The canadian pacific railway

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began as a key component of the Canadian Constitution of 1867. Originally consisting of 4 provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) the new country needed a railroad that would connect them all, especially when British Columbia agreed to join the confederation in 1871.

Progress on the railroad was slow throughout the 1870s and it did not see a real boost in productivity until William C. Van Horne was hired to be the new CPR General Manager. In 1882, 850km of new track was built and by November 1885 the railroad was complete.

The most difficult route the railroad took was through the Rocky Mountains, whose steep grades and narrow valleys were enough to make surveyor John Palliser believe the track could not be completed unless part of it was run through the United States. Some creative tunnelling and plenty of sidings through the mountains however kept the railroad entirely in Canada.

One of these sidings developed beyond just a refueling station when natural hot sulphur springs were found on the other side of the river. Van Horne, recognizing a potential market in the springs, called for the construction of a luxury hotel nearby and began an aggressive advertisement campaign to draw wealthy tourists into the mountains on the train. The federal government, also recognizing the potential of the hot water springs, borrowed a new idea from the United States and purchased the surrounding land, creating Canada’s first National Park. Banff National Park (originally called Rocky Mountain National Park), and the town of Banff, quickly flourished; overseen by the government and kept busy by the railroad, people came from all over the world to visit it.

Van Horne commissioned artists to ride the train and paint the mountain scenery, and CPR surveyors remained in the area taking photographs. Many of these photographs were lantern slides, often coloured, which featured the company’s hotels throughout the west, scenic mountain vistas, and other points of interest along the line. Shown around the world as magic lantern shows or sold individually as souvenirs, these slides proved to be an amazing tool to promote not only the railroad, but also all the potential of the newly opened Canadian west to settlers. Capitalizing on the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the CPR (and government agencies such as the Department of the Interior) successfully employed lantern slides to draw people to Banff, creating a destination known around the world.

Check out A Lover of Words and Storyteller: Jean A. Hembroff MacDonald in the January 2020 Cairn to learn more about Jean A. Hembroff MacDonald, a CPR lecturer, broadcaster, and self-proclaimed "vagabond!"

[Jean on a trail ride], n.d., Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Jean A. Hembroff MacDonald fonds (V797/I/PA-42)