Breaking the land to open Canada's "Last Best
West" for large-scale agricultural settlement occurred during a relatively
brief period. The spectacular rapidity with which this "new breaking"
changed the west has invested it with a lingering symbolic legacy. Over the
years poets, novelists and composers have paid tribute to the men and machines
that broke the plains across the semi-arid North American interior, from the
corn belt of the American Midwest to the great "Bonanza" wheat farms
of the Dakotas, and finally to the prairie and parkland belts in the Canadian
In Canada, the
westward migration got its beginning with the Homestead Act of
1872 which was designed to encourage agricultural settlement in western Canada.
Although immigration was slow to begin, improved economic conditions that made wheat growing
profitable, and the help of a concerted effort on the part of the federal
government helped to attract immigrants to Canada. While Alberta's population was 18,075 in 1881, it
had grown to 374,663 by 1911 and increased further to 588,450 by 1921. Over
100,000 people had arrived from the United States; others came from Ontario and
the Maritimes, the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. Most were intent upon
establishing themselves on farms, and many brought their own farming experience
and their own plows and tillage equipment.
These homesteaders, flooding into Alberta along the new
railway lines, immediately faced the pressing problem of breaking up the rich,
fibrous soil to open the land to agriculture. Most required an immediate return
on their time and investment in order to survive, and found their own small
plows and horse or oxen power could not do the job fast enough. Many found a
solution to this Herculean task in the new agricultural technologies being
developed in the United States and central Canadasteam traction engines and
Steam traction engines could pull the large gang plows
needed to turn the sod quickly and efficiently. Where other methods proved
inadequate, the big steam engines provided the key that unleashed the frantic
agricultural assault on the Canadian interior as the twentieth century dawned.
When Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier predicted that the century would belong to
Canada, the wheat boom which was just starting to turn the prairies into the
bread basket of the world seemed to justify his enthusiastic optimism. The
mighty steam traction engines blasting their smoke into the blue western sky
rapidly became a symbol of that optimism.
Kenneth Tingley. Steel and Steam: Aspects of Breaking
Land in Alberta. n.p.: Friends of Reynolds-Alberta
Museum Society and Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historic Sites and
Archives Service, 1992. With permission from
of Reynolds-Alberta Museum.