By Ken Newman, Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine
It is a worthy effort to recognize and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first passenger train from the east on the then newly constructed Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The first passenger train to travel through the Skeena Valley came in early April 1914, arriving in Prince Rupert on April 9, 1914.
Only a few days earlier on April 7, 1914, a ceremony was held and the last spike was driven in the last steel rail near Fort Fraser B.C. Who exactly drove the last spike is not entirely clear (more on this mystery later), however, it is known for certain that on that day the tracks of Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) Railway were finally joined.
While that first passenger train was largely a train of GTP officials and dignitaries, it was in fact the first train to travel the entire GTP line from Winnipeg. But the line did not come into full commercial operation until August of 1914 and the first commercial passenger train from the east did not arrive in Prince Rupert until early September, 1914.
Ten years earlier, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway Charles M. Hays stood before the shareholders and announced his vision to complete a second Canadian transcontinental railway to a yet-to-be-built west coast port city of Prince Rupert. This railway would be called the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Over the next 10 years, the GTP would promote the advantage of a northern rail line and how it would open up opportunities for mining, agriculture and forestry, not to mention to the new port city of Prince Rupert and the advantage of shorter sailing distances to Asian markets. Then-prime minister Wilfrid Laurier was also convinced of the idea of a second transcontinental railway and therefore assisted by having the Dominion Government of Canada provide financial guarantees during construction. The GTP expected to recover the costs of construction by profiting from the influx of settlers, the resulting freight shipments and the sale of prospective townsites along the line. Today in northwest B.C., Smithers, South Hazelton and Prince Rupert are all communities resulting directly from the GTP.
Surveyors and engineers had chosen the Yellowhead route through the Rocky Mountains to Prince Rupert because it afforded the best grades. The GTP had set a high standard for the railway grade of four-tenths of one per cent, or 21.12 feet per mile and curves were to be four degrees or greater. This would make it the lowest grade railway through the Rocky Mountains in North America. The Mountain section of the GTP was the most difficult and expensive section of the railway that began in Winnipeg. The construction of the mountain section began from two points – from the east at Wolf Creek, Alberta and from the west at Prince Rupert. The construction of the line began in Winnipeg in 1905, reaching Wolf Creek, near present day Edson, Alberta, in 1909. The construction of the line going east from Prince Rupert did not begin until May of 1908. The distance from Winnipeg to Wolf Creek was 916 miles while the mountain section from Wolf Creek to Prince Rupert was 839 miles.
Within the mountain section, the Skeena Valley portion of the railway was a distance of 180 miles from Prince Rupert to Hazelton – and the most difficult and costly part of the mountain section. The total cost to build the rail line from Winnipeg was $109.8 million and of that, the mountain section cost $78.2 million. The Skeena River from Hazelton to the Pacific Ocean falls 1,000 feet, making it one of the most rapidly descending rivers on the west coast of North America. Such obstacles along the way included the steep mountain walls of the lower Skeena, Kitselas Canyon and the crossing of the Skeena west of Hazelton. The man in charge of this section of the construction was GTP engineer C.C. Van Arsdoll, nicknamed “four tenths Van” for his insistence that the grade not exceed four-tenths of one per cent in a mile, even during this difficult section. This high standard contributed to the challenges and costs of building a railway in this difficult environment.
Tunnels were extensive, in the first 200 miles of the railway some 13 tunnels were built totalling over 8,800 feet. The steel span bridge across the Skeena at mile 174, 13 miles west of Hazelton (commonly known as Skeena Crossing) was a 930 foot span completed in March of 1912 and only 10 miles further, a second bridge almost 900 feet long was constructed over Sealy Gulch. It is estimated that to build the first 100 miles of grade east of Prince Rupert cost $80,000 a mile before any track was laid.
Construction on the Skeena portion of the line was carried out by the principal contractor Foley Brothers, Welch and Stewart (F. W & S) who in many cases sublet to other contractors. Construction camps to house workers were situated along the route approximately every two to five miles. To service the camps, F. W. & S employed sternwheeler steamers to ply the waters of the Skeena. They owned five sternwheelers that would travel the Skeena to the head of navigation at Hazelton. These vessels, prior to the arrival of the GTP, were the means of choice of getting supplies between the coast and the interior.
Ironically, the sternwheeler was being used to help build a railway that would end the sternwheeler era on the Skeena. Throughout construction, due to poor living conditions and low wages, workers were hard to retain and it was said that for every man arriving at camp to work, one was leaving. Workers would often refer to F.W. & S Company as Fool’em, Work’em and Starve’em.
The first passenger train from the east did not travel the line until April 1914.
