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Horse and Train, by Alex Colville
glazed tempera
Gift of Dominion Foundries and Steel Limited
Collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton

Roy Campbell, (2 October 1901 – 22 April 1957) was an Anglo-African poet and satirist. (Wikipedia)

Against a regiment I oppose a brain and a dark horse against an armoured train.

When British Columbia entered into Confederation, on 20 July 1871, the Dominion of Canada, constituted on July 1, 1867, promised it would build a railway that would stretch from coast to coast.  July 20, 1871[i] is a post-Confederation date as is July 15, 1870, when Manitoba joined the Dominion of Canada.

The railway promised British columbia was to be built within ten years which may have worked except for the lack of a team and money.  This railway had to cross several hundreds of kilometers of what seemed unbreachable ranges of mountains.

Albert Bowman Rogers

In 1881, The Canadian Pacific Railway promised to give Major Albert Bowman Rogers (28 May 1829 – 4 May 1889), a cheque for $5,000.00 to find the pass named in his honour.  As quoted in Wikipedia, Rogers “became obsessed with finding the pass” that would be named the Rogers Pass.  The pass was discovered in April 1881.  The CPR gave Rogers the cheque for $5,000.00 which he kept in a frame until the CPR gave him an engraved watch.

The ten years had passed since British Columbia had entered into Confederation. The railway was under construction but there had been a lull.

Blackfoot chief Crowfoot and Father Lacombe

There were other obstacles. For instance, the train would pass through land controlled by the Blackfoot First Nation. A missionary priest, Albert Lacombe, persuaded the Blackfoot chief Crowfoot that construction of the railway was inevitable.  Crowfoot agreed and was rewarded with a lifetime pass to travel on the CPR.

The Kicking Horse River

Another obstacle was the Kicking Horse River.  There was a 350-meter drop in the first 6 km (3.7 miles).  The CPR would have to build to a long stretch of track with a 4.5 percent gradient when it reached the pass in 1884. This was too steep a gradient for nineteenth-century technology and two steep a gradient for current technology.  That section of the track would be called the CPR’s Big Hill (see Video).  Special locomotives would have to be built, but runaways (go to List) occurred including the first locomotive to descend the line.  These conditions remained for 25 years or until the completion of the Spiral Tunnels (see Video) in the early 20th century.

William Cornelius Van Horne

Besides construction was too slow until 1882, when the CPR hired renowned railway executive William Cornelius Van Horne.  There were all manner of catastrophes including floods (eastern part).  However, by June 1882, the Department of Railways and canals built the Thunder bay brand (west from Fort William) and turned it over to the CPR in May 1883,  “permitting all-Canadian lake and rail traffic from eastern Canada to Winnipeg, for the first time in Canada’s history.”  (Wikipedia, Canadian Pacific Railway)

Sections built simultaneously

The railway was built in sections.  Certain eastern parts of the railway were built at the same time as western parts, making it possible for the railway to be built faster.  At that rate “by the end of 1883 the railway had reached the Rocky Mountains, just eight km (5 miles) east of Kicking Horse Pass.  The construction seasons of 1884 and 1885 would be spent in the mountains of British Columbia and on the north shore of Lake Superior.” (Canadian Pacific Railway, Wikipedia,)

The Navvies and the Coolies: shame on us! 

East of the Rockies, navvies built the railway.  But in British Columbia, Chinese workers called coolies were hired. The navvy, many of whom were immigrants, was poorly paid:  “between $1 and $2.50 per day, but had to pay for his own food, clothing, transportation to the job site, mail and medical care.”  But matters were worse for Chinese workers, coolies, who made 75 cents and $1.25 a day, paid in rice mats, and not including expenses, leaving barely anything to send home.


The more dangerous construction jobs were carried by the coolies, the Chinese workers.  They cleared tunnels using explosives and the families of those who died were not compensated for the loss of their bread-winner.  At times, they were not even notified that their relative had died.  As for the men who survived, they had not earned enough money to return to their families in China, despite a promise from Chinese labour contractors.  There is a sense in which the Chinese (go to lower part of the entry) built the railway (its western part).  No apology was issued by the Canadian government until 2006.

The Railway Relief Bill & the Last Spike

Yet, despite the low cost of labour, building through solid rock was too expensive for the government to continue building.  It therefore passed the Railway Relief Bill, providing a further $22.5 million in loans to the CPR. The bill received royal assent on 6 March 1884 and a year later the last spike was the, the Last Spike was driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia, on 7 November 1885.  Not that the entire railway was completed but British Columbia had its railway as promised.  See timeline [iii].

You will need this list when you watch the first video:

  • 1871.  British Columbia enters into Confederation conditionally.  The Dominion of Canada will have to build a railway within ten years.
  • Sir J. A. MacDonald awards the contract to Sir Hugh Allan, in exchange for campain contributions.  That event is remembered as the Pacific Scandal.  MacDonald resigned.
  • 1873.  Alexander Mackenzie is elected prime Minister, but neglects the railway.
  • Therefore, B. C. threatens to secede from its union with Canada.
  • 1878.  Sir J. A. MacDonald is re-elected, primising completion of the railway
  • 1881. CPR is incorporated and Sir Donald Alex Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, will build the eastern part of the railway.
  • Western part contracted to American Railway Engineer Andrew Onderdonk
  • Underdonck hires Chinese, which is opposed by inhabitants of British Columbia.
  • 1885. A Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration [ii] settles the debate. The Chinese workers are needed or the railway will not be built.  Sir John A. MacDonald argues that the Chinese will return to China.
  • About 15,000, some say 17, 000, Chinese workers are hired. Approximately 1,500 die during construction, but there is no official record.
  • The Last Spike: November 7, 1885 (driven by Sir Donald Alex Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal).

This ends my story of the railway.  It would now be possible to travel from coast to coast although, temporarily, alternative transportation would be necessary in certain areas. areas.

But former British colonists who had retired to Victoria—many from the Far East—finally had a means of crossing their province and the Dominion of Canada and and eastern Canadians could travel westward.  A Mari usque ad Mare.

[i] See Dates Provinces and Territories Entered Canadian Confederation

[ii] Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration (report and evidence).

[iii] Timeline History of Canadian Pacific Railway:  http://www.kohlin.com/soo/cpr-hist.htm

Videos & a song:
Canadian Pacific Railway
Canada’s Canyon
The “Big Hill” Climb
CPR Spiral Tunnel
GordonCanadian  LightfootRailroad Trilogy (Lyrics )

© Micheline Walker
25 May 2012