Around Swedish America in 548 Days

Day 140 - Upsala

Some 90 miles west of Thunder Bay is the small community of Upsala, Ontario. You can't help wondering how it got its name. Then you get even more curious when you find that there is also a Finmark community and a Carlstadt bay of the Lac des Mille Lacs lake and that the railway Linko siding got its name from Linköping. The reason for the names are all the Swedes who built Canada's transcontinental railway westward from Lake Superior.

Upsala was established in 1882 as an important railway community acting as a fuel and water stop for trains traveling on the then newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway system. Today the Upsala area is located in prime fishing country and is situated just north of the famous Lac des Mille Lacs. The "lake of 1000 lakes itself was an important fur trade waterway and today, has many fine fishing and hunting resorts located along its shores. But if you stop in Upsala for a meal there is only the "Upsala Garage and Family Restaurant" where hunters, fishers and outdoor adventurers are known to stop-in for home-made baked goods, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other services available include licenses, maps, gas, diesel and propane.

"Give me Swedes and snoose" boosted entrepreneur J. J. Hill, "and I'll build a railroad to hell!" (according to an article by Elinor Barr in the December 1998 Swedish Press). "Swedish laborers earned a reputation for being hard workers during the golden age of railway building in the United States. When the Swedes helped build Canada's transcontinental railway their experience stood them in good stead. They were tackling some of North America's most difficult terrain. The formidable challenge they faced was to transform the region's muskeg, rocks and rolling hills into a flat, level, roadbed suitable for trains. The job was accomplished using little more than wheelbarrows and shovels, with black powder to blast rocks and horse-drawn stone-boats to haul them. The rough living and working conditions of these hardy pioneers are hard to imagine today, even driving along the Trans-Canada highway that parallels the railway for long stretches. Workmen often stood in swamp-water icy cold in midsummer, amid clouds of blackflies, with meagre supplies transported over primitive pathways.

These laborers were transients. Their legacy was the roadbed itself and the names given to railway stations. Since a province in Norway is also called Finmark, it is possible that this name recognizes Norwegian laborers. The Jesuit, Father Herbert, visited an English River construction camp in 1877. He wrote of spending the night "in the shanties" where he found "men of many nations, Swedes and Norwegians being in the majority."

Then in the spring of 1879 young Joseph Servais travelled twelve miles further west to Des Jardine's camp looking for work. Here he found fifty Swedes from Minneapolis working under a foreman named Ericson. The foreman was likely F. L. Erickson. He is listed in the 1881 census as a contractor living along the line of construction with his wife Serina, 50, daughter Sophia, 23, and son Charles, 21. The census also names 52 construction workers born in Sweden, three with families, as well a five workmen born in Norway. Further west the census records a similar mix of Swedish and Norwegian labourers, that is a ratio of 10:1. The contributions of these men are reflected in two additional stations with Swedish place names: Kalmar and Ostersund. The latter still exists as a station, and the former as a lake.

If place names are to be considered a reliable indicator, then Swedes ought to be rated among Canada's foremost nation builders" writes Elinor Barr. "These six Swedish place names span a construction job deemed too difficult for a railway company. Accordingly the Canadian government itself contracted the 425-mile stretch between Lake Superior and Red River. This, and the Onderdonk contract through the Rocky Mountains, were the only two sections let under government contracts. The rest of Canada's first transcontinental line was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

These transient Swedish laborers who could "build a railroad to Hell" laid a firm foundation, not only for the railway but also for the Swedes that followed them as settlers. That Swedes were given Preferred Immigrant status by the Canadian government may well have stemmed from their predecessor's reputation as hard workers who got the job done."