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Steam Engines in Westwold

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Incredible Journey

For 50 years, GROUNDHOG published stories to demonstrate the capabilities of Marion equipment and how customers utilized their machines. One of the most intriguing was the story on the next pages. Appearing in 1937, it recounts the adventure of moving a Marion Model 21 steam shovel 190 miles through the northern wilderness before it began to work. 'BLAZING NEW TRAILS IN A FORGOTTEN NORTHLAND' Being the strangest journey ever made by a Marion and Two men---As told by Basil Mack, who accompanied them and recorded their hardships in words and pictures. If I were a professional writer, this story could be readily woven into a real thriller. But I am not…and being more of a labourer, than a pencil pusher I am going to omit all the contingent shades and shadows and confine myself to the bare facts of one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken. The journey was made by two men and a 28-ton Marion shovel. Believe it or not, they traveled 190 miles overland to a gold mine, using the shovel's own power for locomotion. These 190 miles were not over modern boulevard, but were crowded with muskegs, raging rivers, mountains, boulders and mud. The trip was made from Vanderhoof, in Northern British Columbia, to Manson Creek. The trail they followed, in spots, was the old pack-horse trail of the roarin' days of the '70's when the great stampede was on to the Omineca, and when men and women--and mules--fought their way to the shallow diggings of Germanson and Manson Creeks. The intervening years had not added many improvements. During the first week of March 1935, Bert McDonald and Dan King unloaded their Marion shovel, Type 21, at Vanderhoof, a small town 750 miles north of Vancouver, and 440 miles inland from Prince Rupert. Fine, dry snow, the drifty kind that has such a miserable habit of piling up suddenly, like bad luck, was a good three feet on the level, while the thermometer played around 30 below. Facing the obstacles, they header for the 'end of the rainbow' located we north of '55.' Before they started and during the trip no one was ever heard to say they were crazy. And since the men, who directed the shovels course are hard boiled guys, let us not speak of insanity. Such bridges as were encountered over the route were not designed or intended to carry a 28 tons of concentrated lead, hence every river or creek they crossed along the way--and they were strung along aplenty--meant a detour through water and mud, with a strip of timber thrown in for good measure. Their first hurdle was the Nechako River, on the banks of which the town of Vanderhoof is built. It is a swift, turbulent stream, more than a quarter of a mile in width. Nechako is an Indian word, the meaning of which I do not know, but before the shovel reached the north bank it received a great many other names to hot to print. By careful mathematical calculations, guided by an engineer's handbook, they proved to their own satisfaction that two feet of sold, dry ice was strong enough to bear a twenty-eight ton load. The compiler of the book had the very best intentions, but he lived some place where the rivers were half civilized, and did not know the natural cussedness of the Nechako, which had the double-crossing habit of gouging out the under surface of its ice blanket in spots. The calvacade bestirring itself at dawn that day had proceeded about tow hundred feet from shore when a resounding crack split the air. And worse luck--the ice had split also. Slowly, silently, gradually, like a cultured lady splipping gracefully to a polished dancing floor, the Marion sank in four feet of sub-zero water, and her gentle caterpillar glide came to an unexpected halt. Luckily the bottom was solid gravel and she rested easily. But 100 tons of ice had to be cut and lifted from the water to clear a channel through which she could back up to her starting point. Forty-eight hours of furious work were spent on the operation. Any delay might mean they would be permanently frozen in. A sudden drop to 50 below is a frequent occurrence. If that should have happened, the spring break-up, with its thousands of tons of swirling ice would have pounded the Marion to pieces. Steam was constantly kept up, although the floor of the cab was awash with rushing water. The moment everything was ready, the signal was given and she was backed up to the shore on her own power. A boost was given by a tractor to help her up the steep bank, and the owners heaved a sigh of relief when the 'old girl' was once more perched on terra frma, drying out her hardy metal 'dogs.' The second attempt was guided more by reason than mathematical calculations. Long cross-timbers and stringers were laid on the ice to distribute the load over a greater area. It was a safe precaution, and the crossing was successfully accomplished. The trip from Vanderhoof to Fort St. James was made during the worst part of the northern winter, when the temperature hung around 40 and 50 below. This was a stretch of 45 miles that might be termed a snowbank battle from start to finish, but was completed without noticeable damage to the men or to the shovel. At Fort St. James one of the toughest tasks confronting them was to ford the swift flowing Stuart River. This river empties the water from Stuart Lake, which is sixty miles long itself, and is a continuance of several lakes of similar size. At the confluence of lake and river, there is open water for perhaps a half mile, which does not freeze over even in the coldest winter. It took almost super-human courage to attempt this crossing, which is 900 feet wide and averages from three to four feet in depth. When the attempt was finally made the thermometer read ten below. The machine progressed nicely until it reached a point about 200 feet from the intended landing. There was a thin spot in the gravel bottom gave way beneath the weight, and the Marion sank into a deep mud-hole. As mud-holes go, it could be classed as one of the 'big shots' of