The Kicking Horse Pass

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It is one of, if not the most difficult portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway construction. The Kicking Horse Pass, which as we saw last episode, was chosen because it was closer to the US border, presented a huge challenge for the construction of the railway.

So what is the Kicking Horse Pass? The Pass rises to 1,627 metres, or 5,339 feet in the Continental Divide, separating the Alberta and British Columbia border.

The use of the pass goes back long before Europeans ever came to the area. The Kootenay people used it as a seasonal route to the plains on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. On the other side of the pass was the territory of the Blackfoot, whom the Kootenay were not friendly with. Nonetheless, the Kootenay would go through the pass to hunt bison in the territory of their allies, the Stoney-Nakoda. They would then bring items from the interior of British Columbia with them, helping to forge a trading network that stretched almost across the country.

The first Europeans to go over the pass were in the Palliser Expedition, led by Captain John Palliser. This expedition was tasked with exploring the Prairies to see if it would be suitable for farming, helping to end the monopoly that the Hudson’s Bay Company had over the region for 200 years. On that expedition was James Hector, who served as the geologist and surgeon. According to legend, Hector’s horse began to stumble in the water and in its effort to regain its footing, the horse kicked Hector right in the chest. Knocked out completely by the hit, the Indigenous with Hector believed he was dead and put him in a freshly dug crave and were about to cover him with dirt when he suddenly winked one eye. Shocked that the man they thought dead was alive, they pulled him out and after resting, continued on their journey. That is not the only story about the name of the pass. Another says that a long pack train was following the river when two broncos went on a rampage and confused the train, sending hooves in all directions. The Indigenous then named the pass, quote The Place Where The Horses Kick.

Yet another story, again focusing on Hector, states that after a pack horse fell into a stream, several men went to rescue it. As they did, Hector’s horse ran off and he chased after the horse, it kicked him in the chest and winded him. In this account, he was not seriously hurt.

So what actually happened? Well, who knows really. What is known that a horse kicked someone or something, and that gave the pass, and the river next to it, the name.

In the early 1880s, deciding not to take the more gradual but longer route through the Yellowhead Pass, the CPR went for the Kicking Horse pass. The reasons were several, including that it was a shorter route. I went into detail in the last episode about this, so check that out. In deciding to change the route, CPR board of directors would state in 1884 in the official minutes of a meeting, quote:

“The second route, though of a lower altitude and shorter distance, would entail very heavy work at the head of the Kicking Horse Pass, in order to maintain equally good gradients. After considering the problem, the Directorate decided to adopt the shorter route by the Kicking Horse Pass and to use a steep gradient at its commencement, in order to temporarily avoid the heavy work that will be required on the permanent line, and thus to effect the connection with the railway on the Pacific Coast by the Autumn of 1885.”

Sandford Fleming would journey through the area during construction and state quote:

“We moved at a snail’s pace but our progress, if slow, was sure. The scramble on the rugged path, through the boulders rocks and ragged surface, was a constant effort to the poor horses. In many places they had to be dragged up almost perpendicular heights. We are seldom in the saddle, for it is safer to walk.”

When the CPR changed its route from the Yellowhead Pass to the Kicking Horse Pass, they had to deal with The Big Hill. This hill had a gradient of 4.5 per cent, making it the steepest stretch on the main-line railroad in North America. The leadup to the hill from the east was not as bad, rising 1.8 per cent over 9.33 kilometres, but the plunge ahead to go into British Columbia was the major problem. From the top of the hill down to the valley below, dropping 347 metres in only 12 kilometres. For 5.23 kilometres, the grade was that terrible 4.5 per cent.

Why was that grade acceptable, considering it was twice what a railroad would typically allow? It all came down to the fact that the Canadian Pacific Railway was under pressure by the government to get the railway done. In order to accomplish that, the grade was temporarily allowed to be 4.5 per cent. There was always a plan to build tunnels to lessen the grade of the rail going through the pass, but it would take 25 years before that would happen.

Of course, when newspapers were reporting on the Kicking Horse Pass, they tended to play down its steep grade. The Montreal Gazette would report in January 1884, possibly due to lack of information, quote:

“The maximum gradient through Kicking Horse Pass being only 116 feet to the mile, much less than those on the Northern or the Union Pacific roads.”

Another issue was money. The cost to build a 426 metre long tunnel, it would cost $124,775 per mile, or $5 million, double the most expensive portion anywhere else in the country.

The decision to forgo the tunnels and just use the hill came down from William Van Horne, the head of the CPR and the man calling the shots. For Van Horne, his logic was that it was better that the line was completed and opened in 1885, rather than cause the financial collapse of the entire venture due to one pass on the railroad. 

Work commenced in April of 1884. The Calgary Herald would report, quote:

“The beautiful weather has reduced the snow up here so that Chief Engineer Hogg has been able to put the wagon road to the Kicking Horse Pass in passable order. According to the activity displayed by the CPR, it seems that operations will commence in short time.”

From that point until August, it was estimated that 1.2 million cubic metres of earth and rock had been moved. 

By September, all grading had been done on the railroad through the pass, and it was expected that by Nov. 1, the track would be laid down to the first crossing of the Columbia River, 114 kilometres from the pass.

