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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> Romance of Modern Locomotion > Chapter 3

Chapter III

The Building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Great Canadian Railway

In Canada, as in the United States and Siberia, the origin of the first transcontinental line was political. As long ago as 1847 Major Carmichael Smith urged upon the Government the necessity of creating a great national highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to supply the last link in the chain round the world, uniting the English race by land and sea.

The Grand Trunk line had already opened communication by rail between Upper and Lower Canada and the United States. When, in 1871, British Columbia entered the Confederation of Canadian States, it was felt that more politic union would be but a weak bond, unless ready access to the Pacific seaboard were possible from the older states. During the previous year the difficulty of quelling Louis Riel's rebellion on the Red River—only half-way across the continent—on account of the lack of means of transport, had brought home to the Government the fact that without a railroad the remote province on the Pacific would be very vulnerable in the event of war. It was also insisted on the part of Columbia, that, as a condition of entering the Confederation, a railway should be thrown right across Canada.

The carrying out of so gigantic a task fell upon the Government, and the Premier, Sir John Macdonald, promised that the line should be completed in ten years. On July 20, 1871, the surveys were commenced in British Columbia, as they had already been on other portions of the route; and before the end of the year a practicable line had been discovered over the whole distance from Lake Superior to the Pacific. In order that the best possible path should be taken by the rails through the difficult country of the Rocky, Selkirk, Gold, and Cascade mountains on the west, and the Laurentian ranges round Lake Superior, the surveyors were hard at work for the next six years, on a task that cost the Government £750,000 sterling. Engineers explored the mountain passes in all directions, experiencing the hardships and dangers inseparable from travel in wild, icebound country, fissured by huge chasms, along the side of which they had to creep, and flanked by towering peaks that hurled down devastating avalanches. The adventures of these pioneers, thrilling and varied, are enough in themselves to fill a book, and, did space permit, might here be added as a most interesting chapter in the romance of the railway.

The task before the Government was as follows: to construct 2500 miles of new line, 650 of which—between Ottawa River and Port Arthur, on Lake Superior—lay through a district notorious for its unsuitability for railway construction. From Lake Superior to Winnipeg, on the Red River, the country was also difficult, and west of Winnipeg, the Prairie section stretched 900 miles to the Rocky Mountains, a territory which, so far from being of the billiard-table levelness of popular imagination, contains very little level ground. The west mountain section, through the Rockies to the Pacific, promised to strain the resources of the engineer to the utmost.

The early fortunes of this railroad varied with the political party in power. When Conservatives held the reins of official,even they turned to private enterprise to help them lay the track; when the Liberals ousted them, it was discovered that Government, and Government alone, should conduct operations. As a result of this shifting and changing, actual work was not begun until 1875, and then only at the Lake Superior end, no progress being made from the Pacific side till 1879.

In the latter year the Conservatives returned to power, and things "began to move." Private persons were called for to undertake the completion of the track. Several gentlemen came forward—Messrs. J. J. Hill, R. B. Angus, J. S. Kennedy, G. Stephens, and Duncan M'Intyre, backed financially by Messrs. Morton Rose of London, and Messrs. Cohen & Reinach of Paris, "the seven concessionaires of the longest and most important railway that has yet been handled by one syndicate." The essential conditions of the contract were:—

That the Company should receive 25,000,000 dollars in cash, and an equal number of acres of land in the fertile belt, in addition to right of way for track and stations, shops, docks &c.; on public lands.

That all materials used in the first construction of the roads should be admitted duty free.

That the Company's lands should be perpetually exempt from taxation.

That the sections of line under contract—about 700 miles, which had cost 30,000,000 dollars—should be completed by the Government and handed over as a free gift to the Company.

The Canadian Pacific Railway Company on its side contracted to have the line open for traffic by May 1891, and to observe a standard of construction equal to that of the Union Pacific road in 1873. Later on, when the Company found itself compelled to apply to Government for a loan of six million pounds, the date was altered to May 1886.