its kind. Every effort to extricate the machine under its own power only drove her deeper into the muck. There was a good six inches of water rushing over the floor of the cab. Heavy blocks and cable had to be secured and a '50 cat' pressed into service. The Marion was finally drawn to the bank through five feet of solid mud. It was easily a straight pull of a hundred tons. The delays prior to and including the crossing of the Stuart river left the expedition one month behind it tentative schedule, and one month in the northern country may spell the difference between success and failure. The thirty miles beyond the Fort was the meanest stretch of mud and muskeg of the whole journey. This distance they expected to make on snow and frozen ground, but now the snow was vanishing and the frost was cracking loose all around them. The prospect ahead was not encouraging, yet they carried on till the spring rains set in. "Manson or Bust" was their slogan. The rain, descending in torrents, soon converted the road into an inland sea which might have been navigated by a ship, but not a shovel. Hence, when they covered some twenty miles of this leg they were forced to tie up for two months. During the dry season, July and August, the big push was again started and what might go down in history as the 'battle of the bogs' was fought and won. This fight produced unexpected results. It started an agitation for better roads to this extensive mining field which resulted in the Government allotting ample funds for the task. During the latter part of August, the Marion and its two keepers reached the Nation River, 115 miles from their starting point. It is the narrowest and most treacherous river of the entire trip. Imagine yourself fording a slippery mill-race, 150 feet wide, and four feet deep, and you have a general idea of the task which confronted them. As in other rivers and streams crossed, heavy mud sills, twelve feet long, had to be placed beneath the pads to avoid sinking into unexpected holes. In crossing the Nation, an extra precaution was taken--a life-line cable was strung from side to side. This was necessary, since to lose one's footing in such a current without something to cling to was to lose one's life. Once the start was made, it took only 30 minutes to make the crossing, but these minutes were crowded with an intensity of action that could have been conveniently spread over for a good week. No wonder a lusty shout went up from the men when landing was reached. "Foolhardy" someone might say, no…just a matter of courage, of skill in handling a shovel, and above all---of having a dependable machine. Two or three days beyond the Nation River brought them into territory which had not been touched by human hands. Before them, up a hill and down a dale, zig-zagged the well worn old pack trail. In the distance loomed the Baldy range of mountains, which must be crossed and which would carry them on a gradual incline of at least 5,000 feet. From the summit of Baldy they could look down a similar depth to the Manson valley, in which the gold mining leases were located. Their most persistent obstacles on this 40 mile stretch would be patches of dense timber and wide fields of boulders which could not be circumnavigated. The power of the Marion in removing these boulders and it adaptability to the work was a revelation to all who saw it in action. Many of these boulders weighed five tons. It would have cost a small fortune to do the work with powder---freight rates taken into consideration. This was freely conceded by Government engineers who happened along during the operation. Detouring through virgin timber, making side-hill cuts, building substantial bridges over narrow streams, laying stretches of corduroy over swamps--all this was pioneer work which had to be done to make way for the Marion. To this end they plodded along as best they could, working their way almost to the summit before winter arrived and forced them to another halt. There the Marion was parked for a well earned six month's rest. Snuggled beneath a five foot blanket of snow, it could ruminate on the ups and downs of steam shovels in general, and speculate on what it was going to be called upon to do the following spring. Because of the altitude, snow hangs to Baldy much longer than it does on the lower levels. It was not until the latter part of May, 1936 that moving operations were again underway. As the muskegs thawed the mud multiplied. Boulders, mud, timber and torrential rains were the daily menu. Nothing but the lure of gold, and stern determination to succeed could have kept the men at the task. And nothing but an almost unbreakable machine could have endured the daily grind to which the Marion was subjected. Descending the steep drop into the Manson Valley was a much more difficult feat than the gradual ascent to the summit. The old pack-trail wended its way down a 25 percent side hill grade of slippery clay. Considering this grade, and a clay formation that would be constantly sliding to the road, it would be quite useless to think of following it.Therefore they carved out another trail. While this took them down a draw and resulted in heavier work through a more thickly timbered area, with every mile having its full quota of boulders, bridges and side-hill cuts, 8 percent grades were possible--and this meant a greater security for the shovel. This work would have seemed quite natural had there been a road building contract in hand but it was a moving job only and haste was imperative to bring the shovel to its destination. Hence, it was that the last twenty-five miles were made in record making time of two months. The power and endurance of the Marion were pushed to the limit. Her response to the grinding ordeal was truly marvelous. She had travelled 190 miles on her own power in all sorts of weather, over an al most impassible trail and the day after reaching the leases it dumped the first three-quarter yard bucket of gravel into the sorting sluice. If, in the whole world, there is a better story of endurance of men and a steam shovel, we would like to hear about it.