Lady Agnes and The Cowcatcher
Canada’s history is built upon epic adventures. Even the thought of a transcontinental railway must have seemed like an impossible dream when the idea was first proposed in 1872. The Americans had already completed their transcontinental railway – but Canada’s effort would prove to be much more difficult. Canada was a huge land mass with a tiny population – not to mention that our railroad would also be one and a half times as long (North America has a nasty habit of getting wider near the top).
The surveyors explored many options. There were several routes surveyed but politicians selected a route that took them through the Bow River valley and over the Kicking Horse Pass. This proved one of the most difficult stretches for the fledgling railway. The CPR contract allowed for a maximum gradient of 2.2 percent, an impossible goal on the Kicking Horse Pass. In the end, they settled for a temporary gradient of 4.5 percent.
Granted 4.5 percent may not sound steep, but on a train with just five cars, the front car would be some 5 metres lower than the rear. This was a death drop for locomotives. The first train down the ‘big hill’ as it became known, derailed and killed several workers.
Into this scene came the first transcontinental passenger train. Aboard that train was none other than John A. Macdonald and his wife Lady Agnes. It had been John A’s life work to see the joining of this country from ocean to ocean, however as the train approached Lake Louise, Agnes began to steal the show.
Anyone who has visited the Canadian Rockies knows their power to stir the imagination and embolden the soul. Agnes was transfixed and decided that their private cabin simply didn’t offer a view to match the landscape. As the train approached Lake Louise, she declared that she would have the best seat in the house. She would ride the cowcatcher of the train ‘from summit to sea’.
She asked the engineer about riding the cow catcher and he “seemed to think that a very bad job indeed. To a sensible, level-headed man as he is, such an innovation on all general rules of travelling decorum was no doubt very startling”. In time his opposition began to crumble beneath her unbending will and, upon asking her what she intended to use as a seat, she grabbed an empty candle box nearby and had the brakeman place it on the buffer beam.
She wasn’t alone in her adventure. The train superintendent was elected to sit uncomfortably by her side, as the train left the station and chugged its way towards the summit of the pass. Agnes described her feelings during the descent: “With a firm right hand grasping the iron stanchion, and my feet planted on the buffer beam, there was not a yard of that descent in which I faltered for a moment. If I had, then assuredly in the wild valley of the Kicking Horse River, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, a life had gone out that day!” The drop down the west side of the divide should have terrified Agnes, yet it exhilarated her. As she later described: “There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”
Her name still lives on today. Nestled high above Lake Louise is a tiny alpine pond called Lake Agnes. The trail to this rugged shoreline and the teahouse on its shore is one of the busiest trails in the Rockies. Experienced hikers can continue beyond the lake, to a second teahouse at the Plain of Six Glaciers.
In 1909, the challenge of the big hill was finally solved with the building of the spiral tunnels. These two tunnels form a massive figure-8 through the mountains and have reduced the gradient back to the 2.2 percent specified in the original contract. The tunnels were a marvel of engineering for their time. 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of these historic tunnels. When you drive your car down the big hill, you are actually following the original route of the rail line.
Why not take a trip into the past and hike the “Walk-in-the-Past” trail. Beginning at the trailer circle of the Kicking Horse Campground, this 4 km return hike takes you to a rusting Baldwin steam engine. The narrow-gauge engine was used during the construction of the tunnels and then abandoned here. You can walk into the past and visit a piece of the equipment used to change the future of the big hill.
~By Ward Cameron