What began in 1871 when British Columbia joined Confederation had taken 14 years to reach its conclusion.
The process had gone through a scandal that brought down the government of Sir John A. Macdonald. It had nearly led to British Columbia leaving Confederation over what it felt was a broken promise. When construction did finally start, years behind schedule, the cost was far more than had been anticipated. The CPR nearly went bankrupt, thousands of workers lost their lives in the granite and bogs of the Canadian Shield and the deep gorges and high passes of British Columbia. Along the way, the Indigenous had been moved off their land into small reserves, to make way for the settlers who would help the many towns spring up along the railway.
Finally, at 9:22 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1885, it all came to an end with the last spike.
It is one of the most famous pictures in Canadian history, but what is the story behind it. What is missing from the picture, and what could have been different?
As the big day approached, which came four years behind schedule of the initial timeline, but six years ahead of schedule for the revised Canadian Pacific Railway timeline, two crews coming from the east and west converged at the Eagle Pass at Craigallachie, British Columbia.
The CPR wanted to have some sort of celebration but by this point, it was nearly bankrupt. The directors had borrowed immense amounts of money to get the job done, and there was no chance for a grand spectacle to end the construction with a flourish. Instead, only a modest celebration for one of the greatest engineering projects in Canadian history, would occur.
There would be no reporters at the event, nor any politicians, including Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Even company president George Stephen was away in England and could not attend.
It fell to Donald Smith, the main director and financier of the project, and general manager William Van Horne to journey out to the Eagle Pass. They would be joined by surveyor Sandford Fleming, Major Albert Bowman Rogers who had directed the CPR to go through the Rogers Pass, and several other officials.
On Nov. 6, the workers had finished the construction of the railroad, just in time for the officials to ceremoniously finish it for the camera. There was no community there at that point, but Van Horne would name the spot Craigellachie, in honour of a Clan Grant gathering place in Scotland where he and George Stephen grew up near.
There would be no gold spike, as was often used in this type of ceremony.
Van Horne had asked for a gold spike from the CPR but received the reply of quote:
A silver spike had been made for the Governor General Marquess of Lansdowne, who was supposed to be at the ceremony, but poor weather forced his return to Ottawa with the spike. The silver spike would actually remain with the Van Horne family until 2012 when it was donated to the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
In fact, while there is no gold or silver spike, there are several iron spikes that all claim the title of last spike.
The first iron spike was the one that was driven in by Donald Smith but it became badly bent as he pounded it into the railway tie, missing on his first try and hitting the spike at an angle. Roadmaster Frank Brothers then extracted the spike and it was presented to Smith as the last spike. Smith then had the spike straightened and strips of iron were cut from it and then mounted with diamonds. These were then presented to the wives of some of the individuals at the ceremony. This spike, which many consider the official last spike, was eventually donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum, before going on long-term loan to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.
Another iron spike, called the ordinary spike, provided more symbolic jewelry for the wives of officials, but these items had larger strips than the other jewelry made from the previous spike.
Yet another last spike was inserted into place after the spike Smith drove in was removed, making it the third spike. It was taken out to discourage souvenir hunters and a fourth spike was then driven into the railway tie. The third spike ended up at the CPR president’s office in Montreal. It would disappear from there in the 1940s. It is believed that the missing third spike fell into the hands of a Canadian patent officer who passed it to his children, who then fashioned it into a handle for a carving knife. This knife is said to be in a safety deposit box in Winnipeg.
Were any of those the true last spike though? In The Regina Leader, in a small paragraph published on Nov. 26, 1885, it states different, saying quote:
“A practical joke took place in the mountains. A number of jovial engineers, a wee drap in the eye, drove the last spike before Mr. Van Horne’s party arrived and photographs of this scene have been sent east to sell to buyers.”
Who knows what spike was what really, it may be lost to history.
When the spike was driven in by Donald Smith, the crowd let out a cheer and train whistles blew to signal the event.
Van Horne would then say a few words, stating quote:
Later that day, he would telegraph Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, stating quote:
“Thanks to your far seeing policy and unwavering support, the Canadian Pacific Railway is complete. The last rail was laid this morning at 9:22.”
