work camp before finding a job of their own. Only then could they bring their families to begin a new life in Canada. Many had credentials that would pave the way for quick and prosperous employment. One young man persuaded me to teach him calculus. But after one session I realized he knew it already; he was an engineer and just wanted to hear how it sounded in English. For six months in Germany, this very slight and highly motivated young Lithuanian had volunteered to peel potatoes in his camp so as to give him calloused hands and a leg up before the Canadian selection committee, only to be nonplused when his hands received not a glance.
Our foreman, a personable old Finn, was very supportive and saw to it that a classroom car was brought in. I gave the interior a coat of white paint and Frontier College was nicely stenciled on the door. My job was at the head of a moving assembly line just behind the leading pair who mechanically undid the rusted bolts connecting the old rails, with me left to knock the bolts out and set them, the nuts and plates to one side. As a runner it was wonderful training for my legs as hundreds of times a day I would squat over the track and then, with hammer in hand, run on to the next join 36 feet away. To let traffic through we had to close up the track several times a day. I would then go back to help spike the new rails into place. It was a skill one developed slowly and once perfected was a decided asset to the work. Canadians 20 or older lived on the gang year in, year out and apart from the most elderly who served as ‘water boys’, they were often our best spikers, nailing them in place with just three well-aimed strokes. When closing track I was always impressed by the crude yet effective method employed in breaking in two a discarded rail with one segment exactly the length needed to make the old and new rails flush.
The classes were a joy as we gathered each night at one end of our box car; the library, magazine rack and map of Canada gracing the other end together with a display of many minerals I had on exhibit. On one occasion after dark and without benefit of a flash bulb, we decided to take a photograph. A student tacked a magnesium flare to the ceiling at the teaching end of the car and I set my camera to time exposure as we two then rushed to take our place. The result is a photo I treasure above all others. At work I was often in awe to see so many hands moving the work forward, but sometimes in delight too. One such occasion was when the eastbound passenger train was held up in a siding where we were working and had to wait for its westbound counterpart to arrive and pass. Three very attractive young women came out to watch us as we happily watched them. Having no radio in camp we were then doubly blessed by the glorious sound of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring coming from the coach.
Three other events that summer are chiefly remembered. We had worked all morning wondering why no approaching trains called for closing the track, which gave us a brief respite in the shade. At lunch back in camp we learned of a train wreck. A small detail of men, of which I was one, was called out to re-open the line and were at once sent off. A loaded grain train, what with spontaneous combustion brought on by the collision, had engulfed in flames several cars torn open by the impact. We could do nothing but wait in that heat as rain fell all night. Early on, we shoveled coal from the coal car behind the engine, both lying on their side by the demolished track. By early morning the next day we were exhausted but the job was done thanks to cranes that had arrived during the night from both directions.
I was asked by the foreman one day to take to the hospital in Sudbury one of my students, a young Pole who had broken his foot on the job. It had been crushed by one of the big 39 ft. steel rails a dozen strong men would routinely lift into place. Getting back after dark I had to raid the kitchen for our supper and was observed by our cook who, while quite drunk the next day, duly tongue-lashed me as we ate.
The most valued highlight transpired on a beautiful Sunday evening when, with some rare leisure, I walked for a while down the track. Turning back at dusk, I was halfway home when in the distance, for the first and only time that summer, I heard the sound of men singing. Back in camp it was now almost dark and still they sang, their lovely music coming from one of the Ukranian bunk cars. The men slept ten to a car and four of these were Ukranian. Once inside I realized that all forty men were there. Fifteen pairs of legs dangled in the dimness from the five upper bunks and as many men were seated in the shadow of the bunks below. Others – including me – stood where they could. With deep baritone cadence and obvious depth in their emotion they sang the songs of home. I have not been the same man since.
