Building in British Columbia

Play episode
Hosted by

You can support Canadian History Ehx with a donation at

Over the past two episodes, I have looked at the Chinese workers in British Columbia and the building of the Kicking Horse Pass portion of the railroad, but now I am going to look at building in British Columbia as a whole. In the past, I also looked at the choosing of the route and other factors in British Columbia. Today, I am looking at the building of the railroad itself, and what it took to construct the line through this incredibly difficult terrain.

While building through the Canadian Shield was difficult, it was nothing compared to the work that was required to build through British Columbia.

Since I covered the Chinese workers heavily in my last episode, I won’t go into much detail with them now. Needless to say, they were a vital part of building the railroad through British Columbia, with as many as 17,000 working for $1 per day, and as many as 2,000 to 4,000 losing their lives in the process.

To build the railroad through much of British Columbia, Andrew Onderdonk was hired. Onderdonk was a respected construction contractor whose first major contract was the building of the San Francisco seawall, which took three years. In 1879, he was contracted by the Canadian Pacific Railway to build construction on a 365 kilometre line from Port Moody to Kamloops. This would be the first contract for Onderdonk, who would receive several more to build through British Columbia until he reached the Eagle Pass in 1885.

The Nanaimo Daily News would report in early April 1880, quote:

“Mr. Onderdonk will proceed to Yale and from thence will travel over the line of railway to Savona’s Ferry. Returning he will make all the necessary arrangements to commence the work in June or July. Several thousand men will be employed and work vigorously prosecuted.”

Onderdonk would move to the community of Yale, which was the head of the navigation for steamships that moved up the Fraser River. The town had been founded in 1848, and was considered to be the wickedest settlement in British Columbia during the Fraser Gold Rush. By the time Onderdonk came along, its position for travel from New Westminster to the terminus of the railway made it perfect a s abase of operations. Before long, the community was booming thanks to the increased railway spending. Onderdonk would arrive in Yale on April 22, 1880. His arrival was greeted with a salute of 13 guns. He would officially begin work on the line north of Yale in May of 1880.

Building from this point was extremely difficult. The mountains were made of granite and it took 18 months of round the clock blasting to build four tunnels. In order to build the line only 27 kilometres north of Yale, it required 30 tunnels. Within one 40 kilometre section north of the community, 100 trestles and bridges had to be built.

Constructing of the railroad through British Columbia actually went in two directions. First, there was construction from the western terminus towards the interior of British Columbia, while construction from the east came from Calgary and through the Kicking Horse Pass.

Another important figure in the building of the railway through British Columbia was Michael James Haney, a foreman who oversaw the issue of rivers, gorges and cliffs. He would realize that Onderdonk would need to build a lot of bridges. To deal with this, Haney built a steam-powered sawmill at Haney, which would cut timbers to the size needed for the railroad. His crews would also cut framework reinforcements so that advance crews only had to submit measurements to Haney, and his crews would then build a custom woodwork for that part of the track. Typically, Douglas fir served as the prime timber for this construction.

Grading of the line was done by several small contractors, who would take a very small section of about 10 kilometres.

The most difficult portions to construct were at the Kicking Horse Pass, which I covered in its own episode, along the descent, and to the Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains.

Descending down the Kicking Horse Pass along the Kicking Horse River, the descent fell 1,100 feet in 3.5 miles and to accommodate this, a tunnel of 1,800 feet was needed. The construction of this tunnel would delay the entire project one year and that was not acceptable. The CPR would ask the government for permission to build a temporary line, which would run for nine miles, and along a gradient of 232 feet per mile for four miles. This was approved by the government.

By the end of 1884, 2,000 men were building the railway in the Selkirk Mountains between the first and second bridge crosses over the Columbia River. These two bridges were 350 feet and 800 feet in length.

In addition, there were 5,000 men who were working with animals and machinery to close the gap between the track in the east and the track in the west. This construction included 11 bridges that would cross the Kicking Horse River at 200 feet spans.

Before long, construction slowed to a crawl and many wondered if choosing the Rogers Pass was a good idea.

Throughout the winter of 1885, blasting was done to build through this difficult portion, which would cause huge avalanches of snow to come down upon the tracks. Colonel Sam Steele would write, quote:

“Glaciers which had never left their rocky beds above the clouds under the shocks of the blasting operations broke away and came crashing down, cutting pathways from a quarter to a half a mile wide through the forest below. One avalanche, which came at the summit of the pass 20 miles from the Beaver camp, descended 5,000 feet with such velocity that it went across the valley and up the opposite side for 800 feet.”

On Feb. 10, 1885, an avalanche would cascade down the Selkirk Mountains, taking an advance construction party by surprise. The Victoria Times Colonist would report, quote:

“It had been snowing heavily for some time previously and without a moment’s warning a terrible avalanche overwhelmed their log shanty and bore the whole affair, with its five unfortunate occupants down into the ravine.”

A party of engineers were camped close by and narrowly escaped the avalanche but lost most of their provisions. They quickly got to work digging out the men, finding four of the men. One of those men would die soon after he was rescued. A fifth man was stoned and crushed out of all semblance of humanity according to the Colonist. The other three men were badly injured and would spend some time in the hospital.

