The Last Spike—100th Anniversary
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Nov 1985, p. 109-123
Berton, Pierre, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The significance of the photograph of the driving in of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Some comments on the history of that photograph and why it has become so significant. Some history of the CPR and its construction. Some of the enormous effects on Canada of the CPR. Many anecodotal incidents related by the speaker. A return to the photograph and why it has become such a symbol in Canada. Differences between Canada and the United States, and how those differences have shaped Canada as a nation. The importance of transportation and communication in Canada. Some remarks about our recent and imminent negotiations with the United States over trade. A warning to Canadians over the negotiations.
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7 Nov 1985
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Full Text
Pierre Berton, O.C. Author and Broadcaster
November 7, 1985
The President, Harry T. Seymour, Chairman

Mr. Seymour

Distinguished guests, members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada; It is my pleasure to welcome as our guest speaker today Pierre Berton, celebrated author, journalist and broadcaster.

Maclean's magazine of March 5, 1979, stated: "Journalists and academics agree his three best books were Klondike, The National Dream and The Last Spike. In the latter two, he strung together an exhaustive history of the railroad and a social history of the country, introducing new material (mostly on the surveying of the railroad) that delighted historians. They are clearly the best books written on the subject, says University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss. .

Our celebrated guest speaker today is making his fourth appearance before The Empire Club of Canada, a measure of the high esteem in which he is held by the members of The Club. Indeed, Charles Templeton summed up our guest speaker perfectly when he said: "The truth is, Pierre Berton is Mr. Canada."

Born and raised in the Yukon, he worked his way through the University of British Columbia and graduated in 1941 With a burning passion to be a newspaper reporter.

From the Vancouver News-Herald, where at 21 he became that paper's youngest-so-far city editor, Pierre Berton successfully launched his career, which over the years has in volved him in almost every form of communication: managing editor of Maclean's at age 31; sketches for the stage; plays for radio; documentaries for radio, films, and television; a daily newspaper column; a musical comedy for the stage; thirty books; Front Page Challenge (TV); and, The Great Debate (also on TV).

Years ago, Pierre Berton staked out the Canadian past as his personal goal and he has been pursuing it ever since: from the Klondike-to the CPR-to the Dionnes-to the War of 1812. For his over-all contribution to Canada, he was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1975. For his outstanding contribution to Canada history, he is the only Canadian to win three Governor General's Awards for creative non-fiction. For his contribution to humour, he was awarded the Stephen Leacock Medal in 1960-the first year he spoke to The Club.

He holds eleven honourary degrees, the most significant being that conferred on him by his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, in 1985.

Mr. Berton and his wife Janet have eight children and reside in Kleinburg, Ont.

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Pierre Berton, celebrated author, journalist and broadcaster, who told us all there is to know about railroads in The National Dream and The Last Spike, and who will address us on "The Last Spike-100th Anniversary."

Pierre Berton

It's all in the book, you know. I could just give you the book and you wouldn't have to come. But it's really a significant day today, isn't it? Exactly-almost to the minute-exactly one hundred years ago (because it's three hours earlier in B.C.) on a cold, wet morning that they drove that spike, and they photographed that ritual. And, as I have written, and as many people have said, it has become the best known and perhaps the most significant photograph in Canada. Actually, there were two photographs-in fact, there were four: there were two of Donald Smith, one in which he's holding the mallet up like this and the second one he's actually touching the spike with the mallet; and then there were two others that were taken after the big shots had left and all the workmen, who really built the railroad, took their version of the driving of the last spike. They probably drove it a little better than Donald Smith because he bent the first spike and they had to take it out and get another spike. Frank Brothers, who was the roadmaster, had tried to get the bent spike for himself but Smith, who was a very canny Scot, said `Just a minute, I want that. and he seized it and put it in his pocket: and he had strips of it taken off and made into jewellery for wives of the directors of the CPR. Directors of the CPR in those days got that kind of `perk'.