My third summer (‘50) was still with the C.N.R. but now in B.C. The first trip west was in itself memorable as we crossed a swollen Red River in Winnipeg on June 1st to witness a city awash in the flood of the century. A freight heading from Jasper to Prince George afforded me the privilege of traveling alone in the caboose. As we waited en route at a siding for a train to pass, the silence and crystal clear spring air drew me out to enjoy the scenery. There before me stood Mount Robson in all its glory. Over the next 50 years I was never again to see that peak free of cloud. There was a further stop at McBride as I took in the little town and watched a teacher putting his class through their paces in the schoolyard. I was unaware that he was a former labourer-teacher and would be my supervisor on my extra gang the next summer near Fernie in B.C.’s southeast corner. Once in Prince George I was directed to a coach near the station to meet the superintendent. Indeed we breakfasted together with a butler on hand to enhance the meal. One final freight brought me to my assigned gang.
Dining with the superintendent was perhaps some compensation for what lay ahead for it became clear early on that the foreman thought I was some kind of spy and told me so. I was forbidden to take photos yet I took not a few just the same. What I could not do, as I had done the year before and would do again a year later, was to post my photos on the outside of the dining car, each numbered and beside them an order sheet for copies required, which I was able to provide with the able assistance of my father in Toronto. I was very pleased knowing that hundreds of these photos were circulating through Germany and Italy, giving waiting families a glimpse of their loved ones and life in the Canadian hinterland. No place was set aside for a classroom. The bunk cars were dark and dismal. The same cook from the previous summer was aboard and just as drunk.
Because we were a lifting gang, we did not replace rails but raised the track by tamping new gravel under each tie and replacing those worn out. We progressed very slowly and only once that summer did we move camp and only as far as the next siding. There was a hut at one siding where one could wait for the train, but no one ever did. I commandeered this hut as my classroom using unopened kegs of railway spikes as chairs. My accordion was an instant attraction, indeed more so here with the Italians than with the middle Europeans I had known the summer before. The heavy rains that spring had also put the mighty Fraser into flood as its waters moved quickly by. Clouds of mosquitoes over several weeks of hot weather required that we work fully clothed, with masks over our heads held clear of our eyes by the wide brim of our fedoras. With a single swat one could kill 25 pests on another’s back. A railroad strike ensued in midAugust, bringing our gang to a halt in the rail-yard in Prince George. Some workers were soon off to Vancouver even though we were put on 80% pay just to stay in town. So ended my third summer.
My fourth and last summer took me to the C.P.R. on the Kettle Valley line that ran then, but no longer, from Medicine Hat to Vancouver. This summer and that of ‘49 must share the accolade as the best summer a labourer-teacher could ever hope to have. I arrived in the middle of the night at a little siding a dozen miles west of Fernie and had to scramble in the darkness for an empty bunk hoping not to disturb those sound asleep. Come sun up I discovereda gang even smaller than the year before and made up largely of old men. Indeed for the entire month of June we were hardly more than a section gang. I was now inured to the navvy life and easily but reluctantly fitted in with this new reality.
I had come, however, in advance of a group of Italians due early in July, almost all from the province of Campabasso not far from Naples. The roadmaster was very helpful to one and all and brought in a car that would double as bunk car and classroom. Once again I got to paint my surroundings white but not before divesting the walls of the flattened cardboard boxes that gave insulation in winter and also a home to colonies of bedbugs that were duly dispatched.
By the first month’s end I needed time away and so traveled to Lethbridge. Attending St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, where to my delight I recognized the priest as a recent graduate of Trinity College in Toronto who had married a friend of a friend of mine, I no doubt infringed upon their gracious hospitality at lunch in the rectory as I found myself talking as I would at home. In being supervised and later supervising others I noted how much a labourer-teacher needed to talk, all the while surprised at the degree to which such conversation had been pent up.
