I am fully aware that I can add nothing to the history of that undertaking. The historians and economists know much more about the construction than I do, and the geologists know much more about the Laurentian and mountain strata; so, in accordance with my own method, whenever I needed a supply of facts, I have gone to the historians and geologists and engineers and surveyors to get material which I wanted to work into a dramatic context. Five summers in the Rockies and on the coast, including six weeks climbing or clambering with the Alpine Club, supplied me with enough confidence to attempt the job, which, thank heaven, is now complete, for better or worse.
The allotted half hour will allow me to read only a fifth of this book, so I shall try to fill in the gaps with brief explanations.
The first part is a prologue contrasting conditions of life eighty years ago with [those of] the present, which I shall omit. This is followed by a section called "The Gathering," a description of the effect of oatmeal on the Scotch blood and spirit of enterprise. For this I consulted specialists, Scotchmen themselves, physiologists, and dieticians, took over their data and added a few comments of my own. It is true that there were a few Americans, mainly Dutch Americans, and Englishmen and Irishmen, but the vast proportion of key men who came out in the seventies and eighties to this land of opportunity were from the heather. So, I entitled this section "The Gathering" with the underlying caption taken from Dr Sam Johnson and Sir Walter Scott.
This is followed by three pages of a nightmare experienced by Sir John A. Macdonald as he revolves around the Terms of Union with British Columbia who is represented by a beautiful lady courted by a sailor, California, a gentleman who has spent a good deal of his life on the sea, but who also owns huge stretches of land to the south, and when he visits
the British Columbia ports he is redolent of orange blossoms from his orchards. So it becomes a rivalry between this sailor lover and Sir John. The lady, conscious of this rivalry, can afford to keep them guessing, to secure terms more favourable to herself. Sir John has to make his marriage proposal by proxy and this long-distance courtship is a handicap for
him but an advantage for the sailor, because he happens to be there. However, the proposal is made and the lady suggests the terms
Then comes the Pacific Scandal. Sir John answers the attack with an historic defence of five hours. The Honourable Edward Blake rises to make a still longer address indicting the government on grounds of corruption. The government is defeated in a new election which places Mackenzie in power for a term of four years.
During the Mackenzie administration there wasn't much progress in construction, first, because there was a general feeling that the road ought to wait upon the settlements which would naturally be slow in growing, and second, because Mackenzie, known as amphibious Mackenzie, favoured the watercourses, and the linking up with the American railroads towards the west. His government is defeated in 1878. Macdonald comes back overwhelmingly and proceeds with the Canadian road.
George Stephen, later Lord Mount Stephen, invites Van Horne from Illinois to become general manager of the line. Van Horne arrives in Winnipeg December 31, 1881, when it is forty below, and at midnight, after scraping the frost from the window with his jack-knife, gives vent to a soliloquy upon his three projected tasks
The north shore was second only to the mountains in difficulty and some of the
engineers swore that it was even worse. I wanted a symbol to represent its age, its bulk, and
its toughness. I knew that its pre-Cambrian formation had been laid down millions of years
before life began on this planet. So I had to do a bit of personification. I wanted a very old
form, something reptilian, so I made the Laurentian range a hybrid monster, a lizard held
within the folds of the pre-Cambrian Shield. I pictured this lizard as too old for life, too old
for death, but possessing passive power to resist the invasion of man. I have used the
feminine pronoun she throughout, instead of it, with the recognized
licence that a captain takes when referring to his ship. Incidentally, a friend of mine
recently took a rough trip to Labrador and on the bridge in the midst of a heavy roll he
asked the captain
This lizard appears twice with an interval of three years, but I'll make the appearances
continuous just here. The financial difficulties were as great as the engineering. So were the
political storms, and history gives us the picture of the Honourable Edward Blake
thundering in the House of Commons against the Terms of Union with British Columbia
The cost was enormous and appeals were constantly being made to Sir John for loans,
and he didn't see how he could face the House with further demands. It was Stephen who
had to present the case and though he was a great personal friend of Macdonald's, he felt
that the prime minister was avoiding him. In 1885 the pressure became tremendous and
Macdonald was facing a terrible dilemma. To refuse the appeal for more funds meant
stopping the railroad construction, breaking the Terms of Union, and the failure of the
whole project. To grant the appeal might also mean bankruptcy. He was caught in a
whirlpool of conflicting interests. How was he to get out? He had to make a decision
sometime, in spite of the fact that his nickname was Old Tomorrow
To hurry along, I shall pass to a crisis which created deep gloom among the directors,
even in the mind of Van Horne, when they were waiting for a message from Stephen in
London. When the signal Craigellachie
The honour of driving the last spike at Craigellachie in the Eagle Pass was given to
Donald Smith Strathcona: you may have seen the photograph. His first stroke was a fumble
which bent the nail. That's historical
[Box 6, no. 49; On His Life and Poetry 145-149]
Though that ride was made many years ago I found it fresh and helpful for the bigger task last year. I was very conscious of my limitations, so I had to get the help of all the experts to fill in the gaps in my technical knowledge. I might instance one case. The poem was published in a Dalhousie anthology for students and by some error the printer had inserted 6,000 tons as the load the engine pulled. Christopher Morley [. . .] was spending a weekend at my house and when he read the poem he remarked that he thought that no engine or team of engines could pull such a load on an up-grade, so in a republished volume the load was made 2,000 tons. I am not sure that it was the printer's mistake or mine own. I didn't want a reader who might be an engineer to laugh at the mistake, if it was really a mistake, so the conclusion in the revised edition read as follows: [??]
