This Week in History


A Band of Steel: the CPR links Canada from Coast to Coast

For the week of Monday November 4, 2002

On November 7, 1885, the last spike was driven on the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, British Columbia, uniting Eastern Canada with the West. The following year, the first transcontinental train arrived at Port Moody from Montréal. The future of Canada was laid out along 4,640 kilometres of rail.

Telegram to Prime Minister<br> John A. Macdonald announcing<br>completion of the CPR

Telegram to Prime Minister
John A. Macdonald announcing
completion of the CPR

© LAC / e000009485

As early as 1864, plans were laid to unite the British colonies by rail. For the Crown, a railway would provide rapid transportation for troops; for Canadian politicians, it would help populate the West; and for the united colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, closer contact with the East would provide economic stability. The promise of a railway was British Columbia’s condition for joining Confederation in 1871. The following year, the railway project was chartered and construction was scheduled to begin within two years.

In 1873, a scandal erupted over financial contributions made to the Conservative government by a railway company. Known as the Pacific Scandal, it led to the resignation of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and the defeat of his government. The newly elected Liberal leader, Alexander Mackenzie, opposed the railway and construction was delayed. Then the Conservatives returned to power in 1881 and construction was resumed to keep British Columbia within Confederation. The recently established Canadian Pacific Railway Company received the charter, 25 million dollars in funding, and 25 million acres of land. William C. Van Horne, CPR’s general manager, promised that the railway would be completed in four years.

Donald Smith drives the<br>last spike at Craigellachie, B.C.

Donald Smith drives the
last spike at Craigellachie, B.C.

© LAC / C-003693

Building the transcontinental railway was an arduous project as it extended across Precambrian rock, forests, muskeg, prairies and through mountain ranges. Many workers were killed, at an estimated rate of two casualties for every kilometre of track. In order to finish in time, two crews set to work, laying up to ten kilometres of track per day. One worked westwards, starting at Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, while the second worked eastwards from the Fraser River Canyon. The two crews met in Eagle Pass where Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona), a Hudson’s Bay Company financier, hammered the last rail at 9:22 a.m. The railway was extended to Vancouver the following year when a regular passenger service was introduced between Montréal and the Pacific.

The Completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway is an event of National Historic significance commemorated by a plaque at Port Moody, the original rail terminus. The Creation of the Province of British Columbia, in Victoria, also celebrates this event.

For past stories related to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, please see: A Scandal Exposed, Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers and Huge Crowds welcome Passenger Train.

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