By Eleanor Deckert
One hundred years ago, in 1915, when the stretch of rails between Valemount and Kamloops was finished, this rugged valley, isolated and cut off by so many obstacles and challenges, became linked to the rest of the world.
What was life like for valley residents before, during construction and after the completion of the railroad through the North Thompson Valley?
The story of the railroad intersects with so many other stories: immigration and race relations, world events and technology, geography and place names, living conditions and the law.
To mark this centennial, this writer will describe this richly textured piece of local history.
If you have not yet had the experience, perhaps sometime soon you might buy your ticket on the passenger train and travel through this scenic mountain valley of British Columbia.
Thinking of importance of railroads
It would be safe to guess that some of the food you are eating, the clothing you are wearing, the lumber that supports your house, your imported electronics, even your vehicle and many other objects you own have all at one time been cargo on a train.
It’s hard to realize that everyone in the world relied on muscle power and lamp light until steam and electricity were harnessed. Machinery was slowly improving until technology suddenly leaped forward when, in the early 1800s engines could safely be operated using steam under pressure.
The Iron Horse, as railroad engines have been called, brought changes to all parts of society: mines and farms, factories and shipyards, cities and wilderness.
Together with the telegraph, continents seemed to shrink as messages, goods and people could be transported across vast distances in a small amount of time.
As the Age of Steam Engines dawned, development of North America rapidly expanded as opportunities previously out of reach became realized. Small railroad lines began in the more populated east. But what would be possible if there were a transcontinental railroad?
More than a symbol
Today, the railroad across Canada might seem to be merely a nostalgic symbol of Canadian unity, stability, efficiency and safety. However, the historic reality is very clear that without the railroad, there would be no Canada “A mari usque ad mare.” (Canada’s official motto: “From sea to sea.”)
The effect of Canada’s borders
Since the American Revolution in 1775, the United States had been expanding its territories. The War of 1812 threatened British holdings and in the mid-1800’s the slogans “Manifest Destiny” and later “Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight” propelled US claims in Oregon, Texas and the Spanish and French areas of the continent.
The purchase of Alaska from Russia directed attention to the north and west. British North America and vast uncharted areas of what is now western Canada were vulnerable.
Boundary disputes about western and northern lands had to be settled, both on paper and maps, and also guarded against bleeding resources away if commerce and transportation ran north-south and not east-west.
Gold Fever fuels more exploration
The California Gold Rush of 1849 and the gold strike in Barkerville of 1858 were followed by sudden interest in the Klondike in 1896. Hastily, populations moved, resources were needed, trade was imperative, but transportation was still difficult. Pressure from these discoveries was leverage to focus government attention on developing the west and north.
The 1860s-1880s are a pivotal time
Perhaps there is no time like the 1860s-1880s that indicates quite so sharply the differences between the east and the west. It is as though distance from east to west was actually time travel, and the further west one moves, the more primitive the living conditions.
In the 1860s, the Civil War was in full force in the United States. Railroads moved troops, supplies, the wounded, the President.
In 1862, the Overlanders are the first white family to travel across what is now Canada from east to west by cart, on foot and by river raft to arrive in Kamloops. Meanwhile columned banks and mechanized industry, university campus and grand railway stations were built in Toronto. Surveyors hack through devil’s club in the North Thompson Valley while the wealthy in Ottawa dress in silks from India.
Furs trapped in the Rockies wrap ladies in Montreal.
Every student of Canadian history knows that there is an inseparable link between the Confederation of Canada in 1867, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, and the railroad across Canada.
In 1870, when Canada formally united with British Columbia, the agreement between them contained this pledge: “The Government of the Dominion undertake to … secure the completion of such a Railway within 10 years from the date of the Union.”
North – South
Geographically, the mountain ridges and their river valleys run north to south.
Before the railroad, rivers were the main routes for transportation. Since the early days, fur trade by canoe brought heavy loads along rivers, lakes and bays.
By the 1880s, the vast forest resources, the discovery of mineral deposits and developing agriculture in the west call for the need for reliable transport of cargo. The easiest way to build is in the north-south river valleys.
But this will drain away commerce from Canada and build up companies in the USA.
East – West
The journey was so hazardous, either over land through the barricade of the mountains or by ship around the tip of South America. Once the proposed railway is complete, east and west will both benefit when settlement, commerce and security will flourish.
Yet it seems a Herculean task to scale mountains, search for and survey likely routes from east to west and accomplish so great a feat.
In order to draw one man-made line across the map marking the Canada-USA border and protect the Canadian economy, it became necessary for men and machinery to cut a line though the forest, across marshlands, measuring, estimating, blasting rock, tunnelling under mountains. Sweating men and horses, steam driven machinery, slowly the work was accomplished and two parallel lines of steel reached across the continent.
Canadian Pacific Railway comes first
It took longer than estimated, but at long last the anticipated completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad coast to coast became a reality. The 1885 last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia marked this significant turning point in history.
Look for more railroad history in upcoming Valley Voices.