The Victoria Daily Times would report, quote:

“The last five miles of the Kicking Horse Pass, according to the Globe’s correspondent, contained numerous engineering difficulties, which have been surmounted.”

Alonzo Wright, an MP with the Conservatives, would take a trip through the area during construction in November and the article about his journey would state, quote:

“Towering to heaven were the peaks of some of the most magnificent mountains he had read of. It was his first experience of mountain scenery and he was deeply impressed with it. The trip down the Kicking Horse Pass to the Columbia was delightful.”

The decision to have the pass operate at that grade had immediate tragic results.

On Sept. 30, 1884, three employees were killed when their locomotive derailed going over the pass. An engine had been specially fitted for construction on the mountains and was loaded with two car loads of material. With a steepness of 238 feet per mile, the engine began to run out of control and ran down the hill at 50 kilometres per hour. In order to accommodate such a risk of runaway trains, a spur of track was built so that train could run up it instead of to the bridge located nearby. At the end of that spur was a large rock.

The Montreal Gazette would report the incident, quote:

“At the end of the spur is a big rock, on which the engine ran and was shivered into a thousand pieces. On the train were about 70 workmen going out to the front and as the train rushed down the incline, they thought to save themselves by jumping. Unfortunately, the alighted on rough ground and rocks and nearly everyone received more or less injury in the way of broken arms, legs and ribs.”

One man, identified as a Swede, was so injured that his leg had to be amputated and he would die soon after.

Three spur lines would be built to improve safety, and switches on the spurs were not reset to the main line until the switchmen knew that the oncoming trains were in control going down the hill.

It wasn’t just going down the hill that was a problem. Going up the hill was extremely difficult and extra locomotives were needed to push the trains up the hill. This in turn slowed down the railroad as extra workers were needed and the trains did not move fast over the pass.

Another issue was rock slides and avalanches. In September, two weeks prior to the fatal train accident, members of the British Association were taken to the end of the track at the Kicking Horse Pass and began to separate into exploring parties. Then, disaster struck when an avalanche of an estimated 50 tons of rocks came crashing down the mountain, killing several of the men as they explored the area, while also destroying the bridge that had been built.

Another major mud slide would occur in 1897 when 400 tons of rock and earth came down on the rails. No one was killed but the obstruction had to be cleared in order for the trains to continue running.

The construction process in the Kicking Horse Pass also created a small city at the base of the pass for a time. Professor Ramsay of Glasgow University would journey to the pass in December of 1884. The article in the Montreal Gazette about his journey would relate, quote:

“Circumstances rendered it necessary that the party should descend the Kicking Horse Pass on foot, and they had an exhilarating walk of eight miles. Joining once again a construction train, they at length arrived at New City, a place of tents and wagons, fitted to meet all the needs of a community of 4,000 workers. Here they found several hotels and a tonsorial palace. For several hours they were absorbed in watching the interesting happenings.”

In June of 1885, a Dr. Lynch went over the pass and wrote his account to the Winnipeg Free Press, which downplayed the risk of the grade. He would write, quote:

“The grades difficulty has been completely overcome so far as any danger to traffic to be apprehended, since the employment of the consolidated engines. We came up with fourteen cars and a single consolidated engine at the rate of seven miles per hour. One forgets the grade, however, and everything else when descending the Kicking Horse Pass in an overawing sense of its wild grandeur. That eight miles from Hector to Field surpasses everything.”

After several accidents, a pair of Spiral Tunnels were opened in 1909 that replaced the direct route. These tunnels were designed by J.E. Schwitzer, who was an assistant engineer for the railroad and had been inspired by the same system of tunnels used by railroads in Switzerland. The Kicking Horse Spiral Tunnels would involve two short, straight tunnels on Mount Stephen, that then run across the Kicking Horse River. An amazing fact about the precision of these tunnels that when they bored the tunnels, they were off on one tunnel by only 1.5 feet when the two ends connected, and six inches on the other.

Through the use of the tunnels and the addition of several kilometres to the route, the ruling grade was reduced to 2.2 per cent and the trip over the top of the big hill was completely abandoned.  

Accidents would still occur, as recent as 2019 when three Canadian Pacific Railway were killed in a train derailment.

The pass would open up the region to Canadians who saw the beauty of the landscape and that would have a positive impact. They would encourage the Canadian Pacific Railway to preserve the landscape. To that end, the Mount Stephen Dominion Reserve would be created in 1886. That reserve would become Yoho National Park in 1901. By 1909, the hotel, Mount Stephen House, was seeing 8443 guests, staying in 60 rooms over the year.

The pass was used by the Trans-Canada Highway when it was constructed through in 1962. The highest point along the entire highway is found in the pass, where it rises to 1,643 metres.

In 1971, the Kicking Horse Pass was made a National Historic Site of Canada.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Calgary Herald, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Victoria Daily Times, Parks Canada, Britannica Online, Experience Mountain Parks, Experience Mountain Parks, The Great Railway 1871-1881, Victoria Daily Times, Sunset Canada, McDougall of Alberta, Place Names Of Alberta,

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