Choosing the Route of the Canadian Pacific Railway
through the Mountains of British Columbia
In 1867, with Confederation, Canada became a nation; and the United States
Both events contributed to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Confederation united parts of the present day Canadian provinces of Ontario and
Quebec along with the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
It was generally agreed that British interests also extended west from Ontario to
include everything north of the 49th parallel as far as the Pacific Ocean.
However, at the time there was little to stop the United States from annexing
territories north of the 49th parallel and they had a large standing army left over
from the American Civil War with which to achieve it.
The American doctrine of Manifest Destiny (the belief that the United States was
destined to expand from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean), had been
used to justify in the 1840s the annexation of much of what is now the western
United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican
So there was reason for concern that with the American purchase of Alaska in
1867 the United States would attempt to link its western territories by annexing
the United Colonies of Vancouver Island (established in 1849) and British
Columbia (established in 1858).
In 1870, to forestall the annexation of British Columbia by the Americans and as
part of the terms of British Columbia’s joining the Canadian Confederation, an
agreement was made to link the coastal settlements of British Columbia with the
East by completion of a railway within ten years.
Although a route through the Yellowhead Pass (just west of present-day Jasper,
Alberta) was considered by many to be the preferred route, it was decided to
build the line further south for the following reasons:
It was deemed that keeping the line further south would minimize
the risk of U.S. railroads penetrating north of the 49th parallel.
A more southerly route would be cheaper as it would require fewer
bridges to cross the predominantly north-south watercourses in the
Most of Canada’s existing population centres were located within 100 miles
of the U.S. border.
The southern route was closer to coal and other mineral deposits being
discovered in and near southeastern British Columbia.
But, it was also stipulated that the line must be located at least 100 miles north
of the 49th parallel in case of attack by the United States. The 49th parallel was
considered at the time (and is today) the international boundary in the west.
Thus, the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway came to be located through
Mountains. Field, west of the Kicking Horse Pass, to Revelstoke, on the Columbia
River west of Rogers Pass, became the Mountain Subdivision of the trans-
continental mail line.
The last spike was driven on November 7, 1885 at Craigellachie, 30 miles
(47.7 km) west of Revelstoke, British Columbia and the rest is history.