Until the railway was built through the Crowsnest Pass, this portion of British Columbia was cut off from the rest of the country. The north-south trending topography restricted east-west traffic and the area had much closer ties with the United States than to Canada.1
The government of British Columbia granted charters to construct railways in this part of the province in the late 1880s but nothing came of these projects because of a lack of financing. Both the federal government and the CPR wished to extend their respective influences into the area. The government wished to bring this region, where July 4th was a more important holiday than July 1st,2 under its control and the CPR wanted to ensure that any railway traffic did not go to the Great Northern Railway, which was located just south of the international border. However, the CPR did not have sufficient funds to build a line into this potentially lucrative area and the general economy in the mid 1890s was poor.3
Although the CPR had done well financially following the opening of the transcontinental route, between 1893 and 1895 its revenues decreased significantly because of the severe downturn in the economy. In 1894, the position was so serious that the company could not meet its fixed charges.4 Nevertheless, it wanted to make sure that it built a railway line through the Crowsnest Pass and in 1893 it had leased the Dunmore to Lethbridge narrow gauge line with an option to purchase prior to the end of 1897. With no outlay of precious capital during these lean economic times, the company thus protected the eastern flank of the route5 and acquired control of what would become the first 108 miles of the Crowsnest line.
In the latter half of the 1890s, the Canadian economy improved rapidly and the federal government moved to support the construction of the Crowsnest line. On June 28, 1897 the Crow’s Nest Pass Act6 was approved by parliament and the formal contract between the government and the CPR to build the line was signed on September 6, 1897.7 The act granted the railway a subsidy of $11,000 per mile, to a maximum of $3,630,000 to be paid in not less than 10-mile sections, to construct a line from Lethbridge, through the Crowsnest Pass to Nelson. The act stipulated that the line had to go through Macleod. 8
The first surveys for a railway through the Crowsnest Pass had been undertaken in 1892 on the north side of the Oldman River but nothing came of this project. The CPR selected a route on the south side of the river and location surveys began in April 1897 before the Act and the agreement were in place. Apart from the 300-foot deep valley of the Oldman River immediately west of Lethbridge, no major engineering difficulties were encountered. The CPR decided to avoid this formidable obstacle and constructed a temporary line that descended to the valley floor, crossed the north-flowing St. Mary River at low-level and then climbed the west side of the valley to Nena and on to Macleod. The relatively soft, alluvial strata on the valley sides had been severely eroded and deep coulees had to be crossed by trestle bridges on the route to the valley floor. Twenty similar structures were necessary to take the track down the east side of the valley and 15 million board feet of raw timber was required for their construction.9
Track laying for the Crowsnest line commenced in July 1897. Separate contracts were let for each ten-mile section of track and progress was rapid. By the end of the 1897 track-laying season, the line was 12 miles short of the Continental Divide10 and at the height of construction, approximately 5,000 men were employed on the project.11
On December 31, 1897 the CPR exercised its option to purchase the Dunmore to Lethbridge line and thus was well on its way to complete a second mainline into British Columbia.12
A crisis occurred in late 1897 when two contractors' labourers died of diphtheria.13 The CPR had let the construction of the line in a series of contracts covering ten-mile sections of the line to speed up construction of the line. In this it succeeded but while the company and some contractors treated their men reasonably well by the standards of the time, others were less generous and stories of the workers' privations began to spread to central Canada. As a result, on January 15, 1898 the Cabinet created a Commission to investigate whether, “... persons who have been and are engaged in the construction of the branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway known as The Crow’s Nest Pass Railway, have received since their employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway, their contractors, or agents of contractors, on said railway, harsh and unjust treatment in the matter of wages, board, lodging, clothing and supplies ... .” At the time the company was paying $1.50 to $1.75 a day and men were charged $5.00 a week for board.
The three-man commission left Ottawa for Macleod immediately and conducted 282 interviews with contractors, management and men engaged in the construction. Their report was presented to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior on April 30, 1898. In this, the commissioners reported that the railway and the contractors did not always fulfill their part of the agreements signed with the men. The conditions in some camps were appalling with men being forced to sleep in unheated tents in January. Medical services were practically nonexistent—the two who died of diphtheria received no medical attention at all. Men who complained about the conditions were threatened with dismissal or actually discharged and company stores profiteered on items sold to those who could afford to purchase items. But perhaps the worst problem was the low wages coupled with the high cost of board that workers were charged which “... left men in the position of being scarcely able to meet their expenses and charges from the time they left home to the date of return ... .” Many of them “... never getting out of debt to the company and being compelled to walk the whole distance home, sometimes nearly 2,250 miles, and in all cases destitute ... .” It was calculated that a labourer, travelling from his home in eastern Ontario to the Crowsnest and working for a full year, could expect a profit of $5.40 at the end of his efforts.
