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British Columbia’s Three Pass Cultural Corridor

From the instant my eyes rested on the broad shining surface of its buffer beam and cowcatcher, over which a bright little flag waved from a glossy brass pole, I decided to travel there and nowhere else for the remaining six hundred miles of my journey!Lady MacDonald, Glenbow Archives NA-293-3

So wrote Lady Agnes MacDonald in her diary of her experience riding a cowcatcher at the front of a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) locomotive from Lake Louise all the way to Vancouver.  Lady Agnes, wife of Sir John A. MacDonald, was travelling on a special train crossing Canada in July 1886 to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railway.  Lady Agnes was enthralled by the mountain scenery she encountered from Kicking Horse Pass to Rogers Pass through to Eagle Pass, convinced even her husband, the Prime Minister, to join her on the cowcatcher to travel for about 45 kilometres along this route, and described the journey later in her book "By Car and by Cowcatcher".   

In late 1885, the last spike of the transcontinental railway was driven down at Craigellachie, finally connecting British Columbia with the rest of the Dominion.  The first train - the Pacific Express - to cross Canada didn't leave Montreal until June 28, 1886, a Red Letter Day according to the CPR.  The inaugural train passed through the rugged Driving the last spike at Craigellachie, Glenbow Archives NA-1494-5 / Le dernier crampon de la voie de chemin de fer à Craigellachie, Glenbow Archives NA-1494-5mountains of the Rockies, Selkirks, and Monashees on Canada Day, arriving in Port Moody, B.C. on July 4, 1886.  Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald was not available to ride this first train, but took another in mid-July with Lady Agnes and a large entourage of officials.

Building the railway through the mountains was extremely challenging.  The CPR encountered problems at Kicking Horse Pass to overcome the "Great Divide" - the highest point on the railway line.  A steep rail grade of 4% was built that descended from Wapta Lake to the base of Mount Stephen. 

The railway follows the Kicking Horse River valley, and Lady Agnes, from her front row perch on the cowcatcher, writes:

I could only gaze at the glaciers that the mountains held so closely, 5,000 feet above us, at the trace of snow avalanches which had left a space a hundred feet wide massed with torn and prostrate trees; on the shadows that played over the distant peaks; and on a hundred rainbows made by the foaming, dashing river, which swirls with tremendous rapidity down the gorge on its way to the Columbia in the valley below. There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!

Soon after Lady Agnes travelled through the area, the town of Field was founded and Yoho National Park was created.   There is an historic railway station in the town of Field, and a superintendent's residence, as well as various cabins (Stanley Mitchel Alpine Hut, Wiwaxy LodgeElizabeth Parker Hut) built by the CPR, including the rustic Twin Falls Tea House.  

The wide Columbia River Valley serves as a peaceful lull to the extreme mountain thrills.  Lady Agnes describes it as "very charming" and a "quiet little paradise".  The town of Golden is located here.  The first steamship - The Duchess - was launched hear on May 8, 1886, and this began a more than thirty year service during the summer months when steamships would make weekly trips south 160 kilometers up the Columbia to the East Kootenay mining district.  In 1911, Golden became the headquarters for the world-renowned Swiss Guides, with a Swiss Village situated one mile west of town.  Upon a locomotive, Glenbow Archives NA-4432-6 / Sur une locomotive, Glenboaw Archives NA-4432-6

Building the railway through the Selkirks was another challenge for the CPR.  Railway engineer, A.B. Rogers, discovered a pass through the mountains - now called Rogers Pass - in 1881.  Four years of gruelling work ensued, and workers surmounted these obstacles: a pass rising 1524 meters (5000 feet) above sea-level, winter snowfalls and avalanches of massive proportions, and numerous creeks and rivers.   Some of the bridges were considered the highest in the world at the time.  Lady Agnes describes the outcome of the work as follows:

Perhaps no part of the line is more extraordinary, as evincing the daring engineering skill, than this Pass, where the road bed curves in loops over trestle bridges of immense height, at the same time rapidly descending.  In six miles of actual travelling the train only advances two and a half miles, so numerous are the windings necessary to get through this canyon.

The CPR would later construct a hotel at the height of the pass called Glacier House Station, for tourists to stop and have a meal or to stay the night, and to allow the steam engines time to stop after the strain of climbing the steep grade. Later, the Connaught Tunnel was built to allow trains to bypass the worst of the avalanches and steep inclines by travelling one and a half kilometres underground.  A new railway station was also built to replace Glacier House station.

