Andrew J. Onderdonk (1848 - 1905) was a construction contractor who worked on several major projects including the San Francisco seawall in California and the Onderdonk Section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia.
He was born in New York to an established Dutch family. He received his education at the Troy Institute of Technology. He married Sarah Delia Hilman of New Jersey. After starting his career surveying townsites and roads in New Jersey, he headed west to work as a general manager for financier Darius Ogden Mills on several engineering contracts.
His first major project was the San Francisco seawall. This project took three years and involved constructing ferry slips and sea walls for the San Francisco Harbour.
Canadian Pacific Railway
In 1879, he won a series of contracts to build the western section of what is now the Canadian Pacific Railway. Working directly for the Canadian government, he built the 127 mile section from Vancouver to Savona (near Kamloops). When those sections were complete he continued building eastward under contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway until he ran out of rail in Eagle Pass in 1885.
Onderdonk and his wife, moved to Yale, British Columbia to supervise the construction. Yale was the head of navigation for steamships on the Fraser River and very near the starting point for his first contract at Emory's Bar. It was not until 1882 that the contract was let for the section between Yale and Port Moody.
One of the more controversial aspects of Onderdonk's work in British Columbia was his use of Chinese workers. From Emory's Bar to Savona, the railway had to be built through the Fraser Canyon with immense cliffs requiring extensive and expensive tunnelling. Against the wishes of much of the white British Columbia population, he got permission to import Chinese workers from both California and China. Along with widespread racism, the white population feared wage decreases and job loss because of the Chinese workers. Onderdonk told the government that if he could not use Chinese workers, the railway could not be built.
Historians estimate he brought in several thousand Chinese from China and many more thousand from California. The Chinese workers were always kept on crews separate from the white workers and often given the most dangerous jobs including the tunnel blasting using the highly unstable nitroglycerin explosive. Many Chinese were killed in accidents or died of scurvy during the winter. Unlike the white workers, injured Chinese workers were not provided access to the company hospital and were abandoned to the rest of the workers to help. Discrimination and racism led to fights between the Chinese workers and the white workers, including white foreman of the Chinese crews. Generally the Chinese were seen as efficient, hard working and well behaved workers.
Canadian Pacific Contracts
When Onderdonk finished the 5 government contracts, he undertook contracts directly with the Canadian Pacific Railway to build eastward to meet the track being built from the east. Unlike the section in the Fraser Canyon, the section east of Savona was much easier to build. The route followed the south shore of Kamloops Lake, through the city of Kamloops, then along the South Thompson River. The line generally follows the shore of Shuswap Lake except for a short cut through Notch Hill. Leaving the lake at Sicamus, the line goes up Eagle Creak towards Eagle Pass. In the summer of 1885, Onderdonk's workers ran out of rail at a location that was later called Craigellachie. The railway construction from the east reached that point in November and the last spike was hammered home on November 7, 1885.
After his work for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he continued doing railway and canal contracts, mostly in eastern Canada and the United States. In 1895, Onderdonk obtained a contract from the Canadian government to build the Trent Valley Canal in Ontario.
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