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The 1883 Locomotive Engineers' Strike in the Canadian North West

by David Spector

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1977, Volume 22, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Probably no event since the Reil [sic] rebellion [1870] has caused a greater sensation in the Province, and throughout the Northwest, than the present trouble between the Canadian Pacific Railway and their employees, whereby nearly 3,500 of the latter are thrown out of employment. No more unfortunate event could have occurred at this particular period of the history of the country. [1]

With these words the Winnipeg Daily Sun described the impact of the work stoppage by C.P.R. locomotive engineers and firemen. The strike was indeed an unfortunate event because neither the company nor the workmen wanted it. Yet the long-range effects were not entirely negative; the dispute was to serve as a stimulus to the completion of the transcontinental line and the growth of labour unions in Winnipeg.

On December 11, 1883 members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Firemen refused to report to work in Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Brandon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat, and Calgary. The result was that all Canadian Pacific rail traffic on the completed portion of the line was halted. Hardest hit was the partially-operational main line where regular passenger and freight service was curtailed from Thunder Bay to Calgary. Branch lines suffered the same fate. Runs from Winnipeg to Emerson, Winnipeg to Gretna, and Winnipeg to Stonewall were left unmanned by engineers and firemen. The immediate cause of the disruption was the company's attempt to reduce engineers' salaries $6 per month. [2] Moreover the company insisted that all engineers endorse the statement "We the undersigned agree to accept employment from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company at the rate of wages now offered us by the said company in our several capacities." [3] The men had other thoughts. In a petition to William Van Horne, General Manager of the C.P.R. engineers demanded a sum of $4 per day for their services, a slight increase from the $3.50 to $3.75 they were receiving. [4] Choosing also to demand a wage increase, railroad firemen pressed for an advance to $2.25 of their $1.85 rate. [5] Van Horne's subordinate, J. M. Egan, General Superintendent of the C.P.R. refused to listen to the men's demands. Conversely the men refused to sign Egan's statement. Unwilling to have its will defied the company insisted that its employees sign the statement or refrain from reporting to work. The engineers willingly took the latter course. The firemen went out in sympathy. The company immediately closed its shops and laid off employees. James Slavin, Acting President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers coordinated the eight day strike from the union's meeting-hall in Winnipeg.

The C.P.R.'s attempt to reduce employees' wages stemmed from a financial dilemma - near bankruptcy. Construction costs during the summer of 1883 had drained the company's capital. Moreover a drop in value of Northern Pacific Railway stock on the New York money market was having a chain effect on the Canadian line. [6] Approaching the Canadian Government the C.P.R. did manage to obtain federal guarantees on the railroad's shares; the C.P.R. paid the government $9,000,000 and the government agreed to pay the railroad's shareholders a three per cent dividend for a ten year period annually on $65,000,000 capital stock. [7] The company's objective in securing the deal was to convince potential investors that the Canadian line would be profitable. Unfortunately the bankruptcy of the Northern Pacific Railroad dashed any such hope. At the beginning of December, 1883 C.P.R. stock had reached its lowest ebb. [8] Something was clearly necessary to attract private investment capital and further government guarantees. 1883 was a year of recession in the Canadian North West. Therefore the C.P.R. felt justified in making wage reductions in an attempt to cut operating costs. Wage reductions would serve a public relations need. By trimming expenses especially in the wage area the railroad would demonstrate its financial acumen to potential investors. That the wage reduction was only $6 per month and mainly symbolic did not matter. Making the cut and forcing its employees to sign a statement of contentment with the decrease was an act of ruthlessness that would tempt investors to purchase C.P.R. stock. Even if the men objected to signing the C.P.R.'s declaration they could be replaced with strike-breakers. Forcing its demands upon workmen would clearly demonstrate the railroad's keen sense of business ability.