On February 17, 1881, the C. P. R. Act received the Royal Assent, and the Company its charter. For the fulfilment of the contract, over 400 miles of rail must be laid each year; and in order to make this possible, work was commenced simultaneously at several points—on Lake Superior, at Ottawa, and at Winnipeg, westwards, and from the Pacific coast, eastwards.

The Company's chief energies were first concentrated on the section between Winnipeg and Calgary in the Rocky Mountains. It was decided to abandon the route mapped out originally by the Government surveyors north of Lake Manitoba and through Edmonton and Pine River Pass, and to follow a track some hundreds of miles further south through the Rockies; also to construct the line in a more substantial manner than the contract required.

The earthwork on the "prairie section" averaged some 17,000 cubic yards per mile, and, in order to avoid snow-block as far as possible, the railway ran along embankments.

Between May and December 1881, 165 miles were driven west from Winnipeg. the following year, to quicken operations, a contract was made by the Company with Messrs. Langdon & Shepherd, of St. Paul, Minnesota, to complete the line to Calgary. The contractors at once advertised for labour, offering 8s. 4d. per diem to navvies, and 19s. for two horses and a driver. They also sublet the work in sections, of a length varying with the ability and means of the contractor.

A vivid account given of the work on this section in the columns of Engineering will enable the reader to form some idea of the completeness of the organisation required to lay 500 miles of rail in a single year.

"The rapidity of construction of this section of the road is without a parallel in this or any other country. Where there was neither timber nor building stone all the materials had to be transported from 700 to 1500 miles, and even the food and the commonest necessaries for the consumption of the men and the horses had to be brought on an average 1000 miles, as the whole country west of Winnipeg was too new and unsettled to supply the simplest want. It was important that none of the sub-contractors should undertake more than they could accomplish within the specified time, and of the sixty parties employed, and over three hundred separate contracts let on the prairie section of the work, only twice was there any delay in this respect, or where the firm had to complete the work themselves. As soon as a gang had finished one section, they had to move from 100 to 150 miles ahead to their next location, where in another six weeks they were tolerably sure to hear the locomotives behind them, and the clanging of the hundred hammers of the platelayers close at their heels.

"In advance of the track-laying party were two bridge gangs, one working night and the other in the day, and as every stick of timber had to be brought from Rat Portage, 140 miles east of Winnipeg, they were seldom more than eight to ten miles ahead of the track-layers. The timber had to be hauled from the point where it could be unloaded, as near to the end of the track as possible, to the place where it was wanted, and this was generally done in the night to interfere as little as possible with the other work. Where not a stick of timber nor any preparation for work could be seen one day, the next would show two or three spans of a nicely-finished bridge, and twenty-four hours afterward the rails would be laid and trains working regularly over it. Following these came the track-laying gang, the most attractive and lively party of the lot, and on which most of the interest of those who visited the work seemed to centre. There were three hundred men with thirty-five teams in this gang. Moving along slowly but with admirable precision, it was beautiful to watch them gradually coming near, everything moving like clockwork, each man in his place, knowing exactly his work and doing it at the right time and in the right way. Onward they come, pass on, and leave the wondering spectator slowly behind whilst he is still engrossed with the wonderful sight. The returning locomotive, with her long string of empty cars rushing past him, awakens him from his reverie, and another, pushing before her more slowly her heavy load and taking them up to the front, shows him that where an hour before there was nothing but the upturned sod, two ditches, and a low embankment, there is now a finished working railway, and that the great Pacific highway is a fixed fact before his eyes. The emblem of civilisation has passed, the subjugation of the land is accomplished, and that which was the hunting-ground of the Indian and the home of the buffalo yesterday, has gone for ever from his occupation, is Britain to-day, not in name only but in use, and will probably be occupied within a week by some hopeful and happy British family, who in another season or two will make it a smiling home, and the abode of lasting comfort and prosperity. No wonder that it was a sight that hundreds came to see; it was a miracle of progress, the visible growth of an empire, the practical realisation of the dream of centuries, as the highway was gradually being laid down destined to conduct the commerce of Europe to that wonderful Orient where a prodigal Nature pours out her riches to supply the wants and luxuries of the world. All that Columbus and Champlain and others had hoped to discover, all that Magellan and Hudson and Franklin had died to find out, all that England and Spain had bestowed their money to explore, and all that France had lavished her energies and sacrificed her heroes to control, was quietly being accomplished by that motley gang and those few locomotives as the north-west passage to Asia was being gradually laid down over these hitherto unserviceable prairies. Each day from twenty to twenty-five 20-ton cars of rails and fastenings, and from forty to fifty cars of ties and other materials were laid down by this busy track-laying gang, and nearly all of this had come an average of 1000 miles by rail before it was safely delivered at the 'end of the track.'"

