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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

bought Alaska.

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

the Kicking Horse Pass in the Rocky Mountains and Rogers Pass in the Selkirk

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.