Silent Railway Deaths takes a look inside the building of the CPR

Julia Palfreyman

  • Jun. 17, 2011 9:00 a.m.

They died. Lots of them. They died in the tunnels. In the winter. They are gone now. Forever. I saw some of their dead bodies lying there. I felt helpless. I wish I could have helped them. It all started like this.

I had an offer to go record what happened as the CPR was being built. It was when I arrived at the railway, where I met Chu. He was a lonely man. He had come from China, where heavy floodwaters had come and ruined their crops and drowned their animals. His father had come to Canada to work for money because their family was now poor. Chu’s father was gone for a long time and his family grew worried so they sent Chu to look for him. Soon we arrived at a camp. We pitched our tents and started to work. I felt beads of sweat rolling quickly down my face and back, creating wet spots on my shirt. I turned to glance at Chu, tears are sliding down his face and landing with a quiet “drip” on the ground. I look up and I see the raw rock of the mountains covering the sky and sun.

We kept doing the same work routine for months. We get up, we pound spikes and then go to bed. Day in and day out, same thing every day. It was tiring. We traveled from one camp to another, working our way up the railway. Each time we saw a new work gang, Chu would run up and shout out his father’s name with hope of seeing him. I felt badly for him. He must have felt so sad and lonely. I can’t do anything to make him feel better.

Winter came, halting all work. I was a little grateful. My whole body ached and my muscles burned with exhaustion. I was sad because mail couldn’t reach us due to the snow, and it was cold, it was very cold.

Spring finally arrived and we dug graves for the two men that had succumbed to sickness. I watched as their dead bodies were placed in the graves and I was horrified.

Late one evening, we arrived at a half finished tunnel. Before we had the chance to set up camp, men came running out of the tunnel yelling, “It’s haunted, there are ghosts inside!” After hearing that, everyone refused to go inside, Chu spoke up and said, “I will spend the night in the tunnel and prove that it is not haunted.” He packed his things and bravely trudged into the dark tunnel.

It was late. I was worried about Chu. Suddenly Chu rushed into the tent. He looked spooked. He had woken up with the feeling of something pressing on his chest. It was his father’s spirit who was talking to him. His father said, “Many Chinese and white men have died. The white men where placed in graves but the Chinese men were thrown in the river. They need a final resting place. Chu, use chopsticks for bones and straw matting for our flesh.” His father then disappeared into the night.

I helped Chu make the bundles and then I watched him climb the mountain, bundles in one hand and the other hand gripping the rope. He dug graves and buried the bundles and then climbed down with tears in his eyes. I gave Chu a hug and we turned toward the mountain in time to see the rope transform into a snake which would guard the graves.

After a year of hard work, Chu and I decided to go home. I gave Chu money so he could go back to China and I returned to my little house in Ontario. Life was never the same. Years later, I got a package in the mail from Chu. Inside was a picture of Chu with his family and a letter thanking me for being his friend. Little did he know that I was truly the lucky one for having met Chu and experiencing his strength.

Written by Julia Palfreyman, a Grade 5 student at BX elementary school in Vernon.