“Too Heavy for the Man; Too Light for the Horse” - Railway ties and how to make them

Leonard Lea Frazer

The tie-maker scores the edge of the tree with his double bitted axe.
The tie-maker scores the edge of the tree with his double bitted axe.
Leonard Frazer photo
Introduction: After interviewing two Valemount old-timers in 1978, I discovered some of the techniques used by tie-makers between 1914 and 1935. When I enquired at Nels Dahlberg’s home I was welcomed in to hear his stories of the early days.
Nels, having arrived in Canada at age twenty-three from Sweden, first worked on the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway at Prince Rupert in 1913 and then as a foreman at a tie-camp. In later years he ran a cedar pole business at Lempriere (south of Valemount). Mr. Dahlberg still had most of the tools used in the tie-making trade and opened his old garage so I could examine and photograph them.

Jules Frye, at Cedarside, was born and raised at Albreda where his family cut railway ties for the Canadian Northern Railway. He also had many old tools and was gracious enough to demonstrate how several ties could be chopped and cut out of one tree.

Railway Ties: Tie-making of years ago was definitely a one-man job, although many workers could have been involved, especially in a large operation such as a tie-camp. Tie making tools included a double bitted axe, broad axe, and a tie-makers crosscut saw.

The tools and equipment used in hauling and loading ties were peeves, picaroons, gin-poles, and a wooden block and tackle. Ties were skidded and hauled with horses usually on sleighs. The cutting of ties was done in the winter and most contracts had to be finished before the sap-flow in the wood started in April.

On making a tie: After a tree was selected and felled using a crosscut saw and axe, it would be limbed. The actual cutting and shaping of the ties from a felled tree was done in two long cuts, one on either side of the tree. The tie-maker would stand on top of the tree and begin at one end, walking backwards, scoring or chopping a straight flat surface, right down the length of the tree, using a double bitted axe. Then, repeating the same procedure, moving back down the tree in the opposite direction, a surface, parallel with the other side, was scored. The tie-maker would then use his broad axe and start on the third pass down the length of the tree, hewing the finished surface of the tie. When both sides were chopped and shaved off, the tree was then cut into eight-foot lengths starting at the bottom of the tree. The first tie cut from the tree was usually a Grade No. 1 tie, which was sold for the highest price. There were No. 1, 2, and 3 grade ties. A good tie-maker would average one hundred ties per working day.

Railroad ties today are cut at sawmills and in some cases have been replaced by concrete ones. Ties are no longer made by hand or hauled by man or horse.

One side of the tree is roughly chopped to form an edge.
One side of the tree is roughly chopped to form an edge.
Leonard Frazer photo

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Using a broad axe, the tie-maker demonstrates how the edges on the tree can be shaped to form one smooth surface.
Using a broad axe, the tie-maker demonstrates how the edges on the tree can be shaped to form one smooth surface.
Leonard Frazer photo

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Close up shot of a broad axe head.
Close up shot of a broad axe head.
Leonard Frazer photo

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The late Jules Frye, former tie-maker, with the tools of the trade.
The late Jules Frye, former tie-maker, with the tools of the trade.
Leonard Frazer photo

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Nels Dahlberg, with piles of railway ties at Sheraton, B.C.
Nels Dahlberg, with piles of railway ties at Sheraton, B.C.
Nels Dahlberg photo