The Last Spike, Part 2

Posted by Daniel on Nov 4, 2010

Sunday is the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This is the second post describing aspects of its construction through BC.
As he set to work on his contracts to build the rail line it became clear to Andrew Onderdonk that he was going to have to rely on workers from China if he was going to get the job done. There simply were not enough White workers available in BC or willing to come there from the US or eastern Canada. There was much discrimination against the Chinese in the province and mainstream opinion opposed the employment of Asian workers, but Onderdonk shared the blunt assessment of the prime minister, John A. Macdonald, who told Parliament: "either you must have this labour [the Chinese] or you can't have the railway".
The first Chinese workers -- they were called "coolies" -- came from other railway construction sites in the US but by 1882 Onderdonk was importing thousands of men directly from China through brokers. (They were used only on the western section of the line. James Ross, the engineer in charge of the eastern section, did not use Chinese labour, relying instead on a mix of Americans and Europeans, mainly Swedes and Italians.)
Ultimately there were as many as 7,000 Chinese working on the line at one time. They received less pay than their White counterparts and were given the most dangerous jobs. As a result, at least 600 died in construction-related accidents, from exposure or from scurvy.
In his history of the CPR Pierre Berton concluded that without the Chinese workers and the savings they represented, Onderdonk would not have been able to fulfill his contract. After the railway was built many Chinese remained in the province where they continued to face discrimination for many years.
An excellent website on this subject is here.
Next: the most famous photograph in Canadian history