However, there was passenger service operating on the Skeena section by 1911, taking place for the first 100 miles to Kitselas, which at the time was called Vanarsdol and would later become the site of a station. With the arrival of the tracks at Skeena Crossing in March of 1912, the GTP was offering passenger service from Prince Rupert to Hazelton with a ferry service across the Skeena.
The GTP situated railway stations at approximately every six to eight miles along the route from Winnipeg – and it was no different on the Skeena portion of the line. At its opening in April 1914, the line between Prince Rupert and Hazelton had 22 stations. Divisional points were also significant sites for railway operations, with not only a station but also a roundhouse and rail yard for the maintenance and servicing of locomotives. Typically divisional points were 100 to 140 miles apart. The first divisional point east of Prince Rupert was located at the community of Pacific, formerly called Nicholl.
The stations, with only a few exceptions were of a standard design. By far, the GTP’s most common station type was the Design ‘A’ 100-152, and at its opening in 1914, this was true for all the stations on the Skeena portion of the line, with the exception of Pacific which, being a divisional point, had a larger 100-159 plan station. Sadly today, there are no examples of the stations left along the Skeena portion of the line except for the Kwinitsa station which was moved to Prince Rupert’s waterfront. The stations were all named and the names of these places remain today and in some cases are the names of those involved with the construction of the GTP. Places such as Dorreen, Salvus, Vanarsdol (later Kitselas) and Ritchie.
As noted earlier, the GTP opened in the summer of 1914 for full commercial operations but the company was in financial trouble right from its opening. The first blow to the GTP came two years before it was completed when the railway’s president and visionary Charles M. Hays, on a return trip from Britain to secure capital for the railway, died with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. Eventually the high cost of construction, failed townsite land deals, competition, low traffic volumes and the start of the First World War conspired against the success of the GTP. By 1918, the GTP was in negotiations with the federal government to take over not only the GTP but also the parent Grand Trunk Railway. The GTP was forced into receivership in 1919 and was eventually taken over by the government. By 1923, the government rolled several failed railways, including GTP’s competitor the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), into one company and formed the Canadian National Railway (CNR).
Revisiting the circumstances of April 7, 1914, and the GTP last spike ceremony, some question whether April 7th was intended to be the date in history to be remembered for the GTP. It is agreed that this was the date the tracks from the east actually first met the tracks from the west but it is speculated that this wasn’t really to be the formal ceremony. It is documented that GTP management had talked about two events, one being the actual physical connection of the tracks and then later, when the final touches to the rail line were complete, a ceremonial highly publicized event with a golden spike would take place, in the same way as the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was done two decades earlier.
Part of the speculation is as a result of the number of conflicting accounts of who actually drove the last spike. It seems the facts suggest no one actually knows for sure who drove the last spike. Some credit then-GTP president Edson Chamberlin but there are reports he was actually in Montreal when it happened. Still others think it might have been GTP chief engineer B.B. Kelliher or GTP vice-president and general manager Morley Donaldson or GTP superintendent McCall, finally, that it might have actually been the west construction foreman Peter Tityrn or east foreman Philip Egan who drove the last spike. There apparently were several spikes driven by various officials before the actual last spike and there are some photos of the event but they don’t clearly identify who drove the LAST SPIKE. The fact that GTP president Chamberlin, the highest ranking GTP official, was not at the April 7th event would support the thought that April 7th was not to be the formal last spike ceremony.
The circumstances of the cost of construction, the threat of bankruptcy, world war and recession may have all conspired together to prevent the formal ceremony with a golden spike. The GTP was completed but likely not in the fashion it was dreamed of in 1903 by Charles Hays. It finished more with a whimper than a bang. The location of the last spike is a little clearer, accounts talk about east of the Nechako River Crossing or near Fort Fraser or at Fort Fraser. All are actually true, the site was near the east end of the upper Nechako River crossing about one mile east of the Fort Fraser station. The first train across the track was pulled by engine No. 112 and arrived in Prince Rupert on April 9th at 1:15 in the afternoon.
Bowman, Phylis, “Steamboats, Rock and Steel: The Building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway” Skeena Digest, Spring 1971
Kozma, Leslie, “The Truth About 7 April 1914”, CN Lines, Vol. 17, No. 1, Issue 62
Large, R. Geddes, “The Skeena River of Destiny” Mitchell Press, Vancouver, 1957
Leonard, Frank, “A Thousand Blunders: The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Northern British Columbia” UBC Press, 1996.
Lower, Joseph Arthur, “The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in British Columbia” Master Thesis, University of BC, April 1939
Stevenson, Jane, “Making Tracks” Northword Magazine, February 2009