An “Iron Ribbon” From Sea to Sea
ABOUT 150 years ago, much of Canada, the world’s second-largest country in area, was an unexplored wilderness. Historian Pierre Berton explains: “Three-quarters of the population lived in comparative isolation on farms,” and the condition of roads “made extended travel nearly impossible.” Travel on lakes and rivers was limited too, since these would be frozen for up to five months of the year.
Faced with those challenges, in 1871 the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, proposed a railway to connect Canada’s Atlantic Coast with its Pacific Coast. Such a railway had been completed in the United States in 1869, but Canada had less money, a greater distance to cover, and a population equal to only about 10 percent of that of the United States. A Canadian political leader called the proposed project “one of the most foolish things that could be imagined.” Another mocked that the next thing the prime minister would be talking about was a railway to the moon.
An Expensive Proposal
The government, however, promised to complete the railway in ten years. Sandford Fleming, a Scottish railway engineer, estimated that the railway would cost about $100 million, a huge sum in those days. Although laying some of the track through the United States would have shortened and simplified the route, Macdonald insisted on an all-Canadian route to protect Canada’s interests in the event of war.
Many investors were unwilling to embark on such an expensive, risky venture. However, in 1875 the work began when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) turned the first shovel of dirt for the construction of its main line. Ten years later the project was in danger of coming to a complete stop. On July 10, a debt of $400,000—which the CPR was unable to pay—was due at 3:00 p.m. But at 2:00 p.m. that very day, the Canadian Parliament finally agreed to lend more money, saving the project.
Challenging Construction Problems
While laying track in northern Ontario, workers discovered solid rock within a foot of the ground’s surface. So soil had to be hauled in over long distances. In central Canada, winter temperatures plummeted to 52 degrees below zero Fahrenheit [-47°C], resulting in many construction problems. In addition to that, annual snowfall averaged hundreds of inches. The Rocky Mountains section of the track in the west was dubbed “where death comes without a warning.” Many tunnels and bridges needed to be built. Ten-hour workdays were the norm, despite rain, mud, or snow.
Finally, on November 7, 1885, without much fanfare, the last spike was driven at Eagle Pass in British Columbia in the west. The station was named Craigellachie, after a rallying place in Scotland that had become a symbol of bold defiance when times were difficult. Called upon to make a speech, the general manager of the CPR said simply: “All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way.”
Its Effect on People
Thousands of Chinese laborers brought into the country for the project were assured of steady employment on the railway. The work was often dangerous, especially in the Rocky Mountains. Not until several years after the last spike was driven were many of those workers able to raise enough money to return home.
With the advent of the railway, industry and commerce moved westward, which adversely affected traditional ways of life. Towns and cities were established, and native peoples were moved to reservations. Along former trade routes, small businesses, such as roadside taverns, shut down. On the positive side, the train is said to have “released society from the bondage of dirt and mud” and “from the bondage of winter.” Additionally, food items that arrived from the Orient on Canada’s Pacific Coast reached eastern cities only a few days later.
Although trains continue to play a large role in carrying freight across Canada, increased use of the automobile and the airplane has led to a decline in passenger travel by rail. Still, many people enjoy escaping the bustle of 21st-century life by boarding a comfortable train and taking in the beautiful scenery all the way from Toronto to Vancouver. Rather than speed up the pace of life, as it once did, the train thus makes it possible for passengers to relax and reflect on the railway’s colorful history while traveling from sea to sea on Canada’s “iron ribbon.”
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SHARING OUR HOPE ON THE “IRON RIBBON”
The railroad remains the primary mode of travel to some Canadian communities, so Jehovah’s Witnesses use it to reach isolated regions with the Bible’s message about God’s Kingdom government. (Isaiah 9:6, 7; Matthew 6:9, 10) “It is easy to talk about the Bible on the train,” the Witnesses explain, “since people are curious about where we are going and why.”
Regarding a train trip to an Ojibwa reserve near Lake Nipigon in northern Ontario, one Witness comments: “Although the scenery and wildlife were stunning, our best memories are of the people we met. Since they receive few visitors, our arrival generated a real buzz. Some lent us their canoes, and we were allowed to use their schoolroom at no cost. After we preached all day, members of the community assembled to watch a video about our worldwide preaching work.”
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Sir John A. Macdonald
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Railway building was difficult work
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Numerous bridges and tunnels had to be built through the mountains
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The driving of the last spike marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Canada
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Riding the “iron ribbon” today
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Top: Canadian Pacific Railway (A17566); middle: Library and Archives Canada/C-006513
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Top, left to right: Canadian Pacific Railway (NS13561-2); Canadian Pacific Railway (NS7865); Library and Archives Canada/PA-066576; bottom: Canadian Pacific Railway (NS1960)
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Top: Canadian National Railway Company; right: Courtesy VIA Rail Canada Inc.