The map of western Canada is dotted with the names of CPR presidents, directors, shareholders, surveyors, and civil engineers.
On the CPR main line across Saskatchewan there's a station called Secretan (milepost 45.1 of the Swift Current Subdivision) named after J.H.E. Secretan, a civil engineer and head of the CPR's prairie survey party.
In 1882, he surveyed 400 miles of rail line from Manitoba to the Moose Jaw River. West of that river, Secretan, who had little understanding of the plight of the aboriginal peoples, locked horns with the Cree chief Piapot when members of his band pulled up 40 miles of surveyors' stakes. Secretan didn't mince words with Piapot, and alarm bells rang in Ottawa when he threatened to shoot on sight if the Cree pulled up one more stake.
Described as a "great, bulky, Englishman with a waxed moustache", Secretan loved food, a passion he shared with William Van Horne, the CPR's general manager. Before setting off on one of his prairie surveys, he drew up a list of food supplies he would require and sent it off to the CPR's purchasing agent. When the agent saw the list, he cut the supplies in half, which sent Secretan complaining to Van Horne. Van Horne yelled at the purchasing agent, calling him an idiot. "I'll just give you till six o'clock tonight to ship a carload of the very best stuff you can find up to Secretan."
All summer long, luxuries arrived at Secretan's survey camp. And on one occasion, the purchasing agent himself turned up with a bundle of the latest English newspapers, a box of the best cigars, and a bottle of rum - 14 Mar 2008 - Moose Jaw Times Herald - "Many Area Places Named for Executives, Engineers".
According to Secretan's book, "Canada'a Great Highway: From the First Stake to the Last Spike", one day VanHorne asked him "Where do you want a station named after you?" Secretan declined at first but thinking they had run out of names he chose "the most God-forsaken spot I could think of to be named after me."
"It is situated upon the summit of what is known as the Missouri Coteau, or Dirt Hills, a ridge 600 feet high and forty miles wide, which extended across our course and obstructed the passage of the great national highway. This ridge had given me a great deal of trouble in the location, and necessitated, as my professional readers will understand, a continuous maximum grade of one percent for nearly twelve miles, which was strongly objected to by the Company, but eventually adopted."
"Van Horne suggested some more attractive location for my station, and wondered why I should pick out such a place. I told him because it had given me so much trouble and I felt sure would never amount to anything, and if anybody ever got on or off a train at that station they would break their neck. And I actually remember reading in a paper one day that a man while attempting to board a train at Secretan, slipped and had his leg cut off."
"After many years, searching for a better line, they reduced the grades by making very deep cuttings at an enormous expense. Before that there was hardly a locomotive engineer on the road, when he had to cut his train in half in order to get up that grade, who did not sincerely curse Secretan."