But we don't know what happened to the other spike. It has vanished. A lot of people claim to have it, but I have seen no really hard evidence that it actually exists. It was on somebody's desk for awhile-I think Shaughnessy's desk. Somebody just lifted it. A woman in Yellowknife said she had it and her claim was reasonably interesting, but we can't prove it. So the last spike has been lost but the memory has not.

One of the reasons we look at that picture as a significant, seminal photograph is that it represents something unique that we did. It's fascinating that every country has at least one epic in its history. For the United States, I would say it's the Revolution and the Civil War; for Great Britain, the Norman Conquest and Dunkerque; for France, the French Revolution; for South Africa, the Voortrek of the Boers; for China, the Long March.

But we're the only country that has an epic. Nothing involving death, violence, or revolution-but something positive. The building of a railway.

Every time I heard people say we should shut down immigration and not let anyone else into this big, empty country, I always think of the CPR, which was built largely by immigrants at every level. The men who financed it were ScotsGeorge Stephen and Donald Smith. The men who did the actual planning and building were American. Onderdonk, who brought in the Chinese and built the British Columbia section of the line, was an American. The chief auditor was an American. The man who discovered the Roger's Pass was an American. The superintendents in the western division were Americans, and so were the conductors.

Now it's interesting, however, that these Americans were brainwashed by building the CPR into becoming Canadians. Van Horne, in becoming a convert, was much more of a Canadian and a national zealot than people born here. At the time of the Reciprocity Treaty, Van Horne announced that he was a "Chinese Wall Protectionist." We need him around now! He said, "Not just in trade, but in everything... I'd keep the American idea out of this country." Shaughnessy became Lord Shaughnessy and Asquith (British statesman) tried to get him into his cabinet because Lord Shaughnessy was a staunch British Imperialist. And so on down the line.

The contractors who built the railway were very largely Irish, some Scots. People like Herbert Holt, for instance. The people who actually did the slugging, the hard work, were Americans, Irish, French Canadians, Italians and, of course, Chinese. They were the vast army of tens of thousands of men who drove the nails, drove the spikes, and laid down the sleepers. They were called "navvies."

The Chinese are interesting because people say, `Well, the CPR was built by the Chinese. As a matter of fact, that's totally untrue. The CPR was not built by Chinese. The British Columbia section, which was a government section, which the CPR had nothing to do with, which was started before the CPR company was formed, was built by the Government contractor, Andrew Onderdonk who brought in the Chinese. But they did not work on the CPR line. The

CPR took over the Government section once it was finished. When the last spike was driven, it was the Onderdonk section that was joined to the rest of the CPR's western line.

The other misinformation about the Chinese is that they were brought in as serfs or slaves. That's not true. They were paid, but not as well as the whites. White labourers-who did a different kind of work, however-got a dollar and a half a day; the Chinese got a dollar a day. Nor were they indentured. They were brought first up from California, where they had been building the Central Pacific and Union Pacific -about 8,000 people-and then they were brought over in about ten shiploads from Canton; which is why all the Chinese food in this country for so many years before World War II, was Cantonese food.

They paid a percentage-I think it was 2-1 /2 per cent-to the Benevolent Chinese Society that looked after them; and it was very important because the Chinese did not speak English and did not eat Canadian food. They would cook their own food, which is one of the reasons that they were so valuable to the railway; they could pack up and move 25 miles-2,000 Chinese in 24 hours-and it would take a week to move other people because the Chinese cooked their own rice on the way. But they performed a significant job for Canada and it's too bad that, in British Columbia especially, but right across the country, there was so much bigotry involved with the oriental immigration. I hope we can learn a lesson from that. We wouldn't have the railway in B.C. without the Chinese. But B.C. was very much opposed to them; wouldn't give them the vote; wanted them all to go back to China. What they said about the Chinese is what they've said about every immigrant group and most welfare recipients: that they were lazy, that they didn't want to work, they were a drug on the market, they were shiftless and they were dirty. None of this was true. They were clean, they were hard workers, and they gave a lot to this country. All the contractors had nothing but praise for them.