The locomotive engineers struck the railroad because the wage reduction and declaration of contentment constituted the last straws in a series of long-standing grievances. They complained of the high costs of meals and poor sleeping quarters at divisional points. Lodging was at a premium at all major centres on the main line. At Medicine Hat lodging for engineers consisted of one bunk room. At Calgary the situation was even worse. For engine drivers one boxcar constituted their sleeping quarters. Most of the time the engineers were not even permitted to use this accommodation and were forced to sleep on their engines. [9] The cost of meals on the Swift Current to Calgary run averaged 75¢. [10] Having two meals on a passenger run the driver could be expected to spend $1.50 out of his daily wage of $3.50. Long working hours were another source of complaint. To earn $135 to $204 per month Joseph Barker put in 51½ days work at the standard rate of 12 hours per day plus overtime. [11] More usual was the time put in by Frank Restein. For a remuneration of $95 per month Restein worked 26 twelve hour days. [12] The men therefore complained that any wage reduction was unacceptable - a wage increase allowing for reduced working hours would be more to their liking. The men struck because in the view of their leader, James Slavin, the company wanted them to submit to arbitrary measures. [13] By signing the company's declaration they would be relinquishing the right of their union to act as their bargaining agent. Like all other individuals in the North West they were unaware of the company's near bankrupt financial status.

The Countess of Dufferin - one of the engines that stood idle during the strike.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The strike was bitter with both sides taking intransigent positions. The company ruled out any compromise with the men. Two days after the strike began William Van Horne wired Egan in Winnipeg stating that he had recruited replacements for the strikers. They were standing by in Chicago ready to depart for Winnipeg on short notice. [14] The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers stood firm on their refusal to submit to the company's measures. Early in the dispute Brandon engineers were "determinated to follow the instructions of the Brotherhood [in Winnipeg], and are acting in the most orderly way, and feel satisfied that the railway will grant their desires." [15] A similar reaction emanated from the lakehead. Engineers at Port Arthur cabled BLE strike headquarters in Winnipeg that the men were "indignant at J.M. Egan's action, and can hold the fort till the grass grows green. They are satisfied with the action of the Winnipeg committee." [16] With the positions taken the dispute had to end with a show of force.

Throughout the dispute the company attempted to maintain some semblance of service. Utilizing supervisory personnel the C.P.R. dispatched a train to Emerson on December 12th, one day after the strike began. [17] Two days later trains were running on a limited schedule in all directions. However mail only was being carried on the main line. [18] By December 17th rail service was becoming more frequent but there were still gaps. [19]

The arrival of 22 strike-breakers from Chicago on December 18th effectively ended the strike. [20] At first they were met by scattered acts of violence. A freight train manned by two newcomers was attacked at Brandon, the engineer and fireman were assaulted, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to scald the engineer with steam. [21] On another run a strike-breaker named Frank Grabo was given a cigar before starting on his run. The cigar turned out to be poisoned and Grabo had to be rushed to Winnipeg for medical treatment. [22] However, engineers soon came to realize that their strike was lost. On December 19, 1883 the BLE leader, James Slavin signed the dreaded C.P.R. document. [23]

A short and acrimonious dispute had come to an end, but its long-term effects were even somewhat positive. The company had demonstrated its will to survive and complete the line. In February, 1884 it became the recipient of a $22,500,000 government loan. [24] The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (and their firemen allies) had of course lost the strike. However, they had demonstrated that a strong Winnipeg-based branch of an international union could tie up transportation over a vast geographic area. Railway and craft unions were to continue organizing and striking in 1884.


1. Winnipeg Daily Sun, Winnipeg, Manitoba, December 12, 1883.

2. Winnipeg Daily Times, Winnipeg, Manitoba, December 12, 1883.

3. Ibid., December 11, 1883.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Donald Creighton, Sir John A. Macdonald - The Old Chieftain. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955), p. 358.

7. Ibid., p. 361.

8. Ibid., p. 362.

9. The Times, December 11, 1883.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., December 13, 1883.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., December 14, 1883.

15. The Sun, December 12, 1883.

16. Ibid., December 13, 1883.

17. The Times, December 12, 1883.

18. Ibid., December 14, 1883.

19. The Sun, December 17, 1883.

20. The Times, December 18, 1883.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., December 19, 1883.

23. Ibid.

24. The Commercial, Winnipeg, Manitoba, February 5, 1884.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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