Saturday 27 August 2011

The Last Spike

It required 5 years, 12000 men, 5000 horses, 10.4 million hectares of land and millions of dollars to build.  Its poorly paid construction gangs would often go for months without seeing a pay cheque.  Its immigrant workers (7000 of whom were Chinese) often suffered injuries or even deaths due to the hazardous working conditions; many were called upon to dynamite tunnels through the Rocky Mountains or build bridges high above the Fraser Valley.  Its engineers were often stumped when asked for solutions like how to cross the swampy land near Lake Superior or the Rocky Mountain peaks.  Its funding was often in question, leading to arguments among politicians as to whether it should be a public or private venture.

And yet despite the obstacles, on November 11, 1885, Donald A. Smith, a white bearded man dressed in a black suit and a top hat, drove the last spike into the ground of the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railroad.  The building of the railway proved beneficial to many Canadians:  towns sprouted along the route and industry prospered.  The CP transcontinental route was put to use immediately when 5000 Canadian soldiers were transported from Ottawa to Winnipeg within 4 days to quell the second Riel Rebellion.    In the end several businessmen invested in the CPR as well as the Canadian government.  Within 3 decades the CPR was one of the biggest and most successful railroads in the world and included over 22000 miles of track.

Note:  Pierre Berton's book The Last Spike is a detailed account of the cast and characters involved in the building of the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railroad.

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