An Old Photograph

Summary: The last spike and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. . . . . . .


It’s an iconic photograph, though you may not know it. It shows a large group of men gathered in a clearing in the forest, watching a be-whiskered gentleman with a large hammer drive a spike into the railway sleeper in front of him. He bends it, of course, so someone produces another and he drives that in while the first is headed for a museum somewhere. The last spike.


The clearing is on the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies, below the Great Divide and near the small hamlet of Craigellachie. The whiskered man is Donald A Smith, a board member for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and it is his task to link together the western and eastern stretches of the new railroad to complete the trans-continental link. It is 09 22 on November 7th 1885, and freezing. Canada is united. It was a close run thing, though. British Columbia had threatened to join the USA if communications to the east weren’t improved. Something had to be done.

They are a disparate group, but all mutton chop whiskers, bowler hats, string ties, watching Smith drive that last spike. I can just make out Major A B Rogers, for example, in charge of the surveying team that criss crossed the Rockies on horse back for a few exhausting years until they found a route through the Selkirk mountains. After they had found their route, Rogers and his men gathered to camp on the Great Divide and drank a toast to their achievement. They made the ‘pledge of twenty’, that all twenty would stay in touch until the end of their days. The final letter between the last two was posted from a flop house in Seattle in 1921.


If the building of the Canadian Pacific seemed a political deed, go and stand by the tracks at Field or Golden, where the east bound freights from Vancouver and Burnaby, wait their turn to climb through the circular tunnels to the summit and from there, downhill to Banff and Calgary. The ground trembles as three power units start forward, moving a train more than four kilometres long. There are mostly flatbeds with up to four containers on each one, some with refrigeration powered by the train units. There’s usually a fourth unit coupled in the centre, passing with a roar, as wagon after wagon rumbles by. This is vital for Canada, more vital than ever Smith or his colleagues could have imagined. This is Canada’s lifeline to the Pacific, even today, carrying minerals and cereals west to the Pacific and Asia, and imports the other way.


Did Britain ever have a last spike? I think not. Linking England with Scotland in 1848 the Caledonian Railway was a comparatively low key affair. Nothing really at the border near the Solway Firth or the summit at Beattock. No different on the east coast except that, there, it was a river crossing. Economically, the Anglo-Scottish route mattered but it was politically more important too.


For much of the first half of the nineteenth century the establishment had been jittery over the prospect of a revolution in Britain. The French had started it in 1789. Then there was that ‘close run thing’ with Napoleon in 1815, and then suppression – Peterloo in 1819, the Captain Swing movement of the 1830’s and finally the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.


The railway was handy – as a way of symbolically uniting the British Isles and as a way of getting troops around quickly if needed. The Caledonian Railway would have been handy in the Jacobite Rebellion, back in 1745.


This isn’t a history essay though, Canadian or British, but a reminder of some great and symbolic events in the history of railways, and of how they united countries and moved the previously unmoveable. And along the way, they created some terrific impressions of ‘big trains’.


So, collect your rental car at Jasper station, high in the Rockies on the alternative Canadian National route. Turn left and left again, heading for the south. Too late! The barriers come down across the road, red lights flash. Better turn of the car engine and turn on the radio – or perhaps ponder what railways still mean to many. It will be a long wait. A westbound freight is pulling out of Jasper yard. The car vibrates as the power units pass, the road rumbles. And then what seems like miles of freight pass slowly onto the main line.


I think, as the flatbeds pass, I think of a woman I met at Banff a few days before. I asked her what she thought of the Canadian Pacific. ‘Well. I put my finger on the rail and then I feel I’m joined to the rest of Canada,’ she said with a smile.


And, by the way, you can put your finger on the rail in the Canadian west (looking first of course) since part of the tracks are not fenced, a symbolic point for some. But that’s another story (and don’t try the finger test at home). The story of ‘The Last Spike’ is told in a book of the same name by Pierre Berton (1971).


Pictures: Wikipedia.


‘Polyphemus’


By John Swanwick.


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