My trip back to camp had me on the very train carrying my Italian friends. Soon we were melded into a cohesive unit much given in our leisure moments to singing, with me on my accordion playing the lighter notes of Napoli. Though ever busy, it was because I had found time in June to keep a diary that I continued to do so until my last day early in September. The group was quite young. Yet some had left wife and children to blaze a new life for them in Canada. One had been a prisoner of war in the Italian campaign and while imprisoned in America had picked up English and was helpful now as a translator. My fluency in German had helped me with the D.P.s in ‘49, but with this new boon I had some unexpected clear sailing.
As the Elk River flowed swiftly by our work on the track we were always happily mindful of this precious abundance in our midst. Indeed when it came to providing water on the job we simply took our keg to the nearest freshet coming off the mountain slope at track’s edge. But during the hottest days we worked on flat land west of Cranbrook devoid of both river and freshet. I knew thirst as I had never known it before and knew too the longing as we awaited the water boy to slake that thirst. Five months later in the depth of a Toronto winter and midway through my year at the Ontario Teachers’ College I was surprised to find myself writing a poem of a hundred lines devoted to water and thirst. In ensuing years I smoothed out the rough edges but thankfully still have the original that, though rough, really says it best.
The life of a supervisor, which was my haunt for part of two succeeding summers while otherwise engaged as a high school teacher in Northern Ontario, took me camp to camp across most of Canada. To arrive at out-of-the-way whistle stops one had to cobble transportation where one could. Most of my stops, thankfully, were at extra gang sidings. But I did visit three lumber camps and a gold mine, descending with the labourer-teacher into the depths to see him in action and to talk with the men in his crew.
I also got to a remote lumber camp 50 miles north of a whistle stop called Hemlo near Heron Bay where the C.P.R. heads east from Lake Superior. A few years later came the discovery of the great mining area called Manitouwadge where an Anglican friend of mine served for some years as its first priest. Later, in pinpointing his parish on a map, I realized that it was located where that lumber camp had been. Years later still, Hemlo too gained prominence as one of Canada’s leading centres for the mining of gold. Dr. Bradwin had a cardinal rule for supervisors that we never pass by a labourerteacher en route to someone else. Though remote, I could not have passed this camp in any case because its labourer-teacher was a gifted Texan whose imagination and maturity gave Frontier College a splendid reputation. I had to return if only to be inspired again by what I saw.
Supervision was not without its lighter moments such as my attempt to get to what is now Thunder Bay to pick up essential mail. I was leaving a C.N.R. gang on the Sioux Lookout line but since there was no train south that day, I elected to walk through the bush to the main C.P.R. line that was just half a mile west. In due course I was nearing the track when to my utter amazement a freight train was not only heading south but stopping. I climbed into an empty open car and soon we were on our way. My chagrin then to discover that I had completed a full circle in that short distance and was now heading north on the C.N.R. past the very camp I had just left. A few miles later at a place called Raith there was both rail and road access. So, honing my hitchhiking skills, and sensing divine intervention, I was soon on my way south with time to spare.
Some years into retirement I read the autobiography of John Buchan and marveled at his grasp of personality and his skill at using few words to take the measure of the eminent men he had known. I mention this because for a small sum one can get copies of one’s contribution to the Frontier College files now housed in the National Archives. I had always felt this particular Buchan gift to be a blind spot in my genes. Yet, in reading my assessment of the men I had supervised and known, albeit for such a brief time, it was heartening to discover that I had a Buchan gene or two after all. How I would love to have met these men again in later years, but it is far too late. This was made clear recently in tracking down one of my Italian students from ‘51 having found his name, or so I thought, in the Vancouver phone book. When I explained my mission to the gruff voice on the other end and mentioned the year and the part of Italy from which he and his brother had come, the reply could not have been terser: “Dead, both dead.”
We labourer-teachers, in our commitment to the 60-hour working week, its meager pay of 65 cents per hour and the further hours of evening instruction, were made wealthier by far in memories and experience, all the while cognizant of sheer privilege in being part of something larger than ourselves. Counted in and counted on, we found in ourselves the man Frontier College helped us to become.
Rev. Peter Niblock – (Labourer-Teacher 1948-51, Field Supervisor 1952-53)