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'National dream' turns 130

A railroad runs through it and, with it, all the goods, services and progress 130 years on the rails brings. Canada’s national railroad, or Canadian Pacific Railroad, celebrated a milestone anniversary earlier this month with little fanfare.

A railroad runs through it and, with it, all the goods, services and progress 130 years on the rails brings.

Canada’s national railroad, or Canadian Pacific Railroad, celebrated a milestone anniversary earlier this month with little fanfare.

It was 130 years ago Nov. 7 that railroad financier Donald Alexander Smith hammered the ceremonial last spike into the steel strand linking Canada’s eastern shores to the West Coast. The last spike, signifying the completion of then the world’s longest (5,000 kilometres) railroad was driven into the ground at Craigellachie, B.C., where you can visit the spot commemorating the event just off the Trans-Canada Highway between Revelstoke and Sicamous.

The significance of Canada’s national railroad cannot be overstated in a national, or local, sense.

Today, an average of 22-27 trains a day, heading east and west, course through Cochrane – delivering everything from automobiles to grain to markets across Canada and in the U.S. Our town is on CP Rail’s western corridor, the primary route for western Canadian goods heading to the Port of Vancouver for export.

CP Rail’s total revenue for freight-hauling was a whopping $6.46 billion for 2014.

Canadian goods headed overseas, and goods being delivered from abroad, rely heavily on rail delivery in our country. After more than a century rolling down the tracks, rail is still the most significant overland transportation mode for delivering goods on the continent.

It’s something we take for granted, even grumble at, when we have to wait at the level crossings in town for diesel-electric locomotives yarding cargo to pass.

But the creation of this vital national transportation artery was anything but pedestrian. The challenges, mainly for the construction of the line from the foothills to the West Coast, are legendary.

The centrepiece in John A. Macdonald’s goal of uniting all of Canada under one flag, the “transcontinental” railroad scheme of Canada’s first prime minister was hailed as “an act of insane recklessness” by opposition Liberals.

The national dream steamed ahead, anyway, with construction of the Ontario-B.C. Canadian Pacific Railway commencing in 1881.

Headed by Smith, president of Hudson’s Bay Company, and Bank of Montreal president George Stephen, the newly established railway was a high-risk financial endeavour. So much so that the government provided $25 million in loans, 25 million acres of Crown land, a collection of existing publicly owned rail lines, completed survey costs and a monopoly on western rail traffic to get the project done.

American railroad construction boss William Cornelius Van Horne was tasked with overseeing the construction, and completion, of the transcontinental line starting in 1882.

He ran herd on countless labourers, of North American and Chinese descent, who swung hammers in blazing sun and numbing cold, and dealt with the deadly work of blasting through the mountains of B.C.

Who knew, when that ceremonial last spike was driven into the ground in 1885, that the railroad today would have contributed so greatly to the building, and continued success of, Canada?

One-hundred-thirty years later, it’s easy to see how important this project was, and how important it still is to Canada’s, and North America’s, economy.

So the next time you feel like grumbling at the train as you wait for it to pass at the River Ave. crossing, be sure to consider the importance of that train to our nation’s – and our town’s – history and continued economic progress.

After 130 years, our national railway has lost none of its significance to our nation and our community, and keeps chugging right along.




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