TALK of light rail is very topical today, but what about building triumphs in the 19th century heavy railways era?
RAILWAY MAN: William Van Horne was Canadian Pacific’s man of ideas to make his railway profitable. He helped shape modern Canada.
PLUMB LOCO: The ingenious Spiral Tunnels were opened near Lake Louise, Canada, in 1909 to reduce a steep mountain rail incline and prevent train crashes.
Who, for example, remembers the navvies toiling away more than 160 years ago at Hexham, building a railway in a swamp to link Newcastle with Maitland?
But instead, let’s turn our attention to a major railway project in the age of British Empire, in another Commonwealth country on the other side of the globe.
With more Australians each year visiting Canada as tourists, especially to the stunning Rocky Mountains, let’s look at Canada’s then largest construction project, later involving people on maintenance duties being buried alive by snow.
Canada’s transcontinental railway scheme would finally link sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. This ribbon of steel almost 3000 miles long united the country physically at a time when the Canadian Government itself was only 18 years old.
Crossing vast prairies, bridging a thousand streams, snaking through canyons and conquering jagged, snow-capped mountain passes, well, it was a tall order.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Company began its main scheme from the eastern end in 1882, many thought it impossible. But it was achieved, against the odds, at huge cost and in only a few years –record time – turning a vast wilderness of isolated communities into the nation today. Make no mistake, this railway created modern Canada, even though freight, not passengers, is its lifeblood these days.
Of interest to me, having ridden on part of the same route late last year, was the recent British documentary, Extreme Railway Journeys on SBS TV, which paid tribute to this extraordinary rail-building feat.
Take the initial problems Canadian Pacific Rail faced in the wild west, out of Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.) from May 1880. Up to 17,000 cheap Chinese workers were imported for the task. Here, theyhad to carve a railway line on a ledge in the steep gorges above the whitewater rapids of the raging Fraser River at the infamous Hell’s Gate.
Hanging on rope ladders lowered down into deep ravines, workers were expected to chisel a hole in which to place a stick of dynamite, light the fuse then scurry back up to safety – all for the sum of $1 a day.It’s now claimed hundreds of workers died, one for every mile of track built.
Meanwhile, the enterprising William Cornelius Van Horne, the CPR’s new general manager, started moving things along from the eastern end in 1882. He soon had 5000 workers with 1700 teams of horses laying 52,300 tonnes of steel rail that same year.
Despite loud public protests about CP Rail’s likely monopoly over freight and passengers and the company running out of money towards the end, the last spike of the momentous project was finally driven into the tracks at Craigellachie, near Revelstoke, B.C. on November 7, 1885.
The completed scheme probably cost more than a billion dollars today and was finished in 54 months, or almost six years ahead of its original schedule.But how could future revenues be generated to repay the huge debt and make profits? The wily Van Horne had a plan. Years earlier, hot springs had been discovered at what is now the popular ski resort of Banff.
“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists,” Van Horne said.
The original Banff Springs Hotel opened in 1888 as the main attraction in a future chain of luxury railway hotels from coast-to-coast along the CPR line. The present, huge Chateau-style hotel with its opulent interior has twice been re-built.
Back in 1885, with encouragement from the CPR, the Canadian government reserved 10 square miles of wilderness around the hot springs. While stimulating a tourism economy, the move also marked the beginning of Canada’s national park system.The surrounding Banff National Park is now part of a United Nations World Heritage site.
North east of Banff at Kicking Horse Pass today is probably the most vital section of the CPR line, a reminder again of how difficult rail construction was.
For here are the famous ‘Spiral Tunnels’ built between 1907 and 1909 through the Rocky Mountains. Before that, steam locomotives would grunt going up the notorious Big Hill here.No surveyor initially wanted to use Kicking Horse Pass as a major transport line, especially in winter, but it was 122-kilometres shorter than an alternative, gentler route way north at Yellowhead Pass, near Jasper township.
The steep Big Hill line was used for 24 years from 1885, being blasted out of solid rock by 1000 workers hired at $2.25 per 10-hour day while braving spring snow avalanches. Balancing on trestle timbers over a raging river, blasting cliffs with unpredictable nitroglycerine and dodging rocks rolled loose by workers above, deaths averaged one a week.
When the rail cutting was made, steam engines chugged up a treacherously steep track, but coming down was a nightmare. Wrecks of runaway trains soon littered the ‘temporary’ Big Hill route.
Finally in 1907, thundering explosions again echoed in the Kicking Horse Valley. Some 1000 men using 75 rail carloads of dynamite built two, so-called Spiral Tunnels. A new figure eight track spiraled into the mountains requiring narrow gauge steam engines to haul away more than 600,000 cubic metres of rock debris.
Based on a Swiss idea, the loop lines ingeniously reduced the steepness of the Big Hill by half, so that the front of a 3-kilometrefreight train can be seen today while its end disappears into a tunnel beneath itself (pictured).The Big Hill rail route was soon abandoned. Part of it has become part of the Trans-Canada Highway.
And all this is without the story of the tragedy of heavy snowslides further along the CPR line at Rogers Pass in early 1910.That’s when an avalanche suddenly smothered 182 metres of just-excavated track to a depth of nine metres. A locomotivewas buried and 58 workers died. Some 600 men using shovels dug frantically to help. Rescuers found many of the dead still standing up.The force of the avalanche even ripped off the train’s 62-tonne snow plough, hurling it 18 metres away up a slope.
For when we think of rail building in Canada, and elsewhere, we never seem to recall thegreat human cost of doing it, do we?