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The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the muskeg swamps and prairies, over the foothills, and through the forbidding range of the Rocky Mountains was one of the finest epics of the pioneers of engineering


A TRAINLOAD OF TIMBER leaving a construction camp in Rogers Pass, Canadian Pacific Railway

A TRAINLOAD OF TIMBER leaving a construction camp in Rogers Pass, where the Canadian Pacific Railway penetrates the Selkirk Range. The trains carried sleepers to the railhead for the laying of the track as the work advanced.

ONE of the most outstanding engineering feats of the last century was the building of a railway across the North American continent, from Atlantic to Pacific - the Canadian Pacific Railway.

At the time the work was undertaken Canada was already a Dominion, but the various provinces, largely isolated, mutually distrustful, and not yet recognizing common interests, had only just achieved confederation - the price of which was a transcontinental railway. British Columbia had refused to have anything to do with confederation without an undertaking that this railway should be built and in operation within ten years.

The task of spanning the continent was a giant’s work, for it meant the expenditure of vast and largely incalculable sums of money on what seemed to most people a highly speculative enterprise probably foredoomed to failure. It involved years of preliminary surveys, of endless work, untiring patience and boundless enthusiasm in the face of every kind of difficulty and hardship, heartbreaking delay and danger. It cost a country of only 4,000,000 people many millions of pounds, and in addition it cost many lives. The railway had to traverse hundreds of miles of prairie, hundreds of miles of boulder-strewn bush, of muskeg swamp and seemingly unfathomable morass, and one of the most inaccessible and forbidding ranges of mountains that ever set an apparently insurmountable barrier before man’s ambition.

As early as 1851, Joseph Howe, orator, poet and statesman, delivering an address in Halifax, Nova Scotia, made the remarkable prophecy: “Many in this room will live to hear the whistle of the steam engine in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and to make the journey from Halifax in five or six days”.

Thirty-five years later this dream was realized, but those intervening years were fraught with trouble, and long-sighted men had to bear the ridicule, the scepticism, and the passionate opposition of their myopic countrymen, and of political and financial interests everywhere.

WTHE CONNAUGHT TUNNEL Canadian Pacific Railwayhen the Canadian Pacific Railway Company had secured from the Government the contract to build the railway, it set at once about the problem of finding a man to take charge. An American, William Cornelius Van Horne, an engineer with wide experience in this field, was chosen in 1881, and he immediately proceeded to Winnipeg to assume control. The company was awarded a grant of £5,000,000, twenty-five million acres of land - since land had no value until it was made accessible by the railway - and all the existing Government-owned railway properties, comprising some 700 miles of track. The 2,000 miles of track required were to be completed by 1891, in ten years.

THE CONNAUGHT TUNNEL, five miles long, was built under Mount Sir Donald, in Rogers Pass. A new method of tunnelling was adopted for the first time in building this tunnel. A pioneer bore, or small tunnel, was driven first about 50 feet to one side of the main tunnel and galleries were driven out to the line of the main tunnel. By this multi-bore method the main tunnel was excavated in 704 days.

Van Horne wasted no time. He realized fully the colossal nature of the job he had undertaken, and the fact that, having abandoned his own assured career in the United States, he had pledged his whole future to the Canadian Pacific. He was not the man to allow anything to interfere with his work, and he met, with an energy that soon silenced opposition, the frigid reception that the Canadians offered to this stranger who had been given control. Some of his assistants were Americans, although he brought with him some Canadians with experience of railroad building in the States, and later he used almost exclusively Canadian executives, many of them Canadian Scots.


There were two major problems to be confronted - the building of the road over the rocky wilderness of the north shore of Lake Superior and the drive through the Rocky Mountains. Many preliminary surveys had been made, the earliest of importance being that of Captain Palliser, of the Waterford Artillery Militia, who almost killed the project at its inception by reporting it to be impossible. He surveyed, from the United States boundary northwards, almost the whole interior of Canada, from Lake Superior to the Pacific. Much of this part had been hitherto unknown territory, although the Hudson’s Bay Company was familiar with various trails which led to the west coast and were used for the fur trade. Dr. Hector, one of Palliser’s companions, was instrumental in naming Kicking Horse Pass, which the expedition discovered. He was kicked in the chest by his horse, and so badly injured that he was put out of action for several days. The incident thus suggested a name for the river and pass.