As for that photograph, there are some interesting stories behind it. First, it was taken by Alexander J. Ross, who was noted for his portraits of the Indigenous between 1884 and 1891. Ross happened to be at the site and he was pushed into service to take the photo after Cornelius Soule, the expected photographer, did not arrive. This allowed Ross to take one of the most famous photos in Canadian history.
The CPR would make many reproductions of the photo and sell them.
In the photo, one thing is noticeably absent and that is Chinese workers. While there were Chinese workers at the site, just some of the as much as 15,000 who helped build the CPR through British Columbia, with as many as 4,000 losing their lives, they were removed so that none wound up in the photo.
In the middle of the photo is Donald Smith, pounding in that first spike. Next to him in the top hat with the big beard is Sir Sandford Fleming. Next to Fleming, wearing a smaller top hat with a beard is William Van Horne. Closer to the camera there is a man looking at the camera, and he is very noticeable. This is the roadmaster, Frank Brothers, who placed the last spike into position. Two spots away from Smith, there is a hard to see man in mutton chops looking at Smith. This is Major Rogers, the man who found the pass.
There is another person in the photo, a young boy, looking out from behind Donald Smith. This is Edward Mallandaine. He was born in Victoria, BC, with some sources, including the Victoria Times Colonist, stating he was born on July 1, 1867, the day of Confederation. That being said, I found other sources that stated he was born June 1, 1867. He would quit school not long before the photo was taken. He had joined the Canadian forces to fight in the North West Resistance but he arrived too late to fight, so he went back west and began operating his own business delivering newspapers and supplies between the Eagle Pass and Farwell, BC in the summer of 1885. As people crowded around Smith as he prepared to drive in the spike, Edward pushed his way to the front and reached the front row just as the photograph was taken.
He would relate in February 1939, quote:
“Soon there remained but a single rail to be laid. The spectators, numbering roughly 50 outside of the workmen, intently watched each spike as it was driven. Finally, there remained but one more spike to be driven. It was partly driven in and a hammer was given to Sir Donald Smith to drive it home in a most workmanlike manner. Everybody cheered, the locomotives whistled and shrieked, several short speeches were made and hands were shaken.”
After, he would return home and study to become an architect and surveyor and became a land developer. He would eventually become the co-founder of the Town of Creston in southeastern British Columbia. He would serve as a coroner, reeve and justice of the peace there, and a militia officer. When the First World War broke out, he would enlist in the Forestry Battalion and become a Lt. Col. In 1944, he would shake hands with a young man who was portraying him in a reenactment of the original photo. At the time, he was the last living person from that famous photo.
After the ceremony, Van Horne, Smith and the other dignitaries, took the train on the new track to Port Moody, the terminus at the time. This made it the first train to make the journey on the CPR from eastern Canada to the Pacific Coast.
As can be expected, the last spike being driven in was big news across the country. The Victoria Daily Times would report, quote:
“As the hammer descended for the last time a ringing cheer awoke the mountain echoes and reverberated through the valleys. All along the line, from station to station, through the illimitable seat of mountains, across a thousand miles of prairie, around the rock-bound shores of Superior and through the rich provinces of Ontario and Quebec, one universal shout of rejoicing went up in response to the word, flashed over the wire, that the great work which has engaged the attention of Canada to the exclusion of almost every other topic, was finally finished.”
The first transcontinental train with passengers would leave Montreal on June 28, 1886, bound for Port Moody. The long coast to coast effort to build the railroad was completed, and Canada, would never be the same again.
Today, the Last Spike has become an ingrained part of Canadian culture and is even featured on the current Canadian passport on pages 10 and 11, along with the photograph taken of the ceremony.
In 1985, the CPR held a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Last Spike. This was driven in by the great grandson of Donald Smith, the current Lord Strathcona.
Today, a cairn and interpretive sit sits where the last spike was driven in on that cool November day in 1885.
Information from Canadian Pacific Set-Off Siding, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Victoria Times Colonist, Government of Canada, CP Connecting Canada, The Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader,