The Last Spike's 125th Anniversary

Posted by Daniel on Nov 2, 2010 - 7 comments

It is Last Spike Week, meaning that it is the week leading up to the celebration on Sunday, Nov. 7, of the 125th anniversary of the pounding of the Last Spike, the symbolic completion of the transcontinental railway. I thought I'd commemorate the occasion with a couple of posts about the construction of the Canadian Pacific line through BC.

A railway line linking the Pacific Coast to central Canada was part of the deal that brought BC into Confederation on July 20, 1871. Throughout the ensuing decade the promise of a railway was a bone of contention between Ottawa and the province as delay after delay conspired to make it seem as if the line would never be built. But finally, in 1880, the federal government signed a deal with the Canadian Pacific syndicate and the "national dream" looked like it might become a reality.

Construction of the rail line through BC began in the middle of May, 1880. The BC portion was divided into two sections. In the west the federal government contracted with a separate American syndicate to lay track from Burrard Inlet along the Fraser and Thompson rivers into the interior. Andrew Onderdonk was the engineer in charge of this section. He established his headquarters at Yale, which was as far as steamboats could travel up the Fraser River. (The photo above shows the Yale waterfront in 1881. Source: BC Archives A-03579) Naturally the town boomed with the construction of shops, warehouses, a sawmill, a nitroglycerine plant and powder works, a hospital and all sort of other facilities.

Onderdonk's work crews blasted their way along the steep walls of the Fraser Canyon and then up the Thompson River as far as Savona on Kamloops Lake. At the same time he won a contract to build the section of track running from Yale westward to Burrard Inlet. That line was finished on January 22, 1884, when a "mini" last spike was driven near Nicomen just east of Mission. Later that year the line reached Savona and the work for which Onderdonk originally contracted was done.

In the eastern part of the province, the CPR itself managed the construction from Calgary through the Rockies and the Selkirk mountain ranges. Onderdonk made a deal with the company to continue building eastward from Savona and during 1885 the two work crews slowly made their way toward each other. In September Onderdonk ran out of rails at a place beside the Eagle River east of Sicamous now known as Craigellachie. With nothing more to be done, and winter coming on, he sent his men home.

From the other direction, the crews struggled on into early November to get the job done. On the night of Nov. 6 they worked all night to lay the final 5.5 kilometres of track down to where Onderdonk had stopped. They had to; the dignitaries were arriving early the next day to declare the project finished.
Next: the Chinese workers who built the line