So, in one way or another, the CPR had an enormous effect on this nation, and I'd like to just sketch a couple of the effects. One of the things that the CPR produced, unfortunately, was western disaffection with Eastern Canada. That's partly the fault of the CPR but more the fault of the Government, and largely the fault of the Canadian Shield. You see, in those days, you couldn't get to the west unless you went through the United States and most people who went to the United States didn't bother going back up north to the Red River; they stayed in the States, because the Shield was in the way... seven hundred miles of rock, three hundred more miles of muskeg. It was considered insane to build a railway across that shield. Now, John A. Macdonald said to George Stephen: "You must build an all-Canadian railway." The original idea was that the railway would go through the States. Macdonald said, "No, we want our own railway," and Stephen said, "All right." Stephen was the president, and financier, and a financial wizard of the first order. He said, "We'll do it, but, if we do it, you've got to give us something in return. You've got to give us a monopoly in the West for ten, fifteen years. We don't want any other line to the border south of the Canadian Pacific because they'll link up with the Northern Pacific or the Great Northern or the other American lines, and we'll be out of business. We want a monopoly." And that enraged the people in the West, and I'll tell you why: because the people who got that contract with the monopoly clause in it was made up of the same gang who had been bleeding the merchants in Winnipeg white because they had a monopoly on the railroad and river traffic on the Red River. Jim Hill, a Canadian from Rockwood, Ont., who had gone to St. Paul; Norman Kittson, a Canadian from Quebec who was a fur trader; and Donald Smith, who was later Lord Strathcona, and was the key man in the Hudson's Bay Company-they managed to control the traffic on the Red River. The Manitoba merchants got upset and they built two boats to compete with "The International," which was the Kittson line: one was called "The Minnesota" and one was called "The Manitoba." These men were pretty tough cookies: They didn't stand for that nonsense for a minute. They bribed the customs people at the border to hold one of the boats for the customs and then, when it was finally released, Norman Kittson the tough old trader who was running "The International," simply rammed "The Manitoba" and sank her, right to the bottom! And that was the end of the merchants' line! After that happened, the freight rates went sky high and so the westerners were very upset when this same group of people, with the addition of a couple of others, turned out to be the guys who had got a monopoly clause on a CPR contract, and were again believed to be holding them up for sky-high freight rates. Now they had to charge pretty high rates because it was an expensive business building the railway, as everybody found out-far more expensive than anybody had expected. That was the beginning of western disaffection. That's why, even as late as the 1930's when hail fell on the farm, the farmer would shake his fist and say, "God damn the CPR."

The railwaymen were blamed for a lot of things not their fault; they were blamed for everything until recently. In fact, I remember when I was researching The Promised Land, I came across a quote from Clifford Sifton, who wrote to a friend, "Don't let this man run for office. He works for the CPR. Can you imagine anybody trying to get elected in Manitoba running for the CPR? He'll lose his deposit." Which was true.

Now the other influence the CPR has had is quite different; it's the population influence. It's a very interesting thing, that for ten years, the railway was surveyed backward and forward by Sandford Fleming and his people for the government. This was before the CPR was formed in 1881; from 1871 to 1881, the Canadian surveyors were crawling all over this country, in fact, mapping the country for the first time. And it was generally agreed that the best possible route lay along the valley of the North Saskatchewan; following the old Carlton Trail from the Red River up through Battleford and Prince Albert to Fort Edmonton and then down to that easy pass in the mountains, the Yellowhead Pass, to the Columbia and the Fraser rivers and to one of the ports available on the Pacific coast-perhaps Bute Inlet, perhaps Burrard Inlet, or perhaps farther north around Port Simpson, which is now Prince Rupert. It never occured to anybody that the railway would take any other route.

When the CPR company was formed, the directors in St. Paul, all of them Canadian, sat around and decided to scrap ten years of surveying-to thrust that route out of business and to opt for a southern route right close to the American border and right through the Palliser Triangle, which is supposed to be a desert. But there was a botanist, John Macoun a self-taught man, who had gone out to the Palliser Triangle in one of the wet years (the thing about the Canadian prairies, as you know, is that they have droughts followed by rain) and he had seen the Palliser Triangle when it looked great. So he told them they could get through there, and they did. But why did the CPR change the surveys? Why did they do their own surveys? Why did they head off for the mountains without even knowing if a pass existed in the Selkirks-driving steel right at that wall of mountains? Well, this is supposed to be a mystery, but I don't think there's much mystery about it. They did it because they wanted to control the land, which was virgin land. They did not want to deal with speculators who would buy up land, and who had already bought up land along the original route, and were certainly going to try to hold the CPR for every dollar they could get. The CPR didn't intend to allow that.

And there are some wonderful stories. This began in Brandon: A man called McVicar had a farm in Grand Valley and General Rosser, who was then the engineer, rode out and said to McVicar, "We want to buy your land. What's the price? He offered him a price and McVicar was going to take it until his friend said, "No, this is the CPR, ask for more." So McVicar raised the price about $10,000 and Rosser looked at him and said, "I'll be damned if there'll ever be a town at Grand Valley"-and there never has been. He drove off to the Brandon Hills and formed the town of Brandon in what was virgin territory and the CPR, by reason of its contract, was able to get a great chunk of land around its railway station and that's where the town grew up. Wherever the railway station was, that's where the town was.

There's a wonderful story of Regina. Everybody thought that the capital of the Northwest Territories would be in the beautiful Qu'Appelle Valley, one of the most gorgeous parts of the Prairies. Instead, it turned out that it was going to be in one of the ugliest parts of the Prairies, as flat as a deal board-no trees or anything. This is where they built Regina. Now the Governor of the Northwest Territories, Edgar Dewdney, and some of his friends, had bought up a great chunk of land where they were certainly going to put all the government buildings, which they would sell to the government and pocket the money. And a big struggle took place; the CPR was invited to place its railway station on Edgar Dewdney's land and the CPR said, "No". They put their railway station two miles away and they were the ones who profited from the land because that's where the town grew up. The government is still two miles from the railway station in Regina, or what's left of the railway station in Regina, and the town straggled along this two-mile stretch, not knowing where the centre of town was-when it was quite clear where the railway station was.

In Calgary, the town was on the east bank of the Elbow River until the CPR put the station on the west bank and everybody on the east bank said, "We don't care where the station is. We're not going to move." Within a week, they were all moving across the river to where the railway station is, which is where the Palliser Hotel is today in Calgary.

A man called Farwell owned 175 acres of land on the Columbia River, just where the CPR would emerge from the Selkirk Mountains and he thought he had a great deal. He was going to sell that land to the CPR. The CPR wouldn't buy it. They put the railway station on the other side of the Columbia River and there was a big lawsuit, which Farwell won. But it didn't gain him much because nobody built on his land. They wanted to build on the other side of the river which the CPR did not call Farwell; they called it Revelstokeand well they might. They named it after the senior partner in Baring Brothers, which at that moment was raising, or underwriting, the CPR's bonds. That's why George Stephen isn't in the driving-of-the-last-spike picture; Donald Smith is in the picture, while George Stephen is over in London raising money-a much more sensible thing to do than drive last spikes.

