How the Canadian Railroad Shaped Canada

CANADA MONDAY, The Coast to Coast Canadian Railroad

The Last Spike about the Canadian Railroad

Destination: Canada

Book: The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 by Pierre Berton (publ. 1971; paperback 2001)

Canadian railroad Bow Valley

Canadian railroad Bow Valley. Photo by Gus MacLeod

I have a folder on my desk called Canadian Railroad.  There I stick tidbits about the trans-continental, or Western Canada rail road trips that we have long had on our “wannago” list.  So when I started a series of books about Canada at A Traveler’s Library, it seemed important to cover this book about the building of the Canadian railroad.  I was right.  This book is an essential if you’re a rail fan, or particularly if you’re planning one of those long journeys from the populated East of Canada to the wide open spaces of the west. However, the best way to read The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885 might be on a long, long railway journey, because it is a long, long book.

Confession: I did not read every word of The Last Spike. “So what?”, you say.  Well I feel a commitment to the authors and the readers of A Traveler’s Library to read an entire book if I am going to talk about it. Sometimes the gems are found toward the end.  Sometimes they are buried somewhere that will be missed by skimming. The Last Spike is packed with interesting, dramatic, sometimes funny characters and happenings from the first page to the last. So I can at least tell you that while I missed some months of the history of the building of the ocean-to-ocean Canadian railroad, I read enough to know that the book will provide plenty of entertainment along with its education.

Once you’ve read this book, you’ll never go zipping through a railroad tunnel again without thinking of the enormous effort that went into carving a tunnel through a granite slab.  Each time you enjoy the thrill of riding a narrow shelf above a scenic river gorge, you’ll think of the Chinese coolie laborers who may have given their lives in the perilous building of the track. And the Chinamen worked for half what other workers received, fended for themselves, and worked doggedly to make money to return to China (a goal few met).  Their lives were considered so inconsequential, Berton points out, that although the engineer in charge recorded 5 deaths of Chinese between August 13, 1880 and September 11, 1880–falling stone, crushed by a log, rock slide, boat accident, earth cave-in–the local newspaper of that week of September 9 reports “There have been no deaths since the 15th of June.”

When you buy a ticket, sit back in a comfortable seat and glide toward the popular and populous cities of Moose Jaw, Calgary, or Vancouver you’ll be reminded that those cities were “invented” by the railroad. How different the West of Canada would have looked without the railroad, or even with a different route. And, you’ll be aware of those cities that bloomed with thousands of residents in the heady land boom days before and during the building of the Canadian railroad, but since have disappeared from the map.

Canadian Railroad map 1877

Canadian Railroad map 1877. From Manitoba historical maps, Lyman Laliberte

And The Last Spike introduces a whole orchestra of people who brought their varied talents to the job.  As you travel, you’ll pass landmarks with their names and having read the book, you’ll know their story.  Perhaps the most fascinating, Col. A. B. Rogers–hired to explore the western reaches and find a pass through a mountain range that formerly had been thought to be an unbreachable wall, he drove his team unmercifully. Now the railroad goes through the dramatic Rogers Pass, but only because Rogers and the men he oversaw endured unimaginable hardship climbing over uncharted mountains, carrying not enough food, finding not enough water, and staggering into camp only to recover and start off again. What took them weeks, and brought them near death, now takes you a day’s comfortable travel.

One of the reasons we want to travel this railroad is the gorgeous scenery. The task was daunting, but imagine being the first explorer, struggling over a mountain and suddenly seeing  Lake Louise!

Lake Louise

Lake Louise. Photo by Lee Litchi

But Berton shows us what the land looked like before it was easy to reach on the Canadian railroad. Speaking of Roger’s exploration into the Beaver Valley, he says,

Here, before the railway builders helped destroy it, was some of the loveliest scenery to be found in the mountains.  There was a softness about it all–the river, pale milky green, winding through the golden marshland, the shining ponds winking through the dark spruces, the cataracts traced like tinsel strands on the crags above.  Farther up the trail, the river knifed through the shaggy forest, boiling and frothing over shale steps and winding through carpets of ferns and thick tangles of saskatoons and raspberries.  The timber was stupendous: the cedars were often ten feet or more in diameter; sometimes they rose two hundred feet above the matted forest floor.

Pierre Berton (1920-2004) combined this lyrical descriptive voice with his passionate search for and retelling of details. He is that rare historian who tells an excellent story.  He wrote 50 books, most of them non-fiction books that can help you get to know Canada.  Early in The Last Spike, he capsulizes a way to look at Canada.  ”Canada is deceptively vast,” he says. Although it is the second largest country in the world, twice as deep as the United States,

Yet all this is illusory.  For practical purposes Canada is almost as slender as Chile.  Traditionally half of its people have lived within a hundred miles of the United States border and ninety per cent within two hundred miles….in the eastern half of the nation, the horizontal hiving of the population is due to the presence of the St. Lawrence, in the western half to that “sublime audacity,” the Canadian Pacific.

Which brings us back to why we need to read more about Canada. Back soon with another book for travelers to Canada.

Have you taken all or part of the coast-to-coast Canadian railroad trip? I’d love to know more about it.

Vera Marie Badertscher

Travel and lifestyle writer, wife, mother and grandmother. Publisher of A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors in Aprons>. Also co-authored a biography of Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.

4 thoughts on “How the Canadian Railroad Shaped Canada

  1. I read your review of Pierre Berton’s “The Last Spike”. Very nice read, an interesting review (beautiful images too!). Just a minor observation: in your review you mention that Pierre Berton died in 2001. He actually died on November 30, 2004.

  2. ah, Vera, especially as you’ve skimmed parts of this book I recommend to you Gordon Lightfoot’s song Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Berton is reported to have said that Lightfoot said more in the space of that song tham he has in his whole book. I’ve a bit more to say about the song in the story I’ve linked below called Music and Landscape.

    wile we’re talking of the CP railroad and song, Eileen McGann’s Rolling Home Canadian is another good one. It’s on her album Journeys.

    I’ve not done the rail journey, thosugh it’s on my list too. I have spent a good bit of time traversing parts of Canada by bus, though, and well worth the trip it is, whatever part of the landscape you choose.

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