The Canadian Pacific Railway, or CPR, was much more than trains. Its ships sailed the oceans and the Great Lakes. Its hotels housed the rich and the famous. Most of all, CPR united a confederation. With the pounding in of that last railroad spike, Canada was assured its borders would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today the railroad goes by "Canadian Pacific" and is independently owned. Passengers still climb aboard and ride the rails across Canada.
No Railway, No British Columbia
Canada formed its confederation July 1, 1867, beginning with Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The latter two provinces were promised a railway link as part of their agreement. Manitoba was next, in 1870. At the time, British Columbia was on its own. Canada's only western province was asked to join the confederation in 1871. British Columbia agreed, but only if a transcontinental railway would be built within 10 years of their confederation date. If the railway hadn't been completed, Canada might have looked entirely different. Today, Vancouver's Pacific Central Station is the western terminus of VIA Rail. Climb aboard and you can travel the length of this historic railway.
The Last Spike
In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. was formed. The laying of the track got off to a slow start, but after American William Cornelius Van Horne was hired, things began to move quickly. In British Columbia, roughly 17,000 Chinese workers came to work on the railway's western end. They carried out some of the most dangerous jobs, such as setting dynamite charges to blast through the mountainous terrain. Finally, on Nov. 7, 1885, the final railroad spike was driven in at Craigellachie, B.C., by Donald A. Smith. Craigellachie is roughly 25 miles west of Revelstoke. Head to the railway on the western end of town and you'll find a marker detailing the construction, along with vintage photos. A souvenir shop and picnic tables are also available.
Grand Hotels and National Parks
Cornelius Van Horne also came up with a plan to attract well-heeled tourists to ride his railroad. His vision was a string of hotels along the CP rail line. The Hotel Vancouver in British Columbia and Banff Springs in Alberta both opened in 1888. Quebec City's Chateau Frontenac followed in 1893. Today, all three vintage properties, managed by Fairmont, still welcome guests. It is the Banff Springs property that made the biggest impact on how Canadians enjoy the outdoors. Van Horne persuaded the Canadian government to turn the area surrounding the property into the country's first national park. Today, Banff National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Rocky Mountaineer, a privately owned firm, runs a luxury train service along the route. It is one of the best ways to see Banff and the jagged cliffs of the Canadian Rockies.
CPR and the World Wars
The Canadian Pacific Railway also provided steamship transportation on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They also operated paddle wheelers in the British Columbia interior. Several of CPR's ships were used to transport soldiers and equipment overseas in World War I and World War II, while the railway took care of in-country troop transport. Quebec City's Chateau Frontenac was also used for World War II strategy planning meetings between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King was host. The castlelike Chateau Frontenac is one of the most notable structures on the Quebec City skyline. One of the best views of the property is aboard the ferries that run from Levis, on the southern end of the St. Lawrence River. If you decide to stay at the hotel you'll meet the canine ambassador, Texon, who loves to go on walks with guests. Just arrange your walk with the concierge.
The CP Holiday Train
In 1999, Canadian Pacific began running the CP Holiday Train fundraiser. Each December, the brightly decorated train travels across the continent, stopping along the way to provide free concerts from a converted boxcar stage. Concertgoers are encouraged to bring donations of food or cash. Anything raised in a community goes to its local food bank. The Holiday Train makes more than 150 stops on its three-week journey. The stops are listed on the website. Be sure you get there in time to see the train pull in -- the entire length is covered in lights, and the entertainers sing their way into town on the boxcar stage.