125 years on, the Last Spike is commemorated and re-enacted at Craigellachie
By David F. Rooney
CRAIGELLACHIE — In a major ceremony witnessed by hundreds of guests and marked by the donation of almost $2 million in grants and legacies, the Canadian Pacific Railway and Parks Canada jointly marked the 125th anniversary of the driving of the Last Spike at Craigellachie on Sunday.
“The work has indeed been done — well done in every day,” said Fred Green, the CPR’s CEO as he quoted the railway’s hard-driving visionary Cornelius Van Horne.
Green told a 400-strong crowd of invited guests, spectators and journalists that the vision and determination that CPR founders Van Horne and Donald Smith employed to make the national dream a reality back in 1885 still exists within the company.
With thousands of employees, the CPR continues to ensure that the Canada it helped forge remains a vibrant and technologically advanced country.
And to mark the occasion he announced several major grants: $50,000 to a special legacy program in Revelstoke; $100,000 to two native scholarship programs at Trinity College and the University of Saskatchewan; $100,000 to the Military Families Fund, which assists the families of Canada’s serving soldiers (this marks, he said, a renewal of the CPR’s historic ties with the Edmonton-based Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment; $500,000 to UBC to digitize the remarkable collection of images and documents related to the experience of Chinese labourers collected by Dr. Wallace and Madeline Chung (you can discover more about their collection here and here); $1 million to the Van Horne Institute at the University of Calgary and; $30,000 for digital devices at Revelstoke’s new schools.
Green’s remarks — and the effort put into the celebration of 125 years of accomplishment by the company and Parks Canada — were appreciated by the crowd and by invited guests.
Ku’kpik (Chief) Wayne Christian of the Shuswap Nation was deeply gratified by the invitation extended to him and Adams Lake Band Chief Nelson Leon. 125 years ago not a single native was at the original driving of the Last Spike.
“Canada followed our pathways across the country to this place,” he said, describing the ways explorers used the rivers to cross the continent, before publicly blessing the undertaking at Craigellachie.
But his people still need help today redressing the careless disregard shown in the past. Back in the 1960s, he said, a CPR project to build sidings at Sicamous resulted in the destruction of a native burial ground. To this day many families do not know what happened to the remains of their parents and grandparents. He implored the crowd for any information that might help native families find the remains that were dug up back then. (Anyone who might know what happened to the remains removed from that burial ground can contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)
For Ned Harris, Sunday’s event brought to mind the determination of people with vision.
“The men who built this railroad were tough men, men with vision who overcame unimaginable difficulties and obstacles,” he said as he showed me a stickpin containing a fragment of the original Last Spike that was given to his great-grandfather George Harris, then a director of the CPR, back in 1885.
George Harris was a Boston financier who raised much of the American money that kept the CPR afloat financially. Ned Harris inherited not only his ancestor’s stickpin but a love of railroads. The American-born retired US Army officer and civil engineer is now a manager on the light rail construction project in Sacramento, Calif.
For Scott Pardoe of Calgary and his brother Duncan the event was a chance to relive family history.
Their great-great-grandfather Dr. Neville Lindsay was a physician with the CPR in 1885. The two boys wore vintage hats and carried a portrait of their forebear to the event with the rest of their family.
“This is history,” Scott said. “This doesn’t happen all the time.”
David Johnson, president of the Revelstoke Heritage Railway Society, the commemoration was also an opportunity to connect Revelstokians with the past by invited them to participate in the Last Spike Special Legacy Project. The society, which owns and operates the Railway Museum, has acquired a Victorian-style trunk and is inviting people to place within it objects they think are emblematic of the Last Spike and railroading.
The objects can be anything as long as they are related in some way to the Last Spike, he said.
The museum will accept these objects until December 15. The trunk will be treated as a time capsule and won’t be opened for another 25 years — 2035.
The federal government, too, used the event to announce, through MP Dean Del Mastro of Peterboroough Parliamentary Secretary to the MInister of Canadian Heritage, that November 7 will henceforth be known as National Railway Day.
But for all the announcements on Sunday one of the true highlights has to have been the rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s Railway Trilogy by Sue Leach’s Arrow Heights Elementary Grade 4/5 class.
The kids performed with spirit and their enthusiastic young voices were a reminder that, despite the formality and ceremony, this was in many ways a community event at heart.