Beef for the Railway Workers

The demand for beef for the 5000 men working on the Yale to Kamloops section of the CPR was huge. Thaddeus Harper supplied the beef during 1882 and won the contract to supply it again the following year. As he scoured the Interior of British Columbia for cattle, from the Cariboo to the Similkameen, he noticed that he had competition. J.B. Greaves and Benjamin Van Volkenburg, who had purchased cattle for years from Harper for Van Volkenburg’s butcher shops throughout British Columbia, went into partnership to form a syndicate. They attracted major capital to corner the market on British Columbia beef and supply the lucrative CPR contract.

A photograph of a Canadian Pacific Railway contractor's cattle car. Click to enlarge,
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CPR Contractors Cattle Car #260, 1883. I-30844 - Courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum

Backed by the wealth of Joseph Pemberton, William Ward, Charles Thompson, and Judge Peter O'Reilly, Greaves quietly began to buy up all the cattle he could. Greaves, in partnership with C.M. Beak, acquired a huge amount of land in the Douglas Lake area to hold his cattle, and the Douglas Lake Ranch was born. Mid-way through the 1883 construction season, Harper was running out of cattle to supply the CPR and defaulted on his contract. The syndicate was quick to fill the void and obtained the contract for the next two years of railway construction. By March 1889, Harper's financial situation had deteriorated to the point that his land holding in the Chilcotin had been put up for auction by order of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

The competition between the syndicate and Thaddeus Harper drove the price of beef cattle up and benefited the ranchers of the Interior, who for years had struggled with small markets and large herds. All the available cattle in the Nicola, Okanagan, Cariboo, and Chilcotin were bought up, and the ranchers began to enjoy a prosperity that they had only dreamed of in the 1870s. The new-found wealth, and the promise of better access to markets once the railway was completed, changed the situation significantly. The rough and ready days of the gold rush and frontier were beginning to give way to the more civilized touches that the railway promised to bring.

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