When Michael Heney was just 14, he ran away from the family farm in the Ottawa Valley to work for an uncle who was building a portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) near Georgian Bay.
His father quickly dragged him home to finish his education, but four years later he was off again, determined to make railroading his life’s work.
In amazingly short order, he became so successful at it that he became known in Alaska as Big Mike, the “Irish Prince of the Iron Trails.”
Starting as a waterboy and working his way up as a mule skinner, then on to blasting, grading and track-laying crews, by the time he was 19 he was surveying for the CPR in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. At 25, he built his first railway: from Seattle to Sumas, Washington.
Less than a decade later, without benefit of an engineering degree, Heney took on the challenge of building a narrow gauge line through treacherous mountain terrain to link Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.
“He just soaked up everything about building a railway; it wasn’t because of any formal paper training, it was from working on the railway,” says actor, director and playwright Conrad Boyce, who recently penned an epic musical drama about Heney.
Boyce was a prominent fixture in Whitehorse theatre circles for two decades before he and his wife moved to south-central Ontario in 1995. Three years ago, they began conducting small group tours to the Yukon each summer.
The finale of those tours was always a trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route, the railway Heney built between the summer of 1898 and the driving of the last spike on July 29, 1900.
An invitation to speak to a group of historic railway buffs persuaded Boyce to dig into Heney’s story, starting from his birth in 1864 to Irish immigrant parents in the tiny Ottawa Valley hamlet of Stonecliff (since re-named Stonecliffe).
“According to Google, the only famous person ever born in Stonecliff was Michael J. Heney, the builder of the White Pass and Yukon Railway,” Boyce explains. “So I went to the public library in the municipal building there and asked what they had on Michael Heney.”
The name apparently didn’t ring any bells.
“The Heneys haven’t lived there for a long time, and they had pretty much forgotten about him.”
As Boyce continued to delve, he came to realize he had the makings of a good Canada 150 project on an accomplished native son who is better known in Alaska than in his own country.
“It’s a pretty amazing story, and I just decided it needed to be told. And the idea of having Matthew Lien (long-time Yukon musician and composer, now based in Taiwan) write the music immediately popped into my head,” Boyce says.
“When I suggested the idea to him, he immediately leapt at it, and I think he’s having a lot of fun putting the music together.”
The result is a sprawling tale called Stonecliff, involving 44 separate characters, interpreted by a cast of 10 men and one woman, plus six musicians playing Lien’s score on traditional Irish instruments such as fiddles, bodhrán and Uilleann pipes.
“Obviously, very little of the dialogue is based on actual historical words, but there are exceptions.”
Those exceptions include the eulogies given at the funerals of Skagway’s notorious boss, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and town surveyor Frank Reid, who both died following a shootout on the Skagway docks on July 8, 1898. (Smith was a con man and thug who ran Skagway with a ruthless gang of thugs until he was gunned down by Frank Reid).
“For the most part, the challenge was to create realistic dialogue for that period, using historical characters for the most part. And there’s so much story to tell,” Boyce says.
The tale is redolent of Gold Rush history, including the fact that Heney was present on July 17, 1897 when the S.S. Portland arrived in Seattle with the first load of Klondike gold.
He was there by chance, recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by a disgruntled worker in Sitka, following his first Alaska venture.
The story continues through construction of both the White Pass and Yukon Route and the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, the founding of the town of Cordova, to Heney’s death at 45 from pneumonia resulting from a shipwreck near Seattle.
“He didn’t die in that shipwreck, but his lungs had been compromised by long years of smoking cigars and being exposed to granite dust. He was in the water so long, his lungs took a beating, and he died about a year after that.”
The play will premiere on Oct. 18 in Stonecliffe, the first of 10 performances in the Ottawa Valley area. In November, it will move north for a similar run in Alaska and the Yukon.
The lead role of Michael Heney will be played on both tours by Shaw Festival veteran Billy Lake.
Auditions for the rest of the northern cast (eight men, one woman and one boy) will take place at Selkirk Elementary School on Monday May 8 and Tuesday, May 9 at 7 p.m. Performers must be strong singers, Boyce says.
More information about the play and the project’s crowdfunding campaign is available at www.GoFundMe.com/Stonecliff-a-new-musical.