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Noble horsepower fuelled the construction of Confederation

Peter Kenter
Noble horsepower fuelled the construction of Confederation

Pretty much all that’s left of the noble draft horse in modern construction is the word “horsepower” slapped on the engine compartments of construction equipment. But before the age of hydrocarbons and steam engines, horses provided the backbone of most of Canada’s construction work, powering excavation and earth-moving, stump-pulling, logging, and road construction.

They’re not often distinctly mentioned in early accounts of the country’s great construction projects because they were so ubiquitous. Not to downplay the contributions of oxen and mules, but any construction company worth its salt offered a team of well-trained horses to haul construction material and equipment into place.

Horses have been used for centuries alongside humans to bring sheer brute force to construction projects. Horses and humans, for example, powered a wooden "lifting tower" to move the 344-ton obelisk to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1586.

Merlin Ford is the author of Horses, Harnesses and Homesteads, a history of draft horses in Saskatchewan. He notes that even the dawning of the age of railroads didn’t diminish the importance of the horse in construction as horses handled almost all local transport.

Ford has combed archival material involving draft horses and uncovered photographs and illustrations of horses being used to power massive projects, including moving buildings from one location to another.

"Almost everything within a city, from heavy beams to houses, and from snow to sewer pipe would have been moved by horses," he says. "There would have been a whole range of wagons for hauling freight or moving things, just as there would be a whole range of semi-trailers in use today."

As roadbuilders, horses pulled excavating graders along new roadbeds. Horse-drawn graders were used to build the White Pass & Yukon Railroad in British Columbia in the late 1890s.

Horses were used to build the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and legend has it that horse urine was used to accelerate the oxidization of the copper roofs, to give them a desirable green patina.

Horse-powered elevating graders and ditchers used mechanical elements to lift excavated dirt onto a wagon. Elevating graders drawn by horses were the big muscle used to dig the Welland Canal.

Construction of the first Welland Canal began in 1824 and was completed in 1829. An article in the February 28, 1827 issue of the Farmer’s Journal and WeIland Canal Intelligencer noted the positive effect of the horse workforce on the local economy:

"I myself heard from Mr. Leonard at the Deep Cut, that he had paid out more than A THOUSAND DOLLARS IN A WEEK for Oats and Hay, solely for the horses employed on the canal. This does not sound like ruin to the farmers at any rate who get $12 per ton in cash for their Hay, and 2s.6d. per bushel for their Oats, all of which they might eat themselves if they liked, if it was not for the canal, before they would get any such prices for them."

Some ditchers were powered by two teams of horses, one team pulling and the other pushing and were used on such projects as the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District canal in the early 1920s.

Coming to market in 1903 was The Improved Powers Well Boring Machine–Outfit Number One, a horse-driven auger that could bore wells to a depth of up to 300 feet.

The first portable cement mixer in America entered the market in 1904. The device consisted of a horse-drawn wagon with the front set of wheels replaced by a massive steel drum. Cement was mixed inside the drum as it rolled along the surface of the road.

Although machinery gradually replaced horses, there was no sudden revolution that sent them all back to the stable. Through the 1940s, horses worked alongside machines on the jobs for which they were still best suited. In Toronto, the City Streets Department used horses until 1946. A few survivors delivered milk through the early 1960s.

However, equines can still hold their own with the right sort of project.

Al Brown, operations manager for CH Coakley Logistics, still uses horses to deliver communications equipment high up on wooded hillsides in rural Wisconsin on behalf of companies such as US Cellular. Problem was that four-wheel drive trucks and all-terrain vehicles weren’t up to the job.

"I’ve been using horses for 20 years, on behalf of three cellular carriers," he says.  He recalls an all-terrain-vehicles blowing its transmission on an icy patch and heavy trucks breaking through snow crust and getting stuck in the mud beneath.

The company’s newest sub-contractor is a team of eight horses from Jason Julian of Medford, Wis. The hard-working horses are delivering the latest technology where even the toughest machinery fears to tread.

"The horses do it a little bit better," says Brown.

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