Through the Selkirks

Five years later, Walter Moberley, assistant to the Surveyor General of British Columbia, explored the Selkirk and Rocky Mountains in search of a suitable pass for the projected railway, and discovered, from the summit of a peak, a series of valleys running east and west, where later the construction gangs from the prairies and from the Pacific Coast were to meet. After an interval of sixteen years, Major Rogers, an American, following up the advice given by Moberley, came upon the pass that made the route feasible through the Selkirks, and so the last difficulty seemed to be overcome.

The final survey was entrusted to Sandford Fleming, as engineer-in-chief, and he set out to cover the entire route with a party that included specialists to study and report on the botanical, geological, climatic and geographical features of the country adjacent to the route.

No detailed maps existed. Fleming had to hack his way through the dense forests of Ontario, to struggle wearily over the rock-strewn wilderness along the Lake Superior shore, to fight his way through 500 miles of mountain ranges, where hitherto few white men except the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company had ever ventured.

After he had reached Fort Garry, a Hudson’s Bay factory (now Winnipeg), he bore westwards, and came on Thompson’s trail along the Athabaska River into the mountains. There he found fresh obstacles, on a gigantic scale - boulder-strewn valleys, forests of fallen timber, fierce torrents and cataracts. But he pushed on steadily to the Miette River Valley and crossed into British Columbia, where he picked up the valleys of the Fraser River and of the Canoe River until, at Kamloops, he was once more on known trails, the trails of Thompson and Fraser that led to the Pacific. His journey linked up, for the first time, the three passes discovered by Hector, Moberley and Rogers. It was a terrific journey, one of constant hardship and peril and exposure. At first, however, it seemed that it had been in vain.

Thirteen separate railway lines were laid through the valleys of British Columbia up to 1875, and line after line was located and abandoned, without having achieved any real advance towards the primary objective - a transcontinental railway. With the formation of the C.P.R., however, and the coming of Van Horne in 1881, a new spirit prevailed and swift and determined progress was made. Southern Ontario then was almost a chaos of mountains, swamps and thick bush, the forests themselves often standing in swamp; but the difficulties these presented were insignificant compared with those on the shore of Lake Superior. The engineers reached this barren and forbidding territory at Heron Bay, and followed the cliffs along for sixty-six miles to the Nipigon River. They had no option but to keep to the shore line, and this often meant blasting their way through solid rock a few feet above the water. They cut their way through projecting cliffs and ran over small inlets, which had to be bridged where they could not be filled in with the rubble and debris from cuttings and tunnels.

the Canadian Pacific Railway

FROM LAKE SUPERIOR TO VANCOUVER the Canadian Pacific Railway crosses hundreds of miles of muskeg swamp, prairies, and the mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Selkirks. On the north shore of Lake Superior was what Van Horne, the engineer, described as “two hundred miles of engineering impossibilities”. Many preliminary surveys were made in almost unknown territory to find passes across the mountain ranges. Kicking Horse Pass was discovered by an early expedition under Captain Palliser. Through the Selkirks the most practicable pass was Rogers Pass, where the Connaught Tunnel was built. Eventually the line joins the valley of the Fraser River, whose canyons and gorges also presented enormous difficulties to the railway engineers.

the Canadian Pacific Railway

This was work for which it had been impossible to estimate, and at one point the railway cost as much as £140,000 a mile. The single stretch through the shore district cost £2,500,000, one half of the original cash grant from the Government.

It took immensely more time and money than had been anticipated to conquer this part of the country. The men suffered in proportion. The district was one of the worst in Canada. Conditions were terrible and comfort for the construction gangs impossible. For food there were often only oatmeal, pork, beans and bannocks. The men, labourers drawn from all parts of the world - English, Scots, Slavs, Teutons, Mongols - found that the hardships of such work were every bit as great as had been the hardships of railway construction farther east in earlier days, when soldiers had to be drafted in to protect them from hostile Indian tribes, and the men toiled with their weapons stacked near at hand. Many, therefore, deserted, finding work farther south on railroad construction in the less rigorous United States, where climate and natural conditions made the daily task much lighter.