Talking about content, I invoked the aid of scores of my scientific friends in dealing
with the first transcontinental. I asked geologists what were the hardest rocks that could be
cut. Professor Douglas of Dalhousie gave me some information, but he added the final
Then to supplement my reading I went to the historians, the financiers, and economists who spoke about the tremendous gladiatorial debates between Blake and Sir John A.; the struggles to raise money, the sacrificial efforts of men like George Stephen who pledged everything they possessed to the last penny when the threat of bankruptcy looked imminent; the calling of Van Horne and Shaughnessy and others too many to mention in the poem as I had to concentrate on the most dramatic points, and then especially the efforts of thousands of unknown labourers who immolated themselves in stone through the Laurentians and the mountains.
I knew that I was an amateur on the technical side, so I had to get a point of view which might be called poetic while preserving as well as I could the factual accuracy. I had read up the story of the union with British Columbia, the threatened secessions, so I pictured British Columbia as a lady courted both by Sir John and California under the guise of a sailor lover. I pictured the Laurentian Shield as a lizard possessing power in her sluggishness and resistance to the pioneers with their shovels and pickaxes and blast[ing] powder. I went to a physical instructor and coach to get the exact terms applied in a tug-of-war as I wanted to picture Sir John having a nightmare in 1870 with the east and west pulling at opposite ends of the rope.
Then I knew that though Englishmen and Dutch Americans like Van Horne and great
Irishmen like Shaughnessy were tremendous in the part they played, yet the majority of the
leaders were Scotchmen. Well, how was I to deal with them? I thought here was a chance
to picture the effect of oatmeal on the Scotch blood, brawn, and brain. So I went to Dr
Markowitz and said
Then I went to another physiologist to find out the effect of alcohol upon the nervous
system of a man who has reached the depths of melancholy and pessimism. How does it
eliminate the pessimism? How does it put the rose colour on the spectacles? I am not
naming that physiologist, but his diagnosis was confirmed by a number of experts whom I
consulted. I asked a number of Scotchmen whose answers were given unequivocally and
with a calm professional assurance.
[Box 6, no. 49; On His Life and Poetry 149-153]
Richard B. Angus
Sir Sandford Fleming (1862)
Sir Sandford Fleming (second from left) with Pacific Railway Survey work party (1871-1872)
Kicking Horse Pass
Sir Hugh Allan
Sir John A. Macdonald during first term as Prime Minister
Sir John A. Macdonald (mid-1880s)
cartoon of Charles Tupper by Henri Julien
George Etienne Cartier
chart of the spring skies in the Northern Hemisphere
Lucius Seth Huntingdon
wagon road through Eagle Pass
Onderdonk Residence and office in Yale, B.C.
cartoon: "Startling Affair in London"
Norman Wilfred Kittson
William Cornelius Van Horne
I shall now draw a crinoid:
sketch of a crinoid
This might at first glance look like a frightened duck with a piglet's tail, but nothing could be further from the truth. Symbolically it is a fish and one must use the imagination for the abstract to find its significance. I know some art galleries where this would be hung up as a triumph.
Major A. B. Rogers
rock cut near Winston's in Canadian Shield
Hell's Gate Canyon
cartoon: "Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes"
cartoon: "British Columbia in a Pet"
The brachiopod is a clam or close to it
--a real bivalve with hairs on its legs so fine that when it is seen in the mountains only the magnifying glass can reveal them. Outside to the eye (if a person could have lived in those times to see it) it would be just an ordinary clam like this:
sketch of a brachiopod
See the horizontal lines making it a bivalve but inside it would be like this:
sketch of the inside of a brachiopod
The humps indicate the gelatinous movement of the clam in search of sea-weed. The tails, I have shown only five for space considerations though the hairs are numerous really. The beak X is not a beak but only intended to be such
--a bit of marine symbolism known only to sailors who have the gift of second sight or possibly third sight which may be credited to me at midnight.
You might be interested to know what a trilobite looks like. It lived about a billion years ago in the sea when the Rocky Mountains were under the sea. The Rockies by the way are not volcanic as was once supposed, but rather great plains under the water which were thrown up in tremendous folds thousands of feet high. On the top of them and in the middle of them where the tunnels are bored there are millions of low forms of sea life which have died and left their impressions in the petrified mud. Every time a pick-axe goes to work on mountain or canyon, numerous crustaceans and softer fish are unearthed. The trilobite is like a crab. I shall give evidence of my draughtsmanship by drawing one from a verbal description given me by Mr Dalmage:
sketch of a trilobite
Almost human isn't it? I have known people whose faces resembled that. I could mention a few but my artistic modesty forbids elaborating on the resemblance for if you knew whom I had in mind you would say that I was seeking a compliment on my achievement. Suffice it to say that I have looked like that occasionally when a poem went bad or when I was turning over in bed vainly trying to get to sleep on the C.P.R. Those vertical lines represent plunges from a horizontal position when the train rounded a sharp curve in the Kicking Horse canyon. The eyes indicate vacancy and the mouth impatience for the morning and breakfast.
the Last Spike