Under these conditions it is not surprising to learn that in 1882 no less than 349 miles of finished railway was laid, in addition to 110 miles of grading in advance. For some months operations were sadly delayed by disastrous floods on the Red River; and in order to make up for lost time some extra-ordinary work was witnessed during the last six months of the year, during which rail-head advanced at the rate of nearly two miles a day. Even this record was eclipsed in 1883, when for several weeks on end 3½ miles of track were completed daily, the finest record, that of July 28, being quite unsurpassed in railway construction.

On that day 6⅓ miles were laid. This is how the writer already quoted describes it:—

"There were twenty-four men to handle the iron, that is, twelve unloading it from the cars, and twelve to load the trollies. It took the same number to lay it down in the track. the total number of rails laid that day was 2120, or 604 tons. Five men on each side of the front car handed down 1060 rails, 302 tons each gang, whilst the two distributors of angle-plates, and bolts, and adjusters of the rails for running out over the rollers, handled 2120 rails, 4240 plates, and 8480 bolts. These were followed by fifteen bolters, who put in on an average 565 bolts each; then thirty-two spikers, with a nipper to each pair, drove 63,000 spikes, which were distributed by four peddlers. The lead and gauge spikers each drove 2120 spikes, which, averaging four blows to each spike, would require 600 blows an hour for fourteen hours. There were 16,000 ties or sleepers unloaded from the trains, and reloaded on to waggons by thirty-two men, and thirty-three teams hauled them forward on to the track, averaging seventeen loads of thirty sleepers to each team. On the track eight men unloaded and distributed them, and four others spaced them, two others arranged and adjusted displaced ties immediately in front of the leading spikers. Four iron carboys and two horses were used to haul the iron to the front. The first two miles of material were hauled ten miles along the prairie, and the rest from three miles up, as the usual side track gang put in a siding two thousand feet long during the day."

To feed the army of 9000 men at work on the prairies over 150 miles of country was in itself a heavy task. The horses consumed 1600 bushels of oats a day, and the men required the contents of two 35-foot trucks to keep them in condition for their severe labours. There was no underfeeding or bad provisions. In 1893 a thousand cattle died in the prairie slaughter-houses; three hundred sacks of flour were distributed among the army of navvies, who lived well on a generous variety of food. The camps were well policed, and the ruffianism that was so common on the great railroads of the United States, was here practically unknown, thanks to the strict prohibit on all intoxicating liquors among the workmen. all trains were carefully examined for contraband goods. If a man was detected importing liquor, he lost his property and fifty dollars. A second offence meant a 200-dollar fine; on the third occasion it was doubled, and he was ornamented with a ball and chain on one leg. The fact that such magnificent work was done in Canada without the aid of alcohol is a serious blow to the claims put forward by a large portion of the community in this and other countries on behalf other the valuable properties of strong drink as a help for hard physical labour.

