November 7, 1885
CPR reaches completion
The dream of an iron road running from sea to sea was realized at 9:22 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1885, when financier Donald Smith drove the final spike connecting the east and west arms of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C., in a pass through the Rocky Mountains west of Revelstoke.
For British Columbians, it was high time, since a transcontinental railway, the inducement to become the westernmost province, was promised in 1871. When the troubled project was not complete by the original deadline of 1881, and with some B.C. politicians threatening to secede, the CPR took over the troubled project and completed it in just five years.
There were actually four last spikes. A ceremonial silver spike never made it to the ceremony, so the spike that was used was identical to the other iron spikes used in construction of the rail line. It was badly bent when pounded, and another was substituted, then taken away to deter memento collectors. The fourth, another iron spike, was left in place. The bent spike was eventually donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, and is on long-term loan to the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, displayed as a tribute to the immigrant railway workers who built the line.
The railway is part of Canada’s national identity. For decades, it was the only way for passengers to travel across the country’s vast distances. It was vital for delivering settlers and materials to build towns and supply the businesses and industry that provided jobs and helped populate the provinces.
The federal government was able to move 3,000 troops west during the Riel Rebellion in less than a month. Troops were moved east to Halifax en route to Europe during the First World War and Second World War, and west from Halifax when they returned home.
Today the CPR owns about 20,000 kilometres of track, but no longer reaches the East Coast. More than $280 billion in goods are moved by rail annually, as well as 75 million passengers, most on commuter rail lines.