East and west, connected by rail

0 173 Projects

by Don Wall

It was the megaprojects to end all megaprojects.
The Mountain Creek Bridge over Beaver Valley at the summit of the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia was 1,084 feet long and 153 feet high.
The Mountain Creek Bridge over Beaver Valley at the summit of the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia was 1,084 feet long and 153 feet high. - Photo: Library and Archives Canada

University of Toronto historian Bob Bothwell calls construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) from Ontario to the Pacific Ocean from 1881 to 1885 — 3,100 kilometres of new rails to complete a national system 4,100 kilometres long — "the most important building project in Canada's history, because it secured Canada's destiny as a nation spanning the continent, Atlantic to Pacific. The CPR was the sine qua non for completing Canadian confederation."

Who can disagree? It's also the most mind-boggling in terms of logistics, the most visionary and no doubt one of the greatest adventure tales in our nation's history.

It's a story that resonates today with Canadians such as Jim Bot, president of Ontario's Teranorth Construction, Stephen Cheasley, president of Montreal's Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum, and Jean Chretien, former prime minister of Canada. Each seemed to settle into an appreciative reverie in person or on the phone when asked to contemplate the accomplishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate and the tens of thousands of labourers, engineers, surveyors and suppliers who built the railway.

Chretien spoke after an appearance at a roadbuilders convention in Toronto recently.
"Imagine, when you see the picture of the last spike on the CPR, what would have been the feeling of these guys, who had to go and borrow money in England to build a railway in this vast land of ours, where the utilization must have been quite low at the beginning," said Chretien.

Whatever Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate member Donald Smith drives the last spike to join the east and west sections of the railway at Craigellachie, B.C. on Nov. 7, 1885. Directly behind Smith, wearing a top hat, is Sandford Fleming, Canada’s engineer-in-chief, and on Fleming’s right is William Van Horne, CPR general manager. - Photo:WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Most Canadians know the photograph Chretien is talking about. Donald Smith of the CPR syndicate brings a sledgehammer down on an iron spike at Craigellachie, B.C. on Nov. 7, 1885, ceremonially connecting east with west. Standing behind Smith is William Van Horne, the ebullient CPR general manager hired at the end of 1881 and probably the most important player driving the successful completion of the build within its five-year time frame. To Van Horne's left is Sandford Fleming, Canada's engineer-in-chief, a manager of surveying talent and meticulous estimator who first determined that the cost of a national railway would be in the $100-million range.

That's over $200 billion in 2017 dollars, a staggering amount.

Bot, whose firm does a lot of roadbuilding in northern Ontario where masses of hard Precambrian granite have to be blasted out of the way, talked about crews using primitive hand tools to create holes where sticks of dynamite would be placed.

"The equipment they had to work with, I just imagine how difficult that was," said Bot. "They didn't have the machines we have today. They've got to drill all these holes to put the dynamite in, through this rock, maybe two feet in each direction. And they did that by hand. Sledgehammers and bars. They would have a bar with a rock drill bit at the end, must have been some type of hardened steel, they start a hole off by hammering a hole into the rock, turning it as they go, and they keep hammering away until they get a hole. It could take days to get a hole.

"Their engineers, with the available materials, they built these bridges that trains still use today. It's amazing."

Cheasley sees it as a technology story. The dawn of the 1800s introduced steam engines that, it was realized, could be adapted to pull coal cars outside of a mining setting. Soon trains were moving people and goods faster than ever before. In Canada, the Grand Truck connected Montreal and Toronto in 1859.

"All of a sudden politicians now saw this technology could move people over long distances and basically made the concept of a country from the Atlantic to the Pacific possible," Cheasley explained.

"The fact that this railway was designed and built in a five-year span is breathtaking,"

Stephen Cheasley

Four years after Confederation in 1867, British Columbia joined the federation, with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promising to unite B.C. to the rest of Canada with a pan-Canadian railway within a decade. The project was on.