On August 15, 1893, the rail-head reached Calgary, and Messrs. Langdon & Shepherd's men were transferred to a fresh contract to penetrate the Rockies. In three seasons 962 miles had been laid between Winnipeg and these mountains. Meanwhile progress was being made in other sections. In British Columbia an army of 7000 Chinese hacked and hewed its way through the Cascade Range, and as many more labourers were busy between Winnipeg and Ottawa, breaking down , with thousands of tons of dynamite, the tough Laurentian and Huron rocks. Along the northern shore of Lake superior the amount of blasting to be done made it worth while to establish dynamite factories on the spot. A single mile of tunnelling by the lake side is said to have cost three quarters of a million sterling. It was fortunate that, in spite of natural obstacles, the work was energetically carried out, winter and summer alike, since in the spring of 1885 Louis Riel, at the head of a band of malcontents, raised a second rebellion in the far North-West, which was quickly crushed on account of the speed with which the nearly finished railway enabled the militia to arrive on the scene of action. Very shortly after this rebellion the line stretched continuously from Montreal to the summit of the Rockies.

The latter had been reached at the end of 1884, and the engineers paused awhile to consider the merits of the various routes open for the descending gradients on the Pacific slope. One of these, the Howse Pass, offered comparatively easy gradients, but it would have added thirty miles to the length of the line. The Kicking Horse Pass, on the other hand, was short but steep, and in order to complete the transcontinental track without loss of time, the engineers decided to build a temporary line through the Kicking Horse Pass, and replace it later on by the more circuitous but gentler gradients of the Howse Pass. "In the 44 miles between the summit of the rockies and the mouth of the pass in the valley of the Columbia River, a fall of 2747 feet was accomplished, and in that distance, in addition to other minor streams the Kicking Horse River was crossed nine times, and, exclusive of tunnels, 1,500,00 cubic yards were excavated, 370,000 of which were of rock. The drilling for this, owing to the impossibility of conveying machinery to the spot, was done by hand. In one part treacherous landslips gave far more trouble than even the hardest rock.1

Early in 1885, while the eastern sections of the C. P. R. were being linked up round Lake Superior, a gap of only 220 miles remained in Columbia. But across the gap stretched the Selkirks and the Gold Range. The former had proved almost impenetrable even to the surveyors, and when at last Major Rogers, the Company's engineer, acting on the advice of a Mr. Moberley—who in turn had got a hint from the flight of an eagle—discovered a practicable path, the platelayers were hard on his heels.

The two parties finally met in Eagle Pass, in the Gold Range. Before the last few miles had been laid the first transcontinental train was despatched from Montreal, on what was confidently expected to be an unbroken journey to the Pacific. On November 5, 1885, a day that should go down in posterity as marking a critical event in Canadian history, the last rail was laid, and the last spike driven, in the lonely forest glade at Craigellachie. There was no ceremony, no feasting or speechmaking to make the event. The last spike was no golden one, such as closed the Northern Pacific plate-laying in the presence of a large multitude, but of plain iron like the millions of others that had preceded it. It was hammered in by Sir Donald Smith, a dozen or so persons looking on, and then the small party went off to fish, just as if the completion of so gigantic a work were quite an ordinary occurrence! But meanwhile the news was flashed over the wire spanning mountain and plain. The whole world knew that the line was open six months before time!

Thus in four years and a half 2200 miles of rails had been laid, in a solid and substantial manner. At only one point between Montreal and Winnipeg does a gradient exceed fifty feet to the mile. Though there had been no obstruction from hostile Indians, such as had hindered the railway extension in the States, the route on the whole lay through difficult country. The C. P. R. has a distinct advantage of the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific systems as regards the altitudes reached by its rails. The highest point above sea-level on the C. P. R. is 5296 feet, as against the 5563 of the Northern Pacific and the 8240 of the Union Pacific. As a transcontinental route it has also in its favour the fact that but 2906 miles separate Montreal and Vancouver, as compared with the 3275 miles between New York and San Francisco. Since the St. Lawrence is open for traffic during the summer months only, the Government brought into being a line, known as "The International," to connect Montreal with the British ports of St. John in New Brunswick and Halifax in Nova Scotia, which all the year round would give a clear run from the waters of one ocean to those of the other, the St. Lawrence being crossed by a magnificent bridge at Lachine.

The political importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway can hardly be overestimated. It supplies England with an alternative route to those viâ the Suez Canal and the Cape, by which she may send troops to India or the Far East.

1 Quarterly Review, 1888
[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1960 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1960. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.