Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promised British Columbia a connection to the railway within ten years of the date they joined confederation in 1871. Finally in place in 1885, the railway stretched across rugged terrain, connecting the country from coast to coast and increasing the ease of transportation for people, supplies and ideas. The railway represented the unification of the country as well as linking Canada to international communication and commerce at both coasts.
Met with the challenge of continuing the railway through the Rocky Mountains, the CPR hired surveyors to find a route through the daunting mountain range to reach BC.
Walter Moberly was hired by the CPR in 1871 to secure a route for the railway. He discovered Eagle Pass in the Monashee Mountains. Moberly believed a southern route was best and this discovery solved part of the puzzle. The CPR’s Chief Engineer, Sanford Fleming, disagreed and asked Moberly to abandon his route and head north to survey the Yellowhead Pass in 1872.
John Macoun, a Canadian naturlist, met Sanford Fleming in 1872. Fleming asked Macoun to participate in his expedition to the Pacific of 1872, to determine the best route for the railway as well as the agricultural potential of the west.
John Macoun petitioned the CPR to use Kicking Horse Pass since it meant that the railroad would pass through more fertile prairie lands and be a more direct route closer to the American border. His reasoning appealed to the Governors and they abandoned the investments they’d spent on the Yellowhead Pass, returning to the area Moberly had first recommended. The new route would shorten the western section of the railway but would leave a second range of mountains to negotiate beyond the Rockies known as the Selkirks.
Albert Bowman Rogers was hired to search the Selkirk mountain range for a suitable route. Promised $5,000 dollars and naming rights if he could find a pass, Rogers scoured Moberly’s notes for information on the previously impassable range. He soon discovered what is now known as Rogers Pass. With a route available through the Selkirks, construction began, leading the railway through Kicking Horse Pass and Rogers Pass en route to British Columbia’s coastline.
Once the railway reached the Kicking Horse Pass in 1884, construction slowed immensely. As funds were running low and time constraints were looming, the CPR decided to build a temporary line over Mount Stephen.
The steep descent from Wapta Lake to the base of Mount Stephen required a gradient of 4.5%, 4 times steeper than the average rail grade at the time. Trains loaded down with heavy dining and sleeping cars could not be pulled through the mountains, creating a need for stopping places such as Mount Stephen House and Glacier House.
CPR’s workers were mostly immigrants from Europe or China making less than $2 a day. Immigrant workers were paid less and expected to do more dangerous jobs such as clearing the route. As dynamite was more expensive, construction crews used nitro-glycerin, a less stable explosive, to do the blasting. Many lost their lives and those who survived, lived in squalor trying to subsist on such meagre pay.
Building the railway was dangerous and labour intensive, requiring determination and courage. Completion of a transcontinental railway would not have been possible without awesome engineering and human feats. For a country with such a small population, limited capital, and difficult terrain to build the longest railway ever constructed at the time was a testament to Canada’s willpower.
The steep grade of the railway through Kicking Horse Pass led to frequent accidents and expensive engines. In 1909, the CPR developed an alternative route, the Spiral Tunnels. The chosen route for the tunnels consisted of three-quarter circles driven into the valley walls.
The higher tunnel was about a thousand yards in length and ran south of the original track, under Cathedral Mountain. From here, the railway looped through the mountain, doubled back, and emerged, running beneath itself fifty feet lower.
Descending the valley side in almost the opposite direction before crossing the Kicking Horse River, the lower tunnel passed through Mount Ogden. This tunnel was a few yards shorter than the first, but the descent was nearly the same.
From the lower tunnel, the railway continues toward Field and on to Rogers Pass and interior B.C. The tunnels doubled the length of the climb, but reduced the gradient of descent to 2.2%.
The Spiral Tunnels enabled the CPR to continue hauling dining and sleeping cars, eliminating the need for Mount Stephen House and Glacier House
Kicking Horse Pass is the highest point on the Canadian Pacific Railway, at an elevation of 5,338 feet (1,627 m). As transportation methods changed, the use of the pass evolved. Built in 1962, the Trans-Canada Highway follows parts of the original route the CPR used in the 1880s. The Spiral Tunnels viewpoint is a very popular destination along the highway to view trains as they loop through the pass.
Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
First recorded in the report of the Palliser expedition of 1857-60, this pass takes its name from an incident in which Dr. James Hector, surgeon to the expedition, was kicked by his horse while exploring in this vicinity. The pass was virtually unused until after 1881 when the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to adopt it as their new route through the Rockies, foregoing the earlier preference for the more northerly Yellowhead Pass. This decision altered the location of the line across western Canada and dramatically affected the development of the West.
Kicking Horse Pass and the adjacent river were named by James Hector of Captain John Palliser’s expedition in 1858. Hector, a naturalist, biologist, and doctor on the expedition, was kicked by his horse while crossing the pass.
In 1989, the Canadian Heritage Rivers System Board recognized the Kicking Horse River as a Canadian Heritage River. The designation recognized the heritage values of geology and earth history, exploration and transportation history, and scenic and recreational values.
Canadian Pacific Railway, “Our History,” www.cpr.ca
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Albert Bowman Rogers, www.biographi.ca