Van Horne was a brilliant negotiator and a very good poker player; he was also an amateur geologist and a good one; a very good painter; a superb caricaturist; an amateur magician and conjurer; an expert on Japanese porcelain; and in every sense a broad gauged man who said he ate all he could, drank all he could and smoked all he could, and didn't give a damn for anybody. He went out to Vancouver, which didn't exist then; he went out to Burrard Inlet, and negotiated with the British Columbia government and stole it blind. He had all the American abilities at negotiating. Van Horne got 6,000 acres, the entire Vancouver waterfront from the Hastings Mill to Stanley Park; he got a great chunk of land now called Shaughnessy Heights; he got all sorts of deals because he said that, unless he got them, he wouldn't bring their railway in. But the railway had no other place to go. He knew that he couldn't build it at Fort Moody, which is on the side of a cliff. He couldn't get marshalling yards in there. All the time that he was dealing with these British Columbia amateurs, he was holding an ace in the hold... and they didn't know it. And the CPR, through its Marathon Investments right across this country, has done very, very well, out of real estate around their railway stations and elsewhere. The coming of the railway made land profitable: it started a land boom.

Now, so much for the history. The real question is in the picture. There they all are, standing around, waiting to drive the last spike: Smith is about to miss the first time and bend the first one: Van Horne has his hands in his pockets and seems to be saying, "Let's get going. There's an engine waiting for the Pacific and I'm tired of this." He made a very short speech: all he said was, "All I can say is the work has been done well in every way." End of speech. (We should have more Van Hornes) and he also said that the spike should be of iron, not gold-as some people thought the Americans had driven a golden spike when the Union and Central Pacific were joined together. He said, "The spike will be plain iron and anybody who wants to see the ceremony will have to pay full fare." Well, he had to say that because the company was broke. It was only saved by Louis Riel who, as a result of his revolution or rebellion or uprising, the CPR was able to bring the troops out very quickly across the gaps in the line of the Canadian Shield and quell the rebellion; and for that reason, Parliament was disposed to underwrite some more of their loans. Van Horne said they should have put up a monument to Riel, but they never did. I commend it for the second hundred years.

But why is this picture such a symbol in this country? It's in every school book, in ads; now here we are talking about it. Well, what the symbol says to me-and I think to most people subconsciously-is that this is a very Canadian thing that we're watching. This is a Canadian Project that differs from other similar projects in other countries. The railways in the United States were built purely for profit and I might say, without exaggeration, that they were built for greed. The major robber barons in the United States in the nineteenth century were the railway men. They got these railways and they milked them dry. They ran them into bankruptcy after looting the till and the evidence of that is easily to be found in books on the subject by Jay Cook and Jay Gould and many others.

The Canadian Pacific was built as an act of political will. The people who built the Canadian Pacific didn't rush to the Canadian Government and say, "Hey, give us a chance. We want to build this railway and make a lot of money."

The Government searched about and found these people and said, "Please, will you build a railway, and we'll try to help you. We need it to hold the country together" Stephen and Smith and Hill and all the others who were members of that original syndicate didn't need that railway for a minute; they had made their pile out of the St. Paul and Pacific of which they had watered the stock, and they were worth millions and millions. All they faced was four years of sheer economic hell. And it aged people like Stephen very badly. But they did it, because I don't think they could resist the challenge.

You have to remember the difference between this country and the country to the south. It's been the subject of most of my books. We are a different shape and the shape dictates what we are and how we operate. We are not the country that we look at on the map; most of that is empty. We're a 200-mile strip of population, 4,000 miles long; 90 per cent of the population lives within 200 miles of the American border. We're a long, thin country shaped like a railway, and even more important, the people are not evenly distributed along those 4,000 miles-they are in clusters. We are an archipelago of population islands, held together by various forms of communication and transportation; a country with regional islands, great distances and a small domestic market. What works for us does not necessarily work for the Americans and what works for the Americans does not necessarily work for us. They are a different kind of country; they don't have those kinds of problems down there. They have a large domestic market, a population that's spread evenly, and they do not have the barriers that we have: they don't have the angry ocean on both ends separating chunks of our country; they don't have three ranges of the highest mountains on the continent save for the Alaska mountains; they don't have the cultural barrier of the Province of Quebec; and they don't have a bit of the Canadian Shield and the muskegs and the rock. And so we are different people and we cannot use the American model when we set out to build something like a railway-or to build anything in the cultural or communications area.

