November 7th marks the 125th Anniversary of the Canadian Pacific Railway

Madelaine Liddy - 2A Nanotechnology
Posted on: November 17, 2010

On November 7th, 1885, one last spike was driven into a track, completing Canada’s first transcontinental railway. The Canadian Pacific Railway has been an essential part in the formation of Canada’s history, economy and culture. The addition of a railway enabled Canadians to transport goods from one city to another in a manner and at a speed not possible before. People were now able to work in one city and live in another, travelling between provinces in a matter of days, opposed to the other, much longer travelling opportunities. Culturally, the completion of the railway provided the then-young nation with a sense of unity stretched across the entire country.

However influential the CPR is to Canada, it was not the first large railway in Canada. The first true railway in Canada was built and used long before confederation. The Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad was used to carry a relative small amount of freight from Montréal to Lake Champlain. This railway was commissioned largely by John Molson and other merchants from Montréal, and was completed on July 21st, 1836. Railways like these that could carry small amounts of cargo across small distances then began to appear all over British North America. These kinds of railways continued to grow in size and length, being able to carry more goods over a larger distance.

Railways did not truly become major factors contributing to Canada’s history until after confederation. The history of the transcontinental railways can be sourced back to confederation, which began with including the construction of the Intercolonial Railway in the 1867 Constitution Act.  This railway was commissioned and supported largely by British loans, and was completed in 1876 under Sir Stanford Fleming.

As an expanding country, Canada needed incentive for the other provinces to join the newly created country. In 1871, British Columbia joined the country with the promise of a transcontinental railroad to be completed within 10 years of signing. After nine years of disputes and Canada’s first scandal, the Pacific Scandal, the contract for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was finally given to George Stephen on the 21st of October, 1880. At the time, the CPR was the largest transcontinental railway, stretching 1600km longer than the United State’s railway. Under the guidance of William Van Horne, the railway was completed on November 7th, 1885, when the last spike was driven. Six months after completion, the first passenger train left Montréal in June of 1886 and arrived in Port Moody, British Columbia on July 4th 1886.

Some of the parts of the CPR history are not as shining as the others; however, they still play an important part in Canada’s history. From 1881 to 1884, 17 000 Chinese workers came to construct the railway between Port Moody and Eagle Pass in British Columbia, a contract that was given to the engineer Andrew Onderdonk from New York. When they arrived to work, they were met with poor living conditions, and earning only $1.00 per day, while their white male counterparts earned $2.50 per day and did not have to pay for food or supplies. In addition, they were given the more difficult jobs, involving much of the demolition of the mountains as well as clearing and grading the roadbed for the railway. While they were not working, they lived in camps, tents or boxcars, with little food. This lack of nutrition led to the death of even more workers due to scurvy. In addition, these camps could not be permanent as they had to move them, often as far as 40km, each time the track moved farther and farther down the line.

In the late 1800s, large deposits of valuable minerals were found near the Kootenay Region in the southern British Columbia. Wanting to maintain control of south-western Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company extended its line over the Crow’s Nest Pass into British Columbia. The pass is situated 1375m above sea level and was originally not deemed fit to lay a track there when the CPR line was first created. However, in 1898, this track was completed in order to transfer coal and minerals out of the Kootenay area. The creation of this track was one of the greatest engineering feats of its day. To complete the track, the workers worked at the high altitude conditions while blasting through the Rocky Mountains. This was made financially possible with the Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement between the CPR and the Canadian Government, which entailed that the company would be granted 3.3 million dollars to build their track. In return, the company was supposed to reduce the freight rates on the Prairie farmers for shipping grain and flour.

The reduced rates allowed for a major immigration to occur, particularly through the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario and throughout the Prairies. In the 1900s the increase in settlement lead to the creation of many other railways including the Canadian Northern Railway, owned by Donald Mann and William Mackenzie, which linked the railways to other cities like Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Edmonton. It pushed through the Yellowhead Pass located between Alberta and BC, close to the present day Jasper National park.

Throughout its history, the Canadian Pacific Railway has changed its face and functions many times. It began mostly as a cargo and passenger transport, but has become so much more with time. It has shaped Canada’s history, both good and bad as well as giving it a sense of completion. It will continue to act as one of Canada’s greatest engineering projects of its day influencing the nature of this nation.