The swamps west of the lake shore presented the engineers with another tremendous problem. Time after time ballast, track and all would be laid, only to disappear, swallowed up in the unplumbed morass. Muskeg consists of layer upon layer of decayed vegetation similar to peat in process of formation. In the north it goes down to the ice cap, which may be a foot or five feet below the surface. In the south it goes down to bedrock, and there is no means of forecasting how deep that bedrock may be. It is, too, the breeding ground of myriads of mosquitoes and blackfly, little vicious pests that can cover a man’s face with blood in a few seconds, and bull-dog flies, so called because when they bite they take a piece of flesh away with them in their jaws.

700 Track-Miles in 15 Months

Week after week every conceivable method of conquering the swamps was tried, and yielded the same result - failure. Ton after ton of timber and debris disappeared in one place, and still the permanent way was not assured. As the contractor’s locomotive ran over the track, the bed shifted and the rails sank. Bolts in fish-plates joining rail ends snapped. Daily resurfacing was necessary in some of the worst parts of the swamp. Finally, however, the rails were kept in place by laying them upon sleepers 40 feet long.

Van Horne, in a preliminary survey of the route, had noted that this stretch consisted of “two hundred miles of engineering impossibilities” which he proposed to conquer. He did conquer, but every mile of those two hundred had to be hewn, blasted or filled up, and no less than £400,000 of the total of £2,500,000 spent on those 200 miles went up in smoke and debris - the cost of the explosives used. Twelve thousand men, 2,000 teams of horses and twelve steamers for the transport of material and provisions on the Great Lakes were used.

This heartbreaking expenditure of money and effort, which had not originally been foreseen, did much to justify the scepticism of the railway’s many enemies; but Van Horne persisted, and the men behind him - George Stephen (afterwards Lord Mountstephen), Donald A. Smith (afterwards Lord Strathcona), R. B. Angus, John S. Kennedy, Duncan MacIntyre and others - believed in him and supported him.

After the swamps came the vast prairie lands, and here the construction gangs found respite from the worst rigours of the campaign, if not from its high-pressure labour. Progress was made at an unparalleled rate, and in fifteen months 700 miles of track were laid. Van Horne diverged from Fleming’s suggested route to strike due west and keep nearer to the international border. The only serious menace, from hostile Indians, was disposed of largely through the good offices of the Reverend Father Lacombe, now almost a legendary figure.

The work was broken up into sections let out to sub-contractors, so that many different gangs of men were at work simultaneously. Their camps “presented an almost military appearance. One or two large dining tents, with the cooks’ quarters and the office tent were generally in the centre. All around stood orderly lines of small two-men tents, and at one side the big horse tents and the rows of wagons.”

At early dawn the cry of “Roll out, teamsters” from the corral boss brought the men out, to find the horses driven in by the horse-wranglers, to be caught and fed. After breakfast the foreman gave the order “Hook up” and they went to work for a five-hours’ stretch. They “unhooked” at noon for dinner, did another five-hours’ stretch until supper, and turned in promptly to be ready for the next day.

Whenever possible, embankments were built as a precaution against the snow drifts of winter, for on the prairies the Arctic blizzards have a clear sweep down, with no mountains to impede their ferocity. During winter the men found it necessary to wear all the heavy clothes they could obtain, as well as large gauntlets to protect their hands from frostbite, for temperatures of 30° or 40° below zero were common. They also pulled woollen socks over their high leather boots to give their feet a better grip on the ice.

Cuttings were made as wide as possible, so as to avoid channels in which the snow might pile up in great drifts that would make the line impassable. Van Horne took the precaution of giving the greatest care to this section of the line, for he realized that in the future it would have to carry an immense volume of traffic, when the prairies were properly developed.

Next came the attack upon the mountains, with Calgary (Alberta) as base. This was the most stupendous task of all. It appeals irresistibly to the imagination and it must have appalled the timid by its audacity.

“Spiders’ Webs of Iron”

The region is one of impressive magnificence. It comprises rugged cloud-capped and snow-capped peaks, deep gorges scoured out of the rock by roaring torrents, vast gloomy canyons and, at the lower elevations, great forests, making the feat of driving a railroad through it an unrivalled achievement of engineering skill and perseverance.

