No country on Earth perhaps owes as much of its existence to the construction of a single railway as does Canada. I made this point in my previous exploration of Canada's roots as a Victorian nation, and it still holds today. The Canadian Pacific Railway and its transcontinental reach expanded the country's span from sea to sea, it protected its sovereignty from avaricious eyes to the South, and invited permanent settlers and temporary tourists to our shores. From immigrants and artists to hotels and international campaigns, the railway did much to define Canadian identity at home and abroad. Whereas the Great American Road Trip is the travel icon of our neighbours, Canada's is the railway journey.
The scene of the Last Spike being driven into the soil of Craigellachie, British Columbia, in 1885 is a familiar one to anyone who grew up in Canadian schools. Front and centre is Sir Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, a legendary figure in his own right. His career began with the Hudson's Bay Company, the fur trading corporation and oldest company in North America. Perhaps not even the CPR overshadows the influence of the HBC, for at the height of its power the company held title over the entirety of present-day Western Canada, and at the height of his power Smith held authority over those domains. He moved from the HBC to Canadian politics and finance, thereby entering the board of directors for the CPR. His chief honour was to drive the Last Spike. Afterwards his name gained immortality for funding the creation of the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians), a highly decorated military unit.
Driving the Last Spike.
To the left of Lord Strathcona are Sir Sandford Fleming (CPR engineer and inventor of Standard Time Zones) sporting a white beard and tall top hat and CPR Vice-President Sir William Cornelius Van Horne with darker beard and shorter top hat. But immediately behind Smith is young Edward Mallandaine. Though occupying a central position in perhaps the most famous Canadian photograph ever taken, he had absolutely nothing to do with the proceedings. Born in Victoria, BC, in 1867 and enamoured with the writings of Mark Twain, he left home at 14 and took up a job ferrying goods to workers building the railway. When he heard that the BC line and the line from Western Canada were finally set to unite at Craigellachie, he hopped a flatcar and rode out to the ceremony. He managed to inch his way through the crowd at just the right moment to sneak into the photo.
Most notable is that, on this cold and drizzling November morning, no one is smiling. This was not the celebration that marked the completion of other railways. The transcontinental railway was a result of political finagling between the government of Canada and the colony of British Columbia, with the latter promising to join the country in 1871 only if a railway was built to link them. Mismanagement and corruption continuously stalled the project, leading up to the dissolution of the predecessor Canada Pacific Railway Company and the ousting of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. In 1878, Macdonald returned to power and in 1881 a wholly new syndicate was created, the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR tendered the contract for $25 million and 25 million acres of land, promising to complete the railway within 10 years. Pushed by the no nonsense former American railway manager Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, they finished it in five. It was a monumental, tedious and very expensive accomplishment synonymous with the many Chinese immigrant workers who died while building the dangerous British Columbia line.
The original Western terminus of the railway was Port Moody, just shy of the true Pacific Coast. Final work on the railway delayed the first transcontinental passenger train to 1886. In 1887 the line was extended to the port city of Vancouver and the first true coast-to-coast train arrived, bedecked in finery to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.
The Jubilee train arrives in Vancouver, 1887.
As expensive as the railway was to complete, the CPR needed to recoup costs post haste. A good sum of that came by taking advantage of those 25 million acres of land flanking the CPR's right of way. These were sold to immigrant settlers as homesteads, creating a profitable monopolistic network. Settlers would pay the CPR to ferry them to and across Canada, buy the land from them, and use the CPR to ship equipment in and agricultural products out. The vast number of isolated prairie communities throughout the Canadian West were once railway sidings, their one-time railway stations now invariably housing the local museum. To keep the system running, the CPR did generously support the farmers, including extensions of credit and the construction of experimental farms to try out new farming techniques and strains of crop resistant to Canada's harsh climate.
Ultimately less lucrative than the human, agricultural and industrial freight, but far more romantic, was the tourist trade. Those forbidding Rocky Mountains that posed such a problem for the men who built the railway sparked a gleam in the eye of Van Horne. In them he saw a goldmine and remarked "If we can't export the scenery we'll import the tourists."
The first name-trains to ply the route were the westbound Pacific Express and eastbound Atlantic Express. These were the regular workhorses that ferried the economic traffic. New standards of class and luxury would be set by the Imperial Limited when it began to roll in 1899. Not content to farm out its work to companies like Pullman, the CPR designed and manufactured its own carriages to Van Horne's exacting standards. The original engines were, for the most part, the old standard-bearing 4-4-0 Americans.
The Imperial Limited, circa 1907.
For the most part, that is, because certain sections of track had certain unique challenges. One infamous stretch was The Big Hill crossing the Continental Divide through the Kicking Horse Pass between modern day Banff and Yoho National Parks. Initial surveyors planned a route for the railway that would percolate through the much easier Athabasca Pass further to the north in present Jasper National Park. The interests of Southern Alberta ranchers and the persistent threat of American annexation led to the use of a southern, border-hugging line through the more challenging Kicking Horse.
