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Canadian Rail History: The Mysteries of the Last Spike

The last spike is driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway

With missing artifacts and contentious debates over its location, the story of the Last Spike is a favorite among train enthusiasts.

On November 7, 136 years ago, the Last Spike was driven in at Craigellachie, B.C, marking a momentous occasion — the completion of Canada’s trans-continental railway.

Over the years, certain railway enthusiasts have tried to argue that Canada’s Last Spike happened elsewhere. In the 1980s, for instance, some maintained the real Last Spike was driven in upon completion of the Esquimalt-Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island. The logic? The original vision for Canada’s national dream was to extend it all the way to Victoria.

Noted Canadian historian Pierre Berton didn’t buy it. In 1971, he’d written the definitive book on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), appropriately named The Last Spike. Berton’s argument? Port Moody was the CPR’s original western terminus. The E&N’s last spike was merely one of many branch-line last spikes, and the E&N didn’t become part of the CPR until later.

No, the Last Spike was driven in at Craigellachie,” Berton said. “Everybody knows that.

In fact, three Last Spikes were pounded in at Craigellachie, B.C. on November 7, 1885, to officially mark the occasion. There was also a fourth spike — a silver one — that was supposed to be the Last Spike, the one to symbolize the completion of a “national dream” that fulfilled a condition of British Columbia’s entry into the Canadian confederation in 1871.

The original deal called for completing the railway within 10 years. But the dream became a nightmare. Construction controversies led to the toppling of the government of John A. Macdonald’s Conservative party in 1873, notes a timeline on the CPR website: “By the time Macdonald was returned to power in 1878, the massive project was seriously behind schedule and in danger of stalling completely.”

A Controversial History

A group of Scottish-Canadian businessmen formed a syndicate in 1880 that the next year became the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. And the rest is history. Eventually.

As Berton noted in The Last Spike, “no other private company, with the single exception of the Hudson’s Bay, has had such an influence on the destinies of the nation.” And in the very next sentence, Berton added: “Nor has any other come so close to ruin and survived.”

About 15,000 temporary laborers from China helped build the railway mostly in the rugged sections in B.C. and for less pay than their white counterparts. None of those Chinese labourers appears in photos of the Last Spike ceremony. Then again neither does then CPR president George Stephen nor the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Lansdowne, who was supposed to bring a silver spike for the occasion. Bad weather kept Lansdowne in Ottawa while Stephen was stuck in England.

A few dignitaries did pose for that historic photo, including CPR general manager William Van Horne, and former railway surveyor and engineer Sandford Fleming, often credited with spearheading the worldwide adoption of standard time zones.

The ceremony itself was a “muted affair,” notes the Canadian Encyclopedia. The official photographer didn’t even show. So the historic photo was the work of Calgary lensman Alexander Ross, who just happened to be there at the right time.

The Missing Spikes

The ceremonial silver Last Spike, on display at the Canadian Museum of History, never made it to Craigellachie.

The location itself, near Eagle Pass, was dubbed Craigellachie after a gathering space in Scotland near where both George Stephen and Donald Smith grew up. At 9:22 a.m., Smith tried to hammer in the spike but bent it. So it was replaced by a second spike that he drove home successfully. That one was removed for posterity and a third, final spike inserted in its place.

Smith kept the bent spike and had pieces notched out of it to fashion jewelry, such as hat pins, for the wives of the dignitaries at the ceremony. What remains of that spike — “a rather sad-looking piece of iron” — is now in a collection storage facility at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

The “successful” Last Spike disappeared in the 1940s from the office of the CPR president in Montreal “never to be seen again.” (One story holds that an Ottawa patent officer obtained it and gave it to his heirs, with it eventually being made into a silver-plated knife handle that is now ensconced in a Winnipeg safety deposit box.)

The original silver Last Spike that Lord Lansdowne had planned to bring to Craigellachie is now on display at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. It can be viewed in Gallery 2 of the Canadian History Hall or in an online feature.

As for what became of the Last Spike that was driven in permanently after the (straight) ceremonial Last Spike was removed for posterity: “This appears to be unknown,” says Dr. James Trépanier, a curator at the Canadian Museum of History.

Its exact location is also not entirely clear. “The rough location is marked, but we don’t believe there is an exact, GPS trackable location,” Dr. Trépanier says.

A Historic Rail Experience

Jim Cullen, executive director of the Revelstoke Heritage Railway Society, says the spike and whatever tie it was driven into would have been replaced many times during regular track maintenance over the last 136 years. However, a cairn commemorating the historic event is likely very close to where the Last Spike was driven in. Also on the site is a mural of the historic photo of the Last Spike ceremony.

The society, which runs the Revelstoke Railway Museum in nearby Revelstoke, operates the Last Spike Gift Shop at Craigellachie, which is open from mid May to early October. Among the souvenirs are iron railway spikes not unlike the plain spikes that Donald Smith smashed at 136 years ago or the 30 million other spikes that went into the railway’s construction.

From late April to early October, the Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West service between Vancouver and Banff goes by Craigellachie about three times a week in either direction, says Rocky Mountaineer spokesperson Nicole Ford.

While the train doesn’t stop at Craigellachie, it slows down to walking speed to enable passengers to take photos of the historic site. And as the train approaches, hosts aboard the train regale passengers with tales of how the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.

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