The Contrarian: Monument To Martha

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A previous column discussed how Engineers, those responsible for the construction and maintenance of real property, buildings, roads, utilities including transformation and use of energy came to think of themselves as “The Sons of Martha,’.

This idea comes from the Engineers poem, in which Rudyard Kipling puts them in the shadow of “The Sons of Mary”, those who provide services or products and deal with the customer.

A century ago, a contractor named Harry McLean opened and operated a very large quarry at Hawk Lake, on the CPR between Kenora and Vermilion Bay, quarrying and crushing some of the hardest, toughest stone around. It was used to ballast the CPR mainline from somewhere east of Thunder Bay to somewhere out in Saskatchewan.

Harry McLean was a larger than life figure as Canada’s most successful and colourful building contractor of that time. One of his triumphs was the rail line from The Pas to Flin Flon, for which he invented the method still generally used for getting railways in place across permafrost.

Harry was so enthusiastic about the concept that Engineers are the ‘Sons of Martha’ that he had a monument erected at a number of his larger construction projects, to recognize the workers who toiled there. Each is a substantial stone cairn with cast bronze plaques on all four sides, on which are cast the entire text of the Engineers poem.

There is one at Cranberry Portage, Mb, site of his large railway project; one at Abitibi canyon, site of his large hydro-electric project, and several others including one at the Hawk Lake quarry. I believe these monuments are maintained by local interest groups, for example Ontario Hydro employees look after the Abitibi canyon monument.

Our Lake of the Woods chapter of Engineers has taken as its mandate to see that the Hawk Lake monument is maintained, and an overhaul was done in the 70’s, and again in the 90’s. It might need work again, so last summer I made a point of visiting it. It is easily found; just before the Hawk Lake Road crosses the CPR, a road branches off to the east, running parallel to the tracks. The Sons of Martha monument is about a quarter mile up this road.

There are some cracks in the stonework, but overall the monument seems in reasonable shape at least for the short term.

As discussed earlier, there are plaques marking and describing the Last Spike at Feist Lake at the pullout on highway 17 at Little Joe Lake, which is not far from the Hawk Lake road turnoff. Perhaps that would be a good place for a similar plaque recognizing the monument at Hawk Lake, or perhaps it could go in the pullout at Dixie Lake which is bigger and closer to Hawk Lake road.

I would even favour an additional sign carrying the entire text of the Engineers poem, “The Sons of Martha’. After all we are the unfinished part of Canada, and this would be a good place to honour the building done so far. Putting our history out there where the public can see.

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