This week in history: The “Last Spike” completes the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.

 

Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway on November 7, 1885. Photo credit: Alexander Ross/Library & Archives Canada

Hon. Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway on November 7, 1885.    Photo credit: Alexander Ross/Library & Archives Canada 

On Nov. 7, 1885, a small group of people gathered around a section of railroad track in Craigellachie, British Columbia. The track would link the western and eastern parts of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which stretched across the country—but it needed a final iron spike. Donald A. Smith, one of the CPR’s directors, posed for photographs with hammer in hand at the center of the gathering. The hammering of the “Last Spike” thus completed a railroad that would unite Canada—a project plagued for years by political controversy, natural disaster, and the deaths of many unremembered railroad workers.

The Dominion of Canada originally consisted only of four eastern provinces when it was confederated in 1867—New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec. The leaders of the young Dominion quickly expanded their territory westward. In 1871, British Columbia, which lies on the Pacific Ocean, agreed to join the Dominion, in exchange for the construction of a railway that would link it to the distant eastern provinces.

In 1872, the newly-elected Conservative Party chose a company to build the railway. But in the following year, it was revealed that the company’s head, Sir Hugh Allan, had given a $300,000 campaign contribution to the Conservative Party, leading to suspicions of bribery. The Conservative government resigned, and the railway project stalled.

A syndicate of Scottish Canadian businessmen sought to revive the railway project in 1880. In 1881, their endeavor became incorporated as the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. But the company only laid 211 kilometers (131 miles) of track in its first year—a small fraction of the distance between the eastern provinces and British Columbia. In 1882, floods hampered the start of the construction season. But under the leadership of William Cornelius Van Horne, an American railway official who took charge of the CPR management that year, construction accelerated.

The CPR’s construction crews labored in dangerous wildernesses. Workers used explosives to blast paths through mountains for the rails, and many were killed by falling rocks and debris. Laborers came from all over the world, including thousands of Chinese immigrants who often received far less pay and suffered through harsher working conditions than their fellow North American workers.

With the driving of the Last Spike, the railway was completed five years ahead of schedule. The work drained the CPR’s syndicate of its money, though within several years the corporation would regain its financial stability. The first train embarked on the railway on June 28, 1886. Today, the CPR includes more than 14,000 miles (22,500 kilometers) of track across southern Canada and the midwestern and northeastern United States.

 

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