Another avalanche that same winter had gone over the proposed line, stretching out for three miles and burying the proposed under, what the Colonist stated, was 500 feet of snow.

Sometimes, it was just dangerous to work even without the danger of avalanches. On March 9, 1885, a foreman who worked for Onderdonk was working at unloading cars with heavy pieces of rock when his foot slipped off a narrow ledge over a lake and he fell onto the lake, 40 feet below. He would survive by some miracle, and only seemed to have wounds to his scalp.

In the end, only one part of the railroad, a small portion, had to be abandoned and a diversion made to avoid snow slides. In the end, after the railroad was finished, 31 snow sheds totaling 6.5 kilometres had to be built to protect trains from the avalanches and 10 metres of snow per year that falls in the Rogers Pass area.

William Van Horne, who was supervising the construction of the entire line, would report that the Canadian Pacific Railroad would be completed to the Selkirk Mountains by the middle of March 1885. As it turned out, he would not be too far off in that assessment.

By the time 1885 rolled around, the CPR was nearly bankrupt from the cost of building through the Canadian shield and in British Columbia. The CPR had to adjust how it was building in the province in order to meet the cost demands. This included stopping any masonry and steel construction, and instead using tree-pole construction for bridge trestles, built with the ample timber nearby.  Snowsheds and sidings were also omitted to reduce any extra costs.

Onderdonk, who was a front for wealth American financiers, agreed on a payment that was below his own estimate to build his fifth contract of the railroad. This shortfall was no small amount, but $1.5 million, or $42 million today. With that, he had to find ways to save money as well. The best way to do that was to bring in Chinese workers who could work for next to nothing, and work in large numbers. If you want to learn more about the Chinese workers, look at my last episode.

By March of 1885, work crews in Golden stopped working at a construction camp after not being paid for months. Colonel Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police got wind of the fact that the men had not been paid and he would tell Sir John A. Macdonald that serious trouble would result if the men did not receive their pay.

At one point during the strike, 300 men threatened the camp at nearby Beavermouth, but eight Mounties were able to hold them back.

What could have been a volatile situation was resolved when the North West Mounted Police and company foreman arrived, and promises were made that payment would be coming. With this promise, workers went back on the job. The pay car would arrive on April 7, and the men would be happy with their returned pay.

Two things would help finish the completion of the railroad in British Columbia. The first was Lord Revelstoke who, with the Barings Bank of London, provide a loan to the CPR to help finish the job. The second was with the North West Resistance and how quickly troops could be sent out to Saskatchewan, the government saw the huge benefit to a completed railroad. A $5 million loan would be provided, which gave the railroad exactly what was needed to finish the railroad.

On July 11, 1885, the track reached Kamloops but the supply of rails coming from Port Moody ceased and everything was delayed for two weeks as supplies were waited on from England.

The Victoria Daily Times would report, quote:

“No progress has been made on track laying on the Onderdonk section for a week for want of rails. Ties have been distributed for miles to the east of the end of track and when rails arrive, it is believed the iron will be laid at the rate of three miles per day.”

The supplies finally arrived on July 26, and track laying could once again begin.

By September, the track was at Sicamous Narrows and Onderdonk would journey to Ottawa to meet with government officials.

He would tell the newspaper, quote:

“Mine has been very heavy work all through but the government meant to make this a nice piece of road and I think I can confidently say it is one of the best pieces of any of the overland routes.”

On Sept. 26, 1885, Onderdonk was able to lay the last of the rail in Eagles Pass. By this point, his supply of rails was exhausted and he would discharge his employees, stating quote:

“As our last rail from the Pacific has been laid in Eagle Pass today, and the balance of work undertaken by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company between Savona and point of junction in Eagle Pass will be completed for the season on Wednesday. All employees will be discharged on the evening of September 30th.”

With thousands of workers now leaving the railroad construction, Yale would be inundated with men looking to spend their money. The Victoria Colonist would write, quote:

“Saloons and streets are full of intoxicated men. Residents of the town are obliged to bar the door of their dwellings in order to keep the howling throng from forcing an entrance. Such excitement has not been seen since 1860. The saloons are reaping a rich harvest.”

Before long, the men moved on and Yale became quiet once again. Onderdonk left, taking his railway construction plant with him.

It all came to an end at Craigallachie on Nov. 7, 1885 when Sir Donald Smith drove in the last spike of the railroad, fulfilling the promise made in 1871 to build a railroad and connect British Columbia to the rest of the country.

In all, it had taken seven years to build 545 kilometres of track from Port Moody to Craigallachie. To put this in perspective, in 1882 alone, crews laid 673 kilometres of track to reach the Rocky Mountains.

Information from Government of British Columbia, Wikipedia, Foundation to Commemorate The Chinese Railroad Workers Of Canada, The Canadian Pacific Railway and British Columbia, CP Connecting Canada, Victoria Times Colonist, The Montreal Gazette, Nanaimo Daily Times,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: