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F W Talbot Railway Wonders of the World Articles

The Canadian Pacific Railway - 2

The Road Through the Mountains




The plotting of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the mountains of British Columbia constitutes one of the greatest achievements of the railway engineer.



FROM Winnipeg westwards the route proposed by Sir Sandford Fleming was abandoned in favour of one nearer the Inter-national boundary. This decision was made for climatic, strategical, and financial reasons. Although the Fleming location traversed the richest stretches of the west, the company opined that it ventured into a country which was too cold to facilitate rapid development, a fallacy which was not exploded for thirty years.

Again, it was considered that if the line were placed close to the International boundary it would be impossible for it to be paralleled by a Canadian rival farther south, and thus be in danger of having its traffic filched away by a competitive route. Thirdly, there was the question of expense. The Yellowhead Pass was undeniably the easiest passage through the moun-tains, but it entailed a sweeping detour, as compared with a more direct traverse of the range, while also heavy and expensive bridging over the wide rivers would be entailed. As money was tight, every mile saved was a vital consideration. Accordingly the fiftieth parallel was hugged as closely as possible as far as Calgary, traversing a rich wheat country for 400 miles, and a grazing belt for 200 miles.

Across the Prairie

The prairie is considered generally to be a level plain, but this is scarcely a correct appreciation of its characteristics. Rather is it a series of steppes, or very wide benches, mounting higher and higher from Winnipeg to the foothills of the Rockies. The country being analogous to that traversed by the Northern Pacific, the terrors of winter were kept in mind. The Arctic blizzards have a magnificent sweep for hundreds of miles without courting an obstacle, and it was feared that the railway cuttings would be subject to severe attack. Consequently the permanent way was carried on embankments as much as possible, and where cuttings were unavoidable they were given wide, flattened slopes, so as not to offer such a ready catch-pit for the drifting snow as a deep trench with steep sides. The spoil removed from these cuttings was carried some distance away and deposited in the form of a ridge running parallel to the track to form a snow screen. Subsequently wooden fencing was used for screens, these being withdrawn and stacked during the summer and set up on the approach of winter. But the snow fiend did not prove so terrible as had been feared, inasmuch as the line when first opened did not suffer a block exceeding some six hours or so at a time.

Although the contract for the railway was let to one firm, actual construction was completed by sub-contractors. The line was divided up into “stations” - 100 feet sections representing the length of a chain - one or more of which were taken over by each sub-contractor. In this way construction was spread over a distance of 100 to 200 miles. On the prairie the work was easy for the most part. In summer every ounce of muscle was crowded on and every moment of time was pressed into service. At first the vaunted severity of the winter seared many of the graders away to more southern climes in the late autumn, but those who had the temerity to stay behind found that, providing care was exercised, no ill effects were suffered. Thick woollen under clothing and heavy outer garments secured the body against the cold. Fur caps with the flaps let down over the ears protected the vulnerable parts of the head. Heavy woollen stockings encased with stout, high leather boots, and with another pair or two of stockings over the latter, kept the feet warm, and gave a grip upon the slippery frozen surface, while thick gauntlets held the hands proof against frost-bite. The cold certainly was intense, as it must be when the mercury drops some 30 or 40 degrees below, but the air was dry and crisp. The blizzard was the foe most dreaded, but the men took the precaution to keep fairly close to their camps under such conditions.

Through the Mountains

When the company decided to follow the international boundary as closely a possible, the Government stipulated that the mountains should be crossed at least 100 miles north of the frontier, and at the same time restricted the maximum grade to 116 feet per mile. Accordingly the company decided to strike through the sea of mountains from Calgary, following the natural troughs as much as possible. The surveys proved that the end could be met most satisfactorily and cheaply by following the Bow River. This gave grade of 1 per cent - 52.8 feet per mile - the mountains being entered through a natural gateway known as “The Gap”. It is a tedious upward climb, winding among the crags and crawling along terraces to the summit at Stephen, where the metals noted 5,329 feet, the line climbing 1,901 feet in the 123 miles from Calgary.



This is the “Divide”, whence the waters from the glaciers split to run down either side of the mountain on their way to the Arctic or to the Pacific. In reality it is a vast marsh, so that the summit was overcome without a tunnel or even a snowshed. From this point the descent is made along that wild, turbulent waterway which sprawls from one side of the ravine to the other - the Kicking Horse River. Here the descent was found to be so sudden, that, in order to preserve the maximum gradient, the engineers found heavy tunnelling unavoidable. This meant the expenditure of money, which was scarce, and the consumption of time, which was more valuable, so the engineers were enjoined to discover and run a “temporary line”. They did so, but it involved the introduction of 4.4 miles with a grade of 4.5 per cent - 237.6 feet per mile - against east-bound traffic between Hector at an altitude of 5,207 feet, and Field at 4,064 feet. Moreover, a “temporary curve” of 23 degrees - 249.13 feet radius - had to be laid down because a short tunnel, which was accepted to maintain the alignment, collapsed suddenly from the movement of the clay through which it was being driven. This “temporary line” fulfilled all the requirements of the Canadian Pacific Railway for over a quarter of a century. It was not until the threatened competition of the Grand Trunk Pacific arose that this “Big Hill”, as it was colloquially called, was abolished, as I have described in a previous chapter.

Issuing from the Rockies at Golden, on the banks of the Columbia River, another frowning barrier looms directly ahead - the Selkirks. It was impossible to follow the waterway, as it runs for many miles to the north to describe a curve around the extremity of the mountainous barrier, so the engineers went straight ahead. The going through the Rockies had been ex-

asperating, but that through the Selkirks was a thousand times more so. Here the railway engineers had no trail of the Indian or the coureurs du bois of the Hudson Bay Company to help them. They were compelled to seek a path for them-selves, and very few, if any, Red Men ever had penetrated the Selkirks, the twisting, circuitous Columbia River being their highway.

An American engineer, Major Rogers, in conjunction with Mr. Moberly, set out to discover a possible highway through this chain, and it proved an exciting and adventurous undertaking. Eight Indians accompanied the first-named, four of whom were lost at one stroke. While crawling round a dangerous lofty ledge they slipped over the side and were seen no more. But the intrepid engineer succeeded, and the route followed by the Canadian Pacific Railway through this range offers an interesting, and one of the very few instances where the White Man’s trail has preceded, instead of following, that of the Indian.



Showing erecting cage just commencing work on the span over Belly River.

There was one fact which Major Rogers impressed upon his colleagues on his return. The engineering difficulties were not particularly forbidding, but there was one far more formidable antagonist - snow. The steep slopes of the mountain forming this barrier lend themselves to avalanches and rock slides, and of such an awful severity as to promise short shrift for the handiwork of man. The difficulty would not be so much in laying the track as in preserving it once it had been built.

The constructional forces were concentrated upon this range, and were urged to spare no effort to accomplish as much of the grade as was possible during the short summer. The navvies responded to the call, and the permanent way grew with

marvellous rapidity. True it was a pioneer line, lightly built, as the problem was to get through with all speed; but it was quite equal to the Union Pacific original track, which had been taken as a standard. When winter came round, work was suspended, but corps of engineers were left buried in the range to observe the extent, character, and paths of the snow movements, so as to enable adequate steps to be taken to protect the line. These men, virtually imprisoned in a white, frigid tomb, carried out their work to excellent effect, although their reports were rather dismaying. Their observations proved that the line would have to be protected virtually for the whole of its length across the range. Four miles of heavy timber snowsheds accordingly were built, not in one continuous length, but in 53 sections. Fortunately, there was plenty of timber in the immediate vicinity, but even then the felling of the trees and the fashioning of the huge balks occupied con-siderable time, and construction entailed an expense ranging from £3 to £40 per lineal foot, with the price for the most part nearer the latter than the former figure.



Yet this did not meet the situation completely. The snow, after its usual paths had been discovered and guarded, swerved with characteristic capriciousness to strike the line between the different sheds.

Sir William Van Horne, as in many other instances, came to the rescue, and solved the difficulty. He could not anticipate the path of the moving snow, but he could wreck its progress. He devised what is now known as the “split-fence”. This is a massive structure of V-shape, set high up on the mountain side above the space between the snowsheds, with the apex pointing crest upwards. This fence is a heavy crib filled with boulders, while its sides are splayed. The descending snow-slide, hitting the point of the fence, is divided in twain. Each moiety rushes down the sides of the crib, and, its course being deflected, it rumbles over the roof of the sheds on either hand to expend its destructive forces harmlessly in the valley below. When this “split-fence” was tried it was found to meet the situation so completely that it has been adopted freely.

Crossing, the summit of the Selkirks at 4,351 feet, the engineers were faced with another sudden descent into the Illecillewaet Valley, which they overcame by a loop winding down the mountain side. It is spectacular piece of work worthy of ranking with the abandoned “Big Hill”. In the course of seven miles the line swings down 637 feet. The line strikes across a valley, touching the base of Rock Peak, bends back for about a mile, gives a sharp sweep, and once more cuts across the rift to pick up the floor of the valley. In the descent the line describes a double “S”, and two gleaming ribbons of steel within 100 feet of one another are seen on the steep slope.

While the builders were pushing their metals westwards another force was grappling with difficulties innumerable in the east-ern advance from Vancouver. The Cascades press hardly upon the Pacific seaboard in Canada, so that heavy going was encountered directly the ocean was left. The engineers followed the only practicable passage - that of the Fraser River - and they clung to it tenaciously, blasting a narrow terrace through the awe-inspiring, wedge-shaped canyons, high above the foaming torrent, to receive the rails. Progress was slow, since the cramped quarters did not permit the concentration of large bodies upon the work. Where the Fraser and the Thompson Rivers meet in swirling, scurrying madness, a heavy cantilever bridge was thrown from ledge to ledge, which ranked for many years as one of the largest in America.