In order to speed the construction of the railway, the CPR forwent blasting through the bases of the mountains surrounding the Kicking Horse River and instead went straight down: a descent over 13km at a grade of 4.5%. That was over twice the desired grade of 2.2%. Such a ridiculously steep grade inevitably resulted in disaster, including the very first locomotive to attempt the drop in 1884. Numerous safety measures were used including employing 2-8-0 Consolidation engines as "pushers" to help trains along. This temporary cost-cutting disaster area was eventually fixed 25 years later, in 1909, when the Spiral Tunnels were built. These engineering marvels cut a figure-eight through the mountains, reducing the grade to the desired 2.2%.
Multiple engines pushing up the Big Hill, 1890.
For visitors to Canada, the spectacular sights of the Rocky Mountains made such risks worthwhile. The unparalleled scenery from Quebec to the Pacific was supplemented by a string of luxurious hotels that still stand today as icons of Canadian culture and architecture: the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, and the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC are castles befitting a fairy tale. Canadian Pacific spearheaded the creation of the National Parks as lucrative nature preserves. Banff, the first of them in 1885, was centred on hot mineral springs discovered by railway workers a few years before.
Originally these hotels and their now long-passed companion "houses" - Glacier, Mount Stephen, etc. - were rustic wooden structures. By their peak around 1930, they had evolved to masterpieces of the closest thing Canada has to a national architectural style: a blending of Gothic Revivalism, Scottish Baronial and French Châteauesque dubbed "Railway Gothic". The style was so-called for its prevalence in railway hotels and stations, such as the stations at Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. CPR's chief competitor, the government-owned Canadian National Railways, acquired their own hotels, like Edmonton's Hotel Macdonald, Saskatoon's Bessborough Hotel and Ottawa's Chateau Laurier. Meanwhile, the CPR built the largest hotel in the British Empire at the time, the Royal York in Toronto.
Imperial Limited leaving Vancouver, 1911.
Vancouver Station, circa 1902.
The Chateau Frontenac looms over the Old City of Quebec, 1924.
The Banff Springs Hotel, 1929.
The Royal York Hotel, circa 1930.
The Hotel Macdonald.
The Bessborough Hotel, circa 1930's.
The Chateau Laurier, 1916.
Broad St. Station, Ottawa, circa 1910's.
Place Viger Hotel, Montreal, 1901.
Exterior of Montreal's Windsor Station, 1900.
Inside the glass-canopied train shed of Windsor Station, 1890.
Over time the Imperial Limited would be supplanted by The Dominion in 1933, and the venerable 4-4-0 American engine would be replaced by the 4-6-2 Pacific, which served as the standard clear through the end of the steam era on many routes. However, the CPR also experimented with some of the most powerful steam locomotives ever built. In 1929 they adopted the 4-6-4 Hudson and immense 2-10-4 Selkirk. Selkirks were employed especially for the demands of the Rocky Mountains while the Hudsons were powerhouses capable of carrying a whole train from one end of the country to the other without changeovers. A semi-streamlined version did just that to great effect in 1939 when it was used on the westward leg of King George IV's Royal Tour. In honour of the accomplishment, the semi-streamlined version was dubbed the Royal Hudson. Each was decorated in the now-classic Tuscan red, grey and black with gold trim palate forever identified with the Golden Age of Travel in Canada.
A restored Pacific locomotive now housed at the
Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania.
A restored Hudson, the 2816 Empress.
The 2860 Royal Hudson, currently undergoing restoration at
the West Coast Railway Heritage Park in Squamish, BC.
As a contrast, the preserved 374 American engine in Vancouver, BC.
This was the same Jubilee train that made the first transcontinental
trip to Vancouver in 1887, as depicted above.
These trains were supplemented with a fleet of cruise ships. To build his shipping and transit network, Van Horne first leased ships from other lines like Cunard, only to create its own division in 1891, so-named the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. The line included steamships that plied the inland waters of the Great Lakes and smaller "Princess" and "Duchess" vessels, but the cream of the crop, the top of the line, were the "Empress" Royal Mail Steamers. Ships like the RMS Empress of Britian, Empress of Canada, Empress of Scotland and Empress of Ireland served the Atlantic routes while RMS Empress of China, Empress of India and Empress of Japan sailed the Pacific. The first group of ships, dating to the early 1900's and 1910's were classic ships of the Titanic cut, several of which were also the spoils of war passed along to the British Empire by the defeated Prussians. In the late Twenties and into the Thirties, these were replaced by newer and more imposing variations befitting the Golden Age of Travel and the powerful trains that ferried Canadian Pacific's passengers from sea to sea.
The RMS Empress of Britain I, 1905.
