Maturin Ballou.

The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska



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This is called the eastern gateway to the Rocky Mountains, through which the grand Bow River flows on its diversified journey of fifteen hundred miles to Hudson Bay.

There are extensive hot springs on the eastern slope of what is known as the Sulphur Range, some six thousand feet above the sea level. They are at different elevations, and have good bathing-houses erected over them, in charge of courteous attendants. One of the springs is inside of a dome-roofed cave, which is a favorite resort of visitors to Banff. The medicinal character of these springs is considered so important that an iron pipe two miles in length conducts their heated waters for use at the hotel, the normal temperature being sustained by metallic coils of superheated steam. It rains much and often in this region. The weeping clouds make one feel rather gloomy, purely out of sympathy for their ceaseless tears, but when the sun finally asserts his power and lifts the misty veil, then come forth in hold contrast silvery, sparkling, sky-reaching mountains, covered with their frosty mantles, together with richly wooded valleys and river-threaded ca?ons, opening views of unrivaled sublimity and grandeur.

At Anthracite, five hundred and seventy miles from Vancouver, we are forty-three hundred and fifty feet above the sea. Here are the remarkable coal mines located in the Fairholme Range, a true anthracite of excellent quality and of great importance to the railway. The pass through which the road takes us is four miles wide, great masses of serrated rocks rising on either side, back of which mountains tower above each other as far as the eye can reach, forming long vistas of lofty elevations so numerous as not to bear individual names.

At Calgary, about a hundred miles farther eastward, we are still thirty-four hundred feet above the sea. This is a particularly handsome and thriving young town, scarcely four years old, but containing three thousand inhabitants. It is pleasantly situated on a hill-girt plateau, in full view of the jagged peaks of the Rockies, thirty or forty miles away, and which, as we look back upon them, form a vast blue and white crescent extending around the western horizon. Two placid rivers, the Bow and Elbow, wind through the broad green valley, adding a charming feature as they mingle with the tall waving grass. Here cattle and sheep ranches abound, extending westward to the very foot-hills of the great mountain range, and stretching far away to the southward a hundred and fifty miles to the United States boundary line. We were told that the cattle and horses ranging over this space would aggregate two hundred thousand head.

As we passed through the Province of Alberta at night, occasionally jets of flaming natural gas, which finds vent through the soil from reservoirs located at unknown depths, were burning brightly to light us on the way. This gas, so liberally supplied by nature free of cost, is utilized to create a motive power at Langevin, where it pumps water for the use of the railway.

Representatives of the aboriginal Cree and Blackfeet tribes form picturesque groups along the railway line, composed of barbarous, uncleanly looking squaws and bucks, the latter only kept from the warpath by the presence of the efficient mounted police.

The contrast presented in emerging from the mountain ranges on to the level country is very remarkable. For hundreds of miles we pass through an almost uninhabited, treeless country, a long, long reach of prairie as boundless as the sea, and where no more of human life is seen than on the ocean. There are no hills, scarcely any undulations; the sun rises apparently out of the ground in the early gray of the morning, and sets in the endless level of the prairie at night. Small stations, twenty or thirty miles apart, have been built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, consisting of a dwelling-house and a water-tank for the necessary supply of its engines, but the line is thus characterized through a thousand miles, where there is no way travel, and no local business, outside of its own necessities. The inference is plain that it crosses this distance at extraordinary expense, which must be supported by the terminal business on the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the road.

The Cree and Blackfeet tribes are said to have no religion and few superstitions, being a restless, dangerous race, ranking very low in point of intelligence, even as savages. The efforts of the missionaries, we were told, have entirely failed to civilize or even permanently to improve the condition of the two tribes we have named. The women are hideously ugly, smeared with vermilion, and weighed down with cheap brass rings and bracelets of the same metal. The one article of sale offered to the traveler by these tribes is the polished horns of the buffalo, picked up upon the vast prairies of this region where they have been bleaching for many years. These are colored black by some process, and when highly polished are mounted in pairs, as they are placed by nature on the animal’s head.

At Regina, eleven hundred miles from Vancouver, we are still two thousand feet above the sea. This is the capital of the Province of Assiniboia, situated in the centre of an almost boundless plain. Here are the headquarters of the Northwestern Mounted Police, a very necessary military organization of a thousand men, distributed over this region to look after the Indians, who are ever ready to commit depredations when they feel they can do so with impunity, and also to preserve good order generally among the several frontier communities. It was at Regina that Louis Riel, the principal promoter of the late rebellion against the Dominion government, was tried and hanged not long since. It is called here the “half-breed rebellion.” Over the far-reaching, trackless, arid prairies, as lonely as an Egyptian desert, the cloud effects towards the day’s close are noticeably very fine, while the twilight lingers to the very verge of night. At times we pass through a broad tract of land ten miles or more square, from which a whole forest has been swept by conflagration, probably started by an unfortunate spark from a passing locomotive, or, quite as likely, by the carelessness of some camping party of sportsmen. These large spaces, which would otherwise be intensely dreary, are already carpeted with a fresh green undergrowth, with which nature always hastens to obliterate the devastation caused by the ruthless flames.

