ERIC REILLY CONSTRUCTION
Some events have a way of making outsize changes to local history, and one of them was the Eric Reilly Construction Company, who came in 1954 to build the TransCanada highway at Oxdrift.
Part of what made them different was their very young crew, and that they were very open to hiring inexperienced local boys, offering ‘on-the-job’ training and experience. Dryden’s social scene was pretty rough in those days, loaded with single young men with all the construction going on in the mill, Hydro, woods, roads. The only time I ever saw my friend Tommy Potter get excited was in the midst of one of the brawls in Oxdrift Hall parking lot during dances there. Tommy was the strongest guy around, for his size, and usually the most even-tempered. A couple of the combatants started ragging on him, and he lost it – he grabbed the aerial on a car near him, you know the kind, a whip solidly bolted through the front fender of most cars in those days, and ripped it out by the roots, leaving a jagged hole of torn metal, and waved it at his tormentors. They suddenly became a lot less aggressive; sort of like the Fonz intimidating challengers on Happy Days. Don’t know if anyone involved was a Reilly employee, but certainly the Reilly crew added a young man element to Oxdrift social life. They stole the hearts and made wives of quite a number of Oxdrift girls.
I was a skinny undersized 16 year old, so did not make Reilly’s list, but it seems almost all the teenage Oxdrift boys bigger than me were hired by Reilly, along with some Dryden boys and a contingent from Dyment led by Ed Swanson. Our boys learned something about heavy construction and heavy equipment which served them well in later life. They learned how to drive trucks; once they mastered piloting those 4 ton bobtails over the hills from Griffiths pit to Oxdrift, they were skilled truck drivers. This was in the days of unsynchronized transmissions and split axles and double-clutching, when a missed shift might mean an unscheduled trip backwards down the hill and often into the ditch.
There is a famous tale about a Reilly driver (name unknown) on the phone in Fotheringham’s store trying to tell the CPR that his loaded dump truck was stalled on the crossing at Oxdrift so they should stop any trains which might be heading that way. Hearing a train whistle, he told the phone “Forget it”, and went outside to watch the destruction.
Bill Blair recalls Eric Reilly as an older schoolmate at Ochre River, Manitoba, where they grew up – Ochre River is a small farm community east of Dauphin. Bill recalls when he was a boy his father had a threshing outfit which included a steam tractor. He remembers his and Eric’s fathers doing road grading projects with the steam tractor; perhaps the start of Eric being interested in construction.
Eric went away to war, and after the war he ended up on the tractor-train run on Lac Seul. Before there were ‘Ice Road Truckers’, there were ‘Ice Road Tractor-Trains’, consisting of a crawler tractor pulling a train of work sleighs over the frozen lakes. Possibly the biggest Tractor-Train operation in the world was from the railway at Hudson, down Lac Seul toward Ear Falls and on to supply the Red Lake gold fields. This service continued until after the Red Lake Highway was opened in the late 40’s.
Peter Jalkanen lent me an excellent book some years ago which told how the tractor-train idea was invented and perfected by his fellow-Icelanders the Sigfusson family, commercial fishermen on Lake Winnipeg, back in the 20’s and 30’s. Occasionally a tractor would go down through the ice – even the smaller crawlers of that day were pretty heavy. The story that most amazed me was that they were able to retrieve the tractor from the bottom of the lake, have it disassembled enough to get the water out of the engine, and have it running again in as little as 24 hours, all done right there on the ice.
Ochre River is not far from Lake Winnipeg, so it seems at least possible that Eric might have had experience with tractor trains in Manitoba before the war.
In the late 40’s, the country roads through the Dryden District were connected up into a basic highway, pretty much along the route of the present Highway 17. Bill Blair recalls that his friend Eric Reilly worked for Dufferin Construction on that work, on contracts in the Jackfish lake area, and in the Eagle River area, and so gained some local knowledge. This would be summer work, off-season for working the tractor-trains on Lac Seul. After that Eric started his own Company in Kapuskasing, Ontario, hauling wood for Spruce Falls Paper Company, and he invited some of his friends from Ochre River to join him there, including Bill Blair and Howard Oversby. He was using trucks pulling a train of sleighs, the same technology used on ice roads but with trucks not tractors; perhaps he was building on what he learned on Lac Seul.
Trucks in those days were tiny compared with the giant’s we see on the highway now. Before about 1955 or so, the single-axle trucks in general use could haul perhaps 5 cords of wood, often loaded by hand, stick by stick. Eric could put as much as six cords on a sleigh, and could haul as many as 8 sleighs in a train, depending in topography and conditions of course. Bill says the largest load he remembers hauling was 43 cords.
Kapuskasing is in ‘The Great Clay Belt’, quite a large, relatively flat plain where this technology might be more competitive than in the hilly country of most wood limits, although Bill recalls there was a sizable hill down to the lake where they were dumping their loads on the ice. He was going down that hill one trip when his truck kicked out of gear and of course ran away; those truck brakes were no match for a string of loaded sleighs pushing the truck down a steep hill. He remembers the startled/terrified look on the faces of the guys unloading on the lake as he hurtled by at an amazing speed, coasting far past the unloading area, and feeling lucky to have survived the hair-raising trip.
Eric then got into heavy construction; Bill recalls one of his highest profile jobs was grading and landscaping around the new DeHavilland aircraft plant in Toronto. His last job before Oxdrift was work on the Trent Canal at Washego.
Eric was awarded the contract to rebuild the highway at Oxdrift to TransCanada standards in 1954. He sent his Superintendent who arranged a headquarters for the project at Owen Fenwick’s garage. Bill says he was the first of Eric’s workers to arrive, and before road work could start, Owen had him running a swather on his farm! Serious construction began in 1955, and that’s when most of the local boys joined the crew.
The Oxdrift project apparently did not prove a financial winner for Reilly Construction. In those days of regulated monopoly trucking, floating his fleet of self-propelled rubber-tired scrapers from Wachego to Oxdrift looked awfully expensive. Eric opted instead to have his crew drive them all that way; unfortunately all that running at high speed with no load damaged the engines. Then they proved not the best choice for our heavy clay soil. They needed to be pushed by a dozer when loading and sometimes again when unloading, and at least one of the scrapers ended up upside down in a ditch, trying to place slippery clay on a steep fill.
At any rate, it appears Eric wound up his Ontario operation after Oxdrift, and moved out west. Ab Mackie says his last job working for Reilly was driving a derelict old truck with debatable steering and questionable brakes from Kapuskasing to a scrapyard in Toronto, still avoiding those excessive floating costs. But Reilly Construction left a legacy in Oxdrift, all those farm boys with experience in heavy construction and trucking!