That's why in this country, more than in most other countries-perhaps more than any other country-transportation and communication are so important. They are at the core of the country: the soul of the country depends upon them. That goes to the days of the canals. The Government has had to be involved in both those areas in this country, as it has not had to be involved in the States. The Government owned the canals, which were the only way in which Upper and Lower Canada were held together. And this mixed economy, this arrangement between government and private industry, is part of the Canadian scheme of things. It began with the canals, went on to the railways and the airlines, and it continues. Originally this country was held together by steel and wire, by 4,000 miles of rails and 4,000 miles of telegraph poles; and Macdonald saw that. Today we've expanded. We have other forms of communication, other forms of holding the country together: we have satellites; we have airlines; we have broadcasting. But culture is also part of it; culture communication is as important today as the railway was a century ago. That's why institutions that are semi-government and sometimes totally government institutions, are so important to us when they're not important to other countries: the Canadian Conference of the Arts; the Canada Council; Telefilm; the CBC; the National Film Board. All these are part and parcel of a pragmatic Canadian policy that goes beyond political lines and says we have to hold this very difficult system together; the beads on the string have to be held together by a string-and the string, which was once the railway, is now something more. We have to be held together culturally and physically and geographically and psychologically.

Macdonald's critics, in the days of the debate over the CPR contract, said to him: "It's silly to build a Canadian railway across that desert of shield. Let's run a lot of it in through the United States, about a thousand miles or more, through Duluth, south of Lake Superior." Macdonald said, "No" in a wonderful speech which Bill Hutt gave on the CBC's production of "The National Dream." He said, "No, I will not have it! The railway will be built our way. We will build our kind of railway and not their kind of railway"

Now, we are about to enter into new negotiations with the Americans. And everything, apparently, is going to be up for grabs. Everything that holds this country together is going to be on the negotiating table, because it is said we can't leave anything out-we must put everything on the table.

I don't understand why we have to put everything on the table. There are certain things, it seems to me, that are not negotiable in this country; and that is, the should of the Nation, the thing that holds British Columbia to Newfoundland, that makes us one, that gives us something that nobody else has. The question I ask is: Are we about to sell our soul for a mess of pottage? Again, the thing is, yes, it will be cheaper to put the railway through the States-it would have been a lot cheaper-and not as hard on the taxpayers. But the taxpayers in those days under Macdonald were prepared to pay for the problem of being a Canadian.

We are about to enter negotiations with people like Van Horne; the sharpest and best negotiators in the world, who have beaten us every time historically that we have come up against them in negotiations-on the Alaska boundary dispute right up to the Columbia River debacle in B.C., to the natural gas pipeline. They beat us-and I know well, because I wrote a book about it-on the whole business of film quotas. Some smart Hollywood negotiators came up and talked the Pearson Government out of a film quota system that would have given us a chunk of our culture, a film industry we could be proud of. We lost it.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I say to you, as we celebrate that cold, wet morning with the snow dripping off the conifers in the Eagle Pass in the Selkirk Mountains at a place romantically named Craigellachie by two Scots immigrants. As we celebrate the driving of the last spike, which was the culmination of John A. Macdonald's National Dream, I hope that, in the next century, that dream will not become a nightmare.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by John W. Griffin, a distinguished Past President of The Empire Club of Canada and of The Empire Club Foundation.

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The Last Spike—100th Anniversary

The significance of the photograph of the driving in of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Some comments on the history of that photograph and why it has become so significant. Some history of the CPR and its construction. Some of the enormous effects on Canada of the CPR. Many anecodotal incidents related by the speaker. A return to the photograph and why it has become such a symbol in Canada. Differences between Canada and the United States, and how those differences have shaped Canada as a nation. The importance of transportation and communication in Canada. Some remarks about our recent and imminent negotiations with the United States over trade. A warning to Canadians over the negotiations.