Canadian Pacific Railway in the Rockies

This is a really fun design concept - when you enter the snow shed, you will hear immigrant workers talking and the sound of their tools on the track - then you hear and FEEL an avalanche!

Listen to Michale Lang (Executive Director, Whyte Museum), discussing
the Immigrants for Industry exhibition:


The story of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the immigrants who helped build it is just one of the many stories in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

Immigrants were brought from the world over to help build the railway and work the mines for coal to feed the locomotives. Many lost their lives on the track or in the mines. Some of the most dangerous sections of track ran through the Canadian Rockies. There were many risks to the workers building that most difficult section of track, but in winter, avalanches were one of the greatest risks. After many workers lost their lives, CPR had to find a solution. Snow sheds were built to protect trains and lives.


The Settlement of the West

The populating of the West was a priority of the Government of Canada post-Confederation in 1867. It was motivated by both a desire to create a new country spanning sea-to-sea, and to prevent the Americans from encroaching northwards. In 1869, as a result of negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Dominion of Canada acquired, for $1.5 million, the lands that became the North-West Territories, which included Alberta and Saskatchewan, known formerly as Rupert’s Land.

The signing of Treaties with Aboriginal Peoples (Treaties 1 through 7, from 1871 to 1877) made possible the building of the railways and opening of the land to business interests and for settlement. The treaties, the Mounted Police and the Canadian Pacific Railway have been described by historians as the “three pillars” of the National Policy. The Ottawa government viewed the West as a rich source of agricultural land and resources that would supply Eastern Canadian industries thereby increasing production to serve Western needs. The result would be a stronger, unified Canada.

In the west, the industrial revolution met the wilderness. In Western Europe, agriculture, technology and industry evolved over thousands of years. In the Canadian West, these developments were telescoped into a fore-shortened timeframe of about 50 years. The Era of the Fur Trade introduced a complex commercial interaction between the white men who wanted furs and the First Nations people who often served as guides and wanted to trade for goods the white men brought.

The coming of the railways enabled the easy and quick movement of people, supplies and services; the founding of industries; and the building of towns. Forests and coal were needed to build and feed the railway. Bankhead and Anthracite and the Crowsnest Pass needed men to work the mines build the track. At the same time, the groundings of civil society (local governments, schools and hospitals) were being put in place. But so also were the seeds of discontent planted.


The Ethnic Nature of Immigration

The need for settlers was so great that the doors were opened wide. This did not mean that everyone was treated equally as part of the British Empire. Those of British ancestry (English, Scottish and Welsh) were viewed as superior immigrants, as were the Irish and Northern Europeans. They were deemed to be hard working, motivated and the ideal stock to form the new political, social and economic order. Others, from southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East, while being considered less desirable, were seen as able to contribute skills that could be useful. They needed, however, to understand their place within the ruling hierarchy. Immigration, from the beginning, was, thus, selective and based on race. While some groups, such as the Chinese, were penalized through the head tax, others were made to understand that so long as their labours were useful, they would be welcome.

Those who came sought freedom or were economic migrants but, above all, they had a sense of adventure. They would encounter physical hardships and even be made to feel second-class but, in comparison to their countries of origin, which were even more hierarchical and class-ridden, the Canadian West was truly a land of opportunity.

The Role of the Canadian Pacific Railway

Driving the Golden Spike, by Donals Smith, Novermber 7, 1885
Mary Schaffer fonds, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (V527 / PS 1 - 810)

While Sir Sanford Fleming had suggested that the railway be built through the “Fertile Belt” of the North Saskatchewan River via the Yellowhead Pass, the CPR chose the more southerly route closer to the American border. This was done to prevent American interests from encroaching on their market. Major Albert Bowman Rogers, a surveyor and Engineer-in-Chief for the CPR, was charged with finding a route and was promised $5,000 as well as the naming of the pass in his honour. He did this in April 1881 and the railway was built in the next four years. Because of initial slow progress, American William Cornelius Van Horne was hired in 1882 to oversee construction. He had been successful as general manager of the Southern Minnesota Railway and as superintendent of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul line.

The laying of tracks was troubled by natural disasters among them forest fires and avalanches. It is little wonder that the route chosen by the railway builders posed so many problems. This was an area that had not been use by First Nations people. Why take a route that is a rainforest strewn with downed timber in summer and plagued by avalanches in the winter. It made much more sense to the somewhat longer but much friendlier way around the Big Bend of the Columbia River.

But the Canadian Pacific Railway persisted with the shorter route. On February 19th, 1885, Manager of Construction James Ross writes General Manager Van Horne: “I find the snowslides on the Selkirks are much more serious than I anticipated, and I think are quite beyond your ideas of their magnitude and danger to the line.” Two men had already been killed and seven buried. The summit was reached on August 17, 1885. The tracks ascended the eastern flank of the Mountains towards what became Rogers Pass. There, a 50-metre high trestle was built spanning 331 metres across the valley walls. The bridge built at Stoney Creek was 64 metres high, which the engineers felt was the highest in the world. The line continued from Rogers Pass to the Columbia River and on to Eagle Pass through the Monashee Mountains where on November 7th, 1885, Ross’s crew met the crew coming from the Pacific. The last spike was driven at Craigellachie, 48 kilomentres from Revelstoke.

Because of the avalanche danger, 31 costly snow sheds were built to protect 6.5 kilometres of track (about four miles). This still left the rest of the line unprotected and, in winter, crews were frequently called in to clear the tracks. On March, 1910, a slide came down Mount Cheops south of Shed 17 and covered the tracks on the west side of the pass. Roadmaster John Anderson sent a crew of 63 men with a rotary snowplow to clear the tracks. Time was of the essence because CPR Train Number 97 was coming bound for Vancouver. About half an hour before midnight, as the clearing work was taking place, another slide came down Avalanche Mountain meeting the first and burying about 400 metres of track. It struck the 91-ton locomotive and hurled it 15 metres and crushed the wooden cars, entombing 62 workmen below 10 metres of snow. Only the locomotive fireman Billy Lachance survived and, of 58 bodies found, 32 were Japanese workers. Over 200 died in avalanches between 1885 and 1911. With these dangers in mind, the CPR decided to run the tracks through an eight-kilometre tunnel (at the time, Canada’s longest tunnel). Work on the Connaught began in 1913 and, on its completion on December 13th, 1916, the Rogers Pass route was abandoned.

Snow Shed on Canadian Pacific Railway Line,
(V263-na-1493), Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

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