Showing girders rising above the rails and forming a trough for traffic.

Labour was a constant anxiety upon this mountain section. White men then, as now, could not be obtained, except at prodigious expense. So the Chinaman was called in, even as had been the case with the Union Pacific. Three shillings a day was his pay, and the grade in British Columbia recalled the roaring times of railway building farther south. The Chinaman is a born and ardent gambler; so no camp was complete without its saloon. A certain degree of lawlessness prevailed and defied to be quelled: it was every man for himself, with life held cheaply, and pleasures of a strenuous character.

But the Chinaman, when he settles down to work, is a plodding labourer. They drove the steel highway through 351 miles of the roughest country in the west, where Nature was dead set against the engineer and did not give him the slightest foothold. It was blast, cut, fill, bridge, and viaduct for every mile of the way, with explosives as the only useful weapons, the roars of which punctuated the interminable chanting of the drills. But on the morning of November 7th, 1885, the roar and clanging ceased. The advancing arm from the Atlantic met that coming from the Pacific: the last spike was driven home by Lord Strathcona; Vancouver was in railway touch with Montreal. By strenuous work, Father Time had been beaten by six years, because the Government contract called for completion in 1891.

The Lethbridge Viaduct

Since the first steel trail of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven across the continent, an alternative route through the mountains has been taken in hand, and is advancing rapidly towards completion. This runs via the Crow’s Nest Pass, some miles nearer the international frontier, through a rich coal region, and crosses the Rockies at a lower elevation. On this section, however, is a notable piece of work equal in magnitude to the realignment of the railway through the Kicking Horse Pass. In running the metals 38½ miles from Lethbridge to MacLeod the deep, wide ravine through which the Belly River winds had to be crossed. When these two points were linked in the first instance, the line was a pioneer road in the true sense of the word, abounding with curves running up to 7 degrees - 818.5 feet radius - and with grades of 1 per cent, (52.8 feet per mile), while twenty wooden bridges, aggregating 12,063 feet, and varying in height from 9 to 117 feet, carried the metals across the heavy undulations.



As the life of the timber trestles had expired, it was decided to rebuild these 38½ miles. Instead of having so many bridges, ranging from 16 to 2,933 feet in length, to cross the depressions, the engineer consolidated them into two big structures, so as to reduce the grade, ease the curves, and decrease the mileage. The bridges constitute the most striking features of this re-alignment, the Lethbridge Viaduct, as it is called, being 5,327 feet 7½ inches in length, and with the rails 314 feet above the bed of the river at one point. The second structure crosses Old Man River, and is 1,900 feet long, by 146 feet high in the centre.

The longer bridge is borne upon 33 lattice steel towers or bents, anchored to concrete plinths carried down to a firm foundation in the silt. The steel was set by means of a traveller which weighed 712,000 pounds in working condition. As the wind howls through this depression with great force, extreme precautions were taken to protect the men on their lofty perches, an assembling cage being supported from the end of the traveller wherein they performed their appointed task of riveting up. In this manner loss of life was minimised, only two men being killed, but not in direct connection with the work. The bridge was completed in a remarkably short space of time, notwithstanding complete cessation during the winter, owing to the extreme cold, and a strike among the workmen. In its construction 12,200 tons of steel were used, which demanded 640 cars to carry it to the site, and when the steel was set over 7,600 gallons of paint were required to give it two coats.



Four tunnels are to be seen in this view.

When the railway was opened for through traffic on May 26th, 1887, many critics maintained that the railway would never pay its way. The present prosperity of the enterprise, which now ranks as the largest individual transportation concern in the world, operating some 11,000 miles of line, has refuted the detractors completely. The Canadian taxpayer, however, learned one lesson. He made a present, through the Government, of £14,000,000 made up of £5,000,000 original subsidy, 713 miles of completed line which cost £7,000,000, and a further £2,000,000 in the re-purchase of 7,000,000 acres of land at six shillings per acre which had been given to the company in the first instance. At the opening date 18,000,000 acres of choice land remained from the original gift of 25,000,000 acres. The land grant in the case of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as in many other similar undertakings, has constituted its sheet anchor. It is not surprising that the Canadian taxpayer of to-day concludes that his Government made a poor bargain on his behalf, ant does not view other railway undertakings with a similar liberality.



The open line is used during the former and the protected metals during the tatter season.

[In a previous chapter the earlier history of the Canadian Pacific Railway is dealt with]

[From Part 7 of Railway Wonders of the World by Frederick A. Talbot, 1913]

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