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The route through the prairies for the Canadian Pacific Railway may seem as though it’s a natural path to take, along the southern part of the country, close to the United States border but that was not the original plan.

When plans were first put forward for the route, the railroad took a very different path.

The original plan was for the railroad to go through the prairies, up to Edmonton, then through the Yellowhead Pass and into British Columbia. Sir Sandford Fleming had chosen this route after spending a decade surveying and determining the best course for the railroad. The railroad going through that region would also take advantage of the rich fertile soil along the North Saskatchewan River valley. Six passes were looked at, the Peace River, Pine River, Smoky River, Yellow Head, Athabasca and the Howse.

Fleming, the surveyor for the railroad, wrote quote about the Yellowhead Pass, quote:

“The advantage of the Yellowhead Pass, every consideration being taken into account, outweigh those of any the other passes. The opening at that point offers superior facilities for carrying the line of railway through the main range of the great mountain chain, the Yellowhead Pass, better than any other opens the way to every harbour on the coast.”

The Canadian government also adopted the Yellowhead Pass as the route on April 2, 1872, stating it was, quote:

“the gate to British Columbia from the east.”

One of the great debates of the time was where would the terminus of the railroad be. While Fleming had chosen the Yellowhead Pass as the route into British Columbia, surveyor Alfred Waddington wanted the terminus of the railroad to be Bute Inlet, which was farther to the north of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Canyon. Waddington was adamant that the terminus be at Bute Inlet as he had explored it and often called it his inlet. Many considered him to be the first white man to have ever seen the inlet.

Sir John A. Macdonald, before he resigned from office amid the Pacific Scandal, wanted to give British Columbia some sort of assurance that the railroad would come through after so many delays. Days before the deadline for starting the railroad, he quickly named that Esquimalt would be the terminus on June 7, 1873. The community was a naval harbour on the outskirts of Victoria. What this meant was that the railroad would run to Bute Inlet on the mainland, and then thread down through 50 miles from the inlet along granite cliffs to leap over the Strait of Georgia, to Nanaimo, and then down the coast of Vancouver Island. Fleming was very much against this route and stated the route and its work would be of, quote:

“a most formidable character.”

The route to Vancouver Island would require eight miles of tunneling, a huge number of rock cuts, then island hopping over six channels. This would require a staggering 8,000 feet of bridging, including two bridges that ran for 1,300 feet. Six of the bridges would be between 1,100 feet and 1,200 feet, while a seventh had to be 640 feet long. If the railroad would take that route, it would have been an engineering marvel that would be celebrated to this day and would have changed the fabric of British Columbia forever. Fleming estimated that the cost to build from the mainland to the terminus at Esquimalt was as much as $30 million, or upwards of $1 billion.

On July 19, 1873, two years to the day that British Columbia joined Confederation, a group of dignitaries turned sod at the Esquimalt naval base.

Around this time, Fleming was considering seven routes to the coast. Two of the routes had a terminus at Burrard Inlet, three at Bute Inlet, one at Howe Sound and one at North Bentick Arm. An additional six passes through the Rockies were also debated by the surveyors with Yellowhead remaining the main one throughout the 1870s.

Seven total routes from the Yellowhead Pass were put down as possibilities.

Route 1 began at Burrard Inlet, followed the Lower Fraser River to Hope, then on to Kamloops and to the Yellowhead Pass.

Route 2 started at Burrard Inlet, followed the Fraser River to Lytton, then to Kamloops and up to the Yellowhead Pass.

Route 3 began at Howe Sound, crossed the Fraser to Lillooet, cross the plateau by the Marble Canyon to the North Thompson and then followed the same route as 1 and 2.

Route 4 began at Bute Inlet, went through the Coast chain to Lake Tatla, passed the Chilcotin plains the Fraser River, and continued on to Lac La Hache and to Clearwater, then on to the Pass.

Route 5 only differed from Route 4 in that it would take a different route from the Chilcotin Plain to the Thompson Valley.

Route 6 began at Bute Inlet, crossed the Chilcotin Plain to Fort George, went along the Upper Fraser Valley and on to the Pass.

The last route, Route 7 has the least known about it, as it mostly went from the Pass down the Upper Fraser to Fort George and then followed the route to the Pacific along the Skeena River.

The cost for all of these routes was between $33 million and $40 million, or $1 billion to $1.5 billion today.

Of all the routes, route 5 was the one Fleming wanted. Fleming would report, quote:

“This route commands attention. Although a very heavy expenditure will undoubtedly be required the railway for the first 44 miles easterly from the Pacific Coast it is thought that the average cost per mile, through the whole of the Mountain region, with this exception, will be moderate.”

Marcus Smith, the chief acting engineer in the field would agree, stating in a report, quote:

“This is undoubtedly the shortest practicable line across the continent from Red River to the Pacific, and can be constructed at least cost. It is also on the direct route to the cost of China.”

Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada, would write, quote:

“In Victoria, the one idea of every human being is to get the railway to Esquimalt. It is upon this chance that the little town must depend for its future, most of its inhabitants have wildly speculated in town lots. You can therefore imagine the frenzied eagerness with which Victoria grasps at every chance of making itself the terminus of the great transcontinental railway.”

He would add regarding the terminus of the mainland, quote:

“The same intense longing to become the terminus of the railway possesses the people.”

On the mainland, there was the feeling that Victoria only wanted to be the terminus of the route because then it could sell town lots for huge prices, and their desire was fueled only by greed. One man in New Westminster would write to The Times of London, quote:

“The bitterness and selfishness of Victorians, so that their lands and town lots and speculative purchases may be made to return $20 for $1.”

A pamphlet began to be circulated that stated Bute Inlet was the best terminus based on science, while other pamphlets would tout different terminuses depending on the origin of the pamphlet writer.

Edgar Dewdney, a Member of Parliament, would release his own pamphlet that advocated for the route going along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, with the terminus at Burrard Inlet.

With the Conservatives no longer in power, many questioned whether Esquimalt had to be the terminus, and its status was up in the air with other options floated.

Fleming, for his part, did not know which mainland terminus to pick. He felt the talk of a terminus on the mainland was meaningless since Esquimalt had been chosen as the terminus, but the cost of bridging the channel was immense. He would write, quote:

“The line located from Lake Superior to Burrard Inlet commands generally more than ordinarily favourable gradients. If the railway be constructed on this route in the manner which I have recommended, cheapness of transportation will be assured and advantages will accrue in the future of the most important kind.”

On July 12, 1878, the Alexander Mackenzie government, selected the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet route for the CPR, ending the hope for Bute Inlet of being the terminus on the mainland, with the Yellowhead Pass being the entry into the mountains from the Prairies. As with so many things in politics in Canada, there were sharp party lines in regards to the routes. The Liberals supported the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet route, while the Conservatives supported Bute Inlet route but both agreed on the Yellowhead Pass.

Sir John A. Macdonald would speak of the Yellowhead Pass as the right route on Feb. 12, 1878, stating quote:

“One thing is clear, and that is that Yellow Head Pass is to be the pass through which the road will go and I presume the Government will at an early day lay all the papers before us and all the survey reports, in order to justify the conclusion.”

When the Conservatives came back into power in 1878, they brought with them several changes from the decisions that had been made by the Liberals, who were not keen on the railroad to begin with. Charles Tupper, future prime minister of Canada, would state that the selection of Burrard Inlet as the Pacific Terminus was premature and the government wanted more time to survey routes, including through the Pine and Peace River passes much farther to the north.

The government would again change its mind the following year when Port Moody, which was along the banks of the Burrard Inlet, was chosen as the terminus for the railroad, with the route following the Fraser and Thompson Rivers from Kamloops to the coast.

Charles Tupper would state in 1879, quote:

“I regard the Burrard Inlet route as having, as compared with the Bute Inlet route, the advantage in point of distance, it is 57 miles shorter to Burrard Inlet than to Worthington Harbor. Taking into account the three miles that were shortened by explorations of last summer, it is 57 miles shorter to Burrard Inlet or Port Moody than it is to Worthington Harbor and Bute Inlet.”

When the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate was formed, and Sir William Van Horne was brought in to lead the project, Sir Sandford Fleming was let go.

Fleming’s days were numbered before the syndicate was even created. The sluggish construction under the Liberal government, the cost overruns through the harsh Canadian Shield and muskeg country of Northern Ontario, and the expensive surveys in British Columbia were all put on Fleming for blame. In all, the nine years of surveying in British Columbia had cost $3 million, or over $100 million today.

Alexander Galt would write to Sir John A. Macdonald and state, quote:

“I have the conviction that you will neither obtain speedy or economical construction under Fleming’s management.”

In his letter he urged Macdonald to fire Fleming, adding, quote:

“Fleming seems incapable of grasping the idea of what the country wants and what its resources enable it to do and I must say with frankness I trust you will pardon that his continuance on the direction of the Pacific Railway will defeat all our plans for the development of our country.”

The CPR also wanted a route that was farther to the south. On May 15, 1882, Sir Charles Tupper, knowing what the CPR wanted, put forward a bill in the House of Commons to place within the power of the Governor-in-Council, if they should think the interest of the country to be thereby promoted, the right to authorize the location of the Canadian Pacific Railway through a pass south of the Yellowhead Pass, but at least 100 miles north of the American border. Alexander Mackenzie had asked that a provision be added that the route only be changed upon obtaining grades equal to those found in the Yellow Head Pass. Tupper responded that doing so would be fatal to the bill.

This route would go through Palliser’s Triangle, a stretch of land that went from southern Manitoba, to the Rockies The area was initially determined to be unsuitable for crops by the Palliser Expedition that travelled through the region between 1857 and 1859. Government officials later questioned this assessment, which led to homesteading in the triangle. While crops are grown in the region, they suffer much more frequent droughts and other hindrances.

