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The Canadian Pacific Railway - 1

The story of the great tanscontinental line which in parts cost £140,000 per mile


part of the 120 miles of sidings belonging to the CPR at Winnipeg

THE LARGEST INDIVIDUAL RAILWAY YARD IN THE WORLD. A part of the 120 miles of sidings belonging to the CPR at Winnipeg.

HALF a century ago the vast stretch of territory forming British North America was a heterogeneous collection of provinces, each of which virtually was a little kingdom in itself. Consequently there was an absolute lack of cohesive working: Canada presented a striking picture of a country divided against itself. And this was by no means the worst feature of the situation. On the Pacific seaboard was a flourishing colony, British Columbia, which not only was cut off from the other prosperous corners of Canada, but was also isolated from the Mother Country. In those days a journey to Vancouver was not to be undertaken lightly. If approached by water from England it involved a journey halfway round the world, and circuitous at that, since the vessel had to turn the southern extremity of the American Continent. On the other hand, the overland journey was just as forbidding, and quite as lengthy, because one had to toil afoot from the head of the Great Lakes over the prairies and across towering mountain ranges before the seaboard was gained.

British Columbia was handicapped by this isolation, so when a scheme was adumbrated to federate the various provinces the Pacific colony resolved to profit from co-operation. It would enter the confederation on one condition only - that it was brought into touch with Eastern Canada and the Atlantic seaboard by a railway.

The advocates of federation were staggered by this ultimatum. Why, west of the Great Lakes stretched a wilderness to the feet of the Rocky Mountains, and then as unkempt and as wild a stretch of rugged country to the Western Sea as could be conceived! The whole country was in the melting-pot, and although superhuman efforts were being made to weave the

tangled fabric together, here was one of the possible parties to the solution of a vexatious problem stipulating that a railway some 3,000 miles in length should be the price of its assistance. The terms were exacting. But British Columbia stood firm: a railway, or we stand aloof.

This was in 1871. Sir John Macdonald had formulated the confederation project, and he was determined to spare no effort to bring his pet idea to fruition. But this railway was a stumbling-block which he never had anticipated. However, he accepted the onerous conditions: promised that the line should be built, and went so far as to entice British Columbia into the compact by promising such railway communication by 1881. To prove the sincerity of his purpose a Government survey was started under Mr. (now Sir) Sandford Fleming, a railway pathfinder to the manner born.

Fleming rallied his forces and drove his way steadily across the full breadth of the continent. Fortunately he was not handi-capped in any way by official red tape. He was instructed simply to discover the most practicable route for the trans-continental steel highway, and he set out to do it. The outlook was dispiriting, as it involved a toil through an unknown wilderness - the undisputed territory of the Indians, Hudson Bay traders, and denizens of the forest.

There being no maps to guide him, young Fleming did the next best thing. He sought assistance from the Hudson Bay Company, whose men knew the western trails intimately, as they had to pack provisions overland to the Vancouver outpost.

It was a long trail which he drove from Montreal through Ontario’s timber and rugged fastnesses to Winnipeg, then Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay trading post. He struck westwards to Edmonton, and a few miles beyond picked up Thompson’s historic trek down the Athabasca River into the heart of the Rockies. Then he swung up the Miette River valley, crossed into British Columbia at the low altitude of 3,720 feet, dropped down the western slope of the Rockies, picked up the Fraser River, skirted Mount Robson, the twentieth century showpiece of the Dominion, gained Tete Jaune Cache, bore to the south-east, followed the valley of the Canoe River, came out at Kamloops, and then struck boldly over the well-trodden trail of Thompson and Simon Fraser to the sea.

THE IMPERIAL LIMITED - this CPR express runs directly between Montreal and Vancouver

THE IMPERIAL LIMITED. This CPR Transcontinental Express runs direct between Montreal and Vancouver, 2,898 miles. The engine is changed about twenty times during the journey.

In addition to this route ten other reconnaissances were run through the Rocky Mountains, in which quest Charles Moberly, a kindred born railway pathfinder, played a very prominent part. Yet when the results were compared it was found that the Fleming preliminary was the easiest and obvious path for the transcontinental steel highway. That was way back in 1872, and yet when I followed in his tracks forty years later I still found some of his location and bench marks buried in the dense Canadian undergrowth.

But Fleming’s survey was not accepted. Thirty years were doomed to pass before its value became appreciated, when one new transcontinental railway actually followed his route through the mountain barrier. This is the Canadian Northern, as related in another chapter.

The railway pathfinderIn the meantime the project had become the sport of party jealousy and strife, with the result that little was done. Although Sir John Macdonald had promised that the line should be completed by 1881, the end of 1879 saw the completion of only a paltry 713 miles. This procrastination provoked British Columbia. In blunt language it reminded the Dominion Government about its compact, and threatened drastic action if the bargain were not fulfilled instantly. Thereupon the Government swung to the opposite extreme. Dilatory tactics gave way to feverish haste. A syndicate comprising influential financial and technical interests expressed a willingness to take over the Government’s responsibilities, and to fulfil the official obligations to the satisfaction of British Columbia on terms which were set out specifically.

THE RAILWAY PATHFINDER. In searching for a route through rugged mountainous country the main with the transit and level often has to be slung on a crazy log platform over a raging torrent.

