The Completion of the Railway
(British Columbia Section)




The Canadian Pacific's contract required that 100 miles (161 km) of railway had to be finished by January 1, 1898 and this landmark was reached by December 13, 1897. Preceding construction of the railway itself, a tote road was built westward from Crow's Nest Lake and eastward from Kuskonook on Kootenay Lake beginning in July 1897. The roads met at Moyie Lake in November providing a route for workers, supplies and materials to move up to the key points along the route.

Construction of the western sections between the Crowsnest Pass and Kootenay Lake began in earnest January 1898. Supplies were brought in from Lethbridge in the east, Nelson, via Kuskonook in the west, and Jennings, Montana, on the Great Northern main line to the south. Soon, 4,000-5,000 men were at work along the line. West of the summit, the tracks descended the McGillvray Loop (also called the Michel Loop) into the Michel Creek valley. In this area, the construction crews encountered heavy mud and gumbo and the tracklaying machine derailed every few hundred yards because the grade kept sinking under it. The tracks followed Michel Creek to the Elk River and followed it to Fernie. From Fernie a four-mile-long (6.5 km) branch line was built up a 3 percent grade to the Coal Creek mines.

Downgrade from Fernie, the right-of-way followed the Elk River to the southwest as far as Elko where the grade swung northwest. Although the grade was moderate, nearly everywhere under one percent, many cuts and fills were required. On reaching the Kootenay River, the tracks followed it for 13 miles (21 km). The crossing of the Kootenay River required four spans and a 180-foot (55 m) steel arch swing span. A temporary span was constructed to permit construction trains to cross and then the permanent steel span was installed.

Exactly at 3 o'clock Saturday afternoon, August 13, [1898], the first train of cars to cross the Kootenay river in South East Kootenay stopped at the west end of the bridge...and the event that had been looked for many, many months has at last come to pass. Conductor Lockhart was in charge of the train, and H. Brock was at the throttle and Fireman Campbell was at the furnace door. In the cab was Herbert Connell, nephew of Divisional Engineer Garden, and F. E. Simpson. On the west shore a goodly portion of the population of Wardner was in waiting, and as the five cars, heavily loaded with railroad iron, pushed slowly across the new bridge, its progress was watched with intense interest. At last Wardner has a railroad. And how that road did grow after it had crossed the bridge. By sundown the great force of men and the steel horse had passed through town and reaching out for Cranbrook, where they will be by Thursday or Friday of this week.

The Cranbrook Herald, August 18, 1898

The steel work was brought in by train and the bridge was completed later that summer. After crossing the river, the tracks were laid on towards Cranbrook, 210 miles (338 km) from Lethbridge.

Cranbrook was to become a major divisional point and centre for the railway in the East Kootenay. There, crews, locomotives and servicing facilities would be based and during the summer work on facilities was being pushed ahead in anticipation of the arrival of the first train.

Work on the depot and section-house is being rapidly pushed, the men working late and early, and it will be fully completed before the arrival of the steel. It is a very substantial building, the dimension stuff all being very heavy and properly put together, and everything connected with the structure suggestive of permanence and durability. It will also be a handsome structure and attractively painted - a credit and ornament to the new town.

The Cranbrook Herald, July 19, 1898.

On August 25, 1898, the headlines of The Cranbrook Herald announced the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway on the 23rd.

Passenger services were established very quickly once Cranbrook was reached and by early in September a three times a week service was running between Cranbrook and Macleod (later Fort Macleod). The running time was 12 hours and 50 minutes for an average speed of about 15 miles (25 km) an hour. Soon after a mail service was inaugurated on the trains. Meanwhile ballasting and finishing crews was following behind the track laying workers. Through that fall men were at work bringing the tracks up to standards for full operation. Two steam shovels were used, one near Elko and the other near Fernie to speed up the work.

West of Cranbrook, the route continued in a southwesterly direction on a slow down grade towards Moyie Lake and what was to become the mining town of Moyie City. Heavy rock work was needed in many places to maintain the grade and along the lake the gradient was level. A tunnel, 650 feet (198 m) long, was blasted through solid rock near the south end of the lake. 'Daylight was struck in the Moyie tunnel the latter part of last week,' noted the Cranbrook Herald on June 14, 1898. 'The event was celebrated in the big hole with a barrel of beer.' At high water, the grade was only six feet (1.8 m) above the lake level.

The railway continued to follow the Moyie River to the southwest though the swampy wetlands from which the name Moyie was derived. (Mouillé is French for wetlands). At Yahk, just a few miles north of the Idaho border, the tracks turned almost due west passing once again through rough country before reaching the Goat River Canyon east of the Kootenay River Valley near what is now the city of Creston. Once again, the crews were faced with heavy rock work, blasting and moving large quantities of fill.

From Creston, the line swung north up the eastern side of the valley to the south end of Kootenay Lake and Kootenay Landing where long trestles were needed to cross over the marsh lands and reach the mountainous western shore of the lake. Just past Kootenay Landing, the construction stopped. The long shoreline northwards towards Nelson was to be a formidable section of very costly construction. Estimates for construction costs were $35,000 a mile ($ 22,000 a km) which was three times the per mile cost of work on the first 100 miles (160 km) of railway west of Lethbridge. Recognizing the costs involved on the missing 53 miles (85 km) and the limited nature of the traffic, the CPR decided to defer construction and operate a connecting service using sternwheelers and tugs and barges. Terminal facilities were built at Kootenay Landing that were to serve the fleet until the end of 1930.

The Last Spike Driven The rails are laid to Lake Kootenay. The iron on the Crows Nest Pass road now extends from Lethbridge, Alt., to the Kootenay Lake in West Kootenay, a distance of 360 miles [580 km]. A little more than a year ago there was nothing more than Indian trails between many of the points along the line, and last evening a party arrived in Cranbrook traveling in all modern comfort in a well equipped sleeper with a dining car.... Last night, October 5, the last spike was driven at the lake.

The Cranbrook Herald, October 5, 1898

Ballasting and further work on the tracks continued through October and November. On November 15, 1898, the first transfer of railcars was made at Kootenay Landing when nine cars of coal were rolled onto a barge and towed up the lake by the new steamer Moyie which would not formally enter passenger service for several weeks. That day, the railway was turned over to the operating department from the construction department in anticipation of the formal opening of the new railway.

Ultimately, the Canadian Pacific received $3,404,720 in subsidies for the construction of the railway but the total costs were determined to be nearly $10,000,000; the subsidy covered about one third of the costs. Overall, it was a well constructed and efficient railway. On the 290 miles (480 km) of railway between Lethbridge and Kootenay Landing, grades exceeded one percent in only two places and there they did not go over two percent. Curvature, except in a few places was moderate and the route did not receive the heavy snows and avalanches that characterized long sections of the CPR's main line through British Columbia.

For more documentary photographs on this section of the building of the Crowsnest Railway Route. Click on British Columbia construction.

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