The commission recommended wages be increased to $2.00 to $2.50 a day and that board charges remained unchanged. To its credit, the railway improved the conditions its workers were subjected to.
The line was completed to Kootenay Landing, 325 miles rail miles west of Lethbridge, on October 7, 1898.14 Steamer service on Kootenay Lake enabled passengers and freight to complete journeys to Nelson and beyond. Construction costs to Kootenay Landing totalled $9,898,392 and a subsidy of $3,404,720 was granted to the company.15
In accordance with its agreement with the federal government, the CPR reduced eastbound freight rates by 1.5 cents per 100 pounds on September 1, 1898, with the balance of 1.5 cents taking effect on September 1, 1899.16 The financial conditions of the company were not adversely affected at the time.17 The period from 1898 to mid 1914 were the “Golden Years” for western Canada, marked by increasing immigration, new farming techniques and strains of early maturing wheat. The increase in acreage and grain production proved profitable for the CPR.18 It was only when wartime inflation caused a narrowing of margins19 and the railway tried to increase its rates that the limits of the Crow’s Nest agreement were realized. For the subsidy, the CPR had agreed to reduce rates in perpetuity. This was to have an extremely serious effect on the CPR but assisted immensely in the development of the prairies as it provided low cost rates for both incoming supplies and outgoing produce.
The railway quickly proved that it would develop southwestern Alberta and southeastern B.C. The rich seams in the Crowsnest Pass area were exploited rapidly in order to meet the needs of the growing popualtion on the prairies and the smelting needs in S.E. British Columbia. The railway benefitted by transporting the coal to its various destinations.20
On April 29, 1903 a large section of Turtle Mountain slid down into the valley and wiped out part of the village of Frank, 15.7 rail miles east of Crowsnest. Part of the railway was buried by the landslide and 70 villagers were killed. The line was not reopened until November 1903 and a 2.2% grade was required to cross the slide area. A two-stall engine shed was constructed at Frank to house the pusher engines used to assist westbound trains climb towards Crowsnest Pass. Turning adversity to its advantage, the CPR increased the tonnage of its eastbound trains and used these pusher locomotives to help climb the grades at Lundbreck and Pincher. This was the only case in North America of trains requiring assistance to come “down” from the Rocky Mountains. The railway also used the landslide to its own advantage as it had a ready supply of large rocks, literally on its own doorstep. Until well into the 1960s, a steam shovel was used to load cars with this material (rip rap) to fill washouts, etc., that developed on the company’s western lines.
As traffic built, the original line from Lethbridge southwards across the St. Mary River, and then northwestwards to Fort Macleod became a bottle-neck. Track speed was slow and passenger trains were scheduled to take two hours for the 38.5 miles from Lethbridge to Macleod and freight trains took three hours.21 The unstable coulee sides required constant attention to keep the track open and prairie fires were an ever-present danger in this semi-arid country.22 Capital was short when the line was constructed and savings were made wherever possible. The 2.8 miles of bridges on the St. Mary Loop were no exception and, when built in 1897, green timber brought straight from the mountains was used throughout.23 The plan was to construct more permanent structures that would replace the 20 timber trestles and bridges when finances improved. Replacing the structures on the St. Mary Loop would have cost an estimated $1,065,000 and it was calculated that it was more cost-effective in the long run to construct a high level viaduct across the Old Man River at Lethbridge.24
Surveys for the new line from Lethbridge to Fort Macleod were undertaken in 1904 and 190525 and in June 1906 it was announced that a high level bridge would be built,26 crossing the Old Man River. The excavation and substructure contract went to Gunn and Sons of Winnipeg with the work completed in February 1908.27 The bridge was designed by the CPR but built by the Canadian Bridge Company of Walkerville, Ontario.28 The first work train crossed the 5,328-foot Lethbridge Viaduct in June 1909 and it was opened to traffic on November 1, 1909.29 The bridge, although straight, rises to the west at 0.4% and cut just over five miles from the journey between Lethbridge and Macleod.30 It also allowed Lethbridge to become a through station.
The Crowsnest line thus became a major route serving southwestern Alberta and southeastern B.C. It hauled in freight and supplies for the area and carried out coal, coke, timber, minerals and ore for other parts of the country. Following the opening of the Kettle Valley Railway in 1916, it became part of the “second mainline” that left the transcontinental line at Dunmore and rejoined it at Petain (Odlum), B.C., near Hope. When the final rail link was opened between Kootenay Landing and Procter, B.C. in 1930, the southern route became an attractive alternative for transcontinental passengers. This ceased in 1959 when washouts closed the Kettle Valley Railway and since then, the Crowsnest line has lost its transcontinental significance.