The Federal Government, pressed by the Pacific province, was caught at a disadvantage. The syndicate terms were exacting: - A subsidy of £5,000,000 sterling, together with a free grant of 25,000,000 acres of land, the gift of the right-of-way as well as space for stations and so forth; the free entry of all material; exemption from taxation; and presentation, immune from all restrictions, of the 713 miles of line already completed. This was the irreducible minimum upon which the syndicate was prepared to do business. Time could not be wasted in further parleying, owing to the attitude of British Columbia, so the conditions were accepted, the Dominion Government merely stipulating in return that the line should be opened for traffic in the spring of 1891.

Work was commenced forthwith and went ahead with a swing until the funds to defray construction ran out. A crash appeared to be inevitable. The London market resolutely refused to advance a single penny towards the enterprise. In desperation the company turned to the Dominion Government, which granted a loan of £6,000,000 upon what hostile critics declared to be a lost cause.

Although probably never in the history of railways has a constructional proposal been treated so liberally, possibly no enterprise so large ever experienced so many vicissitudes. The company, confronted with the necessity of maintaining an average advance of 250 miles per year in order to meet the time limit, toiled unceasingly to keep things going by hook or by crook. Disputes were frequent; threats among the subcontractors to “chuck the job” were heard on every hand; work was scamped at places; while at other points the engineers were worried out of their wits over the cheap and speedy solution of exasperating technical problems. Nor was the financial aspect free from anxiety: harassing questions arose at every turn. The inside history of the Canadian Pacific Railway never has been written, but when it is recorded it will be found to reveal a persistent and continuous stubborn struggle against threatening disaster.



Fortunately men were found capable of grappling with ominous situations. Among these were Sir William Van Horne on the engineering, and Lords Strathcona and Mountstephen on the financial sides. By prodigious effort they kept construction going, although at times they were somewhat downcast by the outlook, especially in regard to the “sinews of war”. Labour, as usual, brought its manifold troubles. Railway expansion was active in the United States, where high pay was to be earned, so that Canada held out no tempting inducements. The majority of the graders regarded work upon the Canadian enterprise in the light of a holiday, or a timely change of air and scenery. Many of the graders I know divided their time between the Canadian Pacific, Northern Pacific, and other American lines; they could not be tempted to stay upon one job more than a month or two on end.

The builders were forced to realise the magnitude of their task in the first stretch between Montreal and Port Arthur. South-ern Ontario may be best described as a jumble of jagged mountains, rambling muskeg, water, and dense tangled forest. The location ran through the wildest stretches of all these physical conditions. A maximum gradient of 52.8 feet per mile and a maximum curvature of 6 degrees - 955 feet radius - were laid down, and at times it was found difficult to keep within these restrictions. Between Montreal and Lake Superior the railway has to climb to an altitude of 950 feet above the level of the lake. The bleak, frowning, cliff-hemmed shore of this inland sea is picked up at Heron Bay, and hugged thence to Nepigon, a distance of 66 miles.

The surveyors were forced to take to the shore of the lake, and as a result a gallery had to be blasted out of the sombre granite, mica, schist, and black trap, a few feet above the water level, driving through the projecting lofty promontories and crossing the little bays, some of which were filled with the dislodged rock from the cuts and tunnels, while others were bridged. The rock was dense and put up a stern resistance: nothing but black powder and dynamite could cope with it. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that a mere stretch of 200 miles through Southern Ontario cost about £2,500,000, while at one or two places the cost ran as high as £110,000 per mile.



The region of Lake Superior has been described as the coldest and bleakest part of Canada, and the graders who had heard of this unsavoury reputation had occasion to remember that for once rumour did not lie. In fact, many of them, after the experience of a week or two, threw down their tools and departed to seek work in a more congenial clime. Camp comforts in those days were unknown, the commissariat was not so abundant or varied as the canning factories have made it today. The food in the winter was despairingly monotonous, and truly backwoods in character. “Mush” - oatmeal - pork and beans, bannock, and other concrete-like dainties formed the staple articles upon the menu, washed down with black tea, coarse coffee, and muddy cocoa without milk.

The sprawling muskegs of Southern Ontario were just as teasing and maddening as the hard rock. Every possible device for subjugating the bog was tried and found wanting. One muskeg, in particular, nearly drove the graders and engineers frantic. It swallowed rock and spoil by the thousands of tons, and timber corduroy by the hundreds of feet. Yet the embankment refused to become permanent. At last the engineers did succeed in getting a road; then the railway operators were given a taste of the bog’s treachery and fickleness. It was just as if the permanent way had been laid upon a bank of resilient indiarubber. As the train passed over the road-bed it rose and fell in a series of little waves, while the rails themselves crept in all directions. A movement of inches under a passing train was by no means uncommon. The gangers were driven almost to frenzy in their efforts to keep the metals to gauge. The bolts holding the fishplates snapped like matches. Every day fresh bolts were wanted somewhere or other within the worst section of a mile and a quarter, while surfacing and lining had to be carried out once a week. It was only by unremitting vigilance that derailments were prevented, until the engineer at last discovered a means of holding the metals in position by laying them on sleepers 40 feet in length, and connecting them with fish-plates 40 inches long, with slots cut in either rail at alternate sleepers.

From Port Arthur the line was driven through the heavily timbered and water-broken country of Western Ontario to Winni-peg. As this section of the journey was certain to be the most heavily taxed, from the traffic point of view, inasmuch as the whole of the grain and other produce would be conveyed from Winnipeg, the clearing house, to Eastern ports and the Great Lakes, special attention was devoted to the gradient and the substantial character of the permanent way, so that the line might not break down under the heavy traffic imposed.

You can read more on “The Canadian Pacific Railway 2”, “The Conquest of Canada”, “The Doorway to Canada” and “The Opening up of Canada” on this website.