The Canadian Pacific Railway chose to ignore the Palliser Expedition’s findings, instead looking at the findings of John Macoun, who found the land to be lush and fertile. What they did not know, was that Macoun came through during a period of very high rainfall in the area.

The CPR decided to go farther south because it would provide a more direct route to the United States, it would prevent American railways from encroaching onto Canadian soil and it would allow the Canadian Pacific Railway to ensure that all railroads to the north, eventually branched into their railroad, thereby increasing its use and the company’s profits.

The change from the Yellowhead Pass was odd to many at the time. The pass had been used for decades as a wagon trail by the time the railroad project was launched. One report stated, quote:

“The route from the Yellow Head Pass crossing Canoe River by Albreda Lake, thence along the valley of the North Thompson River, is singularly favourable for the construction of a line of railway, of easy gradients and moderate curves and in addition comparatively light work. On this line, no grade will exceed 50 feet per mile, and for great distances will range from 15 to 20 feet per mile.”

By this point, the Conservative Party was in favour of the Kicking Horse Pass, despite their original support for the Yellowhead Pass. The Montreal Gazette would report on Joshua Homer, the MP for New Westminster, would write on the debate in April 1882, quote:

“Mr. Homer said the change of route for the Canadian Pacific Railway from Yellow Head Pass to Kicking Horse Pass would be most beneficial. The road would pass through rich grazing lands and a country in which gold and silver would be found.”

There were several problems with taking this new route. The first was how to find a route through the Selkirk Mountains. At the time, it was not known if such a route even existed. This presented a noticeable roadblock to the company that was on the clock to finish the railroad.

The job of finding the route through the Selkirk Mountains fell on a man named Major Albert Bowman Rogers.

Rogers had a degree in engineering and had served with the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars, reaching the rank of Major in the process. His first engineering experience came from his work on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. With his limited experience, many were surprised when he was hired to find a pass through the mountains in April of 1881. Rogers would go through the reports of earlier surveyors and it was there he found a potential pass that had been described by Albert Perry, the assistant to Walter Moberly, who surveyed the area in 1865.

The Montreal Gazette would report on Jan. 10, 1882, quote:

“Mr. Rogers, one of the syndicate engineers, having found three other good passes, either of which will be adopted.”

Rogers got to work and began looking for the pass that was identified, hoping that it would be the pass that the railroad would use. The Canadian Pacific Railway also enticed him with an offer of $5,000 for finding a pass.

Rogers worked his men hard, and provided them with only the basic needs and meagre food supplies, while constantly pushing them to continue on. Needless to say, he was not well liked by his men.

Finally, on May 28, 1881, which happened to be his birthday, he found a pass through the mountains. Rogers did not approach the pass due to a lack of food supplies, but the following year on July 24, 1882, he was able to reach the pass he had seen the previous year.

In gratitude, the Canadian Pacific Railway named it Rogers Pass.

Rogers refused to cash the cheque he was given as he wanted to put it in a gold frame. It was not until Van Horne promised him a gold watch as a souvenir that he agreed to cash the cheque.

Another major problem came in the form of Chief Crowfoot and the Blackfoot people, who occupied the land that the railroad would go through after moving to a reserve following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877.

The work of convincing the Blackfoot fell to respected missionary, Father Albert Lacombe, who was friendly with the Indigenous. He would persuade Crowfoot to allow the railroad to go through his land, stating that the construction of the railroad was inevitable. Crowfoot then agreed to allow the railroad through, and the Canadian Pacific Railway gave him a lifetime pass to ride the CPR. As it turned out, Crowfoot would die only five years after the railroad was finished.

With all those items out of the way, the most daunting aspect of the route remained, the Kicking Horse Pass.

Collingwood Schreiber would write to Sir Charles Tupper, stating quote:

“The company, I am informed, have made a location with a view to passing through the Kicking Horse Pass. This location has not yet been approved but the Company apparently have great faith in the existence of a feasible way through the mountains in the direction indicated.”

I won’t go too much into the Pass as I have an entire episode devoted to it coming up. What I will say was that it was along the continental divide and it presented a major engineering challenge to the railroad builders. The first six kilometres of this route rose 5,331 feet to the summit and then dropped 1,150 feet after the summit. This drop resulted in the need to build a seven kilometre long stretch of track with a 4.5 per cent gradient. This gradient was four times the maximum recommended for railways of the era. Even today, most railways only have a maximum of a two per cent gradient. Why take this route then? Well, the route through the Kicking Horse saved several hours of travel for passengers and freight. In all, the route saved 100 miles. The government said it would save $4 million in construction as well, which could be debated.


Of course, the Yellowhead Pass was only 3,711 feet and had gradual approaches and had been used by the Indigenous for centuries. The Yellowhead Pass would not be used for railroads until the 1910s when the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railways built their main lines through.

Information comes from The Great Railway, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Canadian Pacific Railway and British Columbia, Montreal Gazette,

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