1013 Coast to coast with the CPR

Railway Nation: Tales of Canadian Pacific, the World’s Greatest Travel System
by David Laurence Jones

Victoria: Heritage House, 2020
$34.95 / 9781772033496

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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Riding the Rails into Canada’s History: Illustrated anecdotes offer famous and lesser-known stories about the CPR.

We can still hear the distant call of a diesel engine’s whistle today in most regions of Canada and for many of us it is a sound that transports us to an earlier time, a romantic past that lingers. Most likely it is a Canadian Pacific Railway train clickety-clacking in and out of our lives, as Railway Nation author David Laurence Jones so glowingly recounts in this anecdotal history of Canada’s great continental iron horse.

It is part of our collective heritage, as famous writer Pierre Berton taught us in The Last Spike, CBC showed us in The National Dream, and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot sang to us in his Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

Snow sheds guarded the line against prodigious snowfalls and frequent avalanches in the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains. Shown here are sheds at the base of Cheops Mountain, where the track loops through the Illecillewaet Valley. David Laurence Jones Collection
The High Level Bridge at Lethbridge, also know as the Lethbridge Viaduct, completed in 1909, still in use and considered a spectacular engineering achievement. Mid 1920s photo courtesy David Laurence Jones Collection
The Jubilee-type locomotive, launched by CPR to coincide with the company’s fiftieth anniversary in 1931. Poster by Norman Fraser, David Laurence Jones Collection

We find the CPR in the most obscure corners of our history as it linked the country together with a dual ribbon of steel that assured our nationhood. Indeed, it is part of our national DNA. And Jones, a former CPR employee, invites us to join him in an exploration of the legendary railway from its Hollywood image in films like Canadian Pacific with Randolph Scott and Jane Wyatt to stories of the daring rail builders now lost to history.

CPR bosses like founding builder William Cornelius Van Horne and company president Thomas Shaughnessy get plenty of coverage in Railway Nation. But Jones also gives credit to the navvies (rail workers) who performed the daily drudgery of building and later running a railway.

Mostly Jones chooses anecdotes, about 60 of them, to twig our CPR memories or more often to remind us that the railway was part of our ancestors’ lives in so many ways. In many cases, they might not have set foot in the New World without it. It was the CPR that hired overseas recruiters to entice refugees from war-ravaged Europe to migrate to Canada on CPR ships and trains.

Trainspotters and train historians get a healthy dose of technical detail from Jones, including much-celebrated engineering feats like the “notorious Big Hill” at Kicking Horse Pass and the Connaught Tunnel, an “engineering marvel” in BC’s Selkirk Mountains.

In “Vamoose Caboose” we all get a refresher lesson on the car with the unmistakable pop-up tower that was once coupled to the end of the train.

William Van Horne acquired powerful Consolidation locomotives to operate on the Big Hill. Photo by Ernest Brown, David Laurence Jones Collection
Chinese workers, a major source of labour for the CPR, in the South Thompson River Valley, BC. Glenbow Archives and Special Collections
Winston Churchill and his daughter Mary on the back platform of the CPR car assigned to the family for their exclusive use during Churchill’s visit to Canada in 1943. Imperial War Museum

The CPR in wartime conjures many tales of the role the railway played in assisting the Allied Forces. It also allows Jones to mention the role of the women who took on many jobs previously designated male-only positions. They filled them “quite adequately,” Jones notes.

Delivering the mail, transporting the Montreal Canadiens, and introducing royalty to its Dominion subjects, it was all part of the CPR’s legacy. Other distinguished riders included Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a keen seeker of the elusive black bass in Northern Ontario.

If its main competitor, the Canadian National Railway, was the “People’s Railway,” the CPR was the profit-motivated engine to secure Canada’s future as a capitalist nation. Along the way, it brought dental cars to remote parts of Canada, ensured that patients got rushed to hospital, and provided some communities with a car outfitted as a schoolroom.

The corporation has its unsavoury historical moments as well. To his credit, Jones does not shy from mentioning some of them. One example is its treatment of the Chinese workers who were instrumental in blasting a rocky path through western mountains. As Jones notes, they received half the pay and got the most dangerous assignments.

The Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Russia, foreground, painted in so-called Dazzle camouflage patterns to confuse the enemy, 1918. Photo by Stewart Bale. David Laurence Jones Collection
David Laurence Jones. Photo by Rick Robinson

Some eastern and southern European immigrants were also exploited to enrich company shareholders, and Indigenous people were shoved aside as the CPR helped newcomers seeking a new future to settle as homesteaders. Historians may also debate the CPR’s role in quelling the Riel Rebellions and helping authorities end labour disputes. But Jones does not dwell long on these questions.

Railway Nation is enhanced by photographs that adorn almost every story in the oversized book, and they add colour to the telling of one of our great historical adventures. Poster images include CPR resorts in the majestic Rockies at Banff and Lake Louise; landmark hotels in most major cities, including the Vancouver Hotel, Victoria’s Empress, and Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac. They also promoted the luxury of a CPR sea voyage and the speed of an overseas flight. All largely matters of history now, but Jones salts our interest anew in the “World’s Greatest Travel System.”

Looking at the old black and white photos and learning about the lesser-known history of this storied railway, I think back to when I was a kid standing on the track siding in a little village in the Kootenays. The CPR engineer would wave from his window as he rounded the next bend. Under his metal wheels, he left me a flattened shiny penny as a souvenir. I will never forget the experience.

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His personal experience with the CPR is not directly associated with its role as a railway, but rather with its purchase of a giant smelter at his birthplace of Trail, BC, in the late 1890s. Eventually it became known as Cominco and his family among so many others amassed a combined seniority of more than 80 years there. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s recent contributions to The Ormsby Review include reviews of books by Gary SteevesIan HaysomJohn O’BrianScott StephenChristine HayviceKeith Powell,  Norm Boucher, and Ron Shearer.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

CPR publicists jumped the gun when they printed posters featuring the Comet jetliner that never went into revenue service for Canadian Pacific. David Laurence Jones Collection
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7 comments on “1013 Coast to coast with the CPR

  1. David Jones didn’t consult the one archive that rivals both the Glenbow’s and the CPR’s. In certain areas, it is vastly superior to both of them. There is no excuse for not having accessed the nationally and UNESCO recognized treasure trove of CPR material housed in The Wallace B. Chung and Madeline H. Chung Collection at UBC, much of it available digitally. Rich in CPR pamphlets, posters, documents, diaries, and historical photographs, a fuller human story drawn from the vast Chung collection might have been woven into a history that sometimes just covers corporate milestones. Strangely, Jones omits the role of the fleet of Empress ships that made the CPR the only “Highway to the Orient” where tens of thousands of tourists travelled around the world by sea (and across Canada by rail) on one commercial line. Numerous factual errors deflate the book’s credibility. Jones gets the story of ceremonial Last Spike wrong. It was neither “fancy” nor silver plated as Jones states. Made of hallmarked sterling silver by a Quebec silversmith, cast as an exact replica of a CPR spike, Lord Lansdowne, the highest representative of the Queen of England, wanted to present the ceremonial silver Last Spike to Cornelius Van Horne during the Craigellachie event, but was delayed in reaching the spot in time. Lord Lansdowne then had the spike hinged to a marble stand so that it could be used as a paper weight. The silver plaque on the side of the stand clearly states The Last Spike. Along with a very personal letter in Lansdowne’s hand, the spike and letter were sent to Van Horne, not to the Van Horne family, as Jones states. The Last Spike re-surfaced in 2011. The Museum of Civilization was too “cheap” to pay for the two professional appraisals necessary to certify the Spike and other Van Horne related historical artifacts as Canada Cultural Property of outstanding significance and national importance. The family had to cover the substantial appraisal fees. The substantial value given to the Spike and other items were ultimately certified by CCPERB. If there ever was a symbolic artifact that represents the unification of Canada as one nation, I believe this is it. And yet, within the Canadian Museum of History, it languishes as a thinly described digital artifact, mis-catalogued and stripped of all its patriotic lustre.

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