Hitherto it had been the natural preserve of wild life, of the mountain lion and the grizzly bear, only a few hardy Indian tribes venturing along its dangerous trails, followed later by the “gentlemen adventurers” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, packing skins to the Pacific coast.

This land was to become, in time, the greatest natural recreation ground in the world, a paradise for sportsmen, mountain climbers, and the more adventurous-minded tourists; but to the construction gangs it was a forbidding, terrible place, a sort of no man’s land through which the railway had to be driven to link coast with coast.

Construction of this sort is of the nature of war - and the battleground takes heavy toll. The advance has to be made into those fastnesses yard by yard, and every yard cost its quota of injury or death - “every mile of tunnel and track”, an observer writes, “was sealed with the blood of men”.

Immense chasms had to be bridged by “spiders’ webs of iron”, often 300 feet above the rivers they spanned. In places the track clung to the face of a precipice. It plunged among clouds or into the perpetual obscurity of deep gorges. Mile after mile of tunnel had to be driven and bridges almost without number thrown across the torrents.

EARLY WOOD-BURNING LOCOMOTIVE hauling trucks across a wooden trestle bridge in the Selkirk Mountains, Canadian Pacific Railway

EARLY WOOD-BURNING LOCOMOTIVE hauling trucks across a wooden trestle bridge in the Selkirk Mountains. Wood was used extensively, for sleepers, bridges, fences and the like, as well as for fuel. Locomotives had spark-arresting chimneys to prevent the danger of sparks which might have set alight the huge forests on either side of the line.

By good fortune a man with the seeing eye and a vivid pen was among the construction gangs, an Englishman nicknamed “Texas” because of the wide-brimmed sombrero he wore, and known to literature as Morley Roberts. He writes:

“We were a strange gathering at night time. We sang at times strange melancholy unknown ditties of love in the forests, songs of Michigan or Wisconsin redolent of pine odour ... or English sea songs. Then we would tell each other stories or yarns”. There was example for the men in these musical gatherings at night in the mountains; for, when the day’s work was over, mountain torrent or wind among the trees would make a soft running accompaniment to the strains of a violin - and the violinist would be Van Horne himself, one of the greatest builders of all time.

The days were full and heavy - drilling holes in the rock for the blasting charges, dodging behind trees and boulders to take cover from the flying stones when the explosives had been touched off, returning to clear away the debris and shovel it into carts, and smash up any large lumps of rock that remained. There were slopes to be smoothed off, boulders and stones to be levered out of the way and used for the “rip-rap” or stone wall at the bottom of the embankment.

Gradient of 1 in 22·7

Typical of the construction camps was one at which Morley Roberts worked in the Kicking Horse Pass, where a tunnel was being cut. The camp was on the bank of the river, which here foamed and roared between the rock in a rushing torrent. The opposite bank was lined with a solid and impenetrable wall of pine and fir forest, beyond which rose the immense mountainside. The camp consisted of an agglomeration of tents of all shapes and sizes, a veritable mantrap of guy ropes to trip a visitor at night, and stays carried from ridge poles to trees to half-strangle him. There were also two big shacks of rough timber and, on slightly higher ground, beyond the road - which ran through camp - a log cabin and kitchen where the head contractors lived.

The work was accompanied by perpetual danger. Once a tunnel caved in, despite the huge timbers used to shore it, and an immense mass of clay and gravel had to be removed before the men could cut farther into the hillside to where the rock was more solid. Here, Morley Roberts records, “we worked on three ‘benches’. The highest gang worked in comparative safety; the next in some peril, as they had to look out for the rocks that might fall in their own bench and for those from the upper bench as well; but the lowest gang were in danger of their lives all the time, as from both benches above them came continually what rocks escaped the vigilance of those working over their heads”. Work went on in the winter as well as in the summer, but with increased discomfort and danger. The men would set out from camp long before daylight, stopping at the powder house to pick up a keg of powder or a case of dynamite. When daylight came, they set to work, to the noise of hammers on the drills - for there were no pneumatic drills then to make the work swift and comparatively easy. The hammers stopped frequently while the drill-holder scraped out the powdered rock. When a row of holes had been pierced, the drillers moved on to attack another point, while the explosives men laid charges and fuses and tamped them down lightly with clay. Then the warning was given, and the order followed: “Fire”. Another observer writes: “A second later the whole face of the rock heaved outwards to the river, and the valley roared with the echoes of the terrific explosion”.