The flagship RMS Empress of Britain II, behind which
sits the RMS Olympic, sister ship to the RMS Titanic,
bridging two eras of ocean transportation (c. 1931).
The Imperial Limited at Leanchoil, British Columbia, 1913.
By the onset of the Second World War, Canadian Pacific operated one of the most extensive transportation networks in the world. Affluent tourists from England could board a Canadian Pacific steamship, arrive in Montreal and load into the luxurious Imperial Limited or Dominion, stay at hotel fortresses amidst the most stunning scenery in the world, arrive at Vancouver and board another Canadian Pacific steamship for the Orient. This path came to be advertised as the All-Red Route, so-called for the red colouring denoting the British Empire on maps of the time. Through Canadian Pacific it was possible to circumnavigate half the world without ever leaving British territory.
Canadian National Railways, today, is one of North America's largest rail companies and the largest landowner in Canada. It's tracks span from the Atlantic at Nova Scotia to the Pacific and all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. This success was originally born out of the failure of the Canadian Pacific Railways' competition. Up to 1919, Eastern Canada was seriously overserviced, being the domain of the Grand Trunk Railway, Intercolonial Railway of Canada, National Transcontinental Railway and Prince Edward Island Railway. In the West, farmers started to decry the CPR's monopoly, demanding alternate networks. Canadian Northern Railway and Grand Trunk Pacific answered the call, utilizing the original surveyed northerly route through Edmonton and Jasper. A crisis caused by the default of Grand Trunk/Grand Trunk Pacific led to government intervention and nationalization. By 1923, Canadian National Railways was in place as a Crown corporation.
The CNR's Transcontinental Limited arrives at Jasper, 1928.
Langley Station, British Columbia, 1924. The backbone of
the CNR was the 4-8-4 Confederation/Northern locomotive.
Eatonia Station, Saskatchewan, pre-1940.
A streamlined 4-8-4 Class U-4-a on display at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
The challenges and new opportunities of post-war life affected Canada's railway culture through the Fifties. Many of the steamships served in the war effort and the mighty Empress of Britain II was sunk by u-boat. A third Empress of Britian was built in 1956 but eventually sold off in 1964. In 1942, CPR attempted to roll with the new era by creating Canadian Pacific Airlines, which shuttered in 1987. Their heart was still in the railroad, however. The appeals of air and private automobile compelled both the CPR and Canadian National Railways to alter their systems. Inspired by the stainless steel, streamlined diesel trains of the United States - California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Super Chief - they aquired these new, modern trains for themselves. On the same day in 1955 the CPR debuted The Canadian and CNR debuted the Super Continental. Without the panache for advertising that defined the elder company, CNR's Super Continental was all but forgotten in the media buzz that surrounded Canadian Pacific's new transcontinental line.
Amongst the features offered by The Canadian were the only glass dome cars travelling the whole duration of the route, though these seats were especially coveted through the Rocky Mountains. Sleeper cars included the "Manor" and "Chateau" series, the former named for British figures from Canadian history and the latter named for French figures. At the rear of each were the "Park" cars named after national and provincial parks. Park cars sat at the back of the train, sported the glass domes and served as the lounge for the wealthier patrons. In fact, directly beneath the domes were cozy (read: cramped) lounges decorated with murals painted by members of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, which included former Group of Seven luminaries Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and A.J. Casson.
Vintage promotional photos of The Canadian.
Though a nationwide phenomenon on its premiere, The Canadian suffered at the hands of other, faster or more private modes of conveyance. In 1966 the CPR cancelled The Dominion and in 1970 it petitioned the government of Canada to cancel The Canadian. Unfortunately for the CPR, providing passenger service was part of their charter mandate and the government refused. The Canadian would operate at a loss of up to 80% until 1978 when passenger rail service was nationalized under the Crown corporation VIA Rail. VIA Rail still operates The Canadian but on the northerly route of the Super Continental, to the bittersweet chagrin of rail enthusiasts.
Both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National today are overwhelmingly freight transport companies. The Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts division was separated out and folded into the Fairmont Hotels chain when it was purchased by Canadian Pacific in 1999. Despite this attempt to gain greater international brand traction, many Canadians continue to abhor or ignore the "Fairmont" prefix marring the names of the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Frontenac. Passenger traffic through the Rockies at Kicking Horse Pass is handled by the private rail tour company Rocky Mountaineer. Two exceptions exist to the CPR's lack of passengers: the 2816 Empress and the Royal Canadian Pacific. The 2816 Empress is a restored and operational Hudson locomotive that tours the country during summers, offering charity excursions. I had the privilege of riding it in 2010 for the 125th Anniversary of the Last Spike (a journey which was filmed for the IMAX film Rocky Mountain Express). The Royal Canadian Pacific goes to the other extreme, offering luxury land cruises through the Rockies that run as high as $8000 or more per person.
The 2816 Empress near Field, BC.
The Royal Canadian Pacific.
Promotional photos © CPR.