Steel Dreams: The Fascinating History of Canada’s Railway
Canada was five provinces strong and less than four years old when, in 1871, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald floated his promise. If the colony of British Columbia (BC) would enter Confederation, the federal government would link it to the east by a railway to be completed within ten years.
Macdonald’s pledge acknowledged neither the political nor the physical realities of the intensely rugged mountains of BC. In crossing the province-to-be, the tracks of the Canadian Pacific
Railway (CPR) would need to make roller-coaster traverses of three mountain ranges, squeeze through the canyons of the Thompson and Fraser rivers, and, finally, make an end-run around a fourth mountain.
It is probably just as well that Macdonald had never seen those mountains. For if he had known about the perils posed by the western slope of Kicking Horse Pass – a place that would become known as the Big Hill – he may well have reconsidered and his dream of uniting Canada may never have become a reality.
The Critics, the General, and the Major
The many critics of the project were proved right. The fledgling country was incapable of financing a transcontinental railway. The surveys of the 1870s cost $3.5 million alone and would, by 1884, top $37 million. When construction finally got underway in 1880 it would devour $1.5 million per month.
To orchestrate the construction chaos the CPR hired William Cornelius Van Horne, a railway titan from the Midwestern US touted as “the ablest railway general in the world.” Van Horne was more than equal to the task. In fact, he had energy and ideas to spare. To the chagrin of Canadian newspapers, Van Horne hired Major A.B. Rogers, another American, to plot the route for the railway through the Rockies and Selkirks.
The CPR’s charter stipulated that the grade of the railway could not exceed 2.2 percent (116.2 feet of elevation change per mile). The line that Major Rogers surveyed from Laggan (now Lake
Louise) to the crest of Kicking Horse Pass climbed 1.8 percent over the 5.8 miles. This was steep for a railway, but nowhere near as steep as the plunge that lay ahead. From the outlet of Wapta
Lake, the waters of the Kicking Horse River tumbled westward, dropping 1140 feet in 7.55 railway miles. For fully 3.25 miles of that distance, the grade was 4.5 percent.
Major Rogers defied gravity and honored the terms of the CPR charter, staking a line for the rails across the southern flank of the Kicking Horse Valley. However, to follow the Major’s line, the
CPR would have required a 1400-foot long tunnel and crossings of many avalanche paths and unstable areas. It estimated the cost at $124,775 per mile – double the average elsewhere. The work
would have required an extra year and the railway would likely have gone bankrupt with the resulting delay.
The Temporary Solution
After reassessing Rogers’ survey work, Van Horne put forward a “temporary solution.” He proposed to run the rails straight down the west slope of Kicking Horse Pass on the 4.5 percent grade.
Van Horne’s logic was driven by an immediate need: complete the railway and open it for business in order to prevent the financial collapse of the whole venture. The government of the
day reluctantly conceded. When the line was completed and opened in 1886, the resulting railway horror became known as the Big Hill. Nonetheless, Van Horne’s temporary solution would
endure for 25 years until construction of the Spiral Tunnels.
Although Canada’s national park system arose from the discovery of hot springs at Banff in the autumn of 1883, it was Van Horne’s idea to park a dining car at the base of the Big Hill at Field that
led to the establishment of tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Two locomotives were required to haul a short passenger train between Field and Laggan. The CPR could ill afford the luxury
of including a heavy dining car, as this would have required a third locomotive. So Van Horne set the dining car on a siding and timed the arrival of trains to (hopefully) match meal times.
Disembarking visitors were awestruck by the mountain scenery. Van Horne realized that the facility should be expanded to offer overnight accommodation and made sure this was done before
the end of the first season of passenger train operation in 1886. The original building underwent annual expansions during its first two decades with a major addition in 1901 designed by F.M.
Rattenbury. At its peak in 1908, Mt. Stephen House welcomed 8443 guests, boasted 60 rooms, a 200-seat dining room, a billiards room, and a library.
Tourism With Intent
Van Horne took a calculated approach to establishing Banff as a resort. After appraising the potential of the local hot springs and surveying the surrounding mountains, he proclaimed: “Since we
can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.” Van Horne chose a site for a hotel at the confluence of the Spray and Bow rivers. Construction began in 1886. When the 250-room
Banff Springs Hotel opened in June 1888, it was the largest hotel in the world and was supplied with water piped from the nearby hot springs. Room rates started at $3.50 per day. Five thousand
visitors arrived that first summer. Many had to be turned away to sleep in boxcars at the railway station, for which privilege Van Horne charged a mere $1.50 per day.
The CPR built its first log chalet on the shore of Lake Louise in 1890. As with the hotels at Banff and Field, the facility went through many incarnations and by 1913 could house 400 guests. Whereas the CPR marketed the Banff Springs Hotel as a luxury resort, it pitched Lake Louise to those with a keen interest in the outdoors. As a result, Lake Louise became a beacon for artists and mountaineers whose published accounts helped to put the Canadian Rockies on the global map of places to visit.
Look for Graeme Pole’s The Spiral Tunnels and the Big Hill in bookstores throughout the Rockies. Visit his website: mountainvision.ca
By: Graeme Pole