KICKING HORSE PASS Canadian Pacific RailwayThe rails were carried, mile by mile, steadily up the Kicking Horse Pass to the summit, known as the Great Divide, where two rivers, within a short distance of each other, flow in opposite directions, one eastwards towards the plains, the other westwards towards the Pacific. The height reached was 5,329 feet.

KICKING HORSE PASS was so named because it was there that one of the pioneers, Dr. Hector, was badly injured by a kick from his horse. The summit of the pass is the Great Divide, where of two rivers within a short distance of each other one flows eastwards to the plains the other westwards to the Pacific. The height of the railway at the summit is 5,329 feet above the sea.

The steep descent of the Yoho Valley brought its own problems. To preserve the 1 in 50 grade imposed by the contract, immense tunnelling operations would have been necessary, causing delay and excessive cost. A temporary line with a grade of 237½ feet to the mile (about 1 in 22·7) was therefore built more or less directly down the defile. It was nicknamed “Big Hill”, and came to be anathematized by engine drivers for its difficulties and dangers. Four locomotives had to be used, two in front and two behind, to work a train with 700 tons of freight up the hill. The company decided, whenever practicable, to realine the railway by two spiral tunnels, which would reduce the gradient to 1 in 45.

The new route crosses the Kicking Horse River and enters the Mount Ogden Tunnel on the opposite bank. The tunnel is over 2,000 feet long, and the train makes a complete circle, climbing all the time to emerge high above the entrance. Then it crosses the river again, doubles back, running parallel with the first stretch of line but in the reverse direction, and enters the Mount Stephen Tunnel. Then, having described another complete circle inside the mountain, the track emerges at last to rejoin the old line.

The tunnels were bored from both ends at once, and drilling went on at night as well as during the day, by the light of flares. Incursions of water made extensive pumping operations necessary and the tunnels had to be lined with concrete. They cost nearly £250,000 sterling, and over 1,500,000 lb. of dynamite were used in blasting.

When the Great Divide had been crossed, the next barrier was an even more formidable one - the Selkirk Range.

60-Miles-an-Hour Avalanches

The railway was carried up from Golden to a height of 4,300 feet, to cut through Rogers Pass. At this altitude the snow of winter became a serious menace, not merely to construction, but also to the line when finished. Avalanches on the C.P.R. have been recorded exceeding 1,000,000 tons, travelling down the hillside at sixty miles an hour. Such an avalanche could annihilate a large section of the line.

As a protection, snow sheds of various designs were erected to cover the track, and V-shaped or split fences were placed high up on the slopes above to break the force of the sliding masses of snow. Forest fires were common in summer, and this great array of timbering made constant fire patrols necessary. There was always the danger, too, of the sheds being set alight by sparks from the locomotives.

Another disadvantage of this section of the line was that the grade reached as much as 116 feet to the mile (1 in 45½ ), which kept speeds low and strictly limited the amount of freight that could be hauled. Therefore a new tunnel was suggested, through the mountain under the pass, and this necessitated the building of a new approach line. The tunnel was to be five miles long, and for this undertaking a new method of boring was devised, and used for the first time.

This was the pioneer bore, a small tunnel driven 50 feet to one side of the real tunnel. Short galleries were blasted out at right angles leading towards the centre line of the real tunnel, and when this line had been struck the excavators turned again at right angles and proceeded to bore along the line. They had thus two faces at the end of each gallery on which to work, and a large army of drillers could be employed at the one time, boring different sections of the tunnel, while others attacked it from either portal.

Blasting a way through rock on the Canadian Pacific RailwayThe galleries and pioneer bore were useful, too, in dispelling the smoke and fumes of the blasting by their draught, and light railways could be carried along them for the removal of rubble. By this multi-bore method, the main passage of the tunnel was cleared from end to end in the remarkably short space of 704 days.

