One hundred and twenty-five years ago, a symbolic event occurred at Craigellachie, British Columbia. It marked the commencement of one of the greatest periods of expansion in Canada’s history, opening new land to settlers, adventurers and entrepreneurs.
Edward Mallandaine, a young teenager from Victoria, got aboard a Canadian Pacific Railway train at Port Moody to witness the culmination of years of toil. While passing through the Eagle Pass, he observed “day by day the thousands of feet of earth removed and the swarms of men slaving away like ants for the good of the giant enterprise.”
Mallandaine was determined to see the last spike driven to mark the end of the “giant enterprise.” At six in the morning of November 7, 1885, the rails had almost come together. Major Al Rogers cut the final rail at nine o’clock. While a short rail was spiked in place, a second rail was left loose for the coming ceremony.
While Canadian myth claims that the last spike in the trans-continental railway was made of gold, it was not. The Canadian Governor General, Frederick Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, had prepared a silver spike, but he returned to Ottawa from B.C. before it could be delivered due to bad weather delaying railway construction.
With the silver spike absent, William Cornelius Van Horne, the feisty American railway man who had overseen the construction of the rail line during its push through the Canadian Shield, across the prairies and over the Rockies, said, “The last spike will be just as good iron as there is between Montreal and Vancouver, and anyone who wants to see it driven will have to pay full fare.”
There would be dignitaries, who travelled to Craigellachie in parlour cars, but the ceremony would be noted for its simplicity and lack of windy speeches.
In the crowd were the men who played a role in permiting the line to be built across the West, including Sam Steele, the NWMP officer who helped bring law-and-order to Western Canada. In addition, the photograph of the event shows a motley crew of bystanders, including tiny Mallandaine peering over Donald Smith’s shoulder, the man who would drive home the last spike. The teenager squeezed in directly behind Smith, a director and major investor in the CPR, next to the Boston financier George Harris, a director of the CPR, and placed himself in front of prominent CPR men such as Henry Cambie, John McTavish and John Egan, craning forward when Alexander Ross of Winnipeg snapped the famous photo.
The last spike had been driven halfway home to ease Smith’s task, but when the sledge hammer he wielded struck, it badly bent the spike, and the spike had to be pulled out and replaced. Hardly an auspicious beginning to the grand ceremony. To begin his second attempt, Smith lowered the hammer onto the spike and the camera shutter clicked. He raised the hammer and Ross again clicked the shutter. Smith then rained blows upon the spike, finally driving it home.
Years later, Sandford Fleming, a CPR director and the engineer who would develop a scheme for standard time adopted across the world, would comment that silence reigned as the spike was driven home. “It seemed as if the act now performed had worked a spell on all present. Each one appeared absorbed in his own reflections.”
But the silence was shattered when a cheer finally went up. “The subdued enthusiasm, the pent-up feelings of men familiar with hard work, now found vent,” recalled Fleming.
It was said that Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, stood passively by as Smith completed his task.
“Speech! Speech!” the crowd called out to Van Horne.
“All I can say is that the work has been done well in every way,” was Van Horne’s simple response.
With this brief comment, a few more cheers arose and people grabbed for small souvenirs, including the twisted first spike, which was snapped up by Arthur Piers, Van Horne’s personal secretary. But Piers’ prize was soon claimed by Smith, who told the young man to hand it over, as the CPR director and investor wanted it as his own memento of the day. Mike Sullivan, a worker on the track crew, noticing the sledge hammer laying unattended on the track, picked it up and handed it to Smith.
“All aboard for the Pacific” was heard the first time in Canada’s history, and the men obediently complied. The train then chugged over the last spike toward the Fraser River Valley and into its place in history.
On November 7 this year, the last spike ceremony was commemorated at Craigellachie to mark the 125th anniversary of the brief ceremony.
“The last spike represents the single most important construction project in the history of our country,” said Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian Heritage, John Baird, “and also the most influential in the development of Canada’s national identity. It represents the completion of the railway and the fulfillment of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s promise to British Columbia to connect the province to the rest of Canada by rail.”
To bribe B.C. to enter the Canadian Confederation in 1871, Macdonald promised to build within 10 years a railway spanning the continent. Alexander Mackenzie, the leader of the Liberal Party, in the House of Commons that spring called the promise an “act of insane recklessness.” With a population of only 3.5-million people and a vast territory to link, the opposition leader can be forgiven for his skepticism.
The promise nearly brought the unification of Canada to grief, as it wasn’t until 1885 that the railroad was completed. In the meantime, B.C. threatened to abandon Confederation if the link was not delivered in the time period promised. It was also a promise that nearly bankrupted the young nation and the railway company formed to undertake its unification.
At one point, Macdonald and his government fell when it was discovered that money from American investors wanting to build Canada’s railway was being channeled into the Conservative’s election fund. But “Old Tomorrow” was back in power after one term of Liberal rule under Mackenzie, and the dream of a national railway was resurrected, although Macdonald was careful not to repeat the mistakes he made during the 1873 Pacific Scandal that almost ended his political career.
The completion of the “National Dream” was a feat of daring and remarkable enterprise imagined by a few to benefit the many to come, which in the process ensured the survival of a unified nation from sea to sea.