Alpine Cabins Arthur O. Wheeler Hut and Glacier Circle Alpine Hut were built near Rogers Pass, and this attracted Swiss mountaineering guides and scientists to come here.  Since 1887, the pioneering Vaux family began studying flora and fauna of the region.  With near continuous monitoring of avalanches since Rogers Pass was discovered, this is the birthplace for avalanche and snow studies.   

Since the early 1960s, after the Trans-Canada-Highway opened following the original railway, Rogers Pass has been the heartland of avalanche control in Canada, and there has been an ongoing partnership between the Canadian Forces and Parks Canada to keep the highway clear from the threat of avalanches. 

Revelstoke ca.1912, Revelstoke Museum and Archives / Revelstoke c1912, Musée et archives de RevelstokeAlthough it is a little over 100 kilometres from Golden to Revelstoke, it is a landscape filled with superlatives at every turn, and it may feel like a relief for travellers to arrive in Revelstoke! Though Lady Agnes never wrote about Revelstoke's fine attractions, this is still an interesting and historic place.  Explorer and geographer David Thompson passed through the region in 1811 on his way to the Pacific.  Later, paddle-wheel steamboats plied the river during the 1860s gold rush; and from 1885 to 1899, development occurred in two separate towns due to a land dispute between surveyor A.S. Farwell and the CPR.  So one town - located near the Columbia River - was named Farwell; the other town - located near the CPR station - was named Revelstoke Station.  Once the land dispute was cleared up, Revelstoke was incorporated as a one city on March 1, 1899, and until 1913 a period of growth ensued.  In 1914, local citizens lobbied to have the nearby mountains protected as Mount Revelstoke National Park. 

Today, Parks Canada's headquarters for two mountain parks (Glacier and Mount Revelstoke) are located in Revelstoke.  The city has many designated heritage properties, and most are within the Revelstoke Station Heritage Conservation Area.  Heritage properties worth visiting include the McCarty House (associated withRevelstoke Courthouse, City of Revelstoke 2005 / Le palais de justice de Revelstoke, ville de Revelstoke 2005 the town's first mayor); Birch Lodge (connected to prominent local businessman Robert Howson, who arrived here 1889); and the Court House (a landmark for its Neoclassical design), and there are more listed on the local community heritage register. To learn more about the region's history, check out the Revelstoke Museum and Archives and Revelstoke Railway Museum, or find out about 100 years of scenic driving in nearby Mount Revelstoke National  Park during the park's Celebrate the Summit days.

West of here, the CPR laid down track along the Eagle River, towards Kamloops.  Known as the Eagle Pass, the railway runs through the town Craigellachie. Lady Agnes saw the beauty of this place, yet never mentioned its fame as the location for driving the last spike to complete the trans-continental railway line.  Captured in time in an iconic photograph, Donald Smith hammered the spike in November 1885.  Today, this event of national historic significance is commemorated with a cairn.

The journey of Lady Agnes and Sir John A. MacDonald was a catalyst for future protection of the landscape.  Not long after they arrived back in Ottawa, the Prime Minister created on October 10, 1886 Yoho and Glacier National Parks, and so Canada's second and third national parks were born.  Today, key mountain wilderness is now protected.  With the destination of several national historic sites and other provincial historic places, the key cultural heritage - and particularly the scientific, engineering, and architectural heritage - features of the region are now protected.  This "three pass" cultural corridor stretches 300 kilometres, and visitors can still travel its length through many layers of mountain history. It is a landscape that stirs our national consciousness, and can make you as excited as it did for Lady Agnes 125 years ago.  

Print Resources:

Long, Megan. 125 Years of Science and Adventure: Glacier National Park, Glacier 125 Backgrounder, 2011.

Macdonald, Susan Agnes.  "By Car and By Cowcatcher".  Tales from the Canadian Rockies.  Ed. Brian Patton, Toronto, MClelland and Stewart, 1993.

Woods, Dr. John G.  The Three Passes: Corridors in a Canadian Dream, A Cultural Landscape Concept Linking British Columbia to Canada; Sicamous, Eagle Pass, Craigellachie, Revelstoke, Rogers Pass, Golden, Field, Kicking Horse Pass,Lake Louise.  Workshop notes revised March 30th, 2010.

Electronic Resources:

Parks Canada's National Parks:

Avalanche Control:

Canadian Heritage River:

Last Spike and Eagle Pass

Canadian Pacific Railway Timetables


Golden Stories

Golden Museum

Revelstoke Museum and Archives

Revelstoke Railway Museum

Whyte Museum of the Rockies, Archives and Special Library

Glenbow Museum, T.K. Kilpatrick Fonds






Revelstoke Railway Days

Yoho National Park 125 Years

Glacier National Park 125 Years

Mount Revelstoke National Park


Trails in Time