Author Pierre Berton, who wrote two books on the CPR, and Van Horne biographer Walter Vaughan offer comprehensive takes on the build. The national dream foundered that first decade, they write, as Macdonald was tainted by the Pacific Scandal and voted out of office in 1873. The new Liberal Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie, moved haltingly with only a few hundred kilometres of tracks laid by the time Macdonald returned to power in 1878. Macdonald and his railways minister Charles Tupper came to realize the private sector had to take over the national rail project. The CPR syndicate was formed including veteran railwaymen and entrepreneurs James Hill, the aforementioned Donald Smith and George Stephen among others.

The group would eventually craft an all-Canadian plan endorsed by Macdonald, deciding on a path that would head northeast from Lake Nipissing in Ontario, north of Lake Superior, through Winnipeg, straight across the Prairies and then burrowing through the Rockies and Selkirks to Port Moody on the Pacific.


The federal government gave enormous subsidies of cash and land — $25 million and over one-million acres of land in the prairies — and other benefits including possession of other sections already built or under construction. The federal offer ensured that for 20 years no line would be authorized to run south of the CPR, nor within 15 miles of the 49th parallel.

Chretien knew his history — Stephen visited various European financial houses before securing essential backing from Paris, London and New York financiers in March 1881.

The goal was to complete the transcontinental line within 10 years. It took half that.

"The fact that this railway was designed and built in a five-year span is breathtaking," said Cheasley.

The time frame is even more remarkable given that 1881 was a washout, with only 160 kilometres of rail built. By the end of the year, it was determined a master railwayman was needed to manage the project and the American Van Horne was brought in. Tons of supplies began to be stockpiled in Winnipeg. Steel rails poured in from England and Germany along with ties from the spruce forests east of Winnipeg, stone from Stonewall and lumber from Minnesota and Rat Portage (Kenora).

Van Horne innovations helped push the pace. The goal was to find a way, any way, to get track laid so that supply cars could move forward, and often a second crew — called Van Horne's flying wing — would be called to improve upon the work as the lead crew moved on. Van Horne also imported a track-laying machine and when it was determined that it cost a tenth as much to build trestles as to blast through rock, that became the preferred technique where possible.

Crews flew across the Prairies in 1882. Van Horne boasted 500 miles (800 kilometres) would be built that year. At one point there were over 10,000 men working to fulfill the boss's promise. Locating parties would do preliminary work, then ploughs and scrapers would lay out swaths 66 feet wide, then came cars filled with track layers and materials. The tracks were laid on berms four feet high to keep trains above snow level in winter.

Counting sidings and branch line work, that 1882 goal of 500 miles was met.

The mountains of the west and the rocks of northern Ontario presented challenges different from the Prairies. A pamphlet issued by supporters of the rival Grand Trunk Railway called the region north of Lake Superior "a perfect blank, even on the maps of Canada." A sophisticated supply chain was set up with deliveries coming via ship across Lake Superior. The syndicate built three dynamite factories north of Superior to enable constant blasting.

Whatever The telegram to Sir John A. Macdonald announcing that the CPR railroad construction was completed. - Photo:WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Berton wrote that one Ontario rock cut was going to be 700 feet long and 30 feet deep, 16 kilometres east of White River in Ontario. It would have taken a month to do it, so it was decided to go over the rocks. The first locomotive slid back attempting to ascend so crews had to sand the rails and smooth out track to permit passage. By the time the section had been built to standard, the end of line had moved on 50 kilometres.

Financing was forever a problem, and Van Horne and his allies reasoned that the sooner the build was complete, the quicker the enterprise could become profitable. An 1885 completion date became the goal. Van Horne relentlessly drove the crews onward. Biographer Vaughan wrote, the GM was "going like a whirlwind and inspiring every man he met."

The driving of the last spike marked the keeping of a promise. Van Horne's speech consisted of these words: "All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way."

Soon the CPR syndicate had paid back its debt to the federal government and by 1889, earnings for the CPR were over $15 million with profits of $6 million.

Keith Creel, the current president and CEO of CP, issued this comment when asked about the CPR: "We take pride in our past and look to the future with the same boldness, ambition and innovation that drove the creation of the railway in the first place. Throughout 2017 we will join our employees, customers, stakeholders and the country in celebrating CP's role in connecting Canada, then and now."

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