As our train stopped briefly at Regina a group of mounted Blackfeet Indians dashed across the prairie and drew up near the station. A wild, weird score of semi-savages, very picturesque in their garments of many colors and their decorations of quills, beads, and feathers, with a scalp hanging from the waist here and there among them. Their long, unkempt black hair flowed all about their necks and features, which were more or less besmeared with vermilion. Their leggings of deer-hide were fringed on the outer side, and their leather moccasins were lashed with deerskin thongs up the ankles. Some had stirrups, but most of them had none, their limbs hanging free and a blanket serving for a saddle. Their little wiry ponies were under complete control, and the riders were good horsemen. It seemed to be some gala occasion with these Blackfeet, but of what purport it was impossible to discover. They were evidently under a certain degree of discipline, for at a sharp, sudden command from one of their number they all dismounted together and stood with one arm over their horses’ necks like so many stone statues. At that moment a lady passenger in our car aimed her “kodak” at them, and, presto! they were photographed in the twinkling of an eye, which, considering their aversion to the process, was quite an achievement on the lady’s part. These Indians are now peaceable enough, and no one fears to go among them, but we are inclined to think, with “Buffalo Bill,” that they will make one more desperate fight, in both Canada and the States, before they finally give up the struggle with the white man.

Forty miles eastward from Regina we come to Indian Head, which is about three hundred miles west of Winnipeg, where the road passes through the famous Bell Farm, an extremely interesting and successful agricultural enterprise. It is managed by Major Bell, an ex-army officer of marked executive ability, and covers an area measuring one hundred square miles, being probably the largest arable farm in the world. Major Bell carries on the business for an incorporated company, and devotes the rich prairie loam, of which the soil is composed, mostly to the raising of wheat, employing in the various departments over two hundred men. The announced object of the company is first to bring the whole of the land under good cultivation, at the rate of five thousand acres or more annually, and when this is accomplished to divide the whole into two hundred and fifty farms to be sold to the employees, each provided with suitable dwelling-houses and buildings, all to be paid for by the purchasers in easy annual installments; a most beneficial purpose, and if it is fairly and honorably carried out it will be one which is deserving of all praise. It must inevitably build up a responsible and self-respecting community, by uniting proprietorship and domestic relations of the most desirable character, connected with steady and remunerative occupation.

The country lying between Indian Head and Winnipeg is mostly of a prairie character, rich in agricultural resources but of no special interest otherwise. Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, is very nearly midway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has some twenty-three thousand inhabitants, who live upon a site which was fifteen years ago known as Fort Garry, only a fur-trading station, said to be hundreds of miles from anywhere. To-day it has long, broad streets of public buildings, fine dwelling-houses, hotels, stores, banks, and theatres, besides large manufactories in various branches of trade. It is the Chicago of Canada. Situated where the forests end and the prairies begin, with river navigation in all directions, and with railways radiating from it towards all points of the compass, everything tends to make Winnipeg the commercial metropolis of the British possessions in the Northwest. Main Street, Winnipeg, is a fine boulevard one hundred feet wide and two miles long, lined from end to end with attractive buildings. One practice observed here recalled the native city of Jeypoor, India, namely, the driving of single oxen to harness between the shafts of light carts, the animal being guided by rope reins attached to the horns.

From Winnipeg to Port Arthur, which is beautifully situated on the north side of Lake Superior, the route is through a country characterized by a maze of forests, lakes, and rivers; a region more than half wilderness. Few evidences of civilization are found hereabouts; the primeval forest is full of game, the streams abound in fish, and the ponds are covered with wild fowl. Occasionally a group of Indian wigwams is seen, or a lone native Chippeway paddling his birch canoe. Now and again a hunter’s camp is passed, whose occupants come down to the railway to see the passing train, and who eagerly seize upon any current newspaper which thoughtful passengers toss to them from the car windows, a courtesy they gratefully acknowledge cap in hand.

Port Arthur, just one thousand miles from Montreal, is admirably situated on Thunder Bay, where the view is striking and beautiful, overlooked by the bold headland known as Thunder Cape, which rises fourteen hundred feet above the surface of the lake. Just upon the edge of the horizon is seen Silver Islet, which has heretofore proven to be one of the richest silver mines known to our times; but the mine is now hopelessly submerged, its tunnels and shafts flooded beyond relief by the waters of Lake Superior. These broad waters are dotted with white sails, and streaked with the long black lines of smoke trailing after huge steamers.

From here, for more than one hundred miles, the sharp curves of the great lake on its northern shore are closely followed by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and here the engineer’s skill has been wonderfully displayed in surmounting apparent impossibilities. We were told that it cost more per mile to build this portion of the road than it did to lay the rails through an equal distance in the difficult passes of the Rocky Mountains. The roadway is sometimes cut through solid rock, and sometimes an abrupt cliff is tunneled, from whence we emerge to leap across a deep ravine upon a wooden trestle of frightful curve and great elevation. And so we rush onward through unbroken forests and scenery of wildest aspect among barren rocks, scorched trees, and dense thickets of scrub on our homeward way.

Having thus brought the patient reader so nearly back to the starting-point, and among scenes so familiar, we leave him to finish the journey to Boston by way of Ottawa and Montreal.

The distance traveled in making this round trip to Alaska and back, over the course pursued by the author, is something over ten thousand miles, but when successfully consummated it is difficult to realize that such a long route has been passed over. Great are the modern facilities for travel, and great are the inducements. It is the only royal road to learning, the kindergarten of ripened intelligence, so to speak. We recall nothing of the fatigue or the inevitable mishaps of the journey. It is the charming experiences alone which become indelible. We behold again the many populous cities through which the route has taken us, and see once more in imagination the active villages, peculiar races of people, grazing herds, rushing cascades, sombre gorges, mysterious geysers, snowy mountain ranges, uncouth totem-poles, myriads of icebergs, and mammoth glaciers. To look back upon the experiences of the journey as a whole is like recalling a midsummer night’s dream, replete with delightful scenery and crowded with wonderful phenomena.

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