BLASTING A WAY THROUGH THE ROCK during the building of a branch line to Proctor, on Kootenay Lake, British Columbia. The nature of the country is similar to that encountered in the building of the main line along the north shore of Lake Superior. At one point in this district the railway cost £140,000 a mile.

It was then widened, and now steam shovels came to the assistance of man power. These huge machines scraped and dug away at the rock, moving forward an average of 40 feet a day at first, but speeding up later. They handled crushed rock approximating 1,000,000 cubic yards in all. In their wake came an army of men to line the tunnel with concrete. The cost was roughly £1,125,000; but the tunnel, named the Connaught Tunnel, shortened the route by four and a half miles, and substantially reduced the gradient.

While the engineers worked their laborious and courageous way through the mountains from the prairies, the great task was being attacked simultaneously from the west. Over the 213 miles from the Pacific to Kamloops an army of 7,000 men hacked its way under the direction of the Dominion Government. The men were mostly Chinese, for by now the Westerners were not disposed to hire themselves out for such labour when the lure of gold and the promise of quick wealth occupied their thoughts.

Between Yale and Lytton the Fraser River cuts its way through the Cascade Mountains in a series of frothing cataracts, rushing through deep gorges flanked by perpendicular rock faces. No fewer than thirteen tunnels had to be blasted along nineteen miles of this part of the route. Each of the thirteen was in itself a minor triumph of engineering skill and ingenuity. Often men had to be lowered hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs to blast a foothold on the mountainside. Supplies were sent up to camp by pack horses over trails that the Indians themselves were disinclined to use, and as the work advanced transportation offered increasing difficulties. The problem was finally solved in the boldest way - by the building of a steamer to attempt the hazardous passage of the ferocious Fraser Canyon, and so to reach navigable water above.

The Last Spike

Eventually, two brothers came forward willing to take the risk. With a steam winch and capstan, several large hawsers and a crew of seventeen men, they set out in the Skuzzy. After a dangerous passage they succeeded.

Finally, on November 7, 1885, the two armies met, and Lord Strathcona drove in the last spike at Craigellachie - a name which serves to commemorate a typical incident during the work. When financial crisis threatened the destruction of the company, and the consequent abandonment of the whole ambitious scheme, one Scot who was in London trying to raise funds cabled to a brother Scot in Canada who was holding the fort against the company’s enemies, the one word: Craigellachie. Craigellachie, a rock near Aviemore, in the Scottish Highlands, was the trysting-place of the Grants, whose motto was “Stand Fast, Craigellachie”. As “Stand Fast” the message was read and obeyed. Thus the C.P.R. won through.

Among later improvements carried out, apart from the Connaught Tunnel in Rogers Pass, was the diversion of the Illecillewaet River, whose flood waters threatened the approach to the Connaught Tunnel. An embankment was thrown up and a huge, trench dug parallel to the railway, to carry the flow of the river after diversion.

An alternative route through the Rocky Mountains has also been built, by the Crow’s Nest Pass, which taps a rich coal mining district. On the stretch between Lethbridge and Macleod stands the famous Lethbridge Viaduct, 5,320 feet long and at one point no less than 314 feet above the river. Because of the terrific pressure of the wind, the riveters had to be protected in a steel cage. Over 12,000 tons of metal were used and 7,600 gallons of paint.

When the section was first laid, the line had to cross the winding Belly River by a number of wooden bridges, which soon became unsafe. The building of the Lethbridge Viaduct and of another long bridge was therefore undertaken.

LETHBRIDGE VIADUCT Canadian Pacific Railway

LETHBRIDGE VIADUCT was built to eliminate thirty-seven curves and to reduce the gradient and the length of the line between Lethbridge and Macleod. The viaduct comprises forty-four plate girder spans of 67 ft. 1 in., twenty-two of 98 ft. 10 in., and a riveted deck lattice truss span of 167 feet. It is carried on thirty-three riveted steel towers, rigidly braced, and its maximum height is more than 300 feet.

[From part 14, published 1 June 1937]

You can read more on “Canada’s Streamlined Engines”, “Pioneering in Alaska and Yukon” and “The Road to Hudson Bay” on this website.

You can read more on “The Conquest of Canada” in Railway Wonders of the World

Conquest of the Rockies